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Rick Danko - Robbie Robertson

by Steve Caraway

Interview from Guitar Player magazine, December 1976. The text and the original photos from the article are copyrighted. Please do not copy or redistribute.

Today they're known as The Band, but it was in 1959 that Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, and Levon Helm came together in Canada as The Hawks. For three years they backed rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, then went out on their own as Levon And The Hawks.

[Rick Danko]
Rick Danko

[Robbie Robertson]
Robbie Robertson

In 1966 Bob Dylan contacted them for an international tour that called the world's attention to the group. But then a near-fatal motorcycle accident put Dylan on his back, and they all slipped into the rural area of Woodstock, New York to wait out the next transition in their careers. While Dylan recuperated, he and The Hawks made a few informal recordings (later to be issued as The Basement Tapes). It was also at this time that Robbie, Rick, and the others began work on their first solo album, Music From Big Pink, and The Hawks became The Band.

Almost instantly, The Band found itself playing a major part in the development of American popular music. Each album seemed to yield hit after hit, such classics as "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "Up On Cripple Creek," "Tears Of Rage," "When You Awake," and "The Shape I'm In."

Thirty-three-year-old Toronto-born guitarist Robbie Robertson writes the vast majority of The Band's material, and his harmonic/mathematical lead guitar is easily noted as a landmark sound on Band recordings. His steady, distinctive lead work has made him on of contemporary music's favorite and most respected guitarists.

Rick Danko, the 33-year-old Ontario-born bassist has a unique loping style, while his writing has been heard via collaboration on such Band standards as "This Wheel's On Fire" and "Life Is A Carnival."

Rick, what made you pick up the guitar in the first place?

Danko: My father plays; his first instrument was a mandolin. He played classical music, but when he wasn't studying he'd play Canadian country music, beer-drinking music. My mother and her three sisters all sang; I'm sure they were influences, too. And I have a brother in L.A. now doing his first album with his band, Rendezvous. I started listening to Hank Williams when I was five. I memorized a lot of his tunes. Then when I was about seven I started listening to [singer] Sam Cooke and all those 50,000-watt stations that America had. I'm sure Robbie, Garth, Richard, and Levon did, too. Though Levon is from Arkansas, we all got the same stations.

Robbie, when did you first start on guitar?

Robertson: When I was about ten I had some cousins who played guitar and were into country music. Hearing them play just rang a bell with me. One day I was walking home from school and a guy came up to me with some papers offering guitar lessons.. It was one of those things where they lend you the guitar. But when I went for my lesson, instead of putting on the guitar in the standard manner, they set it on my knee--I didn't realize I was taking Hawaiian guitar lessons! I took them a while because that's what was happening, and anyway my hand was too small to get around the neck well, But it wasn't what I was thinking about at all, so I gave it up, and I haven't played slide since.

Who were you listening to back then?

Robertson: I liked Eddie Cochran very much; Huey "Piano" Smith And The Clowns; Jimmy Reed. I could name a hundred people. But it wasn't only guitar players--it was just music and songs.

What bassists do you listen to today?

Danko: Lots. Usually somebody who is committed to music makes it interesting for everyone. Edgar Willis was always one of my favorites; he played with Ray Charles for a few years. Ron Carter is another bassist who was a big influence on me. I've been having a jazz period since 1963, and I started meeting jazz musicians like Charles Mingus. And there's Chuck Rainey and James Jamerson. That Detroit/Motown stuff is incredible, on many levels. But it's just space, though, right? I mean, I don't play bass, I just cover space.

Robertson: I can't say that there's anything new, guitar-wise, that I find particularly stimulating. Some people play tremendously, but for some reason I'm not moved by it. Most of the things that fascinate me, have been fascinating for quite a while--in jazz, of course, I like Django Reinhardt, the innocence of that guitar playing. Today, I just don't hear anybody doing those things. Roy Buchanan plays very nice, always has. And Fred Carter, the guitarist I replaced with Ronnie Hawkins, was a terrific player at the time. But there are so many players of some years back, that I can't even start naming them.

Did either of you have formal training?

Danko: I didn't. My oldest brother and I did house sets on Saturday nights from the time I was seven until I joined Ronnie Hawkins. We also played together in a group with my public school teacher. In Delhigh, Ontario, there were a lot of European retired people. It was a tobacco farming area. We had seventeen different nationalities celebrating marriages and such. And I had an accordion player who could play in any language! I used to rent halls, and my uncle would put up posters as he delivered groceries. People would come, and I would get to play country music and rhythm and blues. People up there weren't exposed to it. I don't practice any more, but I'll play every day. I can't really remember any members of The Band just practicing [laughs].

