British Rock Guitar Veteran – Robin Trower
by Jim Schwartz
Regarding raw emotion and sheer power, few guitarists today can equal Robin Trower. He literally compels his Fender Stratocaster to sing a timeless musical language – a blues-rock vocabulary replete with multiple-string bends enhanced by shimmering left-hand vibratos, sustain, effects, and controlled feedback. Trower’s often metronomic, slow-paced tunes at first seem simple, but that’s a deception. Anyone who’s attempting to duplicate his licks quickly discovers that they are much more than mere timing and technique: His music exhibits a skilful combination of sound and soul in which pure feeling dictates his melodies’ tempo and tenor.
Born in Catford, London, England, on Match 9, 1945, Trower first began to play guitar professionally with the Paramounts in 1962. During the next three years as a member of the Southend-based R&B band he recorded a string of singles – including remakes of “Poison Ivy” and “Little Bitty Pretty One” – and toured with both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The Paramounts never quite caught on, and as their record company began coercing them into pop realms Trower found himself moving more towards the blues. He subsequently left the band in 1965, formed a short-lived group called Jam, and immersed himself in the music of B.B. King, Otis Rush, Hubert Sumlin, and others for the next six months.
Around this same time in another part of London former Paramount pianist Gary Brooker teamed with a lyricist – Keith Reid – and decided that they, too, wanted to get a group together. After advertising in British music publications and recruiting four more musicians they released their debut single “A Whiter Shade Of Pale,” as Procol Harum in May of 1967. Shortly thereafter, personal and business matters compelled all but Brooker, Reid, organist Matthew Fisher (who was to later produce Robin’s first two solo LPs, Twice Removed From Yesterday and Bridge of Sighs), and bassist Davis Knights to quit the group. Needing a guitarist and drummer, Procol Harum auditioned former Paramounts Trower and B.J. Wilson, and the band’s line-up was set.
From his guitar work on Procol Harum in 1967, especially on cuts such as “Cerdes (Outside The Gates Of),” “Conquistador,” and “Repent Walpurgis,” it was clear that Trower had begun to assimilate the techniques and, more importantly, the spirit of those blues greats he had earlier studied . Throughout the next four years Robin’s lack of formal training on the guitar was more than compensated for by an intuitive musical intelligence which transcended technical know-how. In almost all of Procol Harum’s songs you can hear Trower’s guitar climbing to the furthermost reaches of distortion and expression. Solos such as those on “Wish Me Well” [Shine On Brightly], “Crucifiction Lane” [A Salty Dog], “Still there’ll be more” [Home], and “Song For A Dreamer” [Broken Barricades” – his tribute to the late Jimi Hendrix – proved to be stepping stones for an increasing desire to make guitar the focal point of the music (Procol Harum’s emphasis on vocals and keyboards often left Robin duelling it out for leads with organ and piano).
Robin left Procol Harum after recording Broken Barricades in 1971 and formed Jude with ex-Stone The Crows bassist/vocalist James Dewar, vocalist/guitarist Frankie Miller, and Clive Bunker, who used to drum with Jethro Tull. Nothing of any consequence occurred with that line-up, so Trower with Dewar went off to form the Robin Trower Band in 1972, adding Reg Isadore on drums. After recording Twice Removed From Yesterday in 1973 and Bridge Of Sighs in 1973, Isadore was replaced by former Sly Stone percussionist Bill Lordan. and with the exception of two LPs – In City Dreams and Caravan To Midnight – where funk bassist Rustee Allen joined the band, Trower has retained a power trio format throughout all his solo ventures.
For nearly two decades the guitar has been Robin Trower’s lifeblood, an artistic tool with which he melds past and present in offering listeners a musical bridge of feeling between yesterday and today. First featured in Guitar Player’s April ’74 issue, where he spoke about leaving Procol Harum and forming his own band, Trower here states some of the most important moments in his evolution as a guitarist, discusses equipment and effects, offers advise to would-be rockers concerning instruments and LPs, and comments on musical influences – including his debt to, and being compared with, Jimi Hendrix.
