RONNIE EARL - THE SPIRIT OF TONE

 

 

Ronnie Earl is currently in the middle of an extremely successful tour in support of his latest release (his first for the legendary Verve label) entitled "The Colour of Love." Ronnie is considered by critics, fans, and musicians alike to be one of the greatest guitarists to ever grace this planet, and his music truly transcends genres and touches the soul. Be it jazz, blues, or standards, his dynamic approach to playing is respectful of his influences and at the same time transporting jazz and blues into the next millenium. With the support of his new label, it seems that Ronnie will finally achieve the widespread recognition he deserves. A guitarist for almost twenty years, Ronnie’s playing embraces warmth, soul, and power. B.B. King has said of Earl "I feel the respect and affection for him that a father feels for his son. He is one of the most serious blues guitarists you can find today. He makes me proud."

The first time I had the honor of opening for Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters with my band The Delrays, I was in musical heaven until I noticed he and Jaimoe (Allman Bros. drummer) sitting in the front row. Talk about stage fright! Sensing this, Ronnie went out of his way to encourage us and make us feel comfortable that night. He is as much an inspiration as a person as he is as a player.

Tom Guerra: Congratulations on "The Colour of Love" Ronnie, its a great album and its an honor speaking to you today. The thing I like about it is it covers a whole variety of styles. How did you pick the material for it?

Ronnie Earl: Oh thank you, its an honor to talk to you too! I wrote the album last year, 8 tunes for it, and Bruce (Katz - former keyboard player) wrote two, and we covered "Round Midnight". A common thread of most of my albums over the past five years is that we cover one tune, but it has to be very special, because the only way I feel I’m contributing to the music is if I write. I could do Magic Sam and T-Bone Walker tunes, but there’s no point, because I’d rather just listen to the originals. The genuine thread that runs throughout my albums is soul. Every song I write and play, has to have a spiritual soulfulness, and that’s what I look for in the cover versions, too.

TG: This album represents a lot of firsts for you, including working with legendary producer Tom Dowd. What did you enjoy the most about working with him?

RE: Tom Dowd was beautiful to work with. He did Cream, Allman Bros, and Layla, which I consider Clapton’s best work. Not to say I don’t like what he’s doing today, because I do. But Tom also did Coltrane, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles…all my favorites. If I was alone on a desert island, and you left me three albums, they’d be albums that Tom Dowd produced. He just kind of let me do my own thing, which I greatly appreciated.

TG: How does working for the Verve label differ from your work with Rounder Records and Audioquest?

RE: It’s really nice being on Verve, it was one of my goals and dreams to be on a major label.

TG: And Gregg Allman on "Everyday Kind of Man"? That’s a great cut! What was working with him and Jaimoe like?

RE: Thank you. It is great working with them. Duane Allman is one of my favorite guitar players of all time, even though I don’t play like him, and I never got to see him. By the time I got to see The Allman Bros, Duane had just died, in fact, the first show they did without him was at my college. But I believe in a higher power and there are no coincidences, and Jaimoe just kinda found me. He started calling me up around the time "Grateful Heart" was released, and he said "you know, no matter what anybody tells you, don’t change anything that you’re doing, because your "Live in Europe" and "Grateful Heart" are great, and if I could be doing anything else besides the Allman Bros. Band, I’d be doing what you’re doing." So I said, well, why don’t you just play with us (laughs), so he did, and ended up doing quite a few shows. He was magical and great, with no rehearsals! So, through him I met Gregg and rest of The Allman Bros, and jammed with them, and Dickie also sat in with us when we opened with him. I feel a closeness with those guys.

TG: What guitars and amplifiers did you use on the new record?

RE: Tony Levas, my best friend, who’s a great guitar player and has played with us in Europe, bought me a beautiful 1960 re-issue Les Paul. So I used that on some cuts, "Heart of Glass" which I dedicated to Peter Green, and I got that out-of-phase Les Paul sound that he was famous for.

