By: Alan Paul
For: Guitar World
This story should have been up a week ago, so I’m going to dispense with a flowery introduction and cut right to the chase. The Allman Brothers Band 2003 rock all over the place.
I’ve had the pleasure of seeing three of their 13 sold-out shows at New York’s Beacon Theater and I can assure you they are playing with more fire confidence and creativity than I’v e heard in a long time. I was none too happy to see the band part ways with Dickey Betts three years ago and I still love Dickey’s playing to death, but it seems like something that had to happen and the proof is in the pudding. In Betts’ last year with the band, they often seemed to be going through the motions. Now, they are clearly reinvigorated.
The Allmans just released their first new studio album in nine years and Hittin’ the Note is a great piece of work, filled with memorable songs, fiery playing and all the great Allman Brothers trademarks. All the other elements are in place, including a clearly rejuvenated Gregg Allman, but what’s firing the band is the guitar team of Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks, w ho combine with freaky good bassist Oteil Burbridge to give the Allmans the most dynamic, invigorating, creative frontline in all of contemporary jam.
Haynes, Trucks and Jimmy Herring are the cream of the crop in contemporary rock, the only players with complete command of the entire history of straight-forward rock guitar, from its blues roots on up. Haynes is also well versed in the great, largely forgotten blues rock stylings of Alvin lee, Leslie West, Rory Gallagher and others, while Trucks is more attuned to esoteric and world music. Together, they represent the best two-guitar team out there today, with the only competition coming from Haynes and Herring when Phil and Friends was active.
Live, they are a wonder, and Haynes is also a fantastic bandleader, a commanding singer and a great songwriter. He has now reenergized my favorite band for a second time (the first was when they reformed back in ’89). So, thanks, Warren. But don’t take my word for it – just listen to Hittin’ the Note (click here to buy it). And wait until you get a load of the DVD and live album they recorded at the Beacon.
What follows is a continuation of the interview with Derek and Warren that appears in the May issue of Guitar World. If you like this, you have to have that, so run don’t walk to the newsstand and buy it. As always, feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions or comments.
GW: Each of you is used to being “the slide guy.” Does having another slide player in the band change your approach?
HAYNES: Well, we decided to take turns playing it on all the old tunes, which meant that we to relearn all the songs to get to know the other parts. I always played the same parts that Derek played. So when I rejoined, we had to divide up who was going to take which part because we were used to playing the same role. Now one of us had to play the Dickey part.
GW: Was your preference to play the role you knew or to free yourself by playing something brand new?
TRUCKS: It just depended on the tune. We went through all of them all and reexamined everything. We’d just decide when we got to a tune: “Okay, you learned the last one, so I’ll learn this one.”
HAYNES: Yeah, it had to do with workload.
TRUCKS: If he was about to go out with Phil and had a stack of Dead tunes to learn I’d have to do all the woodshedding. [laughs]
HAYNES: Yeah. “You learn the harmony line for Jessica, Derek.” Actually, it’ s more the melody. I played the harmony for 14 years.
But with the new material I find myself saying, “I would normally play slide on this song, but Derek already is.” He gravitates towards it more than I do.
TRUCKS: It’s nice to have the option because there are some tunes where his slide approach is just going to be more in sync with the feel.
HAYNES: Derek will play slide on just about anything and sometimes for me I hear a tune and think I’d rathe r play regular guitar. There are obvious songs where we both want to play slide.
Actually, we recorded about half the record and took a break and I realized that I was playing very little slide so I just kind of made a conscious effort to play some.
GW: Warren, you and Oteil wrote “Instumental Illness,” the jazz-tinged instrumental that has become a concert showpiece. Talk about the writing process for the Allman Brothers’ first instrumental not penned by Dickey Betts.
HAYNES: That came so quick. We sat down at a little room at SIR Studios. Gregg and I had been writing all day. Gregg went back to his hotel and Oteil showed up. We had the idea of writing an instrumental and I had a groove in mind. He started playing that bassline. I only had brought one riff with me and the rest of it took place. He’d go to another section, I’d play a melody across it and if it felt like a keeper, we kept going.
Oteil would start playing something in a different key signature and a slightly different groove and I’d come up with something to fit it. It wasn’t a very laborious process. It came very easily because whenever one of us needed an idea the other came up with it.
GW: It is also a showpiece for Oteil, which is great to hear, because he is such a phenomenal player.
