Walter Trout

The Reluctant Expatriate
The Reluctant Expatriate

Guitarist Walter Trout resides in California, but the acclaim for his ferocious, blues-based playing tends to resound from the right side of the North Atlantic. Trout’s albums and tours are so popular in England and Europe one might think he lives “over there.” In a BBC listeners’ poll, he’s even been rated higher than other, more famous players. But it seems the U.S. may finally be catching on to what the veteran guitarist has to offer.

Trout is originally from New Jersey (just across the river from Philadelphia), and has backed many notable performers. He also spent a half-decade each with Canned Heat and John Mayall. In an extended interview, he discussed his story and instruments as his eighth solo album was pending:

Vintage Guitar: When we setting this up, you alluded to being a “student” of Roy Buchanan. Like him, your playing is blues-based and can tend to get “frantically expressive,” for lack of a better term.

Walter Trout: Well, to me, all of that stuff is definition. You could say the same thing about Buddy Guy, who can get as frantic as anyone. But I don’t think anybody would say he’s not playing the blues.

Then is the “frantically expressive” term a fair description of your playing?

I think so, but as to whether or not it’s blues, it all depends on who you’re talking to and what their definition of “blues playing” is. If it’s got to be “B.B. King-one-note-played-real-sweetly,” I’m not doing that. I’ve been playing professionally since 1968, and I’ve played with John Lee Hooker, Big Mama Thornton, Percy Mayfield, Canned Heat, and Mayall – a lot of famous, respected blues artists, and I still don’t have any idea what the blues is. I play my music from my heart, and with as much feeling, emotion, and self-expression as I can. But I’m never onstage worried about, “Do I sound like what this guy over here thinks the blues is supposed to be?”

You didn’t actually take lessons from Buchanan, did you?

When I was a teenager and an aspiring guitarist, a friend of mine who was going to a college in Washington, D.C., came home and told me about a guy playing down there that I had to come hear. So we drove to the Crossroads Tavern, in Maryland. I was so young I wasn’t allowed to get in, so we sat in the parking lot and I listened to Roy Buchanan through the open doors. I was floored, and when I hit 18, I started going to the clubs where Buchanan played. I would just sit there, in awe of this guy.

About a year after that, he sort of got “discovered” by the Public Broadcasting System on that show called “The Greatest Unknown Guitarist in the World,” where he played with Mundell Lowe, Johnny Otis, and a bunch of others. Even after he got a record deal and started touring, I’d go see him every chance I got, and I would study his records.

Later, in the Mayall years, I got very lucky in that we did a couple of tours of Germany together. I got to spend a lot of time with Roy; we’d talk about guitars and trade licks. I remember after the first show we did together, he came up to me and told me he really liked my playing, and that we ought to sit down and trade some licks. I said, “Well, you ain’t gonna learn **** from me, but I’ll be glad to sit down and learn whatever you want to show me” (chuckles). He was a real pleasant, humble, sweet person, and he showed me a lot of stuff.

You’ve recognized Buchanan’s influence in your decision to play straight into an amp, without devices or stompboxes.

I would hear all of these amazing, incredible sounds whenever I watched him, and he was just using an old Telecaster and a little Fender amp; no floor pedals, no effects other than some reverb on his amp. I got into that approach, trying to see how much I could get out of just a guitar and an amplifier. I tried to manipulate the guitar to make it sound like a violin, a flute, or a trumpet. I figured out how to make it sound like a five-string banjo. I was trying to see how many sounds I could get, and I still do that.

Who inspired you earlier, when you were a kid in south Jersey?

The first guy who really blew my mind was Michael Bloomfield, and I still think he was probably the best all-around white blues player America ever produced. I still love those records he played on, the first Butterfield [Blues Band] album, with “Born in Chicago” on it, Super Session, the live album with Bloomfield and Kooper…even the stuff he did with Dylan. There’s some unbelievable playing on East-West, and on the first Electric Flag album, as well.

I first heard Bloomfield on A Long Time Comin’ (The Electric Flag’s first album), then I went back and listened to his earlier stuff with Butterfield, etc. Was that the case for you, too?

