Robbie Robertson on Become Clairvoyant

“I STILL GET A CHARGE OUT OF THE GUITAR,” SAYS 66 year-old legend Robbie Robertson.
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“I STILL GET A CHARGE OUT OF THE GUITAR,” SAYS 66 year-old legend Robbie Robertson. “But it’s not the same charge I got when I was a teenager. When I pick up the guitar now, I’m not practicing licks or jamming, it’s for writing. Every time I pick it up I’m searching for something, and when I find it—whether it’s a simple rhythmic line or a fully realized song—I get a different kind of satisfaction than I did just practicing licks.”

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When Robertson’s career began in the late ’50s, he was a wideeyed gunslinger, well versed in hand-to-hand barroom guitar combat. His time with rock and roll pioneer Ronnie Hawkins showed Robertson’s 6-string voice to be searing and ferocious, with over-the-top string bending and hedonistic pinch harmonics peppering his feral, Tele-centric style. But by the time Robertson and his musical cohorts—Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson—began writing and performing as the Band, Robertson’s guitar style had become strikingly sublime. Instead of macho string bending and extended solos, Robertson’s playing became the ultimate servant to the song—sparse, funky, and ultra-melodic.

When his time with the Band ended in 1976, Robertson produced, acted, and started to work on film soundtracks as both a consultant and a songwriter. He has worked on a boatload of Martin Scorsese films, from Raging Bull to 2009’s Shutter Island among many others, so it’s easy to see why Robertson has only released a smattering of solo albums in the in the 35 years since he and the Band parted ways. But with How to Become Clairvoyant [429 Records/Savoy], Robertson’s fifth solo record, he has once again entered the solo artist fray. And to think the seeds of the album were sewn with Robertson simply kicking it with an old friend.

“I was hanging out with Eric Clapton—we go way back—and we didn’t have anything particular in mind other than enjoying telling each other stories and playing guitar a little bit,” explains Robertson, who performed at Clapton’s 2007 Crossroads festival. “Eric and I messed around with a few song ideas until we eventually had to go our separate ways. A couple of years later I accidentally stumbled upon the tunes that we had worked on, and I thought, ‘Man, this sounds good.’ I called Eric and told him there was a lot of material there and I think we may be on to something and he said, ‘Yeah man, I knew that!’” Aside from Slowhand, who contributed guitar and vocals to How to Become Clairvoyant, Robertson also enlisted Steve Winwood, Tom Morello, and Robert Randolph to buff out the record’s all-star cast.

What did Clapton’s guitar playing bring to How to Become Clairvoyant?

Well, he made me step my game up a bit. Eric is a real guitar virtuoso, whereas I’m more from the John Lee Hooker/Bo Diddley conservatory of music. It’s great because when we play together we come up with stuff that isn’t about how loud you can be or how fast you can play—it’s more about a slinkier, sexy approach to the instrument. When we were tracking, it was like the guitars were talking to one another. There was a beautiful communication.

Eric and I go back a long ways. I met him in 1968, after Music from Big Pink came out. I knew a little bit about his previous work with the Yardbirds, but I wasn’t really listening to the stuff coming out of Britain at that time. Later on, I became familiar with Cream, which I thought was a powerful, interesting experiment in that kind of music.

By the time Music from Big Pink came out, your style had morphed from the raw rock and roll thing to a more refined, understated approach. In fact, Clapton famously cites the album as the driving force behind his decision to quit Cream and head toward less bombastic musical pastures.

I think Eric appreciated the subtleties in my playing and my determination to avoid the obvious or the acrobatic. I mean, I did that screaming, wailing, youthful guitarthing with Ronny Hawkins, I did it with Bob Dylan, I did it with the Hawks, and so by the time we got to Music from Big Pink, I wanted a fresh deck of cards. Besides, everyone was playing wailing guitar by 1968, so I simply wanted to go in the opposite direction. I wanted to develop a guitar style where phrases and lines get there just in the nick of time, like with Curtis Mayfield and Steve Cropper. Subtleties mean so much, and there is a stunning beauty in them.

How did you change your style?

I just wrote songs that demanded that style.

“Fear of Falling” from the new album really showcases your crafty, R&B rhythm guitar style.

