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Robbie Robertson's Guitar Technique

by Pehr Smith

These notes begin with a post in the guestbook in October '99, and were then expanded with reference to Live 66.

Robbie is among the pioneers of rock guitar. I got interested in his playing in high school a long time ago - as a way to stay sane! What I responded to in Robbie’s playing was the economy of means. Most of what Robbie seems to be doing comes from the blues tradition, which above all else comes from a strong vocal (Holler and Stomp) tradition. A lot of people seem to think the wailing hot dog guitar is the root of the blues. No. Bukka White said it best when he said, "Blues is walking behind a mule in slavery times."

[Robbie Robertson, 1963]
Robbie with Ronnie Hawkins, 1963.
They didnt have many of these guitars around in the early days. They worked, they wailed, they set rhythms, chants, rhymes to stories about the everyday, fantastic, and the absurd. Robbie makes tremendous use of the 5 tone pentatonic scale for this reason. It is a simple scale in its construction and fun to use. The patterns are easy to remember and hook onto. It is found in many diverse traditions; Greek, African and Chinese music all incorporate it, and so do many others. Heck it's folk music, call it what ya will.

Robbie’s style of playing is often used to accentuate what the vocalist is doing. Caravan on The Last Waltz, is a good example where he responds to Van Morrison. He just does this all the time, and he’s the best I ever heard at this gospel "call and response" style. I first discovered Robbie on Before the Flood. I responded to a guy that used this "talking" style of guitar as a structure. A shout and echo response with the singer is going on. Very heavy, soulful, very simple, fun and powerful.

Robbie’s style emphasizes the right (picking)hand. He does alot of interesting things if you watch The Last Waltz closely. He picks flatpick style, alternating bass style, one string bass style, he dampens the strings with the heel of the palm, pinches the string with pick and fingernail simulataneously to get the whistling harmonic tones, adjusts the tone or volume knob while playing to give vibrato, tremolo, cresendo, etc,etc. Among his early influences were Hubert Sumlin from the great Howlin Wolf band, Roy Buchanan and Fred Carter Jr. (Levon calls Carter's the "Louisiana Hayride" style).

The best guitar tip I ever got was from Evan Johns who told me to think of the right hand as a system of levers and pulleys. To just experiment with it and the tones it makes. Never watch the left hand fret, just use the ear. If you klune (sour note), raise or lower it with a sliding manoeuvre. "Make it sound like an animal, an’ tell me somethin’ about leavin’ the dog with no food!" he’d yell at me from across the room.

Evan learned this and some other stuff firsthand from masters like Danny Gatton, Roy Buchanan, and Reverand Gary Davis, but it’s all steeped in tradition and common sense, form and function. Most of them "geetar heroes"are decorative embellishment experts anyway. If it’s a cuttin’ contest ya want there’s plenty to go round to blow who cares who away. Robbie rocks, period. That's the gospel truth. Say amen. A lot of critics wish that they could rock. Like someone who can’t get sex, they can get mean and bitter, because they just can’t rock!

[Bob Dylan and Robbie Robertson, 1966]
Dylan and Robbie, 1966

Live 66

The guitar playing on Live 66 has some great examples of Robbie’s style of guitar playing; a style that features complex, yet down-home blues techniques using both the right (picking) and left (fretting) hands. also incorporated are some of the attributes of the guitar in its standard tuning. This is a description as I see it, of what Robbie does with these sounds and the ABC's of that in regard to the form and function of playing rock and roll guitar in Robbie's style.

The guitar work on Live 66 is very explosive, manic. The "talking" aspects of Robertson's style are less obvious here than in the later style featured in 1974's Before the Flood. In its place is a more gestural sound, closer to the nervously drawn lines and flung drips one might encounter in an abstract painting by Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning. Rather than being crisply spaced cadences these sounds from 1966 are slurred, morphed, almost liquid in texture, more abstract in any case. In place of the ‘call and response’, almost mocking phrases and cadences found on the 1974 record, this style from 1966 voices sounds at diverse volumes that could come from a room during a seance - mysterious,textural, gutteral expletives, separated from the voice of the singer. In listening to the delivery of these passages I was reminded of William Burroughs’ paintings; those done with shotguns at paint cans against the wall of his Lawrence, Kansas home.

The sound of Roberson’s guitar comes in gushes and sprays, strings ring out in the background, slightly cannonized from the notes in the foreground, perhaps an open, unfretted string ringing free in the back of the others. One reason for this stylistic difference in Robertson's playing between 1966 and 1974 is that in 1974 the audience knew these songs and words very well. These songs were pantheons of rock history. Back in 1966 no one had yet heard these songs. They were alien, strange, distant and as evidenced by the crowd's reaction, it certainly was dangerous, explosive music. The songs in that context were blazing a trail and cutting new edges and patterns into the fabric of the texture of rock'n roll. They are certainly recognized as great playing today! What is being done on the guitar, then, to produce this and where does it come from?

