It’s an elite class – rock guitarists who crossed the Atlantic to achieve their rock-star dreams. Somewhere between the mid-’60s sojourn of Jimi Hendrix and that of Brian Setzer in the late ’70s came Pat Travers, who in 1975 left his home in Ottawa to find fame abroad.
Born of emigres – his mother British, father Irish – music began to form Travers’ life early on.
“Mom really liked classical music. Dad did, too, but he also listened to pop,” he said. “We had the Sing Along With Mitch Miller album, and during family gatherings, everybody would sing while my uncle played guitar.”
Travers develop a deep appreciation for music, his tastes ultimately defined by the guitar, which has been the tool of his trade for 40 years. Still…
“One of my guilty pleasures is putting on Abba’s greatest hits when I’m driving down the road,” he said. “It’s just such good pop, and it’s done so well.”
In ’78, Travers returned to the U.S. after recording three albums in London (his self-titled debut, along with Makin’ Magic and Putting It Straight) and securing a spot opening a U.S. tour for Rush. As it wrapped, Travers’ manager asked, “Where do you want to live?”
His response came without pause.
“I grabbed my copy of Eric Clapton’s 461 Ocean Boulevard and said, ‘There! I want a house like that.’ So we rented a big house about a mile from the beach, and Coconut Grove became home by default because I ended up with most of my stuff there. I was young, had long hair and a BMW… it was fun!
On April 12, Travers entered his second year as a 60-something just one month after releasing a new album, Retro Rocket, which offers a bevy of tones and tunes sure to please longtime fans while reminding the world of the virtues of blues-based rock and roll. We sat with him to discuss his career, gear, and the album.
What was your first guitar?
I got the first one from my uncle, Hank, who owned a music store called the Blue Note, in Ottawa. I would go there on Saturdays to run errands and work around the shop, then grab a guitar and a teaching book and head to the basement. When I turned 12, he gave me a Stella acoustic, which is funny because I’ve read so many biographies of guitar players whose first guitar was a Stella. He predicted it would be gathering dust in two weeks, but I stuck with it. Later, my mom bought me a Yamaha acoustic, which was okay, but I wanted to play electric. So, when I turned 15, I got her to co-sign a loan for a ’68 Les Paul goldtop with P-90s.
Not a bad way to start.
Yeah. Unfortunately, it was stolen a year afterward. I was in a band that played this nightclub in Quebec six nights a week. We’d finish about 2:30 in the morning, and one night I went out to the car thinking everyone was following. Not having the keys, I leaned the case against the car and ran back in. Two minutes later, I came back and it was gone. I was pretty devastated. So, I got my mom to sign for another loan so I could get an SG with P-90s – because Pete Townshend had one.
We were playing one night at this other club, getting really raucous, and I dropped my pick. So I started strumming the strings, hard – more slamming on them, really – when all of a sudden, the neck snapped off the guitar. Not at the top, at the body (laughs). I threw it in the trash, which was stupid because I probably could’ve salvaged something from it.
I was then making payments on two frickin’ guitars I didn’t have, when a guy offered me another SG – this time with humbuckers. I had it maybe two weeks before the police knocked on my door. Sure enough, it had been stolen. So, there I was, 16 years old and paying on three guitars I didn’t have.
You mentioned Pete Townshend. Were there other strong guitar inspirations?
There was. I was 12 years old in 1966, when I started to play. Shortly after that, we began hearing Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana, Johnny Winter, B.B. King… I was inspired by them all.
And you saw Hendrix play live, right?
I did. I was lucky enough to see him when I was 13, in Ottawa, at the Capital Theater. It was on March 19, 1968. I was sitting in the 12th row, aisle seat.
You recall the exact day and your seat?
It was a pretty memorable event.
Yeah, but most people just remember certain parts of a show…
Well, the funny thing is, my memory of the show itself is pretty vague because it was so overwhelming. I had never seen one Marshall amp, let alone three stacks, and he was just so frickin’ cool. I had never had seen or heard anything like it.
As Clapton and Hendrix impacted your playing, you had a similar effect on guys who followed you; Paul Gilbert has mentioned you as an influence.
Yeah, Paul is great, and the one I love most is Dimebag Darrell, who always came to our shows. He was huge fan and a great guy.
Are there places where you recognize your influence on other artists or their music?
