Robby Krieger: Celebrating The Doors’ Unsung Hero

When we think of the Doors, the first person that comes to mind is Jim Morrison.

Mr. Mojo Risin’; The Lizard King. Call him what you want, the man was an icon. He’s not just synonymous with the band; to most of the general public, he is the band.

When focusing on the doomed Dionysus out front, it’s easy to forget about the three guys holding it all together at the back. But, as any Doors true believer will tell you, the band was very much the sum of its parts.

The Doors were undeniably a rock band. But, none of its members were really rock musicians. Drummer John Densmore’s background was in world music and jazz, hence his lean, crisp and clear playing. Keyboardist Ray Manzarek combined breezy Latin jazz, boogie-woogie and Brecht in equal measure to create the band’s signature sound.

And then there was guitarist Robby Krieger. In the great pantheon of ‘60s rock guitar gods, Krieger is often overlooked. You’ll rarely hear his name in the same breath as Clapton, Townshend, Hendrix or Page, for example.

But the man deserves far more attention than he usually gets.

He co-wrote many of the band’s enduring hits for one. “Light My Fire,” “Love Me Two Times,” “Touch Me” and “Love Her Madly” are all Krieger compositions.   

He also has one of the most distinctive guitar styles in the history of rock ’n’ roll. No one plays like Robby Krieger; he’s an individual and a true original.

Today, we’re opening the doors on Robby Krieger, finding out about his influences and dissecting his unique guitar playing. 

Sabicas over Scotty Moore

Robby Krieger’s first musical love was classical, sparked when his father bought him a record of “Peter and the Wolf.” Like so many other players of his generation, it was Elvis Presley that turned Krieger onto rock and roll. But, while he loved the sound of Presley’s records, he wasn’t grabbed by the guitar playing of Scotty Moore.

Instead, his appreciation for the six-string came from his father’s collection of flamenco records. As the man himself recalled in a 2010 interview:

“It was the first music I heard that was totally guitar-based, so when I started to play guitar, flamenco is what I wanted to do. Great flamenco players are amazing – their picking, their melodies, everything.”

Rather than Scotty Moore, it was flamenco legends like Sabicas, Mario Escudero and Carlos Montoya that Krieger sought to emulate.

His first guitar was a Flamenco instrument; a Mexican knock-off of a Ram’rez classical. Unlike many of his peers, he took lessons – “to play Flamenco, you had to have a teacher - unless you were a good musician already and could copy all that stuff off the record” – determined to master the style of his Flamenco heroes.

It was when he discovered Chuck Berry in the early 1960s that he switched to electric (he traded his flamenco guitar for an electric on the day he saw the guitarist performing live). But, unlike most of the guitarists on the scene, he had no intention of emulating Chuck:

“Every other guy I knew who played rock and roll back then played like Chuck Berry. When I started playing rock I could hear Keith Richards or Michael Bloomfield or some of the other top guys, but they sounded like Berry or like the old bluesmen, and that wasn’t where I wanted to go. I liked the energy and the attitude and the excitement, but didn’t want to play like any of them. I don’t think I consciously planned to combine rock and roll and flamenco, but it just came out that way.”

Though he switched to electric, Krieger remained pick-less, employing his flamenco fingerpicking style on the amplified instrument. On songs like “Spanish Caravan,” his impressive flamenco chops come to the fore. But that style weaves its way throughout The Doors back-catalogue; from the “Light My Fire” verses to the ringing chords and breaks in “Love Her Madly.”

Modal Risin’

Flamenco forms a core component of Krieger’s musical identity. But, like John Densmore and Ray Manzarek, jazz is also a huge influence, particularly the work of John Coltrane. This is particularly evident in Krieger’s lead playing, which eschews the minor pentatonics of blues-based rock in favour of a more modal approach:

“I saw musicians like John Coltrane and Elvin Jones and loved how free they were. It was a little above my head, but I could understand that they’d freed themselves from basic chords and conventional sounds. I felt that was what I would like to do. Jazz in the ’50s and early ’60s changed from bebop into the modal thing, and it was a little like rock and roll, because the fewer chord changes, the better. That’s a two-edged sword, but if you can play that way and make it work, it sounds great. That was my goal with The Doors.”

Krieger’s goal is perhaps best realized on two standout compositions from the Doors’ debut album; “Light My Fire” – particularly the hypnotic mid-section – and in the epic crescendo to “The End.”

Bringing flamenco and Jazz to rock and roll, Krieger redefined what it meant to be a rock guitarist.

So next time you hear the Doors on the radio, remember, it may have been Jim Morrison that broke on through to the other side, but it was Robby Krieger, along with the rest of the band, that lit the fire.

Are you a Robby Krieger fan? What other under-rated, unconventional guitarists do you think deserve more recognition? Sound off in the comments.



8 Responses

Chuck kutchera
Chuck kutchera

July 11, 2018

Frank Marino, , Mahogany Rush

Jhon Z Baker
Jhon Z Baker

July 07, 2018

Excellent article! Krieger is certainly an underrated guitarist and, in my opinion, far better than Clapton was on his best day (which was the Beano Album FYI) – It was Krieger that inspired me to switch from my own study of classical to Rock and Jazz. My first electric being a 91 Gibson SG – played so sweet and clean. Eventually, like Krieger eventually did, I switched to a pick about 1/2 the time and use a lot of hybrid picking. I love the Doors for the music more than the lyrical content which is good as well but best when you are young and brooding.

Bob Knox
Bob Knox

July 04, 2018

So many great guitarist both professionally and locally that never get the credit they deserve. Wish I had an ounce of their talent. Great news letters just like your products keep it up. Thanks

Stephen
Stephen

July 04, 2018

cut my teeth on doors ,cant play a note of flamenco though , one of the greats 4sure

COSTAS MOURATIDIS
COSTAS MOURATIDIS

July 03, 2018

Agree because I can value Robbies riffs on the whole Doors master pieces.

Carlos Tomas
Carlos Tomas

July 03, 2018

Always enjoyed Robby Krieger’s playing.

Another underrated guitarist is Robbie Robertson of the Band with such unique sounds as in “Unfaithful Servant” and “King Harvest – Has Surely Come” or “It Makes No Difference”.

There’s just nothing out there to compare it with.

Scrambler
Scrambler

July 03, 2018

Excellent article. From the outset, I have been appreciative of the uniqueness of each member of The Doors. I am 67 by the way. Being a guitarist I truly appreciate Kriger’ Style and musicianship. I continue to listen to each note he plays. Nothing ever the same.

Keith Koger
Keith Koger

July 03, 2018

Thanks for the very informative article. I always loved Robby’s guitar style. I think another underrated guitar player from that era is Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane. He can rock, play psychedelic (it doesn’t get any trippier than White Rabbit!) and he is an accomplished finger style picker, too.

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