Meet Don Robertson

Don Robertson - Guitarist
My Story My Guitar Heros
This is my Guitar story....

"Playing guitar is like telling the truth. You never have to worry about repeating the same lie if you told the truth. You don't have to pretend or cover up. If someone asks you again you don't have to think about it or worry about it. It's you."
-- B.B. King



I was riding in Dad's car on one of our Sunday trips to the foothills outside of Denver when I heard Elvis Presley sing for the very first time, and what I heard hit me like a bomb! Here was this tormented voice pushed through a reverb unit, sandwiched between Doris Day and Perry Como! RCA Victor records had just released Elvis' first national hit record "Heartbreak Hotel" backed by "I Was the One." My neighbor, Ward Terry, owned the RCA distributorship in Denver, and he got me a copy of the this 45rpm record before it even hit the stores, and I played it over and over for a long time. On April 8, 1956, I took my girl friend to the see Elvis at the Denver Coliseum. He was traveling with the Faron Young country music tour. We sat in the front row. Soon, I bought a cheap guitar and started learning to play chords.


Skiffle Music

in 1958, Grandma Robertson sent me and my cousin Sally Ann to Europe on a student trip led by a wonderful teacher, Ruth Graham, from my school, Grayland Country Day School, located just three blocks from home. The trip across the ocean was aboard a magnificent British ship called the Empress of Britain that sailed from Montreal to Liverpool, and during this week-long journey, I made friends with crew members who played skiffle music on the fantail every night. I, just like most Americans, had never heard of the term "skiffle music," the most popular music in England at that time, with singer Lonnie Donegan its most popular proponent. I loved this music so much that when I got to London, I bought every Lonnie Donegan record that I could find, and a small banjo with an instruction book (pictured above) as well. Little did I realize at that time that the skiffle genre, from which the Beatles would eventually spring, was actually England's re-discovery of American folk music: music that at that time, my own countrymen had little interest in.



I practiced the banjo for a little while, but my next step really, was the electric guitar. This started one day in 1959 when I was listening to the radio and heard the name Django Reinhardt for the first time and recognized the music as something I had heard on the radio years before and loved, but couldn't identify. I immediately went to the record store and bought a 2-record LP set of Django's music, and I listened to it, and two other LPs that I managed to find, incessantly for almost a year. I then jumped on my bike to run a paper route for a month just to earn enough money to buy a Silvertone electric guitar from Sears Roebuck in Denver's Cherry Creek Shopping Center.

Once I had this guitar, I started figuring out how to play jazz. When I wasn't listening to Django, which I did almost all of the time either from the records or in my head, I was exploring other jazz artists, especially Johnny Smith. I joined the Navy in September. My first ship was the USS Los Angeles, a cruiser. Since I could not bring a record player aboard ship, I convinced the ship's DJ to play my Django records over the ship's music system. On my second ship, the USS Valley Forge, I started a jazz trio and we played a few gigs at the Officer's Club on the naval base at Long Beach.

1962 - US Navy Rehearsal Recordings

Song 1

Song 2


Song 3

There Will Never Be Another You

Song 4


Song 5

Theme from Exodus

Song 6


Song 7

Song 8

Autumn Leaves

Song 9

Jazz Trio

Song 10

Jazz Trio

Song 11

Jazz Trio


The Nicadors

I was discharged from the Navy in 1964 and I enrolled at the University of Colorado in Boulder in the fall. I met a singer named Jim Carter and we formed a Rock and Roll band called the Four Nicadors. Because I was playing jazz guitar, I decided playing rock and roll would be easy, since jazz was so much more complex. However, I found that not to be the case. I had been practicing flying all over the fret board with lightning speed, but found playing a simple repeated rock and roll guitar lick in perfect time, over and over, needed some mastering. The Nicadors played a number of gigs in Boulder and we kept pretty busy. First I had played jazz, and now rock and roll. But soon I was going to discover the music called the blues, and that would become my number one guitar priority.

The discovery of blues occurred one night when I went to hear a legendary Boulder group called "Lee Durley and the Playboys." Lee, an African-American singer and blues organist, had a fantastic talent and a great band. They played soul and blues music, and both were a new world for me! After the concert, I went up to Lee, introduced myself, and asked him how I could learn to play blues guitar like his guitarist. Lee recommended a former Playboy guitarist who lived in Boulder as someone who could show me the ropes.

