Phil Robson - Guitar

David Gallant talks to guitarist Phil Robson about how he got started, the instruments he has played over the years and his all time favourite choice.

“You’ve just caught me”,
says Robson. “I’m off to play at the 55 in New York next week. I feel really honoured, all the greats have played there and then I’m off to California to do the Monterey Jazz Festival”. Phil Robson - Guitar
schedules have never been busier, but his bright and breezy manner suggests that he’s clearly enjoying life in the fast lane. “Yeah, I grew up in Derby”, he starts. “My dad was a clarinettist in some semi-pro Dixieland and swing bands in Derbyshire”. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Robson cut his first musical teeth on the clarinet. But as he says, “It was at the instigation of my dad, and it didn’t really work out”.

He remembers getting his first guitar when he was 10. “It was one of those cheap, steel strung Spanish style acoustics and like many kids, I began to work things out by ear.” When he was about 12, his school offered him some classical guitar lessons. But as he says: “I didn’t really take to that, because at the time I was into rock.” Robson, however, was clearly showing promise, and it wasn’t long before his father found him a private tutor. “I had my first serious lessons when I was around 14”, says Robson, “from a fantastic guitar teacher called John Richards – who was a session player”. He continues, “at the time he was the guitarist in residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company and he used to do sessions for the Yardbirds and bands like that.”

After going through the usual academic mill of O and As, he applied to do a postgrad course at the Guildhall School of Music, even though he hadn’t completed a degree course. “I got in on audition,” he says. And then in a slightly embarrassed tone, “At 18, I became the youngest ever student to join the Guildhall’s post-grad course.” So what instruments was he playing? “I had a Tokai Strat when I started having lessons with John Richards. Then when I started getting more into the jazz thing, I bought a Yamaha AE1200, which I still have and still play for the more straightahead jazz/acoustic stuff” but I’ve tried USA strats to 335 copies, in fact all sorts of things!"

But Robson played a gig recently with a very beautiful and sweet sounding instrument, that he was clearly very attached to. “That’s my D’Angelico,” he enthuses. “It’s a slim bodied semi solid guitar, the NYSS – 3B New Yorker. It’s the same guitar that Kurt Rosenwinkel (a big noise on the New York scene) is playing at the moment”. Robson continues: “I spotted it in Ivor Mairants, played it and loved it, and they gave me a deal that matched the price on the net. I’ve only had it for six months and I really, really like it.” Robson is clearly in love. “It’s very adaptable, I guess it’s a cross between a 175 and a Les Paul. Quite heavy, but very well balanced. It’s got a lot of tone variation, which is one of the things I dislike about 335s – the dynamics. When I play the D’Angelico harder, it gets louder, unlike the 335s. “I’m very much a hands player, and the D’Angelico has got a really big dynamic range”.

Strings are a critical element in any guitarist’s arsenal, so what’s Robson currently playing? “I’ve switched to nickel wound D’Addario 12s”, he says. “I used flat wounds for years, but I find the nickels are more adaptable and they seem to suit this particular instrument. I tried Thomastik, and they played well and sounded good, but I didn’t really like the feel of them – they felt kind of sticky, and I really couldn’t get used to them”. And amplification? “Well at the moment I’m putting the D’Angelico through a Fender deLuxe which I really, really like. The one I’ve got is quite unusual because it’s not got the usual finish. It’s got a very heavy wood finish, which I think makes the sound a little bit darker – it’s got a really warm sound. I had a Blues DeVille that I loved, but that was too heavy and it just stayed in the bedroom or when I was playing at Ronnie’s, it would stay there for a week but the deLuxe is a little more moveable.”

So where is Robson’s current musical focus. “Apart from the Partisans and Christine Tobin’s band, which I play with on a regular basis, I’m really excited about a commission from Derby, my home town, to write some music for a string quartet plus trio. I’m looking to get string players that are also improvisers to accompany me, although the music will have to be quite structured. I’m thinking of doing it with a fabulous bass player called Peter Herbert, who’s Austrian. He’s a very versatile string bass player, and he’s going to be the core of the trio. I haven’t written for strings before, so that’s going to be quite a challenge.”

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