From Randy Rhoads To Precious Metal, from Lindsey Buckingham to her own solo career, the ongoing tale of guitarist / singer / songwriter Janet Robin is a fascinating journey.
It’s the tale of how a young girl barely into grade school fell in love with the guitar as she took lessons from an axe-slinger about to make his own mark upon the rock world. It’s a story where the daughter of a Southern California dentist grows up to join the 1980s all-girl band Precious Metal, plays in Lindsey Buckingham’s first solo group and further evolves into the performer she is today.
Robin’s lifelong passion didn’t begin with seeing The Beatles on TV or watching B.B. King performing on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson.” Instead, her journey was inspired by a keen desire to best her older brothers in everything they did, a classic case of sibling one-upmanship that resulted in her life’s passion.
“I started on karate,” Robin told Pollstar. “My brothers were taking karate and I wanted to do everything they did.”
Robin began her karate studies when she was five years old and quickly learned the blunt reality of playing full-contact sports when her instructor accidentally knocked her out, ending her desire to best her bros in the dojo. No matter. It wasn’t long before one of her big brothers had a new passion – the guitar. Of course, Robin just had to follow him.
The guitar lessons started when she was six, as Robin learned classical, folk and acoustic during three years of lessons that eventually led to a moment that would define her for the rest of her life.
“We got a recommendation that there was this hot electric guitar teacher named Randy Rhoads,” Robin said. “He taught at his mom’s place, which happened to be around the corner from my parents’ house in North Hollywood where I grew up. We went to him, but my mom wouldn’t let me play electric right away.”
But Rhoads taught only electric guitar and Robin had yet to plug in. She “begged, begged and begged” her mother for an electric, and after months of her pleadings, mom complied. And Robin switched teachers.
“This was in a school,” Robin remembers, describing the place as a house converted into a music studio called “Musonia.”
“It’s still there in North Hollywood. His mom is still alive, but she’s kind of retired. She ran the place for years. She’s a piano teacher. She had other teachers there – classical guitar and Randy.”
While talking about her years as Rhoads’ pupil, Robin paints a somewhat unexpected portrait of the young man who would go on to form Quiet Riot and eventually play with Ozzy Osbourne before dying in a 1982 private plane crash.
“He didn’t say much. He was very quiet,” Robin said of Rhoads. “When he did say something to me it meant something. He would be very specific. It was really very loose teaching. He would show me a rhythm pattern he came up with. Many times these patterns would end up being Ozzy Osbourne songs or Quiet Riot songs.
“We would do progressions and then he would solo. It was nuts. I would be like, ‘What the hell is this?’ I’ve never seen anyone play like that.”
(on the left) playing at her own Bat Mitzvah
Aside from taking lessons from Rhoads, Robin – who hadn’t yet entered high school – was also getting a taste of playing in neighborhood garage bands. However, her first band was with her brother, and like many big brothers, Robin’s wasn’t all that crazy about rocking out with little sister.
“So I got really into it. It kind of became a thing, to prove, even at that age because I was playing with all these boys. There were absolutely no girls playing any instruments, not even bass. I knew some girls that played piano, but I wanted to play the rock songs. I was covering Rush and all that crap. None of the girls I was friends with were interested in that, just boys.”
Meanwhile, Robin continued her lessons with Rhoads, who at that time was on the brink of rock history.
“Then between 10 and 12, I started to go to his shows with Quiet Riot at a big Hollywood club back in the day called The Starwood,” Robin said. “I was allowed in if I was escorted by my parents. We went two or three times to see Quiet Riot but I really went to see Randy. I was sitting in the audience thinking, Oh my God! This is what I want to do! This is amazing!”
The story of the Sunset Strip during the 1980s is punctuated with stories of glam metal bands hustling to be noticed by almost God-like record label execs. Quiet Riot, Guns N’ Roses, Poison and Ratt were just some of the bands playing clubs like The Whisky A Go Go, The Roxy, Club Lingerie and Gazzarri’s during the Reagan era. But while tales of ‘80s debauchery and excess abound, Robin’s young teenage viewpoint reveals it wasn’t always a mega-hedonistic scene.
Janet Robin with Randy Rhoad’s brother, Kelle.
“Randy was a little bit of a health fanatic,” Robin remembers. “One time I had a lesson with him on the same day he had a show with Quiet Riot. And he knew my dad was really into vitamins. But Randy was sick, so he asked if my dad could bring some powdered Vitamin C.
“My dad put these Vitamin C crystals into a baggie and we brought it to the Starwood. At the end of the show we’re passing it to Randy and the security guard grabs it. “What is this? You can’t have drugs in here!”
Aside from having an inside glimpse into the music industry machinery, at that time Robin was also noticing a startling difference between her own status as a promising guitarist and her contemporaries. That is, she was standing on the threshold of what was still considered to be a man’s world.
