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"I love the directness and honesty of the blues," says guitarist Derek Trucks. "There's a complete lack of pretension in the blues that just hit me when I was learning to play. I think an education in the blues should be required for any musician who wants to play any form of rock and roll or any American style of music. The blues is the foundation for all of those styles of music."
An education in the blues has certainly served Derek Trucks well. He first picked up the guitar in 1988 when he was only nine years old, but instead of focusing on hard rock or metal like most aspiring guitar players who were also born during the late Seventies he studied the music of blues greats like Albert, B.B. and Freddie King. In particular, Derek was drawn to slide guitarists like Elmore James and Duane Allman (his uncle Butch Trucks is one of the founding members of the Allman Brothers Band).
"The sound of slide guitar really struck me when I was young," says Derek. "It was also easier for me to play slide when I was just nine. When you have small hands a lot of notes are easier to reach when you play slide."
Trucks progressed as a player very quickly, and by the time he was 12 he had played on stage alongside Buddy Guy and started touring with the Allman Brothers Band. He formed his own group, the Derek Trucks Band, when he was 15, and three years later the band released its eponymous debut album. Derek became a full-time member of the Allman Brothers Band in 1999, and when he wasn't touring or recording with the Allmans he maintained a full touring and recording schedule with his own band.
Throughout that impressively productive period, Derek continued to grow as a player. In addition to his exceptionally proficient skills as a blues and blues-rock slide player, he also developed a deep understanding of jazz and various world music styles. More recently he has studied East Indian and Pakistani classic music at the Ali Akbar Khan College of Music in San Rafael, California, (his performance of "Sahib Teri Bandi" on the Derek Trucks Band album Songlines reveals his mastery of the style) and in 2006 he collaborated with jazz legends McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette on Tyner's album Guitars. He also played on Eric Clapton's The Road to Escondido and joined Clapton's band for a world tour in 2007.
Although the Derek Trucks Band is going on hiatus for 2010, Derek is putting together a new band with his wife, blues singer/guitarist Susan Tedeschi, which will be performing at Guitar Center's 2010 King of the Blues Grand Finals in Hollywood, California, in September. "I've been wanting to do a project with my wife for quite a while," says Trucks. "I've also wanted to play with (bassist) Oteil (Burbridge) outside of the Allman Brothers for quite a while. You've got to keep things fresh, inspire yourself and keep that fire lit."
Trucks also looks forward to sharing the stage with some of the nation's best up-and-coming blues guitarists. "I know that there are some good players out there," he admits. "It's important to keep the blues out there. When musicians lose sight of what got us where we are today it can be dangerous. It's important to celebrate artists like B.B. King, Hubert Sumlin or Buddy Guy who are still doing it. Those guys are the real deal. A contest like the King of the Blues keeps the blues in people's minds and keeps the music out there."
Fans of the Derek Trucks Band still have the new live album, Roadsongs, to look forward to. The album captures a stunning performance recorded in Chicago during the band's 2009 tour and features a variety of songs from the band's latest studio album Already Free, which won a Grammy this year in the Best Contemporary Blues Album category. Highlights include rousing covers of Big Bill Broonzy and Charlie Segar's "Key to the Highway" and Allen Toussaint's "Get Out of My Life Woman."
While Trucks is best known for his outstanding slide playing skills, Roadsongs features many extended solos where Trucks plays standard-style sans slide. "Over the last six to eight years I've played standard more often on stage," says Derek. "When I'm cutting a record in the studio I almost always feel like the song is calling for slide so I don't play standard as much on our records. People who only know my studio albums and don't go to the live shows think I'm only a slide player, but I like playing without the slide as well."
Derek brings a full Pro Tools rig on the road and records every show the band plays. While he was tempted to pull the best performances of each song from the Derek Trucks Band's last tour, that one show in Chicago stood out amongst the others.
"That Chicago show was one of the best shows on that tour," Derek recalls. "It's not often that you feel fully confident when a show is over. With any band I'm playing with I usually come off stage afterwards and think about ten things that I wish I would have done instead. After the Chicago show I felt like everything was on. Everyone felt great about that gig. I like the continuity of a live album that captures an entire actual show. You can really feel the arc of the set that way."
