Interview by Bob Wood, Associate Publisher
I had the opportunity to interview a good friend of mine, blues
guitarist Ronnie Baker Brooks. I first met Ronnie when he was the
lead guitarist and leader of his Dad's group, the legendary Lonnie
Brooks, at the 1998 Bayfront Blues Festival in Duluth, Minnesota. We
have met on several occasions since then. He is a wonderful person
and a very spiritual person. He is also a fabulous musician.
After more then a dozen years with his Dad's group, Ronnie is making
his own personal assault on musical stardom. His final performance
with his Dad's group was at Buddy Guy's Legends in Chicago on New
Year's Eve 1998.
MHL: At what age did you first pick up a guitar?
RBB: My Dad would tell me ever since I was 3 years old man. I
would crawl to his guitar and pick on it and try to play it. I
recall when I was about 6 years old, my Dad would sit me in his lap
and show me how to play certain songs, and I took it on. He would
sit in the house for hours writing songs. I think that kind of kept
me out of trouble too, because I always wanted to be like Dad and be
around him. I always enjoyed what he was doing and the sounds he
would make with the guitar.
MHL: Tell me the story about the first time you played on
RBB: It was about 19.., well I was about 9 years old and my
Dad was on tour over in Europe. He called home and I told him I
wanted to go with him the next time he went. He said, if you learn
two songs by the time I get home, maybe you can come and play with
me. He was gone for a couple of months or so and he would call and
check to see if I had the songs down. I was learning Messin' With
The Kid by Junior Wells and Reconsider Baby. By the time he got
home, I had it down! He said, well if you have it down, let's go do
it. They had a welcome home party for him down at Peppers in
Chicago. My Mom was sitting with me and got me a glass of orange
juice. I had a mood ring on and the ring was turning different
colors because I was so nervous, (laugh). My Mom said, just think
about it like when you're all at home, and there ain't nothing to
worry about. Then my Dad called me up on stage! We had on the same
color suits and I started playing like we were at home. I forgot
about the crowd and just started playing and thinking about the
music, and man, you know, we were into it. People didn't believe
that it was me. They thought my Dad was using me as a gimmick, so he
would hold up his hands and they would see that I was actually
playing. They started throwing money on stage and stuff (laugh). I
thought I was a star for about a month (laugh). I couldn't come down
man, I was floating. That was the first bug man!
MHL: What was your very first guitar?
RBB: I would try to play my Dad's guitar which was kind of
big for me. So he bought me one that kind of fit me. I can't even
recall what the brand was, but it was a small guitar. I'm pretty
sure he got it from Sears & Roebuck, because we were really tight on
money back then. If we showed any interest in anything, Dad would
bust his butt to get it for us.
MHL: What was your first really good guitar?
RBB: My very first professional guitar was a maroon Gibson
SG, and I still have it. Actually, it's on the cover of my Dad's
Bayou Lightening CD. I played it from about age 9 to about age 13
and then I quit to play basketball. My Dad said, Well if you ain't
using it, I'll use it, and he took it back. He took it into the
studio and recorded the whole record with it. He fell in love with
it and took it on the road with him.
MHL: What kind of amp did you use with your Gibson SG?
RBB: Good question, but I don't have the answer man. All I
remember is it was a gray amp, but I can't recall the name of it. I
think my Dad still has it in his attic. I always wanted a Fender
Bassman when I was young. My Dad's guitar player in his band had an
old, old Fender Bassman, that sucker used to growl! I loved the way
that it sounded!
MHL: I know your Dad was a big influence on you. Were
RBB: My Dad was my only influence back then man, because
that's all I knew! You know what I'm saying. I know I listened to
other records and I liked the way they sounded, and I liked what I
heard. But when I picked up the guitar, I wanted to play and create
like Lonnie Brooks, because Dad would preach to us, "be yourself."
He was the first person that I would say was my initial influence.