The Right Hand

Lets start going back to the complex, down home blues style utiizations of the right and left hands and the standard tuning of the guitar. First the right, picking hand. I mentioned earlier the ‘levers and pulleys’ analogy for the right hand. The pattern used to structure the action of the picking fingers is called forward rolls- also known as banjo rolls, as the technique is found in banjo playing styles which cross the genres of blues, folk and jazz banjo music. The thumb strikes the bass, the lowest string in the chord, the index finger strikes the higher pitched adjacent string immediately following, the middle finger hits the next, higher pitched string after that. The notes spit out in a rapid arrangement called a triplet grouping. The term roll comes from the effect of this grouping being repeated as the player repeats this act on the next set of three strings across the middle of the chord, followed by a repeat over the final three strings at the high end of the chord. It creates a cascading, glissando effect that takes a chord form and really stretches it out by repeating the chord's construction several times across the fretboard one note at a time, as in an arpeggio. The ring and pinky fingers by the way are most often used just to anchor the picking hand to the guitar to promote accuracy.

[Robbie Robertson, 1976]
The Last Waltz, 1976.
Now Robbie does not use much of the rolling glissando effect I have just described on this record. Instead he uses the jagged, spitting sound of the triplet as interrupted bursts of energy that come from the syncopation of the of the three notes plucked. But more on that in a moment when we discuss the left hand’s fretting. The rolling glissando can be heard elsewhere, for example on the intro to Just Like a Woman off Blonde on Blonde - This is the effect of playing three chords in quick succession using this technique: note the complex yet fluid elegant effect this has on the chords used to kick of the verse. Another illustration of the technique that comes to mind is the opening cut of Moondog Matinee, Aint Got No Home. Richard Manuel does the rolling triplets on the piano to introduce this song. To emphasize the salient feature in Robertson’s use of the technique, in contrast, is the flurry of notes in sputtered bursts that I earlier likened to Burroughs’ Shotgun Paintings.

The Left Hand

On to to the left, fretting hand. Most chords are formed with three notes: a root note, an interval of the 3rd note of the root scale (which determines the major or minor color of the chords sound) and the 5th note, which harmonizes and completes the chord. Because of the structure of the guitar fretboard and its standard tuning there are some advantages to playing music on the guitar,as opposed to on other instruments. Since the notes run sequentially up on each string, and each string is offset to the one next to it, there are many ways to play chords by mixing up the order of the three tones of the chord, (called inversions) without having to move the fingers and hands as much as say, on the piano. Using the forward roll technique with the right hand, the three notes of the chord can be rearranged with the left playing inversions in arpeggiated (single note) fashion that is quite wonderful to the ear.

A trick it appears that Robertson uses is knowing when an open string of the guitar can be slipped in to substitute for a normally fretted note; this trick requires real familiarity with the neck of the guitar, not to say a very quick ear/mind connection! The resulting advantage is great economy of movement, range of motion, and real speed. In addition to these advantages there is the very physical and expressive effect of ‘Twang’ that comes from the juxtaposition of the open notes with fretted notes. I’ve been lucky enough to catch Hubert Sumlin at work and seen him use this with stunning results. Hubert, by the way, does not use a pick at all.

Finally, the three tones of the chord are all being attacked differently in Robbie’s approach to the technique. In Robertson’s adaptation, one note may be held still, a second tone may slide up or down over a fret. The third note is just open ringing free in a variety of deliveries. Just how much of this is deliberate and what is unanticipated by the guitarist is up for question really, and is in flux from instant to instant. My own speculation is a lot of it is finding an anchor tone to start and finish the phrase in order to ground the passage to the accompaniment. The in-between stuff is "Damn the Torpedoes - Anything Goes! " (animal sounds, etc.).

Sliding Techniques

[Robbie Robertson, 1991]
Robbie Robertson, 1991
Listen sometime to the sliding technique that Robbie uses. I don’t remember where I read this, but in an interview with him I remember him saying that as a kid listening to the late night radio show, he didnt realize that slide guitar was played with a slide; so he adapted a technique of his own to create that effect of sliding up the string. This is a feature of Robbie’s style also found in Roy Buchanan’s records. Buchanan often ties two passages together with a sliding "Whoosh!" (using his ring, I believe) with great effect. Mike Bloomfield’s playing incorporates similar things. Danny Gatton described it to Evan Johns in a simple approach: the chromatic scale of 1/2 tones in direct succesion is an endless pattern and therefore sounds good in any key, so if you get lost just slide or fret lengthwise wherever you are until you find the note you want or come up with what you want to do next!

Appropos Evan Johns, when I hung around his house he would hardly want to play with any player who didnt use the "wedding ring" as he called the slide... anyone who didnt slide just wasn't really clued into the instrument as far as he was concerned. Along with that he had a hatred of the harmonica that ran so deep he'd almost run me out of the house if I pulled a harp out of my pocket! He told me that Gatton tuned his band a 1/2 step low to discourage blues harp players from sitting in on his shows!


Two more things... for some reason I dont know why, bouncing the strings on the 3rd fret works in any key, the harder the better! Robbie does this on Most Likely You Go your Way and elsewhere- Daniel and the Sacred Harp, Jemmima Surrender and Jawbone. One more tidbit- bouncing the strings above the nut at the headstock has a whammy bar (tremelo) effect that on some guitars is better than the whammy, and easier to keep in tune in the long run.

Harmonics also can be played on fretted notes by tapping the note lightly an octave up the neck on the same string. It produces a ghostly whistle if done just right; then bounce above the nut on it. At high volume this is most weird- kind of like a distant wolf.

[Robbie, 1996]
Robbie, 1996

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