10 Things You Gotta Do To Play Like Robin Trower

January 23, 2008

Robin Trower’s explosive playing first caught the ear of the international public when the Catford-born Londoner joined seminal prog-rock ensemble Procol Harum in 1967, just after the band recorded the rock radio perennial “A Whiter Shade of Pale” with their former guitarist, Ray Royer. Somewhere, somehow, in the midst of the band’s dense blend of classically-influenced mystical moods, unexpected modulations, and tightly arranged counterpoint lines, Trower found room to nurture his expanding love of blues, and for five albums—Procol Harum, Shine on Brightly, A Salty Dog, Home, and Broken Barricades (all essential listening)—Trower’s giant rhythm guitar sound and blistering solos became a huge part of Procol Harum’s
oeuvre. And let’s give credit where it’s due: Trower’s start-and-stop counterpoint lines, which date back to the band’s first album, can arguably be linked to similar approaches utilized by modern rock groups, from Toto on up through Maroon 5.

By the time Trower quit the band to spread his own wings in 1971, he had become a master of re-contextualizing the Hendrix vocabulary, a life mission that has garnered him as much praise as criticism. Undaunted, Trower remained true to his vision, shrugged off any critical flak as ignorance, assembled a few amazing power trios (including B.L.T. with Jack Bruce), and went on to rock the world with a slew of killer albums over the next 25 years. Twice Removed from Yesterday (1973), Bridge of Sighs (1974), For Earth Below (1975), Robin Trower Live! (1976), Caravan to Midnight (1978), In the Line of Fire (1990), 20th-Century Blues (1994), Living Out of Time: Live (2004), and at least a dozen other titles all belong on anyone’s list of must-have Trower albums. Throughout four decades of recording and touring, Trower’s blistering, emotive guitar playing has never stopped speaking to blues-rockers of all generations, and the long-term forecast calls for more of the same. In fact, as you read this, Trower should be hitting the road for a major 2008 world tour. And if you want some Trower power in your playing, you’ve first gotta ...

1 Hit the Road Early

After picking up a guitar three years earlier (“I was very keen on people like Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Gene Vincent”), Trower began his professional career in 1962 with the Paramounts, a Southend-based outfit that provided the teenager with a way to have fun, hone his chops (though Trower admits he’s never been a “practicer”), and taste a bit of stardom in the process. “We were an R&B band. All our material was like James Brown, Bobby Bland, and Ray Charles,” Trower told GP in 1980. “We got quite a name for ourselves at the time, especially with the Rolling Stones. We toured with them and with the Beatles in the mid ’60s. It was an experience.”

Nice work if you can get it.

2 ’Shed the Blues 

“The record company tried to make the Paramounts into a pop group,” said Trower, who later explained, “I left them because I was getting more and more interested in blues and they weren’t doing blues. I just sat at home and listened to people like B.B. King, Otis Rush, Hubert Sumlin, Albert King—all the blues players, really—for about six months. I think the one album that was most influential was B.B. King’s Live at the Regal. 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.”

The sabbatical worked. By the time Trower made his next career move, he was armed and ready.

3 Get a Harem 

Though he eventually became fused at the hip to a Fender Stratocaster, Trower has been through his share of both oddball axes and classic vintage instruments. His pre-Procol list includes a Burns-Weill solidbody, Gretsch Country Gentleman and Chet Atkins models, and, as Trower recalls, “a Strat that got stolen. I played through a Selmer Little Giant valve amp that had one tiny speaker in it, and I ran a jack lead off the speaker points into a small Fender. When it came to playing bigger places, I tried [doing the same thing with] a Marshall, and it didn’t work. I had to break down and start all over again to get the sound I liked.”

Trower’s Procol guitar, ahem, harem was stocked with the aforementioned Chet Atkins, a ’68 Gibson SG and a ’60s Les Paul Special “run through an old, brown Gibson amp. On Broken Barricades, I played a ’62 Strat. It wasn’t until I came into contact with that Strat that I settled down with one instrument.” Trower also settled on Marshall 100-watt heads and 4x12 or 4x10 cabinets and the occasional Fender Twin Reverb, and has stuck with this Marshall/Fender combination throughout his solo career. His search for the perfect Stratocaster, however, seems to be an ongoing quest. In 1974 he bought a new black Strat for Bridge of Sighs, and sometime near 1980 acquired a ’56, plus two ’66s, which he claimed “are the best ones I’ve ever had.” Trower currently tours with Fender Custom Shop models. Trower’s palette of effects also grew with time. Starting with an Arbiter Fuzz Face and an unidentified wah-wah, Trower added a Univox Uni-Vibe in 1973. The rotating speaker simulator would become a key component of his sound. By 1980, his pedalboard included a Dan Armstrong Red Ranger boost box, Tycobrahe wah, Uni-Vibe, Mu-tron II, two Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress flangers, and a custom-built preamp and volume booster. In the new millennium, Trower has pared down his effects to a Jennings or Vox wah, Tube Works Real Tube overdrive, Boss Tremolo, and a Fulltone Deja ’Vibe (to replace his aging Uni-Vibe).

4 Be An Individualist

Like most of us, Trower has developed many idiosyncrasies regarding both his gear and playing style. For instance, he started out in standard pitch, but later began tuning down a half-step (sometimes even a whole-step) to accommodate his increasingly heavy string gauges—which graduated from a .010, .012, .014, .020, .032, .042 set in 1973 to a .012, .015, .017, .026, .036, .048 set by 1990. (Why the shift to fatter wires? “If you’re going to get sound out of the guitar, [strings are] where it all comes from.”) We’ll stick to standard tuning for this lesson’s examples, but feel free to tune down at will.

Always seeking ways to get more out of less, Trower keeps his hand movements at a minimum when playing lead lines. (Check this out on any live Trower video.) He keeps his Strats stock and has a strong preference for the middle pickup, which he called “the mainstay of the whole thing. That’s the one all [my] rock and roll things are done on.” Trower’s casual dismissal of any theoretical knowledge or regimented practice routine certainly belies his accomplishments. “My grasp of music theory is zilch,” he explains, “except for some knowledge of major and minor chords. All the stuff I do is what I make up. I think the fundamental part of my technique is my vibrato.” Trower also avoids delving into other styles, preferring to stick to what he does best. As he put it back in 1990, “What you hear is what you get.”

5 Break Barricades

Trower’s role in Procol Harum was split between accompaniment and solo duties with emphasis on the former, but the inventive guitarist rarely stuck to formulaic barre-chord strums. Instead, Trower frequently defined the harmony of the moment with catchy, powerful, low-register counter-lines, many of which became signature song riffs. In “Conquistador” (Procol Harum), Trower contrasts his part in the song’s B-section (a repeated four-bar G7-Cm-F7-Gm progression using third- and first-position barre chords) with the potent chorus riff shown in Ex. 1a. Although this figure outlines slightly sinister-sounding Gm(Im)-to-Eb7(bVI) chords, you can spot the Motown/R&B influence in its rhythmic construction from across the English channel. Ditto for the droning oblique unison bends in Ex. 1b, which bring to mind the lead-based upper-register ostinato Trower played during the chorus of “Shine on Brightly” (especially when layered over alternating measures of Bb and Ab chords), as well as the Supremes classic “You Keep Me Hanging On.” Ex. 1c depicts the first two bars of Trower’s verse riff from “Simple Sister” (Broken Barricades). The ascending chromatic run in the second half of bar 2 is what you might expect to hear over Bb, the bVII chord, but it’s Trower’s unusual choice to end the chromatic Cm run in bar 1 on F#, the #4/b5, that makes this riff so special. Complete the four-bar Im-bVII-bVI-V progression by playing the figure in bar 2 one whole-step lower over Ab (the bVI chord), then vamp similarly on a single low G.

6 Climb Aboard the  Whisky Train 

Over the course of his five-album run with Procol Harum, Trower increasingly longed to play and write more blues-guitar-driven music. Not that he didn’t get a chance to do some serious blues wailing in the band, though. Trower’s self-penned main riff from Home’s opening cut, “Whisky Train,” comes off like a field holler gone berserk and reveals an understanding of the genre far beyond the 12-bar norm. Ex. 2 dissects this killer two-bar I-chord lick, which begins in the fifth-position A blues box, then dips to open position to create a classic call-and-response form. Pay close attention to the staccato markings, gradually-milked quarter-step bends, wicked vibrato, position-shifting slides, and subtle rhythmic syncopations in each measure—they’re all important factors in copping Trower’s deep blues.

7 Harness the  Power of Three

When Trower went solo and formed the three-piece Robin Trower Band in 1973, he obviously had a lot of space to fill. One way Trower dealt with this situation was to construct busy rhythm figures that combined bass notes with mid- and upper-register harmonic intervals, a technique he undoubtedly picked up from Jimi Hendrix, as well as his early R&B influences. Favoring b5 tritones and major sixths, Trower created rhythmic whirlwinds like Ex. 3a’s blend of thumb-fretted B bass notes and hammered D#-over-A tritones using just two simple elements. Likewise, the twice-repeated rhythmic motif in Ex. 3b employs only a G# bass note and six sixteenth-note sixths. (Say that ten times!) Tip: Add the parenthetical F#s to fatten the sixth intervals into full-fledged G#7 chords.

Example 3c takes this idea a step further. Here, we begin with the same lick played a half-step higher as an A chord, then slide the sixths up a whole-step mid-measure to cover the change to B. Ex. 3d, played over a tonic C#m7, loses the bass notes in favor of a pair of descending sixths, not unlike Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor.”(Note how the use of E#, the major 3, over C#m7 creates a C#7#9 sound.) Move the last three notes back two sixteenths for an appropriate response phrase. Finally, Ex. 3e features chromatically ascending sixths that morph the harmonic climate from C to C7. Try ’em in reverse and/or as sixteenth-note triplets.

8 Break It Down 

Consciously avoiding the standard 12-bar blues form when writing for his power trio, Trower hit his stride with a gem called “Day of the Eagle.” Though it wasn’t recorded until 1974’s Bridge of Sighs, the song was one of the earliest pieces in the band’s repertoire and remains a highpoint of Trower’s live set to date. Ex. 4a shows the tune’s “Spanish Castle Magic”-meets-“Crosstown Traffic” intro and primary verse rhythm figure. Play the stuttering open-string C#m7 voicings (add the fifth-string/4th-fret root if you like) and ascending single-note low-
register response three times, then nail the wailing oblique bends and releases on the fourth round. Trower’s tight fingering of Rhy. Fig. 1 in bar 4 is a model of economy—not a move is wasted. From here, the song weaves through a bar of B7 reminiscent of Ex. 3a and a repeat of bar 2, followed by a G#7-A-B movement similar to the rhythm riffs in Examples 3b and 3c, and a four-bar recap of Rhy. Fig. 1. Following a few verses and a short solo, the tune undergoes a dramatic transformation via another distinct Trower trademark—a breakdown to a slower tempo and completely different groove. Ex. 4b illustrates the transition and the new riff, which is a slowed-down variation of the single-note line in bar 2 of Ex. 4a. Examples 4c and 4d portray the kind of contrasting wah-inflected solo improvisations Trower plays over Rhy. Fig. 1 during the first half of the song, while Ex. 4e presents five manic depressive oblique unison bends that make ideal substitutes for that accented C#m7 on the and of beat four in Ex. 4b.

9 Invoke Venetian  Archways

Trower once called the title track from his second album, Bridge of Sighs, “the most soulful, most creative, powerful piece of guitar playing I’ve ever come up with.” Crank up your Uni-Vibe, Deja-’Vibe, or whatever-vibe, and let’s explore the tip of this iceberg.

The arpeggiated open-position Em7 voicing in Ex. 5a is redolent of Trower’s spartan opening rhythm figure, which sets a Hendrix-meets-Pink Floyd mood for the entire song, while Examples 5b through 5f reflect the kind of bluesy fills Trower drops into the second half of the same measure. Try replacing the open E that follows each lick with an open E5 voicing modeled after Ex. 5a.

10 Get Rolling Stoned

If there’s one Trower tune you’ve gotta know, it’s “Too Rolling Stoned” (Bridge of Sighs and Living Out of Time: Live), a song that packs many Trower trademarks—a percolating single-note wah riff, call-and-response phrasing, quirky fingering, and another of Trower’s signature metric breakdowns—into a single hard-rockin’ package. Ex. 6a establishes both the introductory bass/guitar figure (Gtr. 1) and wah overdub (Gtr.2, to which Trower defers in concert), and takes place after both parts have kicked in full force. Attach a partially-barred Cm7 (played on the second, third, and fourth strings at the 8th fret) to beats one and two during both measures of the rhythm motif in Ex. 6b, raise the same shape a whole-step to form an F triad at the 10th fret on beat four of bar 1, and you’ve assembled the song’s verse rhythm figure. Furthermore, you can layer pairs of Eb and Bb power chords plus a single F (substitute C the second time) over the rhythm in Ex. 6c to approximate the next section. Follow these combined figures with a re-intro à la Ex. 6a and you’ve got the two-bar form for the first half of the song. The wah-articulated rhythm in Ex. 6d and scorching blues-box maneuvers in Examples 6e and 6f are representative of the fiery blues improvisations Trower tosses off during his first solo (played over the rhythm figure in Ex. 6b). Six bars into the fourth verse, Trower tremoloes a free-time Cm7, then turns on the Uni-Vibe and breaks the tempo down to a sultry 12/8 meter to establish the steamy C7-based figure in Ex. 6g. He injects trilled tritones between C bass notes (Remember Ex. 3a?) in bar 1, and embellishes bar 2 with an implied F (IV) triad and pair of sweet, sliding sixths. (In concert, Trower has also been known to play this figure four times and then modulate up one half-step to C#7, all at a faster, medium-shuffle tempo.) After no set number of repeats, Trower’s solo goes from slow simmer to full boil with soulful legato lines, over-bends, and sliding-sixth runs similar to those depicted in Examples 6h through 6j.

Rock on, mates!

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