Gregg Rolie: The Keyboard Interview

Cover story on the legendary keyboardist Gregg Rolie (Santana, Journey) from our March 2015 issue.
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“I think style is everything when playing in a band,” says acclaimed keyboardist Gregg Rolie. “Learning tons of notes and being able to play in a myriad of different time signatures is cool, but you’ve got to do it in your own way. Otherwise, you might as well become a studio musician.”

If anyone knows a thing or two about making lasting musical impressions, it’s Gregg Rolie. From his co-founding tenure with supergroups Santana and Journey (who can forget Rolie’s groundbreaking keyboard work on songs like “Oye Como Va”?) to his acclaimed solo outings and recent tours with Beatles drummer Ringo Starr, Rolie is as hot a commodity today as he was some five decades ago when his career began.

Midway through a recent tour with Ringo, Rolie met with Keyboard in midtown Manhattan to reminisce about his contributions to some of the most memorable music of our time.

The first thing I thought when I saw you playing live with Ringo Starr recently was how immediately identifiable your sound on the organ is. How were you introduced to the Hammond B-3?

People always ask me how I got my organ sound on those early albums with Santana. It’s really simple: The Leslie speaker was beat to death and turned all the way up! I bought my first Hammond B-3 organ from a little old lady in Menlo Park, California. It was absolutely beautiful and only cost me $1,100 with a 122 Leslie, which was a total steal at the time. This was around 1966 or ’67, when I joined Santana. In the beginning, that organ sounded really clean. But as the years went on, and from it being constantly loaded in and out of vans, the sound got dirtier. Later on, I got one of the first “chopped” B-3s by Bill Beer in Los Angeles, and we started experimenting with different percussion and tuning modifications. But initially, my organ sound started with a road-beaten 122 Leslie.

From the start of your musical career, did you always want to focus on organ?

Yeah. When I started out in Santana, I played a Stage model Fender Rhodes 73 and a Hammond B-3 organ. I had a wah-wah pedal on the Rhodes, but that was it. Later in the 1980s, I played synthesizers and other keyboards, too, but for me the organ was where everything began.

Did you study music formally?

I took piano lessons for a few months as a kid growing up in Palo Alto, California, but I hatedthem. It was more about sibling rivalry for me at that time. My older brother took piano lessons so I decided I would as well. “I can do that,” I said. In the beginning, I liked music, but I really had no designs on making a life in it. But when the Beatles exploded in America, that’s when I started thinking about a career in music. And now I’m playing with Ringo Starr! All the guys in his current band say the same thing—that if it hadn’t been for the Beatles, they might not have gotten into music. People started bands all over the world because of what the Beatles and the Rolling Stones did.

When I listened to music as a kid, I didn’t care what kind of music it was. I either liked it or I didn’t like it. Looking back on it now, usually what drew me to a particular type of music was either its rhythm or its soulfulness. When I heard Jimmy Smith’s version of “Walk on the Wild Side” around 1962, I didn’t even know what a Hammond B-3 was. But I thought the music was awesome. I also liked Lionel Hampton playing the vibes. My musical taste ran the spectrum from jazz to Bo Diddley to the Beatles and beyond.

Was it hard to make the jump from appreciating music as a listener to performing it live in front of an audience?

After the Beatles exploded, I started playing in different high school bands. I remember playing piano on the song “Tall Cool One” by the Wailers, and people went nuts! So I started playing in other bands, and bit by bit, things started to develop. I didn’t have an organ at the time; I usually just played whatever piano was at the venue and I sang on some songs, too. Then I met the guys from the band William Penn and his Pals, which had been popular top-40 band in the San Francisco Bay area at that time. I’d heard about them, but I had no idea that some of them actually went to my high school. They came to my door and said, “We heard you can play!” So I joined their band, and I began playing a Vox Continental organ, because we wanted to sound like Paul Revere and the Raiders. That’s when I really started getting into playing organ. I spent approximately a year and a half with that band. We started writing our own music and I began singing more.

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How did you end up joining Santana?

