After playing guitar for 35 years and figuring in the old dog factor, I had little more to learn, one would think, and less hope of learning it. This proved to be only half true at my first guitar lesson with Robin Henkel at the Blue Guitar on India Street.
Henkel is well known to local blues practitioners as just about the only guy in town who can do that acoustic Robert Johnson stuff that fuddles most players. (The first time I heard a Robert Johnson recording I remember thinking, “Hey, those guys are good!” not realizing it was one musician, live, in an age before overdubbing techniques.)
The 48-year-old guitarist/bassist and teacher has been around San Diego since 1958. In the 1970s you might have heard him in bars on east University Avenue like Neutral Ground, or Ledbetter’s in Ocean Beach, or playing free concerts at Robb Field on Sundays with hard-rock outfit Jambalaya. Today, he is probably the most sought-out teacher for both bass and guitar in rock, country, pop, and blues among aspiring locals who have had the benefit of a savvy referral.
I had had it in mind for years to seek out a lesson from Henkel. I had heard him play some extraordinary runs and was curious as to how the tricks were done. Recently I decided to take the step, see why his reputation as a teacher was so unanimously enthusiastic and hope to God he didn’t expect me to read music. The experience was nothing I could have anticipated.
Henkel is a stocky, bespectacled man with a friendly manner and fingers — I notice when we shake hands — more suited to a blacksmith than guitarist. He shows me into his small, windowless cubicle at the store and offers me a nylon-stringed guitar with the frets marked G, A, B, etc. My first thought is, “Hey, I never play this kind of guitar and thank you, but I know where the notes are on one of these things.”
“Just play a little bit and give me an idea of how you approach guitar,” he says and sits back.
“Well, I’m from Chicago,” I tell him. “I guess I’m a blues guy. A soul man, you might say, heh heh.”
“Uh-huh,” Henkel smiles, his arms folded. I play him a blues progression and throw in a few R&B chord transitions just to let him know he’s not dealing with some dilettante.
Henkel listens, nods. “Tell you what,” he says. “Play that one figure, dunta dunta dunta dunta, like this.” He takes the guitar from me and fingers the old Memphis two-note stroll. You know it. It’s the core riff to a million blues songs and another million rock-and-roll songs. Think of, say, the riff to Jim Croce’s “Leroy Brown” slowed down to a crawl. Henkel slows it and abbreviates it to a staccato, chunk, chunk, chunk, chunk, and he mutes the strings with the heel of his right hand. He is now playing only half of a riff that is about as minimal as you can get in the first place, implying the second strike or strum. It sounds stupid.
I’m thinking, “Yeah, Robin, you’re a genius. I was playing more complex stuff at high school dances in 1965.”
“Now I want you to tap your foot with it and sing along.” He hands the guitar back to me.
“Sing what?” I ask him.
“What you’re playing.”
“You mean dunt, dunt, dunt, dunt?”
I do it. “Well?” I ask him after a while.
“Just keep doing it” is all he says.
Maybe he is a genius. What better way to eat up time at $18 a half hour? “I don’t get this,” I tell him. “This is boring.”
“You know,” he says, “if you find yourself bored playing a riff you’ve played a million times before, that should be a red flag. Maybe you should ask yourself, ‘What am I not doing that would make this more interesting?’ ”
I start playing some fills, some John Lee Hooker or Lightnin’ Hopkins stuff.
“No.” He shakes his head from side to side. “Just play the riff.”
“Oh, I get it, this is some kind of Zen thing.”
The idea, I figure now, is to do something so lame-o and repetitive that you eventually snap. This must be Henkel’s filtration system, to separate those who are easily discouraged from the true aspirant. Well, two can play this game. I keep at it. Five minutes go by. I start hearing the beats I’m not playing. I’m listening to the groove in between the notes.
“Now count along with it. One and two and three and four and one…”
I do it. In a minute I hear that the rock is on the count and the roll is in the “and.”
“See,” he grins. “It’s already sounding different than it did five minutes ago.”
He’s right, but I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is that’s different. It’s as if my brain has turned off anything that is not the riff. My foot, my throat, my wrists and fingers and heartbeat are the riff. My ears are finding a way to dig the two notes for what they are, not what they might be. It is a Zen thing.
Henkel was born in Pensacola, Florida, and moved to a trailer park on the flatland marshes that used to be Mission Bay when he was eight years old. He started playing the ukulele at that time.
After performing in three-piece power trios in the early ’70s, “Doing ZZ Top and Led Zeppelin covers,” Henkel heard Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke. “That kind of pulled me off in a different direction,” he says. “I couldn’t really play [jazz] very well, but I was fascinated by it. Eventually I ended up in a Top 40 band called the Ron Bolton Group. He was a friend from college. That band kicked up some dust.” He played with Earl Thomas in the early ’90s, “and that kind of brought me back into the blues scene and I stuck with it. Some of my early influences were blues, specifically the Delta blues.”
This comment summoned an image of the eight-year-old Henkel, sitting around the trailer park playing blues ukulele for mud hens and marsh hawks. Woke up this morning, my propane tank was gone… I was about to ask him about that when he began talking about his guitar collection and his several Dobro steel guitars.
“I do my Robert Johnson primitive blues stuff on those, but I find myself mixing it up now with funk, jazz, and Latin rhythms. I got totally into western swing at one point, which I still mix in there.”
Henkel performs with horn players at his gigs at the Gordon Biersch Brewery on Mission Center Road, material that Henkel himself has arranged for horns. He also plays at the Morena Club every Thursday night and at La Casa del Zorro in Borrego Springs with sidemen Billy Watson, Dave Castel de Oro, Rodney Ratelle, and George Sluppick.
“My CD that came out in October is my sixth record release. Out of 17 songs there are 5 or 6 that are four-part horn orchestrations. It’s called Robin Henkel, Highway.” The title was inspired by Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha and the river scenes and imagery in that book. “I used to stare out at route 15 at Pomerado Road just before dawn, and I thought to myself, ‘This is the modern, mechanized river.’ ”
Henkel took jazz arrangement lessons from Hal Crook, who teaches at the Berklee College of Music. “I’ve had some wonderful teachers like Howard Roberts and Peter Sprague.”
At this point Henkel falls into a chord pattern and stops speaking as if remembering something one of his teachers had taught him. I watch his fingers carefully. He is playing a deceptively simple-sounding blues song, but the punctuating licks are figures that would not only never occur to me but would take me a year, more or less, to parrot.
- He sings with a surprisingly true voice.
- I keep on walkin’ just tryin’ to drive my blues away.
- I’m so glad that troubles don’t last always.
- You used to be my sweet gal, you soured on me.
- We won’t be together like we used to be. Keep on walkin’…
- I got coffee grinds in my coffee and a boll weevil in my meal
- A tack that’s in my shoe that keeps stickin’ in my heel.
- I keep on walkin’, just tryin’ to drive my blues away.
- I’m so glad that trouble don’t last always…
The song is Henkel’s own arrangement of a Blind Boy Fuller song. It’s called “Walkin’ My Troubles Away,” and it appears on the new CD with Johnny Viau on horns.
Henkel hands me back the guitar and the lesson resumes. Chunk, dunt, chunk, dunt. But I find myself immediately falling back into the pocket, nailing it dead center, and it no longer sounds stupid or boring. It is the heartbeat of a man with a love gone sour, a tack in his shoe, limping along the side of a highway, smiling to himself because hard times don’t last.
At the end of the half hour, I find myself with a sense of accomplishment. I learned how to play the two notes. And play them right.