A guitarist with 'duende'

By Sergio Ariza

Robby Krieger is a very special guitarist. No one has sounded, either before or since, quite like him. The sounds that his fingers got out of an SG seem to be produced by another instrument that is completely distinct to that also used by Angus Young, Pete Townshend and Tony Iommi. However it is clear that there are few rock guitarists who have learned to play by playing flamenco guitar. Many less, perhaps none at all, who composed a first song that became one of the most important in history. The first song that Krieger wrote was Light My Fire. If that is not something special then I don’t know what is.    

The guitarist was the youngest member, and the last to join the Doors, but his  contribution to the band is only just after that of the charasmatic singer, Jim Morrison. Together with Ray Manzarek and John Densmore he built a hypnotic sound on which Morrison could offer his intricate poetry to the world. Despite the fact that the guitar is not the first of which one thinks when one thinks about the Doors, (as one would normally think of Morrisson’s singing followed by Manzarek’s organ) his sound, whether it was in the style of fingerpickin' or the slide, is one of the most distinctive features of the band. Furthermore, he was responsible for composing some of the best remembered songs such as the aforementioned Light My Fire, Love Me Two Times, Touch Me, Peace Frog and Love Her Madly.


Robert Alan Krieger was born, as could not be in any other way, in Los Angeles, on 8th January 1946. His beginnings on guitar were associated with flamenco guitar and the first instrument he had was a Ramírez that he bought in México. Those Spanish roots accompanied him throughout his career, as can be appreciated on Spanish Caravan  and to which he gradually added the blues, folk and jazz. But his definitive conversion to rock came about because of the man who made most people pick up an electric guitar, Chuck Berry. It was after seeing a concert by the author of Johnny B. Goode in 1964 that Krieger decided that the moment had arrived to buy his first electric. During the gig Berry had used one of his legendary red Gibson ES-335, so Krieger went to an instrument shop looking for that guitar, but when he saw a Gibson SG in the same colour he thought that it looked alike. It cost him 180 dollars but he was repaid in millions. It was with this guitar that he recorded the whole of the Doors’ first album.


The start of the Doors lay in the friendship between Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek, who named the group in honour of Aldous Huxley’ book The Doors of Perception, and soon after John Densmore and Robby Krieger - who had played together in a band called Psychedelic Rangers - joined. It was 1965 and the first song that they played together was a compostion by Morrison called Moonlight Drive. On that song Krieger started to improvise various things with the slide, with a unique style that was distant from that of the blues masters so Morrison asked him to play like that on all the songs. Despite the band trying out various bassists they decided that Manzarek use his left hand to develop bass lines on his keyboard, giving to the band another of their most characteristic elements. 

The band’s early material came from Morrison, who arrived with extracts of his poetry, with a melody, and the rest of the band took responsibility for laying down the chords and giving it a musical form. These included songs such as the aforementioned Moonlight Drive, End Of The Night, My Eyes Have Seen You and Hello, I Love You. At the start of 1966 they began to play in a Los Angeles club called London Fog, and it was there that Morrison started to construct his live persona, with the band getting involved, and that is how in long ‘jams’, before an almost empty room, that Morrison improvised his poetry; that is how The End and When The Music's Over emerged. A short time later they were contracted by the most prestigious club in the city, Whisky a Go Go, and their performances became events. The songs continued to arrive but, during one rehearsal, Morrison complained that he was the only one composing songs and encouraged the others to bring their own songs. The young Krieger approached the singer and said ‘what should I compose?’. The response was “something universal, something that lasts.” So Robby went home and started to play with various chords that are not usually used in rock music, mainly flat notes and sharps, and for the chorus he took the chords from the cover of My Favorite Things by John Coltrane, one of his biggest influences, and when he had to add lyrics he thought about what the singer had said to him and decided to write a song about “earth, air, fire, or water”, led by the passion he felt for Play With Fire by the Rolling Stones he choose fire. That all led to the song that would bring them money and fame, to which Morrison would add part of the lyrics related to ‘the funeral pyre’, and Manzarek the incredible organ introduction that sounds like a deranged Bach, demonstrating his classical training.