Robertson: I didn't practice much in my early days, it was more just finding out what it was all about--I didn't know what I was shooting for, whether I wanted to be a lead guitarist or what my angle was. I didn't have it digested enough to the point where I could just practice or aim at anything. I was practicing in my head, though, thinking about different things, and what I had a knack for and what I liked. I don't practice even today, in the sense of practicing. It's probably more songwriting playing. When I was fifteen I started writing songs--I found I had knack for it, it was fun, and it came kind of easy. It was really after that that I got into the guitar to an extent that I really wanted to do something. Then, when I was sixteen, I got very serious about it and was off and running--that's when I joined The Hawks. I played bass for a couple of months, then the guitar player left, and I started playing the guitar. I took it very serious, and Ronnie Hawkins was helpful in encouraging me and pushing me to really tackle the instrument. Within a year I was actually onto something. I was the only one playing a certain way in a big area, up north it just wasn't happening for that kind of guitar playing. And for a couple of years, from like sixteen to eighteen, I practiced ruthlessly.

Do you remember your first instrument?

Robertson: Mine was a Stella acoustic. My first electric was a Harmony with a Harmony amp.

Danko: My first guitar was a Silvertone electric. My cousin put together a Heathkit amp for it. My initial acoustic was a German one--a great guitar with a spruce top. Later on, when we did The Basement Tapes things, I was using a Fender Precision bass with a Gibson 400 amp and a Fender amp, depending on the situation. When I first met Bob [Dylan] he had a whole setup for me so I just left mine in Canada with my oldest brother. The new setup was basically the same, but from that point on I didn't have to carry any more instruments around, and that sounded good to me. Bob just sent his plane up to get us, but I think Robbie brought his guitar, and I'm sure Garth brought his organ.

Robbie, you like Fender guitars a lot, I take it.

Robertson: Fender is comfortable for what I have to do, but I think Gibsons are better-sounding guitars. It's just that for what I'm trying to do, Fender is physically better for me. At one point I went from a [Fender] Stratocaster to a red B.B. King-style Gibson. I liked the way it sounded, but the string height and the shape of the body prevented me from doing some things that I'd grown accustomed to--for instance, it wasn't comfortable for my fingerpicks. I went to Telecaster for ten years. I had one for a couple of years, then someone stole it. A friend of mine who is actually a thief stole me one back. I used it eight years and still have it. I have several others for specific things, but I ended up going back to the Stratocaster. Now I have an early Fifties Strat built without the string stretcher. Those are a problem for me with intonation. Like if I'm playing rhythm on the bass strings and I'm picking on the high strings, when I'm stretching notes it makes the bass strings go out of tune.

On The Band album there's a shot of you holding a Howard Roberts Gibson.

Robertson: I used that on about two or three songs. I liked the guitar, but it's a bit fragile. I liked the way it looked more than the way it played or sounded. The strings didn't sound even to me, but it had a nice kind of mellow sound to it.

What other guitars do you own?

Robertson: Jeez, there's a bunch of them. I have a beautiful Fender Broadcaster, some very old Martins, a Gibson model O, a Gibson double-neck 6-string/mandolin. I also have a beautiful custom acoustic that I use a lot--it was built by a guitar maker named Kalb who was working at Westwood Music [1611 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90024]. Then I have the Howard Roberts and an old Les Paul. I have about two or three that are really pieces. There are also those Stratocasters. I like guitars a lot, and I have quite a few that are all good for certain things. I get all my guitars from Norman Harris [see article elsewhere in this issue]. He has probably the best collection in the world. It's astounding! He has a Martin OOO-45 that I want to get, and a [Gibson] Tal Farlow jazz guitar that I'm interested in. I just bought a magnificent mint Martin OO-42, 1903 from him. I've seen guys in Nashville, New York, and San Francisco, but I've never seen anything like what Norman has.

Rick, what basses do you have?

Danko: I've got an Ampeg standup bass, an Ampeg fretless, and an Ampeg fretted. I also have a Gibson Ripper, a Fender fretless and a Fender fretted--both Precisions. And I have some instruments that I left in Canada. I have a Czechoslovakian bass that has as much glue as wood--it's terrific. A guy came by and gave it to me in pieces, and I had this old violin maker in Woodstock put it together. It's well over a hundred years old. And I have some Telecaster guitars with the same humbucking pickups as Robbie's Strats. In fact, he decided to have that feature after I'd done it. I've got a Guild 6-string acoustic that's fabulous. It has that big body. Tommy Smothers plays one just like it.

Can you run down the amps that you've used since The Hawks?