“There were [a few] role models,” Robin said. “Nancy Wilson from Heart, who I ended up doing some work with when I was in Precious Metal. As a solo artist I ended up opening for Heart one time too. But she was the only rock woman that I knew. I knew of Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt. I thought there were excellent guitar players but I wasn’t exposed to them.
“I had heard of The Runaways, but they were really underground at the time. We didn’t know about underground indie bands then. It wasn’t like it is now, and they were a bit older than me. I was 13 and they were five years older.”
At age of 16 Robin answered an ad for a guitarist in an all-girl band – a move that began her transition from talented amateur to professional musician. Robin met with the person behind the ad – original Precious Metal drummer Suzette Andres – who happened to know a record producer.
“In three weeks we were signed. It was 1984 and I was just out of high school.”
It was Robin’s first time in a studio as the newly formed band recorded a few demos. Then one of her bandmates suggested they send a demo to DJ Rodney Bingenheimer, a disc jockey at Los Angeles radio station KROQ, because she had heard The Runaways had done something similar. The record ended up getting spins on a noon program spotlighting new bands.
“At the same time our song was being played, a record executive from PolyGram was in the car, really liked the song and called the radio station and asked who it was,” Robin said. “In three weeks we were signed. It was 1984 and I was just out of high school. Our first gig was lunchtime at my high school in Van Nuys – Grant High. And I was student body president.”
Robin transitioned from sitting in the audiences watching bands to playing in bands for Sunset Strip audiences. With the girls’ big hairstyles and penchant for leather costumes, Precious Metal was a perfect fit for the late ‘80s Strip. Of course, the band wasn’t the first all-girl group to arrive, but it did carve out its own niche in the late-glam / pre-grunge era.
“There was a separation of styles. There were the Go-Go’s and The Bangles who were more pop and Vixen and Precious Metal who were more hard rock. There were these rumors about whether all the girl bands could really play their own instruments, in the studio and even live- All of these bands were about playing our own instruments, all you had to do was come to a show and see it for yourself.”
Standing in front of the band's mural on the wall of Tower Records on the Sunset Strip.
Precious Metal’s popularity rose as the band continued playing gigs on the Strip. But Robin, who was still in high school, was too young for the clubs. She could play on stage, but legally couldn’t hang out in the club before or after the performance, which led to a lot of nights waiting in the car until showtime and then hustling her gear out of the building as soon as the set ended. But even with those restrictions, she was getting to know her way around the ‘80s L.A. club scene.
“We started playing with bands like Poison,” Robin said. “We never played with Guns N’ Roses but we’d be at parties with them and they came to our parties. We became friends with C.C. DeVille of Poison and wrote a song with him. Later we struck up relationships with Ann and Nancy Wilson and the guys from Cheap Trick and wrote songs with them.”
The band even snagged an A-list celeb, Donald Trump, for their video of “Mr. Big Stuff,” Precious Metal’s cover of the classic ‘70s song. However the relationship between record label owner and Trump went south before the video was released, causing The Donald to end up on the cutting room floor.
But that was only a minor setback. In the early ‘90s Precious Metal, along with many of the band’s Sunset Strip contemporaries, came face-to-face with a paradigm shift in the music industry that effectively signaled the end of the glam era.
The guitarist during the Precious Metal years.
“Our last record came out, 90, 91. We had these songs with Ann and Nancy Wilson and we’re out on the road when our label called and said, ‘We’re pulling the record. That’s it. Radio wants to play Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots.’
“It was a different style of music and it killed all the glam rock. That was the end of Precious Metal.”
But not the end of Robin’s career.
She teamed with Leslie Knauer, Precious Metal’s lead singer, to form a duo called Sugar Shack. She also worked in a recording studio and looked for session gigs. But a musician’s life is filled with unexpected breaks and this time opportunity came a knockin’ in the form of Lindsey Buckingham.
“He was putting together his first-ever solo band for a record,” Robin said. “A very special ten-piece band that was going to incorporate five guitar players, two percussionists, a drummer, bass player and keyboards.”
The audition took half the day in a studio where the two guitarists spent most of the time talking, as Buckingham instructed her to play specific guitar parts. Five hours later, the audition concluded, Robin went home to wait. And wait.
“I didn’t hear for two weeks until the agent called and said, ‘You got the gig. You’re going on Leno in a week.’”
Heart's Nancy Wilson (left) and Lindsey Buckingham (center).
As it turned out, Robin wasn’t the only woman in the band and she joined a lineup that also included Liza Carbe. First came rehearsals, then “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” followed by a six-week tour. Robin remembers her time with Buckingham as her “most professional gig.”
