Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks Discuss the Tedeschi Trucks Band's Powerful New Album, 'Signs'

On 'Signs,' Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks and their chosen clan make roots music with feeling.
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Consider, the Stax rhythm section of Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Al Jackson and Donald “Duck” Dunn, which demonstrated that two African-American and two white musicians could help artists turn out tunes that appealed to all races.

With the Tedeschi Trucks Band, guitarist/vocalist Susan Tedeschi and slide genius Derek Trucks expand on that experiment with 12 performers who represent both genders and various races. On their new record, Signs (Fantasy/Concord), this crew comes together in a musical melting pot that realizes the finest aspirations of the country that spawned it. The opening tune, “Signs, High Times,” recalls another multicultural group, Sly and the Family Stone, while on “Walk Through This Life,” Tedeschi and Trucks trade solos in the style of Derek and the Dominos guitarists Eric Clapton and Duane Allman.

The band recorded Signs live to two-inch analog tape at Swamp Raga, the couple’s home studio in Jacksonville, Florida, with contributions from guitarists Warren Haynes, Doyle Bramhall II and Oliver Wood, as well as percussionist Marc Quiñones. Sadly, the writing and recording was marked by several tragedies, including the deaths of close friends and relatives like Trucks’ uncle Butch, Gregg Allman, Aquarium Rescue Unit guitarist Col. Bruce Hampton and Leon Russell. In addition, Kofi Burbridge, the band’s keyboardist and flautist, suffered a heart attack in 2017, which was followed by another health setback in early 2019. He died on February 15, the day Signs was released.

Those losses influenced the new album’s music and lyrics, but a sense of durability and hope remains, as heard in songs like “Strengthen What Remains,” “Still Your Mind” and “All the World.” And as always, the Tedeschi Trucks Band give everything they have to the music, concentrating the energy of their jam-filled live shows into 11 concise, powerful tracks that show off the skills of their musical family.

The band regularly puts out live records between its studio releases. Is that to give you more time to write songs, to give fans a chance to hear you stretch out or a little bit of both?

Derek Trucks Every few years, we’ll experience this big jump forward musically, where the band is rocking and everything is feeling right. When that happens, we usually try to record the tour. I felt it was starting to open up in 2017, when we made the Live From the Fox Oakland record, so we got some gear together and decided to record the whole run at that theater. We’re at a point now where we don’t force records out or let a schedule dictate when we’re going to put out new music. We have to have something to say.

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Was there something new you wanted to do on this one?

Trucks We went into this record wanting to capture everything live on tape for the first time. Also, almost every other record was a collection of songs written along the way, while this one was much more about working through things. We almost lost Kofi before we made this record. He had gone through a serious surgery. We had gotten him back and were super thankful to have him. He wrote all the string parts and conducted the string quartet in the studio.

What gear did you use on the record?

Trucks I used mainly my Gibson SG. I played an old Gibson L-00 acoustic on a few tunes and a National on the last tune. Oliver Wood and I played acoustic on that. For amps I usually used a Fender Vibrolux or a Deluxe. Susan has a really good Deluxe that I’ll use when she’s not playing on a tune. I reamped a few of the solos through an old Fender Super Reverb with tape delay, like an old Echoplex, for a little dimension, and I used a Leslie on a track or two. For the most part, it was an old Gibson into an old Fender, and then get to work.

Susan, you started playing Tele during your solo career, and more recently played a Strat and a D’Angelico. In some of the recent videos I see you have a Les Paul. When did you pick that up?

Susan Tedeschi Probably two years ago. We were in the studio and all of our guitars were on the road. I told Derek I wanted a guitar. I said, “Do you have something I can use?” He said, “Go upstairs and grab something.” I saw this guitar case that had Eric Clapton’s signature on it. I opened it up and it was a replica of the Les Paul “Beano” guitar he played on the Blues Breakers record. Eric had given it to Derek. I fell in love with it and started bringing it on the road as pretty much my main guitar. If I have alternate tunings, I’ll play the Telecasters. Then for certain songs, to get a different tone than Derek, I’ll play the 1970 Strat while he’s playing humbuckers.

