Mix one part blues, one part jazz, one part swing, stir in some rock and soul, bring to a simmer, and you have Duke Robillard ala mode.
In his 35 years in the music business, Robillard has learned to do things his own way. Though a stint in the Fabulous Thunderbirds brought him closer to the mainstream in the early ’90s, he has always been at his best playing the jazz and swing-style music he loves.
And he has a keen interest in vintage instruments, having owned “…at least 500 guitars.” But he isn’t a collector as such. Rather, he buys and sells guitars, keeping only what he needs to accomplish whatever musical goal he’s working on at the time. His collection is as much newer instruments as true vintage guitars, and he favors Epiphone archtops for their midrange punch.
Robillard was born and raised in Rhode Island, and was playing in bands by the time he got to high school.
In 1967, he formed Roomful of Blues, which operated out of Westerly, Rhode Island. For the next 12 years, he led the band as it grew in stature from a regional phenomenon to a well-known touring troupe. Though they started out playing a mixture of R&B and swing music, by 1970 they had added horns and moved into a strict jump/swing style that was absolutely unlike what anyone else was doing at the time.
After a decade the band finally won a long-deserved recording contract, and released two albums before Robillard left the band in 1979. He initially signed on as rockabilly singer Robert Gordon’s lead guitarist in the Legendary Blues Band, but within a few months he was fronting his own Duke Robillard Band. His debut on Rounder Records came in ’83 with Duke Robillard and the Pleasure Kings.
The group evolved, and occasional forays into a more-experimental sound led Robillard to jazz-oriented solo work. In 1990, he joined the Fabulous Thunderbirds after Jimmie Vaughan left while the band was at peak popularity. He cut two albums with the T-Birds, and though he was a good fit with the group’s musical style, Robillard was accustomed to being a bandleader. Within two years, he was back on his own.
He signed a major-label deal with Virgin Records in ’94 and his first disc for the label, Temptation, was by far his most commercial. It sold well and was followed by two more albums. But while Robillard had a dedicated fan base, sales weren’t enough to hold the label’s interest. After a couple of albums with Shanachie, he hooked up with Stony Plain Records in the late ’90s and began a fruitful relationship. He released the live Stretchin’ Out in ’98, and New Blues For Modern Man in ’99. During that period, he also produced albums by John Hammond, Jerry Portnoy, Billy Boy Arnold, Eddy Clearwater, and others.
Duke’s Tools of the Trade
The guitarist’s toolbox can be extensive and varied, or limited to just a couple of instruments. But even as certain artists are associated with certain instruments, a variety of guitar sounds can help to color one’s music with different tones. So although Hendrix is forever associated with a Stratocaster, he nearly always picked up a Gibson (usually a Flying V, sometimes an SG or Les Paul) when playing “Red House.”
Duke Robillard has a variety of instruments at his disposal, and isn’t afraid to shift them as needed. There are vintage guitars, modified, and original. There are newer instruments, and others such as assorted Telecasters, acoustics, and a resonator. Duke’s gathering isn’t a guitar collection so much as a set of tools. Here’s a sample.
1. Gibson Tal Farlow reissue This Tuxedo Black guitar is used in the studio and on stage. “I love the sound of the big archtops,” Duke says. “And because this one has a laminated top, it’s a good stage guitar.”
2. A “No-Name” parlor acoustic “This one is probably from the 1930s and I used it to record ‘Hard Road’ on the latest CD.”
3. Epiphone ES-295 An import reissue of the ’50s Gibson favorite. Used on stage and in the studio.
A session with jazz great Herb Ellis, Conversations in Swing Guitar, was released in ’99; in 2000 he returned with with more original music on Explorer. During this time he also returned to live in Rhode Island, and built a studio in his home.
In ’99 Robillard won International Guitarist of the Year recognition by the French Blues Association and was nominated for Producer of the Year and International Artist of the Year in Canada’s Maple Blues Awards. In 2000 and ’01, he was nominated for the W.C. Handy for Blues Band of the Year and Blues Album of the Year. In ’02 he received The Maple Blues Award for Best International Artist. He also recently received his fourth consecutive nomination for W.C. Handy Guitarist of the Year, an honor he won in 2000 and ’01.
Vintage Guitar: You started playing guitar when you were about 10 years old. What was your first guitar, and what were some of your subsequent instruments?
