“I’VE COLLABORATED WITH A LOT OF PEOPLE AND I LIKE working that way,” says guitarist and slide-man extraordinaire Roy Rogers. “It’s a new rush every time.” The result of Rogers’ latest musical merging is Translucent Blues [Blind Pig], a stellar effort with legendary Doors keyboardist, Ray Manzarek. “Ray and I did a duet thing for six years, which culminated in the album Ballads Before the Rain, but we finally decided we wanted to do our thing with a band.” To that end, Manzarek dusted off some lyrics he had kicking around—from such heavyweights as Jim Caroll, Michael McClure, and Warren Zevon nonetheless—enlisted a bumpin’ rhythm section (drummer Kevin Hayes and bassist Steve Evans), and he and Rogers got to work crafting the soulful 12-song album that fully flaunts Rogers’ searing slide work and a palette of tones ranging from funky warbles to howling hell fire.
Ray Manzarek (left) and Roy Rogers.
“Ray and I have formed a great friendship and we woodshedded a lot together constructing this album,” explains Rogers, who along with Manzarek will be touring behind Translucent Blues. “In the studio we were having big fun,” he continues. “It’s serious work, but you have fun in that seriousness. It’s funny, but for all the years I’ve been doing this, when you’re actually tracking in the studio you don’t really know how good the end product is going to be. It would be ludicrous to say, ‘This is going to be the best record I’ve ever made.’ You can’t say that! You just have to get in there, roll up your sleeves, and give it your best shot.”
You and Ray dip into the jazz bag on the new album with tunes like “An Organ, a Guitar, and a Chicken Wing” and “Greenhouse Blues.” What’s your relationship with jazz?
Well, I’m not a jazz player, but I listen to a lot of saxophone players such as Ben Webster and Cannonball Adderley—real blues-oriented players. I love John Coltrane, but he’s above me. Believe me, I’d like to play better jazz! I’m definitely a fledgling, but I find the jazz chops that I do have make for a great textural element in a solo.
The trippy pre-solo section on “Fives and Ones?” really shows off the interplay between you and Ray. You’re doing some pretty wild, over-the-top sustained stuff.
Yeah, Ray does that bluesy, grooving, arppegiated thing that he’s so famous for, so that’s why I did the long sustained notes—because he’s already playing a lot. That’s why that section works. As a guitarist you have to be able to weave in and out of dense note situations and make it sound good. On that track I used my ’58 Les Paul Jr. straight into my ’60 Fender Princeton and that’s it.
You’ve worked with everyone from John Lee Hooker to Miles Davis to Bonnie Raitt. Have you ever been star struck going into a session or sharing the stage with someone?
No. Simply put, if you’re in awe of someone you’re working with, you’re not going to do a good job. You can’t be shy. I certainly wouldn’t want to work with someone who was in awe of me. I’ve been in the studio with Pete Townshend, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, even Sammy Hagar, and each time everyone is just going for it—taking care of business. The music comes first and nobody’s ego is on the line. People get a little shy when a “legend” is there, but the music can suffer as a result.
Talk about the rhythmic aspects of your playing. Is that something you work on?
I consider myself a rhythm guitarist first— much more so than a lead player, as a matter of fact. Rhythm has always been important to me because without it, you’d have nothing to play over. Obviously I can play slide solos until the cows come home, but you have to put it over something with a good pulse, right? The emotion of the whole song is contained in the rhythm, and rhythms are a great tool to evoke the mood of a tune.
You played with John Lee Hooker for many years. What was it like to watch and hear him groove?
Obviously you learn playing with him. You had no choice; he did it different every night! Thankfully, I was pretty steeped in Hooker’s thing from a rhythmic perspective before I ever played with him. A lot of folks just think it’s about the boogie with John, but it’s the subtleties in the boogie that make it magical. It’s between the lines—it’s almost impossible to describe, but I do know this—the pulse is following John’s singing. The other thing about John’s groove was that it could shift, quite frankly, and I think that’s okay. I don’t like the groove to be defined by a machine. Sure, drum machines have their place and they can enhance what’s going on, but the groove has to be in human hands. I react to the human feel. Besides, most of my favorite records move a little bit, from Muddy Waters to Howlin’ Wolf to Led Zeppelin.
What did you use to record Translucent Blues?
I used my Sean Chappell doubleneck on the record quite a bit. It’s modeled on a Gibson ES-125 that I used to use a lot. It’s basically two ES-125s stuck together. The top neck is in standard tuning and the bottom neck is tuned to open E. It’s so much fun—I jump back and forth between the two necks during the same song all the time. Most doublenecks are way too heavy for me—I don’t know how Jimmy Page did it—but mine is small and light. It’s solid mahogany and the top neck sports two P-90s, while the bottom neck has a single P-100. I also used my ’57 reissue Strat, a Martin New Yorker, and an Epiphone 12-string acoustic for some textures. For amps I used my main stage amp, a ’79 Mesa/Boogie Mark IIa combo, and a Bad Cat combo that I won’t use live because it’s way too heavy and I don’t want a hernia. My slides are a Dunlop 212 for glass and a Texas Blues Tube for metal.
You’re using a lot of modulation effects on Translucent Blues.
I love my old Arion Chorus pedal. I obviously dig the modulation, but it also gives me a little gain boost as well. They are hard to find, but I’m sitting on a bunch I got from Japan a few years ago. I also used a Motion Sound rotary speaker on the record. It’s a heck of a lot lighter than my Leslie, and it sounds great.
How hands-on are you in the studio as far as miking your amps?
I trust the engineers. I don’t claim to be an engineer, and I don’t second-guess their choices— as long as it sounds good. They know where mics go better than I do, but I know what my ears tell me, so it works out really well. For the most part we always use one close mic and one distant mic. It seems that the magic is always captured by the room mic. It’s pretty simple actually—rather than searching through lots of Pro Tools plug-ins, you can lean on the room mic that already has all the mojo you need.
Do you consider yourself a player who takes chances on stage?
Absolutely. As a musician you’ve got to be willing to jump off the cliff. More importantly, you have to be willing to fail. That’s how music can get to some very interesting places. You have to tell yourself it’s going to work. And if it doesn’t, oh well, you tried.
Is there anyone who epitomizes that “go for it” attitude for you?
Oh yeah, when I first saw Howlin’ Wolf at the Avalon Ballroom in the late ’60s, that was an education. He was in front of all these white kids and he didn’t give a s**t! He was just going nuts and he had a “This is what I do,” attitude that was just incredible. He went for the throat at all times. That impressed me. The other thing he did was, if he felt one of his musicians didn’t give it his all and solo well, he’d call them out and tell them to do it again, right up there onstage. That’s heavy.
That will keep you on you toes!
We all need to be on our toes. I’m going to be 60 this year, and I can tell you that music is still such a learning process. If you think you’ve achieved all you can with the guitar or that you’ve figured it all out, then you need to just give it up. You have to go for it ’til the day you drop.