On the Road with the Duke of Rhythm

Duke Robillard: The Epiphone Interview

John Lennon once said that if you had to give rock and roll another name you might call it Chuck Berry. With that in mind, if Chuck Berry's Johnny B. Goode walked the Earth today, you might know him as Duke Robillard. For fans of all American music styles, Duke is a national treasure and a vital example of how the roots of jazz, bop, swing, rock and roll, blues, and country can be endlessly challenging and renewing in the right hands.

Duke manages the near impossible timebend of being two musicians at once; one, an original stylist and composer, and the other a compact walking, talking, grooving shaman who can recall T-Bone Walker, George Barnes, Barney Kessel, Les Paul, Mickey Baker, or any number of guitarists who made their mark on the great independent blues and jazz labels like Cobra, Chess, Excello, Sun, Atlantic, and RPM.

Born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island in 1948, Duke grew up in a family that loved music ("Hank Williams and Bob Wills") but it was his brother that was originally drawn to guitar. That all changed when Duke heard Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill."

"I remember hearing that intro and then the guitar and the bass came in with that riff," Duke told Epiphone in 2011. "And that riff just hit me in a way that knocked me out." It was another six years before Duke got his own guitar ("When my brother was on a date or at football practice, I'd go in his room and I'd teach myself to play guitar by listening to the records"). He not only became a disciple of the pioneering rhythm guitarists like Freddie Green, T-Bone Walker, Lowell Fulsom, but of horn players as well. In 1967 at the age of 19, Duke founded Roomful of Blues and further developed his trade accompanying great vocalists like Big Joe Turner and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, who sought out the band for Duke's melodic lines and rock steady rhythm.

"After a stint with the Fabulous Thunderbirds replacing pal Jimmie Vaughan, Duke set out on a terrific--and ongoing--string of albums featuring both his blues band and jazz trio while also contributing to albums by Bob Dylan, Ruth Brown, Ronnie Earl, as well as a tour with Tom Waits in 2006. Duke has just released a terrific new album, Independently Blue, and his stint with the Bob Dylan tour this spring got rave reviews. And Duke's constant companion for both gigs? An Epiphone, or course. 

When we last spoke with you, you talked about finding the perfect guitar and you thought our 50th Anniversary '61 Casino might be it!

(Laughs) Right! Well, that's still a great guitar. But my favorite now is the reissue Epiphone 1962 50th Anniversary Sheraton. I've been using that on my jazz gigs and recordings--really anytime I'm playing different kinds of music. It really does seem to absolutely fit the bill for everything. One of the things I love about the Sheraton is that it's got that longer reach up the neck. It gives me the ability to play anything on it easily. And I've always loved the mini-humbuckers because you can get a hollowbody sound but you can also get a tight treble-type sound so it works in place of any guitar. That's really become my main guitar.

Duke Robillard: The Epiphone Interview

How do the Sheraton's pickups compare to those found in early Epiphone electric archtops that you've played?

Pickups from that era--the early 50s--can have really cool sounds. They just vary greatly in tone and performance. Sometimes you get them where they will feedback and howl. But I've had a few (Epiphone) guitars with those "New York" pickups in them that have sounded phenomenal. Because that was kind of an early electric pickup, they didn't really have it down quite yet.

Independently Blue is getting great reviews. And you recorded it with an old friend, Monster Mike Welch. How long have known each other?

I've known him for a long time through the band that he's been with for quite awhile, Sugar Ray and the Bluetones. That's a great band! I've known Ray since I was in Roomful of Blues so its all part of this Rhode Island cult of blues people. Once Mike started playing in that band, I saw him quite a bit more and I really loved his style of playing. We did a few gigs with Ray with a lot of horns where I was a guest. When we played together, we immediately fit. I think being so young, he heard me at some point and I had some kind of influence or effect on him. Plus, we kind of have a lot of the same influences but also some differences. It was totally easy to come up with guitar parts together.

Did you find that having another guitar player in the band freed you up to try some different kinds of phrasing?