* * *
When did you first get interested in guitar?
I was messing about right from when I was 14. I had an old steel-string cello guitar – you know, with f-holes – and it was really cheap, it cost about 8 pounds, or something like that. I was very keen on people like Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Gene Vincent. Of course, I was only a dumb kid, but I was always a big Elvis fan. It was him playing guitar that first made me want to play. The image of Elvis holding an instrument and just being what he was, you know, made me think, “Well, I’m going to get a guitar, too.”
Did you earn any money gigging early on?
I used to get together with a friend of mine at school, and we’d tune the strings down on the cello guitar and pretend that we had a bass. By this time I also owned an old solidbody electric, and we did stuff by a group called the Shadows. You know, just muck around with songs they used to do. We played a couple of little things where they passed the hat around and got about 2 shillings each. It wasn’t anything serious, however, until we formed the Paramounts.
What style of music were you playing?
We were actually an R&B band, but the record company tried to make us into a pop group. All our material was like James Brown, Bobby Bland, and Ray Charles things; and we got quite a name for ourselves at the time, especially with the Rolling Stones. We toured with them and the Beatles, too, in the mid ’60s.
How did it feel to tour with the Beatles?
Well, we were just kids then, and it didn’t matter to us at all whether we were bottom or top of the bill. It was an experience, I suppose, being on a Beatle’s tour. We did their last tour of Britain in ’65, and the thing that blew me away about that was it wasn’t sold out every night. And they weren’t very good; I mean, the singing was great, but the playing was a bit weak.
What about working with the Stones?
We were the Stones’ favorite group, actually. We supported them when they were just getting their first hit, called “Come On” [More Hot Rocks, London, 2PS-626/27]. We supported them and they loved it; they gave us all their work they were leaving with blues clubs. And then they used to put us on their shows, too, as they got bigger. But at the time I was just a daft kid, and I didn’t take any of it in. In those days playing guitar to me was just something I did for fun. I wasn’t a serious musician until I got well into this thing I’m doing now. I mean, I never used to practice anything – I never knew about practising.
How did you learn songs?
Just listening, you know. I didn’t use to sit down and work out other people’s material; I’ve never believed in that. And even while I was with Procol Harum, the only time I’d see my guitar was either when I walked onstage or in the studio. That’s how serious I was about it then.
Have you had any formal training on guitar?
My grasp on musical theory is zilch, really, except for some knowledge of major and minor chords. I’ve never had lessons, and all the stuff I do is what I make up. Early on I never had any contact with other guitarists; I never sat down and had them explain to me all the different things you can do with the instrument. It wasn’t until I met Bob Fripp six years ago that I began to practice seriously. He gave me some finger exercises which I worked on for about a year, and they really helped. I don’t do them now, but I do sit and play to myself a lot more. I tried to give Bob some lessons on how to do my kind of thing, but musically we were worlds apart and never the twain shall meet, as they say.
Why did you leave the Paramounts?
I left them because I was getting more and more interested in blues, and the Paramounts weren’t doing blues. So I more or less just sat at home and listened to all the blues players for about six months or so. I got into people like B.B. King, Otis Rush, Hubert Sumlin, Albert King – all of them, really. I think the one album that was my most influential was B.B. King’s Live At The Regal [MCA, 724].
I listen to that today, and it still knocks me out; I think that’s the most wonderful guitar playing I’ve ever heard. I love Otis Rush’s thing as well. His very fast vibrato was a real eye opener.
What kind of equipment were you using during this time?
A number of different guitars; a Burns-Well solidbody electric, a Gretsch Country Gentleman, and a Strat that got stolen. The first time I ever played a Strat was with the Paramounts. I was using my Country Gentleman and we had a problem with a pickup, so I took it back to the store and they loaned me a Strat. But I just could not get along with it very well at all; I couldn’t get anything out of it. One night it was in the back of our truck and got stolen, and it wasn’t even mine. I went back to the music store, and they said not to worry. But they couldn’t fix my Country Gentleman, so they gave me a Gretsch Chet Atkins solidbody which I used for some years after that and got along with quite well.
