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 metrononic, slow-paced tunes at first seem simple, but that's a deception. Anyone who's attempted 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 March 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 BB 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 début 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 David Knights to quit the group. Needing a guitarist and a drummer, Procol Harum auditioned former Paramounts Trower and BJ 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 his music (Procol Harum's emphasis on vocals and keyboards often left Robin duelling it out for leads with organ and piano).
Trower left Procol Harum after recording Broken Barricades in 1971 and formed Jude [see picture] 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 1974, 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 hand, Trower has retained a power trio format throughout all of 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 shares some of the most important moments in his evolution as a guitarist, discusses equipment and effects, offers advice to would-be rockers concerning instruments and LPs, and comments on musical influences-including his debt to, and his 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 poiunds, 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 solid body 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 two shillings each. It wasn't anything serious, however, until we formed the Paramounts.
What style of music were you doing?
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 with 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 Beatles' 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' favourite 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 in the 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 practise anything I never knew about practising.
How did you learn songs?
Just listening, you know. I didn't used 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 the guitar?
My grasp of 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 practise 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 BB King, Otis Rush, Hubert Sumlin, Albert King, all of them, really. I think the one album that was my most influential was BB King's Live At The Regal [M CA, 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 at that time?
A number of different guitars: a Burns-ciii solid body 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 it 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 solid body which I used for some years after that and got along with quite well.
Your guitar sound on all the Procol Harurn 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 Procol 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 [Procol Harum], that's the Little Giant with the Fender, and I used my Chet Atkins solidbody.
How did you work out a solo such as the one in Repent Walpurgis?
[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 Procol 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 into contact with that Strat that I settled down with one instrument. On the latter album I used it in Song For A Dreanier and Poor Mohammed.
Which Procol 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 just 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.
ROBIN TROWER GUITAR PLAYER AUGUST 1990
Do you ever perform songs that predate your solo career?
I haven't ever done this before, but I'm thinking about putting in a song from Procol Harum called Whisky Train. I keep getting requests for it. I've had a thing against doing any Procol Harum stuff, but I might give it a try. After all, I wrote the music for it
(Thanks to David Knights)