Robert Cray Discusses Albert Collins, Gear and His New Album in 1989 Guitar World Interview
Robert Cray discusses Albert Collins, gear and his new album, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, in this interview from the January 1989 issue of Guitar World.
Cray still lets loose with a downhome shuffle now and then, as he does so convincingly on “Across The Line" [Don't Be Afraid of the Dark], but the bulk of his new material is geared to the pop market.
Perhaps critic Robin Tolleson put it best recently in the opening of his cover story on Robert for Downbeat: "Cray is to blues what the Yellowjackets are to jazz -- close enough."
Cray, an amiable, unassuming presence in person, seems mystified by all the adulation and success raining down on him. "I don't know, man. It makes me feel good, but I don't understand it," he laughs. "I guess people respond to us because we're pretty accessible. We cover a lot of different musical territory. Somebody might be into the bluesier aspects of our show, somebody else might be into the Stax soul thing that we do. And to me, those things aren't too far away from each other, so a lot of people can really get into our music."
So while the Albert Collins-inspired “Across The Line" will satisfy blues purists, “Acting This Way," with its David Sanborn alto solo, will no doubt appeal to MOR listeners. Cray has it both ways.
Aside from his strong solo style and urgent vocals, Cray's real strength is his rhythm playing. In this age of speed licks and two-handed technique, rhythm guitar playing has become a lost art. Cray could lead a seminar on the subject.
"Some people say, 'Hey, you're not doing so many solos anymore.' Well, that's fine and dandy. I mean, solos aren't the most important thing to me. I really like rhythm guitar playing, too. I like to be a part of a band. I like to play songs, not just solo on and on for ten minutes. I guess that comes from all the soul music I listened to coming up -- Steve Cropper playing all that great rhythm guitar with Booker T & The MG's, Teeny Hodges playing behind Al Green and O.V. Wright.
“And one other guy who really impressed me was John Watkins out of Chicago, playing rhythm behind Albert Collins. I listened closely to all them cats, and it must've sunk in along the way."
Perhaps Cray's current interest in Brazilian music may ultimately result in some new kind of hybrid. Anyone for a shuffle samba in E?
''I've always wanted to play nylon-string guitar in a Brazilian groove," he confesses. "That's a dream I have now, but it really takes a long time to get comfortable with that style of playing. I love that music. I guess my interest was sparked during our recent tour through Brazil. Man, they breathe music down there. That music really touches you. It's all around and you just soak it up when you're down there."
He also mentions that his current listening tastes run to jazz. "I dig Thelonious Monk a whole lot, but I could never play anything like him. I just think you should keep your ears open to a lot of different kinds of music and be aware of what's around you. I don't have to play any of this stuff for public consumption, but I still want to know about it. And maybe in some way it does eventually come out in my music."
He may never make another stone blues album again, but one thing is for certain: He ain't gonna starve going in the direction he staked out on Strong Persuader and carried through on Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark. Cray already paid his dues playing Howlin' Wolf staples all over Oregon, Washington and Northern California during the seventies.
He's not entirely turned his back on the 12-bar shuffle, but it seems now that he's honing a new reputation as a kind of poet laureate of the contemporary blues scene. There's no turning back after platinum. Strong Persuader was the sound of Cray's ship coming in. Now he's packing arenas all over the free world instead of kicking around funky blues clubs in Eugene.
A movie contract can't be too far off. After all, he's got The Look.
A Robert Cray Axology
FOR HIS FINE debut album, Who's Been Talkin', Cray played a Gibson 345 stereo guitar. It gave him a darker sound than he's currently getting on Stratocasters.
"I had a real deep sound on that album because of all the low end I'd get with the humbuckers, and from the fact that I'd play a lot on the bass pickup. But then maybe a year after that record was recorded, I switched to a Stratocaster. The Gibson was cool 'cause it had a six-position switch, but it was really too much on the low end and too bright at the high end. And I especially like that Fender sound for rhythm playing. I've been a Fender man ever since."
His main ax is an ugly green '64 Strat with jumbo frets. He recorded most of Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark with that one, alternating with a '57 sunburst Strat (pictured on the cover of last year's Grammy Award-winning Strong Persuader). On tour, he also carries a new American Standard Strat that contains the pickups from another '64 Strat he had. He also has a red Japanese reissue Strat with low-impedance pickups. The American Standard Strat has a maple fingerboard; the rest of Cray's guitars are fitted with rosewood.
Live, Cray plays through two Fender Super Reverb amplifiers. In the studio, he uses a set-up of a Super Reverb and a Twin Reverb. On stage, he sets his volume on five, the treble and middle on 10 and the bass at about four. The bright switch remains on and the reverb is set at about three, though he says, "I'm looking for a different reverb sound now ... maybe an SPX90 or some Lexicon system."
Until then, the guitar roadie will continue to walk out on stage and crank up the reverb during Cray's solo on "I Can't Go Home," then turn it back down to three before heading for the wings. It's a primitive method, but then Cray hasn't yet gone in for any pedals or effects whatsoever. "I'm just a plain o1' guy," he laughs. "Just straight to the amp for me and I'm off and running."
He uses D’Addario strings, fairly heavy gauge -- .O11, .013, .018, .028, .036 and .046. He plays with extra heavy tortex picks and will occasionally reach in with his third or fourth finger to pull at the strings, a la Albert Collins.
Cray doesn't use the wang bar, but shakes the strings pretty nicely with a natural vibrato he's developed. "I worked that out a long time ago from listening to B.B. King stuff," he says. "And also, I used to play with real heavy strings, like a .013 on the high E. I didn't know they made lighter strings for the longest time, so I just kept struggling with these heavies. Now, if I ever pick up a guitar with light gauge strings and really let loose on a .009, it goes right off the neck.
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