BY HEATHER SMITH
When I was nine years old, I was playing softball and riding my bike. When Janet Robin was that age, she was studying with legendary guitarist, Randy Rhoads (Quiet Riot, Ozzy Osbourne). This is a woman who was raised on the guitar, and damn, can she play.
In Part I of our Q&A, I talked with Janet about her relationship with Randy Rhoads, her influences and her early career playing with the all-girl glam rock outfit Precious Metal as well as stints with Lindsey Buckingham, Air Supply and Meredith Brooks. Janet Robin has had experiences that many musicians only dream about and during the course of her career has proven over and over that girls really do know how to rock.
How old were you when you first started playing guitar? What made you pick it up?
I started when I was six years old on classical and folk guitar, then nine years old on electric. I did everything my older brothers did. When they took karate, I took karate; when they took guitar, I took guitar. Karate obviously didn’t work out, but I really enjoyed playing guitar. It was a different kind of focus for me even at a young age.
When did Randy Rhoads start giving you guitar lessons? How did that come about?
I started with him around age nine. My brother and I were taking acoustic guitar from another teacher and he wanted to play electric. Of course, I wanted to also. Someone recommended this great electric guitar teacher and he taught at his mom’s studio, Musonia, which was really close to my parent’s house.
How did Randy Rhoads influence you?
First, he couldn’t care less that I was a little girl who wanted to rock. Also, I was his youngest student, and he didn’t care about that either. It really gave me a lot of confidence as a kid and as a girl who didn’t want to play with Barbies. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I was obsessed with guitar.
Randy taught me how to practice, too. He also inadvertently taught me how to write songs. When we would jam during the lessons, he would show me a progression that usually included a guitar riff of some sort. A lot of the music I write has a “featured” guitar riff that’s a theme throughout. As far as his style goes, it definitely influenced me in learning all the tricks of the trade like pull-offs, hammer-ons, pinching, harmonics — cool stuff that lead guitar players use in their solos. I used it later in my bands and also use some of that stuff now on my acoustic guitar, which sounds really different and unusual.
What is one of your favorite memories of him?
I was lucky enough to actually see him play with Quiet Riot back in the day. He was with them before he got the gig with Ozzy Osbourne. They weren’t as big until after he died, but they were a popular Los Angeles band at that time. I enjoyed seeing him live and the buzz of the concert was really awesome. But to be honest, my favorite memories are just going to my lessons week after week, sitting in the little practice room. He would be smoking and drinking a Diet Coke, and just completely ripping on the guitar during our lessons. It was amazing; I’d never seen anyone play like him. I would actually bring friends and family members to sit in on my lessons.
How did his death impact you?
I was devastated. I remember I was at school; 15 years old. My mom called the school office and they sent me there to talk to her on the phone and she told me about the plane crash.
I just couldn’t believe it. I started crying immediately. I just felt like everything I had learned on guitar — the “serious” stuff was from him, and that it will never happen again now, and nobody would ever replace him.
I was lucky enough to have had one more lesson with him — in between tours with Ozzy he had a break and went back to teach his students for one week. That was the last time I saw him. I remember he came out and told my mom “When she gets to be my age she’s gonna be just as good.” I don’t know about that, but it was really cool thing to say! He was super dedicated. I think that also taught me a lot in my approach to teaching my students.
Who were were some of your female role models?
You know, growing up back in the 70s there weren’t a lot of female guitarists or even female-fronted bands. Of course, I loved Heart. I just thought they were so awesome. Nancy Wilson played fantastic guitar — finger-picking aggressively, but was still sexy and cool. She was definitely a role model.
I liked The Runaways, too, but I wasn’t as aware of them as I was Heart. They seemed a little more trashy-punk which was cool, but I guess I was more into the classic rock style. I loved Janis Joplin, Grace Slick and Blondie as vocalists. But you know there just weren’t a lot of girls back then rocking on the guitar. I had heard of Bonnie Raitt but she was more in the blues scene. So, I admired a lot of male players — besides Randy of course, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Eddie Van Halen.
How old were you when you joined Precious Metal?
I answered an ad from the drummer and rhythm guitar player at the time — they were looking for a lead guitarist. I had just turned 17 and was in my senior year.
What was that experience like in metal/glam rock, which was seemingly a male-dominated genre?
Yes, well, there’s too many stories to go into. You know we had it okay. We really prided ourselves on our musicianship. We played all the parts on all of our records and we wrote all the songs. We put on an entertaining show. We did feel at times, though, that we had something to prove just because rock ‘n’ roll is so male dominated, but that just made us work harder. I think in the end we did get some respect.
I do have to say that back in the 80s the Sunset Strip scene was really cool. Lots of bands were close friends. We would play shows together, be at parties together, and there were several other really good female bands at the time that were awesome. We also hung out with the guys from Guns ‘n’ Roses and Poison, that was pretty cool. A lot of those bands just started making it, but they were still playing on the strip.
What was your best experience with Precious Metal?
That’s tough because we had a lot of great moments. Playing in Mexico at a benefit concert with 20,000 people in the audience was amazing to me. I had never played in front of so many people before. Writing and recording with Ann and Nancy Wilson and Sue Ennis for our last record in 1990 was pretty awesome.