Your guitar sound on all the Procal Harum albums seems right on the edge of distortion. How did you get that?
It’s difficult to pin down when I started to get into distortion, but it was definitely before my Procal Harum days. I used to play through a Selmer Little Giant valve [tube] amp which had one tiny speaker in it, and I ran a jack lead off the speaker points into a small Fender. That way, I got some of the hardness above it from the Fender and all my distortion sort of smoothness from overloading the Selmer. But, unfortunately, when it came to playing bigger places needing a bigger sound, I tried running the Selmer through a Marshall, and it didn’t work. When you start to wind up the wick a bit it used to start whistling; therefore, I had to break down and start all over again to get the sound I liked. But on songs like “Repent Walpurgis” [Procal Harum], that’s the Little Giant with the Fender, and I used my Chet Atkins solid-body.
How did you work out a solo such as the one in “Repent Walpurgis”?
Gary [Brooker] knew that if he wanted a guitar solo, it would have to be something that could be played in the blues scale. So if there were changes, they had to be mostly blues things. I didn’t have a lot of input really, except for certain fills and other little parts I wrote. We’d sit around and learn the song for about one hour and then record it. I’d jam a solo; there was nothing worked out. It was just get up and wail and that was it. I think that’s basically why I didn’t start to improve as a musician until I got well into my own group. But in a way it was a good thing because it’s given me the style I’ve got today.
What guitars did you use on the other Procal Harum LPs?
For Shine On Brightly I had a ’68 Gibson SG, and on A Salty Dog that was a ’60s Les Paul Special run through an old, brown Gibson amp. I had another old Les Paul something or other on Home, and on Broken Barricades I played a ’62 Strat. It wasn’t really until I came in contact with that Strat that I settled down with one instrument. On the later album I used it in “Song For A Dreamer” and “Poor Mohammed.”
Which Procal Harum album do you feel contains your best work?
I haven’t heard them for so long, but I feel that my playing on the first album was probably some of my best. And I often wonder; I’m definitely a better technician now, but is the music I currently make as good as what I used to make when I wasn’t as good technically? When your mind starts to overtake what your heart feels, then, to me, it’s less musical. And I’m not sure, but it’s possible the music I played when I didn’t know what I was doing was much better because it was sheer feeling – there was no technical ability at all.
Why did you leave Procol Harum?
On Broken Barricades I was starting to spread my wings a bit, and I was getting more into writing songs. Obviously, if you write a song, and you’re a guitarist, there’s going to be more guitar in it. That was the beginning of me leaving the band; I was fascinated by being able to write music for the guitar.
On Twice Removed From Yesterday, a song such as “I Can’t Wait Much Longer” has a slow, pulsing, ethereal sound. How did you get that?
That’s just a Univox Uni-Vibe [vibrato/phase unit] that does it. On the LP I also had an Arbiter Fuzz Face and a 100-watt Marshall with two 4x10s which had a very good sound until they got knocked out, and then they went very dead. Whereas with the 12s, the more you play them the better they sound.
Do you prefer a tube or a transistor amplifier?
Tubes, definitely. You can’t get a transistor amp to sing, it’s only tubes that will do that.
Are you using an Echoplex on “Hannah” [Twice Removed From Yesterday]?
No, that’s just the backing guitar and the lead; although in the instrumental break there are about four guitars on that. And while “Daydream” is my favorite song on there, “Hannah” is the best recorded track. We spent quite a long time in rehearsal on that one – jamming around on it, getting ideas for the middle break, and coming up with the theme.
Your second LP, Bridge Of Sighs, was popular.
Yeah. that’s my biggest album. I don’t like everything on it, but then I suppose you never like everything on any album. I think there are things on it, such as the title song, which are the best work I’ve done. “Bridge Of Sighs” is the most soulful, most creative, powerful piece of guitar playing I’ve ever come up with.