Absolutely! In the studio, it freed me up to be able to sing and play rhythm and not have to worry that I had to do the guitar fills around my voice or the solos. I could just be more relaxed and make it more gig-like. Mike did quite a few of the solos on the record. And plus, on a lot of the tunes, we'd both do solos and trade off. That was a nice, inspiring thing. It's always fun when you have two players that are playing the same instrument and inspiring each other. That provides a lot of energy.

Duke Robillard: The Epiphone Interview

What Epiphone did you play on the album?

I played my Epiphone ES-355 a lot and I also played a custom-made solid body guitar that my great niece's husband, Mike Falcon, built for me. That's a really interesting guitar. My brother, who is an artist, painted a landscape seascape on the guitar and then Mike put a layer of lacquer over the acrylic paint and put some TV Jones pickups in it. So it is really a unique guitar and sounds fabulous. I used those two guitars primarily.

I really love the track "Strollin' With Lowell And BB."

Thanks. I'm playing the lead in the front--the Lowell Fulson style. The "B.B" style is Mike. He did a great job and the early B.B. King style is one of his specialties. I based it on a Lowell Fulson tune that pianist Lloyd Glenn played on. Lloyd played piano with both Lowell and B.B., so it happened to fit both guitars.

"Patrol Wagon Blues" with Billy Novick is also one of my favorites and gives you a chance to riff off of horns and clarinet. We talked about how horn players in particular have inspired you.

That's a big influence in my playing and when I'm doing anything with swing in it, I'm playing like a horn player. That's just the way I play. I slur and phrase things like a saxophone player. Or a trumpet player. I have a track where I used a guitar synth and used a trumpet sound and I fooled every trumpet player that I played it for (laughs)! They thought it was a real trumpet player.

Which album?

That is on an album called Exalted Lover and that's the name of the song, too. It's kind of an odd track--like a groove tune with all kinds of weird sounds plus we have a horn section on it, but I play the solo and it sounds just like a real trumpet.

I love the stomping groove of "Laurene." The recording itself has a great atmosphere, too. I imagine you go to great lengths to keep things as live as possible in the studio.

Oh, absolutely. I do all my recordings now in a studio where I made my first solo records--Lakewest Recording in West Greenwich, Rhode Island. And you know, I do all the albums I produce for other people there and I do all my own albums there now. And we just have a sound--a band sound and a studio sound--with our engineer it just makes the whole thing totally easy. When I go in, I know what I'm going to get. I know I'm gonna get my sound.

From the very first cut to the last there are different grooves on every song and slight changes in the sound.

Yes, thank you. A lot of it is live and we do as much "live" as we can so it will have that feel. We always work that way. We get as much of the performance down that we can. And also, we record on 2" tape for the basic tracks and then transfer it to Pro Tools. Whatever overdubbing we do, we usually do in Pro Tools but the basic tracks are always cut on 2" tape. (Ed. This allows the tape to be played as little as possible which retains the high end sparkle that Duke’s records are known for.)

Duke Robillard: The Epiphone Interview

Congratulations on playing the Bob Dylan tour.

Thank you.

And with Don Herron (formerly of BR549) you got to play off steel, fiddle and mandolin which is not in your everyday orbit I would think.

That's true.  And on a few tunes Donnie (Herron) played banjo and I loved that. We got to combine some really interesting things.

After playing with Dylan, are you bringing new sounds to your shows?

Oh absolutely. It's funny--it's teaching me some things. I'm adapting my playing to a slightly different style. Because when I go to my jazz trio, which I work with almost as much as my blues band, as soon as I started doing my jazz trio gigs, people were saying 'wow you're playing all this new stuff' so I think it really--somehow--is opening me up, playing a new style of music and sparking some ideas.

You've been busy producing, too?

Yes! There's a new album out now by Andy Poxon. He started gigging when he was 14--he's around 18 now--and he's really a phenomenal songwriter, singer and guitar player. I produced his album (Tomorrow on EllerSoul Records) and it is getting really good reviews. I also produced an album (What's the Chance on Shining Stone Records) for Paul Gabriel that was just released. And also, I'm working with a Canadian blues, jazz vocalist named Robin Banks and she's fabulous. It's pretty much just non-stop!