Are you playing any solos on this record?

Tedeschi I play a solo on “They Don’t Shine,” and I solo back and forth with Derek on “Walk Through This Life.” I play a lot more rhythm live than I do on the record, because when we’re tracking we usually write the song and then go right in and record it. I barely have time to learn the vocals, never mind the guitar stuff. Also, Derek’s a much better guitar player than me.

At the Louisville Palace, Louisville, Kentucky, November 8, 2018. Note the baffle between Trucks’ and Tedeschi’s amps

At the Louisville Palace, Louisville, Kentucky, November 8, 2018. Note the baffle between Trucks’ and Tedeschi’s amps

Derek, there are different levels of clean and distorted sound throughout the record. Does that come solely from how high you have the volume up on the guitar?

Trucks Absolutely. Usually, with an old Deluxe, you record it pretty quietly, at three or four, or, if you really want to get on it, at six or seven. The rest is your right hand and the volume knobs.

On “Signs” it sounds like there’s a second guitar part that’s fuzzy. Is the second guitar driven much harder than the main?

Trucks I’m hammering the low E on my guitar on that. I think Tim [Lefebvre] might have fuzzed out his bass on that a bit too. It’s probably fuzz bass and the low E on my guitar having a battle.

How do you decide whether you want to play standard guitar or slide guitar on any given tune, or when to switch in the middle of a tune?

Trucks A lot of times it’s completely on the fly. When there’s a solo coming up, it’s whatever inspires me at the moment. But some tunes are telling you what you need to do. “When Will I Begin” was begging for a lyrical slide solo, and when we play a tune like “Shame” live, it begs for a straight, no-slide solo. Other are more wide open. I try not to overthink those things too much.

How do you two orchestrate the rhythm parts when you perform live?

Tedeschi For the most part, I go over the songs with him and then ask if he’d prefer I play rhythm on a tune or not. I learn the parts on my own, unless he shows me a specific part. I am playing some wah-wah rhythm on the record.

What wah are you using these days?

Tedeschi I have a couple of Vox wahs. I have one that’s hand-wired. I also have an old Clyde McCoy. I used one of those on the record, but I usually use a Vox. I also have an old wah Jorma Kaukonen gave me that he’s had since the ’60s.

What amps are you using live?

Tedeschi I use a classic 1965 Fender Super Reverb. My other one is a specially made Alessandro. I use one at a time. Most of the time I use the Super Reverb because I love the reverb. The reverbs on other amps are never the same for me.

How about pedals?

Tedeschi I use an old Analog Alien FuzzBubble. It has two sides to it: One is the Pete Townshend side, and the other is the Jimi Hendrix side. I use it more like a booster if I’m trying to be heard over the band. It also distorts a little bit, depending on which setting I put it on. But for the most part, I use just a wah and a tuner.

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Speaking of being heard over the band, you had your own career for years playing over four or five pieces. How is soloing live over 12 pieces different?

Tedeschi It’s pretty wild. It depends on the song, but for the most part, it’s really fun. There’s so much power, but we’re also very dynamic, so sometimes it can be really quiet. It can break down to where I’m only playing with the drums, bass and a little bit of rhythm guitar. It’s awesome.

Is the baffle between your amps and Derek’s for recording purposes?

Tedeschi It is actually for live. I get a lot of sound coming from that side of the stage and it helps reduce the sound that goes into my microphone. It also helps me cut down on some of the volume so I can hear myself sing better.

Derek, in the Live from the Capitol Theatre video, it looked like you were playing a Gibson ES-335. Is that new?

Trucks No. I have an old 335 that I love. I don’t travel with it a ton, but a good 335 is one of the best guitars made. I lean toward the SG because I feel more comfortable there, but I love busting that thing out occasionally.

Does it give you something that the SG doesn’t?

