Having expounded the guitar GO Spels of Page, Richards, Hendrix, and Allman as well any player of his generation, Rich Robinson is now taking the message to intimate venues with his own ensemble. Listening to Robinson stretch his wings along with super-supportive guitarist Dan Wistrom when Guitar Player and sponsor D’Addario presented the band’s show at the Chapel in San Francisco was like attending a rootsrock guitar service.
You know a songwriter is special when their new tunes grab your ears, and that was the case right out of the gate when Robinson ripped into the open-G rock-and-roller “I Know You,” which also opens his solid new CD, The Ceaseless Sight [The End]. Another highlight, “The Giving Key” was straight out of Robinson’s patented huge waltz mold.
Nobody is more at home copping resonant tones on a piece of guitar art, and Robinson sparked sonic colors from a gorgeous Teye Kostantinopolis, and later on a lively Trussart Steelmaster. Hurricane Sandy ruined much of Robinson’s bountiful vintage collection, but his beloved 335 barely survived, and the signature Gibson it inspired is hitting the market. He also has a new signature Reason amp. That’s tons of news for a marquee player who’s never had a signature anything. And then there’s the Black Crowes. . .
When we last spoke for GP’s August ’08 cover story, the Crowes were like a phoenix rising from the ashes with Luther Dickinson providing a lot of lift for three years. Eventually, Jackie Greene became your foil. What happened, and what was it like from a guitar perspective?
Luther wanted to be with his family and play with [brother] Cody when his father passed. We were totally cool with it. Our drummer Steve [Gordon] brought up Jackie because they play together in Trigger Hippy. Jackie did well by adding to the songs without playing over them, which some would do. The songs are pretty intricate and in open tunings, so I’m often kind of busy. I took my fair share of solos, although I wasn’t too focused on that.
You’re known for using up to ten different guitar tunings, and also for being an accomplished painter. Do chord shapes inspire you?
I do see music in shapes, but I don’t think about chord shapes. I think more about how the notes affect it. I purposefully add specific notes when I’m creating chords in different tunings to give them what they need. Although, what I love about open tunings in general is how strummed chords can sound so rich and broad. Those are my kind of chords. Open tunings give music the proper scope.
Can you elaborate on hearing music in shapes?
I visualize the flow. A song might hit me in the form of a shape, or lines drawn. It can have a beautiful flow, or it might jerk up and down. Hearing the broad spectrum of the created chord is what hits me the most at the end of the day. I’ve always likened it to the symphonic equation where you have X amount of violin to cello, and how one long note stroke will create such a broad chord among all those instruments.
How come almost nobody seems to use minor open tunings?
Skip James played in D minor. Otherwise, I don’t know. I’m simply drawn to a different platform.
Can you elaborate on how different tunings over the years relate to your songs?
I used an open D7 tuning on the Crowes song “Been a Long Time (Waiting on Love).” There’s a song on my new record called “One Road Hill” that’s all Ds in different octaves, plus a single A. I’ve also used open E, dropped D, and an open C tuning. I often use capos in open G.
Open G seems primary. How do you uncover new gems, and how do you avoid Keith Richards’ iconic Stones moves?
Keith’s is a 5-string approach. He rarely uses the low string—D, as it pertains to open G. I’ve always used it because it brings color to that tuning. Open G is flexible. I can really get around on it. For whatever reason it still brings cool stuff, and as long as that happens, I’ll stick with it.
For the Black Crowes, you’ll write music first, and then your brother Chris adds lyrics and vocals. Is the process similar for solo material?
Yes. I write and record the whole song— overdubs and all. When everyone’s gone from the studio, I listen and write lyrics.
How did you track The Ceaseless Sight?
First, Joe [drummer Joe Magistro] and I would lay down the rhythm. I’d overdub bass and extra guitars, and then he’d overdub percussion if needed. Marco Benevento played keyboards at the end. We tracked at Applehead Recording where they have a great old Neve broadcast board and a Pro Tools HD system. I made my previous record there as well. I really like working in Woodstock, New York. I feel a connection to that place.
You’ve never been a signature gear guy until now. Is that due to a change of heart, or circumstance?
There was never a real opportunity before.
Reason’s Rich Robinson Signature 50 amp has a wild retro look, and a unique head-plus-dual-2x12 cabinet configuration. What inspired the design?
I wanted it to look like an old stereo system. I sent pictures, and we worked out that design. The bass ports are tuned to the speaker cabinets, which are really cool. The head is based on their SM50 model. I simplified it by taking out the StackMode channel, and they set it up the way I wanted with tremolo.
Is the Reason on the record?
Yes, the prototype. I only had about five guitars and a few amps on this record because of the flood. My old plexi Marshall survived because it was way up high. My Bassman lived, and so did my ’50s tweed Vibrolux.
Your signature Gibson is based on your 1963 ES-335. Are you particularly fond of that year, or is just that guitar?
It’s that particular guitar. There were really good Les Pauls made in the ’80s, and there are lousy ’58s. It just depends on the guitar. Gibson approached me to do a signature 335 because they didn’t have one with a Bigsby.
What famous tunes did you record with the original?
I played it on “Sting Me” and “Black Moon Creeping.” I’ve played it on every record since Southern Harmony except this one because it was pretty much destroyed. I sent the 335 and my goldtop Les Paul to RS Guitarworks. They dried them out for about eight months. Then they took them apart and put them back together. So for the record I had a couple of Teyes, a Strat, a Gretsch, and my Jaguar-shaped Trussart. Oh, and I had my white SG. It floated on top of a wardrobe case, so it didn’t get destroyed.
At the outset of the first tune, “I Know You,” your guitar playing is split into two parts—the descending riff, and the answering slide. Is it second nature for you to envision dual guitars at this point?
Yes. I wanted an up-tempo rock-and-roll song, and I wrote it on the spot in about five minutes. I also wrote “The Giving Key” in the studio on the same day.
“The Giving Key” brings “Seeing Things” and “Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye” to mind because it’s a big, slow, rock waltz. Did any of those songs influence you?
I can’t pinpoint one right now. I love the concept of time, and how time can flow around something. Thelonious Monk would play a run, then he would change its timing, and then keep going into different things within the song’s time confines. I’ve always had an appreciation for how malleable time is in a song—how you can push and pull, and then come back.
You rarely rush a phrase, a beat, or anything. Does that come naturally, or did you discipline yourself?
Well, when I watch old footage of the Black Crowes playing “Thick and Thin” or “Jealous Again” in 1990, we were flying. Over the years we learned to slow down and focus. Now it’s second nature.
You’re about to go out on the Experience Hendrix tour. What era of Hendrix are you going to tackle?
I’ve always been into Band of Gypsys. I was a guest on a few shows in the spring. It was really fun to play with Brad Whitford, Doyle Bramhall, and everybody. For the upcoming run I believe I’ll be fronting a few songs, so I’ll probably sing “Message to Love” and “Up from the Skies.”
Are the Black Crowes on hiatus, or are you making a record?
No, we’re not making a record. We’re not doing anything. I don’t really know what we’re doing. I’m looking forward to more touring with my band.