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 rockmusicians. 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.”
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.
“I'm sick to death of people saying we've made 11 albums that sound exactly the same, In fact, we've made 12 albums that sound exactly the same.”
“I honestly believe that you have to be able to play the guitar hard if you want to be able to get the whole spectrum of tones out of it. Since I normally play so hard, when I start picking a bit softer my tone changes completely, and that's really useful sometimes for creating a more laid-back feel.”
As a young guitarist, I completely rejected any notion that music theory would help me in my journey. At the time, I justified this as a “punk rock/music is freedom” attitude to playing. If I learned my theory, I told myself, I’m just putting myself in a box. “[Insert guitar hero of the week] didn’t need theory, and they were a genius. Why do I?”