“I don’t have specific techniques for anything,” says Rich Robinson. “Everything I do is in the moment. I can’t stand planned music.”
Ever the cool cat, Robinson actually has plenty of tricky guitar techniques down cold, from managing the fretboard in oodles of open tunings to seamlessly alternating between playing slide and fretted—everything coupled with a tonal aptitude that facilitates his maestro-in-the-moment ethos. On this occasion, he has former Black Crowe Marc Ford by his side, and the concert debut of their new rock-and-roll revue—dubbed the Magpie Salute—sold out four consecutive shows at the Gramercy Theatre (January 19-22) in a New York minute. The band planned a different show each night—a total of 84 tunes—that they worked out quickly over just three rehearsals.
Other Crowes turned Magpies include bassist Sven Pipien, backing vocalist Charity White, and, originally, keyboardist Eddie Harsch, who passed away unexpectedly just as the project blossomed from a Rich Robinson recording session into a new band last fall. The other players are Robinson band vets, including third guitarist Nico Bereciartua, keyboardist Matt Slocum, drummer Joe Magistro, and lead vocalist John Hogg (who was in the band Hookah Brown with Robinson). About half of the Magpie Salute’s set list is Crowes material. The rest is Robinson and Ford’s solo stuff and covers from the classic-rock canon.
Although Robinson drives the Magpie Salute—just as he did the Black Crowes—Ford’s ability to nail tones from nasty to sticky-sweet, launch gargantuan string bends, soar over Robinson’s open-tuned riffs with stunning melodies, and create a harmonic sense of shade and light are beautifully copacetic with Robinson’s sonic pictures. It’s much like how the Robinson/Ford guitar duo in the Black Crowes unfolded from 1992-1996, when Ford lent leads and textures to three seminal Crowes albums: The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion, Amorica, and Three Snakes and One Charm. When Ford’s tenure ended in 1997, Robinson took to overdubbing and hiring touring players until a significant return stint with Ford—who had also signed up with Ben Harper’s Innocent Criminals—occurred in 2006. Ford left the band again that year—eventually bailing on the music business altogether for a short period—and Luther Dickinson helped revive the Crowes for a final fruitful chapter, before Robinson and his frontman brother, Chris, decided they’d finally spent enough time butting heads in 2013.
Credit: JOHN ABBOTT
Since then, both Robinsons—as well as Ford—have been road dogging it with their respective solo bands, but nothing has come as close to being Crowes as the Magpie Salute. The Gramercy shows were bristling with energy, and, as promised, the band went on to crush an entirely different set from the one the previous night. None among the exhilarated audience seemed to mind that some of the material was kind of sloppy, or that some songs were from a debut album that doesn’t drop until June 9.
That release, The Magpie Salute [Eagle Rock], was recorded live before a small audience at Applehead Studios in Woodstock, New York, in August 2016. The one exception is the standout single, “Omission,” which was tracked in a traditional studio setting, and it’s the most ass-kicking music by anyone affiliated with the Crowes in years.
Rich, it’s great to see you playing in a band with Marc Ford for the first time since 2006. Can you take us back to why the Black Crowes replaced Jeff Cease with Ford after the first album?
Robinson: It comes down to taste. We knew Marc was brilliant on the guitar. We were a bunch of dudes from the South, and once we got to a certain point, we could consider bringing in players from other places. Marc came from California, and Eddie was from Toronto. They approached music from different angles, and they expanded our sound.
Marc, what’s it like for you to revisit the old Crowes nest?
Ford: I realize that 2006 was quite a while ago. A lot has gone on. Back then, I’d been eating, breathing, sleeping, and living this stuff for 20 years. I was just full. I was over it. I couldn’t hear anymore. I didn’t care. I had to get away from things for a while and figure out, “Who am I without the guitar?”
What did you figure out?
Ford: I figured out that I’m pretty bitchin’. I play guitar, but I’m not a guitar player. It’s important to separate who you are, and what you do. Then, one day, I slapped on some Jimi Hendrix, and it was on again. I’ve always loved him. When I was growing up in Cerritos, California—hanging out with people who either ended up dead or in jail—Judas Priest was my exposure to music. Then, someone played Band of Gypsys for me. I didn’t know you could do that. Jimi’s music was the doorway, and it’s still mind-blowingly fresh, outside, and free. I found First Rays of the New Rising Sun [a 1997 Hendrix compliation], which kicks off with “Freedom,” and I was inspired to make another record. I raised a good amount of money via Kickstarter, and I released The Vulture in 2016. People are digging it, so we’re doing some of those songs for The Magpipe Salute shows.
