If you’re on Instagram chances are you saw some of the amazing clips Joe shot during soundcheck on his recent US tour opening for Tommy Emmanuel. A singer, songwriter, and guitarists’ guitarist, “Smokin’” Joe Robinson has all the goods. When he was sixteen he won Australia’s Got Talent and bagged the $250,000 grand prize in the process. With over 2,000 concerts in twenty countries this twenty-five year old has more experience than most of us will get in a lifetime! If by chance you haven’t seen or heard Joe play, we strongly encourage you to check out the companion videos for this story!
[CG] Considering you’re just twenty-five, you’ve already had a pretty amazing career. Tell us a bit about how you got started.
[Joe Robinson] I grew up in a very small town in Australia, and started touring when I was eleven years old. This has been my life, the fact that I’ve played 2,000 shows since I was eleven, it kind of tells my story in a way that feels like the most honest way to say it for me.
[CG] So, did you buy your mom a vacuum cleaner with the money you won from Australia’s Got Talent?
[Joe] I’ll go you even one better! My mom got a vacuum cleaner endorsement from a vacuum cleaner company!
[CG] So was that technically your first endorsement?
[Joe] Actually, I had endorsements with Fender and Maton from age fourteen. I had a few guitar endorsements before the vacuum cleaner deal (laughs).
[CG] I think one of the things people love most about your playing is the fact that you play with incredible maturity, but at the same time in never feels like you’re holding back. Were there any things you did when you were starting out that contributed to this?
[Joe] I hung out with a lot of older musicians who I learned from, and I made it a point to study great people. My parents played in bands, so I was around a lot of musicians. From the moment I started playing guitar I developed this thirst for understanding the instrument and learning as much about it as I could, and so when I would be around someone who was a guitarist and had been playing in blues and rock bands for thirty years, I would sit down with them and say, “How do you do this? How do you do that? Show me a lick, and show me a chord that you like!” I was just so hungry to learn from people. I wasn’t shy about approaching people and asking if I could sit in, or asking if I could hang out and jam with them after the gig.
I look at someone like Tommy Emmanuel, who I just spent three weeks on the road with, and he’s been a mentor to me since a very young age. I have learned so much from being around him, and when I was on the road I realized just how much of my musical knowledge and understanding of music comes from what I learned from him.
[CG] You played piano before moving over to guitar. Did you start out reading music, and if so how is your reading these days?
[Joe] I did start reading when I played the piano, and that’s maybe the reason that I hated playing the piano (laughs). I’m not a skilled reader today. I can read music, and sometimes I’ll use software like Guitar Pro to notate songs and figure things out, and I enjoy doing that. I understand rhythms and harmony, and I did music theory classes in High School. I understand all that stuff, but I’ve never been called to a gig and asked to read music. Sometimes I’ll read the head of a jazz tune, and I can do that.
For me, playing the piano was like sitting down in the same place every day and practicing something off of a bit of paper. Playing the guitar lets me take it to the other side of the house and take it outside, and I could play this cool song that I learned. I could sing along with it, and it was just a different, more informal way of enjoying music for me. I think that’s one of the reasons that I gravitated towards the guitar.
[CG] As an artist, it’s interesting to try and fit you into a category. “Is he acoustic? Is he electric? Is he an instrumentalist? Is he a songwriter?” How do you want to be perceived by people who follow you and love what you do?
[Joe] I don’t have a certain way in which I want to be perceived. I just do what I love to do, and I love sharing that with people. It’s a struggle for me to think in terms of the music business and how to frame myself in a way that’s more focused. That’s honestly something I struggle with because I love to play great music with great musicians, and I love to write songs and tell stories on stage. I love to create music in the studio that’s different and to create music that’s compositionally different. I guess some people would say that I’m trying to find my voice, or find my sound, but I think that I’ve always sounded the same. It’s just that I enjoy doing so many different things.
Recently, I’ve been touring solo, so I don’t play with a rhythm section anymore. That’s helped eliminate some of the other elements in my music that weren’t “me”, for lack of a better term. When I’m on stage I will play some intense guitar stuff, and then I’ll sing a song that’s more about the song. And then I’ll do a spoken word, poetry piece. There’s a lot of variety, but it’s all me and it all comes from the same creative well. That’s more of how I think of it.
[CG] You’ve been a two-amp kind of guy for a long time. These days it looks like it’s a Shaw and a Vibro King with a cool mix of 12’s and 10’s. A lot of players just use one amp, so explain the magic about using two amps.
