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"Smokin'" Joe Robinson Goes Electric

February 14, 2012
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When 16 year-old “Smokin’” Joe Robinson burned through a Chet-inflected medley of “Day Tripper” and “Lady Madonna” at the introductory round of the 2008 Australia’s Got Talent competition, the entire house—including the judges—gave him a standing ovation. He went on to win $250k with his take on Tommy Emmanuel’s arrangement of “Classical Gas” in the finals.

Born in the bush country of New South Wales, Australia, Robinson started playing guitar at age nine, abandoning the piano lessons he’d been taking for the past three years. He quickly outpaced his guitar teacher and began educating himself via the Internet. Within a couple of years he was touring regularly and sharing stages with artists such as Tommy and Phil Emmanuel, both of whom served as mentors.

After winning the Australian National Songwriting Contest, Robinson released his debut album, Birdseed, in 2005. Tommy Emmanuel then invited him to Nashville, where among other things he hooked up with Brad Paisley’s producer Frank Rogers, who helmed his 2009 release, Time Jumpin’. That same year, Robinson was awarded the title of “Senior Grand Champion Performer of the World” at the World Championships of Performing Arts in Hollywood. He has also performed at Bonnaroo, and was voted “Best New Talent” in the 2010 Guitar Player Readers’ Poll.

For the past year or so, Robinson has honed his skills as both an electric guitarist and as a vocalist, and in late 2011 he recorded the Rogers-produced Let Me Introduce You … [Joe’s Garage], accompanied by an all-star team that includes drummer Keith Carlock, bassists Michael Rhodes and Bernard Harris, keyboardist Gordon Mote, percussionist Eric Darken, and background vocalist Hershel Boone. The result is a record replete with catchy melodic hooks, sophisticated pop progressions, soulful vocals, and superb guitar playing that encompasses influences from Sweet Baby James to Django. “I’ve been meaning to make an album like this from the start,” declares Robinson. “So, after spending years touring as a solo instrumental guitarist, I wanted to push myself in another direction.”

How did you balance the roles of virtuoso guitarist and pop singer-songwriter?

This record was all about the songs and the arrangements, so I didn’t want to fill them with shredding—but I also didn’t want to throw away all of the technical aspects of my playing. Just learning to play the kinds of things I wanted to play and sing at the same time was really challenging. I had to go back and rebuild from the ground up.

Who were a few of your most significant singing and songwriting influences?

I modeled what I was doing on musicians like James Taylor, who writes amazing songs, plays guitar in a signature way, and also has a great vocal style. Stevie Wonder was another major influence, the Beatles for melodies, and some of Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall stuff. I also like contemporary artists such as Jason Mraz and John Mayer. I guess I wanted the album to have a contemporary flavor, while incorporating technical ideas I got from heroes of mine like Wes Montgomery and Django Reinhardt. That’s something I felt hadn’t really been done before.

Did you have everything worked out before entering the studio?

I pretty much knew the tunes and what I wanted on them beforehand. I wrote all the parts out and handed the guys charts. We tracked basics and drums at the same time and then overdubbed the rest. It was fun for the musicians because every song has a different mix of influences, which kept them on their toes.

You play both acoustic and electric on the album. Describe the differences in your picking techniques.

On electric, I use a pick almost all the time, mostly doing straight up and down alternate strokes—but I also do a lot of hybrid picking incorporating my fingers, and I play rhythm stuff with my thumb. I use either Dunlop Jazz III picks or the big teardrop-shaped Wegan picks, depending on the type of music.

On acoustic I use a thumbpick and just the flesh of the fingers, no fingernails. I love Django’s picking—the ways he drew sound out of the instrument—and even when I play fingerstyle that comes through because it’s all about the dynamics. I also use really heavy strings, gauged .018-.056, and I adjust my picking technique accordingly.

Those really are heavy strings.

Yeah, those are what I string my Maton 808TE with, which is my main acoustic. I also used a Maton Custom Shop, a ’60s Gibson J-45, and an Everett 000 on the album, and those were strung with slightly lighter sets, gauged .016-.053. We used different brands, including GHS, D’Addario, and Martin—but we wound up going with Elixir 80/20 Bronze Nanowebs on most of the tracks because they reduce finger noise.

What electric guitars and strings did you use?

