How to Play Like Americana Pioneer Robbie Robertson
The genre that’s today branded as Americana would not exist without The Band, the group that guitarist Robbie Robertson helped make into one of the most organic and iconic outfits to emerge during the rock ’n’ roll revolution of the 1960s.
Robbie rarely records or performs these days, but when he does, he still makes every note count, exhibiting the same spare, focused, carefully measured form he possessed five decades ago. His most recent album, 2011’s How to Become Clairvoyant, finds him trading artfully constructed licks with Eric Clapton.
Over the years, Robertson has most often been seen on stage playing various guitars with bolt-on necks, but he still owns the 1961 Gibson double-neck mandolin/guitar that he plays on “The Weight” in the film The Last Waltz as well as the ’60s Epiphone Howard Roberts model he wears on the inside cover photo of the Band’s eponymous 1969 album. That six-string can be heard on the classic track “When You Awake,” which he co-wrote with the late Richard Manuel.
Some guitarists seemingly emerge fully formed and appear to play with an innate, natural ease, like Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck. But Robertson’s style is the result of wisely exploring his craft. Here are 10 tips to help you do the same:
• Get a Mentor: Robertson was only 16 when he joined rock ’n’ roll hillbilly Ronnie Hawkins’ band, getting some serious exposure to life on the wild side. But he also found himself standing on stage next to one of early rock’s most outrageous performers, whose demeanor and wild man antics kept eyes focused firmly on stage. In terms of stagecraft and good old T.C.B., Hawkins was an excellent instructor.
• Pay Attention: Of course, having a great mentor is meaningless unless you’re willing to watch and listen. A lot of players are so eager to prove themselves or to impress others that they don’t take the time to absorb what’s happening around them and process it before deciding to step out and show their stuff. Whether it’s the result of insecurity, inexperience or arrogance, it’s a negative nonetheless. Listening and watching the players around you, whether in other groups or on stage in your own ensemble, can offer pathways into your own playing and musical experience. For Robertson, paying close attention to Roy Buchanan, who was in Hawkins’ band for a short period, fundamentally changed the way he played guitar and opened up the gateway to the vocabulary he would develop in his own playing.
• Get the Bends: Robertson is an exceptional string bender. He employs half-steps, multi-string bends and blends stationary and bent strings to create steel-guitar-like licks. The latter is a trick he learned from Buchanan and expanded upon to the point where it became one of his own trademarks. But the sensibility he displays when bending strings is more subtle than Buchanan’s and wrapped in warmly sculpted tones, reinforcing his own voice as a guitarist.
• Think Dynamics: The ability to increase or decrease your volume to highlight the emotions of the music you’re performing is crucial to being expressive as a guitarist. And Robertson is a master of doing so with touch, much like Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. So practice manipulating your pick or your finger attack until you’ve got this one down.
• Learn How to Squeal: Another thing Robertson learned from Buchanan is the joys of pinch harmonics, those little pings that accent or supersede the note you’re picking. There are a number of ways to get these overtone accents to leap forth, but try this: immediately after striking a note with your pick, touch one of its harmonic nodes on the same string with the side of your thumb very lightly. When you do it right, a light, beautiful tone will sail out.
• Ride the Pots: Really, this is all about the volume pots, rather than tone pots, because subtle changes in volume will alter the way your guitar is working with your amp and produce tonal changes as well. If you’re having trouble achieving the right dynamics with your pick, riding the pots up and down will help with that as well. And tossing hushed passages into solos forces the audience to pay more attention to what you’re playing.
• Trade Ideas: One of the strengths of The Band’s classic lineup was its interplay. There are plenty of distractions, but always try to keep your ears open to what your stage mates are playing instead of worrying about what you’re going to play next or any off-stage consideration. Any performance is bigger than you are, even if you’re the frontman, and the best ideas and improvisations come from interplay based on careful listening.
• Break the Rules: Find unconventional things that you can make your own, like playing and bending over the nut, or tossing elements of dissonance into your compositions and solos. Another of Robertson’s patented moves is using open strings to create droning textures within chords, and hammering on fretted strings to produce a more percussive sound than plucking or picking.
• Be a Writer: Songwriting forces a player to adopt a wider perspective. And that’s an important step to getting outside of yourself, which is the best place to approach any performance from. Penning tunes requires that you visualize how they will become realized, which means considering the sounds of other instruments, the chords and sounds you need to achieve a song’s goals, and perhaps even what will work for your audience. With The Band, Robertson displayed an ability to pen enduring tales of the human condition. “Chest Fever,” “Life is a Carnival,” all eight songs on Northern Lights – Southern Cross and a host of other tunes from the group’s catalog were written or co-written by Robertson.
• Network: Get out there and meet people when you’re not playing, and be sure to talk to people who want to talk to you after your performances. Also, in these meetings present yourself as an intelligent, creative individual that other artists would like to work with. You can best decide what you need to project that kind of image, but associations like Robertson’s relationship with Martin Scorsese – the Oscar winning filmmaker who helmed The Last Waltz – didn’t happen accidentally and wasn’t arranged by a management company. Ditto with Robertson’s long rapport with Clapton and so many other important figures. Meeting the right person could lead to a variety of positives, from graduating from weekend warrior to pro sideman to production deals to co-writing songs and a host of other positives. Leave your roads open and tend to them so opportunities can roll down them to you.