Of all the guitarists slinging blues licks these days, Duke Robillard is perhaps the most comfortable at stepping over the line into the world of jazz. In his hands the basic 12-bar format yields to advanced chord substitutions without a hint of conflict. Robillard is considered one of the world's pre-eminent practitioners of jump-blues and swing guitar playing, and an expert in the style of T-Bone Walker (not to mention Freddie King), so his fluency outside the I-IV-V box is perfectly understandable.
Robillard is a native of Westerly, Rhode Island, and in 1967 he founded Roomful of Blues, a horn-based band that performs to this day and is a perennial favorite of jazz-blues fans everywhere. Duke left Roomful in 1979 to play lead guitar for rockabilly singer Robert Gordon, then joined the Legendary Blues Band, a group made up of former Muddy Waters sidemen. He finally kicked off a solo career in 1981, forming the Duke Robillard Band (later renamed Duke Robillard & the Pleasure Kings), recording that groups debut in 1984. Robillard has been signed to numerous labels and worked a multitude of artists. He even did a stint as Jimmie Vaughans replacement in the Fabulous Thunderbirds in the early 90s. And right now Duke Robillard is on a roll. He recently sat down with Guitar.com to discuss his new release, Explorer; several other albums he's either produced or released under his own name in the past 15 months; and some of his favorite guitar licks, many of which he demonstrates in Guitar.com's exclusive video guitar lessons.
Guitar.com: You've released four albums in the past year and a half?
Duke Robillard: Jeez, I don't know; New Blues for Modern Man, the Conversations in Swing [Guitar] album; what are the other ones? Iv'e got lots of albums with other people; under my name those are the two most recent. And I have one that's just coming out, Explorer. And Steppin Out Live.
Guitar.com: You've been busy. What's been spurring you on like this?
Robillard: Things are just coming together. I don't know what it is. I've been producing a lot of records for other people too. I did four albums just over this last winter. I did an album with Eddie Clearwater called Winds of Change. I did an album for Roscoe Gordon, the classic rhythm and blues singer/songwriter and piano player. And I also did one for Billy Boy Arnold, the Chicago blues harmonica player. Those are finished. I'll finish mixing them when I'm done with my tour, and they'll be out in the fall.
Guitar.com: Did you produce your own new release, Explorer?
Robillard: Oh yeah.
Guitar.com: Is there any difference for you when you're producing yourself vs. when you're producing one of these other artists?
Robillard: Well sure, yeah. It's a lot easier to produce someone else because it's hard to be your own critic as you're recording and wondering if you have the right rhythm track, or the right vocal, or the right feel. It's hard to be objective, but I've learned to do it and I feel very strongly about my ability to do it. As I continue to produce myself Ive produced all of my albums for the last 10 years I feel like I get a lot better at it every time. And I come up with something new every time.
Guitar.com: What are some of the biggest challenges for you as your own producer and your own critic? Are you overly critical of yourself?
Robillard: No. I have a tendency now, at this point in my career, to really trust myself. If I have a concept or a groove, if it works with the band right away in the studio, then I know it's gonna work. I've been very lucky the last three or four albums that everything just works. Every time I try a tune we get a good groove and it works and if I have some strange idea, like adding mandolins and weird combinations of instruments bass clarinet or something its always seemed to really work lately. I'm blessed. I'm waiting for the day when I go in the studio and nothing works, because I feel like I've been very lucky. I've gotten what's in my head out really easily in the studio lately. That's because Ive done it so much.
Guitar.com: When writing songs, do you hold yourself up to some standard, some album from the past maybe your own or maybe something like B.B. King's, Live at the Regal?
Robillard: I never use myself as my standard to judge anything by. I use classic artists that I love or, if I'm doing anything like Explorer has everything from jazzy blues to rock 'n roll and if I'm doing something contemporary, I base it against contemporary production techniques. Not contemporary music, because my musical ideas are all pretty much coming from an older place even if I'm trying to do something thats contemporary. It may be contemporary to me (laughs), but it's usually still very roots oriented and maybe old fashioned to the general public.
Guitar.com: Do you feel that your playing or your musical sensibility has changed a lot since Roomful of Blues?
Robillard: Yeah, I grew up listening to early rock 'n roll. That's what inspired me to play: Chuck Berry and Fats Domino and Little Richard and Buddy Holly and people like that. Then I discovered blues, first on the flipside of Chuck Berry records. Then I learned about the classic artists. Then I discovered B.B. King, and then blues with horns. That led me to investigate all the past of all the great rhythm and blues artists that at the time I was learning the stuff that you couldn't buy albums of. Most of them didn't have albums. They were on 78s and you had to go really hunting to find the music. Today it's all been re-issued. So when I was in Roomful I was on this course of learning to play that music correctly to where it really sounded like the records. Not in the sense of playing their solos, but in the sense of the feel of the rhythm section, the sound of the rhythm section, the type of horn riffs. We tried to keep things in a certain genre. I really honed that between blues and R&B and swing stuff. Then when I went out on my own, after I left Roomful, I was kind of interested in bringing my music a little more forward and kind of using the original roots rock influences I had to develop my songwriting and make it more contemporary. So I've kind of gone full circle.
Guitar.com: Where do you see yourself at now?
Robillard: Where I'm at now is that I really have studied more by listening than anything all of these styles, and followed blues and jazz all the way back to the original artists that developed it, the Leroy Carrs and Tampa Reds and Louis Armstrongs and people like that, and studied the music and studied the roots of rock n roll, and even the roots of pop music to some extent. And I just feel like my music is blues-based music that legitimately takes in the influence of everything that's American, whether that be a little bit of the early country sound, or blues, R&B, rock n roll, or jazz. It's really all legitimately me, because theres that thread of blues running through the whole thing. And you have to understand something about blues to really see or about all of this music to see that thread of blues that runs through it. But it's really the basis of all American music.
Guitar.com: Do you still study the guitar? Are you still learning new progressions, new voicings?
Robillard: I do. I go through periods where I don't really learn a lot because I'm working. I develop new things on stage and my learning process is often the writing process in which I'll come up with things and learn new things as I'm writing, and try to explore new avenues. But then there's periods when I may be not as busy, that I do study particular things and try to pick up new things. If I feel like I'm stale, I try to pick up new patterns or I'm not really a scales player, and although I think that's great, I don't really think that at this period of my career I'm going to start practicing scales. I always wanted to pick out a melody and I learned how to play melodically within the chords without actually having to rely on scales. It may not be the best way to learn. It made me an individual player, learning that way.
Be sure to check out Duke's latest effort on Stony Plain - Sunny and Her Joy Boys: