TQR: How were you initially exposed to music, Robben?
I was so open to music that it seemed I liked almost everything. My parents bought a record player, joined a record club, and received a stack of records that I remember included Ravel’s Bolero and some kind of big band percussion record, among other things. My father also played a lot of Hank Williams stuff on the guitar and sang… he had good time and a very good voice. The radio in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s was also very eclectic, and whatever was on the radio I would listen to—from “Walk in the Black Forest” to the Beatles. Everyone in my family was like that— there was a lot of love for music and a lot of support and encouragement for playing music in my family.
TQR: How did you become interested in the saxophone?
That was one of the few epiphanies I had when I was about nine years old. My older brother Patrick played drums in the junior high school band, we went to a performance where a guy that played alto saxophone was featured as a soloist, and that’s when I had this complete spiritual experience. I got an alto sax and that was the first instrument I was really serious about. Surf music was very popular at that time and there was a lot of tenor sax in that music, but the first truly great sax player I heard was Paul Desmond , who was on Dave Brubeck’s Take Five. I consider him one of my main musical influences to this day, although you might not know it by hearing me play the guitar. The guitar really came into play after I heard Mike Bloomfield, which would have been in 1965 or ‘66 on the first Paul Butterfield Blues Band album. But the first time I actually got to see Michael Bloomfield was with the Electric Flag… I saw the Electric Flag and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band both on the same night at the Fillmore. The opening band was the James Cotton f’ing Blues Band, and those were my three favorite bands, all on the same night! I’d been playing guitar at that time for about a year and a half… I’d joined my older brother’s band and we had horns, because we wanted to be like the Electric Flag. Initially, when I first started, my father showed me a few chords, and a friend of mine eventually showed me how to a play a 9 chord, which was very exciting, since those were being played all over that Bloomfield record. Beyond that, I was listening to records and learning Mike Bloomfield licks from the records, just banging on the guitar.
TQR: Do you recall when you felt as if you could finally play what you were hearing in your head — when you felt like “I got it?”
I think I was relatively impressed with myself after a couple of years on the guitar, but that was just based on a certain amount of ability and a natural inclination toward the guitar… and being hormonal (laughing). I eventually went from there, to depression and a hatred of my own playing, because what I was trying to get to I couldn’t get to. With the blues, I kind of learned it pretty quickly, but my interest was drawn more and more into jazz, and I couldn’t figure it out— it was over my head. I started playing jazz tunes— not things like “Stella By Starlight”… more like things on Blue Note records— Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson tunes. But for some reason jazz guitar never really appealed to me that much. I had listened to Kenny Burrell, whom I liked, and Jim Hall, who I loved, but I wasn’t buying those records. I liked tenor saxophone players and blues guitar players, and I was trying to fuse these two things together.
TQR: Based on your fluid playing style, it seems to have worked. Once you got past the crawling stage with the guitar, before jazz imposed a brick wall, what did your gear scene look like?
I don’t think I even owned an amp in the first group I played in at 13. We had two guitars, bass and drums, I played the guitar with another guy, played saxophone and sang, and the other guitar player’s parents were kinda wealthy, and I think I plugged into his amp. I had a very cheap Orpheus electric that I had gotten for Christmas, so we’d all plug into one amp, and then I moved to bass for a while. Back to the other guitar player… one day his mom bought a Fender piggyback Bassman and a piggyback Bandmaster, so suddenly I was playing through the Bassman and I picked pears one summer and bought a Vox violin bass. I had the hippest gear in the world! None of the older bands had any of that stuff and they were so jealous. That Bassman amp stayed with me, and I eventually bought a cherry red Guild Starfire II or IV, I can’t remember which— the one with the trapeze tailpiece. That remained my main OK, I’m playing the blues through an electric guitar rig throughout high school all the way until the time I joined the Jimmy Witherspoon Band.
TQR: And then?
After I graduated from high school, my older brother Patrick and I started the Charles Ford Band, and during that time Charlie Musselwhite picked up my brother on drums. Patrick joined Charlie’s band and went on the road for like three months, which was a very hard time for the rest of us, playing with different people and really not knowing what to do… Then Patrick told Charlie, “Look, man, I love you, but I have to go back and play with my brother.” And Charlie said, “Well, I guess I’ll have him join the band, too.” He hired me so he wouldn’t lose my brother (laughing). That’s how I got my first gig. I played my first couple of shows with Charlie and he didn’t pay me. He was about to go on vacation and he said, “I was just checking you out to see if it would work.” After that I traded my Starfire for a Gibson L5, and I played that with Jimmy Witherspoon.
