Much-noticed blues guitarist suggests playing solos on front pickup shock.
Robert Cray plays exceptional blues guitar, and writes blues songs. He's been praised by BB King, Eric Clapton, and Muddy Waters. Jon Lewin tried to find out why, while Paul Spencer took the picture.
ROBERT FIRST wanted to get a guitar when the Beatles came out. Beatlemania was sweeping the country, so he asked his mom to get him a guitar, but she said 'you gotta take lessons first'. So he had general lessons for the first three years, before he started playing around in bands. He learned to read music really well, and the teacher taught him to have a good ear.
His mom bought him a $69 Harmony, sunburst model, shaped kinda like a Stratocaster with one pickup in the centre slanted to one side. It had these strings on it called Black Diamond, the heaviest strings Robert ever had. He didn't know there were such things as lighter gauge strings, so he just kept asking for Black Diamond. He guesses they made his hands strong. Nowadays he uses 011, 013, plain 018, 028, 036, 046.
Robert's early heroes were Albert Collins, Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Guy, Willie Dixon... He likes Albert Collins for his right hand attack. Collins plays without a pick, pulling the strings... there's a whole lot you can do with that percussive sound. Robert himself uses a pick, but also a couple of fingers as well. However, he has noticed a growing trend to get away from plectrums.
He learnt all Albert Collins' licks in standard tunings, not realising that Albert had been using open tunings. Playing them took his hands all over the place, but that was cool, as he found out some things that other players didn't — big stretches.
Listening to Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters taught Robert a lot about the smoothness and flow of the blues. He cites the Chicago Blues Band with Muddy Waters as the epitome of that, with every little whining lick of Muddy's slide placed in the right place to grab you. Their timing was so cool.
Apart from running various incarnations of The Robert Cray Band since 1974, Robert has had the honour and pleasure of playing with several of the most revered bluesmen, including Waters, Hooker, Dixon, and BB King. Playing with them, he says, helped teach him what to do and what not to do. He'd listen not so much for licks, but for what they were doing within the song, how they said what they were saying.
For Robert, successful songs are very much a matter of interpreting the lyrics, with both voice and guitar. That's why he doesn't play so fast any more. He can't get his point across playing like that. The song is telling a story, and when the solo comes, it should expand on that story.
When asked to proffer advice to your guitarists, Robert makes the point that it's necessary to really understand the song, and what it's trying to say — then you won't have any problem trying to play a solo. He stresses how important it is to listen to what everybody else is doing in the band. It's good if you can learn not to play, and just leave space, which is just as important. It's as important not to say something, sometimes...
Through listening to a lot of gospel and r'n'b ballad singers, he learnt about the dynamics of playing solos. The singer starts off real quiet, and with every verse gets progressively stronger and stronger, 'till at the end the guy's squalling and shouting and stuff. So Robert said to himself, I'll start trying to work solos out that way.
Robert's always thought of himself as a band musician. He's been with bassist Richard Cousins since 1974, and the drummer's been there since 79. Keyboardist Peter Boe has been in and out and in the band for almost as long. Playing blues and r'n'b isn't a big money thing, and The Robert Cray Band have to work to make a living. Doing records is just a luxury.
He feels the band has changed over the last few years, as they got more confidence in the material they write. They used to announce who'd written every song, just like any Top 40 covers band. Even though they were obscure numbers. So they decided it was time to write their own material, which was when they quit announcing who the songs were by.
And their songs have changed; where they used to cover an Elmore James song and then a James Brown tune, they've now meshed into one thing; it's gotten funkier.
You can hear this in the latest Robert Cray Band luxury item: a new LP called 'Strong Persuader'. It was recorded in two studios in LA with their regular producers Bruce Bromberg and Dennis Walker.
They wanted to make the record fatter, while retaining the same groove, so they added little bits and pieces low down in the mix. There's a DX7 doing the organ parts, and other subliminal noises, while Robert plays basic rhythm/lead guitar with only one overdub, though there are a couple of tracks with two rhythm parts fighting each other, like on "Guess I Showed Her".
Horns on the album are by the Memphis Horn Section, Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love, who are fast, efficient, and very good. "More than I Can Stand" Robert wrote with a kind a Otis Redding feel, and those guys felt the same thing too. They just shocked the hell out of him.
Although it's getting easier for them, the band still aren't as comfortable in the studio as they are live. It's still a chore. This record's probably the most comfortable one, but they're still growing.
Robert only confessed to one source of inspiration for the songs he writes: women! While he doesn't write all the songs in the band, his own material comes from personal relationships or created situations. As long as people are living and loving, there'll always be the blues; they might not hold the same structure but, says Robert Cray, there will always be blues songs.
Interview by Jon Lewin
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