With faith and music as his guiding lights, Robert Randolph put the pedal to the floor to become one of Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.”
On Saturday, April 30, guitar enthusiasts will get a chance to see Randolph master a mix of rock, funk, and rhythm and blues on his signature pedal steel guitar.
He shared that the love of his unique instrument began at home in New Jersey in the House of God Church.
“My church is sort of known for having the pedal steel guitar as the main instrument, sort of like the Buena Vista Social Club,” Randolph said. “So I grew up in the church, watching all of these older guys playing, and I really wanted to be like them. That’s where it all started. There’s a ton of kids these days in my same church organization that are playing the pedal steel guitar, so it’s been handed down through the ages.”
Built on legs or a stand and fitted with pedals and a knee lever to adjust the sound, pedal steel guitars can have one or two necks. (Randolph prefers playing with one.)
“When you play an instrument … it’s like guys who play the fiddle or violin, it’s sort of been known as folk music or bluegrass,” Randolph said. “Throughout the years, you study the different players and then you just try to relate all of that to the concept of what we’re doing or what you dream of doing. That’s what I always did. In our church, we played it in a very bluesy and rock way.”
Growing up, Randolph relied heavily on his family and the church for his musical influences and was almost completely unaware of music outside of the religious community.
“Music is a big part of my family — that’s always been there,” Randolph said. “My uncles, my aunts, my grandmother — they were all singers in the church, in the choir and musicians … When you grow up in church playing music, that’s all you really think about.”
Randolph explained that he never thought about playing music outside of church until he was about 20 years old.
“Right after high school, I wasn’t the smartest kid, so I didn’t go to college,” he shared. “I wound up getting a job at a law firm in New Jersey where they trained me to be a paralegal. So I was an assistant paralegal up until the time I started playing music professionally — 15 years ago.”
Once Randolph was discovered at a Sacred Steel convention in Florida, fame as a frontman was inevitable and there was no turning back from his destiny.
“I just started to get into Stevie Ray Vaughan and I really wanted to play the pedal steel like that,” Randolph said. “After listening to Stevie Ray and Jimi Hendrix and The Allman Brothers, I just wanted to be like those guys. It’s still hard today, but you just practice at it and get better at it.”
Practice made perfect and Robert Randolph and the Family Band released “Live at the Wetlands” in 2002, followed by “Unclassified” in 2003 and “Colorblind” in 2006 with a guest appearance by Eric Clapton.
With three additional albums under Randolph and the Family Band’s belt, the group has opened for Dave Matthews Band, played at Bonnaroo and was commissioned by ABC to create the NBA’s new theme song.
And the hits just keep on coming.
“As musicians and artists, we all get frustrated and we all get a little down … and we didn’t sell enough records or we’re not so popular right now,” Randolph said. “But then you look at guys like Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy and Carlos Santana … and these guys are 70 and 80 years old and you say ‘wow.’ For me, I take a lot of advice from these guys, and having patience and just keep practicing and keep concentrating on writing songs is sort of the key to it all.”
Randolph said he can’t wait to share some soul and his love of music at the second annual Malibu Guitar Festival.
“We’ll all be having a good time,” Randolph said. “It’s gonna be a lot of fun. Some great guitar playing, some Hendrix, some Bo Diddley, some Led Zepplin … It should be a wonderful, wonderful time. I’m really looking forward to it.”
For more information about the Malibu Guitar Festival, including artist and ticket information, visit malibuguitarfestival.com.