Then as I got older and got to go on the road with Dad or go to his
gigs, his guitar player was very attractive. I mean, he'd attract my
attention because he was a great guitarist too. Dad would take me
down to the Checker Board Lounge and Theresa's and I would get to
hear Buddy Guy, even Muddy Waters and people like that. Once I would
hear them, Dad would play their records for me and I got really
impressed. This is the guy you just heard the other night. It was
like WHOA! That kind got me into listening to records. We would
listen to Muddy Waters, the older stuff, Lightnin' Hopkins, Jon Lee
Hooker, Howlin' Wolf and stuff like that. When I got more serious, I
did more research and I got more into the electric stuff, Freddie
King and B.B. King were always around the house. Dad would go play
with B.B. King and he would send notes home saying, keep your grades
up and how is my nephews doing? B.B. probably would not remember
doing this today, but I remember that man. I wish I could have kept
that stuff he was sending home, he was definitely an influence. Also
Albert King, and then it just grew from there. The more I got into
the guitar, the more research I would get into, the more guitars
that I liked. Once I heard Hendrix, it was like WHOA! It was a whole
different vibe then what I was hearing from the other guys. Then
from Hendrix I got to Stevie Ray Vaughn, and the more I got into
that, the more I got into Carlos Santana. I could go on and on.
MHL: What about your set up. What guitars did you use when
you recorded Golddigger?
RBB: Whoa, I did Golddigger down in Memphis. I didn't bring
all my guitars but I brought my Baby, which I call The Baby. The
yellow Fender Strat, I used a lot. And I brought my Gibson 335, but
actually I didn't use that one. I ended up using my dads, the one he
is using now because I love the way it sounds. He brought it down
with him when he came to play on a couple of tracks with me. I ended
up using his guitar on two tracks. I got this Les Paul Stereo that I
ended up using on a lot of tracks too. I got a Road House Strat and
I used, and a Hamer on the slide stuff I did. I took my Gibson
Acoustic down there too, so I had about 5 or 6 guitars down there. I
took my Super Reverb Amplifier, I believe it's a 1970 Silver Face. I
bought it in Memphis when I was recording with my Dad 3 or 4 years
before that. That amp sounds SO sweet! I'm still using it today man,
it's a great amp. I hooked up on that amp and I took a Victoria Amp,
and my Fender Bassman. They also had a couple of Marshall's and a
Mesa Boogie down there for me.
MHL: What about effects or stomp boxes?
RBB: I change so much, but I know I use the Dasha Vibe, and I
use the Full Tone and the Ibanez Tube Screamer ES 9 Reissue, the
Octave Fuzz Octavia, and the Roger Mayer Octavia. I use the Octave
Fuzz now, but back then I used the Roger Mayer Octiva. I had my Cry
Baby Wah Wah and I used my Vox first. We weren't happy with the
sound we were getting back because of the way we had it wired up. So
Jellybean, my producer, gave me his Cry Baby that he had rigged up
in L.A. and we ended up using that one and it came off a little
better then what we were doing at the time. But right now I am using
my Vox Wah Wah. What else did I have man, a Boss Chorus and a Boss
Digital Delay and CD 3. Now I got the CD 5. That was about it.
MHL: What string gauges do you use? Are they different on
each guitar or are they the same?
RBB: They're all the same gauge. I use 10 through 46 and
sometimes I go 48 on a low E, but basically I use the same strings
on all the guitars. I am kind of endorsed by Ernie Ball Strings and
endorsed by Fender Guitars.
MHL: I know you've got a Fat Strat, it looks like a Jimi
RBB: Yea, I've got the Jimi Hendrix Voodoo Strat and then
I've got the Big Apple Strat. I'm waiting on Fender to send me a
guitar, they haven't sent it to me yet. They were supposed to send
me a Relic. I just did their Catalina Blues Festival and they all
kind of fell in love with me. But I haven't seen the guitar yet so
we'll see how much they really love me (laugh). I still play their
product even though I know they've got a lot of people that they
endorse. Who is Ronnie Baker Brooks compared to Eric Clapton and
Jeff Beck? They did come and get me when no one else wanted to get
with me. I used to be a Hamer too, but the guy that I was with left
and we kind of lost contact. Now I understand he's with Gibson,
working with my Dad and my brother. But I used to endorse Hamer. My
Dad and I actually did ads for them.