TQR: Junior Watson told a story about you and your brother showing up at a jam in a house his band rehearsed in, and how good you both were at that time. He seemed truly humbled. He also said you showed up with a Super 400.
Well, we were are all a part of the South Bay, San Jose area… I moved to a Super 400 with Witherspoon, but back then I’m sure I was playing the L5. I always wanted an ES175 but never got one… I bought the L5 just because it was a big-bodied jazz guitar— it almost could have been anything, but that’s what was on the wall at Sherman & Clay in San Francisco, and it was really expensive… $1200, which was a lot back then. It actually was not that good of a guitar, and somehow or other I figured out that I wanted something different. I went to a store on Sunset in L.A. and found the Super 400, liked it, and I think I traded the L5 and $200 for it.
TQR: You didn’t have any trouble with feedback?
You know, I think I did with the L5, but with the Super 400 I moved over to a blackface Super Reverb, and I don’t remember having any problems.
TQR: And you weren’t using any effects…
Yeah, and I had been playing through that Bassman with no reverb… Wow, I could never do that today. Back then I didn’t think about these things very much. You needed sustain, and generally reverb helps with that, but again, I didn’t think about it.
TQR: How long were you with Charlie Musselwhite? You must have learned a lot.
About nine months, and it was a pretty hard life at that time. It wasn’t a great time for Charlie personally, and I was very untraveled… very unhip to the world. My brother and I had moved to this town that was away from everything, and I spent most of my time alone never seeing my friends. And playing with Charlie was not necessarily fun. It wasn’t a happy bunch. Charlie is a beautiful guy, man… He’s a very cool person… It was just not a great time for him, and my brother and I were not around our friends or people we knew very much. Now, with Spoon, that’s where I got a transmission from somebody— something beyond my own personal growth.
TQR: I think you also once said that playing with Joni Mitchell was one of the most formative times in your life as a musician.
It was the most formative, because it was the first time I was ever around realized musicians. Even with Spoon, it was my own little band… my peers… my buddies— twenty year old hippy kids just trying to get by and pay the rent. It was all about survival. I spent two years with Spoon, and there is a lot of stuff I see in myself that came directly from Jimmy Witherspoon. Just the way I count off a song came from him… the way I feel swing and tempos. Spoon had a lot to do with that.
TQR: Would it be fair to say that experience enabled you to ride with the music rather than standing up there thinking too much about what you were doing?
Well, when you get that sense of swing… that sense of pulse, it makes a huge difference in everything else. I didn’t even know it was going on at the time— I only knew this in retrospect. I mean, I figured it out a long time ago, but not while I was with him necessarily. It was like he stuck a needle in my arm and injected this swing juice (laughing). He could swing a whole band, you know… I’d never stood next to or played with anyone who could swing like that.
TQR: Doesn’t that require you to lose a part of yourself— to become unconscious in a way?
I would say that it is a huge relief. Like when you said, “Lose something,” I was thinking that you almost lose your ego. I don’t know if everyone would say the same thing, but it’s like you’re there for them, now. When I played with Spoon I was playing for him. He was throwing me energy, and he was really proud of what I was doing… just feeding me energy. It was something I didn’t realize at the time, but I look back on it now and I can see it very clearly.
TQR: And so the Joni Mitchell experience could be described as a different situation where you were surrounded by the top of the heap among L.A. musicians…as you put it, people who were realized.
