Sidemen get no love.
People buy tickets to see the featured artist, but the sidemen make up the bulk of what the audience hears on any musical tour. If they’re lucky, they’ll get an introduction*, but most of them play in virtual anonymity. Within the professional music community they may be well known, but to the general public they tend to be nameless and faceless, much like studio musicians.
In this installment of Unsung Guitar Hero, we’re featuring one of the consummate sidemen of the past 30 years: Robbie McIntosh.
Robbie got his first big break when he joined the Pretenders in the early 80’s, after the death of guitarist, James Honeyman-Scott, and his rippin’ Tele solo on “Middle of the Road” is considered one of the great guitar breaks of the decade. After leaving the Pretenders, he went on to do studio work and/or play on tour as a band member for a handful of major artists. Like “former Beatle”-type major artists.
Let’s learn a bit more about the great Robbie McIntosh!
Everybody Wants You
Even though Robbie is a fine artist in his own right with multiple recordings under his name, he has made his reputation (and his money) as a top-notch sideman and session musician. It certainly helps to keep the phone ringing when you can play most anything in the pop/rock/blues/fingerstyle/slide vein. Throw some Dobro and mandolin into the mix and you’re golden.
Some of the artists that have rung him up and offered him a gig with their band include heavyweights like Paul McCartney, Norah Jones, Mark Knopfler and John Mayer. I think it says a lot about you as a musician when the featured artist who hires you is a beast on the guitar as well (see Knopfler and Mayer). And when former Beatles are calling, well, you’re pretty much the man.
[NOTE: Robbie is often confused for the Average White Band’s drummer of the same name. Unfortunately for that Robbie, he met an early demise in the 70’s. Our man Robbie is still going strong.]
It all started, however, with the Pretenders. Robbie was a friend of original guitarist, James Honeyman-Scott. In 1982, Scott asked Robbie to join their tour to beef up the rhythm section. Scott died that year and Robbie stayed on with the band as the lead guitarist, with Chrissie Hynde on rhythm. He recorded Learning to Crawl and Get Close with the band before leaving in 1987.
Robbie’s solo on “Middle of the Road” is one of the guitar highlights of the entire decade of the 80’s. The bluesy, stuttering solo is a Telecaster tour-de-force, littered with double-stop bends, rapid-fire pull-offs, and chordal stabs. The video features Robbie prominently displaying his rock star moves, with the solo dropping white-hot at about 1:30:
Yeah, that just happened.
After leaving the Pretenders, Robbie did some session work for former Beatle, Paul McCartney, and was eventually recruited to be the band’s lead guitarist. Robbie shared the stage with Sir Paul for a few years and can be seen in the concert films Get Back and Paul Is Live. Of all the gigs in the world, I’m not sure it gets any cooler than that.
NORAH JONES, MARK KNOPFLER, JOHN MAYER
Robbie was part of Norah Jones’ Handsome Band for a stretch and has also backed Dire Straits’ founder, Mark Knopfler (who has played a few epic solos of his own).
McIntosh was also 2nd guitarist in John Mayer‘s band from 2006 to 2010. He appeared on three recordings, including the 2008 concert film Where the Light Is: John Mayer Live in Los Angeles. There are also a bunch of YouTube videos of Robbie going to toe to toe with Mayer on stage. Of particular note is the band playing “Crossroads” with Robbie on slide.
As a studio musician, Robbie has delivered his special brand of guitar mojo for numerous artists, including Talk Talk, Joe Cocker, Cher, Roger Daltrey, Mike and the Mechanics, Tori Amos, and Paul Carrack. Robbie also recorded some great tracks for Tears for Fears, including the epic “Badman’s Song”.
* I once saw Keith Urban in concert and he not only introduced his band one by one, but he had each member sing a verse and a chorus to the song of their choice, while their baby pictures were displayed on the video screen. Each band member was an incredible singer, with one guy singing “Open Arms” by Journey. That moment is etched into my memory. Keith rocks.
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