Guitar phenom and critical darling, Janet Robin, has a history in the music world that is just as impressive as it is long. Taught at an early age by Randy Rhoads and signed by Polygram while still in high school, the Southern California native has come up through the ranks over the past several decades, earning her the illustrious titles of “Top 10 Female Guitarists” and “Top Acoustic Guitarist” by Guitar World and Guitar Player, to name a few.
Also a well-respected solo artist, Robin has headlined tours all over Europe and worked with the likes of Lindsey Buckingham, Tommy Emmanuel, Peppino D’Agostino, Meredith Brooks, Monty Montgomery, Michelle Shocked, Maia Sharp, Marcy Levy (cowriter with Eric Clapton on “Lay Down Sally”), Ann and Nancy Wilson (Heart), Garrison Starr, Anne McCue, and Air Supply.
With her (mostly) instrumental new project, The String Revolution (TSR), which features a score of other exceptional guitarists, Robin and company are breathing some new life into classic tunes like “Here Comes the Sun” and “Rocketman” and producing some gorgeous original pieces in the vain of Tommy Emmanuel and Andy McKee.
“. . . it was like an
orchestra of guitars.”
How did your tenure in Lindsey Buckingham’s band inspire you to form the String Revolution?
Lindsey’s first solo band was really special, and I was honored to be a part of it. He managed to get together five guitar players, two percussionists, a drummer, a bassist, and a keyboardist, and make that work flawlessly. It was a ten-piece band—really quite complicated arrangements, but he is an absolute stickler when it comes to nailing the exact parts on his recordings, so he really wanted to recreate that live. I learned so much from him and that whole experience.
Obviously, the five guitar idea inspired me a lot to form The String Revolution. After many years of doing my own solo thing, I wanted to try something a little different, and I reckoned back to my days working with Lindsey. I really enjoyed the layering of the guitars, the harmony parts we did, and the syncopation of all five guitars; it was like an orchestra of guitars. So, I thought if I’m going to do an additional project, I’d like to work from that inspiration of multiple guitars, but maybe make it more of an instrumental focus and really bring out the guitar even more (i.e., experiment with using the guitar in different ways, and try to create a “band” sound with only four guitar players). That was the true intent of putting TSR together.
Side note: I recently ran into Lindsey at a rehearsal studio, and we had a really nice talk for quite a while. I mentioned TSR to him and jokingly said, “Gee, I wonder where I got that idea from!” He was as gracious as ever, and I told him how much he has inspired me over the years. It was really great to see him.
You actually recruited some of the members from Craigslist, which is pretty amazing considering the level of musicianship in this band (you never know what you’re going to get with CL!). Have you used Craigslist in the past with this much success (when it comes to recruiting musicians)?
It’s always a funny story when I mention that I met the guys through Craigslist, and yes, it’s totally true. Lindsey’s idea for his band was to use non-session players, slightly lesser-known, and from many backgrounds and styles of playing. He wanted to take a chance on new musicians, although many of us did come from other touring or band situations; we weren’t that well known in our own right.
Again, I took that concept and decided I wanted to find new players I had never worked with or knew at all from the LA scene. Of course, there are tons of amazing players here in LA, but I really wanted to meet new people and see who was out there, so I put an ad in Craigslist.
When I joined Precious Metal (an all-girl band in 1983), I actually answered an ad in a newspaper called The Recycler at the time, which was also known for musician ads. I was sixteen years old back then, so I figured well, times have changed, and there must be even more amazing players out there to meet now! I remember meeting a few players or getting some local gigs through Craigslist or Music Connection ads in early 2000, but I hadn’t really used Craigslist in a long time and wasn’t sure how it would work out. I was really careful about what I wrote in the ad and made sure to be super specific. I wanted to reach a certain kind of player that was serious about joining a project like this. Sadly, not one female player answered. I was totally open to having women in the band, but only guys answered.
I was surprised, however, that it didn’t take nearly as long as I thought to meet some amazing musicians. The third response to my ad was the first guy I really liked. Then after him came another player I really liked. The fourth guy was a friend of the first guy I met, so that worked out. At one point, we thought about having five guitar players (going the true Buckingham way), but we decided it was too much and wanted to keep it to just four.
I can truly say the guys in the band are amazing; they are like brothers to me. I’m a workaholic, so I don’t know how they put up with me, but we make it work together. I’d like to mention their names: Daniel Schwarz, Art Zavala Jr., and Markus Illko. Two of them are European, and one is from Riverside, CA. We all have different backgrounds and come from all kinds of different musical inspirations, which really makes TSR special. We all have different strengths too, and we try to expose that as much as possible without constant soloing and guitar fireworks. Actual “songs” and arrangements are really important to us, and we approach all of our writing much in the way one would write a song with lyrics and singing, except in this case, it’s the guitars singing, and it’s the guitars as the “band.”
I’ve seen a lot of fantastic acoustic videos from TSR. However, do you ever go electric?
