Duke Robillard: ‘You know, T-Bone hit right on the head: ‘Let your hair down, baby/Let's have a natural ball.’’

An Acolyte Praises the Master
Duke Robillard preaches, and plays, the gospel according to T-Bone Walker

T-Bone Walker is no longer with us, but his style and his spirit live on the person of Duke Robillard, who has been a veritable one-man crusade heralding the achievements of the guitarist and showman who had such a profound influence on his own style. From his days leading Roomful of Blues (which he co-founded with pianist Al Copley); to being an in-demand session player lending some six-string spice to work by formidable artists such as Bob Dylan, Jay McShann, Jimmy Witherspoon and others; to his resurgence in recent years as both a producer and player, contributing guitar to and fashioning in the studio one powerhouse recording after another, in addition to leading his own rousing band on his solo outings, Robillard has never failed to pay homage, either verbally or in his instrumental voice, to T-Bone. Not only has he recorded an acclaimed T-Bone tribute album, Blue Mood: The Songs of T-Bone Walker, he’s even issued an instructional DVD, Guitar Signature Licks: T-Bone Walker, breaking down the techniques the master employed in crafting his signature sound.

Here’s Robillard on the record about T-Bone’s impact on his life, and discussing the unique aspects of Walker’s playing.

‘You Can Hear the Joy In the Music…’
"When T-Bone's double album came out on Blue Note in 1976, I realized I'd had to go through a period of listening to swinging jazz before I could understand his guitar playing. Because his timing, phrasing and tone-everything—was really complex compared to any other blues guitarist I can think of. By now I could what it was everyone had picked up from him, everyone from B.B. King to Gatemouth Brown, Lowell Fulson, all the greatest single-stiring guitarists. T-Bone played much more on chords than the other players. He used sixth and ninth chords a lot, working around them and playing lines that would sound great on horn. His playing is amazingly musical. His timing reminds me in some ways of Charlie Christian. Although they are different musicians, they both had this way of playing ahead of the beat. Both would also, in a solo, say, wind up at the end of one chord ahead of the beat, so that if you were following the solo, you might think he was in one place while he was really in another. ...

For me, he typifies one of the things I love most about the music of the thirties and forties. Just by playing music, they were entertainers as well. That is recognizable on their records. You can hear that joy in the music, that feeling good. How come this approach is frowned on today? Lese-majesté, maybe? Well, music was fun back then. You know, T-Bone hit right on the head: ‘Let your hair down, baby/Let's have a natural ball.’"(from Stormy Monday: The T-Bone Walker Story, by Helen Oakley Dance, forward by B.B. King, Louisiana State University Press, 1987)

‘T-Bone Used an ES-5, which was wired out of phase…’

"There are a few elements that make up the style of T-Bone. Besides being able to play the licks, of course, it's important to get the variation of tones.

"Sometimes T-Bone would pick by the neck pickup or near the middle, and that would get the warmer tone, or he'd pick near the bridge to get a sharper tone. And he'd go back and forth during solos to get a shifting tonal effect. Back then there weren't any pedals or effects. Effects you created had to be natural. And moving where you're picking from phrase to phrase can really be a big sound, especially when you're on an arch top guitar. You can play T-Bone on any guitar, but with an arch top you get that air and fat sound and the difference between playing near the bridge and the pick-up is more dramatic.

"The way he uses chords also has a lot to do with his sound. Very often when he was playing a slow blues he would really state the chords—do a rake down the strings when he'd go to the four chord. He'd do that near the bridge to make it really stand out.

"Most of his career T-Bone used an ES-5, which was wired out of phase. I don't know if it was on purpose or not, but out of phrase they have a bright shimmering tone. So if you're out-of-phase you'll have a similar tone.

"Often when T-Bone was singing and playing, say, in G, and he'd go to the four, he'd hit the inside G9, where you're not playing the high and low E strings, and it would sound like, well, T-Bone, and really punctuate the chord change."

(from "Duke Robillard: How to Sound Like T-Bone, B.B., Muddy, Johnny Watson And Freddie King," by Ted Drozdowski, June 1, 2009, for the Gibson Guitar website)

‘…a little guitar ninth chord figure was a unique thing and it became T-Bone's signature…’

Walker played in carnivals as a teenager—singing, dancing, playing banjo, accompanying such well-known blues singers as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, and learning how to put on a show—a skill his daughter Bernita says he mastered.

"He would do the splits in time with the music that he was playing. And his facial [expressions] were just phenomenal. And the women would scream and holler. And even the men were clapping like, 'Go, Bone.' And I would just sit there smiling because that was my dad doing those great performances."

But T-Bone Walker was also a ground-breaking blues guitarist, says one of those who's followed in his footsteps: guitarist Duke Robillard.

"T-Bone Walker single-handedly developed the style and way to play blues on electric guitar that was totally different than anything that had been done before," says Robillard. "He used a lot of double timing in his soloing, which at that time was something only horn players did, you never heard a guitar player do it—very unusual and very innovative. He'd be playing actually twice as many notes per beat."

In the March 1977 issue of Guitar Player Magazine, the late Jimmy Witherspoon compared Walker to another jazz great.

 "All I can say is that he's the Charlie Parker of guitars when it comes to blues," Witherspoon said. "And in jazz guitarists, he's right with Charlie Christian. No one else can touch T-Bone in the blues on guitar."

Walker held the guitar differently—perpendicular to his body and parallel with the stage floor. He also played it behind his head long before Jimi Hendrix took that stunt mainstream. That wasn't the only Walker influence on rock 'n' roll.

"Chuck Berry just took T-Bone's style and put it to a different beat," says Robillard. "And a lot of the technique and the little T-Bone phrases that define his style, Chuck Berry, when he rearranged the beat, they became rock 'n roll guitar licks. So in essence, T-Bone was not only the first electric blues guitar player, but he was the first electric rock 'n roll guitar player, really."

But it was Walker's "Stormy Monday" blues that became his signature. Robillard says it's a different kind of blues.

"The guitar chord line, it's a little guitar ninth chord figure. That was a unique thing and it became T-Bone's signature. And that chord line seems to have grabbed everybody because everybody plays it with that line in it. And it's almost like a law, that you have to, when you play 'Stormy Monday.'" (from NPR.org, "All Things Considered," http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=96761445)

Blue Mood: The Songs of T-Bone Walker, Duke Robillard's recorded tribute to his inspiration, was released by Stony Plain in June 2004. Musician Frederick J. Miller, Jr. ("The Sensible Mainer") posted the following review on Amazon: If you like T-Bone Walker, big-band and jump blues, plenty of kickin' horns and a rhythm section that can't be beat, then Duke's "Blue Mood" is a must-have. I'm a big fan of Duke, and particularly of his T-Bone stylings (as I play that way myself), so this album was a no-brainer. The album is superbly recorded and engineered. Duke is the master of that big arch-top guitar tone that is so definitive of the T-Bone sound. His vocals are strong, and the band is the best in the known blues world. This album jumps and jives, smokes and sizzles. T-Bone fans...this is required listening! Even better, go see Duke perform this material LIVE and get his autograph on your Blue Mood CD!)

Duke Robillard's Blue Mood: The Songs of T-Bone Walker is available at www.amazon.com

Duke Robillard's instructional DVD, Guitar Signature Licks: T-Bone Walker (2002) is available at www.amazon.com

Stormy Monday: The T-Bone Walker Story by Helen Oakley Dance is available at www.amazon.com

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