From Blues to Zydeco: Insights from world-class bassist Roland Guerin
New Orleans multi-talented producer, creator, and artist talks music, mentors, and the magic of One12
Louisiana, USA – From a musical family, New Orleans based singer-songwriter-bassist Roland Guerin draws from a wide spectrum of genres in his music, including American folk, blues, zydeco, rock, and jazz. Guerin has an authentic, singular style with his music ideas expressed through multi-layered melodies, complex rhythms, and expressive lyrics. In a career that has seen him either tour or perform alongside numerous music-legends such as George Benson, Jimmy Scott, Frank Morgan, Vernel Fournier, Gerry Mulligan, Allen Toussaint, John Scofield, Mark Whitfield, Ellis Marsalis, and Marcus Roberts, we are particularly pleased to talk with Roland, as he shares stories, influences, and advice on the industry, as well as his joy in discovering Amphion – and in particular, the very versatile One12. A great supporter of our brand, our connection to Roland commenced some years ago when he provided a range of jaw-dropping bass and vocal performances for us at the hugely successful Amphion | Kawaguchi Jazz Festivals in Japan.
As a singer-songwriter-bassist, who are some of your mentors or influencers in each of these artistic roles ? And you work with a diverse range of music genres … Did growing up in the cultural/historical richness of “The Big Easy” account for that ?
I’ve learned a great deal from various people in my life thus far – old and young. But these are some the people who have highly-influenced me: My Mom is Number One! She’s a bass player – blues and zydeco. Mom taught me the “old-style” blues basslines and the importance of not only groove but melody as well – and to play from my soul, to be honest with my music and myself and believe in what I hear in my heart.
Allen Toussaint, Dr John, Hidesato Shiino, Miles Davis, Sting, Prince, and Peter Gabriel are notable others. In similar and different ways, they all had a deep understanding of how a melody can tell a story, how to marry the melody with words that describe the story, how the bass helps to support and guide the melody and, at times, be the melody while still fulfilling the role of the bass. Aside from Mom, Allen Toussaint was one of the closest to me and from whom I learned the most. Being a great Producer and Arranger, he had a deep understanding of bass movement, drums, piano, vocals, guitar, horns, strings … you name it! The way he thought was not how parts fit together, but how they lived and interacted together. Each of the people I’ve mentioned have a had this talent, love, and care for these things in their own way. As my Mom taught me, they stayed true to their heart which is what gave them their unique sound – because it’s “them”! Being a Producer can also involve knowing and understanding the strengths of your band, members of your group, the arrangement, and how to bring the absolute best out of everyone in real time or not.
My song writing and production kind of fall under the same realm. Not that they are the same thing. It’s more that usually when I get the idea for a song, the feeling and sound of the song come at the same time. So even at the early stage of conception I’m already feeling how and where the song wants to live. This never goes away. It only gets stronger as I work towards completion. To me, songs are “living things” and as Allen Toussaint told me, once he started a song he was always moved to finish it to give it a life. As I see it, just like living things, they interact with us, speak to us, answer questions, ask questions, trigger emotions, teach our soul and so much more. I actually grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana which is about an hour away from New Orleans. That said, growing up in Louisiana had a big influence on me taking in an enormous amount of musical culture. One of the biggest things that I’ve learned is that it’s all connected. Especially me being a bass player in playing blues, funk, rock, folk, zydeco, classical, country, R&B etc. I got a front row seat learning the similarities and differences of it all and most importantly where the groove lives in each one.
Last time I saw you was on tour in Japan – Akubra hat, Ibanez BTB 6-String Bass, and shredding with Paul Gilbert … You’ve been the bass-man for so many phenomenal artists. What are some memorable moments with Paul, Allen Toussaint, Dr John, or George Benson ? And you have worked with the Berlin Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony Orchestra … How were those experiences ?
Working with Paul Gilbert is incredible, as was with Allen Toussaint and Dr John. I never played in George Benson’s band but I’ve played a duo with him at NAMM. It was scary, intimidating, and one of my life’s highlights. I’d grabbed an Ibanez acoustic five string bass off the display wall. This one in particular was sitting under a light but I was too nervous to remember to fully check the tuning. Mr. Benson gave the count in and we were off. At one point I walked in the high register and the high “C” string was a half step out of tune, but in walking up I just naturally adjusted. But walking down I didn’t. So now we’re in like “B” blues and George didn’t miss a beat!! But after a few seconds, he leans over to me and whispers, “We switched keys didn’t we”? I said “Yes we did!” So, he says, “Let’s switch back”. Hahaha !
Paul Gilbert constantly stuns me in the most incredible ways. Above what we all know of him as a masterful guitarist, he’s a genius. For his album “Behold Electric Guitar”, he flew me up to Portland to rehearse with him one-on-one for a week. I knew he was bad, but watching him come up with new ideas, and seconds later show me my part and how it related to his new part that he’d just made up was astonishing. From that point on, I stayed on the tip-toes!
Allen Toussaint shared a great deal with me on the concepts of song-writing, arranging, producing, and the detail involved. In his band he would always share solos with us. Early on, when he would give me a bass solo, I would just stay in my “bass area” and play. One day on tour during a sound check, he said in an elegant way “Roland, about how long is your bass guitar cable?” I said, “Maybe about 20 feet”. He replied “Do you think it can reach out to the end of the stage?”. I answered, “I believe so”. Then he said, “The next time you solo, I want you at the edge of the stage. And don’t hold back!”. Mr Toussaint showed endless support. Always.
Dr John was a die-hard musician. The way he saw music was a combination of classic, funny, and also very matter-of-fact. At this point I wasn’t his Musical Director yet. I remember we were performing at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and it started pouring down raining. He was out front, stage centre, in hard rain and still playing. I’d quickly covered my pedal board and nudged a few things out of the way with my foot. But Dr John was still playing. Now keep in mind that when the rain comes down hard in New Orleans it’s very hard. So, by now the water was all over the piano but he was still hammering on. They had to go and get him off the stage. That’s hard core!
When I was in The Marcus Roberts Trio, we played with the several orchestras. A truly wonderful experience. I don’t know if people realise, but each orchestra has its own sound, strengths, and personality. Performing with them, and hearing them all from my position – which was at times right next to the maestro Seiji Ozawa – was absolutely exhilarating and another of my life’s highlights. I was fortunate to experience the sound of so many marvellous orchestras – Chicago, Berlin, Cleveland, Atlanta, Seiji Ozawa’s New Japan Philharmonic, Boston and more. To have worked within that realm of sound will never be forgotten. On paper one might read how an orchestra sounds, but to me it’s like reading a great chef’s recipe – you don’t really know until you’ve tasted the meal. It lit another fire in me to strive for the best in all l do musically.
About Seiji Ozawa … His understanding and mastery of his craft, along with his command, insight, strength and understanding people constantly blew me away. I liken it to hearing the music and stories of Miles Davis, and how he knew how to lead his band and how to guide them spontaneously in the right musical direction of the moment … while bringing the absolute best out in each person. There’s one thing about greatness … If you ever get the experience being with someone who has it, you’ll never forget it.
Tell us about your home-studio set-up … What is your current gear-list ie. racks, outboard gear, audio-interfaces, DAWs, monitors ? What’s your creative process ? Groove first ? Melody first ? Bass-riff first ? Where do you source your song-writing ideas from ?
My home studio setup at this point in my life has been well thought out. In 2020, I spent a great deal of time thinking about what I really need versus what I have. Everyone knows that with gear it’s at times, hit or miss – unless you’ve already had a “This it it!” experience. That’s actually how it was with hearing the Amphion One12s for the first time. I’ve had experiences with other monitors that were really good, but once I heard the One12s I knew that they were special. Even in the loud NAMM setting I could picture being at home in our small apartment with my non-treated room, and knew I could mix and hear everything I needed at a low volume and feel great about it. I actually think that hearing them in the NAMM environment and still being able to pick out details was what did it for me. At home I normally mix at low volumes. At NAMM I made it a point to listen at both soft and loud volumes, and I could still hear real detail even in all that noisy tradeshow environment. I was hooked! So, here’s my complete home-studio gear list:
Amphion One12s | Rupert Neve Designs 5060, 5059, MBP, 511 x2, 535 and R6 | Burl Audio Mothership B80, B4, BAD4M, BDA4M and BDA8 x2 | Tascam Model 12 and Model 24 | Trident HiLo x 2 and 80b EQ x2 | Coil Audio CA-70a | Metric Halo LIO-8 | Focustite ISA One | Audio Technica AT 2035 | SE Electronics drum mic package | Steinberg Nuendo 11 and Wavelab 11 | Presonus Studio One 5 | Ableton Live 11 | Softube Console 1 and Fader | Arturia PolyBRUTE, MiniBrute 2s, MicroFreak and Drumbrute Impact | Tonestar 2600 | Waldorf DVCA1 and VCf1 | Cloudlifter Zi x2 | Presonus Atom | Novation LaunchPadX | Tama Neo Drum Kit | Pioneer SP16 | Roland TR8S | Yamaha YC61 | Kurzweil 2600 | Moog Werkstatt | Korg Wavestate and Electribe Sampler | Ibanez Custom Talman Tele, BTB846VRG, EHB1506MS, and more | Nordstrand Audio pickups on all of my custom basses | GR Bass Dual 1400 and 112H cabinet | TX Watt Bass Head | SWR Baby Blue Head and Stawberry Blonde Amp | Fender Bassman 100T, Bassman 800 and 2 x10 cabinet | Ibanez Tube Screamer Amp | Origin Effects Cali76, Compact Bass, Magma 57 and RevivalTrem | Lauren Audio Mustang Bass and Mustang pedals | Nordstrand Starlifter pedal | Way more pedals … !
