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Robbie Robertson: From The Hawks To The Band

From the book The Legends of Rock Guitar, 1979. The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.
Book cover - front

Book cover - back

Robbie had tried to get Kenny Paulsen, Ronnie Hawkins' original guitarist, to teach him how to play - Paulsen, with a good eye for the competition told the kid to get lost...
--Greil Marcus in Mystery Train (Omnibus Press, 1977)
"When I was about ten I had some cousins who played guitar and were into country music," Robertson told Steve Caraway in 1978. "Hearing them play just rang a bell with me." Robertson began taking guitar lessons soon afterward, "finding out what it was all about." By the time he was 16 years old Robbie was good enough to join The Hawks, backing up the roughly hewn vocals of Ronnie Hawkins. "For a couple of years, from like sixteen to eighteen, I practiced ruthlessly."

Robertson was brought up in Toronto, Canada, where he discovered unusual recordings by Willie Johnson, James Burton, Hubert Sumlin - music that made him yearn for American soil. Toronto, was too provincial, too remote. Joining up with Arkansas drummer Levon Helm, bassist Rick Danko and Ronnie Hawkins, Robertson honed his skills on a series of Gibson, but mostly Fender guitars.

"There are two things that changed my playing at a very early age," he told Steve Caraway. He had been listening to a Nashville radio station at night, as well as artists like Muddy Waters. Not realizing that these artists were getting their slinky, droning sound from a slide, Robertson worked for years "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." Robertson also, "began using the fingerpicks and flat picks to enable me to keep some kind of rhythm going while I practiced lead. That eventually became a very valuable technique for me."

In the mid '60's, Bob Dylan hired the Hawks as his back-up band, taking them throughout Europe and the United States. Robertson's sparse, unaffected style bloomed during those tours, his high-pitched, chime-like solos were a perfect complement to Dylan's raspy vocals.

Robertson became a master at the Strat or Telecaster sound. Moving to Woodstock, New York, the Hawks underwent a metamorphosis into The Band, recording the "Basement Tapes" while preparing for their first Capitol album Music From Big Pink. The sound was unique, vital and captivating. The songs - mostly penned by Robertson, Danko and Manuel - were deeply rooted in America's past; they evoked a bygone world of pioneers, down-home country folk and earthy struggle. Robbie's playing became more and more passionate as the Band's popularity grew. His 'harmonics', generally picked on the 12th fret, finally defined his unique sound. Robbie Robertson combined these harmonics with upper-end string bending to great effect. Check out his playing, rhythm and lead on "Across The Great Divide," "This Wheel's On Fire," "Up On Cripple Creek" and "The Shape I'm In" and you'll see just what we're talking about.

Writer Greil Marcus described Robertson's playing as "hide and seek guitar," which is about as close as you can come to it in words. Robertson's contribution, as a guitarist and a songwriter, can not be denied. After playing for over 20 years, Robbie Robertson virtually hung up his guitar after The Band performed at The Last Waltz in 1976 in San Francisco. One can only hope he'll reappear once again in the future.

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