[Joe] It’s something I’ve done on and off. It’s a funny thing. Someone once described it as, when you have two amps running, the instrument changes. There’s more overtones, or there’s more going on somehow. I spent a good bit of last year touring with Robben Ford, and I took out both my Shaw and my Vibro King on the tour that we did with the Guitar Army, which was Robben, Lee Roy Parnell, and I. The reason I took two amps out was because I wanted to be loud enough! Robben had his Dumble, and it was a lot to compete with. It has such a beautiful, clear, amazing tone. Robben actually said to me that he thinks one amp sounds better, so there’s a lot of different views from different people out there.
Recently, I’ve just been using the Vibro King for solo gigs, and then if I’m with a band I’ll plug in to the Shaw – it has a little more power. But when I’ve recorded I’ve always played two amps and mic’d them and used a blend of the sound. Usually there is a ribbon mic involved and a room mic. We just create a really big sound using the two different tones. And they just have a different touch and a different response. The Vibro King has a sweet breakup and a shimmery, transparent thing, and the Shaw has a really fat, meaty low to mid kind of chunk. They give different flavors and the combination has been pretty cool.
[CG] Tell us about the crazy string gauges you use – you’re a maniac! What are you using these days?
[Joe] On the Strat I use 11-49s but with a 12 on top. On the Gretsch it’s a12-52 set but with a wound G string, and on the acoustic it’s a set of 12’s with a 16 on top. It’s like a set of 12’s with 2 B strings, and the top B string is tuned to E like it’s standard tuning. I used a 14 for a while, but I just really like the 16. It feels great to me. I’ve been doing that for about 4 years now, and I’ve never broken a string.
The reason I do it on the Strat is because I’m used to it on the acoustic. On the acoustic, I like to have the top notes really sing, and an 11 just feels weird to me and kind of craps out sometimes. I like the heavier string. It just suits me. Not everyone likes it or feels comfortable with it, but for me, it works.
[CG] In terms of those instruments, everybody has people that they think of that are associated with certain guitars. For example, when somebody picks up a Les Paul Deluxe they may think of Robben Ford. As you pick up your Gretsch or your Strat, what are the things that you’re thinking about regarding the instrument? What do those different guitars mean to you?
[Joe] It’s interesting. The more time I’ve spent playing, the less time I spend thinking about things. I don’t play by ear primarily, I play by feel. It’s the feel of the instrument that dictates what you play. I can pick up a Strat, and it has a certain feel and a certain voice that is totally different than a Gretsch. A Gretsch has a sweet spot that I go to, because that’s where it feels like where it wants to go. The acoustic is a whole other beast. To me, the acoustic has a percussive element and richer overtones. I’ve always been the most comfortable on the acoustic. It feels like it has the most balanced sound. That’s always what I’m trying to get from my electric guitars, is a sound that’s as balanced as an acoustic. I like my electric guitars to have a lot of dynamics, and a lot of room to dig in and get a little bit of gain and then back off and get a little bit of a cleaner sound.
I guess those are the three voices that I use the most. I have a couple of other instruments. I have an SG that Robben loaned/gave to me. I use that sometimes. To me, it’s just a feel thing. I find it difficult to explain, but I hope that gives you a bit of a window into how I think about it.
[CG] I remember seeing you play the solo acoustic version of “Adelaide”, and being completely floored by the interplay between the vocals and the guitar. The story is kind of a heartbreaking thing, and that song has all the little pieces that you could want from a song. What tips do you have for songwriters of all ages in terms of how to craft songs that tell stories, are musically challenging, and utilize smart arrangements?
[Joe] One of the best things I ever did was to get the songbook for James Taylor’s Greatest Hits. I drove around in my car for about a year just listening to that album – it’s a great album! I learned to play every song, and I learned how to sing them and play them. They’re very difficult!
People often say that when I play and sing, I have a lot of independence. I enjoy creating pieces that have a really strong guitar element as well as a vocal element. Learning those James Taylor songs gave me the chops to do that. It made me fall in love with melody and with his way of creating guitar parts. That was like a window in to how to think about it.
Songwriting is something that I learn more about every day. I just got off the road with Rodney Crowell. I did a few shows playing in a trio with him. He has such incredible songs and incredible lyrics! It’s just baffling to me, and so inspiring to be around someone like that.
I think, with writing, you have to start and you have to write a lot. You have to be brave and perform songs and get experience and just get over all of these little things that get in the way of being great. Reading great books on songwriting has been very helpful. There’s a book by Jimmy Webb called “Tunesmith”, which is amazing. There’s a few books by Pat Patterson, who is a teacher at the Berklee School of Music. He wrote books on lyric writing that are amazing.
