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Robin Trower's Moody Blues

January 30, 2014
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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 Paramounts?

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.

Absolutely! [laughs]

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?

Yes.

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 FullDrive.

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 the tempo?

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 the rawness.

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 recording them?

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.

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