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Joe Robinson: “I definitely come from the same school as Tommy Emmanuel, which is influenced by Jerry Reed, Lenny Breau, Merle Travis and Chet Atkins”

Joe Robinson
(Image credit: Kane Hibberd)

Can you tell us how the album sessions for Borders unfolded? 

“I recorded the album during lockdown, which was quite a fun experience, honestly. And I recorded it, start to finish, in 30 days. I knew I wanted to make an album of songs about missing my fiancée, who was in Canada [while I was in Nashville]. So, you know, the border has been closed for most of the year from Canada to the US. I was recently able to go and visit. But, before then, I couldn’t see my fiancée for seven months or so.  

“So I had a collection of songs about that experience saved up and I went into a studio with a great session drummer in Nashville, Nir Z, who played on John Mayer’s debut album. He’s a studio staple here in town. And Bernard Harris came in and played bass. Bernard and I had worked together a lot in the past and he’s a great player. We cut the songs at Nir’s studio, wearing masks and staying at a pretty spacedout distance. And then I finished the tracks in my home studio.  

“Since it came out, I’ve had a really wonderful response from the album. I’ve been playing weekly livestream concerts on YouTube and Facebook and hit the Top 10 livestream charts, which I didn’t even know was a thing. I’ve had amazing support from some people out there. I’m looking forward to recording some more music here soon.” 

Your fingerstyle playing on the album follows in the footsteps of Merle Travis and Chet Atkins and is incredibly dextrous. Why were you drawn to that style? 

“The instrument becomes this little orchestra, you know? You have rhythm and melody and harmony, and it’s fun to work with the limitations of having five fingers on each hand. And I use my pinky on my right hand for playing, too. I try to make the most of every finger, and there are so many great songs to arrange – I love writing for fingerstyle. I guess there’s something that really appeals to me about this self-contained element of it.” 

How much of an influence has fellow Australian fingerstyle-wizard Tommy Emmanuel been on your playing? 

“Tommy has been a great mentor… I first met [the late] Phil Emmanuel, who is Tommy’s older brother, and they grew up playing as a duo in Australia. That’s really how Tommy established a name in Australia, as one half of the Emmanuel Brothers. Phil took me under his wing and took me on tour with him. He ended up calling Tommy and said, ‘I got this young guitarist and he needs to meet you. He needs to come over to Nashville.’ 

“I borrowed $10,000 from my grandparents, actually, and then my mother and I flew over from Australia to Nashville. We met Tommy and went around Nashville and played for anyone who’d listen. I ended up developing a lot of friendships and contacts and moving here when I was 18. So Tommy was really the conduit to that. Now I’ve performed shows in Asia and Europe and all across the States, but he’s just a constantly inspiring person and a great friend and mentor.” 

How much of your sound on the album is thumbpick-based? 

“I use a thumbpick a lot. I use a straight pick, too… but when playing solo guitar I’m pretty much always using a thumbpick. I definitely come from the same school as Tommy, which is influenced by Jerry Reed and Lenny Breau and Merle Travis and Chet Atkins. It requires a particular kind of position of the right hand, which is very different to classical playing – I don’t use fingernails at all on my right hand. So that’s kind of where my technique comes from.” 

Thumbpicks can be tricky to get to grips with – why did you decide to make the effort? 

“I think they offer really nice articulation as opposed to using the bare flesh of a thumb. However, the bare flesh of a thumb can sound really warm. But I think the thumbpick is really worth persevering with to get that nice articulation. 

“The place to start is learning really simple fingerstyle songs like Windy & Warm and Freight Train that Chet Atkins arranged for guitar. They sound simple, but they’re deceptively difficult to play. 

“Once you get the elementary mechanics of the right hand feeling somewhat comfortable, the world of fingerstyle can open up. It’s a really versatile technique. I live in Nashville and I’ve been playing with Emmylou Harris in her band on and off. And I’m playing some of Albert Lee’s guitar parts and I play them with the thumbpick and fingerstyle.

“I just find that you can really cover a lot of ground, and the thumbpick allows you to get a little more articulation and detail, as opposed to just using the fingers or even hybrid picking, which some people do where you have an extra finger with a thumbpick.”

Joe Robinson

(Image credit: Katie Kreiser)

What was your go-to gear for the tracks? 

“I have a 1958 Gretsch Country Club, which I believe was the only year they made the stereo pickup configuration: three polepieces on the neck pickup, which does the top three strings, and three on the bridge pickup, which goes to the lower three strings. You can route them to two separate amps and get a true stereo recording, which is pretty cool. 

“I usually use a little Fender amp – in the studio I often use a Champ. I have a ’65 Champ and I have a few other black-panel amps, a Bandmaster and a Showman. I use a 115 cab with those amps sometimes. For pedals, I keep it pretty simple – an overdrive and an echo, and that’s pretty much it. 

“Sometimes I play Strats and Teles, and I have a Music Man Valentine guitar that’s really great. But my acoustic sound is really the Maton guitars, which are made in Australia. I have my own signature model that just came out this past year – it’s called the JR Signature and it features unique Australian tonewoods, Tasmanian, on the back and sides. It’s really a fantastic instrument.”

  • Borders is out now via Joe’s Garage.
Jamie Dickson

Jamie Dickson is Editor-in-Chief of Guitarist magazine, Britain's best-selling and longest-running monthly for guitar players. He started his career at the Daily Telegraph in London, where his first assignment was interviewing blue-eyed soul legend Robert Palmer, going on to become a full-time author on music, writing for benchmark references such as 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die and Dorling Kindersley's How To Play Guitar Step By Step. He joined Guitarist in 2011 and since then it has been his privilege to interview everyone from B.B. King to St. Vincent for Guitarist's readers, while sharing insights into scores of historic guitars, from Rory Gallagher's '61 Strat to the first Martin D-28 ever made.