“It was semi-pro with Precious Metal. We had some tour buses and we played some good venues,” Robin said, comparing the two experiences. “But it stepped up a notch with Lindsey. That was the 1992 ‘Out Of The Cradle’ tour.”
Robin’s gig with Buckingham lasted until 1994 with the band touring as a headliner as well as supporting Tina Turner. Six years later, Robin recalls the experience as one of the most important times in her career, saying Buckingham demanded nothing less than perfection.
To accomplish this, Buckingham would record rehearsals on individual tracks and then meet with each musician and critiquing his or her work. The message was clear: get it right or get out.
“So you got your shit together,” Robin said. “He motivated me to rise to the occasion, whatever it meant. Like going to vocal lessons or deal with the metronome. I did all that and worked with the other guys in the band and we kind of came together.
“I learned what it takes to be close to perfect, what you do in rehearsals, what you expect from a band, how you put a band together and how to put a show together. I cannot thank him enough. He mentored me and he was very respectful to me. We still stay in touch.”
After Buckingham, Robin continued to work on her solo career, releasing albums and hooking up with Australian singer /songwriter Anne McCue for a series of acoustic gigs.
These days she works solo and with a four-piece band, often during the same gig, opening the show herself before bringing out the band.
“When I’m on the road in Europe I sometimes have musicians there that will join me, but 80 percent of the time I’m solo acoustic and I do the same thing. And I do the same thing, but I just mix it up with guitars. I’ll play electric alone. I have a six-string banjo. That’s what happens.”
“I learned what it takes to be close to perfect, what you do in rehearsals, what you expect from a band, how you put a band together and how to put a show together.”
Robin latest CD – 2010’s Everything Has Changed – was produced by John Carter Cash, son of Johnny and June. Robin remembers thinking at the time that Cash would be “a really good match” for her music, so she e-mailed his MySpace page.
“He wrote me back,” Robin said. “I thought the studio manager might get back to me, but it was him. He listened to the songs I had posted on MySpace and he said he was interested in producing me. I was like, ‘Okay, let’s hook up.’”
Robin found a kindred spirit in Cash. Both artists grew up listening to the same bands, including Led Zeppelin and AC/DC. What’s more, he had a Precious Metal CD in his collection, so there was some mutual admiration.
But these days it’s a leaner, and some might say meaner indie scene than in years past as albums are increasingly seen as promotional material for selling concert tickets. For many bands and artists, financing an album means coming up with the bucks themselves, often by appealing to fans.
“He listened to the songs I had posted on MySpace and he said he was interested in producing me.”
“I did what Jill Sobule did,” Robin said. “ Last year I asked my fans and raised $16,000. I told them about the project, set up a PayPal account and then went to Nashville with John to work in the studio. And it led to a record deal in Germany – Hypertension Music.”
While recording and touring make up a major portion of Robin’s career, she often looks outside her own personal touring and recording agenda. She talks of a tour featuring all female guitarists that she’s dubbed, “Six String Sisters.”
She’s also very aware of how times have changed in the past three decades regarding women guitarists. Yet, she still wonders why gender seems to be so important when the reality is more about talent and creativity. She wonders why stories about young guitarists like Orianthi or seasoned vets like Nancy Wilson and Chrissie Hynde still include gender designations, saying no one ever describes musicians like Eric Clapton and John Mayer as “male guitarists.”
Antones in Austin, Texas.
August 14, 2010
Plus, like many who came before her, she wants to influence young artists-in-training who are just now taking their first steps on their own musical journeys.
“I teach guitar and I have both male and female students,” Robin said. “And the guys are great. The young boys that come to me don’t have a pre-conceived notion that I’m some chick guitar player. They like that I studied with Randy, they like my stuff, and they want to learn. So maybe it will change.”
From Randy Rhoads to Precious Metal, Lindsay Buckingham to John Carter Cash and all points in between – like a stint working with Meredith Brooks, opening for Midge Ure earlier this year or appearing with Monte Montgomery this summer – Robin’s guitar journey appears to be a series of milestones mixed with axe-for-hire moments.
But it’s also a story about the passion and dedication of a girl who was not yet into her teens when she decided to make music her life’s path, intertwining the two threads until each is unrecognizable without the other. Like many career musicians, music is Robin’s life and her life is music.
And the story isn’t complete. Robin may not know what’s around the next corner, but she’s ready for that unknown land in the future.
And she still dreams.
Rockwood Music Hall, New York City. April 2010.
Robin plays Philadelphia’s Tin Angel Aug. 26; the Pawtuxet Athletic Club in Cranston, R.I., Aug. 27 and a house concert in Newton, Mass., Aug. 28 before heading across the ocean for a tour of Europe. For more information, click here for Janet Robin's website, here for her MySpace page, here for her Facebook page and here for her Twitter page. For more information about the Hypertension record label, plese click here,