MHL: Do you use the same setup when you're playing live?
RBB: Close. Yea, right now I'm using the Dasha Vibe. I use
two Tube Screamers now and my Vox Wah Wah and I've got an Octave
Stone Fuzz by Robert Mayer. I've never met him but we bought a lot
of his products. I'm still using the Chorus and went up to a CD 5
Digital Delay and I switch. You know I get tired so I switch mostly
my overdrives every now and then. I'm always trying to find a tone
that I feel comfortable with, and I think every musician does. That
is probably my biggest challenge is getting a tone because we play
in different rooms and you'll have all the changes with the room you
play in so you have to adjust. We're all going to sound similar. I
heard Carlos Santana say your tone is like your fingerprint. You can
play through all kinds of amps and all kinds of effects and all
kinds of guitars. But if you're playing from the heart and soul,
your tone, your fingerprint, is going to come out. Yes, it's going
to have a different sound to it, but the touch is going to come out
as you are playing. A lot of times you don't need all that stuff, so
I don't always use it.
MHL: Are there any secret techniques or style of set-up
that is used when you are recording?
RBB: Plug in and play. I like to do a lot of research on that
to get an advantage on getting the tone quicker. There is a lot of
times you can spend a lot of time in the studio trying to get your
tone together. You're wasting time when you should be recording. I
just try to plug in and play and get as close to what I like to hear
back and do all my homework before I get in the studio.
MHL: I know you "practice" your new songs during your
show. Is that helpful when putting an album or CD together?
RBB: I got an idea of what I want to do solo-wise and then a
lot of stuff I leave alone. A lot of the time I like to prepare or
have a structure of what I want to do, ya know, then go for it and
if something spontaneous happens, GREAT, I love that part of it too.
The song that I am doing live on stage, I kind have an idea of where
I wanna go solo-wise, and I go for it.
MHL: I know as a blues artist you're always looking for
that distinctive style or sound for your music. Who really
influenced you in that regard?
RBB: Well, I would say Eric Johnson. I worked with Eric
Johnson and we did a tour with Buddy Guy, B. B. King, Eric, my Dad,
Junior Wells and Koko Taylor. We were all on the show together, and
night in and night out I got to see Eric and B. B. and Buddy. Eric
is a perfectionist on tone and playing man, God he is an
unbelievable man. We became real good friends. We'd talk and I got a
few pointers from him, and that's when I started taking it a little
more serious. I mean, I like the vibe of plugging in and playing,
but when I got to know Eric Johnson, it opened my eyes to certain
little things to be cautious of. If you got everything on 10 and
everything is growling on your tube screamer or whatever, you're
missing a point, you just got a lot of noise. But if you set it to
get your warm tone or set it a certain way where you can get the
best out of your pedals, then that will help you get to that point
of plugging in and playing sooner.
MHL: Do you feel your sound adequately reflects your
RBB: Yea, I do. I think it is. My Dad would tell me that, you
know, always be yourself because if you try to play like, I mean, I
get a lot of compliments, "Man you sound great, you remind me of
Stevie" or whatever. I know that's going to happen because that's
what the people are used to hearing. They're used to hearing Jimi
Hendrix, or hearing Stevie Ray Vaughn, those kind of guitar players.
I listened to them, and yes, I learned some of their songs and some
of their licks, but I tried to learn their language and make it me.
I think if you do it that way, that becomes your fingerprint,
because anybody can play an Albert King lick, but no one is going to
play it like Albert. But if you play it with your soul andyour heart
and it comes from the heart, no one's going to play it like you.
MHL: Other then your Dad who we know is #1, who have been
your favorite players that you have performed or jammed with?