My creative process usually starts everyday when I wake up. I wake up hearing songs. It also happens when I’m cooking and, oddly enough, when I do grocery-shopping. I “hear” new songs … melodies and grooves. At these different times, I usually reach for my phone or Tascam recorder to hum the ideas out. Also, when I’m practicing over certain sounds, song-ideas are triggered. When playing any one of my keyboards, new songs seem to just emerge. It’s normally melody and groove. Then I fill in the middle. I love melody and groove, and I never hold myself back from odd grooves or melodies. They happen how they happen. Once I name that voice memo or idea, that’s when the whole music-story starts to unfold for me. I begin to see it all and where it can go – while writing down lyrical stories for it. Once I pick up my bass, I’ll patiently try to pick out the melody and inner sounds that connect to the groove and story. This same process can happen from my keyboards as well. But with my bass in-hand, I’ll slowly sing and hum and let the songs natural path evolve. It feels to me that my songs directly reflect my life experiences and even imagining what I’d like to experience. I can definitely use my imagination to put myself in different realms and write from that standpoint. I love writing film and orchestral music too – blending these sounds and melodies with various concepts, melodies, and grooves from within. It’s a blast!
Freelance engineers, young music creators, rising-star producers … What sort of advice can you give them regarding work-ethic and production-standards that will give them an “edge” in a saturated and extremely-competitive music market ?
The best advice I can give is to try your absolute best to be honest to yourself and don’t allow yourself to take the easy way out. I mean, if you aspire to do something, truly push yourself and learn as much as you can about the craft until you actually understand it and are fluent. I would also say to do this because you love it and to put your soul in it. If you create with that as your root-strategy, you’ll be honest in what you create and you can truly touch the hearts and souls of people with your music.
You’ve been using Amphion gear for some time now with our One12s. We have always believed our smallest nearfield monitor was just-the-ticket for producer/music-creators. Were we correct ? Has it lived up to your expectations ? Without referring to other brands by name, what have you found special or different about it ? Has it improved the quality of your creative works ?
Yes! That’s a strong and very true statement on One12s and producer/music creators. My One12s show me exactly what’s going on in what I’m creating. There’s no extra hype, low end or anything that would tell me otherwise. Don’t get me wrong, they have surprisingly plenty of low-end for their size. They’re amazing! Honestly, they surpassed my expectations. My One12s are still very much a dream to me now as they were the very first day I set them up. My skills have grown as well as my confidence in making sonic decisions. Not only the right decisions, but the wrong ones as well. By that I mean I can just try something radical and I know I’ll hear whether it works or not. I am more discerning now, keeping a clear head and being honest with myself. And my One12s are a direct extension of that. From my experience, I’ve never heard a truer sounding monitor – one that has never once lied to me. I’d say that’s a hip relationship to be in.
What’s coming out, or what have you just released lately ?
My last-released single was “28 Days” – all produced, mixed, and mastered in my home studio. It actually won the Burl Audio Song-writing Contest! My next single, “I Propose” is in the mixing stage right now. After that is “Decor” and then the title track to my 8th full album “Bridge To Open Waters”. I just had a great article published in MixOnLine magazine for Tascam and took part in a Videocast with Secondline Arts Collective. My next major project is starting my first YouTube Channel informative show called “REAUX TV” following on after starting a new business “THAT A WAY ENTERTAINMENT LLC”. So definitely in the near future I’ll be expanding and sharing some of my ideas and insights on my musical life process.