TG: Did you have that in the middle pickup position for that tone?

RE: Yes, I did. I really have to admit to you, though, that I’m not a big equipment person. I think you should like the instrument and it should work well, but the rest is you.

I do have 5 old Stratocasters, my favorite fiesta red ’62 that I call Mahalia, a blonde ’57, a daphne blue ’57 that was a gift from a fan, a ’59 sunburst and a ’62 sunburst. I have a Gibson ES-5 which I used on some of the latest album. I also have a Gibson 295 reissue, and a Gibson Switchmaster Historical Series reissue that I just recently got, because I didn’t want to take the ES-5 on the road. I also don’t take the fiesta red ’62 on the road anymore. As far my guitar setups, Jim Mouradian of Cambridge, Massachusetts is what I call my "spiritual guitar tech" and I thank him for all his fine work. Tony is my road tech and he works on my guitars too, in fact, you should just call the article ‘TONY LEVAS’ and in little letters, ‘with ronnie earl!’ (laughs).

For amps, I use old blackface Fenders - a Twin Reverb, and a Super Reverb. I’ve used these exclusively on the last 5 albums. I’ve never used anything but Fender amps.

TG: Do you still use a Leslie for live shows?

RE: Yes, I use a Fender Leslie live sometimes.

TG: Thinking back to the old days, what caused you to pick up a guitar in the first place, and who were your early influences as a guitarist, and what drew you to them?

RE: Listening to Wes (Montgomery) and Kenny Burrell, and one of my favorite guitar players in the world is Pat Martino, who has become a good friend of mine, because we’ve run into each other at festivals in Europe, and I told him I was listening to him before I even started playing. So, I was listening to a lot of jazz guys, not just guitarists, but guys like Coltrane, Monk, and Mingus, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Then I got into the blues legends after seeing B.B. and Albert King at the Fillmore, and Muddy Waters. Around this time I moved up to Boston and started playing, and would go see Freddie King and Howlin’ Wolf with Hubert Sumlin, who’s a dear friend now, and I was on my way.

Today, I love Jimmie Vaughan, I love George Benson’s playing, Pat Martino, Kenny Burrell, Tuck Andress, and Duke Robillard. I also love Sue Foley’s soulfulness, she is from Austin but now lives in Ottawa. And I love Peter Green, everything he does, even today. People have criticized what he is doing today, but I think its a beautiful miracle that he’s playing!

TG: How about your all-time favorite setup?

RE: Probably the fiesta red ’62 Stratocaster through the Twin Reverb and the Super Reverb.

TG: Ronnie, you’ve played with just about everyone. Can you tell us about some of your highlights in terms of jamming with some of your heroes?

RE: Well, there was a time in Texas when I played with Muddy Waters. Jimmie Vaughan was on one side, and I was on the other. Also, the times I’ve played with B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, and Otis Rush, who is probably one of my all-time favorite blues guitarists. Playing in Duane’s spot with Dickie Betts is always really wonderful. And I can’t forget one of my other favorites, Carlos Santana. Carlos is more of a musical and spiritual teacher to me than someone I’ve gotten riffs from, because he is big on having your own sound. I’ve sat in with him in front of 20-30,000 people for a set, and its a riot, he won’t even tells me the keys or names of the songs (laughs)…I guess he respects my musicianship! And playing with non-guitarists like (harp player) Big Walter Horton was great.

TG: I think your playing changed a lot in between your stint with Roomful of Blues and your solo career? Did you do a lot of woodshedding in between? Your playing took on a whole new depth…

RE: Thank you. I didn’t think my recordings with Roomful were that good, we had such a big band, there was never any money to spend on the records, and as a result, the sound and the mix suffered greatly. But after I left, I immediately went into my own band "The Broadcasters" and started playing my own stuff. There was no time in between, but I did get sober after I left Roomful…

TG: Your struggles with addiction, depression, and your eventual recovery are well documented, and have been an inspiration to many musicians, me and my bandmates alike. How did you finally decide it was time?