I was very lucky in that my older brother was really hip, musically. He was always searching out new sounds, and played those kinds of records for me. When I was about 13, I was listening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but he came home one day and put on the first Butterfield album. I’d never heard anybody play guitar like that, and even today it’s astounding. He’s playing blues, but there’s all this fire and aggression, so I think the blues can be played that way. And with fast phrasing, and it can still be bluesy; you don’t have to be laid back or drunk on Jack Daniels. When I heard that album, I knew at that moment what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

What instruments did you use when you were first getting started?

My brother brought home a nylon-string classical guitar, so I learned some chords on that. Somebody had given it to him, and he had tried to learn to play it, but he couldn’t really figure it out. At the time, it was the “hootenanny” days – the Chad Mitchell Trio; around ’61 or ’62. I played folk music, then decided I wanted to rock when the Beatles came out. My first electric was a $30 guitar that had an amplifier and speaker built into it; all you had to do was turn it on. I don’t even remember the make. Then I got high-tech; I realized I needed something more, so I got a Silvertone with the speaker and amp built into the case. It was the black-sparkle model with one pickup.

By this time, I was playing harmonica in a blues band, doing Paul Butterfield licks, and I still play harp on my albums. I started playing rhythm guitar, but that Silvertone wasn’t loud enough, so I got a Kent and a little tweed amp. I don’t remember the model, but it was louder, so I could actually be heard. Little by little, I started learning some leads, and I got better than the lead guitar player, so we switched roles. He had a Hagstrom that looked kind of like a Strat, and he would loan me that.

Around that time, I told my mother I was really serious about this, and that I had to get a real guitar. Bloomfield was playing a Telecaster on the first Butterfield album, so I priced one and told my mom, “I’m gonna quit high school, I’m gonna get a job, I’m gonna save money and get this guitar. When I get it, then I’ll go back to school and finish.”

She wasn’t too happy about it because she was on the faculty at my school (chuckles). I started working at a department store in Philadelphia, commuting by bus each day.

But while I was working there, Super Session came out, and Bloomfield had a Les Paul on the cover, so now my whole plan was messed up. I priced a Les Paul, and it was about $75 to $100 more than the Tele. I had to work longer, but I did it. I didn’t know anything about guitars then, and I figured, “If he’s playing it, it’s gotta be good.” So I got one of the first ’68 goldtop reissue Les Pauls with the single-coil pickups.

By the time you got your first professional-quality guitar, were you already trying to avoid the use of effects?

I wanted to go straight into an amp even then, but I couldn’t find an amp that had enough overdrive. I got a [Fender] Super Reverb, and most of the time, if I put it on 10, I could get a lot of ****s out of it if I ran the Les Paul through it. But there were times when I would use an Electro-Harmonix LPB-1 power booster; it wasn’t like a fuzz box, it was just an overdrive unit that I plugged into the amp. There were certain clubs we played where running the Super Reverb on 10 was too much, but with the LPB-1, I could run the amp on 3 in smaller clubs and still get some sustain.

When did you start backing name artists?

When I lived in Jersey, my first backing gig was with a guy named Louisiana Red, who’s still around; he lives in Europe now. That was my first experience with a “real” blues guy. I was playing in a really good club band called Wilmont Mews; we had a horn line, and played all over the East Coast. We did a mix of cover material and originals, and we worked all the time.

Were you still using the Les Paul?

Well, one night I was practicing in my room, and the strap came off the front end, and the guitar fell to the floor. The neck split in half, and I was just devastated; I had set my life back a year to get that guitar, and as promised, gone back to school and finished. But I have to say that I was so young and naive that I did not realize guitars could be fixed; I thought it was gone, so I sold it to a guy who worked at the Martin factory for $75, and he made another neck that looked exactly like the one I broke, inlaid “Gibson” on the top, put my serial number on the new neck, and glued it to the body of my guitar. Then he sold it for something like $600, at which point I realized that if your guitar breaks, it can be fixed.

Then I got a 335 I used with Wilmont Mews for a while. And right before I moved to California, I went to Philadelphia for a jam session and a guy handed me his Stratocaster, and the way that guitar sounded sold me on Strats right then and there.

