In the late 1950s, Canada’s music scene posed a unique challenge for aspiring rockers. With only a smattering of bands in major cities, Canadian rock enthusiasts relied on American import records to satiate their craving for the emerging genre. Among these passionate young rock aficionados was Robbie Robertson, whose love for rock music was fueled primarily by the likes of Buddy Holly and Bo Diddley.
As Robertson recalled, “Chuck Berry was the first guitar god, I guess, and did he have a sound!” Speaking to Guitar in 2020, he elaborated, “It wasn’t just his playing. It was a special sound out of his Gibson ES-350. In fact, just recently, Gibson made me one exactly like Chuck’s, which had a very unique tonality, and I’d even talked with Chuck about this.”
In those formative years, the hollow-body electric guitars were reminiscent of jazz instruments and bore the influence of musicians like Charlie Christian. Robertson shared, “Chuck told me when he started that all you could get was these semi-hollow body guitars. It wasn’t until later on that they had those little scrawny solid-body electrics.”
Although Robertson held deep admiration for the semi-hollow body sound synonymous with Chuck Berry’s Gibson guitars, it was the solid-body Fender that would define his own signature sound. In his collaboration with Bob Dylan, Robertson favored the Fender Telecaster, sharing his expertise on the instrument with the legendary artist. When The Band embarked on their recording journey, Robertson wielded the iconic Fender Stratocaster, which would accompany him during “The Last Waltz.”
Interestingly, Robertson’s affinity for Fender guitars was sparked in the late 1950s, largely attributed to the influence of Buddy Holly. He recollected, “Buddy Holly played an electric guitar. I knew it was louder and smaller-looking and cooler. So getting one became the mission I was going to go on.”
At a tender age, Robertson already harbored dreams of venturing out into the world as a songwriter and performer. He reflected on this early ambition, “Even at that age, I had the idea that someday I’m going to go out in the world and write my own songs and do all that stuff. The idea of being 13 years old, reaching puberty, and I’m already standing at the crossroads. I was already good on the guitar. It was like a setup that my destiny had already been written.”
Robertson’s journey into the world of music deepened as he joined “Robbie And The Robots” in Toronto and explored various musical avenues. It was during this time that he crossed paths with the legendary Ronnie Hawkins, whose band “The Hawks” was renowned as the most formidable rockabilly outfit around.
Recalling the experience, Robertson explained, “We went out and played and tried to be pretty good, so hopefully we would impress Ronnie, but then as soon as he and the band came on, everybody had been right. It was the most raucous rock ‘n’ roll I’d ever heard.”
Robbie Robertson’s remarkable journey through the world of rock ‘n’ roll, fueled by influences like Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, would see him rise to become a guitar virtuoso and an indomitable force in the music industry. His legacy as a trailblazing musician and songwriter remains etched in the annals of rock history.