Ahhh, there’s a couple of things I think I notice, but it’s hard to tell. There’s one or two little Van Halen things in the early days that I thought were really close to what we were doing, but it never really mattered to me.
Did learning to play come naturally?
It came pretty easy, but over the years I’ve definitely had to find time to practice. Initially, I winged a lot of stuff; I don’t know exactly how I did that, but eventually I sat down and really learned how to play the guitar – learned about music and communicating ideas to other musicians.
After putting in time with those bands in Ottawa and Toronto, you ended up backing Ronnie Hawkins.
Yeah, that was a good education – rockabilly and rock and roll. When he first asked me to play, I was 19. He gave me a stack of 45s and said, “Kid, listen to this and learn how to play like it. And don’t try to change the guitar sound.” I wasn’t all that keen on these ’60s/late-’50s guitar tones, but I went and got a Telecaster Custom and I did my best to learn exactly the way those guys played. I discovered that I really didn’t know anything about old rock and roll; you listen to Bo Diddley, and the way he plays rhythm is insane – so simple, yet so filled with nuance. Had I not played with Ronnie, I don’t think I would’ve spent the time trying to learn that stuff. But they have a totally different rhythmic approach because the heavy-gauge strings forced them to play in different positions. It’s a nuance – just a little different here and there – but it makes all the difference when you’re trying to pull it off.
I played with Ronnie for almost a year, and when it looked like there wasn’t gonna be a record deal or world tour – he was staying in Toronto – I went back to Ottawa. But, I wasn’t there very long before I decided to go to London.
What gave you such confidence when you were 21 years old?
Well, my mom being English and dad Irish, I felt pretty comfortable being there; it was an Anglo sort of thing, I guess. And, honestly, I was intimidated by New York and Los Angeles. The cool thing about London is that it’s actually a pretty small town. I mean, it’s a huge place, but where musicians and other artists congregated was a small area at the time. You got to rub shoulders with quite a few people.
When things started happening for me, it happened pretty quickly.
Yeah, within a few months, you recorded a demo that led to a deal with Polydor…
I actually was signed to another label first; we tried to record a single with Mutt Lange as producer – he’d just arrived in London from South Africa. We spent 23 hours in the studio and came out with nothing.
I had a publishing deal with Warner/Chappell and they let me use their demo studio. My manager got the tape to Freddy Haayen, the director of Polydor, and he loved it – the roughness, the edginess. As a matter of fact, some of the tracks ended up on the first album, which we recorded on a four-track machine in the basement of Warner/Chappell. I wasn’t thrilled about that, but I was happy to be in the music business.
Do you remember which songs were on it?
Well…. I covered [Chuck Berry’s] “Maybellene,” but beyond that, I don’t remember. Most of it, we re-recorded at their 16-track studio on the second floor.
Within a year or so, you had two albums.
At that time, if you were a new artist, record companies would give you three albums to get your s**t together, and the shelf life of each album was maybe three months. If nothing happened in the first three months, it wasn’t gonna happen. So, we’d immediately start on another record; that’s what we did with Makin’ Magic. They gave me a larger budget, nicer studio, and more time, and left me alone to be creative and come up with something unique. Makin’ Magic was a pretty good album, and was the first time I had a full 24-track studio to work in, and the time to experiment with different sounds. I was lucky.
Which amps were you using at the time?
I had 50- and 100-watt Marshalls. I got pretty good distortion out of the 50-watt and set the 100 at 1, just to give some distinctive bottom-end. I had a Leslie, too, but didn’t really start using it until later.
Which guitars did you use on the early albums?
I had my Telecaster, and I picked up a Melody Maker that I put two humbuckers in.
Where did you get the humbuckers?
I bought them in London, at Rose Morris. They were in the display case.
Were they PAFs, or did they have patent-number stickers?
No, they were just Gibson replacement humbuckers. At the time, I thought a pickup was a pickup – a magnet with wire wrapped around it. All the rest was just a lot of hooey! We all played so damn loud, anyway. Now that I’m a little more discerning, I know old humbuckers sound good because their magnets have gotten a little weaker, so they don’t sound as bright. I have a PRS with humbuckers made after Paul Smith bought the original pickup winder from the Gibson factory, and he gave me pickups for some of my guitars. They both sound amazing – very loud, and I think over time they will get a little warmer-sounding.
Did you have more than one Melody Maker back in the day?