But I have to say that before then, I’d heard a group called Orleans, which had opened for James Cotton. They had a guitarist named John Hall. He was playing a Stratocaster, and I was astounded at its tone, live. I’d seen Hendrix, but he used a lot of fuzz and other effects; you didn’t hear that bell-like, chimey sound.

Did Hall use any devices?

I don’t think he did. I went to that jam session and played a Strat myself the following week, and I’ve been using a Strat ever since.

So did you take both a 335 and a Strat with you to California?

Well, a little tragedy happened with my first Strat (chuckles). I had a natural-finish one, and I loaned it to a friend who had a guitar shop. He sold acoustic guitars, and wanted to play electric guitar over the weekend, so I let him use my Strat, since I didn’t have a gig.

But when he brought it back, he said, “I thought you needed some work done on this, so I filed the frets and the magnets on the pickups that were sticking up above the plastic.”

Basically, he destroyed my guitar. And I didn’t know what to say to him, because he was a friend. So once again, I sold one of my guitars for not much money. When I came out here, all I had was my 335, my old Martin D-28, which I bought in 1965, a mandolin, a trumpet, and my Super Reverb. I put all of that in my VW Bug and drove across the country.

So you had departed from Wilmont Mews, or the band had broken up.

I’d sort of taken over Wilmont Mews before I came out here. I got rid of the horn line, and we became a four-piece, strictly-original band and I wrote all the songs. I said to those guys, “We’ve got to go to California; that’s where we can make it.” We started making plans, and one by one, they chickened out. I came out here on my own, and my dream was to have my own band and my own career, but I fell into the sideman thing, and it was real easy – one gig always led to another. If you played on a bill with another band, a lot of times the other band would offer you a job.

I was playing with J.D. Nicholson, who was a pretty legendary keyboard player from Chicago; he’d moved to Los Angeles, and I was the only white guy in his band and the only guy under 60 years old. I had a great time and I learned a lot.

One night, we were playing in a jazz club in L.A. and some of the guys from Canned Heat were walking past, heard the music, and came in. They told me Bob Hite had just died, but they were getting back together, and were going to start touring, and would I like to play lead guitar? I said sure, and the next thing I knew, I was out on the road with them. That lasted five years, and while I was with them, John Mayall put together a band with some of his older Bluesbreakers, including Mick Taylor and John McVie. Canned Heat opened a few shows for them, and John heard me play. About a year later, he called me up and said he was tired of dealing with superstar egos, and that he was going to start a new version of the Bluesbreakers with some younger L.A. musicians, and he wanted me to play guitar. That lasted five years, as well.

I’ve interviewed other guitarists who’ve played with Mayall – and Mayall himself, for that matter – but have you ever heard or talked with Harvey Mandel, Rick Vito, or Buddy Whittington? Mandel was with Canned Heat, as well.

I know all of those guys very well. Harvey used to sit in with Canned Heat. Buddy’s a real nice guy.

Mandel was a contemporary of Bloomfield’s in Chicago. Did you ever talk with him about Bloomfield?

Not really; I’ve never found Harvey to be very talkative.

When and why did you decide to go solo?

When I was with Mayall, I got to thinking, “I’m getting into my late 30s and I’m not pursuing my dream.” Then one night in Denmark, John got the flu and said, “I can’t play tonight; you guys go on without me, and then if the people want their money back, they can have it.” So I got to sing a lot more than I ever got to do with him, and I got to play a lot more. After the show, some guys came backstage; one was from a Danish record label, and one was a Danish concert promoter. They told me they wanted me to do my own record, and they’d book a tour and put out the album.

So basically, I had it placed right in my lap. I told John the gig went great, and I took about a week to mull things over. When I finally decided, it was my 38th birthday, and I was onstage in Göthenburg, Sweden. I thought about having this chance to make my own record and do my own tour of Scandinavia. I said to myself, “If I don’t go for this now, I’m gonna be turning 40, 45, or 50, and I’m still gonna be a sideman, and won’t have pursued my dream.” So that night was when I actually went to John and told him I was quitting the band. That was in 1989, and I’ve been solo ever since.

How many solo albums have you released?

The new one, Livin’ Every Day, is number eight.

Is your current label, Ruf, an American or European record company?

They’re headquartered in Germany, but they’re an American label, too. They’ve got a lot of artists, and they’re doing well in the States.

But up to now, the majority of your sales have been in Europe, and there was a radio listeners’ poll over there where you ranked pretty high. Details?

Well, the BBC in England did a survey in ’93 where people could vote for “The 20 All-Time Greatest Guitar Players.” They announced the winners on a one-hour special, and we were sitting at home, listening. They said they were going to play a cut by each person, and they started with something by Van Halen, so I said, “Okay, they’re going from number one back,” but then the announcer said, “That’s Eddie Van Halen at number 20.”

We kept listening, and when they got down to number six, one of my songs comes on – it was “Tribute to Muddy Waters,” off my second album. It’s a medley of “Catfish Blues,” “Can’t Be Satisfied,” and other Muddy songs, with a lot of guitar on it, in kind of a Hendrix-y arrangement. So we were jumping up and down, laughing, and freaking out (chuckles)!

Then they said, “That’s Walter Trout at number six, and out of the 100,000 votes cast, the smallest margin was between number six and number five – a difference of only two votes.” Number five was Jimmy Page and I thought, “Man, if I’d known that, I would have sent in three votes for myself! (laughs)!”

I’ve read comments by more than one guitarist, in more than one genre, who have stated that European audiences think American music is played better by American musicians, and they’ve said that sometimes, American musicians get more respect in Europe than they might in the U.S. How valid are those statements?

I hear those a lot, and I think it’s probably true that American music is going to generally be played better by Americans, but I think you need to take players on their individual merit.

For example, there’s a band in England called the Hamsters; they work hard and are one of the most popular blues/rock bands there. They’re really great live, and they’re good friends of ours. We’ll do double-bills with them sometimes, and Slim, their guitar player, will come up to me say, “Man, you guys have just got this ‘thing’ we can’t get, because you’re Americans.” But we think they sound great. Maybe it has something to do with the American culture that invented this music.

Some of your recent songs sound a bit personal. Tell me about the instrumental, “Marie’s Mood.”

It was written while my wife was pregnant with our second son. She had a lot of complications and difficulties; she was forced to lay on her back for six months. We were very close to losing the baby, so it was a real emotional time for us. I was scheduled to make a record, but I stopped it and stayed home to care for my wife. I went into my home studio and came up with that melody, and wanted to write words for it that would comfort my wife, but I couldn’t really come up with the right words, so I let the guitar do the talking.

What about “Song For A Wanderer?”

That was written for my brother. He was my best friend when we were growing up, and he exposed me to a lot of incredible music. About nine years ago, we had a major falling-out; we haven’t spoken and I don’t even know where he is. I know he’s a sea captain, so he’s travelling all the time. I tried to write that song to say that whatever’s happened between us, I just want to think about all the good times we had together; I want to look at the positive aspects of our brotherly relationship and not get caught up in the ****.

I tried to do it in the style of the Philadelphia vocal groups that he and I loved, and my hope would be that if he heard that on the radio, he might realize it’s for him.

Another thing you’re doing differently concerns the business facet: you and your wife are managing the band yourselves.

Yes, we are. And that came about as a matter of necessity because we had a succession of managers that stole all our money. One of them booked a tour for my band in northern California, then disappeared with all the money from the tour. His mother told me he had moved to Africa, but I recently found him on the internet. About four or five years into another management deal, my wife got out the books and saw something that was a little weird. She called our agent in London, and asked him for his books, and started comparing. She found out that hundreds of thousands had been stolen. So we decided we’re gonna do it on our own, and that’s been the case since the end of ’94. It’s working out great; we can’t blame anybody for anything now (chuckles), but we’ve got much more of a hands-on approach. My wife really takes the active role; she acts as a liaison with the booking agents and promoters, which makes it real easy for me to concentrate on making the music.

