WHAT DO YOU DO FOR AN ENCORE AFTER PLAYING a stint with Eric Clapton, and accepting a personal invitation from Carlos Santana to open a string of dates on his tour? Derek Trucks drew upon those thrilling experiences—in addition to touring as the Soul Stew Revival with his wife Susan Tedeschi—to craft Already Free [Victor], arguably the most satisfying CD of his incandescent career.
“It’s not a snapshot of the Derek Trucks Band onstage—the experience is completely different,” says Trucks, who produced the record at his newly built home studio. “I wanted to make a definitive album of songs in the vein of the Allman Brothers Band’s Eat a Peach.”
His ongoing tenure in the seminal Southern rock ensemble provides Trucks—who turns 30 in June—with insight beyond his age, as well as the challenge of defining himself beyond the band’s boundaries. This year marks the ABB’s 40th anniversary, although it’s an entirely different affair without the presence of founding guitarists Duane Allman and Dickey Betts. Well, almost entirely. Trucks and co-lead guitar player Warren Haynes each sound as if they have inherited slices of the late Allman’s legendary soul, and singing slide tone—and Trucks takes the master’s time-honored licks to breathtaking new heights via his use of Indian-inspired microtonal ornamentation. He has matured into a player with the confidence to wield—or not wield—his singular chops according to context, rather than as a demonstration of playing prowess.
Already Free contains no instrumental tracks or prolonged jams, but it’s loaded with tasty phrases and layers of vintage tonal glory. Fellow Clapton tour veteran Doyle Bramhall II co-wrote and co-produced several numbers, and there are some killer covers. Trucks’ slide solo on Penn & Oldham’s “Sweet Inspiration” plays like poetry, and he brings a gang of grit to Bob Dylan’s “Down in the Flood.” Trucks’ rendition of Big Maybelle’s “I Know” begins with a strikingly authentically Eastern-sounding intro before morphing into an Allmans-approved blues boogie. Time will tell if Already Free is on the level of Eat a Peach, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, or Abraxas— but the guitar icons that created those classics appear eager to pass the torch to Trucks.
How did you come to work with Clapton, and what was the experience like?
He asked me to join his band out of the blue. I think he was just looking for a new guitar foil to play off. I certainly appreciated the magnitude of the situation, as I was weaned on Derek and the Dominoes. It’s funny, because I even played in a band called Derek and the Dominators when I was 12 or 13. I experienced a moment of realization that I was in Clapton’s actual band one night during “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad,” when I looked over and saw him there playing! It was certainly surreal, but there was no fear moment. When you play with the pedal down regardless of the situation—as I always have—it inspires a certain confidence that you’re ready for anything.
What struck you about touring with Santana?
I was struck by the fact that even with all his experience, he would show up an hour before his band trying to improve his tone. It made me realize that you have to keep that flame lit because it can easily go out.
What’s your current gear, and what kind of adjustments do you make at sound check?
I’m digging the drive and power of Paul Reed Smith’s new amps. I’m using a Blue Sierra head through a Randall 4x12 cabinet with the Allman Brothers Band, and I ran a prototype of the Original Sewell through a Marshall 4x12 for some of the more overdriven stuff on my record. I haven’t experimented with much gear for my own thing, however. Once I discovered the sound of a Gibson SG through a Fender Super Reverb— that was that. I’m still using a large Dunlop Pyrex slide on my ring finger. My main guitar is a 2000 SG ’61 Reissue loaded with ’57 Classic humbuckers and tuned to open E [E, B, E, G#, B, E, low to high]. We hacked off the vibrato, and put a stoptail on it.
I don’t tweak the Fender much. I set the Reverb control at about 3 because I want to feel the effect, but I don’t want it to be too loose. I set the Volume and Treble controls at around 8, and the Middle and Bass controls at 3 or 4. Using such a simple rig keeps me on my toes because I have to adjust my approach to the instrument according to the venue. Some theaters can leave you feeling a bit naked and hung out to dry if there’s not enough liveliness to the sound, in which case I might alter the set list or play it a bit safer during improvisation. I feel like I can air out just about anything in a live-sounding room. That was also a consideration when we built the studio. You want a room to feel too live to begin with because you can always deaden it.
How did you develop the material on Already Free?
We recorded most of the material on the first day we wrote or attempted a tune, and things came together in various ways. We tracked “Down Don’t Bother Me” and “Get What You Deserve,” with the full band live in the studio, and added overdubs as we saw fit, but other tracks were pieced together. We tried a couple of covers at the last minute—Carlos had recommended “Sweet Inspiration”—and they turned out to be among the strongest tracks. The first time we played “Down in the Flood” all the way through is what we caught on tape. I laid out the arrangement from the control room on an old Harmony acoustic while Count M’Butu played shaker, and we built it up from there.
