Have you ever noticed the how the sound of a Blues guitar is instantly recognizable? Using the phrase Blues guitarist to describe the way a person plays gives you an immediate idea of what they can play. Sure you can wonder if they played like Eric Clapton, or more along the lines of the late Stevie Ray Vaughn, or if they’re going to be playing Mississippi Delta style or the sound of Chicago? But the guitar is going to have the same sort of sound quality to it no matter what.
When it comes right down to it that pretty much applies to every Rock and Roll, Rhythm and Blues, Soul, and Pop music guitar sound. All you have to do is listen to the earlier albums of such bands like The Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin for that to be obvious. The sound hadn’t really changed that much since Robert Johnson went down to the Crossroads and came back with the devil in his hands.
But every so often there’s been a Blues musician who perhaps hasn’t broken the mold but has changed or added enough elements that his sound has a something that makes it stand out from the pack. While Robert Jr. Lockwood (the junior was for his stepfather, the above mentioned Robert Johnson) played Blues music all his life the sound of his guitar was as distinctive as his fingerprints were from other players.
Robert Jr. was born in Arkansas in 1915 and obviously had exposure to Blues music from a young age. His main teacher was his stepfather of course, but two other guitar players also played an important role in developing the sound that would become his signature. Charlie Christian and Eddie Durham were both Jazz players and it’s most likely that Lockwood ‘s smooth sound and texture originated with them.
Texture may seem like an odd word to describe sound but think of the difference between a Jazz and a Blues song. A Blues player’s chords that are rough and tumble like the juke joints and bars from the wrong side of the tracks it came from. Jazz on the other hand is slick and smooth with the elegance of the speakeasies and nightclubs where you’d find combos laying down some cool elegance.
Listening to Robert Jr. Lockwood’s 1970 release Steady Rollin’ Man, just reissued by Delmark Records you can hear the Jazz influence on his guitar loud and clear. It’s not that he is playing Jazz songs, but playing Blues music and Blues chords and progressions on a guitar that sounds like it should be playing Jazz.
Have you heard an electric Jazz guitar? They are usually the large hollow body type guitars that look a lot twelve string guitars that the Birds would have played on songs like “Mr. Tambourine Man”. But something about their set-up makes them sound far more melodic than anything the Birds would have played.
Each note rings out clean and distinct and carries a slight bell like echo and has a cleanness that one doesn’t normally associate with an electric guitar. Now imagine that sound playing a blues song and you’ve got a fairly good idea of how Robert Jr. Lockwood sounds.
Lockwood is a guitar player’s guitar player. In other words he could always be counted on to deliver a good solid performance. How good was he? Well by the mid fifties he was “The” studio guitar player in Chicago playing for everybody from Muddy Waters to Little Walter. In the early 1960’s he followed Sonny Boy Williamson to Cleveland (Robert Jr.must be one of the few guys who played with both the original Sonny Boy Williamson on the “King Biscuit Time” radio hour and his successor to the name) where they played a steady gig for three years.
When Sonny Boy went off to Europe in 1963 Lockwood backed away from music to concentrate on his family for a while. But he got back into performing in the late 1960’s early 70’s when the first upswing in “roots” music came around. Finally after all those years performing as everyone’s sideman, when Lockwood released Steady Rollin’ Man it was his first album as a bandleader.
Showing the wisdom he had accumulated from years in the business he hired the Aces – Louis Myers, Dave Myers, and Fred Below, to fill out the band. Each of these men were fine musicians in their own right who had released albums individually or as a unit in the past. The four men had even worked together on albums before this one so this marked a reunion of like minds; men who understood what the others wanted without being asked and could play together seamlessly.
This is some of the tightest and most interesting Blues music I’ve heard in a long time. All but two of the songs are original Lockwood compositions, and they have been created with his sound and style in mind. He has a truly compelling Blues voice in that it sounds like he’s had a pack a day habit chased with bourbon. But I’ve never heard such a sweet sounding guitar, especially on those that he used the electric twelve string.
You have never heard anything like the bell-like tones he is able to get from that guitar when he does a typical Blues run up and down the neck of his guitar. The scale is right, but the sound is different, and it sounds great.
Robert Jr. Lockwood passed away in November of 2006, but for the last thirty–six years of his life he fronted his own bands and played his own brand of Blues guitar. I would have liked to have the opportunity to see him and his band live. I’m sure they were wonderful. Judging by the material on Steady Rollin” Man I know I’ve missed out on something special, but I’m glad that at least this disc is available again so that there’s a record of Lockwood’s truly remarkable guitar sound.