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Duke Robillard: How to Sound Like T-Bone, B.B., Muddy, Johnny Watson And Freddie King

Ted Drozdowski
|
06.01.2009

Duke Robillard is the most versatile, complete roots guitarist in America.

That’s a bold statement, and the humble Rhode Islander who began his career as the teenaged leader of Roomful of Blues in 1967 would never say that himself. But his catalog of more than 30 albums ranging from swinging jazz to crunching rock to Texas guitar boogie and then some, plus his membership in the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and his work as a producer or sideman with Bob Dylan, Ruth Brown and a host of others speaks loud as an amp up on 10.

Duke’s new STOMP! The Blues Tonight is a return to the guitar-and-horn-driven jump blues sound that inspired him to start Roomful of Blues. It’s also a swinging, elegant essay in exactly what to do with a 1949 Epiphone Zephyr Regent, a new Epiphone Broadway, a 1950 ES-350 and a clutch of other guitars.

The disc showcases the way Duke has distilled a broad grasp of classic styles into his own fusionist approach, full of keening bends, emotive chordal bombs and melodies that move like a shake dancer.

While his own sharply chiseled playing is instantly recognizable, Duke explains that “I’ve spent most of my life trying to figure out how other guitarists got their sounds and then being inspired by those tones to make my own music.”

So Duke is the ideal musician to offer tips on how to sound like:

T-Bone Walker

“There are a few elements that make up the style of T-Bone. Besides being able to play the licks, of course, it’s important to get the variation of tones.

“Sometimes T-Bone would pick by the neck pickup or near the middle, and that would get the warmer tone, or he’d pick near the bridge to get a sharper tone. And he’d go back and forth during solos to get a shifting tonal effect. Back then there weren’t any pedals or effects. Effects you created had to be natural. And moving where you’re picking from phrase to phrase can really be a big sound, especially when you’re on an arch top guitar. You can play T-Bone on any guitar, but with an arch top you get that air and fat sound and the difference between playing near the bridge and the pick-up is more dramatic.

“The way he uses chords also has a lot to do with his sound. Very often when he was playing a slow blues he would really state the chords — do a rake down the strings when he’d go to the four chord. He’d do that near the bridge to make it really stand out.

“Most of his career T-Bone used an ES-5, which was wired out of phase. I don’t know if it was on purpose or not, but out of phrase they have a bright shimmering tone. So if you’re out-of-phase you’ll have a similar tone.

“Often when T-Bone was singing and playing, say, in G, and he’d go to the four, he’d hit the inside G9, where you’re not playing the high and low E strings, and it would sound like, well, T-Bone, and really punctuate the chord change.”

 

Johnny “Guitar” Watson

“He was so unique. Part of the Johnny Watson sound is that he’s playing with his fingers. Very often he’s pulling up on the strings and popping them on the fret board with his right hand while he’s fingering them with his left. So playing with your fingers or thumb, a little bit hard to get that snap he’s known for, is a big part of his sound. Most of the time he would use the bridge pickup, to accentuate that. His style has an emotional effect that’s really cool.”

 

B.B. King

“B.B. doesn’t vary his sound by where he picks. He uses his pickup positions. In the ’50s his sound was cleaner and more pure. He didn’t get sustain through feedback, which he’s done since the ’70s. B.B. will do a riff and bend the last note up and hold it and do that trill he does with finger vibrato and keep it ringing for a really long time. That’s a cool sound and it’s not always easy to get. It’s just from having the amp turned up.

“These days his tone also seems a little darker, like he’s rolling the control back on his guitar. It’s also a thicker, fatter tone — and setting the VariTone on his guitar to the first position really helps beef his sound up.

“Lab Series amps seem to be his favorite. I love those amps. They have a clean sound, but they also have a built-in compressor, which gives you more sustain. And the parametric midrange allows you to really hone in the midrange on your guitar. So really with B.B., you’re looking for that thick, dark tone with lots of sustain.”

 

Muddy Waters

“If you want to play early Muddy Waters or Jimmy Rogers style, one of the best ways to get that sound is to play an acoustic arch top guitar with a D’Armond Rhythm Chief pick-up. You can literally sing into it like a microphone. The microphonic qualities of that pick-up on an arch top guitar through, preferably, a small vintage Gibson amp, sounds just right. Those amps had a singing quality when they distorted — very rich harmonic distortion. The new Gibson reissue 5-watt Les Paul amps [GA5 Les Paul Junior Guitar Combo] are perfect for that.

“If you play finger-picking Delta-blues style on an acoustic arch top with the D’Armond pick-up and a small amp, you’ll zero right in on the tone Muddy had on his early recordings for Chess Records.

“Those pickups are kind of a cool invention. They had a bar that held the pickup on the guitar that attached behind the bridge. You can move the pick-up to any position between the neck and bridge using that bar, so that would change your tone. Some of Muddy’s tracks, like ‘Louisiana Blues,’ he’s got the pickup about a quarter of the distance up from the bridge – of the space between the neck and bridge — when he’s playing slide. And that’s kind of between where the middle and bridge setting is on a regular guitar. That’s a big part of that sound.”

 

Freddie King

“Freddie King’s tone was always metallic because he used metal finger picks. The metal finger picks are the only way to get that edge.

“I’m a fan of every one of his phases, but I especially loved his music at the beginning when he was using a Les Paul. You can really hear his fingerpicks when he uses the bridge pick-up on a Les Paul with a P-90 on songs like ‘I Loved a Woman’ or ‘Love Her with a Feeling.’ You can almost hear the picks scraping the strings when he’s bending notes. Especially on those early recordings, where the tone’s not overdriven and distorting the natural sound of the guitar much.”


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