Roadsongs captures the emotion and intensity of the band's live performance, and Derek credits mix engineer Chris Shaw for the album's stellar sound. "A lot of the magic was in the performance itself, but the source recording wasn't really clean and strong," says Trucks. "Chris was able to restore a lot of the magic that was in the room that night. We spent the same amount of time and energy mixing this album as we do on our studio albums, and we made sure that the mastering was great. Chris really pulled the air and depth back into the recording. It really feels three-dimensional."
The album was mixed at Truck's personal studio where the band also recorded Already Free. The centerpiece of the studio is a vintage 32-channel Neve 8048 console. "It has 32 1081 mic preamps in it," says Derek. "They sound so warm with guitar. You don't lose anything."
The studio is also equipped with tons of vintage microphones, preamps, EQs and compressors. "We were going to get a tape machine but we ran out of funds," Trucks explains. "We record to Pro Tools instead. Eventually I'd like to record to tape and transfer that to Pro Tools so you get that tape compression that sounds just right for our style of music. We used plug-ins for certain things on the last album. There are certain sounds you want to hear, and you can't always afford the hardware versions of those things. I try to stick to real outboard gear and real tubes, but usually most plug-ins work fine.
"A lot of times I can get exactly what I'm looking for with a good microphone that's placed just right," he continues. "Mic placement seems to be a lost art. Everybody wants to tweak plug-ins to find the sound that they're looking for, but usually you can get exactly what you're looking for if you take your time and move the mic around. Air, breath and that three-dimensional quality are hard to recreate with a plug-in. No plug-in is ever going to sound as good as the mics and rooms that were used to record John Bonham's drums. No plug-in can duplicate the sound of four vocalists singing harmonies into just one mic. It feels more human when you record things in their natural state."
Trucks is not entirely a vintage purist. He also likes a lot of new gear, particularly the new series of guitar amplifiers recently introduced by PRS. For the last couple of years he has used a PRS Dallas amp exclusively on stage with the Allman Brothers Band.
"With two drummers, a percussionist, Gregg (Allman) on the B3, Warren (Haynes) on guitar and Oteil on bass, a lot of air is being moved on stage at an Allman Brothers show," he says. "My old Fender amps weren't enough for that situation. My PRS amp is the perfect mix of that old Marshall sound where you can really get on it for solos blended with that clear, clean rhythm tone where you can hear all the subtleties. I've tried dozens of amps over the years, but none of them were as easy to play and immediate as that amp is. I appreciate an amp that just has Treble, Mid, Bass, Volume and Master controls. I don't need too many bells and whistles. I'm used to playing through a Super Reverb—plug it in and make it work. It's in that vein. It's a very meat and potatoes amp."
While the Gibson SG has been Derek's guitar of choice since he first started playing, he also enjoys playing a variety of different PRS guitars and a mid-Sixties Gibson Firebird. "The SG is always home base for me," he admits. "I started playing that guitar when I was young, and it feels so comfortable to me that I don't even have to think about it. I also love playing old Danelectros and Silvertones—those old vintage guitars you can still find for 400 or 500 bucks. They have just one sound, but it's really crazy, weird and unique. It's a lot of fun in the studio when you have an old beater amp and a guitar with one pickup that's falling out. I enjoy the challenge of a guitar that is almost unplayable."
Derek can't resist fine guitars and amps, especially when he visits the vintage department at Guitar Center, but he says that a lot of his sound comes from his fingers, literally. Trucks does not use a pick. "The sound of the flesh against the strings makes it happen," he says. "I can probably get away with more treble in my settings because I don't use a pick, and that helps my sound cut through while allowing the tone to still be big and fat. Having the right gear helps a lot, but at the end of the day you need to have a sound in your head and you need to find it."
As for contestants in the King of the Blues contest, Derek's best advice is for players to listen to their hearts and inner voice. "Melody, tone and timing is the source," he says. "The further you take yourself away from the instrument, the closer you get to the source. Listen to musicians who play other instruments. Guitar players who only listen to other guitar players often fall into boxes and sound like everybody else. It's fun to do something that has already been done, and it's great to carry things on, but you need to add your own personality and twist to it."