It’s not a jamming-type of guitar style where you’re making stuff up on the fly. There are actual parts, which are used to set up a song. That Curtis Mayfield/Pops Staples style provides a songwriting lead to the listener, saying, “Ahh, we’re going somewhere.” That style always conveys a melodic, dreamy, sensual, rolling feel to me. There’s continuity to it as opposed to rambling.

How did you decide on casting Tom Morello and Robert Randolph on the tune “Axman”?

I wanted to pay homage to all of the great players who inspired us as guitarists—Link Wray, Duane Allman, Robert Johnson, and Hendrix among others. So I started thinking, who fits the “Axman” character today? Who does something on the guitar that completely mystifies me? That’s why I chose Tom Morello and Robert Randolph. I can stand right in front of those guys, watch every move they make, and still have absolutely no idea what they’re doing. They speak a different language. I should know by now what they’re doing, but I don’t. I do know, however, that when they play I stand up on my toes. They hit me emotionally.

How do you cast tones for songs?

The guitars that lead the way for me the most are a few signature model Strats that Fender made for me. The biggest difference between them and a stock Stratocaster is that I move the middle pickup back towards the rear pickup. That’s something that I‘ve been doing since the The Last Waltz days.

You do that to fatten up the sound?

Yeah, when I use both pickups it gets close to a humbucking sound. I’ve always found the rear pickup on a Strat to be tinny when used alone. Plus, for a while I was using metal fingerpicks, and the middle pickup got in the way of my picking. I also have old Tele knobs on my Strats, because I use the volume control a lot and the stock Strat knobs don’t give me the grip. So I used those guitars on the new record, as well as an old Fender Broadcaster and a Gibson Les Paul Black Beauty for a few rhythmic things.

The star guitar of this record, however, is a 1921 Martin 000-45 gut string. I used it for the solos on “He Don’t Live Here” and “Tango for Django.” Eric plays it on “Madame X” and “Hold Me Back.” It’s a great-sounding old instrument and Eric fell in love with it. I had to remind him that it’s mine.

You were associated with Telecasters early in your career. Why the change to Stratocasters?

The Strat is a little more comfortable with the contoured body. It feels balanced, like a rifle. There are also more tonal options and a wider variety of neck profiles. Actually, Strats just felt a little more upscale and I figured I deserved one [laughs]. That being said, growing up there were a lot of Tele players that I admired, including Roy Buchanan, James Burton, and Fred Carter Jr., who played with Ronnie Hawkins before I got the gig. Also, from a practical standpoint, you couldn’t beat a Tele. They’re light enough to wear for marathon gigs, and they never break.

What amps did you use to track the new album?

I used a Bogner head a lot, through one of their closed-back 1x12 cabs. God, those Germans—they do some s**t really good. If you want an amp or a car, they’re way up on the list. I also used an old Fender tweed Twin that I’ve had forever. I used it on The Last Waltz and it was old then. It’s amazing sounding.

For effects, I like Electro-Harmonix stuff, like the Freeze and the Wiggler. I also used a Way Huge Swollen Pickle, a Crowther Audio Prunes & Custard, a Plush Royal Plush compressor, an old TC Electronic Stereo Chorus/Flanger, a Dunlop Cry Baby Fasel wah, a Peterson tuner, a Line 6 DL4 delay, and Fulltone Supa-Trem and Fat-Boost pedals. When it comes to effects, I learned a lot from Daniel Lanois years ago. He’s an expert with implementing that stuff.

You crossed paths with Roy Buchanan back when he was playing with Ronnie Hawkins cousin, Dale Hawkins, right?

I did. I think I was 17, and he was probably in his early 20s. Ronnie was trying to decide if he was going to use Roy or me for some upcoming gigs. Let me tell you, Roy was much more accomplished than I was. He was older, further along on the instrument, and he had been around the block a bit. I really admired his playing. So one night Ronnie pitted Roy and I against each other—like a dance contest with guitars. And man, Roy was amazing. I thought to myself, “Jesus, I’m done.”

What did you do?

I made it look like I was doing something more interesting than him. You have to understand, Roy was a dark, mysterious dude. He played the s**t out of the guitar, but he would just stand there playing. I was bouncing around like a kid, wailing my heart out, so I got the sympathy votes. In the end, Ronnie just thought Roy was too weird. Roy liked to talk about being raised by wolves and that he was going to run off and marry a nun. Ronnie couldn’t deal with all of that, so I got the gig. I guess luck plays a little part in all of this!