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The Gibson Interview: Derek Trucks

Ted Drozdowski
|
05.18.2011

The 31-year-old slide guitar fire breather is busy. Plenty busy. But Derek Trucks also is excited that for the rest of this year his priority will be the new group he co-leads with Susan Tedeschi, a Grammy-nominated vocalist and guitar player whose voice embodies the best qualities of classic soul, and who also happens to be his wife.

They’ve toured together before, leading the summer festival-hopping Soul Stew Revival, but, like all of Trucks’ bands, that was primarily a touring aggregation. As the Gibson SG die-hard explains it, the group he and Tedeschi assembled to work on the new album, Revelator, earlier this year is the first outfit he’s really drafted from scratch, finding the best musicians to create the sounds he and Susan had in mind for the studio and for the road.

The result is a sprawling but organic unit that has the same rootsy depth and improvisatory consciousness as Delaney and Bonnie and Friends and Blind Faith, two groups that prominently featured Gibson Les Paul Sunburst and ES-335 legend Eric Clapton, with whom Trucks has toured as guitar foil. And on Revelator, the Tedeschi Trucks Band effortlessly hop genres. New Orleans funk, hard-core soul, R&B, blues, gospel, jazz and rock all rub elbows on the disc, and live they take flight with improvisational extensions.

We recently caught up with Trucks, who discussed the new band, the new album and his amazing slide tone.

Why did you and Susan decide to formalize the musical partnership you forged in the Soul Stew Revival with the new band?

You want to be surrounded with people who are the best at what they do, and you’re really fortunate when you can find eight or 10 of them. And when it comes to singing deep, Susan is one of the best. When she digs into a gospel bag she can channel Mahalia Jackson, and for me, that kind of singing – very spiritual – sparks things in my playing. It also makes me remember some of the soul and blues influences that I’d moved away from.

There’s sarod on “These Walls,” which is a reminder of how deeply Eastern-influenced your first Derek Trucks Band discs were. And there’s stone gospel, rock and blues. How did that mix come about?

I think 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. That’s part of playing with a group this large. The ensemble sound is going to have to grow into its own on stage.

We have a “five minute rule” on stage where we can only improvise during that time – no songs. And those periods are starting to sound like compositions. At times it really starts to be like a freight train, where everybody’s locked and it’s really moving. But I’ll know our sound has really gelled when the subtleties are in place.

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 while making this album also helped me to tune out distractions.

What I really enjoyed about the process of making this record was I never felt like I was pushing against the grain. It all felt really right. When you get everything flowing in the right direction, your focus just gets wider and wider and you’re really in the moment.

What kind of evolution does Revelator represent for you?

I think I’ve really evolved as a record maker. Having my own studio in my home has really let me relax and experiment. When we made the last album there and did the project with Herbie Hancock [recording the song “Space Captain”], we were still putting up walls as we recorded. Now we’ve really developed an understanding of how everything sounds and works.

Having the studio really allowed us to remove time as a factor. We could pretend it was 1970 again and really spend time working on the album. Today there are no album budgets unless you’re one of the top 10 grossing acts in the world. But we were really able to dig in and really live together and make music, like The Band did when they lived in Big Pink and recorded in Woodstock.

Why call the album Revelator?

I like the intensity of that word. It’s strong, powerful. As a musician, it sets a bar and says the music you’re working on deserves to be reckoned with instead of glossed over. In our culture today so many things are glossed over. Music is a tool to tap back into what we’re supposed to be doing here.

The sound of the album and the band is very warm and organic. How did you achieve that?

Mixing down to tape after you record is just a nice thing. Everything is recorded digitally now, but mixing down to tape really glues everything together. It really warms up the midrange. It recreates the sound of the glory days of the late 1960s.

Did you have reference points from that era when you and Susan were assembling the band?

We were thinking about a real warm, natural ensemble sound. Delaney and Bonnie and Blind Faith were live ensembles that were really well integrated. And Sly & the Family Stone, Derek and the Dominos, Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen band. They were archetypes of what we were thinking about.

When I first saw everybody get on the two busses it takes to carry all the musicians on tour, I said, “What the hell am I thinking?” But then it sounds so good when everybody hits the stage I realize it’s got to be done. It’s too powerful and too right not to do it. And besides the 11 people in the band, there’s the crew – so it’s a lot to wrap my head around. But I need that edge to push me to be as creative and work as hard as I can, so there it is.

We also worked together live in the studio as a unit fleshing out the songs, so there’s something beautiful about just making it work and not worrying about editing yourself before getting things together. I think this is the best music I’ve ever made in my life.

How easy is it for the band to improvise, given its size?

We’ve only done seven or eight shows, so it’s still coming together on stage. One of the biggest challenges is making sure the music has diversity and balance. But because of the group chemistry, that comes naturally. Oteil and Kofi Burbridge are brothers, so they have an amazing kind of communication going. The horn section are friends and have worked together before, so they’re really tight. In the band there’s basically five different subgroups that all know and have played with each other before, so that helps everybody work as a larger unit.

You get an extremely well-defined slide tone out of your red Custom Shop SG, similar to Duane Allman. How do you achieve that?

On the guitar, it’s almost all neck pickup, and I keep the tone at 6ish, 7ish, 8ish… depending on the song. Live, the set-up is usually just a vintage Super Reverb on 7 or 8, so it’s wide open and I control it with the volume on the guitar. In the studio we experimented quite a bit with the tone. There are a lot of different amps combined. We used a Deluxe quite a bit, a little Princeton quite a bit, an Old Magnatone occasionally, and others. It stays pretty simple – just plugging into an amp or amps and letting it rip. In the studio, we kept the volume of the amps pretty quiet and let the room do the work. I noticed that in the studio the less you blow it out volume wise, the more an amp speaks. Learning that was part of my maturing process.

Another thing that’s impressive about your slide playing is your diction: the clarity and form of your phrasing. How do you achieve that very urgent, clear sound?

Most of that comes from my right hand. I tend to hit hard with my right hand and keep all of my right hand on the strings, like clawing them. You release what you want to release.

A lot of my phrasing comes from vocalists. 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.

Ultimately, you need to tell your story. With every sound you make, you need to say something. And knowing when to start and stop a phrase is as important as all the stuff you practice for days. The only limitations with slide are in the way you hear it.

Susan’s also an excellent guitarist. What was her instrumental role on Revelator?

Susan plays rhythm on most of the record and takes the lead on “Love Has Something Else to Say,” which was just her plugged into an amp playing live as we cut the basic tracks. She just blew through it.

Magic Sam and Johnny “Guitar” Watson are her two biggest guitar influences. When we play with the Allman Brothers, a lot of different guitar players come and sit in. She can get up with anybody and just cut through the [expletive].

Is open E still your primary tuning?

Yes, but on a few tunes on Revelator I used an old Firebird and tuned it down to open D. We wrote 30 songs for the album and trimmed them down to 11, so there was plenty of time to experiment.

You’re cast as the inheritor of Duane Allman’s style, because of both your playing - Duane was a major influence on you – and your family heritage. What are your thoughts about Duane and his legacy?

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’ [early fusion masterpiece] 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.

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