What inspired you on that specific song?
I don’t really know. That one I sat down and started off on acoustic guitar and I had the first verse for months and months before I came up with the changes. And then I worked up the theme that it goes into at the end. It took me quite a long time to put together. It was one of those things where I knew it was going to be a cracker – I just didn’t want to rush it, and I wanted every part of it to be great.
Were you still using your ’62 Strat on Bridge Of Sighs?
No, I’d just bought a new black ’74 for that one.
In your earlier Guitar Player interview you said you wanted to buy a new Strat every six months. Still true?
Well, the thing is I didn’t want to get attached to one guitar; I didn’t want to have an instrument that was irreplaceable. So I was playing new Strats, but one day someone handed me a ’56, and the sound was so different and so much better that I got hooked on older Strats. I used the ’56 on my live album and, I think, on Long Misty Days. Then I began messing around and decided I didn’t like maple fingerboards because they were tearing my fingers up a lot – the friction seemed to be greater, or something, than with rosewood fingerboards. Anyway, I came across a nice rosewood, and I ended up eventually with these two ’66s that I’m now using – which are the best ones I’ve ever had.
What made you change your mind about buying new Strats?
I think you have to be lucky to get a good new one. I’ve found that they won’t settle down; they change over the first six months or so. There’s something about the wood in the new Strats that isn’t quite right – isn’t aged enough, or something. I had that beautiful new ’74 years ago, and it was great; but, eventually, it just went completely off. I couldn’t get the neck to be intonated, and it was buzzing and whistling, so that’s when I went off new Strats. And while I didn’t like the sound of new ones then, I do now. In fact, Fender’s going to build me one which is exactly like my ’66, and another that has their new multi-extra-winding pickups in it.
Are you going to be endorsing Fender?
Well, I said to them at first that I wouldn’t be happy with them using my name to sell new guitars because I’m not using new ones, and I wouldn’t like a kid who went out and bought a new Strat to think he was going to get the same thing I have. That’s when I told them, “If you can build me a couple that I think are really good, we’ll go from there.”
Are your Strats modified?
No. I like to keep all of my instruments standard. The ’62, for example, had a vibrato bar on it, but I didn’t use it because I was always having trouble trying to keep the guitar in tune. Besides, I’m just not interested in using one because I feel that whatever you do will come out sounding like Jimi Hendrix anyway and I want to stay away from that. So now my Strats are blocked off [with a piece of wood or other material wedged between the vibrato block and the guitar body], and all the vibrato you hear on my albums after Twice Removed From Yesterday was done with just my left hand. I think, perhaps, the fundamental part of my technique is my vibrato.
How long did it take you to develop that facility?
Well, I had a good left hand starting to develop in the Paramounts. It was natural, too; It wasn’t like I heard something and tried to sound the same. I’ve only got the vibrato on three fingers – I can’t with my little finger. Just about all of my things I had to work at. I was never happy with my natural vibrato. It seemed too fast, so I began concentrating on making it slower. I usually bend with my first two fingers, but the secret is all in the grip of the thumb. When you’re pulling or pushing strings, the grip you use on the neck is what allows you to hold and control the bends. That’s where you have to work hard to master the technique. If you held your left hand, say in a classical fashion, it would be next to impossible to pull off those bends with vibrato added. So a powerful grip is vital to my style of playing. And, I think, the most unique sounding vibrato that I do is with my index finger.
Why do you employ vibrato so often in your music?
To me, it’s just what playing with feeling is all about. Those vibratos and bending add the sultry touch; that’s where you get into the human voice thing, too. After hearing Live At The Regal, my playing turned around from being what it was in the Paramounts to what it is now; using the instrument as a human voice. A wah-wah is important as well. I love it; it makes the guitar scream. But, actually, the guitar is a very poor substitute for the human voice. I think that if I could sing, I wouldn’t be a guitarist.