I had two, I broke one and I sold the other in 1998 or ’99. It’s now in a house in Long Island, on a wall next to Jack Bruce’s EB-3. It’s a good pairing.
The one that broke was a backup. It looked really cool – I had it sprayed black and had the pickguard replaced with a red mirror. One night, I threw it to my tech, but I had my foot on the cable (laughs), so it went about five feet, then landed with a “blump,” and that was the end of that. They’re not very sturdy.
It’s not a Telecaster in that regard…
Yeah, in hand-to-hand combat, you definitely want a Strat or a Tele.
What are some recollections of your first band, with Nicko McBrain on drums and Peter “Mars” Cowling on bass?
Well, Nicko was so much fun. He joined us for Makin’ Magic after Roy Dyke played with us initially. Roy was great, but I needed somebody a little more fiery. Nicko was with [another band] that was playing its last show. We actually went to watch the guitar player, but when I saw Nicko play, and I went, “Wow, this guy has chops and energy.” So we met him, went to the pub and had a great time, and he was in the band. He’s an amazing player.
Meeting Mars was a funny story, too. Before I had a band, I’d met a guy who managed bands and was helping me put one together. He said, “We need to try some bass players, and I know a guy that’s pretty good.” So, we went to this wine bar to meet Mars. Of course, we drank a bunch of wine, got a little silly, and we hit it off. When we got together to play, I asked my manager, “When are the other bass players showing up?” and he said, “Oh, there are none. This is it.” (laughs) So yeah, he was in. He had been playing in an English jazz band, and believe me, there’s nothing worse than English jazz! It’s really strange stuff. I had to teach him how to hammer out eighth notes, but he had that energetic, pulsating kind of thing, and would come up with these counterpoint parts where there’s a whole other song going on underneath some of the stuff he plays. It’s amazing.
What prompted your move back to the States?
Well, there was the whole punk thing going on in England, sucking up all the attention. In the U.K., you really have to rely on the music press – Melody Maker, New Musical Express, and Sounds. All of a sudden, journalists turned into punks. So, if you were serious about music, you couldn’t get any press… and if you did, it was gonna be negative. We were getting radio play in Texas, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston. We had an audience, whereas in the U.K. the focus was on punk. So, I wasn’t sad to say goodbye (laughs).
How did you meet Pat Thrall?
Through Neil Schon, who recommended him. Again, he came and hung out. We’d jam a bit, but Pat fit in so well as a person. We had good communication, and he’s an amazing guitar player and a funny guy. I’ve always enjoyed playing with Pat.
What was the interplay like when you two were onstage?
We just had a lot of fun. There’s some great pictures of us just doing some silly things. I like to make him laugh, and he can do the most amazing things with a guitar – it’s fascinating to watch and hear him. I wish there’d been more recordings or video, because he could be totally mind-boggling. Unfortunately, some of the best s**t he ever played never got recorded.
So, there were things he did onstage that he wouldn’t necessarily try in the studio?
Yeah, but he could be funny in the studio, too. One time, he was doing this thing with his Echoplex and volume swells playing a Stratocaster plugged into one of those Stratoblaster overdrive effects, and he kept picking up this classical radio station. So, every now and then, he’d do this swell and all of a sudden, a raft of string sounds would appear from the radio station, but he’d work it into what he was doing. While we were recording, we sat there going, “That sounds great!”
So that was good. But, we had much better gigs; I know we did. When we were on fire, it was scary how good we could be. I definitely encouraged what we used to call “going out there” (laughs), and you never knew where it was going to lead. We were just jamming. Unfortunately, it never got recorded. I mean, we’d have board tapes. As matter of fact, Pat just sent me some tapes with a song or two that I started to write but didn’t finish. So, we might be able to get together and finish some of that. I listened to one of the tracks, and it’s awesome – really fun.
Talk about your career in the ’80s. Your style of music wasn’t exactly what MTV wanted.
I hated the ’80s. I really did. There were other things clouding my horizon, though MTV eventually became one of them, in a way. But, I was having trouble with my manager and finances and then there was dissent with band members and nobody was happy with the money they were getting – or weren’t getting. Everything got crazy and it took some sorting out – a lot of time in court. It wasn’t fun at all.
When I got a new record deal with Polygram and was working on an album, and we got to open for Aerosmith. That was when I had to deal with MTV. I didn’t like the idea of making videos. I’m a musician, not an actor. It just seemed so stupid.