Santana actually began when high school friends Carlos Santana, [percussionist] Mike Carabello, [bassist] Gus Rodriguez and [drummer] Danny Haro played at the Fillmore in San Francisco on a Tuesday night. A friend of mine from Palo Alto named Tom Fraser saw them play and said to me, “I’m gonna go find this guy!” So he drove 30 miles up to San Francisco and asked someone at the Fillmore how he could find Carlos. They told him that he worked at a hamburger stand called Tick Tock’s on Columbus Street. My friend found him there and said, “I want you to come jam with Gregg Rolie down in Palo Alto.” So he brought Carlos down and we played together in a little farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. This was of course, back in the days of heavy marijuana usage, and someone evidently called the cops because of the noise. I turned to Carlos and said, “We’ve gotta get out of here!” But coming from the streets of Tijuana, he was way ahead of me. We all ran out of the farmhouse and hid in a tomato patch until the cops left! And that’s how it all started. It’s funny—I found out later that Carlos and Mike had actually come out to see me play with William Penn and his Pals at the Longshoremen’s Hall in San Francisco because they were looking for a keyboard player. But nobody ever told me about it!

By this time, did you feel like you had a solid command of the keyboard?

Yeah, a pretty solid one. I think it was because I was self-taught. I could play just about in every key, although sharp and flat keys are still a little uncomfortable for me. I don’t know if it’s because of the fingerings, or because my fingers are too fat for them. You can’t really rip into an organ in the key of Gb anyway. But playing in C through A is awesome!

Can you talk about how your musical perspective evolved after joining Santana?

When I joined Santana in 1966, my entire musical world was changing around me. I had gone from playing in a top-40 band to investigating a more blues-centered sound. I started playing the Hammond B-3, and I was getting turned onto all kinds of new music. Carlos hipped me to blues guitarists like B.B. King and Muddy Waters. And when Tom Fraser didn’t work out as the lead singer, I jumped in—almost out of necessity—and said, “I guess I’ll do it!” I was sort of the Phil Collins of my day. Funds were tight in the beginning. I didn’t even have money for a Rhodes back then. In fact, my grandmother bought some of the first amps Santana used. We really started in the garage. But I just loved it. I’ve never really talked about this before, but even back then, Carlos was playing his own style of music. He played through a little Viscount amp, but he had this tremendous tone. I remember us playing a song called “Shim Shim Sharee,” which had a jazz form to it and was in 6/4 time, and Carlos wasn’t just playing blues licks. He played with an incredible sense of melody and fire from the start.

One of the intriguing things about your work with Santana is how much of an ensemble player you were. You were center stage, but you never stepped on anyone else musically.

I always tried to do that, and I still play to try and lift the band up. I think the simplest way to put it is, I love guitar but I just can’t play one! And so I fashioned much of my solo work with that attitude in mind, like the way guitarists can slide or bend into notes, or the way they use tremolo and other effects. I developed my own style by listening to everything but keyboards. Getting a guitar player to play at his absolute best became a goal for me. I wanted to push them to higher and hotter places.

The Hammond can take up a lot of sonic space if it’s not played with care. Do you consciously voice your chords so as to be aware of this?

Absolutely. I play chords in the “1 and 3” or “1 and 5” formation, and often leave my left hand out except when it’s needed. “Don’t step on the bass player” is a good rule of thumb. The organ is so hugethat if you play it full-out—except in situations where that kind of playing is called for—your band becomes an organ band.

Do you play the bass pedals?

No. I put those away when I bought that first organ! [Laughs.] I tried them and thought, “This is never gonna happen.” Plus, why would I need them? We had a bass player.

How did Santana’s music develop over time?

We just jammed. The song “Soul Sacrifice” started as a jam and after we played it over and over again, it developed a personality and a melody all its own. We weren’t schooled. We learned everything on the gig. And I was playing as hard and as fast as I could. But what we were doing was so unique and different that it started to catch on. I’ve always said that Santana played Santana music. It wasn’t Latin rock, or jazz/rock—we put it all together. That combination of minor modes and rhythms still drives people wild. It’s likeable. And I still love playing that music today.

When did you leave the band?