Do you prefer bending strings up or down?
Both. You see, I have short hands, and that’s why I have to bend up to notes; I can’t always reach the frets [laughs]. I’ll do one-two- and three-string bends sometimes, and then I’ll throw on a vibrato.
How important is damping?
That’s another thing I haven’t had to consciously develop. I’ve always had a natural ability to damp, mostly with the heel of my hand. But it’s vital, especially when you’re playing at the volumes I do.
Where are your guitar’s and amp’s settings when you’re soloing?
The Strat’s volume control is usually at 7 or 8, and the tone controls are always full on; I never mess with those. On my two Marshall Mark IIs, the master volume is three-fourths, the preamp volume is a bit less, and apart from the presence control – which I don’t ever use – the bass and treble are about one-quarter on.
What about pickups: Which do you use the most?
I’ve got a 3-way selector switch, and the middle pickup is the one I play through most often. I will switch from one to another on occasion; I’ll use one for leads and another for rhythm things. But I never go across all three at the same time. Occasionally I’ll do solos on all three pickups – it depends on the kind of effect I want to get. The neck pickup gives a very warm, almost jazzy kind of sound. Being a Fender, it still has the clarity where you can do rock and roll lead work on it, too. Most of “Daydream” [Twice Removed From Yesterday] was on the neck pickup, as was a lot of the other lead stuff on that album. The middle unit, however, is the mainstay of the whole thing; that’s the one all the rock and roll things are done on – apart from one or two times where I’ve used the treble [bridge] pickup.
In “Victims Of The Fury,” how many times do you change pickups and volumes?
I began with the Univibe on. Then when the solo begins it’s just straight guitar, no effect, middle pickup full on, amp turned way up. Halfway through I switch on the wah-wah and finish off with it. You see, to me the wah-wah’s a climatic thing. That’s the way I use it onstage. When you want to take the song to its highest point, that’s where the effect comes in. It makes the guitar sound more aggressive.
On that song, did you go direct or mike your amp?
I always mike the amps. In fact, for most of the album we had a mike about three feet away from the amp and another about five feet away, both looking down at a floor speaker. I wasn’t using a stack, just one head and one cabinet. With the mikes positioned that way, we also captured ambience – using the floor as a reflective thing. But on my next album I’d like to get involved more with close miking. I’ve never done it before, so rather than trying to achieve an ambient sound, I want to see what I’d get from just one close mike.
What other amps and effects have you employed on your solo albums?
With exception of In City Dreams, there are only one or two tracks on all of my albums that haven’t got Marshalls on them. For In City Dreams I used an amp that my electronics guy Mike built for me in the studio: a quarter amp, which would get the same sound as a Marshall. We had a lot of different effects on that album, too. For instance, that’s when I started using an [Electro-Harmonix] Electric Mistress flanger. To get say, that rocket ship sound, I ran a Fender Blender [distortion/harmonics/sustain device] through the Mistress. On Caravan To Midnight I used effects in stereo. In other words, I had the output split – one to one amp, one to the other. On each split were different effects, like two or three going to one side, and two or three going to the other, so that you had the same guitar with a different sound coming from both amps. Also around this time Mike and I redid my pedalboard.
Were you having problems with it?
Well, we talked a hell of a lot about what we wanted to get out of the sounds – you know, what the problems were. The problem basically was that if you used more than a couple of pedals, you lost sound: The more pedals connected up, the more the signal died. So he invented a system whereby that wouldn’t happen. Now I can have a hundred pedals in the line and there will be no difference at all. Before I got Mike, who also doctors my amps, I used to use a noise gate at the front; that didn’t affect the power, but, unfortunately, I lost a lot of top end.
[Ed. Note: Robin preferred to keep the operational details of his pedalboard and amplifiers confidential.]
From your left to right, how is your pedalboard currently set up?