I think the thing that I’ve learned most recently is that a really great song has to be inspired by something that’s meaningful. The way I wrote “Adelaide” was that I was in Italy on tour, and I just wrote the little melodic lines. I often write the melody of a song before I write the lyric and the hook and that kind of stuff. I came up with all of these melodic things and I really liked the mood and I could tell it had a strong emotional connection to something. I was away, traveling, and missing people. And you can feel that in the mood that the song creates.
The James Taylor record helped me find some music that really inspired me and meant something to me and is brilliant. You need to find music like that and then study it, and then write your own stuff as much as you can. You have to get over all of the little things that get in the way, like nerves. Figure out how to get better at songwriting and try and tap into something that really means something to you. Those are the things that I would encourage someone who is just starting out to think about.
[CG] I read that before you went into the studio to track Let Me Introduce You
you rehearsed the band before going into the studio to track. You commented that you wanted to have the vibe of the songs to feel like they’d been played by the band over time rather than just inventing the parts in the studio. Explain how working the songs up specifically benefitted this disc – that stuff is golden!
[Joe] I was really fortunate to work with great musicians – Keith Carloc on drums and Michael Rhodes on bass. It was a situation where the songs were not very easy. There were a lot of moving parts, and I did write out some bass parts for Michael. With Keith, there were some songs that had more of a fusion influence, so there were lots of parts. It just felt like the right thing to do, to spend a couple of days going through the songs. I had charts for everyone, and we all made notes, and we got some different groove ideas going. Then we went into the studio and cut it all, and it was really fun! If we had gone into the studio without having the songs fleshed out a bit already, I don’t think it would have been as easy to just play and be creative and let the music feel itself out.
But I think there are times where the opposite is true. There are times where it’s good to just go in there and have the musicians hear the song and then just play what they hear before really thinking about it. When you’re working with really great players, everything they do sounds good, so it’s kind of just a matter of getting what you really want from the sessions.
I’ll probably do that again. I’m getting ready to do another album. I’m writing for it right now, and when we decide to go in and get it all done, then I’ll probably get with my musicians in advance again before we go into the studio to cut it. I’m more comfortable with doing it that way rather than just going into the studio and playing it and then just trying to fix it with Pro Tools. I think that the great albums of the past were made by painstakingly rehearsing the songs, painstakingly getting them down, and then getting “the take”. You couldn’t go back and punch stuff in easily, so it fueled a need to perform better and to be better prepared. I think that’s kind of missing in a lot of music today.
[CG] On Gemini Vol. 2 you played all the instruments as well as produced and engineered the entire disc. What inspired you to do this, and what were the biggest benefits?
[Joe] That was just something that was kind of a bee in my bonnet and that I really wanted to do. I wanted to produce and mix a project myself and understand it. I became quite obsessed with it. I was watching Pensado’s Place, the talk show about audio engineering, and I watched all of these great interviews with great mixers, and I got totally into that. I mix with a lot of Universal Audio plugins, and I play drums on the stuff myself and enjoyed playing on it. The EP has a distinct flavor because of these things. It was just something that I wanted to do creatively. And I learned a lot!
I looked at it like the net result was going to be that I would learn a ton about the whole process of producing music, and it would give me a lot of ammunition to go in and make an album that is better, hopefully, having had to think through all of these elements.
I really encourage people to do that. There’s so much technology available to record yourself and create demos and projects. At the same time, I love going in with great musicians and just cutting it all with them too.
[CG] What are some of your favorite UA plugins?
[Joe] I found myself using the 1176 compressors a lot, along with the LA2A. I also used the EMT 140 Reverb a lot.
[CG] Lance Seymour reposted one of your soundcheck videos on his immensely popular GearTalk Instagram feed. As a medium for reaching new audiences, be it via TV, YouTube or Instagram, video has played a powerful role in your career, do you have any parting thoughts on that?
[Joe] It’s phenomenal. When I was out with Tommy recently, I realized that Tommy and I haven’t been played on the radio a ton, you know? But he has this amazing show and an amazing audience. And he’s done it through being great and having people share the music. For me, that’s how I found out about so many talented musicians. I get so inspired by YouTube videos! In my career, putting videos online and sharing them and having people spread them through the interwebs all over the world has been unbelievable. I get people sending me covers of my songs from Asia, South America, Europe, and everywhere. It’s totally unbelievable. I have a lot of respect for the power of the internet. Instagram is kind of the new hot thing now. I’ll put up videos of me playing at soundcheck through these great channels. When GearTalk shared the video, it was super cool and it exposed me to new people. It’s a very powerful and amazing thing.
[CG] For more information we encourage you to visit JoeRobinson.com