Devon Allman Goes All In on Ragged & Dirty

Allman is one of the most revered names in guitar history, but would you want to bear that cross as a fledgling player? Maybe so.

Allman is one of the most revered names in guitar history, but would you want to bear that cross as a fledgling player? Maybe so. Think about it: You’d be on the tour bus getting schooled by the masters, partying backstage like it’s 1972 …

“The biggest misconception is that I grew up around the Allman Brothers Band,” says Devon Allman, son of Gregg. “My mom sheltered me from the circus. I started playing guitar at 13, but I didn’t even meet my father until I was 17. I found my own love affair with music. I wound up in a similar place by taking the long way around.” born to rock, Allman is a natural star onstage with an attitude that harkens back to early influences such as Van Halen, Kiss, and Iron Maiden. Jimi Hendrix’s music colored Allman’s future, but it wasn’t “Purple Haze.”

“‘Red House’ had a totally different vibe,” he recalls. “It was coming from a darker, sexier place. It turned me on to a whole blues universe.”

Allman formed the hard-jamming Honeytribe in 1999, and it was his primary vehicle until he joined forces with slide ace Mike Zito and legendary singer Cyril Neville as the Royal Southern Brotherhood in 2011. Zito split to pursue his solo career last summer, and Allman recently made the same decision “with a heavy heart.”

Allman released the singer/songwriter statement Turquoise in 2013. His new CD, Ragged & Dirty [Ruf], showcases his lead guitar playing. Allman got help on his latest from producer/drummer/songwriter Tom Hambridge, who shepherded Buddy Guy to a Grammy on 2010’s Living Proof. Ragged & Dirty features Hambridge’s contemporary Chicago blues sound. The songs vary from R&B to rock and roll, but Allman’s vocals and go-for-broke Les Paul licks are consistent throughout. The epic, slow-burning instrumental “Midnight Lake Michigan” itself is living proof Allman is his own player at home in his own skin.

How would you describe your relationship with the guitar growing up?

Guitar was a singing and songwriting vehicle. Anything beyond the 7th fret scared the hell out of me. When I started touring and making records, I dabbled with lead guitar, but only on down-tempo tunes when I could figure my way around. I always had a lead guitar player in my band. I wasn’t really confident because I was self-taught. When Honeytribe’s lead guitar player quit, I was at a crossroads. I could replace him, or go ahead and try to do it all myself.

What happened?

After going almost 20 years without playing lead, I gave myself six months to hone that craft. I realized there were only so many notes, and I played a lot. Within the first few months I had a breakthrough gig where everything just worked. I may not be a shredder, but I realized I’ve got my own voice on this damn thing.

I interviewed you for the back page of GP about that time, and then last year you told me a story. When you saw yourself in the magazine, it inspired to you essentially live up to it.

That’s right. This magazine taught me how to be a guitar player in the first place. To be in it was humbling. I hired the best blues guitar player in St. Louis—Jimmy Lee Kennett—to come to my house and teach me. That was my first and only real lesson. After three hours of helping me tie together loose ends he said, “Man, you got it.”

Had the inevitable comparisons kept you from going all in on guitar?

Maybe so. It’s one thing that I’m Gregg Allman’s son, but I’m also Duane Allman’s nephew. So maybe subconsciously I didn’t really want to play lead guitar because he was such a monster.

Do you ever play slide?

No. It’s funny when someone comes up to me after a gig and says, “You play killer slide!” I just laugh and say, “Thanks, bro.”

Do you play every lead on on Ragged & Dirty?

I play them all except “Leavin’.” That’s Bobby Schneck Jr. from my solo band. Bobby’s only 23, but he’s a monster. He probably takes 25 percent of the leads when we play live. For the album, Tom selected a studio band with Giles Corey on rhythm guitar. At first I resisted because I’ve always recorded my own rhythm tracks, but it turned out to be a genius move. The core band ripped through the basics, which gave me way more time to be creative on leads and ear candy.

