A bonafide British rock guitar great, Robin Trower needs little introduction. His career began in the ’60s, and he’s one of a handful of artists from his generation who has remained true to his blues-rock roots, and continued to record and tour.
Trower’s rock style was built on Hendrix-inspired riffage, as demonstrated on his sophomore solo album, 1974’s Bridge Of Sighs. In recent years, his style has continued to flourish, bringing in more of his earlier influences from the worlds of traditional blues and jazz. On his latest releases, Sunday Blues and Go My Way, Trower has incorporated the influences of blues players like B.B. King, Albert King, T. Bone Walker, Hubert Sumlin, Buddy Guy, as well as jazz players like Wes Montgomery and George Benson.
Sunday Blues is a straight blues album. However, Go My Way returns to the soaring blues-rock riffs that make Trower’s guitar playing so recognizable, but the music is infused with more traditional blues flavor.
VG recently visited with the legend, and talked about the changes in his guitar playing, as well as his choices in gear. He also shared some of the secrets of how he crafts his trademark tones, both in the studio and onstage using his trusty Strat with a combination of amplifiers and effects.
Vintage Guitar: How has your approach to playing guitar changed since the ’70s? Where have you noticed the most change in your style and technique?
Robin Trower: I think it has been a gradual progression from being a blues-influenced rock and roll player to maybe going much more toward being a mainstream blues player. I think it’s a completely different approach from then to now.
Have you made a conscious effort to change these things?
It’s sort of hard to say how I’ve progressed. On the album before this one, which was a straight blues album called Sunday Blues, I was determined to sort of build my own straight-blues style. So I worked very hard at learning a new way to play the guitar. I did it all fingerstyle and it was a complete departure from the way I would have otherwise played everything. I’d call it a more melodic style of lead work, certainly, because you’re playing blues melodies all the time. It’s not quite so wild as perhaps doing the rock and roll stuff. I found that doing the blues album had a lasting effect – from learning to play the way I wanted to hear the guitar on that record, it sort of formed everything I do now, even so much as going back and playing the very old stuff. I think my style has taken on a great deal of what I learned while doing that blues album.
What was it that brought about those changes? Was it different things you were listening to?
No. For many years I promised myself I would one day do a blues album – a more traditional blues album, anyway. I had always touched on it here and there, since it’s always been a part of most of the stuff I write. But this was a real attempt to just get way down in the alley and sort of go the traditional route. I had to then play the guitar in a completely different manner to make it sound right – to make it sound like what I wanted to hear. It’s a matter of having a lot more control over things, and you’re tied down to doing less. There are only a few things that actually do work in that genre, and if you step outside it, it ceases to be “blues.”
Who influenced you most in the progression where your playing and writings styles became more blues-influenced?
Well, I don’t think I’ve really been influenced that much by anyone specific in the last several years. The first real influence was B.B. King, then Albert King, then Jimi Hendrix. But there were also lots of other blues players, like T. Bone Walker, Hubert Sumlin, and early Buddy Guy. They were my main influences as guitar players. But there are also touches of Wes Montgomery and a little bit of George Benson in my playing, too. It’s all in there. Everything that I’ve heard and loved has gone in there and they all have had some noticeable influence in my playing.
How has your interpretation of great guitar tone changed over time?
Early on, I used to go for a more mashed kind of sound. It was very distorted and more sustaining. I think hearing Stevie Ray Vaughan’s sound opened my ears a bit to having a “wider” sound, in terms of it being much more open. It’s that kind of cleaner dirty sound I go for now, where you can hear the top-end. You still try to get that clear “string” sound, even though you’ve got that overloaded thing happening.
I can do that a lot better by having two amps – although onstage I use three. In the studio for this last album, I had two, to get more of a stereo sound by using one side for the clean tones and one for dirty tones. That way, you build a sound out of two amps, rather than having a sound that goes into an amplifier and is just amplified.
Did the players who influenced your style also influence your choices in gear?
In some ways they did. Obviously, Hendrix was a big influence for me, using a Strat. There’s no doubt about that.
Are the guitars you play onstage Fender Custom Shop Strats?
Yes. My main one at the moment is a sunburst. About four or five months ago, I switched it from a rosewood to a maple neck, and that one’s my favorite. Gradually, I’ve been getting them to change the necks on a few of my guitars. They just get worn out, and rather than have them refretted, it’s nicer to have a new neck put on.