Yeah, very sophisticated musicians who were all very comfortable in their own skin. They were the first-call musicians in Los Angles and they had all played with the greatest players in rock, jazz… you name it. Finally, when it was time for me to leave Spoon’s band, I went down to L.A. to tell Spoon I was leaving. While I was at the office, someone said there was a call for me and it was Tom Scott, who I knew nothing about, and he asked me if I would be interested in going on the road with him and Joni Mitchell. I was like, “Well, I don’t think so…” I knew nothing about them or Joni Mitchell— I mean, I knew her name, but I was really not familiar with her music— I had heard a little of it. Tom suggested that he bring over the acetate of Court and Spark and see if I liked it, so he brought it to the office along with the L.A. Express’ first album, and I remember really liking the drummer. That’s all that struck me— that I really liked the drummer. So Tom said, “Why don’t you come over to A&M tomorrow and just jam with the band and see if you like it?” So I went, and Larry Carlton was there because he had played on the first L.A. Express record, and he was going to show me the parts to play. I didn’t even know who Larry was at the time— you know… “Put It Where You Want It…” I had heard that song on the radio and hated it (laughing), but I was a blues snob back then. So Larry showed me some of the parts and I honestly didn’t like the music. Then at some point Joni came in and whoah! She was looking good (laughing)… The pianist was Roger Kellaway, who became a dear friend and a major mentor, and I was very impressed with him. So I jammed with them for awhile and I was thinking, “Man, do I want to do this?” I decided to do it because it was an opportunity to be around great musicians. They were all really nice and really supportive— genuine, you know? So even though I was on the fence about it, I had to do it.
TQR: But the music wasn’t exactly giving you cold chills…
Not at all. I did not care for the L.A. Express’ music. I thought it was watered-down jazz and I wanted to be playing John Coltrane. Joni’s music on the other hand was very sophisticated, and they had to baby-step me through the whole thing. I can’t believe they put up with me, man… I knew how to read rhythms and I knew what a chord was, but I didn’t know how to read charts and Joni’s music was chords on top of chords— very complex. I don’t even know how I learned the music, because it was so different.
We rehearsed for two weeks… I snorted my first cocaine… (laughing). And we went on the road. I was living at Tom Scott’s house when we were home, and I was hanging with Roger Kellaway on the road as much as I could. Joni would have a piano brought to her room in every hotel, you know… it was part of her deal. We’d hang out and I learned so much from these people. I learned how to appreciate a major triad— it no longer had to be a 13 flat 9, you know, to be hip and cool. So I started learning how to play with other people and accompany someone. I’d say it took me ten years to finally learn how to do that. Prior to that they showed me what to play, and it didn’t come naturally to me at all. But after a long time I finally got to the point where I felt that I could fit into any musical situation.
TQR: Did that transition also prompt you to change your rig?
Yeah, I had to, because at the time I was still playing the Super 400 through the Super Reverb. I started using pedals, and that rig just wasn’t going to work, so Tom took me down to Guitar Center and bought me what Larry Carlton had been using— an MXR phase shifter and Fuzz Tone, a wah-wah pedal and a volume pedal. With the Super 400 I’d hit the fuzz and the guitar would just freak out. So again, Tom took me down to Guitar Center and I bought a ‘61 cherry red 335, and I bought a Twin Reverb— not because I thought it was a good amp or I knew shit about it… It was more like, “OK, I guess I’ll get one of these.”
TQR: And you did this all during the same two-week time period when you were learning the songs?
Yes, and it was intense— really starting from scratch and it was hard.
TQR: Were you hitting the pillow every night thinking…
I suck? No. I had a very strong sense of my musicality early on.
TQR: You didn’t really fear it at all, did you?
No. Believe me, I experienced a lot of fear from the point of view that I’m in a situation that is way over my head, but fundamentally, I always knew if I wanted to do something, I could do it. I don’t know how they put up with me, but they helped me realize my potential, or at least some of it.
TQR: Do you think that could happen today?
Sure. But today, I don’t see that level of talent. I don’t see a lot of people that can play the shit out of their instruments. Maybe the studio scene allowed a lot of that to evolve, because basically they were all jazz players that became studio musicians.
TQR: But you changed your rig up and made it work…
Yes, and the resulting record was Miles of Aisles. I bought the CD maybe five years ago and I was just so proud of it.
TQR: Let’s talk about George Harrison… You played on the Dark Horse tour.