What gear did you use most in the studio, and how does it compare to your primary live rig?

My number one guitar is a 2006 Custom Shop Gibson Les Paul—a cherry sunburst ’59 Historic that Les signed for me when I played with him at the Iridium in New York City. I’ve also been leaning on a ’79 Fender Stratocaster. I used that on “Midnight Lake Michigan,” which is a nine-and-a-half minute piece of guitar porn. I used a 15-watt Victoria 1x12 tweed combo on the whole record.

The heart of my stage rig is my signature Fuchs ODS. We tweaked the midrange and peeled back the gain on an Overdrive Supreme to make it sound a lot smoother. I’ve always strived for a tone between Carlos Santana and Dickey Betts—majestic and brown, but not too dirty.

One of your go-to tones can be heard on “Can’t Lose ’Em All,” and it sounds like a Les Paul with the treble rolled back.

Right—I use the bridge pickup and turn the tone knob all the way down. Sometimes I bring the treble up a hair on the amp so it’s not completely murky and dark.

You mentioned using a Strat for “Midnight Lake Michigan.” That’s a great title for a badass track with tons of vibe and dynamic flow with the band. What inspired that session, and why the Strat?

That was the final recording. I was immersed in a big Clapton phase at the time, and I’d been listening to his soundtrack for the movie Rush, which is a bunch of three- and four-minute mood pieces. I asked Tom if we could try taking something like that further, and he agreed to give it a go. I explained that I wanted to start by hanging on the I chord forever—like a Coltrane thing. Let it percolate and simmer. Eventually we’d hit a V, and then go down to the IV, but explosively! Then we’d come back down to the I, and start the process all over again. I figured we’d take a few passes, but we got it on the first one.

As for the Strat, I don’t know. I started out on a Strat because it felt good when I was solely playing rhythm. When I started playing lead, I realized I wanted a thicker, violin-like tone, so I switched to Gibsons. “Midnight Lake Michigan” was a homecoming to the Strat. It’s a little more haunting and throaty-sounding. I wasn’t going for endless sustain. It was more about trying to make the guitar talk, cry, and emote.

Your cover of Otis Taylor’s “Ten Million Slaves” has a great groove, and it’s laced with a couple of textural overdubs. How did you choose that tune, and how did you go about tricking it out?

When I heard it during a chase scene while watching the movie Public Enemies, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I went straight to iTunes and bought everything Otis Taylor ever did. A couple days later he came to our gig. I was freaking out because I’d just discovered the guy. I told him I was considering covering “Ten Million Slaves,” and he said, “I’ll show you how to play it.”

My vision was to make it trippier. I didn’t want a raging guitar solo. I wanted ethereal, haunting, syrupy, sticky, and weird. I tracked one guitar from the middle break on out, and then threw down another to answer it. I don’t use a lot of effects live, but the rulebook goes out the window when I’m in the studio trying to create a vibe. I bring a suitcase full of pedals. The echo might have been from a Mad Professor Bluebird, which has killer delay and distortion in one box. I used a variety of gain boost pedals on Ragged & Dirty including a Fulltone OCD, the Xotic Effects EP Booster, and a CMAT Mods Brownie pedal as well.

What’s the plan moving forward?

I’ve got Royal Southern Brotherhood tour commitments for a while, and then I’ll do a world tour to support Ragged & Dirty. I’m excited to be on the board of directors for the National Blues Museum, which is a $20 million facility opening next year near my home in St. Louis. I’m also looking forward to producing more young artists who play blues and soul-inspired rock and roll.

My career really started happening was when I stopped worrying about what I could get for myself, and started thinking about what I could do to spread the good word about good music. I want the next generation to be heard. If there’s an 11-year-old genius guitar player in a town, I always bring him up onstage. I want to keep them inspired, and ensure people still listen to this style of music a century from now. At the end of the day, it’s not about your last name. It’s what you’re willing to do for the genre.