The first effect is a preamp that Mike built, which is on all the time. The second is another volume booster, a Dan Armstrong Red Ranger, which I use for even greater sustain. Third is my Tycobrahe wah-wah. The fourth is the Fender Blender. The fifth is the Univibe, and the sixth is a
Mu-tron II. The seventh and eighth are Mistresses with different settings; the one on the left gives a double-tracking effect, while the one on the right provides more of a flanged sound. But I think I’ve come to a halt as far as effects go. I mean, I can just barely handle what I’ve got now. There’s so much stuff going on that if you just started mixing them there would be a limitless number of combinations you could get.
From your pedalboard, where does the signal go?
Into a splitter box, then to my amps. I don’t use a mixing board or anything when I’m live because I like to be very much in control of what’s going on. Especially concerning dynamics, that’s so much a part of my music that I wouldn’t feel happy if someone else were controlling it. I like to be creating the sound.
Why do you like manipulating your Strat’s volume control versus using a volume pedal?
Because I like to walk around the stage and get the guitar in different positions relative to the amps. When you move around you can create different kinds of sounds and different sustains, and using the volume control is just a matter of dynamics; you can achieve so many expressions out of the instrument by using it. If it’s down low, there’s a completely different expression than if it’s halfway, three-quarters, or full up. And it’s also important when you want to get feedback.
Do you know where to stand onstage to obtain specific feedback responses?
It’s just luck, really. You can feel it coming on, so you give it a bit more volume until you reach a point where if you do it anymore you’ll lose it. You just have to be able to judge it, and that comes from experience. But when you finish a run, say, and hit a note, you can feel it starting to sustain; so you can either let it build or let it stay there.
Do you manipulate your pickup selector switch in the studio as well as on stage?
That’s something I use a lot more live. You see, when you’re in the studio you’re not doing such a range of things, and you can set your amps and guitar to get a specific sound for the part you’re playing. I don’t tend to do such freewheeling stuff in the studio. I’d like to get into more of a blowing kind of thing in there, but it never seems to get to that point, or very rarely does. You haven’t got the audience to feed off of, and you don’t have the same sound.
Do you like being in a live performance situation more than being in the studio?
Well, the audience is the other part of the performance. I think I play my best guitar live, there’s no doubt about that. I have more freedom live, and I seem to flow better. And I’m much more committed onstage, you know. I’m much higher there than I ever am in the studio. The studio’s too constrictive. I’m definitely enjoying this current tour more than the last one I did, which was quite a long time ago. This is the first time we’ve been out in two-and-a-half years. You see, I was getting fed up with playing those big arenas – I wasn’t enjoying it anymore. Another reason for the delay was that I wanted to take my time and get Victims Of The Fury together. Then there were some personal business things that came up. So I had to get all the crap sorted out before I could get on with the business at hand.
Have you ever overdubbed parts of a solo that you weren’t happy with?
I’ve only done that once, on “Victims Of The Fury.” I just wasn’t happy with the tail of it. Normally, I would have gone through the whole thing again, but the main part of it was so good that I wanted to keep it. It was just the last three or four bars that weren’t quite finished.
Do you do much doubling and tripling of guitar tracks when you record?
No, I never have. I do pretty basic kinds of stuff, really. I like to think what I’m hearing back is real. I don’t like to concoct something that I don’t feel I actually created by playing.
How many takes do you need before you’re satisfied with a solo?
Well, I start out by jamming a bit, and I pick out good parts and start to put them together. Normally, a solo would be like one or two takes. I’ll just go in and do it, because after you’ve played it a couple of times you start to lose the spontaneity – you start to repeat yourself. And to me spontaneity is the whole thing, really.
When you’re onstage, do you stick to what’s on the record or do you improvise?
I’ve never thought of trying to do the material differently; I always keep it more or less the same. To me there’s a definite way of doing a song. If I didn’t think that, I wouldn’t have done it that way in the first place. You see, with a three-piece band, to get something working you’ve got to hone it down to the point where it’s at a peak. It’s almost like everything’s got to be the ultimate arrangement – the ultimate performance – for it to work. Whereas if you’re in a band of, say, four or five pieces where everyone’s sort of just playing chords, you can mess about and do different arrangements. But the guitar part is the pivot of everything we do, so if you change the guitar part you no longer have what it is. My songs are more arrangements than they are songs – they’re guitar arrangements.
