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Robert Randolph: Going Back to the Roots

Originally published in Guitar World, September 2010

The pedal-steel guitarist returns to sacred ground on We Walk This Road.

The pedal steel guitar has its share of virtuosos, but Robert Randolph is the spidery instrument’s first rock star. In the past three years he’s traded licks around the world with Eric Clapton as Slowhand’s hand-picked opener, he’s become the new-guy ruler of jam fest Bonnaroo, and he’s sparred with Joe Satriani, Buddy Guy, and other major badasses on Experience Hendrix tours.

Now the genial 29-year-old, who picks a 13-string Jackson pedal steel with the sleight-of-hand dexterity of Ricky Jay, has come full circle. Randolph’s new We Walk This Road, produced by T-Bone Burnett, revisits his own gospel-music background, and then some.

“This album celebrates the last 100 years of American roots music,” Randolph says. “We go back to spiritualss and Blind Willie Johnson, but we use that historic inspiration to drive our songs toward the present and future, with a message of hope.”

Raised as a “slide brother” in the House of God, a Pentecostal faith that’s used steel guitar in its services since the Thirties, Randolph crossed over in 2000, leaving his New Jersey home to play a mix of gospel and pop R&B classics in New York City clubs. He also cofounded alt-roots supergroup the Word, then cut three raucous albums with his group Family Band.

There’s not a speck of dust on the feel-good We Walk This Road, thanks to Randolph’s high-energy amalgamation of funk, rock, blues, jazz and pure zinging sound. Tunes like “I Still Belong to Jesus” blend the energy of the roadhouse and the zeal of the church. Randolph blurs sweet, voice-like phrasing with state-of-the-blurt stomp boxes like the Crowther Prunes and Custard distortion. And he owns a singular style of jet-speed single-note picking inspired by his fret-burning six-string hero Stevie Ray Vaughan.

“It took me a long time to develop a technique on steel to plays as precise as Stevie,” Randolph relates. “I use string blocking with my thumb in front of the slide bar, so the bar won’t make other strings ring. Plus, I wear extra-tight metal picks—so tight they hurt sometimes. That’s the only way I can hit those super-fast licks.”

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