Thank you! We are starting to experiment with more electric. We do use our electric Baritone quite a bit to give us our low end, but yes, we are going to open up to using electric eventually. I think when the project came together, we wanted to use percussion and other organic sounds that you can get best from an “acoustic” guitar, so we went with that first. We also wanted to keep the pedals and effects down to a minimum so that we could concentrate on really bringing out the arrangements naturally.
“I feel it’s really important
to make cover songs your
“own,” meaning your own style, your own take on it.”
I very much enjoyed your takes on “Rocketman” and “Here Comes the Sun.” Is there a dedicated arranger in the band, or is it a collaborative effort when you’re fleshing out a song?
All of our songs are written and arranged together. It’s quite a long process, and we all have a say in the arrangements. Often, we try different ideas, and we all try to be democratic in the end. I personally try really hard to think out of the box, try to push the envelope with arranging, and the other guys have their own strengths as well when we are working together. It’s really fun to me to see a song being created in the way we do it. I was so used to just writing a song, lyrics, melody, guitar parts, etc. This is so different because it’s only guitar and there are four of them. We have to be careful so that it’s not overdone. The “less is more” approach is often used.
As for “Here Comes the Sun,” that arrangement was done by myself and is something I play during my own solo shows; however, I also play it alone during our TSR shows. Again, I wanted to do something a little different with that song, especially since it’s so well-known, and I was going to do it as an instrumental version. I feel it’s really important to make cover songs your “own,” meaning your own style, your own take on it. A few years ago, I was totally stunned when the George Harrison Estate tweeted out my video of “Here Comes the Sun” recommending folks check it out. I recently met Dhani Harrison (George’s son) at an event, and we talked about my arrangement of his Dad’s classic song. He couldn’t have been more supportive and sweet about my cover version. I was completely honored.
As I mentioned, when you do a cover, make sure you put something of yourself in it, put some of your own soul in the arrangement and the performance of it, and then it will be a new version for people to (hopefully) enjoy. There’s no point in just copying the song exactly how it is. TSR’s cover versions are all approached the same way. We really try to put our own style in our arrangements of covers and sometimes we take more liberties on a cover to really make a point, sort of like what we do at the end of “Rocket Man,” which is a totally different ending than the original.
In your “Tennessee Whiskey, Honey” video, I noticed you strumming some banjo (I didn’t know you played!). Would you call yourself a banjoist, or do you just kind of muddle around on it (for example, I play a little piano, mainly for production and songwriting purposes, but I wouldn’t call myself a pianist)?
Well, let me begin by saying that is actually my Gold Tone Banjtar. It’s a six-string banjo, much easier to play for us guitar players! So, in fact, I don’t really play banjo; however, the Banjitar is amazing. It sounds like a banjo and is built like a banjo, but has six strings tuned like a guitar. I love the sound of that instrument, and I have used it not only in TSR but also quite a bit in my solo project. It especially sounds amazing with a wah-wah!
What song would you like to see the String Revolution cover next?
We are working on “Despacito” right now. Often, we try a few different covers and then decide what to record. On our last record, we did “Englishman in New York,” and on our first record, we did “Billie Jean.” Both were really fun to arrange. We’re interested in “Despacito” because we would like to explore the Latin flavor of that song, but of course, with our own twist to it.
Will you be introducing some vocals into any songs in the near future, or do you guys prefer to keep it a mostly instrumental project?
On our first record we released, we have a song called “Blue Mountain,” and we have vocals on that song. We are absolutely going to do more songs with vocals, but it still won’t be the predominant thing in the band, as we’d like to keep the focus on the guitar. But yes, we are absolutely going to explore more songs with vocals most likely this year with some new singles we’re going to be releasing.
I see you’re a Taylor fan! Which model do you normally play when you’re jamming with TSR?
My go-to acoustic has always been my Taylor DCSM (Dan Crary Signature Model). It was Taylor’s very first signature guitar way back in the late ’80s. I have three of them from the ’90s. Taylor doesn’t make this model anymore and it’s just fantastic for my style of playing. Slim neck, fat body, big sound. Great for flat-picking. I have proudly been endorsed by Taylor for many years now. I love a lot of different guitars of course and I have about twenty-five different kinds. It really depends on what song (or part) you’re playing. For TSR my Taylor woks perfect. It has a big sound and holds down a lot of rhythm parts but also cuts through on color lines. I’m a somewhat aggressive player and it holds up perfectly! I am also endorsed by Martin Strings, and I love the fact that I use my Martin SP strings on my Taylor.
It’s the perfect union.
SOME EXTRA ABOUT TSR:
The String Revolution had a great year in 2019, and we’re carrying it over to 2020. Last December, we were invited to perform at The Grammy Museum for an interview and performance for their American Express Concert Series at The Clive Davis Theater. It was nearly sold out, and we were so honored to have been invited. Our Spotify streams have also reached over two million and climbing. We are continuing to work hard, write hard, record hard, and play hard. We’re looking towards releasing a series of singles this year, as well as filming more videos, and playing more shows when we can. Since we’re kind of a unique band, to get our name out there, people have to not only hear us, but they have to “see” us, so live shows and videos are really important.
For more about The String Revolution, check out these links: