ROBIN TROWER WAS snatched from obscurity in London clubs by former Paramounts bandmate Gary Brooker, who had a hit on his hands with “A
Whiter Shade of Pale” and needed a guitarist for his new band, Procol Harum.
Five record s later, Trower found the pomp of Procol failed to avail him the
room required to exercise his powerful yet lyrical chops. Thus began a solo
career now entering its fifth decade with no sign of stopping. His
Strat/Uni-Vibe/Marshall sound is admittedly inspired by Hendrix,
but any similarity is more a product of a shared grounding
in blues and R&B than overt aping. Trower’s latest album,
Roots and Branches [V12], presents one of his periodic returns
to those blues beginnings, combining soulful understanding
with intense personalization.
Many years ago, when I saw you with Procol Harum, it appeared you
were playing through a radio into the main amp.
It was a little practice amp with a 7" speaker. I used it to overdrive the big amp.
I didn’t realize they made practice amps back then.
A British company, Selmer, made it. [Probably a Selmer Truevoice with an 8" speaker.]
How does Roots and Branches differ from 1997’s Someday Blues and 2005’s
Another Day’s Blues?
I remixed some of the tunes from Someday Blues and reissued it as Another
Day’s Blues, but they are basically the same record. I went about Roots and Branches
differently in that I put a bass idea down to a click track first. I was determined
to get the guitar parts right and then build it up from there. I put down a guide
vocal and then got the guitar how I wanted it, in terms of the sound and performance.
I put the actual bass player and drummer on it after that, except for
“See My Life,” which went down live.
Did you play these tunes back in the day with your pre-Harum band the
Not these. I didn’t even listen to any of the original records before I began—I
just played them the way I remembered them. I put my own music to the skeleton
of each song. Once I had my own arrangements sorted out, I checked out
the original lyrics, but I even rewrote some of them.
That’s an old blues tradition.
Which blues players most influenced you in the beginning?
B.B. King was the first guy. I wore out his Live at the Regal, and then I got into
Son House. Albert King became my favorite blues player.
Did you keep the sound here mostly devoid of your usual effects other than
overdrive and whammy bar because it was the blues?
Is the cleaner sound on “I Believe to My
Soul” straight in the amp or through a pedal
with the volume backed off?
That is just guitar into a Marshall Vintage
Modern amp. On this record I am using
the 50-watt Vintage Modern combo. I had
been using the 100-watt version live, but
I switched to the 50s because sound more
musical, a bit sweeter.
Are you generally modifying the amount
of distortion by adjusting your volume knob
and hitting harder and softer, or by turning
pedals on and off?
Live, I tend to have my Fulltone Robin
Trower Overdrive on all the time and I clean
it up with my guitar’s volume control. It
cleans up nicely but still with some distortion.
What did you ask for in that pedal?
I have an original ’90s Fulltone FullDrive,
which I really like because it has big tone
and is warm. So, I said I would like a bit
of that combined with the OCD. The OCD
had a good distortion but was a little trashy
sounding, whereas the original FullDrive is
very expensive sounding. But the FullDrive
had a germanium chip that is hard to find
and unreliable in heat and cold. We combined
the OCD’s distortion with the original
FullDrive’s rich tone.
Do you tune down to Eb?
I tune down to D so I can use an Ernie
Ball .012 and a .015 for the top two strings
to get a fat tone, while still being able to
bend and get a good vibrato.
Part of your style is sliding into notes along
the same string. Where did that come from?
Each string has a particular sound, so if
you want a group of notes to have the same
tone, then you have to go up and down the
same string. And sometimes you can also
get a bit more fluidity.
Which guitars are you playing these days?
I have been playing my signature model
Stratocasters, made at the Fender Custom
Shop, for about seven or eight years now.
Do you still have any of your old guitars?
I have one ’57 Strat. I gave it to Robert
Fripp ages ago, but about ten years ago he
said, “I never play it, you should have it
back.” I used to have a vintage guitar collection
but the guitars were stolen, and since
then I decided to just play new guitars. You
get too attached to those lovely old things.
Do you think there is a difference in sound?
Yeah, but you just have to get the best
sound out of whatever you are working with.
Even though it is new, you have to make sure
it is a good instrument. Todd Krause at the
Fender Custom Shop builds a great guitar.
I work on the acoustic sound first and make
sure it sounds as strong as possible, which
often means having quite a high action. If
you get the acoustic sound strong it should
be good when you amplify it. I also asked
for the bigger headstock because I thought
more wood might make a bit more resonance.
My guitar has a flat radius with large
frets and three different pickups: a ’50s reissue
in the neck, a ’60s in the middle, and
a Texas Special in the bridge. I use mostly
the neck, and sometimes the middle or the bridge and middle.
Are you using all Fulltone pedals?
Yes, I use the DejáVibe, the Clyde Standard
Wah, and something Mike Fuller built
for me called a Wahfull, which is like a cocked
wah that you preset with a knob. Sometimes
I use his Soul-Bender fuzz. On this record, if
a tone is more overdriven it is my signature
overdrive, and if it is less overdriven it is
either straight into the amp or the original
The record has the same kind of mood
and mystery found in your own music. Is the
more relaxed type of blues what attracted
you to the form in the first place, rather than
the up-tempo boogie and swing modes?
That’s right, particularly when you listen
to early blues. It has an atmosphere, a depth
that draws you in. And that is not just blues,
you find it on some rhythm and blues, or even
some Duke Ellington pieces. That mood is
really important to me.
In a world of guitarists who shred, you
excel at mid and slow tempos, which are
in some ways harder to keep in the pocket.
How do you stay relaxed and avoid pushing
When I am into it, I am in a place where
there is nothing else. Also, if you write the
thing yourself it is easier to play it in a particular
pocket. I am an intense player, but I
like to think that my solo work is very compositional
and melodic, while still retaining
How would you say your sound has
changed now from the Bridge of Sighs days?
I think my playing is more fluid. I actually
work harder on practicing than I did
back then. I try to pick up the guitar every
day. And as I am working out new material,
I’ll work on specific solo ideas that are right
for that particular tune.
Do you work out complete solos before
I start out playing freeform, but I soon get
a sense of a grouping of notes that works for
the song. I will record until I play something
I don’t like, and then punch in from there
until I have a good take. If I am not sure, I
might start from scratch and do another take.
You created the artwork for the covers
of your recent CDs. In what way does your
visual art relate to your music?
I started doing the covers about 15 years
ago. I am not really an artist—and I don’t
always fully achieve my ideas—but I think
the idea itself is more important than the
ability to achieve it. I just hope the artwork
has the same feeling as my music, because
it is something I love.