Robby Krieger started out playing flamenco and fingerstyle folk guitar, and when he took up electric and joined the Doors a few months later he continued playing with his fingers. His first guitar was a Gibson SG Special with P-90s, which he played on The Doors in 1967, followed by a ’67 SG Standard, and a 3-pickup ’54 Les Paul Custom that he used for slide. Because of his musical background and pick-less technique, Krieger’s electric sound was unique, as was his slide playing, which eschewed the blues-based approach adopted by most of his contemporaries. Krieger was also heavily influenced by the cutting-edge jazz musicians of the day—particularly John Coltrane—which can be heard clearly in his modal approach to soloing on pieces such as “When the Music’s Over” and his songwriting on “Light My Fire.” In addition to penning the latter, Krieger also wrote several other Doors classics, including “Love Me Two Times,” “Love Her Madly,” and “Touch Me.”
Krieger’s latest release, Singularity [Oglio], is an ambitious album comprising solo flamenco guitar pieces, brass- fueled ensemble works, funk and surf-tinged slide excursions, and fusion-y jazz shuffles—all featuring Krieger’s ever-inventive fretwork and spectacular old-school tones. Those wishing to hear Krieger and the Doors playing at their peak in 1970 should consider the six-disc The Doors Live in New York [Rhino], and longtime fans and the newly curious alike should see When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors, an insightful documentary that spotlights Krieger’s occasionally overlooked contributions to one of rock’s deepest and most powerful bands.
Was there any sort of concept behind Singularity?
The original idea for this record came about around ten years ago when Miles Davis died. My friend Arthur Barrow and I decided to do a tribute to Miles, something like Sketches Of Spain. We started off with a flamenco guitar and then built “Russian Caravan” off of some of the flamenco licks. But after that we let it sit for years and just forgot about it until recently, when we were talking about Miles and said, “God, what happened to that piece we did years ago?” So we resurrected it and developed it into a Spanish-flavored jazz sort of thing.
You get some fat classic rock tones on the new album, as opposed to the more processed fusion tones on the previous one. What guitars and amps did you use?
I mostly used my ’67 SG Standard, an ES- 335, an ES-355 wired mono without the Varitone switch, and my ’54 Les Paul Black Beauty for slide, though I also used some Stratocasters for a few rhythm parts. My amp was an old Fender Twin that’s been goosed up and sounds really good. For the acoustic flamenco parts I played the 1963 Rivera that my dad bought for $200 when I was a kid
Specifically, how did you get the ultra-fat lead tone on “Russian Caravan”?
I’m pretty sure that was an ES-355 with the Twin cranked all the way up, and probably a Pro Tools echo plug-in. I like to track using the sound that I’m going to end up with as much as possible, because that always gives me different ideas on how to play. But you generally add stuff afterwards, too, so I also record a dry track that can be treated differently later.
There’s a tune called “Trane Running Late.” I assume that’s a reference to Coltrane.
Yeah. The bridge is actually based on his solo on “Giant Steps.” I’ve listened to Coltrane since the early ’60s, and he was a big influence. Back then, ou could see him, Miles, Roland Kirk, and all the greats playing in little clubs here in L.A. Coltrane was the first one to break free from the bonds of bebop. He’d just play over a couple of chords, like we did on “Light My Fire,” though he mostly did it in 3/4 and we did it in 4/4. You’d think it would be simple, but in reality it’s more difficult to come up with something interesting playing over one or two chords than it is playing over a bunch of bebop chords. It has always been my goal to try to free myself in that way. I think the closest I ever came was on “When the Music’s Over.”
Speaking of “When the Music’s Over,” how did you get the monstrous distortion sound on that song?
I wanted to get kind of a violin sound that just sustained forever but was still ballsy. They didn’t have pedals that could do that so I told Paul Rothchild, the producer, what I wanted and he said, “No problem.” He pulled this little resister out of his briefcase and soldered it into a channel on the tube board at Sunset Sound. I forget what he said or how it worked, but it made this incredible sound where it just wouldn’t stop sustaining. That combined with the Sunset Sound acoustic echo chamber is what made that sound. I wish I could put it in a pedal. [Note: Engineer Bruce Botnik has said that the distortion sound was produced by cascading the outputs of several channels on the board into one another so that each tube microphone preamp overdrove the next, increasing the distortion.]
Were you playing through a miked-up amp or just plugged directly into the console?