RBB: Whoa! I can go on man, forever. I've jammed with Taj
Mahal. I've jammed with, I mean that I've loved, I mean all of them,
Albert Collins man and Buddy Guy. I even jammed with Stevie Ray
Vaughn. Like I said, I've jammed with Eric Johnson, Elvin Bishop, oh
man I could go on! Luther Allison, even Junior Wells would give me
goose bumps when I played with him. Just being around Dad, I got to
hang out with these cats man and jam with them. I feel so blessed
because those are guys that set the tone to what I am doing today.
They gave me the base to grow from. You know, the ground to grow
from and to be able to jam with my idols, man, and have the
experience. You know, talk to them or playing with them. I am so
grateful for that man, because that goes a long way. That's
something that nobody could ever take away from me.
MHL: Do you collect any guitars?
RBB: Not really. I have every guitar I've ever owned. I never
traded or sold guitars, I don't like that, I keep everything. I even
have amps and effects, I try to keep them. I know a lot of my
friends trade in their stuff to get new stuff, I just go buy it if I
want it. I don't trade nothing in or sell nothing. They become a
part of me, they're like my kids!
MHL: Do you have one guitar that is your absolute
RBB: Probably my Baby man. That's the one that took me
through a lot of wars (laugh). Took me all around the world too,
that's the one man. I mean I love them all for certain reasons, for
certain sounds, and when I'm in certain fields or when I want to
have a certain approach to a certain song. But I can pick up that
guitar and play any song with it and feel comfortable. My yellow
Fender Strat Plus, I bought it right off the rack man, at Guitar
MHL: Is there a guitar that you would like to have
someday? What guitars do you current own?
RBB: Oh there's a lot of them, you can't ever get enough
guitars man. I like the Parkers that they've got out now, and the
Gibson Firebird. It just takes time to collect all that stuff, and
it costs money! Acoustic guitars, I'd like a Martin and the Paul
Reed Smiths. I could go on forever, I love guitars. I love the way
some of them look, the way they feel, and the way they sound. And if
you can find one that looks, sounds and feels good, you got one. I
got one right here next to my bed now man, the one Luther Allison
left me in his will. It's a Fender Strat, with gold knobs, a gold
bridge, where you plug it in is gold, the strap holder is gold, and
the tuning pick is gold. It's real heavy man. It's got a kind of pre
amp in it, I can't tell you the name of it, but I know it's a
regular Strat. I've got several in the living room. If I get an
inspiration to play, I've got them out and ready to play, you know!
I have my Hamer in the living room, actually I've got two Hamers, I
got the arched top, then I got the Strat Hamer that they gave me.
I've got my Roadhouse, the one I recorded Golddigger with. I've got
a custom made Tele that my friends at The Slim Brothers made,
they've got a store here in Chicago, actually it's in Evanston. I
used to play it when I first started playing with my Dad, actually
my Dad bought me that guitar too. I used that a lot when I first
started playing with him on the road. Then I got a Les Paul Stereo.
Then I got a Les Paul Custom that me and Dad fight over, it's
actually Dad's but I'm keeping it for him as I tell him. I used that
on the road too. Dad had a beer sponsorship and they had Gibson
aboard to help with the sponsorship, and Gibson would give us
guitars and they gave Dad a Les Paul, it's got a beer logo on the
pick guard, and they gave Dad an SG. I kept the Les Paul. Then I got
my SG that I never break out unless I got company over. I talked
about my Baby, my first guitar. Then I got a bass. I got a SD Curly
over here that I use to write songs. I got 2 acoustic guitars, a
Gibson, Chicago Blues model, and I've got an acoustic Washburn. I
also have my Hamer that I play slide on. I think I named them all.
MHL: Thanks for your time Ronnie. It's been nice talking
to you, we appreciate hearing about your music.
RBB: Thank you Bob. Hope to see you soon man.
Ronnie Baker Brooks has a new CD in the works. It is hoped the CD
will be released in Spring of 2001. Ronnie is from Chicago and is
playing and traveling every week. Ronnie's current CD is called
Golddigger and it is on Watchdog Records.