Gear

Black Crowes’ Guitarist on His New Signature Guitar

The Black Crowes’ founder and lead guitarist, Rich Robinson, has been in the guitar hero limelight since starting the band with his older brother Chris as just a teenager. The band hit rock stardom with the release of 1990’s Shake Your Money Maker, recorded when Robinson was only 20. Music flows through him, which is what you’d expect from a man who co-wrote She Talks to Angels when he was only 15. 

We sat down with the guitar legend for the launch of his signature Martin Guitar, the Rich Robinson Custom Signature Edition D-28 – an interpretation of Robinson’s father’s 1954 Martin D-28, and the first model Martin has ever made that’s a visual and sonic representation of an artist’s personal instrument. Below, Robinson muses on the intangible connection between a songwriter and his instrument, creating a tribute to his father, and the influence he had on him musically.

It must be such a thrill to have your own signature guitar. What is the background on you being a guitar collector? When you’re looking to get something new, do you buy something because it represents a momentous occasion in your life, or do you get a new instrument because it fits a role of what you need as a musician?

It’s like paint brushes and paints. Each guitar has a different thing that it brings to the table. With certain guitars, you have a variety of guitars with different sounds – some are like clean guitars, or heavy guitars, or distorted guitars, guitars that have more of something. With acoustics, there are some guitars that are better to pick on and there are guitars that are better to strum. So, a lot of times what I look for is just more of a guitar that speaks to me from a vibrational standpoint. You pick up a guitar, it just resonates with you. A lot of times I can pick up a guitar and I can write three songs right away and sometimes I’ll pick up a guitar and it just doesn’t feel right.

You mentioned in an interview a while back that you played some really iconic guitars, like Duane Allman’s 1957 Les Paul Goldtop and you said it was dud.

They may be bummed about me saying that, but it’s a dud [laughs].

The Black Crowes in Concert

What is that deep resonance that you find with a guitar?

Bob Marley always said that music comes down from the sky through a guitar. Neil Young, if I’m quoting him correctly, and this is a paraphrase, said that each guitar has a certain amount of songs and there’s certain songs in it. I don’t know what makes that and what that is. It’s different. I’ve written songs on piano and I’ll sit in front of a piano – I remember when we made a record called Lions and I wrote a song on this nine foot six Steinway. I just sat and I wrote this song; something clicked between me and that instrument. It’s really just something that is intangible, and I can’t explain why. Sometimes you play an instrument and it works and sometimes you play it and it’s flat. There’s nothing shared in between. You know, wood is living, it’s a living being unto itself, a tree, and maybe that residual life force is still in it. Not to get too heady.

“You know, wood is living, it’s a living being unto itself, a tree, and maybe that residual life force is still in it.”

What was the inspiration behind this TK.

My dad was a folk musician in the ’50s and early ’60s and this guitar, in particular, was in our house with my brother and I growing up, and it was something that was quite important to us. Just by proxy, it was always there. My dad would take it out and play it. As we got older, my brother and I would take it and bang on it, much to his chagrin, and, you know, it was just always there.

My dad had a huge influence on us as far as his appreciation for music, and he loved music and brought it into the house, and some of our earliest memories are of our dad playing music. And so it was just always there. He had given me this guitar as Chris and I’s band started to take off. My dad passed away a couple of years ago and this guitar was always something that meant something to the both of us, and it was really important. When it came to possibly doing something with Martin, I was really excited about it.

You nicknamed this guitar The Appalachian. What’s the story behind that?

My dad was a solo artist in the ’50s, and then he had a folk duo called The Appalachians. We wanted it to be a tribute to him, so I thought, well, what if we called it The Appalachian – which I thought was kind of cool – and it’s based on the D28 my father’s played throughout his career. It’s funny, it was really the only decent guitar I had access to when I was younger. So when we made my first record, Shake Your Moneymaker, I was 19, and I took dad’s guitar and recorded She Talks to Angels on it, and I’ve had it on every acoustic record I’ve ever made.

Photo by Javier Bragado/Redferns

What were some of the key features you were keen on having on the guitar to make sure it replicated your dads?

From the way the neck is down to the tuners. Ultimately trying to recreate how it feels, you know, some of the older Martins I have are kind of a bitch to play. They can be a little bit like, you know, you’re fighting with it, but that’s the character. It’s what I like about it, it makes it a journey. But with this one, the minute I strummed, it was so easy and so present and so right there, which is really cool. Other than that, the wood they chose and those types of things. I’m not too technical, but ultimately, I looked at it and I put it right next to my dad’s and it looks exactly the same, even the crackling is done right.

“When we made my first record, Shake Your Moneymaker, I was 19, and I took dad’s guitar and recorded She Talks to Angels on it, and I’ve had it on every acoustic record I’ve ever made.”

Was it hard to explain to Martin the deep resonance that you wanted to be a part of the guitar – which was your father’s and an important heirloom because they were probably thinking in technical terms. Do you think that residual lifeforce was in your guitar?

There is a lot that comes down to intention and I felt like the people that I dealt with at Martin understood the importance of this guitar, and what it meant to me, and then that kind of conveyed itself into the instrument. So, when I first got the first production model, I was like, fuck, they nailed this. I mean, they got it, you know? Now, maybe it depends on the day, or maybe it depends on the mood of the person who made it, or maybe it depends on the tree, or maybe it depends on the glue. I don’t know, there are so many different variables in making a guitar, but I do know what it feels like to me is that the intention behind the whole thing is really genuine and they saw something really cool as a collaboration between me and them.

Looking back on your long career, did you ever think this was going to happen when the band first got started in 1992?

No, not at all.

I know you’ve got kids and, as a father myself, we think about the heirlooms that we’re going to pass down. Do you have something special from your collection that you’re going to hand down to each one of them one day- just like your dad gave you his guitar?

Well, yeah. I don’t know what that instrument may be, because I am constantly adding to or changing my collection, but yeah, I’ve definitely thought about that question a lot. I like the idea of having that sort of direct line from me to them and then hopefully down the line.

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MONEY IS NO OBJECT: MARTIN D-28 RICH ROBINSON

The Rich Robinson Custom Signature Edition D-28 is something else as it’s the first model Martin ever made that’s both a visual and sonic representation of an artist’s personal instrument, in this case, Robinson’s father’s 1954 D-28. Filled with 1950s vintage build characteristics and styling, this limited edition is as close as you can get to a vintage Martin with the playability of a modern guitar.

PLUGGING IN

For around 200 bucks, Positive Grid’s Spark MINI is the perfect way to plug in your guitar and get to wailing. The MINI also has a sweet app that lets you download and customize a slew of different apps and pedals. I’m partial to making my guitar sound like something from My Bloody Valentine. A bonus, the MINI is powered by a rechargeable battery and can double as a Bluetooth audio streamer, so you can take it and your music with you wherever you go.