I was playing through a Twin Reverb cranked all the way up. Most old Twins are still pretty clean when you turn them up, but that particular amp has an additional gain stage.
Do you feel that you’ve received adequate recognition for your contributions to the Doors, particularly your songwriting?
No, probably not. I’m sure most people think that Jim Morrison wrote everything. My contributions are discussed in When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors, however, and I think eventually people will find out.
Was “Light My Fire” the first song you ever wrote?
I had written a couple of songs before that, but that was my first one for the Doors. What happened was that up until then Jim had written everything, but we didn’t have enough songs, so he said we should try to write something. Even then I knew that he was a great writer, so I went home and said, “S**t, if I’m going to write something that compares to his stuff I’ve got to come up with something pretty cool.” I decided I’d write about earth, air, fire, or water, and I picked fire.
Your slide playing with the Doors was seemingly not based on the classic blues styles that so many ’60s guitarists emulated. How did you come up with that approach?
I liked Blind Willy Johnson and Robert Johnson and all those guys, but I knew I wasn’t ever going to be as good as them, so I decided I’d use the slide as more as an effect. For example, if you listen to something like “Moonlight Drive,” I’m using it more as a sound color than to play standard blues licks.
Maybe so, but you also had a very original voice when playing slide solos.
I think that’s just from not knowing how to do it correctly [laughs].
How did not having a bass in the Doors influence that way that you played?
It affected all of our playing a lot. Ray had to play the bass with his left hand, which meant that he was forced to do really hypnotic bass lines because he had to kind of put it on automatic pilot. That was a big part of our sound, and it made me play differently because I had to play a lot of bass notes to fill in for the sparse bass notes that he was playing. The fact that I was playing with my fingers enabled me to do that more easily.
Did not having to play bass parts after that period factor into your transition from fingerpicking to playing with a pick?
Yes, but the main reason I began using a pick was I read an interview with Wes Montgomery in which he was asked whether if he had to do it over again he would learn to use a pick and he said, “Yeah, definitely,” because he felt he was constrained by not using a pick. Of course, he was too old to learn by the time he figured that out. I took a crack at it, and although it did take a while before I was comfortable with it, I’m glad I did. Nowadays I play about half and half, and sometimes I play with a pick and my fingers at the same time in a hybrid style.
What kind of picks and strings do you like?
Fender Medium picks and GHS .010 sets.
You told GP in 1973 that you never changed or cleaned your strings because the dirtier they were the better.
[Laughs]. That was a joke, but since then people are like, “Oh yeah, you let you strings get dirty.” I read that [legendary Motown bassist] James Jamerson did that, which is where I got the idea.
Do you have any effects pedals that are an essential part of your sound?
Yes, an old Boss ME-10 Guitar Multiple Effects. I actually have four of them in case it breaks, because the Boss units that came after that one are too digital for me. With the Doors I had a wah pedal and a Maestro fuzz box, which was pretty good, though it was a little harsh sounding. In those days I’d just crank up whatever amp I had as loud as I could and try to get distortion that way. At one point we were using Acoustic amps because of an endorsement deal, and the guitar amp had distortion built into it. But they were really awful so eventurally we made our own amps and stuffed them into the cabinets.
What went into designing the Gibson Inspired By Robby Krieger SG?
It’s based on the 1967 SG Standard that I’m playing now. The only thing that’s different is the neck, which is modeled on a neck from a 1961 Les Paul Jr. It’s also got a switch that lets you put the pickups out of phase, like on the SG that I used to get that wah-wah-like sound on “Peace Frog.”
In the late ’60s and early ’70s people believed that rock music could change the world. What went wrong, and do you believe it is still possible for that to happen?
Nixon happened, and then they killed Kennedy. It’s too bad, because it seemed like everything was going in the right direction for a while and then evil took over again. But music is the only hope because all those Muslim kids over there love American music, and if they realize that’s something we have in common it still might end the fighting. At the same time, I don’t hear a lot of new music that really turns me on—not like back in those days. For one thing, I think guitar players today should do their homework a little better and listen to the guys who started everything rather than just going back a couple years, because everybody’s starting to sound the same. I’m waiting for something to happen that’s going to blow everyone away, and I’m sure it will.
Is Jim Morrison really alive and living as a cowboy in the Pacific Northwest?
[Laughs]. I heard that, but I don’t think so. I think I would have heard from him by now!