ROBERT CRAY

By Paul Guy

Interview for FUZZ 4/97

Text © Paul Guy 1997


Robert Cray website

I read that you started playing piano when you were living in Germany - how long did you study piano?

I only played piano for a couple or three years. I started like most kids do, taking classical lessons. But that didn't last too long, just till we moved back to the States and I picked up the guitar.

What was your very first guitar?

You ever heard of the company called Harmony?

Oh yeah.

Well I got a Harmony, my first was an acoustic guitar, it was called a Sovereign. And then about two months later I got an electric, that's what I really wanted in the first place. That had like one pickup on it, and I had a little Gibson Kalamazoo amplifier.

You were playing more rock when you started, is that correct?

I played just about everything that was on the radio. When I first started playing, me and my friends up and down the street, you know, we'd listen to the radio and we'd steal songs. But I was taking lessons at the same time at first, so I'd just take anything I could.

Were there any particular guitar players at that time that you really tried to emulate?

When I really got into the guitar players - cause first of all, playing, I wasn't really following any one particular guitar player till people like Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix became like, guitar legends, you know, for kids our age at that point. And that's when I started listening to all the guitar players. And then B.B. King and Buddy Guy and all them fellows, you know.

It always amazes me, how so many of your generation of American blues players refer back to the English players. So many people have this attitude that only black Americans can play the blues, but black Americans don't seem to think so...

(Laughs) Yeah, I think what it is basically, it's a matter of trying to hold on to something sacred, you know. I think no matter who's playing the music, as long as it grabs you, it's good.

Who would you say was your biggest influence as far as blues guitarists are concerned?

That I can't really put my finger on, because there's so many that offer different kinds of feels. I got the good fortune of working with Albert Collins, you know, a little bit earlier. So he probably had a big influence on my style. But - there was a whole lot of other people who've had a big influence too, because you know, you've got B.B. King, who speaks to you with such eloquence. And you have Albert King with all his fire and passion, and I don't think anybody could pull strings like Albert King. And it's really strange, too, these guys were actually portraying their personality. A big-statured person like Albert King played a big-sounding guitar. The gentleman that B.B. King is, he speaks to you in a gentlemanly way. And it goes on and on for all the other guitar players Buddy Guy can be real frantic, and sometimes that's his personality. Otis Rush, mysterious man, plays a mysterious minor-key style blues that I like. So everybody had their different things, and those were the kind of things I liked listening to from different guitar players.

Well you certainly have your own unique sound, so I guess it's a mixture of all that, and then your own personality...

It's a mixture of all of it, yeah, and then plus other things that I listened to coming up my parents had a big influence upon my music style too, cause they listened to blues, and jazz, and gospel and the top 40 R & B in the fifties and sixties whatever was around had an influence, you know.

So many people think the blues just came from Africa, and through the southern states, and the slave songs and everything, but when you really listen to the blues, there's a lot of influences from European music there too, I think.

Oh yeah, and a lot of blues players you know, they had radios, they listened to everything else that was on the radio too! Pop songs, you know so it's like, everybody picks up a little bit of everything.

On your first records you tended to use kind of a more traditional blues format, where your latest record it's still the blues, obviously, but you've brought a lot more R & B and soul into it Do you think you'll continue on that track, or do you think you'll go back towards a more traditional format?

No, you know what, there's never really a set format when we go into the studio, it all depends what kind of songs we come up with before we go into the studio. As long as the song is good, we'll go in and do it. This time, we rehearsed, and we were trying to think of where we wanted to record again, and we wanted to get out of the Bay area and so we decided upon going to Memphis, and obviously while we're in Memphis we're going to use the Memphis Horns. When those guys come in and they put their stamp on everything, it all just kind of fell into place. And that's how it goes! We don't sit down and say now we're going to do a blues album this time, or an R & B album this time, it's just, you know, whatever happens.

Do you have a personal favourite of all your own albums?

Uhhh - I don't think so. No there were some exciting times back around when we made Midnight Stroll, because it was such a great band. We had Tim Kaihatsu on guitar, and we were travelling with the Memphis Horns I just remember the excitement at that time, being in the studio Dennis Walker was involved in the production as well, so that album was a whole lot of fun. But I don't know which one is my favourite, because there's always a ballad or something like that or a slow blues on just about all of them that just kind of grabbed me, so I don't know, it's hard to pick.

You have a great band nowadays, too I was so impressed with Jimmy Pugh's work on John Lee's latest record, that guy just plays so good.

Jimmy Pugh is *bad*!

Can you tell me something about the guys in your band, how long have you all been together?

Jim (Pugh, keyboards) and Kevin (Hayes, drums) joined the band in 89. Karl Sevareid (bass) joined maybe 91 or 92. So we're the quartet right now. But we will be doing some dates with the Memphis Horns as well. We're going out on tour with B.B., and Tower of Power, and one other band.

How do you go about writing songs?

I'm not one to sit down and say, I'm going to write a song. The only way I can do it is when an idea comes up, whether it be lyrically or musically, but usually it's the music, obviously, is going to come first. And some kind of idea that'll lead me into finishing the music and then usually what I do is, I try to finish up the story.

Do you write about personal experiences, or is it more abstract?

I can go back in my memories and grab hold of an idea and wring it out, for something I'm familiar with, like everybody can but that's not all of it, a lot of it is just, you know, stories. Just ideas.

You play hardtail Strats most of the time, don't you?

Yeah.

Do you ever use anything else?