Danko: That's when I started playing bass, and any money I made after my living expenses went to trying to invent a bass amp that would stay together. They'd all fall apart after a week. I had probably the first transistor bass amp made--someone made it for me, and it was awful. I gave it back. Pete Traynor, a good friend who used to be in a group with Robbie when they were kids, saw it and said, "Give it back, and I'll make you the perfect amp, and it won't cost you a cent." He did! And from that point on he'd just come in and change amps on me, and each one would be better. I used Traynor amps until Ampeg gave us a bunch of stuff, and I've been using them a long time now. I have two Ampeg SBT bass amps, and they're great. They have eight 10" speakers. Usually bass amps just come apart, but these are really tough. The eight 10" speakers are nice, because those 15" ones give you too much flop.

[Rick and Robbie]
Do you alter amp settings much?

Danko: Every night. Onstage, I never put the volume past the nine o'clock position, because the amps are so powerful. The tone settings depend on the location. But we still use small equipment. It's important, because when I'm onstage I stand in the middle of everything, and I really get to hear. It's important that everybody hear everybody. Onstage the volume thing is up to us. The mixing guys aren't involved, because it has to come from the stage before they can project it out. That's why we don't play as loud as most groups. If I turned my bass up to half it would sound like hell, because it would be too loud, and everyone else would have to raise up too much.

Let's go over some of your amps, Robbie.

Robertson: I started with Fender, switched a while, then when we began working with Bob Dylan I went back to Fender. Whatever I used beside Fender just didn't get loud enough. Today I use Music Man amps, and they're all right. They break down a little too much for me, though. They're more powerful than the early Fenders; out of those small Music Man amps you get a bigger sound. They're just powerful, but I have blown out one a couple of times and another one once. I use two amps together--a little Music Man 210 HD, and a bigger 212 HD.

Do you use any sound modification units?

Robertson: No. I mean, I have on occasion, but not usually. I'm much more excited by doing it myself than with a gadget. It always ended up sounding a bit cheap, when I used any of those things.

Any preferred strings?

Robertson: I go from one to another. I don't really prefer any one kind. Some sound better on certain guitars, but I'm not that picky about it. I like regular light-gauge strings.

Danko: Just flat-wound steel strings, that's all.

Does any one person in particular do your guitar work?

Danko: The people at Westwood Music. They are excellent.

Robbie, on your red Strat there's a small grey object right in front of the bridge pickup.

Robertson: That's the one modification that I have on my guitars. I can pull the rear knob up so the guitar is in a straight Strat pickup line; if I push it down it kicks in that rear humbucking pickup.

What makes your picking technique so distinctive?

Robertson: There are two things that changed my playing at a very early age. I was in Canada listening to WLAC from Nashville and also hearing people like Muddy Waters. But I didn't realize that they were using slides, so for years I worked on developing a vibrato technique equivalent to a slide. I didn't find out for ages that these guys weren't doing it with their fingers. It all made me develop a certain style. The other things is that when I was practicing by myself I'd get very bored. So I began using the fingerpicks and flatpick to enable me to keep some kind of rhythm going while I practiced lead. That eventually became a very valuable technique for me. I use a medium flatpick with National fingerpicks on my index and middle fingers.

You're well-known as an incredibly fast picker. Do you hold your pick in some particular way to achieve that speed?

Robertson: Yeah, I hold my pick in specific ways all the time, so that trilling and harmonics come natural. I'm even hitting harmonics when I don't mean to sometimes.

You often hold your middle finger on top of your index finger while flatpicking.

Robertson: I always need to control the distance where I am. I also use the middle finger for harmonics. I know a lot about that harmonic thing, and I'm really used to doing it. I have to deal with a twelve-fret distance, and those frets, by the time you get past the guitar body, are very close together. Sometimes they're really hard to judge; occasionally the harmonic won't come through, depending on how you hold the pick when you hit it. So what I have to do is put my finger on the string in front of the pick when I pick the harmonic. If it doesn't work, it just goes blup, and that really jars my whole motion. But I'm so used to doing it that it comes automatically now. Whether I want a fifth harmonic or a tonal harmonic, whatever kind of overtones I want on that particular harmonic, I know now what I have to do to get that to happen.

Rick, you have a unique way of picking, too.

Danko: On The Band/Dylan tour I broke my right hand in the Plaza Hotel in New York City. We were right in the middle of the tour, and I broke it after the first night at Madison Square Garden. I didn't know it was broken, so I finished out the tour with "a bad sprain." A few months later I was going in for acupuncture, and found that it was broken. Then we did those summer shows with The Band, and I had to get a Fender fretless because on my Ampeg I had to use both fingerpicks and a flatpick, and it wore my hand out. So now I'm using a pick. I don't utilize a baffle, so I just pick and use the back of my hand when it's necessary to mute. My pick is usually a Fender heavy.

Do you ever pick with your fingers?