What are you thinking about when you’re onstage?
I think about what I’m going to have for breakfast tomorrow [laughs]. No, I’m gone; that’s what I’m thinking about. I don’t really know. It’s just, “Bye!”. That’s me.
What about strings and picks?
I go through about two Fender mediums a night because I don’t pick straight down; it’s sort of sideways, and it shaves them off. My strings are Ernie Balls, .011, .015, .016, .024, .034, and .046. I change them every other night, but I change the low E every night because it goes dead very quickly.
Do you always play in standard tuning?
No. My standard tuning is down a semitone to concert pitch; when I’m playing E, it’s actually an Eb. So [from low to high] I’m Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Bb, and Eb. The only reason I tune down a semitone is so I can use those heavier gauge strings and still be able to bend them. Having an .011 on the high E like I do, I wouldn’t be able to do the bends I do with it and be in concert pitch. And since I’ve switched to the heavier strings, I’m getting along much better – although they’re tougher to play. I find I have to warm up longer before I go on. Sometimes I’ll tune the sixth string down a whole tone, which enables me to play in the key of D and have the bottom string to use as well. I did that on “Jack And Jill” [Victims Of The Fury].
How do you write songs?
Nearly always on the electric guitar. Since my Procol Harum days, I’d use the electric without an amp – just me sitting in a hotel room quietly picking away. On occasion, however, I’ve used an acoustic to write a tune: “Song For A Dreamer,” [Broken Barricades], which was the tribute to Hendrix, I wrote on an acoustic tuned to an E chord. And I always remember anything I come up with that I really like. I could think of something that’s good and not play it for a year, then later I would be able to pick it out again. Things I like seem to stay with me.
Why don’t you incorporate faster runs into your songs?
It’s pretty hard – no, it’s impossible – to play a run with as much feeling as a single note. With a single note you can say a great deal more than you can with a run. I’ve never been so much into runs as making single notes cry. I go for as much feeling as I can, rather than show what I can do up and down the neck. I don’t play to show people ability. I’m interested in making music and music has nothing to do with your technical ability. The ability to make music is a gift that you’re born with; it’s not something you can learn.
So do you consider yourself born to play the blues?
Well, I think the blues has been very important to my music. It’s the creative fountainhead of everything I do, but I don’t think of myself as a blues player. I’m just me, a sort of combination of many influences. I wouldn’t count myself as being a true blues guitarist because, I feel, you have to live it. Apart from an imitative version of it, there’s no way you can recreate the blues because it belongs to a certain era and a certain race. And I’ve never been into a nostalgia thing where I’m trying to recreate something that’s already been done. So my gift is not to play the blues, but just to make music.
In the past you have been compared to Jimi Hendrix, and even criticized by some for sounding too much like him. How much of an influence has his music been on you?
In response to the first part, bullshit! Those people haven’t heard Hendrix, and they haven’t heard me, or else they wouldn’t say that. Hendrix definitely opened up a lot of doors. He changed the language, rewrote the language, of the electric guitar. I felt, right or wrong, that there was no way you could move forward without absorbing at least part of what he created. If you wanted to progress, then first of all you had to deal with it. It wasn’t until I started thinking about being a guitar-bass-drums thing that I started to draw on what I’d absorbed from him, because it was more of a challenge than I’d realized to fill that kind of space. But as with Hendrix, the same thing happened when I first heard B.B. King and knew that was something important. You know, steps were being made, and the instrument was starting to become much more expressive. B.B. plays with a lot of natural feeling. So in just the same way with Hendrix’s music, I felt I had to absorb that and all the other blues guitarists, too. Oddly enough, Hendrix is not my favorite guitar player.