With almost the whole of the repertoir of the two first albums composed, the Doors started to become well-known, which led to them being signed up by Elektra to record their first album, in barely nine days, at the end of August 1966. Around the same dates Morrison gave the final touches to the The End including the Oedipal reference at the end (regarding his wish to kill his father and get intimate with his mother) that led to them being thrown out of the Whisky A Go Go.

That first album is one of the most important debuts in history and Krieger shines on it with his SG directly connected to a Fender Twin Reverb, without any further accessory other than the magic of his fingers. On The End the influence of Ravi Shankar and Coltrane can be seen in his music, giving it its own style; on the solo of Light My Fire one can speak of that what the gypsys call ‘duende’; and Break On Through also shows he is capable of producing a riff that would make Elmore James proud. It was this latter song that was the presentation card of the band, for which they even recorded a promotional video, on which it helped that Morrison and Manzarek were students of cinema, which made them pioneers of this format.

The album was released on 4 January 1967 but it wasn’t until the launch of Light My Fire, at the end of April, when it started to rise up the charts. The song became a number one and the group became stars. It might seem as if it all happened overnight but by the time that they achieved success they had already been together two years. It is not surprising that with many songs still in their pockets, and their new fame, the second album appeared only eight months after the first. The second was called Strange Days and Krieger uses another SG on it, as he had lost his first. His gear was similar but with the adddition of a Gibson Maestro distorsion pedal. The second album was quite similar to the first, closing with When The Music’s Over, as the first had done with The End. Krieger contributed one of the best known songs of the band, the 'bluesy' Love Me Two Times, and the success was repeated. By that time Morrison had already become totally unpredictable on stage and his problems with drugs and, mainly, alcohol, was already earning them the label of ‘a difficult band’.


The recording of the third album, Waiting For The Sun, was complicated by Morrison’s alcoholism, above all after the rejection of his Celebration Of The Lizard by the producer. They had to look again at the few songs that had left from their early period like Hello, I Love You (that would give them their second number one) and Summer's Almost Gone, because the creative muse seemed to have abandoned them. Still songs like Five To One are among the best of their career, especially Krieger’s solo that inspired Ace Frehley of Kiss on She that, simultaneously, served as inspiration for Mike McCready of Pearl Jam on Alive.

Things touched rock bottom with The Soft Parade, the weakest album of their career, full of strings and horns, distant from the group’s own sound that, by that time appeared as little more than Morrison’s accompanists - despite brilliant moments like Krieger’s song Touch Me or his guitar work on the title song. However during the following tour Morrison was judged to have supposedly flashed his penis during a bizarre concert in Miami, and the band was not invited to Woodstock and other concerts. Following the disastrous reviews of The Soft Parade, the Doors saw its future in danger. This meant a return to their roots, to the blues that they all loved with Morrison Hotel, released in 1970, with great songs like Roadhouse Blues and Peace Frog. This return to their best form was confirmed by L.A. Woman, their best album since their debut, with songs as great as the title track (where Krieger plays a ’54 Les Paul), Riders On The Storm and Love Her Madly, also composed by Krieger.


The band had recovered their form and was sounding better than ever but there was no follow up, and on 3 July 1971 Morrison was found dead in a Paris apartment. The other three members of the band decided to continue without their leader and record some of the songs that they had prepared for their return, and so came Other Voices and Full Circle, in the same vein as L.A. Woman, which found Krieger in top form. However it is clear that, neither the guitarist nor the keyboardist got close to the charisma and vocal depth of Morrison, and they didn’t have his lyrics or his magic. Krieger stands out with the ‘slide’ on In The Eye Of The Sun or on that heir of Roadhouse Blues that is Tightrope Ride.

The group finally split in 1973 and the guitarist and Densmore formed The Butts Band. in 1978 they joined up again with Manzarek to put music to various poems recited by Morrison on An American Prayer, an album which Krieger believes has not been given due credit. In 1993 they were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame with Eddie Vedder as singer, and after that, there were various reunions that ended with Manzarek’s death in 2013.

His style on the guitar was so personal and intransferible that it looks like he has not left a trace as if it had not left a trace, but go on and listen to Riders On The Storm, When The Music’s Over, The End, L.A. Woman and Light My Fire and try to imagine them without Krieger’s guitar; it is as if they are orphans without something indecipherable and essential… that something that the flamenco artists call ‘duende’.

(Images: ©CordonPress)