I stayed in Santana until 1972. We just had differences, both musical and personal ones. Maybe it was “too much, too soon.” I always put it this way: We played with passion, and we broke up with passion. There were differences with regards to the musical direction of the band. I liked the exploration on the album Caravanserai, but I didn’t want to make it a mainstay of what we did. I also didn’t want to lose the relationship we had developed with our audience. I couldn’t see throwing that away for this new musical direction. So like most bands, we fell apart. But when I look at it now, I realize that if we hadn’t been the people we were at that time, that music probably would never have happened. So it’s okay.

What happened after you left Santana?

I started a restaurant with my Dad in Seattle, Washington. You could say I went from the pan into the fire! [Laughs.] But I was really ready to take a break. They were going to build up Pioneer Square, the area where our restaurant Merchants Café was. But it never really happened. I think we were just ahead of our time. It was a beautiful place and the food was great, but it ultimately failed after about a year and a half. My God, that is one tough business.

Not long after we closed the restaurant, I got a call from [manager] Herbie Herbert and [guitarist] Neal Schon, telling me that they were starting a band and they wanted me to be a part of it. I wasn’t doing anything at the time, so I moved back to the Bay Area and joined up with Neal, bassist Ross Valory, and the drummer, Prairie Prince. That was the beginning of the band Journey. At first, the band really leaned towards rock fusion with vocals. We were playing music that, just like Santana, was based mainly on building solos up until they screamed. Neal was great at that.

What kind of keyboard rig were you using in Journey back then?

I started with a Yamaha CP-70 electric grand piano, a Minimoog, and the chopped B-3 organ. Later, I got one of the first Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 synthesizers, which was great because you could make your own presets. That meant I could jump from one song to the next and have my sounds stored and ready to go. I got into playing those modern instruments because that’s what the gig called for. I wasn’t playing as much organ in Journey as time went on, although it’s all over the earlier records and on songs like “Lights.”

What led to you eventually leaving Journey?

I was just through. Between Santana and Journey, I’d built two bands and spent 14 years of my life living out of a suitcase. Santana was a phenomenon, but Journey was work. It was a great band and a totally different one than Santana, and I’m proud to have reached two different pinnacles in my musical career. But I wanted to change my life. I wanted to start a family, and my heart just wasn’t in it anymore. I realized that it wasn’t fair to everyone else in the band if I just took up space, so I left in December of 1980. Years later, I wrote a song about leaving Journey that had the lyric, “Would you mind if I went home?” I sent it to Herbie Herbert and he called me and said, “I mind it!” He’s still pissed off about me leaving the band to this day.

Did you have any regrets about leaving a band that was on its way to worldwide acclaim?

None whatsoever. I was over it. I remember everyone telling me, “You’re gonna miss this,” and I would reply, “No, I’m really not!” Gypsy life is great when you’re a gypsy and you love it. But when you don’t want to do it anymore, it’s not so great. So I just stopped and for two years I didn’t play music. I played golf! Five years later I had my first child and I was happy to be “Mr. Mom.” I changed my life completely.

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How did you find your way back into music?

My piano was sitting there in my house and I started thinking, “I should be doing something!” After my son was born in 1985, I recorded my first solo album, which was one hell of an endeavor. Up until that point I had primarily been in bands, where each member had their own designated job. But when you’re the solo artist, all the decisions are on you and it can be challenging. When I started work on my second solo album Gringo,which was released in 1988, I finally got to the point where the record company was no longer dictating to me what I could or couldn’t do. I found my voice on that album, teaming up with a songwriter named Bob Marlette who played synth even better than I did. Carlos and Neal played on the project too, and David Kershenbaum produced it. I’m proud of that album. It has some really cool material on it.

Were you recording at home?

We worked in an outside studio. I had a little setup at home where I could get basic demos of songs together, but I didn’t get into doing drum sequencing and other kinds of production things until after that second album. Truth be told, I really didn’t enjoy that part of the record-making process. I just wanted to go in there and play. I still feel like that today. What really gets me going is collaborating with other people. When I do that, I get inspired to play things I couldn’t possibly come up with out of my own head. I think the world is better when people listen to and play off of each other.

Greg Phillinganes once told us, “Playing keyboards is like making love. It’s best enjoyed in the company of others!”

That is very good! And he’s right. I think that sentiment is ultimately what led me start playing in bands again, like the Storm in 1991, which I started with the singer and songwriter Kevin Chalfant, and later the Gregg Rolie Band, which I still record and tour with today.