The best stuff I’ve ever heard is by a guy who’s on a record called “Watch Your Step” [1961: V-Tone, Philadelphia (out of print)] by a bloke named Bobby Parker. I don’t know if it was Parker himself or not on the guitar, but it’s definitely a featured thing on both sides.
Do you listen to many current guitarist?
There are very few guitar players I get feeling from. I really like the things the guy in the Fabulous Thunderbirds [Jimmy Vaughan; see this month's Pro's Reply] does. It’s a great band, and I like listening to the music. It’s very authentic, but it’s fresh as well. In many respects there’s more power in the simpler things, I think.
Do you have any advise for young guitarist?
The first thing I’d do, on a practical level, would be to use as high an action as possible on the Stratocaster. It’s the only way to get a good sound out of the instrument. That’s something that took me years to come down to; so I’ve just saved them about four years of messing about. When I used to go and buy a Strat, old or new, I would go through them all and listen to them acoustically. The one that had the best acoustic sound I’d check out for it’s electric sound. If it doesn’t sound good without an amp, it’ll never sound great with one. The most important thing, however, is that high action. You’ve got to learn to work with it because it helps you to bend and to get your fingers behind the strings and be able to push them up and hold them there. If your action’s too low, then you’re going to have trouble with it snapping back underneath your finger. With strings, use only as light a gauge as you have to. The heavier the better, obviously, because the heavier the string, the bigger sound you’re going to get. I’ve got very strong hands from playing for many years, so it’s no good for young players to try going to my gauges yet. And the other thing is: Don’t listen to any guitar players who have come along in the last 15 years. Don’t listen to me; don’t listen to Hendrix; don’t listen to any of those other so-called rock and roll heros.
Whom should people listen to?
They should listen to B.B. Kings, all the early Otis Rush stuff, all the things they can get a hold of by old blues artists. And Chuck Berry – he’s still the best rock and roll player ever. If you want to do rock and roll, those are the people you’ve got to hear. Forget about those who’ve come after ’65. You’ve got to graduate to listen to, say, Hendrix or me. I think if players go with that and study those tunes for a couple of years, they’ll do okay. I’m not saying you should sit down and work that stuff out, because that’ll lead you up a blind alley from which there’s no way back. Once you start copying other people’s licks, you begin thinking they’re yours – and they’re not. Doing that’s just an easy way out. It may take longer, you know, just absorbing the old blues things and trying to play your own stuff from that, but it’s worth it in the long run.
What do you see Robin Trower doing in the future?
Still playing the guitar, I hope. I mean, in what context I couldn’t say. I think a lot of that depends on supply and demand. But still playing the guitar, yeah. If it ever came to the fact that nobody was really interested in listening to what I was doing anymore, I would probably just gig in a local pub or something to still get my licks in. I’d also like to do production. Up until now I’ve only done my own stuff, but I’m interested in producing. I feel it’s very satisfying, very creative, and I get a lot of enjoyment out of it. I’d be interested in doing someone I was really into; I wouldn’t just do anybody – I’d have to feel it, you know.
* * *
A Selected Trower Discography
Solo Albums (all on Chrysalis): Twice Removed From Yesterday, CHR 1039; Bridge Of Sighs, CHR 1057; For Earth Below, CHR 1073; Robin Trower Live, CHR 1089; Long Misty Days, CHR 1107; In City Dreams, CHR 1148; Caravan To Midnight, CHR 1189; Victims Of The Fury, CHR 1215. With Procol Harum: Procol Harum , Deram (dist. by London), DES 18008; Shine On Brightly, A&M, SP4151; A Salty Dog, A&M, SP4179, Home, A&M, SP4261; Broken Barricades, A&M, SP4294. With the Paramounts (all 45s on Parlophone [out of print]): “Poison Ivy,” “Little Bitty Pretty One,” “I’m The One Who Loves You,” “Bad Blood,” “Blue Ribbons,” “You Never Had It So Good.”
Originally published in Guitar Player Magazine 1980