Rich Robinson’s “new” ’68 Gibson ES-335 (Top), and his ’69 Les Paul goldtop that RS Guitarworks restored after Hurricane Sandy flooded Robinson’s New Jersey storage space in 2012.
After years of smaller solo bands, you’re expanding big time for the Magpie Salute. How did it come about?
Robinson: I wanted to try something different for another live Woodstock Session album. Marc and Eddie were both excited to play again. We didn’t know where we were going, but it was great to play Crowes songs, because that’s my body of work. We all had so much fun. Marc and I got to hang out for the first time without the filter of my brother, who has a strong personality that can take a lot of the wind out of a room. Marc and I had always played really well together, but we never got to break through personally. Life goes on. What else could we do together?
I started thinking about the 1997 Furthur Festival, which was the last tour Marc did in his original tenure with the Black Crowes. Jerry Garcia had died in 1995, and all of those Dead-centric guys went out playing some Grateful Dead material, and some of their solo songs. I thought, “What if we brought everyone back and created a touring review—not unlike Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen? The Tedeschi Trucks Band is doing something similar with soul music. I figured we’d do rock and roll, because that’s what we’re good at, and no one plays music like this anymore. We’re not trying to be the Black Crowes—we just are. We decided to put on some shows, and see how it goes.
What was it like to get the call from Rich to jump back into playing with him?
Ford: Well, the call was fantastic. I don’t think we’re ever going to be over with each other. The music we made together had too much impact, and it wants us involved. We just have to grow up and get over the stupid stuff to be able to tend to this beautiful thing that happens when we get together. I don’t normally listen to the Crowes records, so it was interesting to listen to them again—as well as to Rich’s solo records—to hear what a great guitar player he turned into. He stole a lot from me, and I stole tons from him. Apart, it works. But when you put the two together, it creates a whole third thing, because we learned together.
I noticed that you don’t make charts and scroll through an iPad onstage, so how did you approach re-learning so much old material so fast?
Ford: Quite a good bit is muscle memory. It’s strange. At rehearsals, I noticed my hand was moving—almost thinking—on its own. And then I’d realize, it was almost doing the right thing, it just needed to move over a couple of frets [laughs]. If I could remember how I entered a solo—where it came from and how I got in—then the hand would essentially take over. There has been enough distance, so I’m not in the habit of doing the old thing, because the old thing is new to me again. So I get to play with it a bit while still trying to cop the old part.
What was your strategy regarding amps for the Magpie shows?
Robinson: I always use two amps simultaneously, because the slight hint of a delay creates a thicker feeling. I always try to get a cool clean sound, plus a more spitting sound. For this show, I’ve got a 25-watt Reason SM combo, and a ’50s tweed Fender Vibrolux 1x10. The Reason has a Voxy, spitting sound, and the Fender has a flatter, cleaner sound. I’ve had that Fender for years. It’s been on about every Crowes record. I just started using it in clubs, and I really liked it.
Ford: The head is a 45-watt Satellite Cuda, which is made by Adam Grim in San Diego. He’s a hot-rod, greaser kind of dude. Everything he makes is straight up, no-nonsense, and built to nail it. It has the best “Marshalllike” tone I’ve ever heard. It’s dynamically responsive and harmonically beautiful. The cabinet is Rich’s Vox 2x12 loaded with Celestion Alnico Blue speakers. Rich’s band had already been on tour, so I’m kind of hopping on, and borrowing stuff. We didn’t know what was going to happen here, and we didn’t want to spend a bunch of money flying gear around. I’m borrowing a guitar for a couple of songs in open tunings, as well.
Marc Ford’s pedalboard; third guitarist Nico Bereciartua’s pedalboard; Rich Robinson’s pedalboard and rig.
What about guitars?