It was the only tour he ever did, and I met George on the road with Joni. We played in London two nights, and Tom Scott was friends with George and Ravi Shankar, because he had done a record which was Ravi kind of trying to make a pop record, and Tom was familiar with Indian music. I didn’t know that George was coming to the show in London, and I was standing back stage in the dressing room area, turned around and George Harrison is standing there smiling at me. He was straight from All Things Must Pass with the hair down to his waist, the mustache, plaid coat and boots… And he says, “Hi Robben.” What do you say? He was very energetic and talkative— very high energy. You didn’t have a conversation with George— he spoke to you. We went back to the hotel after the show and I remember sitting on the floor and George in a chair as he told me the story of his red Les Paul getting stolen for 40 minutes (laughing). The next day we all went out to his place at Henley-on-Thames— Friar Park, a huge, castle-like place— the same place from All Things Must Pass with those rolling grounds. We all got out there at about one in the afternoon, and George didn’t get out of bed
until around four, so we just hung out for three and half hours with his man Friday, Kumar, this Indian guy, who showed us all around the grounds until George appeared, all smiles with a Galois in his hand, man. Smoked all the time… Patti was there and made tea for everybody and we hung out, we drank and smoked, and eventually around midnight we went up to the third or fourth floor where he had his studio and about fifty beautiful vintage guitars all over the place… and cocaine in boxes all around the room. We snorted coke and recorded two songs for the Dark Horse album— “Hari’s On Tour (Express)” and “Simply Shady.” We recorded until the sun came up and then everybody went to bed, and I think we left the next day (laughing), but I’m really not sure. And then I was invited to play on the Dark Horse tour.
TQR: And what were your deepest, most lasting impressions of that experience?
Well, you know, it was my first experience with the serious rock & roll world… David Bowie, John Lennon, Ringo, Steve Cropper… these people would just show up. Peter Sellers was on the plane with us for a couple of days… Bob Dylan came out… it was just amazing that way. But it was a double-edged thing because George was really not comfortable in the role of fronting a band— it was not what he was built to do, and he never did it again. He was a really fun person, and a really caring guy, and he had also just met Olivia and he was in the budding stages of that romance that led to marriage, so he was all about that. We were left to our own devices— it wasn’t like we were being led, so it was a little weird. The tour had a slightly groundless quality to it and we were playing two shows a day sometimes, and each show was like three hours long. We’d be in these huge 20,000 seat auditoriums, arrive for sound check and be there for 15 hours. It was a lot of hard work.
TQR: And pardon me for not knowing, but what kind of rig did you use on that tour?
I bought another Guild Starfire and the same Twin Reverb, (with Altec Lansings in it…), and I used my same little pedal setup.
TQR: Did you enjoy playing the music on that tour?
Ah, it was a little boring musically. It was all major triads, so there was very little room for improvisation. George and I did jam on “My Guitar Gently Weeps” and that had its moments… We did one blues and everyone got a chorus. TQ
In our second installment of Robben’s interview, we are treated to an extraordinarily insightful and reflective discussion of his influences, career, and of course, tone. Enjoy…
TQR: Were you still consumed by your desire to play jazz?
Well, yes… Because of my experience with the L.A. Express and my exposure to fusion, I was listening to things like Weather Report, Jaco Pastorius, Jan Hammer, Mahavishnu… Prior to that I had been listening to acoustic jazz— a ton of Blue Note and Impulse records. I also found myself open to a lot of different things, like James Taylor, and Joni’s music.
TQR: Were you searching to find your true voice?
I would say not, because everything was so eclectic. It was more like I had my voice, and then went through this eclectic period that created a kind of unfocused world as an artist… I was viewed as a studio guitarist at that time, and I wasn’t even doing a lot of sessions (laughing). But because of my relationship with the L.A. Express and Joni, I was viewed in that light. At that time I relaxed with electric jazz and fusion music and it was only natural to start writing that way. I was offered a deal with Elektra and I recorded my first album, The Inside Story, which was a fusion record and basically the birth of the Yellowjackets. I put that band together and they kind of played for me during about a two year period and then became their own group. I couldn’t be a part of the band legally being signed to Elektra and they being signed to Warner Brothers, so I was a guest, technically. So it was fusion time (smiling). My first album came out in 1979 and the Yellowjackets record was released in 1980.
TQR: Nearly everyone has a sound in their head that inspires them… Had you grasped that sound yet?
I can tell you sincerely that I wanted to be John Coltrane. That was the most powerful music to me, but I never could play like John Coltrane, and don’t think I ever played a John Coltrane lick… I didn’t know how to— the music was so over my head. There was something in John Coltrane’s sound, and I read a quote by him once that described something to do with mantra— where you might be playing a lot of notes, but it has the sound of one note. No matter what you do, there is this one central vibration. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but that’s how I intuited it. And spirituality was very important to me in the music, but never having had the discipline or the teacher to learn how to play like John Coltrane, I would say that the best thing that ever happened to me was when I finally just relaxed with my own playing and stopped trying to achieve something that was way beyond my reach. That’s when I started finding myself again— rediscovering that quality of naturalness in the making of your music. You just let the path roll out in front of you.