TRUCKS: There are a lot of great Oteil moments on the album and it’s no wonder; he is the best out there. He is the Michael Jordan of bass, but he never loses the groove. I can’t even describe how much fun it is to play with him. If you don’t enjoy listening to Oteil, you must be listening sideways.
GW: Derek is more associated with being a jazz-oriented player, but with the Brothers when you hear a jazz lick it’s more likely to be coming from you, Warren. For instance, on both the instrumental and “Desdemona.”
HAYNES: That’s true in a non-slide way… finger style. My solo on “Desdemona” is the more clean, jazzy one. I think that’s just because he took the first solo and went slide and I just wanted to do something different. And it’s a nice contrast. My wife pointed out to me that usually the first solo would be the clean one and the second one would be dirty but we didn’t really give it that much thought. We just kind of did what felt natural and stuck with it.
GW: Is that typically true of your solos or do you end up really crafting them.
HAYNES: Sometimes I go back and really write something, but not usually. If your first impression is cool, it stays with you. A lot of times in the studio I may play off the cuff having no idea where I’m going but if it’s good, I’ll keep going back to that. Even though it was improvised it becomes part of the song.
TRUCKS: If you hit on something you like, it’s not necessarily repetitious to play it again. Then it’s what the song needs. As long as you’re not trying to copy the solo. If you’re copying a sentiment, it’s not the same thing.
GW: Derek, you have a Washburn signature guitar, but with the Brothers you play your vintage SG almost exclusively. Do you feel like one of them is your go-to guitar?
TRUCKS: It really goes back and forth a lot. When I’m hitting it hard on one guitar it’s hard to switch. Lately, I’ve been on the SG a lot just because when I got off the Allman Brothers tour last summer I was so in that realm. I usually just try to find one that’s comfortable to me at the moment stick with it.
GW: Your sounds are very easy to tell apart. Do you consciously alter your tones to sound different or do you just instinctively gravitate where you need to be?
TRUCKS: It’s mostly just intuition and instinct. If we play a few solos back to back where you can’t tell the difference between our sounds, I think we both go and tweak our amps a little bit.
GW: Warren, on Hittin the Note, you recorded “Rocking Horse,’ which was originally a Mule tune.
HAYNES: I originally wrote it for the Brothers, actually. We recorded a version of it with Gregg singing for Back Where it All Begins, but Gregg was never happy with it so it never made it. We stumbled on a new arrangement of it that’s really cool, different from both the Mule version and the original ABB version. It’s a great showpiece for the Allman Brothers – the percussion section, the different guitar solos, just the dynamics in general. I think it really works. I was glad to see it come back into the picture.
GW: Derek, you play exclusively in open E. if you were walking on stage and someone handed you an unchangeable standard-tuned guitar, what would it happen? Would it sound like you?
TRUCKS: Definitely. I’d have to find different ways of doing things instead of using a lot of licks and ideas I usually resort to.
GW: Warren, you produced this album. Did you do a lot of arranging. How does that fly with Allman Brothers Band? Do you stop a song and say, “Gregg put a little more into your organ solo there.”
HAYNES: [laughs] You don’t have to! Since you mentioned it, Gregg probably plays a record number of solos on this album. He’s more involved musically than he has been since I’ve known him. These songs were already pretty well roadtested and the arrangements were worked out, but I did handle the musical end of production and Michael Barbiero took care of the sonic end. There’s always room for experimenting. Some of the solos don’t have a finite amount of bars, for instance. There are just visual cues that bring it back to the next section.
GW: Warren, I was listening to the ABB live albums from the early 90s yesterday [an Evening With The Allman Brothers Band and Second Set]for the first time in a long time and I was struck by how different your playing was. For one thing, you had much more of a rock tone and approach.
HAYNES: I’m sure my playing in general has changed. For instance, one thing I can point to right away is I play with my fingers a lot more now because I just love the sound of flesh on the strings. But it’s also a different gig playing with Derek instead of Dickey. With dickey, who has such a clean sound, I tended to play more aggressively and with a dirtier tone. Since Derek also plays in that way, I’ve altered my sound to fit in. It wouldn’t sound right for the Allman Brothers to have two dirty-tined guitars.