Robinson: I only brought ten or 12 guitars out for this little run. I tried to bring a variety. I started with a 1968 Gibson ES-335 in open G—which is pretty much ground zero for me. My signature Gibson 335 is great, but I thought it would be cool to play the ’68 for a while. I have some Teyes that are tuned to open G. Those Teyes hold that tuning amazingly well, and they’re beautiful. Teye is from the Netherlands. He moved to Austin, and then Nashville. He puts everything he has into each guitar he makes. He loved Zemaitis growing up the way I did. The first time I saw the Stones—in Birmingham, Alabama, around 1989—Woody came out with a black, disc-front Zemaitis that I thought was the coolest guitar in the world. When I was able to get one, I did, because Tony Zemaitis was still alive and making them. I have a new Zemaitis acoustic, as well. The current Zemaitis company bought all the schematics from Tony Zemaitis’ wife because they were going to make prototype acoustics, but they couldn’t do it. They hired Lowden out of Ireland, sent the designs, and their prototypes are great. It’s basically a Zemaitis-designed Lowden. Mine is a one-off prototype, but it’s like the George Harrison model. Zemaitis also gave me one of the production models being made in China, and it’s not bad at all.
Ford: I have a signature Asher prototype with a Curtis Novak mini-humbucker in the bridge position. Novak was the only guy who could make a reproduction of Neil Young’s Firebird pickup, and I needed it in my guitar. It’s so microphonic that you can hear all the subtleties. There’s also an Asher Electro Sonic that’s one piece of wood from top to bottom, so it’s responsive as hell. It’s in between a Fender and a Gibson scale length, so it has a voice of its own. The Novak pickups in it are ridiculously cool and clear sounding.
Do you tune to concert pitch [A-440]?
Ford: Yeah, or I’ll use dropped D a couple of times. If I switched to one of Rich’s guitars during the show, it was to get into an open tuning.
Do you match Rich’s tuning on certain songs?
Ford: It depends. For example, if he’s in open E, I might tune to open G and capo it somewhere to get a different voicing. We don’t have any particular method other than whatever works. It can be as simple as one guy is playing a D chord, and another is playing the same chord in another position—just to sound a little different harmonically. My rule is to simply hear what Rich is doing, and listen for what’s missing. I ask myself, “Where do I get in? Where do I fit? Is anything needed?” If not, I might pick up another instrument—maybe a lap-steel tuned in a strange way—hoping an idea will come from messing with things.
Rich, you already had your ES-335 in open G, but you went with a triple-pickup Zemaitis for “Sister Luck,” which is played in open G. Specifically, what advantage does the Zemaitis have for that tune?
Robinson: The solidbody sound cuts through a little better on that song, and I don’t have to worry about it feeding back.
What about the Gibson SG you tune to open F for “Omission?”
Robinson: The SG sounds good overdriven, and it holds altered tunings really well. I’m not sure why some guitars can and others can’t. Telecasters are always good for that kind of stuff. They’re indestructible.
Robinson’s custom buffered A/B box made by Pete Cornish; Marc Ford’s rig.
What’s the story on the Gretsch White Falcon you used to play “Walk Believer Walk” last night?
Robinson: Sometimes, I randomly remember what guitar I originally used to record a particular song, and I go with that onstage. I used a ’68 double-cutaway White Falcon on that recording. The Gretsch Custom Shop’s Steve Stern just built me this one, which is based on a ’55. I like the way that big hollowbody resonates in my open-C tuning [Editor’s Note: Robinson tunes to a C chord and lowers the sixth string to a C an octave below the fifth string]. It sounds so deep and loose in the bottom end.
I find it interesting to see what pedals players bring on fly gigs.
Ford: I always default to a wah pedal, an Analog Man Sun Face germanium fuzz, and an Analog Man Beano Boost—or I’ll use an Analog Man Sun Lion, which is the fuzz and boost in one box. Lately, I’ve been using reverb tanks when I’m off doing my own thing. And I’ve got a Way Huge Aqua Puss delay, because we do some stuff requiring that.
What specifically do you like about the germanium fuzz?
Ford: Germanium transistors are key to me. Silicon transistors are not organic-sounding in any way. Germanium is like a tube—it’ll give, and then push back. The sound changes based on how hot it gets, and how hard you’ve been hitting it. It’s a constantly moving sonic target. Stevie Ray Vaughan used to keep them in an ice chest, so when one got hot, they’d rotate in another from the ice chest. But that’s because those old pedals didn’t have adjustable bias. Now you can just tighten up the bias when the circuitry gets hot and soft.
Rich, in a 1995 interview, you proudly told GP, “I’ve never played through a pedal.”
