DUKE ROBILLARD HAS BEEN PERFORMING the blues in all its permutations for more than 40 years. Robillard began his career as a cofounder of Roomful of Blues in 1967, playing classics and originals, as well as backing legends such as Big Joe Turner and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vincent. Throughout the intervening years he has worked with Robert Gordon, the Legendary Blues Band (with Muddy Waters alumni), Duke Robillard & the Pleasure Kings, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and recorded with a diverse group of artists that includes Herb Ellis, J. Geils, John Hammond, Ronnie Earl, Pinetop Perkins, Tom Waits, Kim Wilson, and Jimmy Witherspoon. More recently, his tasty guitar work has graced Dylan’s Time Out of Mind and Ruth Brown’s R+B=Ruth Brown.
Robillard has also been the recipient of numerous awards over the years, not least of all the Blues Music Award for “Best Blues Guitarist” in 2000, 2001, 2003, and 2004. Additional honors include three Canadian Maple Blues Awards for “Best International Blues Artist,” and two awards from the French Blues Association.
The guitarist’s latest release, Stomp! The Blues Tonight [Stony Plain], is a rousing, horndriven tribute to his R&B heroes, drawing mostly on material from the ’40s and ’50s, some of which he has played since his days with Roomful of Blues. The album includes several vocal performances by Sunny Crownover, an artist Robillard was so enamored with that he assembled a band to back her live and on the recently released Introducing . . . Sunny and Her Joy Boys [Stony Plain], on which he plays swing acoustic guitar.
Stomp! is a departure from your more recent projects.
Well, it is and it isn’t. I did another record back in 1990 with a similar purpose, which is to pay tribute to the blues and R&B heroes that inspired and influenced me in the beginning. It’s kind of part two of that, but I’m more developed in my career at this point, and as far as I’m concerned it is the best blues-oriented record I’ve ever made. The album pays tribute to artists like Wynonie Harris, Roy Milton, T-Bone Walker, Lowell Fulsom, and Johnny Watson.
[BREAK] Horns are front and center on a lot of the tracks. Who was responsible for the arrangements?
The horn players and I collaborated on them. Everybody had ideas, and we tried out different things until we got what was best for the songs. I’m really used to the sound of horns, and I love playing rhythm guitar along with them. Rhythm guitar is a bit of a lost art in some respects, but to me playing rhythm is as important as playing solos. In fact, when I’m recording swing tunes, I’ll often layer a Freddie Green-style acoustic rhythm part underneath the electric part. Sometimes it’s way in the background, underneath the bass and the hi-hat, but it’s an important part of the sound.
Do you have a preferred acoustic for that purpose?
I’ll typically use an archtop. You don’t hear enough of that sound today and I really love it. I’ve got several archtop acoustics, but my Gretsch Synchromatic and some Epiphone Broadways and Triumphs are among my favorites.
Stomp! Has sort of an old-school sound. Did you do record everything live?
With the exception of vocals, in most cases the whole thing was cut live. I usually go back and redo the vocals to get them right. As far as sounding old school, as a producer I really insist on things sounding natural. I’ve listened carefully to how records sound my entire life, and I work hard to get sounds similar to those on my favorites.
Are you playing a walking bass line with your thumb on “Hands Off”?
I believe I’m using a pick on that, but yeah, it’s a repeated riff. I stuck with the part played on the original recording of that song even though it kind of interferes a bit with the bass, because it works for every change. I find that line to be fairly hypnotic, and as simple as the part is, it can be a challenge to play it all the way through the song without varying it. I think I played an Epiphone Casino on that track.
What did you use to get that really growl-y tone on your solo on the title track?
I used a ’49 Epiphone Deluxe Zephyr Regent fitted with P-90s instead of the original pickups. The amp was probably a Fender Princeton Reverb, but it could also have been a 1950sera Vega. I’m not positive which.
[BREAK] Are you playing a Tele on “Three Hours Past Midnight”?
It sounds like one, but I’m actually playing a Stratocaster. I would normally use a Tele to get that tone, but for some reason the Strat I was playing that day just happened to make that sound.
Do you have any favorite pedals?
There are a few pedals that I use in the studio, but the one I use most live is a DigiTech Bad Monkey overdrive. Instead of having a single tone control it has separate controls for bass and treble, and they let me fatten up the tone, which is important because so often you lose a lot of low end with distortion pedals. I also use a Radial Tonebone Trimode distortion pedal, which has two different distortion sections that you can switch between.
You aren’t known for using a whammy bar, but it sounds like you are using one near the end of your solo on “Frankie and Johnny.”
There’s no whammy bar. I’m playing a Gibson ES-350 on that song, and anything I’m doing that sounds like a whammy is just the way I’m sliding my fingers around.
What guitars do you use on tour?
My main guitar right now is a reissue Epiphone Sheraton John Lee Hooker model, but I have a bevy of guitars, and I choose different ones each time I go out. If it is going to be a long tour, I’ll bring four or five instruments, usually a couple of archtops and some Fender or Fender-style guitars.
How about amplifiers?
For amplifiers I use either a Fender Deluxe Reverb or my Louis Electric “Duke” model, which is based on an early tweed Fender. Louis Electric amps are made in New Jersey by a guy named Louis Rosano, who does things like hand winding his own power transformers, and his amps are amazing sounding. Mine has a 12" Eminence The Tonker combined with a 10" Fane AXA. I used to think that so-called boutique amplifiers were nonsense, but the Duke has a fat, sweet, warm yet bright tone that you just can’t get out of most modern amps.