The ‘60s for me was a great time, because I just jumped into the water and started swimming, and it felt good. The ‘70s was a period of not being where I wanted to be musically. It was kind of all over the place and I didn’t have that sense of there being a thread… one style of music that I was really focused on. I wasn’t quite sure what ‘my’ music was yet to be. And the whole fusion period for me was kind of strange… It was a learning period, and obviously I moved away from it a very long time ago, but there are people still doing it. To me, there was always something missing, and I think that missing thing was the human voice quality to it— a soulfulness. It was very technical, more intellectual than I wanted my music to be, but I don’t mean that as a put down.
TQR: When and how did you get back to your musical center?
I did one record with Elektra, and I signed with Warner Brothers in ‘85, and the demo that I did was kind of a revelation for me. I left L.A. and moved back up to San Francisco, got out of a bad marriage and started feeling better about myself. And I thought about getting a record deal again and began thinking about what kind of record I would make. I thought, well, what did I do every time I’d go out and play on the weekends in Los Angeles? Play the blues! So I took the band into the studio and spent about five grand of my own money on a demo and got a deal with Warner Brothers immediately. I think Michael McDonald suggested that I take it to Ted Templeman at Warners, he listened to two songs and said, “Great, let’s do it.” So that was the beginning of me realizing that, right… this is what I do. It finally began to sink in that I was a blues player, and it’s still sinking in to this day, because I do have the ability to do a variety of things.
TQR: That brings up an interesting point, because having the talent and ability to go in a lot of different and varied directions with equal skill can also be a liability. Danny Gatton comes to mind… he could play virtually everything that can be played on the guitar, and from a commercial standpoint, it seems to have limited his career.
Well, I love great music, and it never made sense to me to put myself in a straight jacket as a means of marketing myself. You can’t do it, and whenever you do, you’re making a mistake, because you’re not going to be happy. A lot of people have done it… In fact, most people who are successful have done that, because they realize you have to make yourself a marketable commodity and sell it.
TQR: Were you walking around trying to figure out how to market yourself?
Sure I was. I was trying to figure out how to make a living. I remember when BB King had a gig in Vegas. The blues was not on the map in the ‘70s. That all changed when Stevie Ray Vaughan and people like Robert Cray came along and there was a resurgence of the blues, but for a long time the environment wasn’t supportive of the blues, and I wanted to use my chops— use what I’d learned. I would say that I really came into my own with The Blue Line— when I got that trio together. My first album did OK, and then I went through the same bullshit with Warner Brothers that I had with Elektra, where they wanted me to do something different but they don’t know what, and I didn’t know, but I was doing my best… So after all of that I moved to New York and eventually worked with Miles Davis.
TQR: Another high point in your career…
Well, it was the greatest honor. He was very supportive of me and very cool. We got along just fine, and I left because the Talk to Your Daughter record was coming out and I started touring on my own, trying to find a band that made sense, and eventually found that combination with Roscoe Beck and Tom Brechtlein. I was still living in New York and Warner Brothers had cut me loose when I was offered a deal with Chick Corea’s Stretch Records label and did the first Blue Line record. That recording to me was a success— certainly as a band, I was real happy with the guitar playing, and the songwriting was good. So basically, that has been the template of what I’ve been doing ever since. It was a discovery for me that goes right back to where I started… blues and R&B with songwriting involved. There is sophistication in the music, yet it’s still soulful and funky.
TQR: When did you pick up the Dumble, Robben?
I had not heard of him, and this guy who has an instrument rental company, Andy Brauer had a Dumble head. I can’t remember how we met, but he suggested I check it out, I fell in love with it immediately, and I would rent it from Andy whenever I was in town. I got a hold of Dumble and asked him to make me an amp, and he told me some years later that he had seen me play up in Santa Cruz and also at this club called In Your Ear in Palo Alto with the Charles Ford Band, and he said there was something in my sound that influenced what he wanted his amps to sound like. He also said that we met once in Palo Alto, which I vaguely remember. I thought that was pretty cool that I might have influenced the sound of his amps, and he has become a real friend and I care about him a lot. He built me something that I just would really rather not do without, and I’ve been using that same head ever since.
TQR: Did he voice your amp specifically for you?
Yes. Exactly. Each amp is individually tailored. He built the amp in ‘82 or ‘83 and I’m sure I just said, “Thanks, this is great,” but over time he would make suggestions or discover something that he’d like to do to my amp. He’d upgrade it whenever I thought I needed some help. But they are voiced for each player, and Larry Carlton and I have done the test, man… He didn’t like my amp and I didn’t like his (laughing).
TQR: And your Dumble cabinet is a 2×12 loaded with what?
You know, I’m not sure at the moment. I’ve been experimenting with some different Eminence speakers, but I really like vintage Celestion 65s, which they don’t make anymore and are very difficult to find.
TQR: I’m sure you are aware of the enigmatic fascination and mystique that surrounds Dumble amps, and how much of that… I won’t call it a ‘cult,’but there seems to be a cult-like fascination with your guitar tone as well…
TQR: How much of your sound would you attribute to your guitars and amp versus you?
You know, in order to comfortably do what I like to do, I like to be plugged into the Dumble. And the guitars that I use… although I really prefer vintage instruments, I’m not always using them. I’ve got a couple of Les Pauls that were built in the ‘90s, and a guitar built by a Japanese builder named Sakashta. He built that instrument for me in 2006 and without even talking he just showed up in a club in the Bay Area and asked me to check it out, and I play it all the time now. I also have a ‘60 Tele that I play a lot, and a ‘57 goldtop that Larry Carlton gave to me and said, “Just play it until you don’t want to play it anymore. ”A ‘57 goldtop on long-term loan… I’ve long since given it back to Larry, but I was really playing that guitar for a minute. The first time Larry and I went to Paris, when we arrived the guitar had not… it had gone to New Delhi, India for three days, so after that trip I just gave it back to him— I couldn’t handle the responsibility. The PAF pickups had been rewound, but they are incredible sounding pickups. I used that guitar on the instructional DVD and I played it on three songs on Truth— “Too Much,” “Peace on My Mind,” and “River of Soul.” You can really tell… when you hear it, you’re thinking, “Oh, yeah, there’s that sound.”
TQR: And were you playing through the Dumble?
Always. These are the instruments that I play and I think they definitely influence my sound. If I were to use, let’s say… a Stratocaster and a new Twin Reverb, I don’t think I would sound the same. So the equipment is important, and some guitars or just going to sound better than others— it doesn’t matter who you are.
TQR: And just because a guitar is old doesn’t necessarily make it exceptional, either. Every guitar is different.
Sure. Of course. I prefer early ‘60s 335s, and I have a 1960 Tele with one of ballsiest bridge pickups I have ever heard. Finding that was just a stroke of luck, and I’ve been playing it on about half of my set— it’s like my blues instrument, you know? I just love that guitar, and I’ll use a humbucking guitar when I want to play more notes and stretch out more. I also have a ‘63 Epiphone Riviera that is a really cool guitar that’s fun to play. I use that on recordings for little single note parts and rhythms.
TQR: Can you describe the sound of vintage PAF pickups? We’ve been trying for a long time…
I would say that there is a richness to their sound, even though the old PAFs have varying degrees of brightness, darkness and volume. I did play a ‘58 Les Paul next to Larry’s ‘57 and I liked the ‘58 a little more, and I understand that they are perhaps a little louder and a little brighter. I would just say that those pickups have an enhanced richness… you hear more harmonics across all the frequencies— just a bigger harmonic spectrum.
TQR: Is the Sakashta chambered, and what kind of pickups are in it?
It’s chambered slightly, and the pickups are Jim Rolph’s— I really love his pickups, and I think mine are the ‘57 models.
TQR: And you’re still using the same Dumble head?
Well, I had a second one built around 1993 and Alexander said it could not possibly be any closer to my first amp, and it does sound identical, although I still gravitate to the old one.
TQR: You’ve also been temporarily playing Lou Rosano’s KR12 head, correct?