You’ve anchored the keyboard chair in legendary Beatles drummer Ringo Starr’s band since 2012. How did the opportunity to play with one of your musical heroes come about?

Actually, I got the call to play with Ringo a couple of times over the years, but I turned it down simply because I didn’t want to do that to leave the guys in my band hanging. I’ve never been that way. But when my band bookings started slowing down and Ringo’s people called me again, I accepted the invitation. Longtime Billy Joel saxophonist Mark Rivera, who was also this band’s saxophonist and musical director, suggested me to Ringo, and after listening to some of my songs, they hired me. It’s funny because when I finally did say yes, I got to play with an absolutely phenomenal band that includes Todd Rundgren and Toto’s Steve Lukather on guitar, Richard Page from Mr. Mister on bass, Gregg Bissonette on drums, and Mark Rivera on saxes. I love playing with Ringo and the All-Starrs.

When I was hired to play with Ringo, I told the band, “You hired the Muddy Waters of the keyboards!” What I meant was, Muddy Waters didn’t play the music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. He played Muddy Waters music! I’m a B-3 player, and I know what I’m doing on that instrument. In fact, Mark Rivera said to me, “You’re definitely an organ player, because I see you pulling drawbars out constantly!” And for the songs that require other kinds of keyboard parts, I’ll do my best. But I’m a slow learner because I haven’t played other people’s music since my days in William Penn and his Pals. And unless I find a way to make someone else’s song my own, like “Black Magic Woman” by Peter Green or “Oye Como Va” by Tito Puente, it’s hard for me to learn a song cold.

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So when you got the set list for Ringo’s show, how did you go about learning the songs? Did you chart them out?

I can’t read or write music. I play everything by ear. But I think that has served me well. I have always thought that if you can’t remember a song without sheet music, you probably shouldn’t play it! For the gig with Ringo, I was lucky to get the songs pretty far in advance, so I felt comfortable with them by the time we went into rehearsals. And I found my own way around the music. For example, I was never going to be able to recreate David Paich’s two-handed keyboard parts on song like “Africa” by Toto. He’s an incredible player. So I told Mark Rivera, “I’ve got the top hand down!” And he replied, “Ok. I’ll play the bottom hand part on the saxophone.” It was Steve Lukather that finally said, “We shouldn’t be trying to cop these parts exactly. We should be playing the songs like we’re a band.” So that’s what we do. We play the songs our own way. It’s quite an eclectic group of musicians, but it works. I asked Joe Walsh when we played together for Ringo’s birthday in 2012, “Who would put a band together like this? And Joe replied, “Ringo would!”

Besides touring with Ringo Starr, what’s next for you?

I’m finishing a solo album, and then the original Santana lineup is reuniting for a new album and tour, probably in the next year. We got back together to see if the magic was still there, and it was. The new music has the same attitude as it used to have, but with more knowledge. How can that be bad?

If there’s a secret to your nearly five decades of continued success, what do you think it is?

I’ve said yes to the right things and no to the right things. But ultimately for me, it’s always been about following my heart.

Rolie’s Rig with Ringo

When touring with legendary Beatles drummer Ringo Starr, Gregg Rolie returns to the instrument where it all began, the venerable Hammond B-3.

“With Ringo, we usually rent an organ at the beginning of the tour, and we keep it until the end,” he says. “This time out, I’m playing a standard B-3 through a Leslie 122, but on the next tour with him, I’ll be using the New Portable B-3 and a Leslie from Hammond. I’m very impressed with the new technology.” As to some of his favorite settings, “It varies, but usually I’m playing with the first four or five drawbars out,” he explains. “Sometimes I go for a rounder, more churchy sound with just the first and third out, plus maybe the sixth drawbar and no percussion. I usually have chorus set on either C1 or C3.

“I’m also using a Yamaha Motif XF8 synthesizer, which I really like. It has some terrific sounds in it, unlike some other keyboards that sound a little too jazzy for my taste. To me, the Motif has more meat on its bones. It’s also a great writing tool—there’s a Hammond sound in it that’s so good, I have one set up in my studio at home and I sometimes use it instead of a real organ.”