I contacted this young man, whose name I do not recall, and sat in his home spellbound as he played one 45-rpm record after another, introducing me to the blues guitar greats: Lonnie Mack, B.B. and Freddie King and so many more. I then went on a record search. At that time, these musicians were nearly unknown in the white-record-store world.

I found B.B. King LPs in the cutout bins in the "Five Points" African-American neighborhood in Denver. I practiced intently, learning this style of guitar that used "bending" the strings to mimic the expressions of the singing voice.


The Nicadors Instruments Stolen

Folk singer Townes Van Zant was a student at the University of Colorado in Boulder back then, and he brought some of his musician friends over to Jim Carter's house, where we had been practicing, to hear us. That night, these "friends" returned with wire cutters and stole our guitars, bass and amplifiers, including my beautiful Gibson 3-pickup hollow-body guitar that I had just purchased. Insurance paid for a new guitar - a hunk of wood called a Fender Jaguar.


The Contrasts

It was soon over for me with the Nicadors. The other band members weren't musicians on the same level as I, and I really wanted to play blues. One day, I heard that the "Lee Durley and the Playboys" band had broken up, and I decided I to invite Lee into the Nicadors. Where was Lee? No one knew, but it was rumored he had gone to Denver. I finally tracked him down there and asked him. Was he interested? Yes! But with the Nicadors? No. But, that was OK with me. When I broke the news to Jim that I was leaving the group, it was pretty depressing. We even shared an apartment. It was easy to convince Rod Jenkins, who was playing in the most popular band in Boulder, to join Lee and I forming a new band, and during the summer of 1965 we created the "Contrasts." In the photo above, that's Rod, my ex-wife Suzie, and Lee on the roof of our Contrast's van that will take us to Las Vegas.

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The Contrasts in Las Vegas

It really only took one afternoon in 1965 to rehearse enough songs to play our first gigs, and we played in a few clubs in Denver for a while. Soon, I convinced Lee to return to Boulder and I convinced the owner of the Terrace Supper Club to let us play there for cover charge. The first night, we started our set with 3 or 4 people in the room for over and hour. But it only took an hour for the word to get out that Lee was back in town, and 30 or 40 people from the "Sink" on the hill in Boulder streamed into the club, and from that point on we always played packed rooms. Lee's friend Ron Pinkard became our manager and soon we were in Las Vegas playing at the Silver Nugget Casino. We were in top form, but we soon had a room filled with African-Americans loving every minute of our music, and this wasn't what the management was looking for. So we signed with a man who wanted to build an act that would go into the Tropicana Hotel downtown. He sent us to the Stockman Hotel in Elko, Nevada for a month to get our robotic stage act together, with three girl dancers - one of them topless. We had now become a certified cocktail lounge band and no longer played real music. I hated it. After an argument, I left Lee and Rod in Elko and drove to Los Angeles to study North Indian classical music. The band soon broke up and Ron went to Los Angeles to become a TV actor.

The Contrasts

On Green Dolphin Street

45rpm Record


Monkey Around

45rpm Record



45rpm Record



45rpm Record


Summertime (fast version)



Summertime (slow version)



Treat Her Right



Wooly Bully



You Are My Sunshine



Down in the Dumps



* Recorded at the Terrace Supper Club

Chamaeleon Church

The Sitar Year

I played guitar in a rock band in Los Angeles while I attended Mantle Hood's Institute of Ethnomusicology at UCLA and studied the North Indian Classical instrument called the sitar with Harihar Rao. In the fall, after a September marriage to my girl friend Suzie, we drove to New York City where I entered the Julliard School of Music's extension division. I met a very supportive and kind friend named Howard Hirsch, who was Judy Garland's percussionist. He introduced me to the New York recording-session world, and soon I was playing guitar and Indian instruments on national TV commercials and record albums.

These are the albums that I played on in 1968:

Songs on Record Albums


Bobby Callender

Misty Morning Melody

Neon Princess

Tom Parrott

Nature Boy

The Warm Side of Jack Sheldon

Trumpeter and Comedian Jack Sheldon

Twice Told Tales Of The Pomegranate Forest


with legendary producer, Tom Wilson



produced by Alan Lorber


Chamaeleon Church

Chevy Chase's band

Within You, Without You

Lotus Palace

The Alan Lorber Orchestra


New York

Atonal Guitar

Meanwhile, I was making my own highly experimental music, distorting the sound of my guitar, blowing out my amplifier speakers with loud atonal leads. My guitar style became more and more outrageous until I reached a point of creating total discord. I basically had invented death metal back in 1968, influenced by the Blue Cheer's album called Vincibus Eruptus that had just been released. It was the first heavy metal music ever recorded, and it had blown my mind. From this start, I developed my own atonal guitar music.

