Derek Trucks is arguably the most compelling and accomplished exponent of blues and rock slide guitar today. Whether playing live with the Allman Brothers or with the Tedeschi Trucks Band, or on recordings like the Derek Trucks Band’s Already Free and the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Revelator — both Grammy winners — his playing always exhibits supremely burnished tone, radical chops and a blend of the tasteful and the untamed.
Trucks has crafted his sound and style via natural virtuosity, deep study, an inquisitive mind and being selective about his gear. Here are 10 things that you can do to approach his zone and style:
• Dig Duane: Although Trucks’ voice and approach as an instrumentalist is uniquely his own, within his oeuvre Trucks is also the leading exponent of Duane Allman’s classic slide style. Trucks sings his Allman Brothers Band predecessor’s praises thusly: “Duane is a seminal figure like Charlie Christian or Wes Montgomery – a guy who came along at exactly the point where there was a major change in music, and fell into the center of it.
For electric slide you’ve gotta go back to Elmore James, and Duane was really that next step. He had learned the basics and was playing with some of the best R&B musicians in the world in the studio, and at the same time was listening to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and Jimi Hendrix. He had a lot of influences, but Duane was the first guy to take that Elmore sound and crack it wide open in a way that opened the door to his sound for guitar players and for people in general. And when somebody comes along and takes what comes before them and moves it ahead the way Duane did, the bar is set.”
• Tone Up: Truck’s butter and molasses slide tone is almost all derived from his Gibson Derek Trucks Signature SG's neck pickup, with its tone pot set between six and eight from song to song. He favors clean, powerful low-gain amps, but opens them wide on stage, hitting seven or eight on the volume knob. In the studio he’s a believer in using smaller amps to get fat tones, letting the room do some of the work, and there he happily plugs into pawn shop classics like Magnatones and Supros. “I noticed that in the studio the less you blow it out volume wise, the more an amp speaks,” Trucks observes. “Learning that was part of my maturing process.”
• Finger pick: Trucks uses all five fingers of his playing hand to pick his guitar’s strings, and he hits the strings hard. On rare occasions he uses a pick. Finger picking with one’s palm resting above the bridge is far more efficient than using a flat pick for speed and extended technique. Jeff Beck also discovered this decades ago.
• Mute strings: Unlike the nasty modern-era electric players from North Mississippi and the Delta, Trucks employs a more controlled, warmer sound that’s the result of muting strings with the palm of his right hand. Resting that hand above the bridge is perfect for this technique.
• Find your guitar: Playing a guitar that feels and sounds exactly right in your hands is highly personal, but it’s also a giant step in liberating one’s relationship with the instrument. The Gibson signature models that Trucks plays are slightly modified versions of a double-humbucker’d 1961 SG. Trucks explains how he arrived at his guitar: “When I first started playing at nine or 10 years old I wanted the sound on Allman Brothers records like Live at the Fillmore. That Gibson tone is exactly what I wanted. Originally I wanted a Les Paul, but I only weighed about 80 pounds at the time, and I had a picture of Duane with an SG.
So the SG had the tone I wanted and weighed quite a bit less. Now it’s years later and anything else I try to play feels foreign to me. When I pick up the SG it is second nature.
On my guitars, I put in stop tailpieces.”
• Tune open: Playing slide in open tuning opens a whole ’nother world that grants easy access to the basics of what Captain Beefheart once termed “slippery finger guitar.” Trucks plays almost exclusively in open E tuning, which runs E-B-E-G#-B-E from low to high. And he uses the same gauge of strings on both his SG and his resonator guitars: 011, .014, .017, .026, .036, and .046. The third string, the .017, is always unwound.
• Use glass slides: Following Duane’s lead, Trucks plays slide with a Dunlop Pyrex slide that’s a recreation of the Coricidin bottle that Allman used. Trucks favors uses the large version of that slide.
• Have patience: Onstage it’s obvious that Trucks is an extremely relaxed player — until he steps into the spotlight and roars. Finding a Zen-like place in music allows growth and perspective, and lets one hear what’s happening and stage and in the studio instead of in one’s head. Trucks explains: “I’m more patient now as a musician and as a person. I’m more comfortable returning to things I’ve explored before and stretching out toward the new at the same time. But instead of trying to push out in all kinds of directions at once, I’m happy to let things evolve naturally. I also think that getting to a deeper place in the music has gotten easier and easier for me. And taking a long time to explore different sounds and styles in the studio also helped me to tune out distractions. When you get everything flowing in the right direction, your focus just gets wider and wider and you’re really in the moment.”
• Broaden your horizons: Although Trucks is primarily a blues and rock guitarist, his tone, phrasing and note choices often allude to gospel, soul and Eastern music — and not just guitar. “A lot of my phrasing comes from vocalists,” he says. “For a long time, when I was working on my slide playing, that’s all I listened to – from Howlin’ Wolf to Aretha Franklin. I also take a lot from the sacred steel school, especially Aubrey Ghent. I was already going down that road when I sat in on some classes with Ali Akbar Khan, the Hindustani classical slide player. He made all his instrumental students take vocal lessons before they could work on their instruments.”
Other influences he’s cited include Mahalia Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Donnie Hathaway and Otis Redding as well as horn players Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, and Marshall Allen.
• Plant deep and wide roots: Look at all of the influences mentioned earlier in this story. It’s obvious that while Trucks is on the cutting edge of slide guitar craft, he has absorbed a great deal of historic music in a wide variety of genres including blues, rock, jazz, soul, gospel and Indian and Pakistani classic and spiritual music. Having a gigantic appetite for music that’s come before helps insure that your own approach will always be well nourished.