By Kenny Berkowitz
Over the past five decades, from the start of the Rhode Island R&B band Roomful of Blues to the present, Duke Robillard has assembled a collection of vintage acoustic guitars. Occasionally, either on his own or backing singers like Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, he’s performed on them, too. But his latest release, Acoustic Blues & Roots of Duke Robillard (Stony Plain), marks the first time he’s recorded an entire album on acoustic guitar—and it was well worth the wait.
The album won “Acoustic Blues Album of The Year” at the 2016 Blues Music Awards in Memphis.
Begun more than ten years ago, the album from a player best known for playing swing on a big jazz-box electric guitar, reaches back to the early days of blues, country, jazz, and Tin Pan Alley, including blues pioneer W.C. Handy, Jimmie “the Singing Brakeman” Rodgers, honky-tonk piano legend Meade Lux Lewis, and lyricist Gus Kahn.
Then it fast-forwards to three of Robillard’s newest compositions, all deeply rooted in the music of the 1920s and ’30s, with guest turns from Mary Flower (guitar), Jay McShann (piano), Maria Muldaur (vocals), Billy Novick (clarinet), and Jerry Portnoy (harmonica). It’s a side of Robillard that many fans haven’t heard before, and it’s every bit as good as his best work on electric guitar.
Why did it take so long to record this all-acoustic album?
It was a side project at first, and it took a few different twists and turns along the way. I did nine or ten songs, but I wasn’t happy with all of them. So I waited a while, did some other recordings, and kept going back to it, seeing what I thought would fit together well. The fact that I can just go downstairs in my bathrobe and record whenever I get an idea is good for this type of album, because I didn’t have a specific plan when I started.
How did you end up choosing these songs?
I just wanted to express different sides of my taste. I had accumulated a bunch of rare and extremely old instruments from the turn of the last century, which had a lot to do with it. I wanted to use them in a good way, to have a recording of them for posterity.
How did you decide which guitar to use for each song?
Mostly, it was the tone and the way each instrument is played, because they’re all very different. There were certain ones that accommodated one style and others that were better for another. The Gibson L-00 [on Tampa Red’s “What Is It That Tastes Like Gravy”] is round and big, with a very full mid-range—that’s what I like, really, a lot of strong mid-range, and small guitars seem to give more than that, especially when they’re old and well-broken-in. The B&J Victoria [on Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home”] has so much low end on it [that] I had to trim it off in the recording, which is funny for a guitar that’s 13.5 inches on the lower bout.
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How many guitars do you own?
At the time, I owned about 60, so I could pick and choose. But that’s a lot of guitars—too many—and it was very hard to keep them all in great working order. I ended up selling quite a few, and now I have maybe ten or 12. It’s enough to give me whatever I need for any recording situation.
What was your earliest experience playing acoustic guitar?
I started on a Kay Old Kraftsman. It was a good one, for what it was. It wasn’t all that easy to play, but it had an adjustable neck, with a wingnut inside, so you could reach in and change the pitch of the neck to bring the action up or down. That was extremely cool, and in fact, I still have a Kay Deluxe [heard on Bill Broonzy’s “Big Bill Blues”], which is one of my favorite guitars. All birch. I love birch guitars—they sound like nothing else.
How old were you when you started?
I was fooling around with guitar when I was six or seven, but I wasn’t allowed to have one of my own. It was my uncle’s guitar, and my brother played it. So I would play when nobody was around.
Did you get good enough to play for people?
Not with that guitar, because my brother got a Strat. So when he was out on a date or at a football practice—he was ten years older than me—I would teach myself, figure things out. At the time, rock ’n’ roll was just coming into being, around 1955 or ’56, and what I wanted to play was Chuck Berry and Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, because those were the records my brother had. Fats Domino. That’s what I concentrated on for years and years.
Did your brother give you lessons?
I could watch his fingers, but he didn’t want to show me anything. It was just, “Get away, kid. Don’t touch my guitar.” Typical brother stuff.
Did you keep playing acoustic?
At that point, I was just thinking about rock ’n’ roll, because it was new. It was exciting, although one of the first people I really fell in love with was Hank Williams, which was right around the same time. We had Hank Williams records in our house, and I really liked picking country guitar. Actually, the first song I ever wrote was a country song.
What was it?
I don’t remember the name of it, but it was patterned after a Johnny Cash song. With a two-beat feel. Definitely country. I’ve been playing acoustic ever since, but it’s not my predominant way of earning a living.
How did you write “I Miss My Baby in My Arms”?
I’d been on the road for maybe a month or three weeks, and I happened to have my L-00 with me—I don’t usually travel with a valuable old guitar, but I’d brought it with me on that trip. I don’t remember exactly where I was, somewhere out west. I was in a cheap motel and I could see the full moon out my window, and I was lonesome for home. The song just came out.
Is that usually how they work?
It’s different. For me, however a song comes, it comes. I could be on a plane and get an idea for a song—I have a collection of barf bags with songs on them. You just never know when a song is going to come. But at my age, now, when it’s getting time to do an album, I’ve become a last-minute writer. Either it comes to me or I write at the last minute, when I need songs, saying, “I’m just going to do this.” I sit down and write a bunch of songs.
Do you still like backing other singers?
Oh, yeah, people who I really respect and love what they do, of course. It’s fabulous to be able to do that.
When you look back on your 2013 tours in Bob Dylan’s band, does it feel like a positive experience? A negative experience?
Both. It started off great and ended up not-so-great. I really enjoyed playing his material and trying to complement the song and the singing and the interpretation. Especially on the first tour. That was fantastic, nothing but enjoyment. Then we took a break and did a second tour, when he seemed to not know what he wanted. I wasn’t doing anything different than on the tour he loved, so it’s hard to say what was going on. He’s not exactly one to tell you what he’s looking for. You have to guess.
Before that, you toured with Tom Waits.
I loved playing with Tom. There were a lot of tunes to learn, and when we were out on the road, he decided to do new tunes that we had to learn that day at sound check. That could be stressful, but I loved every minute of it.
You’ve had rotator cuff problems. Are you able to play now?
Recovery is slow. It was a total tear, the whole thing just let go. I can’t play a lot, but I’m improving. I probably won’t be fully recovered until the summer. I’ve been performing, mostly singing, having a guest guitarist, and playing a song or two myself.
What’s it like to have someone play guitar for you?
Tremendously frustrating. Luckily, I’ve got a fabulous guitarist, Alex Schultz, who really loves my music and has a good handle on my style, so he can play like himself but still suggest enough of my style that it sounds really satisfying. I won’t lie—it’s a slow process. But I had the best surgeon in my area. I’m ready to start retraining myself, and my next album is almost finished. It’s all jazz from the ’20s and ’30s, and it’s all acoustic guitar.
In creating an acoustic blues style that’s all your own, Robillard says, begin at the beginning: “Modern players are great, but it’s important to go back and find out who their influences were. Then, when you finish that, go back and find out who their influences were. You really have to study the development of each style before you can establish your own sound with real depth. Even if you don’t end up getting influenced by it, you’ll have an understanding of where the music comes from.”
So who’s on Robillard’s playlist? Blind Blake, Sleepy John Estes, Son House, Carl Kress, Eddie Lang, Lonnie Johnson, Robert Johnson, Dick McDonough, Tony Mottola. “These were incredible players, and what they pulled off on acoustic guitar is unbelievable,” he says. “There are things I hear them playing that I could only do in my dreams.”
WHAT DUKE ROBILLARD PLAYS
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On Acoustic Blues and Roots, Robillard switches between
ten vintage acoustic guitars:
1900s Joseph Bohmann flat-top; 1900s Buegeleisen & Jacobson Victoria parlor guitar
1930s Rodier archtop
1930s Kay Deluxe archtop
1930s L-00 Gibson flat-top
1938 Gibson L-7 archtop
1946 Epiphone Broadway
1950s Kay flat-top
Johnson Delta Blues resophonic
The flat-tops are strung with D’Addario phosphor bronze medium gauge strings; the archtops are strung with D’Addario nickel-wound medium gauge strings, though he uses light-gauge strings if a guitar can’t handle mediums.
He sometimes uses a Shubb.
His picks are the extra-heavy Dunlop Ultex model, “the translucent yellow ones.”
Also on the album, Robillard plays a 1930s Le Domino ukulele; a 1950s Kay mandolin; a 1920s William Lang tenor harp, which is a tenor banjo with a wooden head; and a cümbüs, a uke-sized, 12-string Turkish guitar with a skin head and a metal back.