Robinson: At that time, I hadn’t. Now I have an RJM Mastermind GT Foot Controller to operate a few cool pedals. I have a few Way Huge pedals, a Guyatone Flip Vintage Tremolo, a Strymon Lex, and a Fulltone wah. The Fulltone wah is my favorite because it’s very clear. I don’t set it cocked in one place for a specific filter. I feel around for hot spots as I move up and down the neck, and then I move on. I probably won’t play the same thing again, ever. Also, the guys at RS Guitarworks made me a one-of-a-kind boost pedal. They restored my goldtop Les Paul and my ES-335 after our storage space was flooded in 2012 by Hurricane Sandy. The pedal is actually covered with the paint that fell off my goldtop Les Paul after it was damaged. They re-congealed the paint, and sprayed it on the pedal.
I noticed a few standalone effects boxes on top of your amps.
Robinson: There are two Fulltone Tube Tape Echoes that I use all the time—one on a long delay, and the other set to a slapback echo. And I have a VanAmps Sole-Mate reverb, because the Fender ones kept breaking. When I was on tour with Bad Company, my tech suggested the Sole-Mate, and it’s working out great.
Can you cite an example of how you use effects to create a sonic picture?
Robinson: There’s a harmonic thing with the Way Huge Swollen Pickle. It’s so overdriven that it kind of farts out in a really cool way [laughs]. I use that in conjunction with the Fulltone Tube Tape Echo for the distorted, repeating effect on a song we’re doing tonight called “Which Way Your Wind Blows.”
Ford: Sometimes, a pedal might not be the best sound all by itself, but it fits in this picture. Rich is the driving force. Playing along with all those open tunings that facilitate open chord voicings is fantastic, because they lend themselves to intricate melody lines—it just completely opens the scope for you.
So you’re saying that because Rich is painting with a broad brush, you complement him best by using a more narrow point?
Ford: Yes. If both of us use a big sponge, we’ll ruin the paper [laughs].
Rich, you use a very wide vibrato when you play slide. What informs that approach?
Robinson: It’s the weight of the brass. I learned that from Lowell George. He believed the slide’s density gives it a particular sound. For example, Derek Trucks uses glass or Pyrex, and it’s effortless. You can do a lot when you don’t have much weight. When you use a heavy slide like mine [D’Addario Rich Robinson Signature Brass Slide], you let the slide do the work, and it becomes more natural. I love the tone, and you can’t get it from glass or Pyrex. Mark has a very specific and unique way of playing slide using his middle finger.
Ford: That’s because I lied when I was joining the Crowes [laughs]. Rich asked, “You play slide, right?” I go, “Oh yeah.” I went home, and I was supposed to be back in a week for some recording. I saw a picture of Ron Wood with a metal slide on his middle finger, and I thought, “Okay—that’s were it goes.” I didn’t know it was easier to play chords if you used your third finger, and I didn’t know any open tunings. Luckily, I only had to play slide on “Stare It Cold” and one other thing at the time, so I was able to fudge it for a while—which is how I do everything. I say, “yes,” and then I figure it out. You may fail, but you sure won’t succeed by not trying.
On that note, I noticed that you do a lot of bends with your second finger that most players would do with their third.
Ford: Yeah, I think so. It’s probably a bad habit that I picked up from Hendrix, who had obscenely large hands. I figured that’s how it’s done. I’ll do it like that.
Rich, you subbed for Mick Ralphs during Bad Company’s 2016 summer tour. Was his playing much of an influence on you growing up?
Robinson: You couldn’t help but hear Bad Company when I was growing up because they were everywhere, but I really listened to Free. I focused on Paul Kossoff’s tone, and the depth of his playing. But Mick played some cool parts in Mott the Hoople and Bad Company. When the band asked me to fill in for Mick after he decided not to do that tour, I learned his parts as they were.
If you could time-travel back to yourselves at the time of your January 1995 Guitar Player cover, what advice would you give those younger players?
Robinson: Back then there was a lot of pressure on us, and I was only 23 years old. It can weigh heavy on you. The only thing I’d say is, “Don’t be so uptight, and don’t be so stressed out.” Everything else worked as far as the musical trajectory. I feel happy and content with the way everything unfolded.
Ford: That’s a rough one because I don’t think he’d listen [laughs]. I would tell him, “Slow down, dude. It’s a long game. You’re on it—just do it for the right reasons.”
[Special thanks to guitar tech and author of Guitarist’s Guide to Maintenance & Repair Doug Redler for his insights.]