Danko: When I first started with Ronnie Hawkins I used a pick, because he played a lot of eighth-note stuff, and it would kill my fingers. But then I hit a period when I used my fingers in the studio. You see, I don't play bass that much, so if I were to use my fingers today they'd blister up and fall off. That's why I mainly use a pick. In the studio I still use my fingers, though, but "live" I use a pick for clarity, more punch, more definition.

You have a highly distinctive bass style.

Danko: That's because I don't play bass, I just fill space. You know, Levon's bass drum and the bass really work well together, because we listen to each other. It's not really what you play, but what you leave out, that counts. And when you leave space, it's easier to hear everybody. But if everyone is just up there churnin', it's going to sound like buttermilk.

What are the differences between playing the fretted bass and a fretless? Do they have anything to do with your sliding technique?

Danko: The difference is more than only the wood and the steel. The fretless disciplines you to play in tune--you must listen to everything. It's likely that's what made me begin sliding, sliding up to the exact note. Then it just became a natural thing. it all depends on the situation when it comes to choosing one bass over the other. If the song requires a little warped slide sound, I'll use the fretless; if it needs punch, you've got to get steel against steel instead of steel against wood, so I'll use the fretted bass.

Do you enjoy performing onstage?

Danko: I love it! The Band doesn't perform enough for me. A lot of them don't like it, and I can understand that feeling, too.

Robertson: I enjoy it if I don't do it too much, or when I feel special about it--if I'm not doing it because I have to. If the timing is right, and you haven't done if for a while, then it's nice, it's very exciting.

Do you ever jam or run scales in preparation for going onstage?

Robertson: No. I prepare mostly in my head. It doesn't change anything for me if I jam backstage. But I do get warmed up to a certain extent, but not in the usual sense of limbering up. You're "feeling the water" more.

Danko: For me it's more like psyching myself up. I'm not sure if it's self-hypnosis or meditation; it's like being alone even when there are other people in the room. You can always feed the tension before a show, but it's a good tension. I've noticed that even when see friends play, they have to slip away and meditate before going out. The neat thing about playing "live" is that it's never the same. You do the same songs and the same list, but it's always different. Some nights you'll plan on being perfect, then something will go terribly wrong; everyone just flares their nostrils, throws their shoulders back, and makes up for whatever happened--we end up playing twice as good. Concentration is what makes it all work. Not only the band, but the house mixers, the monitor mixers, the people behind the amps--it's just important to have everybody in the same space.

Were there specific times in your lives when you knew you'd be professional musicians?

Robertson: I realized it in a few stages. I thought about it a lot, but never really knew whether or not it would happen. I would say that when I was about fourteen there was no turning back; by then I was pretty sure that I would be a professional musician.

Danko: I was ready to go to Nashville when I was seven! But then I met some people from there, and it seemed like all the country people drank a lot, and you'd hear about people dying--I was really young, but that kind of changed my mind.

Robbie, did you ever get into session work?

Robertson: I did some here and there, but I wasn't really a session musician. Just when I happened to be somewhere at the same time as something was happening. I did some things with Leiber and Stoller, some R&B sessions. Michael Bloomfield and I hooked up in New York on John Hammond's So Many Roads [Vanguard, 79178]. Michael wasn't much of a guitar player back then, but he was really into it. He played better piano than guitar, so I played guitar, he played piano, Charlie Musselwhite was playing harmonica, and Levon played drums. I was very serious at the time about the instrument. I'd already hung out with some people who'd done The Louisiana Hayride, guys who weren't black--and that's really where the best of those type players were coming from, people like Fred Carter, James Burton, Roy Buchanan. I didn't know James, but I knew Fred Carter very well, and Roy was playing with Dale Hawkins, Ronnie Hawkin's cousin. Roy was as good then as he is now. We were all very serious, guitar battles and everything, and we were only seventeen at the time. Roy was maybe twenty. I took it all to heart for several years, then it got to be a common thing. I started hearing a lot of other people who were getting into that kind of thing, it all became less interesting to me. I began approaching what I wanted to do in a whole other way. It was no longer a matter of learning what it was about, I knew that; it was a matter of figuring how to deal with particular situations. It just changed over the years, and I had a lot of more songwriting to concentrate on.

What does the future hold for you both?

Danko: Well, I think I'm just beginning. I've got The Band to work with, and myself--I've got a solo album on Arista coming out the first of the year--, and I'm working with Rendezvous. I just want to make a lot of good music, good records, and good performances until it gets tiring. I'm not tired at the moment, and so by having a few different outlets I don't have to run anything into the ground.

Robertson: There are many things that I'd like to do and that I'm going to do. Basically, I like to do a little of this, a little of that--some writing, some playing, work with The Band, produce some records, write some stories. I don't like to do any of it all of the time, but I like to do a little bit of all of it. If I can keep juggling it around, it keeps me fascinated with the whole thing. It mostly has to do with music.

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