1968 Home Recordings

Pipe Dream

Instrumental piece in 7/4 time

(lead sheet)

Music for Guitar & Piano

Distorted, negative music - guitar overdubbed after piano was recorded

Ya Baghit

Adaptation of an Egyptian song originally sung by Om Kulthum

I played electric guitar on several cuts on the Tom Parrott Folkways album (photo above), and from that, I came to the attention of Blue Cheer's producer, Abe "Voco" Kesh in San Francisco and I was signed by Mercury Records' to the Limelight label that Quincy Jones had just started. Suzie and I moved to San Francisco, "crashing" (as was the hippie style of 1968) and even living in a tent for a while. I recorded my Dawn album in 1969.


The Dawn Album

My producer, Abe "Voco" Kesh, loved my guitar playing and encouraged me to record a pop album featuring my playing. He invited me to his house and played me cuts from the albums that he had produced of guitarist Harvey Mandel that had been very successful, but I had another idea in mind, and Abe was OK with that! I was allowed to do whatever I wanted, and that was an unusual occurrence, indeed, under a contract with a major label. Only one track on the album featured guitar, the piece called "Contemplation."

filmclip Read:
The Making of the Dawn Album (2001)

From the Dawn Album


Based on Raga Darbari Kanada - in 5/4 time.

From the "Lost" Dawn Album Rehearsal Tape

Revelation I

The Don Robertson Trio - Don Robertson - guitar, Mike Dahlgren - drums, Rand Elias - bass



The Zither

By the time of the Dawn album, I was basically playing the zither instead of the guitar. I had purchased my Oscar Schmidt 80-string guitar-zither from Manny's Music in New York City and tuned it to the natural pentatonic scale, the most harmonious scale that exists. My inspiration was the North Indian classical musical instrument called the swaramandala that I listened on my favorite record, Raga Darbari Kanada by the Ali Brothers of Pakistan.

The zither became the centerpiece of the Dawn album, and this was very revolutionary for the time. I remember sitting in Amigo Studios in North Hollywood playing this instrument while Abe and jazz musician Shorty Rogers looked on in amazement. I simply applied my guitar technique to the zither, and played away! Every composition was an improvisation, and these lasted about 20 minutes and were some of the most powerful music I have ever created. In 1969, Suzie and I were living in a little place in Oakland. I created a tent out of blankets in the front room and played the zither in there. The music was so powerful that things were falling off shelves.

This instrument was like an orchestra with its many strings tuned to just the five notes (C,D,E,G,A) that constitute the basis of the harmony of creation. One time Suzie and I were visiting a friend who had a farm. While they visited, I took the zither outside to the barn. Pigs snorted, horses were restless, chickens were running around. They were braying, snorting and clucking at this disturbance from an unknown human. I sat down, and slowly began an improvisation. I went into my inner world, listening, as the notes and the energy flowed into the surroundings. When the piece ended 20 minutes later, I let the sounds fade away, then I slowly opened my eyes. The animals were all asleep peacefully facing the direction from whence had come the magic.


The Zither Concerts

In 1970, I put the zither away and hauled the Fender Jaguar to a pawn shop. I think I got $35 for it. I didn't play zither again until the end of the decade when I met the first new age music distributor, Ethan Edgecombe, and I decided to release a cassette tape of zither music. I borrowed a couple of microphones from a friend, and recorded my cassette album "Celestial Ascent," and Ethan placed it in the new age music sections of metaphysical book stores. There were just a few dozen new age tapes for sale then, and and a handful of LP records.

The only music that I was playing at this time was the zither, and the piano. The first public performance that I did with the zither was in late 1979, I believe, and it took place in a church in Sebastopol. I played a single solo-zither improvisation that was so powerful that all 30 or so people who attended lined up to hug me when it was over and no one spoke a word. I partnered with Constance Demby for four or five concerts - she did most of the concert, and I played zither at the end. 20 minutes was all I felt I could do. The world wasn't ready for the zither, so I after these concerts, I put it away again.

It's in storage...

The Only Known Concert Recording

Concert Recording

Concert with Constance Demby
Dec. 7, 1981 San Rafael Ca.


My Saga Guitar

Today I play my dream guitar,
like the one that Django played....

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