RE: Well, it was nine years ago this month, I was on the road in Dearborn, Michigan, and I woke up one morning after having done a bunch of coke, valium, and alcohol - that combination will kill you and I must have done it thousands of times - and I said ‘I can’t live like this anymore, God, help me.’ I was alone in a cheap hotel in Michigan. It was then and there that I went to my first Twelve Step meeting, and I’ve been going ever since…that’s why I tell people now that I was born in Michigan. I guess my message is you don’t have to kill yourself to play the blues or be an artist. God wants us to be happy, joyous, and free. Musical success is relative - I’m not playing in stadiums, but I’m playing what I want. And look at poor Danny Gatton, who I also played with…that was a big wake up call for me. If you consider being successful being on the cover of every guitar magazine I ever saw, then he was, but then he took his own life. So yes, your career is important, but its not everything. There’s baseball, there’s life, its a big world out there, you know? There’s your wife - I’m recently married, its been eight months….and I think the biggest riches in life are friendships!

TG: Many people have said that they get a feeling of warmth, depth and soul when they see you play live, and I must agree. It’s very similar to the first time I saw B.B. King. It just draws you in like a religious experience. How do you achieve this?

RE: I don’t know really, I’m very grateful to my audiences that they have not given up on me, and they keep coming. I’m going to Australia and New Zealand next month for some shows. I’m not trying to make it a religious experience…if it is, that’s great. I’d call it more of a spiritual experience. But that’s what music is supposed to do…I went to see Bob Dylan a few weeks ago, and it was very spiritual, even though he didn’t talk to the audience except to introduce his band. So if you are being true to yourself and have gratitude, it will come out in the music and the performance.

TG: You’ve also taught at several seminars and guitar clinics, sharing techniques and styles. Do you believe you can teach someone how to play with soul?

RE: I’ve never, ever considered myself a great technician, and I don’t think I have very good technique at all actually, but I think I try to project soul. Yes, I do try to teach people to play with soul and feeling, and to not pay so much attention to playing 90 miles per hour, or to get in as many notes in as possible. I tell people to just milk those notes.

TG: I noticed that you changed your band around for this latest tour? What caused you to change the Broadcasters lineup? What do you look for in a band?

RE: Well, it was time for a change, and change is good. As far as what I look for, its people playing with dynamics, soul, the stuff we talked about. As far as the band, I’ve played on and off with Anthony Geraci (keyboards) and Michael "Mudcat" Ward (standup bass) for 20 years. (Note to Editor: Ronnie requested that you put in a picture of Mudcat in the article).

TG: The thing I always have noticed, from your early days with Roomful to the present day, is your tone has always been right there… Its great regardless of whether you are playing a $10,000 vintage Stratocaster or a copy…and I’ve seen you play both. How do you do it?

RE: Well, I think its me just being an antenna for my higher power to play through me, and then it gets played through my guitar.

TG: Your live shows are built upon the sometimes lost art of dynamics. You bring things down to a whisper and then build up until you rip people’s heads off. How did you master this?

RE: Well, I didn’t know that I had mastered it (laughs)! I like to pull people in by playing quietly and then bring it up, like a tension and a release.

TG: "Live In Europe" has got to be one of the all time great live guitar albums, and if any of our readers haven’t heard it yet, I strongly suggest they pick it up. What was your setup on this record?

RE: Thank you! I was actually using some Fender amps they gave me in Germany, they weren’t even my own. I only used one guitar on that record, it was Mahalia, the red ’62 Strat. I’m glad you like that album!

TG: Thank you very much for your time Ronnie... As winner of the W.C. Handy 1997 Best Blues Guitarist, what advice can you give to aspiring and professional players alike?

RE: Thank you, its been great speaking to you Tom! As far as advice to all musicians, well, don’t ever give up on the dream, and don’t listen to criticism. I don’t listen to it. Don’t let anyone ever take your music away from you, and very simply, "to thine own self be true!"





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