Leslie Knauer (Precious Metal’s lead singer) and I flew up to Seattle, worked on a few songs, recorded some demos and then just partied! That was back when I could party. But it was amazing to actually be working with someone like the Wilsons who I admired growing up and then hanging out, playing and talking about music. They are still friends although I don’t see them that much. Several years ago I had the opportunity to open for one of their acoustic shows down in Cerritos. A few years back I went to their show and brought my 16-year-old female guitar student backstage who loves them, and she got to meet them and get her record signed.
Well, there were some. I think one time I heard some guy say “Your boyfriends must be playing behind the curtains!” That was the craziest thing I’d ever heard. Then another time at a show on the road some idiots threw dildos on stage. That was so fucked up and disrespectful, so we threw them back into the audience.
What led to the demise of Precious Metal?
Well, we released our very last record around 1990 which was the beginning of the grunge scene — with Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, etc. That style was taking off on radio and the industry really didn’t want to have anything to do with glam-rock anymore. So after six years we called it quits.
How did you get the gig with Lindsey Buckingham?
If it wasn’t for Precious Metal, I wouldn’t have gotten the gig with Lindsey. A production assistant that worked at our former label started working for an agent in Los Angeles that was responsible for looking for touring musicians for major artists. Lindsey’s team went to her asking for female guitarists. He wanted two of them so they sent me in. The audition was crazy long — five hours of just hanging out, playing a little, talking, playing again, singing a little, talking. I’d never had an audition like that before. He’s old school and really wanted to get to know each player before he hired them.
How much did working with him influence your career?
Lindsey influenced me quite a bit. I’ve been lucky, you know. I’ve had some great female role models — Nancy Wilson, of course — but I also have had some amazing male role models and each guy I worked with gave me the utmost respect. I think they saw how hard I work, how much I love playing the guitar and performing and that I really take my career and work seriously. So maybe in a way, I attracted those kinds of people to work with. Lindsey is a perfectionist. I now strive to be as perfect as possible. It’s impossible of course, but I still strive to do my best with shows, songwriting and recording.
I learned a lot from him about putting an entertaining show together — not just playing songs — but interacting with the audience. I learned a lot about songwriting and, of course, incorporating guitar into it. I think Precious Metal was a great start for me in the industry, but I really, truly became a professional when I started working with Lindsey.
What is one of your favorite memories of working with Lindsey?
There are too many stories regarding working with Lindsey and they are all great. Going to Hawaii for two weeks, renting out the hotel lounge at The Grand Wailea on Maui, and turning it into a recording studio was one of the most incredible experiences. We would get up, go snorkeling and then by 12 noon we were in the lounge recording ideas, jamming, etc.
He flew the whole band out there to do what we thought would be his next solo record. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way, but still it was an amazing experience.
Also, touring with Tina Turner. We opened for her for six weeks and that was also pretty damn cool. We played arenas. I grew up going to concerts in arenas and here I was playing in them. That was a dream come true. Also, I would watch her every night. She is such a pro. I learned a lot from her, too!
Also, I think a really cool experience for me was when our band (with Lindsey) played in Seattle and Nancy Wilson came to the show. Then we all went out to dinner and drinks. To be surrounded by two amazing guitar players and to have their respect was just a pinnacle of my career.
You played with Air Supply, which is known for being the epitome of soft rock. How did you come to work with them?
Well, that was another Precious Metal hook up. One of Precious Metal’s former road managers was now Air Supply’s road manager. I was hired by an agent to play guitar for a 70s concert featuring soft rock artists, like Gary Wright and Ambrosia. We opened for Air Supply that night and my former tour manager from Precious Metal recognized me. He told me that Air Supply was looking for a lead guitar player and that Russell and Graham (of Air Supply) saw me play there and were impressed with my playing and wanted to hire me. Literally, there was no audition. A month later I got a live CD from them, learned all the songs and parts and started heading out on the road with them.
Your background is more rock, so what was it like to play with a band that has a softer edge?
I was a lot older than when I was with Precious Metal so it was okay for me to play that style. Yes, it wasn’t as rockin’, but they did have me do some cool solos and featured me a lot which was really great. I think I added a little edge which I think they were okay with. And they had no problem about me being a girl either. Again, male performers giving respect. I really appreciated that they could care less about my gender. It just didn’t work out because my own solo career was becoming more important to me at that point in my life. I had already begun touring the U.S. for several years, as well as Europe, and I just really wanted to focus on my own music at that point.
Who are some of the other artists/bands you have played/collaborated with?
There are many. Maia Sharp, we’ve written a lot of songs together. Garrison Starr, Adrianne, Sarah Bettens, Michelle Shocked, Meredith Brooks and many more.
Meredith Brooks was a great experience — we opened for Melissa Etheridge on a summer tour back in 2002. Great fun and great audiences. I think they loved the fact that there were two girls rockin’ on the guitar. Meredith is a killer guitar player and I thought it was cool that she wanted another girl guitar player in the band. She also let me sell my own CDs at those shows and also let me open for her when she played solo shows. Super supportive woman.
Be sure to catch part two of our interview with Janet Robin soon. She is headed to Europe where she will be touring through the UK, Germany, and the Czech Republic throughout May and June.
Heather Smith is the creator and producer of Rubyfruit Radio, a podcast featuring the best in female artists.