I used several Fenders, including a ’52 Relic Tele, a Custom Shop ’60s Strat, and a ’70s hardtail Strat. They were all strung with sets gauged .012-.046. I also used an early-’60s Gibson ES-335 and a Heritage H 535, both strung with .011-.049 sets, and a Gretsch Country Gentleman strung with .012-.060s. That ES-335 was one of the most beautiful guitars I’ve ever played. For some overdubs and doubling I also used a Danelectro Baritone. Again, I used Elixir Nanowebs for most things, but I also used GHS and Ernie Ball sets.

What amps did you use?

On most of the album I used a Dr. Z Carmen Ghia and a Laboga Alligator 30 combined in mono. We combined them because as soon as I turned one off I felt I was missing something. We recorded them in different parts of the studio to get different sounds, with a bunch of close and room mics, including a Shure SM57, some ribbons, and some large-diaphragm condensers. We also used a combination of mics to record the acoustics, including KM 84s and other Neumanns.

How about effects pedals?

Pretty much all of the dirty stuff was done with a ’70s Ibanez TS808, and I also used a Keeley Katana Boost on a lot of the tracks. Other pedals included a vintage Cry Baby wah, a T-Rex Tremster, and an Eventide TimeFactor delay.

Did you play everything in standard tuning?

Yeah, everything’s in standard. I haven’t messed with other tunings a whole bunch because I cut my teeth playing live, and to play in multiple tunings means traveling with lots of guitars.

On several tunes you play harp harmonics. Are you a Lenny Breau fan?

I love Lenny Breau! There are certain players that transcend the instrument and Lenny is one of them. Tommy Emmanuel has also been a massive influence, and he and Lenny really inspired me to develop that harmonic technique.

You met Tommy Emmanuel early on. How has that relationship influenced your playing?

I first met Tommy when I was 11, and he was very encouraging and supportive. Then, when I was about 15, he invited me to come to America, and I had a chance to play with him, which really started the ball rolling. Tommy has really been a mentor figure, as has his brother Phil. As far as his playing goes, I never wanted to copy him, but I couldn’t help myself. When I’d hear him play, I would just be compelled to work out what he was doing.

How much of your ability is innate and how much of it is the result of hard work?

There was a point in my life where I decided to discipline myself and become a better guitar player. When I was about 14, I would get up at four o’clock each morning and practice for four hours before going to school, then practice for another three or four hours once I got home. I did that religiously for a year or more. That’s when I developed most of the technical abilities that I rely on today. I was just a kid with a knack and a natural obsession for guitar playing, and I’m still that kid now, wanting to expand and push myself and not be content with mediocrity.

Do you currently have a practice routine?

Yeah, but it’s always different. At the moment I’m trying to improve my time and learn more about jazz harmony. I never went to college, so I want to learn as much theory as I can to stay above the game. I guess I spend a lot of time working on things I want to improve, and not necessarily just to keep in shape. I still tour and perform a lot, which is the best workout.

Do you study with anyone?

If you really want something, you’ve got to do it yourself. I have a lot of heroes that live and work here in Nashville, and I go to New York and hang with a lot of jazz players. Watching them, and maybe getting them to show me a few things, fuels me to want to learn. But essentially everything I have developed came from me getting out there and searching for it—slowing down recordings and transcribing solos and just learning arrangements or whatever.

Do you read music?

When I was 15, I had my heart set on going to the Conservatory of Music in Sydney, so I got out the theory books and learned how to sightread. The understanding of harmony and theory and just the way rhythms work has helped me, so reading definitely was a great thing to learn, though I haven’t had to read in years.

Where do you go from here?

I’m looking forward to getting out there and playing these new songs live. I also want to keep pushing the boundaries and exploring musical ideas that I feel haven’t been explored before. I want to make playing compositionally intricate guitar parts and singing at the same time my style. There are very few people that actually do that with the independence that I can see myself developing. There are also a lot of people that I’d like to collaborate with, like Imogen Heap, Bon Iver, and Esperanza Spalding. And with the Internet, there are so many people out there to discover and be inspired by. I remember when I was a kid there was a day when I didn’t feel like practicing, and I saw this ten yearold in Taiwan playing Paganini on YouTube, which sent me straight to the practice room. I thought, “I can’t let this happen—I have to be the best!”

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