TRUCKS: Warren was coming from more of a rock guitarist approach and the Allman Brothers were also more of a rock band then, straight on. Then after Jack Pearson an Oteil did the gig for two years it kind of changed and became more groove oriented. Now I think it’s kind of coming full circle and is half way between the two approaches.
GW: Derek, you’ve seen a lot of turmoil duringyour stint in the band. Is your approach generally to keep your head down, show up for the gig and play your ass off?
TRUCKS: It depends on what’s happening. If it’s something that’s been going on for 30 years, I don’t think it’s my place to stick my head in there. If it’s something that’s immediate with the guys in the band right now and it has to do with me, you have to speak up. But my approach generally is to let everything fall and then work around it. [laughs]
GW: Dickey’s leaving seems to have energizd everyone on some level. The Allmans hadn’t done a studio album since 1994 and now Dickey has done two and the Brothers have done one.
TRUCKS: It’s the nature of change. When you put new musicians together there are going to be new ideas happening. Obviously, Warren brought a lot of tunes with him, but he and Gregg also wrote a lot of new material. And oteil had a lot of ideas bouncing around that may never have bloomed without Warren entering the picture. Songwriting seems to come in waves anyhow, and there are times when people or bands have really productive periods and then it dries up.
GW: Derek, you’re pretty prolific songwriter yourself. Do you think you’ll ever bring any of the tunes to the ABB?
TRUCKS: A lot of the tunes I’ve been writing wouldn’t necessarily adapt to what we’re doing in the Allman Brothers. Like Oteil really made an effort to write for the brothers and most of them came out with such a distinctive Oteil vibe that they didn’t really work in that realm. But when Warren was writing with those guys as far back in ’89, there just proved to be a great connection between his style of writing an the Allman Brothers Band. It’s just a natural fit.
GW: Right. Warren, you and Gregg wrote four new songs for this album. Were they all brand new collaborations?
HAYNES: For the most part. “High Cost of Low Living” was an old song that’s been lying around waiting to be finished. It was actually started many years ago by a friend of mine named Ronnie Burgen who was killed in 93. Then our friend Jeff Anders reworked it but still didn’t feel it was right and brought it to me. I worked on it for a while and it made me think of Gregg – the subject matter, the lyric, the melody – so I took it to him and he finished it. He wrote the bridge, lyrics and music, which it desperately needed. I think that’s the only one that was in any way old.
We wrote “Firing Line” and “Old Before My Time” fresh. “Desdemonna” was the first thing we wrote and it was a great feeling to do that. We put that behind us and said, “Okay, this is the water mark. Everything we write has to be at least this good.”
TRUCKS: That’s one of the tunes on this album that I really feel years from now people will look back and love. It has a timeless, Allman Brothers feel and is always a pleasure to play.
HAYNES: It’s one of my favorites too and writing it first was a great start to the whole process.
GW: I guess that over the years you’ve figured out what sort of material Gregg will be comfortable singing and how he likes to phrase.
HAYNES: Yeah. One of the first things I learned from Gregg is a lyric has to be able to be sung properly. It doesn’t matter what you’re saying on paper.
TRUCKS: He likes to breathe when he sings.
HAYNES: We’ll be working on something and he’ll go, “That don’t sing right.” And he’ll change it to something that does.
GW: Gregg’s own writing is often so minimal the songs are like haikus.
HAYNES: Yeah, he’s great at that.
GW: Look at “Dreams,” which I consider to be one of the most profound songs ever written – how many words total are in that?
HAYNES: True, true. And his phrasing is the same – how beautiful can you make it and still be simple? A lot of people will be trying to be much more tricky and clever. He is the ultimate example of doing as much with as little as possible.
TRUCKS: That’s definitely my goal as well, and it’s something else that seems to come in waves. There are times when I feel really in top of that and in command and then it slips and I’m battling to get it back. But I’m always trying to take my time and phrase like a singer. It’s like Wayne Bennett said, “That boy trying to win a race?” [both laugh]
GW: Speaking of phrasing, there are some solos here, for instance on the instrumental, where it sounds like you are having a conversation with yourself…
HAYNES: That’s scary!
GW: No, no, it’s cool. It’s the push-pull dynamic where you move forward, then pull back, creating tension. I’m thinking of “Instrumental Illness” and “Desdemona” in particular.
HAYNES: That’s definitely a jazz thing and it’s a blues thing and it’s also from playing with that strong rhythm section and oteil and knowing that when you leave a gap someone is going to fill it up even if it’s just rhythmically. There will be something valid going on in that hole, which encourages you to leave a few.