I remember driving from Austin to San Antonio one night in ’79, and “Eruption” came on the radio. It was the first time any of us had heard it, and I was blown away – all the tapping and whammy bar. And then “You Really Got Me” stayed strictly rock and roll. But, everybody – all the guitar players – just grabbed onto the tapping/whammy-bar thing. Nobody was getting good tone anymore – it was all these thin, crappy, overproduced, overdriven tones. It was just so annoying. Plus, the hair to go with it (laughs). I really was happy when that disappeared.
In the mid/late ’80s, Stevie Ray Vaughan helped bring back the blues.
Yeah, but then there was the same problem – everybody wanted to be like Stevie Ray Vaughan, and they grabbed the one or two clichéd Stratocaster riffs and played them to death. They didn’t understand, he knew what he was doing, he was a student of the blues. All you gotta do is watch him with Albert King when they’re in the studio. It’s amazing, how you can see the admiration he has for Stevie Ray, and Stevie Ray is so comfortable there with him, because even Hendrix was afraid of Albert King.
Was that blues resurgence helpful to your career?
Well, my playing has always been bluesy, but I wasn’t a student of the blues, really, until 2011. We finished a European tour – 18 shows in 21 days – and when I got home, my ears were fried and I didn’t want to hear anything loud. So, I found this blues channel on AOL radio and for two months I’d sit by my pool and listen to Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters and Hubert Sumlin. That was the first time I really figured out who was who and who was doing what.
Now, very few people are playing bluesy guitar. I’ve met some 16/17-year-olds playing it right; a kid up in Boston, Aaron Norcross, Jr., plays a Telecaster and he’s the real deal. It’s amazing somebody that young can have so much understanding and expression. So, there are one or two acts out there.
What were you doing in the early ’90s?
I started to record again. We did a studio album, then a tour in the U.K. After that, I started recording for Mike Varney’s Blues Bureau International label, doing a sort of pseudo-blues. I did one of those albums every other year for a while and a lot of touring and minding my own business.
When did you start playing PRS guitars?
In October of 2004. I like Les Pauls, but mine kept getting broken; you look at them the wrong way and the headstock snaps. PRS sent me a couple guitars and they were really solid, played great, and looked fantastic. I prefer the single-cut ones, and my main guitar is a Custom 22 Singlecut. I have them widen and round the nut because I use heavier strings, so I can take the whammy bar all the way down and it comes back in tune. Plus, I can bring it up a minor third. And I’m so glad not to have a locking nut or have to cut the ball-ends.
Which amps are you using now?
Well, I prefer Blackstar’s Artisan Series. I have a 100-watt, a 30-watt, and a 15-watt. They’re basic – don’t have overdrive or anything. I have one of their preamp pedals for distortion and it gives me a really good sound. Nice and punchy – clean, but with great tube distortion from the pedal. The 15-watt 1×12 is one of Billy Gibbons’ favorite amps. I’ve played one with a ’54 Les Paul, cranked up, and it sounded amazing.
You just released a new album, Retro Rocket. What’s the story behind it?
It’s on Cleopatra Records and it’s kinda funny, how it was presented to me. Six of the songs were sent to me with just drum and bass backing tracks – no vocals, no nothing. So, I had to write lyrics, sing, and play guitar over them. I never met the other musicians – don’t even know who they are even today! So, that was kind of interesting. Some of the backing tracks went for six or seven minutes, which left me room for some really spontaneous jams; I played as if the drums and bass were right there in the studio, and while you listen to it, you’d never know we weren’t in the same room.
How did you decide to do it that way?
My connection at Cleopatra said, “Hey, I got these tracks that are kind of an early-’70s style. Do you think you could come up with some songs and finish them?” I thought it was an interesting way to work – definitely different, because I had to go with what was there, I couldn’t change much.
I also wrote three songs for the album – “Hell Bound Train,” “I Wanna Be Free,” and “I’m Alive” – and we added an old live track, “Lookin’ Up,” which I wrote about 18 years ago.
Which guitars and amps did you use to record it?
A friend loaned me one just for the project – a Gibson Custom Shop ’57 Goldtop with PAFs. It has the original-spec big, fat neck and sounds wonderful. I used it pretty much exclusively and we did very few overdubs. And I used the 100-watt Blackstar.
This article originally appeared in VG June 2015 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.