Yeah, I just had it while Lou was fixing the Dumble. It’s a really nice amp, and everyone around me has said it sounds great, too. It isn’t anything like the Dumble, which is based on the Bassman circuit, and Lou has told me that his amp is more based on a tweed Twin. So they are very different and I’m used to something else, but I often do have to use different amps on the road. Lou’s amp sounds really great— and better than any Twin I’ve ever played through. For me, it’s not loud enough on its own, so I’m doing a little daisy chain with a Super Reverb, also to add the reverb. But the sound of it alone is lovely— it’s very clear and it has a lot of warmth to it. The only problem is that it’s just not loud enough— I can’t push it beyond a certain point.
TQR: What are you running the volume at on your 100 Dumble?
Well… that is such a relative thing, because pots are all different, you know? I mean, just because it says ‘3’on my amp, it may be ‘5’on someone else’s. That might be a good myth to bust, actually. My two Dumble amps are identical in terms of production and sound, but if you look at the EQ, they are different… you’d have to set the EQ differently on one to get them both to sound the same.
TQR: Perhaps a better question would be, “How loud are you on stage?” The reason we ask is because so many players seem to be searching for an amp with adequate clean headroom that can also spill into a sweet overdriven tone without blowing the rest of the band off the stage.
When I have the Dumble rig and 2×12 cabinet, the amp has a 2dB boost, which is a bypass of the tone controls, and it has an overdrive circuit that is very good, so I don’t use the volume control on the guitar. Now, Larry Carlton doesn’t use the boost or overdrive circuits in his Dumble, he uses a volume pedal and manages everything from that, and with the pedal all the way the way down he’s as loud as a mofo, you know?
TQR: How do you usually handle fly gigs?
When I go to Europe I’ll take my rig, and sometimes I’ll just take the Zen Drive, a volume pedal and use backline amps. I really prefer Super Reverbs over Twins, but more often than not you get a Twin. I’ve been jumping two amps… sometimes a Twin and a Super, or a Twin and a Deluxe or a Blues Deville. I’m plugging into one of the amps and coming out of the second channel into the other amp, and I’ll use the Zen Drive. Basically, if I have a couple of Fender amps I’ll be OK. It’s all about flying, because the weight limitations for baggage are crazy now.
TQR: Do you do anything unique when recording?
One thing that is all but essential for me is a Royer ribbon mic I bought about 10 years ago. I know the Shure 57 is considered by some to be the ultimate guitar mic, but I can’t live without the Royer anymore in the studio. Another thing about recording… if you use the same guitar and amp on all the tracks, the tones are so similar that there isn’t as much space or separation than if you mix things up a little.
TQR: How about acoustics?
I have a Shakashta— a medium sized mahogany guitar with an ebony fretboard— somewhat similar to a Guild D40 maybe?
TQR: Can you describe your right hand technique?
I use a pick, my fingers, and sometimes both at the same time, but generally I use a pick for rhythm and playing faster things, and my fingers a lot for blues and slower passages. People often ask me how I manage the two, and it’s something that I really don’t think about, but I’ll keep the pick between my first and middle finger when I’m not using it. You can definitely hear the difference in attack… there is more of a snap to the sound with your fingers. Early on I was trying to get a sound like the guitarist Eric Gale. He was using an L5 with heavy strings and a pick, but the way he played had kind of a snappy quality to it, but also a very rich, deep, throaty, bassier sound, and that’s what I was trying to do— to sound something like him, and I thought it kinda worked. I used that technique on my first solo record on a song called “Need Somebody,” which was actually recorded by the group Stuff, and Eric was one of the two guitarists in that band. If you were to listen to that track, you can hear what I’m trying to do. But again, it wasn’t something I thought about a lot. What I always say is that I hit the string with the finger closest to it (laughs). When you use your fingers, you have more control that you don’t quite have with the pick.
TQR: After all these years, what’s left for you to accomplish, Robben?
I feel as if the music industry works against anything that is really genuine in music, so one thing that I’m happy about is my desire to make music that I feel is genuine in the tradition of real music. To just keep that alive to me becomes more and more of a worthy effort. I also do four clinics a year here in Ojai, and that is always very enjoyable to do. I have a lot of instructional material out there, and it feels good to pass along what I have to give. Even though it sounds kind of corny, it’s accurate… Music is much more important than it often seems to be today. It’s become a commodity, and it’s hard to even know what good music is today. I guess what I’d like to see in the future for myself is to pass the flame. TQ