Your main guitar is a three-bolt hardtail Strat, and it looks like it’s been through a lot.

When I moved to California, I still had it in my mind that I had to have a Strat, because I was devoted to the Stratocaster, even though that friend of mine had ruined my first one. I bought it when it was brand-new, in 1973. It was pure white then! I wanted one that didn’t have a whammy bar because my old Strat had one, and it would go out of tune, but I have to say I really didn’t know what to do with a whammy bar. And I still don’t. I want to try to make whammy bar sounds without a whammy bar – combining really long bends with a volume swell.

Hardtail Strats and/or three-bolt Strats have been reputed to have some slight sonic differences from four-bolt models or Strats with vibratos. Have you noticed any difference in the sound or tone?

When I bought it, I didn’t; I bought it because it felt great. The first time I picked it up, it played like butter. Nowadays, I think it has a little more low-end in the tone. It’s almost like a cross between a regular Strat and a Les Paul.

Has it been modified?

Normally, there’s no tone control for the bridge pickup, and I found that sometimes, it sounded piercingly bright, and I wanted to roll some highs off of it, but I couldn’t. So I took the tone control off the neck pickup and connected it to the bridge pickup. It has the original pickups, and a brass nut. I put that on there because sometimes if I did a long bend on the low E string, the nut would break.

You really like your volume control, don’t you?

Yeah it’s an extra “voice.”

One photo shows your pinky finger wrapped around the volume knob.

It’s there pretty much the whole time!

I’d better ask about your performance amp, as well.

I use a Mesa-Boogie Mark IV, and I’ve been using a guitar Leslie. It’s really not like a floor effect; it’s an external speaker that rotates.

I was watching the video of you performing for the National Association of Record Merchants, and there were times when you pumped your right arm in the-air, flexing it. What’s that all about?

A lot of times when I’m playing, I have no idea what my body is doing. I aspire to achieve a level where I’m really not aware of my body; I just close my eyes, and I think or hear a sound in my mind that comes out of the guitar, and I don’t even know how I made it.

Details on the upcoming album?

Well, I worked with Jim Gaines, a great producer, again. He has worked with Stevie Ray, Luther Allison, and Blues Traveler. It was done in Memphis at Ardent Studios, and I had a great time doing it. But I’m still trying to grow as a songwriter and a performer. The sessions for this album were pretty relaxed, and we were having a lot of fun, and that comes through on the album, as does the growth.

Tour plans? One might assume the bulk of concerts to support the new album would be in Europe.

My career in the States is starting to take off. One of my shows at Eureka Springs Blues Festival was their first sellout. I had a couple of hits in St. Louis, and when I play there now, I sell out 1,000-seat clubs. I went to Europe in May, but all of June and July was booked for dates in the States. So right now, I’m more excited about America than Europe; there’s a buzz going on over here.

And at age 48, I still try to get onstage each night and play something I’ve never played before; that’s my goal when I perform. I like to push myself, which helps me to grow and get better.

I know VG has a lot of guitar collectors who read it, and I know this three-bolt ’70s Strat is, among collectors, one of those you’re supposed to hate, but I wouldn’t take a million bucks for it.

And like I said about musicians, when it comes to guitars, you also need to take each on its own merit. I’ve played ’56 Strats that played like ****, and I’ve played some brand new ones that played real good, and some brand new ones that were no good. I think each guitar has its own personality, its own feel, and its own spirit.

I’ve played my guitar every day for 26 years, and the guy who works my guitar has told me that it’s one of his favorites. He says I’ve played it so much that it sounds as good as any mid-’50s Strat. Whether was a three-bolt or a four-bolt, or regardless of what year it was, it wouldn’t make any difference to me. My spirit is in that guitar.

Released in the summer of ’99, Trout’s Livin’ Every Day does indeed live up to what most Walter Trout fans – the bulk of whom are still overseas – expect from the fiery guitarist. And if U.S. fans of ferocious-yet-passionate guitar playing check out Trout’s efforts, the buzz should get even louder.

photo by Barney Roach.

This interview originally appeared in VG‘s Dec. and Jan. ’99-’00 issues.

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