Just on occasion, I have a guitar by James Trussart, he's out of Paris it's one of his hollow steel-bodied Telecasters, with a rosewood neck. It's a unique-sounding guitar. Because of the hollow body, it's really temperamental. It's not very good under stage lights for long periods of time. But it's kinda cool because you can tighten or loosen the body for a Dobro kind of sound.

How do you feel new guitars compare to the old ones?

I think new guitars are great. I think they've learned so much more you know, if people want to get that old sound all it is, for solid body guitars, it's just the lack of knowledge in the old days of electronics (laughs)! Now they can copy everything, you know. That's my opinion, anyway. The new guitars are great! That's all I use on stage.
Same in the studio.

A lot of people think that the old guitars sound better cause the wood has aged, and all that.

On a solid body guitar? No, I don't think so. I think new guitars are great!

What string gauge do you use?

I put together my own set I use an 11 for the E, 13, 18, 28, 36 and 46.

Have you ever tuned down, or do you always tune in E?

Always in E, yeah.

Do you use any effects at all?

As a matter of fact, on this record I did. I bought a Roland Space Echo about 4 or 5 years ago cause I always wanted to use an echo on something and I finally found a couple of ideas for a couple of the songs on this record, and so I used it on "I Can't Quit" for a nice slapback, and on the song "Back Home". So that's just beside using reverb and vibrato.

I thought I heard a touch of UniVibe or something like that on one of the tracks

That's a Magnatone amplifier, with a stereo vibrato. It's like the pitch-bending stereo vibrato, it's a true vibrato.

What amps do you use?

Matchless. Clubman 35. I use two of them and then on stage, my guitar tech made something that's actually the exact same unit as the Magnatone stereo vibrato, and so I can run the two amps when I use that effect, it goes from speaker to speaker, side to side in stereo. Before the Matchless I was using Super Reverbs, I like the 4 x 10 inch speakers. See, people talk about guitars, but I like amplifiers. I'd collect amplifiers if I could. I have a lot of Fenders and whatnot. But that's what I like for sounds, I think that's what keeps you in pretty good shape.

Are you fussy about pickups?

No, I'm not. Just give me something that works, and the things don't break, it's OK. I do need to get my bridge saddles fixed you know, you get a burr on the bridge, and they cut the strings a lot.

How many guitars do you carry on the road?

Oh, probably about four or five.

What kind of advice would you give to young guys just starting out to learn to play blues guitar? What do you think is the most important thing to think about?

You have to get a picture in your mind about why a person is saying what he's saying on the instrument, cause it kind of gives you an idea of the emotion in the song, cause that's what it's all about, you're emoting there when you're playing. It's not about trying to get everything and put it all out there at one time, cause playing is like conversation, you're talking to somebody, or you're shouting at somebody, that's how you feel at that particular moment. So that's the kind of thing I would point out.

How do you feel about all the fast players who try to play blues?

I don't have any room for it! It doesn't do anything for me, it's not impressive. I don't understand the reason for it. But you know, each to his own.

Have you heard any new blues players recently who have really impressed you?

I don't know of any really new ones, but I've been listening to Keb' Mo', and there's some favourites here in the Bay area that have been around for a long time Little Charlie I don't know, I haven't seen much out there that's made me go nuts for a while.

Do you enjoy the Texas players like Stevie Ray?

I'm one of Jimmie Vaughan's biggest fans! I think Jimmie Vaughan's got it all wrapped up. He's got the feel.

Do you still listen to the older players like T-Bone, people like that?

Yeah every once in a while. There was a time when I just immersed myself in all that. Now I just take an attitude where I'll just put on anything. I'll probably put on Howlin' Wolf more than just about anybody these days, cause that man he's just sick. I just get locked up in the groove that this man lays down. And then that voice kicks in, and I just drop on the floor. He's just too funky and too heavy.

You've played with a lot of these guys, like B.B. and Albert, and Albert Collins what was the biggest thrill for you?

Every one. Every one was really cool. But the one that really stands out was getting to play with Muddy. We were lucky enough to do six dates on the West Coast with Muddy and me, I just wanted to talk with him. Because he's like him, he's the man, you know. I knocked on the door and went in and chatted with him before one of the shows, and I wound up sitting with him before and after every show. We got along really well we'd sit there and sip his champagne, he loved champagne and strawberries and then he would invite me up on the stage to sing with him on one of the songs, Mannish Boy. It was a big thrill. And then the last show, it was the Sacramento Blues Festival, and I was invited to play guitar on the whole set with him, and it was a big thrill. It was a lot of fun.

I liked your bit in "Hail, Hail Rock'n'Roll", too

Yeah, that was a gas, too.

Much as I respect and love Chuck, you didn't really get a terribly nice impression of him from that movie, though.

Yeah, that's the way I thought, too. But being there was a whole different story for me, I was like the young kid there, you know, the new kid on the block he treated me real nice, we got along pretty good. But I saw the whole thing, and like Keith's trying to do this thing out of respect for Chuck, you know, and I don't think Chuck was as trusting as he should have been. Because I don't think he's really ever trusted anybody, is what that movie portrayed. If he would have just relaxed a little bit more, everything could have proven to be a lot smoother. But basically, it's a pretty good movie.

Well thanks a lot for your time, I just want to tell you that I grew up with the blues, and I'm real glad it's still there. I don't want to watch MTV!

Hell, no!

Text © Paul Guy 1997

Interview for FUZZ magazine 4/97

Robert Cray website