GW: Warren, in the Mule you are really steering the ship, especially since you’ve been having so many different bass players. Do you feel more freedom playing in this big band, where you and Derek can hop around and play whatever you want secure in the knowledge that there are six other people pushing forward, so it will not fall apart?
HAYNES: In a larger band, you have the comfort of being able to lay out and it still feels great. We all do it. That’s part of the beauty of a big band. The Allman Brothers can be a trio, a quartet, a quintet, a sextet or a septet at any given moment. And I think that’s wonderful.
In the Mule, I have to take that driving position to some extent, but also try to keep my mind open to remember how much I can learn from all of these people. I have to walk that tightrope of leading but being ready to follow as well.
GW: You both use different gear in your different bands. Is that because the instruments force you to play differently or for tonal reasons.
HAYNES: A little bit of both. Obviously, the tonal thing is crucial. I use different amps, guitars and effects in each of the three bands I’m in. In the Allman Brothers, I use very little effects. I have a delay that I rarely use and other than that it’s plugging straight into the amp, whereas in Gov’t Mule I’ve gotten into using a lot of effects because in a trio you kind of need the solo changes. Now that we’ve hired a keyboard player – Danny Louis is now an official member of Gov’t Mule – I don’t find myself using them as much.
TRUCKS: For me, it’s just sheer volume. The bands are so different in terms of the sound output. I can play a Super Reverb with my band but if I did with that the Allman Brothers, it would just be totally lost so I have to step up to t he Marshall. And with my band I’m mostly playing my Washburn Custom but with the Allmans I mostly play my old SG. That’s just what cuts. It makes sense to play a Gibson in the Allman Brothers; it’s the sound of that band. And the Gibson through the Marshall sounds a little more classic.
GW: You have very different slide styles but I wonder how much you’ve picked up from each other over the past few years. I noticed last summer Warren that you were playing a few Derek-style licks, where he does that thing where he picks one note then slides all over then hits a flurry of notes…
TRUCKS: What’s going on there is we both stole that from the same place. [laughs] That’s all [gospel lap steel player]Aubrey Ghent.
HAYNES: True. But I definitely have copped a lot of stuff from Derek and not just recently but for many years. Now that we’re in a band together it will probably continue to happen more and more.
TRUCKS: Any time you play with someone as much as we play together it’s going to be a give and take. I noticed the other night with the Derek Trucks Band, I played something and immediately thought to myself, “That’s a Warren lick.” Whenever you here someone play as much as hear each other it’s always in there and in the course of improvising, stuff is going to come out.
HAYNES: Sometimes we do it just to piss each other off. [both laugh] Like I’ll play one of Derek’s licks in my solo so if he plays it next it will sound like he stole it from me.
TRUCKS: Then we’ll wrestle after.
HAYNES: I’m stealing from everybody. I nab Oteil’s licks all the time. That’s part of the beauty of being in a band with so many great musicians. You can steal in so many different directions.
GW: Both of you play with a tone that’s just this side of breaking up, then you slide or bend into distortion.
TRUCKS: That’s the nature of the amplifiers we play through and the history of the band. If you hit the string softly you’re not going to drive the amp as hard. You have to really dig in to get that breakup. It’s just playing with dynamics and a lot of it is tweaking the amp with your right hand; it’s in the attack.
HAYNES: If you set your tone where it’s still dirty even when you hit your guitar soft, then it’s too dirty. Then you don’t have any dynamic range. It has to be where when you hit it soft or turn it down it’s clean and when you crank it up it’s dirty. That’s just part of setting your original tone so you have something to work with. I never could stand that one dimensional tone where when you turn it down it’s still nasty.
TRUCKS: Especially for rhythm playing. That just kills your rhythm work, because you have to be able to hit two or three notes and have them all sound clearly.
GW: Warren, another big difference between the last time you were in the Allman Brothers and this time is Gregg is like a new person. He seems to be much more musically.
HAYNES: Definitely. He co-wrote five of the tunes on Hittin the Note, which is the most he’s written in a long, long time. I think he feels more confident right now about where he is as person, as a singer, as a writer and as musician. He’s playing more organ solos. In general, he’s in a really good space. It comes out in the music and it’s a pleasure to work with him in those circumstances.