The Ronnie Baker Brooks 2017 release “Times Have Changed” is aptly titled. For one, he altered his guitar sound, leaving his coveted guitar pedals at home during the recording of the album.
“I plugged straight into the amp through a Gibson guitar,” said Brooks. “That was an adjustment for me at first, mentally.”
Brooks had previously played sans pedals in live settings and a few other recorded songs, but his comfort zone is pedaling his guitar to distortion while recording albums.
“At first you have to mess around with it and get comfortable with what you’re hearing,” said Brooks about plugging straight into his amp. “What you hear back from the amplifier and from the track you’re playing from definitely reflects on what you play. So I just try to get into the track and play with a little more soul.”
Brooks hesitated to call it a crutch that needed breaking. He naturally absorbed the distorted rock sounds of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, and Carlos Santana, among others, growing up in Chicago. Brooks noted that technique was unlike blues legends including B.B. King, Freddy King, and Albert King, who he said plugged straight into their amps as he did on “Times Have Changed.”
“Probably a lot of the distortion you heard (from the Kings) was just from the amp being cranked. Basically what you heard was their fingers playing straight into an amplifier. I guess I wouldn’t say (the pedals) were a crutch, more a different approach to recording,” explained Brooks.
He cited his cover of the Robert Cray/Eric Clapton song “Old Love” as an example of how he changed his approach on the new album.
“I played that song live many times before I recorded it for this record. Normally I would have distortion and get an Ernie Isley or a Hendrix thing on it. Where this one was a straight, clean approach where I just relied on soul and what I felt at the time. I trusted my producer Steve Jordan. The first thing he said was, ‘Leave the pedal boards on the bus,’” laughed Brooks. “It was a great challenge for me, but I believe it made me a better musician.”
“Old Love” is very soulful, and with guest vocals from the great Bobby “Blue” Bland, it could easily be mistaken from a recording from the 1960s or 70s. Brooks feels fortunate to have recorded with the soul legend just 6 months before he died.
“I talked to his son Rod Bland and his wife Willie Mae, and they said that was the last thing he recorded,” said Brooks.
“Times Have Changed” also captured the last time he recorded with his father, Chicago blues great Lonnie Brooks, who passed away April 1, 2017.
“I talked with Steve Jordan about that and he said, ‘Well, you have a legacy record,’” said Brooks. “That helped me get over the emotional part of it. I understand I’m blessed to have these great icons grace the record with me.”
Ronnie Baker Brooks is one of many performers at the Elnora Guitar Festival in Urbana this week. Brooks plays Sept. 16 at the Tryon Festival Theater in the University of Illinois Krannert Center.
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