My first guitar was an Old Kraftsman archtop with a round hole that had a kind of mandolin shape to it. I got it from my uncle. The neck was attached with a wingnut; it had a bolt-on/tongue-and-groove arrangement so you could reach inside the soundhole, remove the nut, and slide the neck off. It was a nice guitar, but I wanted an electric. So I convinced my father that I had to build an electric guitar for a science project.
I used to see James Burton with Ricky Nelson on “Ozzie and Harriet.” I thought he was the coolest guy who ever lived. He was playing a Telecaster. I didn’t know the name, but I drew a picture of it, and my father traced it and, using two pieces of 3/4″ plywood, cut it out on his jigsaw. We painted it robin-egg blue, took the bridge and tailpiece off the Kraftsman, and figured out how to attach the neck. I made a pickguard out of some formica and bought a Dearmond pickup for it. It played pretty well – and I won second place in the science fair!
What did you use for an amplifier?
An accordian amp?
I don’t know… It was a low-wattage amp with a 12″ speaker and got a good, sort of distorted, sound. I was always jealous of another guy I knew who had one of those Silvertone amps with the separate head and big speaker box.
That’s the one. It sounded so good. And he had a Fender Jazzmaster that sounded great with it.
After the Premier, I got a Gibson GA-79 stereo amp that sounded incredible. But what I really wanted was a Fender Twin, and after a while I got one. It was too loud, and couldn’t really get the sound I wanted. But it was the late ’60s, and playing too loud was cool (laughs)!
Then I had a Magnatone amp with two 12s and a giant cabinet. It was tall, and after I got the Twin I put it on top of the Magnatone and used it for an extension speaker. Sort of my own stack… and it looked cool.
When did you get into a band?
I used to play into my brother’s reel-to-reel tape recorder, and it had a little speaker I’d put in the window. One day, a guy walked up and asked my mother who was playing guitar. He was a drummer, and asked me to join his band. That was about 1962.
Soon after, I convinced my dad that I couldn’t be in a band playing this homemade guitar, so he bought me a Gibson Melody Maker. And that was okay, but I really wanted a Stratocaster. Buddy Holly played a Strat, and that was enough for me.
4. Fender Strat Made from ’70s and ’80s parts, some imported, and with Duncan pickups. “This is my main Strat on stage and in the studio.”
5. D’Angelico New Yorker A new imported reissue that Duke likes. “I use this for some of the jazz gigs I’m doing, softly amplified. And I use it for recording with a Dearmond pickup.”
6. Epiphone Riveria Another recent reissue (Robillard is an Epiphone endorser), Duke says this guitar, “…has Seth Lover pickups and is one of my main stage axes.”
So after a while, I talked my father into getting me a beat up Stratocaster; about a 1960, because it had a rosewood neck. It had cigarette burns and a lot of wear. It was a great guitar and I had it for a couple of years, but then I wanted a shiny new one.
At that point, I traded it in for a new Stratocaster. That would have been about 1966. It played, felt, and sounded nothing like the other one, and I was a little disappointed. I couldn’t understand why it would be different.
I didn’t like the Strat very much, so I took it apart to figure out how it worked. I adjusted the pickups and messed with the action, but I couldn’t get it like I wanted. In the end, I traded it on a new Telecaster. That was a great guitar! Big neck and rosewood fingerboard. It sounded and played great. I think that established my pattern of trading guitars and equipment.
At one point, I got a Gretsch Anniversary. I realized there were certain things I couldn’t do on it. But I was still searching for a particular sound, I just wasn’t sure what it was.
Who were your early influences?
My brother was 10 years older than me, and he played guitar and had all the rock and roll records – Chuck Berry, Duane Eddy, Link Wray, Buddy Holly, all those guys. Little Richard, Elvis, all the popular music of the late ’50s. I loved the guitar in all of them.
When I heard “Blueberry Hill” by Fats Domino and that piano intro, I got goosebumps! I didn’t know what came over me. It was like a drug and I couldn’t stop after that. I played guitar all the time.
Did you see any of your favorites play live?
After school, I got a job at a printing press, and I used all of my pay to either buy guitars or see bands in New York or Boston.
Did you ever see T-Bone Walker or B.B. King?
I could have seen T-Bone, but I never did. At that time, I hadn’t heard his earlier stuff. And by the time I did get into it, he was dead.
Now, B.B. I’ve seen play hundreds of times. I remember him in ’67 at the Village Gate, on a bill with Herbie Mann. There were only about 10 people in the audience, but he was great! I’ve opened shows for B.B. He’s a really nice guy.
7. 1936 Epiphone Zenith An interesting student model guitar that has triple binding and upscale Broadway inlays. “I’ve had this one awhile and it was obviously customized with a mini-humbucker. It’s a neat guitar and I use it onstage a lot.”
8. Orpheum Imperial Archtop Probably made by Gretsch in the ’30s or early ’40s. “Great sound and big neck, a one-piece maple back and an added Lindy Fralin jazz pickup.”
9. Levin Archtop An interesting 1930s instrument made in Sweden with a solid spruce top and walnut back and sides. “Sounds amazing!”
What guitars were you trying at that time?
When I was working, I was trying out lots of guitars. I had a Gibson SG, a gold top Les Paul, a Gretsch 6120, a Gibson ES-345, and more early Strats.
Just one after the other…
One by one! I didn’t have the money for more than one. I was searching for a sound, and it never occurred to me that you couldn’t get it all out of just one guitar. I was listening to all kinds of blues and jazz, and some early rock.
So I was interested in different sounds. I didn’t know you had to have more than one guitar… and I couldn’t afford it anyway. Plus, I had to get used to playing different guitars. So it was a quest… I traded guitars like baseball cards.
You have a thing for the big archtops, particularly Epiphones. How did that happen?
I played a lot of Gibsons – an L-7, ES-300, ES-5, and they were great. But somewhere along the line, I got an Epiphone Deluxe. What a sound!
The Epiphones seem to have more midrange and less bass, and I like that. Sometimes Gibsons had a lot of low-end, sometimes more treble. And [Epiphone] necks were more comfortable, since I have sort of short fingers. They were cheaper.
Around that time, you started Roomful of Blues – a horn band in a time when everyone else was playing rock. Why?
Well, I was really into B.B. King, Jimmy Witherspoon, and T-Bone Walker, and they had horns. So it got me thinking. Then I found The Buddy Johson Orchestra, which was one album of rock and roll with horns, and it knocked me out. It was big-band blues. It just floored me because I didn’t know that kind of music existed before that, that whole style.
So I started to go back and find Louis Jordan, Ruth Brown, Roy Milton, all these people. And I found this music is everything I like – great blues, great solos, swinging sound, horn sections, great lyrics, funny songs. It was everything I loved about music.
So I went crazy hunting 78s, and became a sort of guru preaching about this stuff. I actually got a lot of people interested in it, including my band members. Everybody got excited, so we tried to make it sound like the real thing. I wasn’t thinking about commercial success and money. I’m not a person who thinks that way. I mean, I like money and love to spend it, but I’ve never thought “I’m going do this because it’s going to make me money.” I just did it because I didn’t know what else to do. I was obsessed with this sound.
10. Epiphone Grenada Mid-’60s Epi made by Gibson, this was Epiphones analogue to the Gibson ES-120T. However, Epiphone’s model was available with a cutaway. “Nice, clean one,” says Duke.
11. Epiphone Royal archtop A 1933 example with the rare Masterbilt headstock. Another clean, original example of Robillard’s enthusiasm for Epiphone archtops. “Only made for three years,” he notes.
12. Rodier Artist archtop An interesting guitar made in the ’30s in Missouri by a violin maker, it’s rather like a cross between a D’Angelico and a Stromberg, with build quality to rival either. “This is my holy grail,” Duke says. “Supposedly, only five guitars were made. It’s all blond, fully bound, has a special tailpiece, a nice carved bridge, and a wonderful re-carve at the edges of the top. It’s definitely the most interesting guitar I’ve ever owned. And what a sound!”
So Roomful became a working band, with lots of touring…
We worked five or six nights week for years. All these New England clubs, then Rochester, Toronto, New York, and Washington D.C. After our first album came out, we were all over the country.
That was 1977, right?
Right. We’d been a band for 10 years, and had the horns for most of that time, so it took us a while to get recorded. But it was a good record and opened a lot of doors for us.
Yet you decided to leave the band?
I had started writing a lot, and the material I wrote for the band was good, but some members were a little threatened by my coming up with so much material. You get to the point where people have different ideas about what the band should do.
I’ve never been a fan of a democratic situation in a band. I either want to be the boss or work for someone else. You tell me what to do, or I tell you what to do. But anything in between is not interesting to me. It breaks up most bands. So I just figured it was time to try something different.
So you were on your own after 12 years. What did you do?
I immediately started rehearsing people, but some were scared of being compared to Roomful. The funny thing is we did sound like them… we sounded the same and the music was mine. But a few people convinced me to try something more contemporary and guitar-oriented. So that’s what I tried to do. Which was good because it made me work hard and learn a lot.
Talk about getting the call from the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
That would have been 1990. We were all good friends, from before they were even recording. Their drummer, Fran Christina, had been in Roomful, and the bass player, Preston Hubbard, was from Providence. So I knew them, and we jammed a lot and played on each other’s recordings.
I thought it was a natural thing for them to ask me to join when Jimmie left. And I had to think a lot about it, but it was an opportunity, so I gave it a shot. Of course, I loved the band and the music. It was a lot of fun being with the T-Birds, but I did sort of miss being the leader.
To fill someone else’s shoes, which is what you have to do in a situation like that, you have to play a certain way. I mean, I played like myself, but always close to what I felt would represent what they had done with Jimmie.
After you left you signed with Virgin. Do you think your time in the Thunderbirds helped achieve that?
Not really. The material I’d written at the time was more commercial. I had done a record on speculation (Temptation), then a studio fronted me the time, and Virgin saw it as having potential. Actually, it ended up not selling…
…and you went for a more commercial sound…
Well, on my earlier solo albums without horns, there were always commercial songs. Turn It Around had quite a few with a rock influence, so Temptation was more in that direction, trying to be more song-oriented and rock-oriented. It was bluesy rock and roll, which was what I’ve always been playing. At that time, I was interested in writing good songs that were bluesy, but weren’t blues songs per se. But my core fans were interested in me being more traditional.
What’s the songwriting process like for you?
It’s always different. Usually. I get a lyric seed, but sometimes it starts with a music and groove. Very often it comes with a catch phrase – a few words or a title – and right away I try to figure out what groove is going to express the feeling the lyric suggests. So I usually write the music and lyrics together, but there’ve been a few times I just sat down and wrote lyrics, then turned them into a song. There are times I’ve had a musical idea then added lyrics, but generally they kind of come hand-in-hand.
Do you just sit down to write, or are you jamming, or do you go into your studio and try to put something together?
Generally speaking, it comes when it comes. Maybe I’ve been sitting on a plane and scribbled lyrics on [an air sickness] bag. I’ve got bags stored with lyrics on them! Or maybe napkins or a scrap of paper. Because I never know where it’s going to be.
But usually, I write when I’m going to make a record and a lot of times I’m inspired to write tunes a day or two before I record them. Sometimes when I’m going to make a record, I can just sit down and in a few days and write several songs. Sometimes that doesn’t happen.
And you have co-writers?
Yes, Al Basile and I write a lot together, though we don’t sit together and write songs. If I have a song I can’t finish, I give it to him and he brings it back an hour later, done. He has a talent for that. Maybe he gives me optional lyrics. We’ve known each other so long it’s easy for him to write in a style that works well.
Do you demo your recordings?
I don’t like the term “demo.” I’ll sing and play into a little cassette player to get the song going, but I don’t do professional demos. If I’m going into the studio, I want to make something into a product. I’m not going to make a demo, then to re-record it for the album. The first time I do it, I want it to be finished.
What’s in your live rig now?
I’m using two amps now: a Sovtek Mig 50 head with a single 12″ EV speaker cab, and a Gibson Lab Series L-7 solidstate amp that sounds really good. In terms of guitars it’s a pair of Fenders – a Strat and Tele – a Gibson Tal Farlow reissue, Les Paul, and an Epiphone Riveria. The new Epiphones have been really good road guitars.
There are some effects on your records. Do you use any in your live rig?
Just a Tube Screamer and chorus. I like the Leslie effect it gives. I’ll kick it in which I’m trying to play an organ solo on guitar.
You don’t use a lot of finger vibrato, and you tend to end phrases in different ways. Is that something you consciously avoid?
Playing a good, intense, clean vibrato that I could control real well is something I’ve never been able to do. It’s the one thing I’ve always wanted, but my fingers just won’t do it. I can do a slow, wide vibrato, and I did more of it when I was younger. The more jazzier material I play, the less vibrato I use. I try to be melodic and more interesting.
You can play solos hour after hour and never repeat yourself. And your phrasing brings solos together so smoothly. What’s your secret?
Well, the connecting has a lot to do with the early jazz horn players I listened to. I like the flow of jazz improvisation, and early jazz is based on simple chords. I try to mimic the approach the players would take to their solos, with trills and things that take up time between the notes. It kind of suspends things so the notes rolls over each other and flow like a horn line rather than a jazz guitar part, with clean arpeggios.
I don’t really play that way. I roll things over and slide and bend, and it makes it flow in a different way. It’s just the way I hear the music and it’s probably because I listened to more horn players for a long time.
What kind of music do listen to for pleasure?
Swing-era jazz, blues from the ’20s through ’60s, and popular music from different periods, old-time singers and all. I try to keep aware of current music, but nothing sticks that I really like.
Do you listen to your older music, or to artists you’re going to be working with in production?
I listen to my stuff once in awhile, if I’m looking to put something in my live repertoire. And I listen to other artists I’m producing, sure, though I’m usually pretty familiar with their work already.
Your recording studio is in your house…
Right. It’s the first real studio I’ve had, and it is convenient. We can do it all right there, and I’ve already done 10 albums. It’s called “Duke’s Mood Room” and Jerry Portnoy, who recorded his latest album with me producing, decided to call his record Down In The Mood Room. So it’s catching on (laughs).
But there are good and bad parts to having a studio. The bad is when I have work to do, and it’s right there, so I can’t really avoid it even if I’m not in the mood.
Describe your approach as a producer.
It depends on the person and what we’re trying to accomplish. I see my job as trying to make them sound as good as they can. Most of the people I have produced are fairly traditional, so the accent is always on making a great sounding blues or traditional album. The actual recording and mixing of the record are very important – there are a lot of good albums that just don’t sound good.
For me, producing can be a lot of different things, like helping pick material, helping arrange material and honing it down, finding a direction for it, sound-wise, and picking the good takes. Or if someone is trying to do something different, it’s helping them develop their ideas so it sounds good, musically.
Is it different from producing yourself?
It is. People come to me for a reason – they like the way my records sound. In some ways it’s easier to produce yourself, but it’s also harder to be objective.
Is the satisfaction you get from producing another artist different from producing your own work?
Whenever I make an album with somebody else, I feel like I’m making my own album because I put so much of myself into it that I feel like “This is another of my babies.” But the satisfaction is in knowing it’s not my work and I can be critical in a different way. It’s very hard to judge your own work.
You worked with Bob Dylan on his Time Out Of Mind album. How did that come about?
He called and asked if I could record with him. There was another guitar player there, but it was easy for me to find spaces to play. I think I did four or five tracks with them. And it was great because I sat very close to him during the recordings. Dylan wants his musicians to respond to him, and the tape is always rolling. So you have to be on your toes. What he wants is to capture an early performance, where everybody is kind of listening and falling in place with their parts. And I’m the same way. I like to get a song before it’s developed, not work it up to where it’s overdone.
There’s a freshness there…
Well, you’re capturing the spontaneity that makes for a more interesting song. It’s better than going out and demoing or playing it for months and honing it down. I like things to unfold in the studio.
How do you choose a guitar for a particular sound?
There’s no magic to it really; whatever seems appropriate. Sometimes I make a mistake, and I go get another instrument. I’m aware of the limitations and benefits of each guitar, and I think that’s important, so I usually can dial in something that’s going to work for the album.
How did you learn all those jazz chords? They don’t usually come to someone who is blues-based. Did you take lessons?
I learned them off of the records. Honest! They aren’t really that hard. Nothing I play is all that complicated, but blues and rock guys may not know them. Now some of the jazz guys like Jim Hall and Johnny Smith, I don’t have a clue what they’re doing. It’s all these altered chords and it sounds great… but I can’t play like that. What I do is pretty simple, but it might not seem so if you’re used to something else.
How did the second Conversations album with Herb Ellis come about?
We did 13 or 14 tracks during those original sessions, and decided right away to make two albums out of them. All of the tracks are good, and we mastered them all at the same time, so we figured we’d let the world hear all of them.
What’s in line for the Duke Robillard Band?
We’ll have a new album out in August. The working title is Exalted Lover. It’s a roots album that’s got everything form R&B to blues to jump, and country-flavored stuff. It’s almost all original material, American roots-type stuff.
Any cool twists we should watch for?
There’s a duet with Debbie Davies, where we do a little guitar duel. Also, I do a duet with country singer Pam Tillis. It’s an old song, in a very ’50s R&B/country R&B ballad style.
Any radio potential for the track?
We didn’t plan it that way, but it’s good enough to get airplay… not on mainstream radio, but certainly on Americana or roots rock stations.
Do you ever get tired of the music business?
I get tired of the “business” of the music business. But I never get tired of playing. The business can be a struggle. Now is a down time for the music industry and that creates different pressures. But I’m doing well. I’m still on an upward grade while the rest of the industry is down.
This article originally appeared in VG July 2003 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.