Trucks It makes me think and play more like Freddie King and B.B. King because of the way it rings out and the way you can make a single note holler. Certain sounds trigger things that you know and love, and that makes you play a certain way, or at least nudges you in that direction. I break out an old Gibson Firebird from time to time, too. That’s a gnarly sound that’s fun. Playing slide on it makes me think about Johnny Winter.

(top and bottom) At Sentrum Scene, Oslo, Norway, April 10, 2019

(top and bottom) At Sentrum Scene, Oslo, Norway, April 10, 2019

You’ve been using Alessandro amps live. How many watts are they?

Trucks They’re rated at around 65 watts. It’s like a Super Reverb on steroids. It’s designed as a cross between a Dumble and a Super Reverb. It stays clean as long as you want it to, but you can goose it a little bit.

Is there an overdrive channel?

Trucks No, but if you push the mids, it’ll break up a bit. I daisy-chain the two channels together sometimes if I want it to get really unwieldy.

What strings and picks do you use?

Tedeschi DR .011s. Derek and I both use DR. I like Fender heavy picks.

Derek, I’ve read that your string gauges are basically a set of .010s with an .011 on the high E and a .014 on the B, and that you have low action. How do you avoid string buzz?

Trucks I think it’s using a glass Coricidin bottle slide. There’s also touch involved. There are times where, especially with an SG, the neck will move on you. I try to keep the action as low as I can get it without it feeling too flimsy.

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Do you find an advantage to using your ring finger for the slide, rather than the pinkie?

Trucks That’s where it feels comfortable to me. I have a lot more control there than I do on my pinkie. When I first started playing, I saw a picture of Duane Allman playing slide, and I just assumed that’s how you do it. Once it got comfortable there, it became second nature. I saw some guys use their pinkie, but it didn’t feel right to me

Has your slide playing influenced your single-note soloing at all?

Trucks Absolutely. When I’m playing single notes, I’m thinking of ways to bend in and out of notes. Thinking lyrically, like a singer, when I’m playing slide has definitely bled into the single-note stuff.

That brings me to my next question: You have one of the most vocal sounds of any guitarist alive. Were there particular singers that influenced your playing?

Trucks There are a lot. There’s that string of Stevie Wonder records in the early ’70s, and also Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson and many other gospel singers, as well as the great blues singers and some of the Qawwali singers. I stopped listening to guitar players for a good while. It was all singers and horn players and other things. [Allen] Woody gave me a sacred steel record when I was 14 or 15, with Aubrey Ghent playing “Amazing Grace” on lap steel. For the first four or eight bars, I thought it was a woman singing, and then I heard the pick noise. I remember it totally spinning me out, but I was already thinking that you want to be singing when you’re playing. Ali Akbar Khan would make all of his instrumental students take vocal classes first, because he believed that you should be singing through your instrument.

I was curious if you’re aware of how many guitarists — and not just slide players — have been influenced by your slide sound?

Trucks There have been times in the last few years where I’ve heard younger players, and it’s dawned on me that I might know where their sound or style came from. I always think it’s cool that people hear it and dig it, and I like listening to them. A lot of a person’s musicianship comes down to their taste. When I hear other guitarists playing what they’re hearing in their head, I appreciate that it’s lyrical ideas that they’re playing. That gives me hope. I’d rather hear that than somebody shredding all over the place. I don’t know if I ever really need to hear that again.

You two could put on an amazing show with a five-piece group and make a lot more money. What drives you to go out with such a big band?

Tedeschi When we started the band, we wanted it to be more circus-like, almost like an orchestra, where we could do a lot of different styles of music. We could have a mini choir on certain tunes, and then have the whole horn section. We also thought, It’s hard to make a living as a musician; why not employ most of our friends, so they can make a living too? These are good friends of ours that we love and love playing with. We find it’s worth it to stick together. We could have made more money doing it the other way, but that’s not why we do it. We try to make it more of a musical than a profitable experience.

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