Which neck shape and frets do you prefer?
I use jumbo frets – the fat ones – and all of my necks are different shapes and sizes. I’ve got small, thinner necks right through to the big, fat tree-trunk necks on one of my Strats. The one on my main guitar is perhaps more of a smaller, in-the-palm-of-the-hand neck than the average. But it’s not a lightweight, thin neck, though. I think you have to have a certain amount of wood to get a good tone out of it. Maybe that’s why the one that’s like a tree trunk has got the best tone, because it’s got the most wood in the neck – but it’s just impossible to play!
What prompted the change from rosewood to maple fingerboards? Do you have a preference?
When I was writing and recording the album, I was playing a maple neck. I was using one of two cream Strats that both have maple necks. I was using one of those for the album. Well, this sunburst Strat I like always had a rosewood fingerboard on it, but the neck had somehow become unplayable. It just wouldn’t straighten out. Because of playing the other guitar, I had gotten so used to playing on a maple neck, so I thought that if I was going to change the neck on it, then I would just put on a maple neck. I do actually prefer playing with a maple neck.
Are your maple fingerboards heavily lacquered?
No, they’re not. It’s just a very light lacquer. It’s more like a natural wood finish than the heavier finish they used to do. Todd at the Custom Shop has been looking after me the last couple years. The neck he put on that one is just fantastic. He’s just done a new rosewood neck for my Sea Foam Green Strat, which I haven’t played in a while. I’m hoping the new neck will make it more fun.
How do you like to have your guitars set up?
First, I tune down a whole step, which allows me to have heavier strings on the top two strings, because they’re the hardest to get a fat tone out of on a Strat, especially when you’re using standard-gauge strings. I use a .012 and .015 on the E and B strings because I can still bend and vibrato them. I switch between Ernie Balls and D’Addarios, but I mostly use Ernie Balls. The set I use is gauged .012, .015, .017, .026, .036, .048. Other than the top two, the rest of the strings are quite light. I prefer heavier strings on top, to get a more powerful sound. I do a lot of hanging on to notes, and the more tone you have, the better the sustain is. It seems to work well for me.
I like the action set pretty high. I like the acoustic sound to be strong on a Strat. I like it to ring out so that it has an acoustic quality when you’re listening to it played acoustically. As for the height of the pickups, I have them underneath the top two strings – the E and the B strings – set as high as they’ll go without hitting the poles. But on the bottom side, under the low strings, I have the pickups set far off. If the strings are further away on the bass side, you get a cleaner sound and you don’t get those funny overtones so much.
I like to set the bridge so it’s floating a bit. I’ve been using Sperzel tuners on my guitars since they were available. Once I started using those, I could keep a Strat in tune more reasonably. But until they had that, it was a real problem.
What amps are in your live rig?
On the last tour, I was using three Marshall heads – two JCM 800s and one JCM 900. All were 100-watt amps.
How has your amp rig changed over time?
Well, I’m always changing things, but as far as that goes, it’s always a combination of either all Marshalls or Marshalls and Fenders. I’ve switched between different models of Marshall and Fender amps over the years. I’m always messing about and experimenting with that because I love the Fender sound, but trying to get it to blend with the Marshall is not always easy. Right now, I’m playing through three Marshalls in my live rig.
What types of sounds do you get from the Marshalls?
The JCM 900 has more gain and doesn’t need overdrive from a pedal. Plus, it gives you a completely different sort of sonic thing happening than you would get out of the JCM 800s. I go straight into the 900, but I use a Fulltone Fulldrive through a splitter into the two JCM 800s.
How do you usually set the controls on your amps?
Well, I tend not to use any bass or treble. I do it all with the middle and presence controls. I don’t use any treble or bass on the amp, so they’re completely off. But I have a lot of middle and quite a bit of presence turned up. The settings I use vary from amp to amp because they all have slightly different characters. But I use a lot of middle, sometimes full on, and then presence at half to three-quarters.
Tell us about the old Marshall cabs you use live.
I’ve had those for 20 years, maybe longer. Years ago, they were fitted with Celestion Vintage 30 speakers, and they’ve always been replaced with new Vintage 30s when they go bad. I go through speakers, a couple each tour.
What effects do you use when you play live?
I use a Fulltone Deja-Vibe and Fulldrive. I’ve actually got one of the pre-production models of the Fulldrive, which is slightly different, and I much prefer it over the production models. It’s slightly warmer. I also use a newer Vox wah. I buy them often, so one out of two or three I’ve got will be the favorite for awhile, then it’ll wear out.
What was your setup on Go My Way?
I had a stereo setup; a ’69 100-watt Marshall head – which I only use in the studio – that was going through a 4×12 or sometimes a 4×10 cabinet. These cabinets are both really very old, but they’re great. As long as I don’t drive them too hard, they sound sweet. On the other side, I was using a brand new Fender Twin they loaned me for the recording sessions. I’d have the Fender set pretty clean and use the Marshall for dirty sounds. I’d just split it. I’d record each guitar part on two tracks, so it would be split left and right. If I was only using a pretty straight sound, one side might be going through a Boss Tremolo pedal just to move it slightly against the straight side, so you get slightly more stereo effect. Or, I might be using the Deja-Vibe on one side and the Boss Tremolo on the other. I wasn’t using very many effects in the recording – just enough to give it a bit of movement away from the other side. But basically, it was an attempt to sort of fill up the space with one guitar part, rather than track something else or have another part. It’s just a trick that worked quite well – having two completely different sounds on the left and right sides during the same take.
I was also using the SansAmp in the studio quite a bit. I like the original stompbox with the toggle switches. I frequently use it for recording, because it enables you to run the amps cleaner. That way, the amps are sweeter and more musical-sounding for recording, but they still get enough compression.
Do you try to achieve a live sound on studio recordings?
My whole approach is really an imitation of playing a live show, but to make it work as a record, there’s a big compromise.
Do you record parts as you’d play them live, or do you go back and track rhythm parts where you played a lead? Or do you track solos separately?
Well, it varies. On this last album, I’d lay the bass, drums, and the guide guitar down first, to get the fundamental track. Once I got the rhythm track down, I’d work on the sound, then start again on the guitar and just build it up from the bass and drums with rhythm tracks and second rhythm tracks and acoustic guitar, and then probably the lead tracks would come last.
When you’re recording electric guitar, do you prefer to stand in the same room as your amp, or do you track in the control room?
I usually do half and half, but I do prefer to stand in the same room as the amp, because you get much better feeling for what you’re doing. But sometimes it’s better to work off the big monitors in a control room because you can get right inside the track that way. Working on headphones is not always conducive to that. So there’s another compromise you have to make while in the studio. You have to chose which parts you have to record in front of the amps.
How do you typically mic your speakers for recording?
Nine times out of 10, I will probably use a Shure SM58 and set it maybe a foot or sometimes 18 inches away from the speaker, depending on what you want to do. I’ve messed about with a lot of different mics, but I usually end up coming back to the 58. I find it sounds too harsh if it’s right on the speaker – you’ve got to give it a bit of air. An engineer once told me that it’s good to have the mic placed the same distance away as the speaker dimension, and that’s always seemed to work for me. So for a 12″ speaker, set it about a foot away and never ever point it at the middle of the speaker. Always set it off to the edge a little bit.
Which guitars did you use to record the album? Do you have different guitars for different sounds?
No, I had that one cream maple-neck Strat I used for the whole album, apart from the Martin D-50 I bought new around ’75. The Strat was built by John Grunder at Fender about 15 years ago – maybe more.
How does your technique differ on acoustic?
Well, I’m not a very good acoustic player because I’m not playing acoustic very often. I like to play acoustic with my thumb. I like the feel of that, but it doesn’t record very well, so I end up using a pick. I don’t really have an acoustic style – I just get away with it, basically! I think chording on an acoustic is nothing like chording on an electric – not in my style, anyway. But like anything you do, it’s your own feel that counts, and it’s not about technique as much. For me, it’s about putting your own feel and vibe in your playing, and getting that across. That’s the key thing, especially for recording.
How does your approach to playing differ when playing live and in the studio?
Studio work is always going to be a bit more thought-out. On a recording, you have to consider all the parts individually, and make a bit more sense of them by looking at them as parts belonging to a whole. The parts slot-in to make a whole picture. Playing live in a three-piece, your energy has to be a lot more intense and you have to keep the sound going all the time. So it’s like you’re painting with a broader brush.
Which environment do you prefer?
I like both. They’re both very rewarding. I love playing live because it’s a great challenge, in a three-piece. And when you have a good night, it’s a great buzz. But the thing about making an album is the creativity side of it. That’s the real charge about recording, because you’re having to create. Every day, you go in and you’re working on a new part or a new track and you’re having to be creative all the time. If you’re doing a lead on something you’re recording, you know people are going to hear that for the rest of your life. If you’re playing live, you have just one shot to play something great. So you really have a challenge in a different kind of way in each situation.