Did you use any overdrive pedals on that or other tracks?
No. It was just guitars and amps. I used combinations of two or three amps on each song—including the vintage Fender Deluxe and the Princeton shown in the CD insert. I used a funky old Airline guitar through the built-in amp in its case to get the super-compressed, crunchy rhythm sound on “Flood.” I used a beater Silvertone/Supro guitar through the Princeton for the main theme, and the SG through the Sewell for the lead. The second, more overdriven solo on “Something to Make You Happy” is a vintage SG through a cranked vintage Marshall.
You make a commanding entrance on that one.
I wanted the entrance to be noticed, so I plucked a note on the low-E string really hard, and bent it as far as I could. Sometimes when you’re standing in the tracking room you do something outlandish just to get a rise out of the people in the control room— or even onstage for that matter. I enjoy throwing curve balls at people who know my playing really well, just to see if I can surprise them and make them move their heads [laughs].
How did you create the call-and-response guitar parts during the outro to “Something”?
Doyle and I set up a couple of partially isolated amps in the playing room and traded phrases. The bulk of what’s there is from the first take. That was a pretty live moment.
Did you compose the “Sweet Inspiration” solo, or did it come about spontaneously?
That’s another song that was built from the ground up. We started with a percussion track, and my Pops Staples-style guitar part, which I played through a vintage Fender Vibrolux. Then, we cut all the vocals, and I played the drum track myself. Sometimes it’s good to hear a song with a hole left for the solo over and over because the solo starts to write itself in your head. In a sense you are composing it in your memory, retaining a few phrases that you know are going to make the cut.
Are you using an octave pedal, or doubling the beginning phrase?
No. I’m just playing slide in open E at the fifth fret, so you’re hearing an A played in three octaves.
“I Know” is interesting because it starts with an Eastern flavor, and then it turns into a blues. What was the thinking behind that intro and transition?
Shrinivas is an Indian classical mandolin player who makes a fretted instrument feel fretless, and that’s what I was going for at the beginning of “I Know.” I turned the volume on the SG way down and played it through my Super Reverb. That was one of those moments in the studio where you expand an intro, and fake going left before taking a right. We do that a lot in our shows. The band will drone, and I’ll pick a scale to freeform with for while before we launch into the next tune.
When I spoke with Jimmy Herring about your playing on his CD, he mentioned the importance of the b9 in your repertoire. Can you elaborate?
I go to it often. The b9 always felt good, and it got stuck in my head when I learned a few Indian classical motifs that rely heavily on that tonality. I try to find as many motifs like that as I can to go to throughout a show, and I often write the set list with such things in mind. I want certain sections to feel light and airy, and others to feel muddy and heavy.
Do you plan for fingerstyle versus slide playing?
It depends on the tune, and on the night. Sometimes I don’t plan on touching the slide for a given song, but then inspiration hits, and I do it anyway. And there are times when I intentionally start a solo one way knowing that I’m going to build it up and switch gears, so I’m thinking one or two steps ahead.
Can you share some thoughts on vibrato?
It’s just a taste issue. I’m constantly balancing what’s appropriate and what’s not, and sometimes the idea is to play what’s inappropriate.
Can you explain your plucking concept from a rhythmic perspective?
A lot of it is just instinct and feel. I never felt comfortable playing with a pick, so I found other ways to pluck using my fingers and my thumb—and I try different things each night. I come back to some of them, and I only use others once or twice. It’s definitely not about putting technique first. I hear a sound in my head, and then I try to find a way to get there.
What’s going on with the Allman Brothers Band. Are there any special anniversary plans?
The Beacon theatre run in New York is going to be a tribute to Duane, and there are going to be a ton of guests sitting in. We’re trying to round up anybody that had any kind of real connection to him, such as the people he recorded with or who were heavily influenced by him. Each night will be different.
Is Dickey Betts going to be involved?
He’s invited. In a perfect world, he would be there playing at least one night. But we don’t live in a perfect world, so the best you can do is extend an offer and the right spirit. I’m really hoping it happens, but it’s a touchy situation, and I respect his decision either way.
Do you ever feel pigeonholed as the slide guy in the Allman Brothers Band, or worry that will overshadow your own identity if you don’t eventually step away completely?
In the past, I would intentionally include a Qawwali tune to show there was more to my identity than being just another blues guitar player. This time, I felt free to focus on recording the best batch of tunes without regard to how it was going to be perceived or received. The Allman Brothers Band is not going to last forever. A time will come in the very near future when I abandon all that stuff, and dig in firmly with my thing, or the band with my wife—and I welcome the transition.