Is there a guitar you favor for writing music?
No, not really. My favorite guitar will be the one I keep with me. It’ll be the one I bring home and take around with me. At the moment, it’s the sunburst Strat. I also do quite a bit of writing on the acoustic, as well.
Do you find yourself more inspired to write at certain times during the day, or in certain places?
No, ideas just seem to come, spasmodically. I can be doodling away on the guitar, find an interesting thing, and before I know it I’m working on a new thing. It can start with a riff or a couple chords and the way they fit together. Of course, I’m always looking and hoping I’m going to come up with something.
Do you maintain any sort of a practice routine?
To be honest, I’m not a great practicer. I do the bare minimum that will keep my callouses in shape, but that’s it, really. I do play blues for fun when I’m at home, but I never really practice in the sense of rigorous practicing. I used to have finger exercises Bob Fripp gave me and I used to work on those, but I haven’t done them for many years.
I find that just playing and having fun is enough to keep your hands in shape. But I think touring is what gets your chops up. I can’t really get them up to full speed unless I’m on the road. I can’t sit and do hours and hours of practicing because I just get bored. Still, I think it’s possible to keep improving as a player if you’re willing to keep bashing away at it and keep doing stuff you’re fascinated by.
How long do you generally warm up before you go onstage?
About 20 minutes, sometimes half an hour.
What tips would you give to other players to help improve their tone?
I think it’s very important, to me, for an electric guitar to have a very good acoustic sound. The sound starts before you begin strengthening it through boxes and signal processors. You have to start where the real music of the sound comes from – the guitar and the ability of the player. You can’t add that in by putting it through boxes.
What advice do you have on developing individual style?
Every player’s ability is so individual. I think everybody should try to do their own work, within the scope of their own gift, and not try to copy other players. You need to find stuff you feel most comfortable playing, and make it your own. That’s how you develop. Definitely do not sit down and cop other peoples’ work, because that’s fatal! All that will do is let you learn to play like someone else, but you won’t learn how to play like yourself. I’ve never believed in sitting down and working out what another player has done. I mean, obviously you pick things up when you hear them, but the less you work it out note-for-note, the more of your own individual style that will come out. I think it’s a dangerous thing to copy other players if you’re trying to develop your own musical personality.
What would we find in your CD player right now?
You’d probably hear music from the ’30s and ’40s. That’s what I listen to for pleasure. I think there just isn’t too much modern stuff that’s worth bothering with. Obviously, you’re always looking for something fresh. If I can’t get it by going forward, I’m going to go backward, and that’s what’s happened to me. Everybody needs new input, all the time, and that’s why people keep buying records.
But I’ve had to go back to Ella Fitzgerald, Al Jolson, Tommy Dorsey, and Harry James. In the early music I listen to, it’s an integrated thing that happened all at once and comes out as one thing, rather than all these different bits stitched together in much of today’s music. So much of the stuff today is done on computers and it’s bits and pieces. I’m not decrying modern technology – that’s a whole different thing – but if you’ve got wonderful music and musicians playing these fantastic songs with a great singer, and it’s all happened at the same moment, obviously, there’s going to be a lot of magic in there than if everything was done separately.
That’s what’s missing, for me, in a lot of the newer music. There are some good records being made, but you don’t hear that much magic anymore. It’s all manufactured.
Do you enjoy listening to your own music?
I do, when I’m creating it. But when it’s done, I really don’t want to hear it again. However, I do like going out and performing it, because every time you do, it’s fresh and it’s a challenge. But I don’t put on my own albums once I’m done with them.
When you record, do you prefer to take an old-school approach to keep things sounding “whole”?
Apart from two tracks produced by Livingston Brown and done on computer, the album was done on a 24-track analog setup. I prefer the sound of an analog recording – I think it’s a more natural sound, even though it ends up being digital on CD. I still think it sounds better for having been recorded on analog. It think it’s inevitable to combine both old-school and modern technology, because you can’t ditch something that’s great just because it isn’t modern. It’s like the Strat; look how long ago it was that invented. And have they come up with a better electric guitar since? No.
Trower at a gig in New York City. Photo: Lisa Sharken.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s June ’01 issue.