By Steve Rosen
Robin Trower's stretch in Procol Harum was like putting a polar bear in the Sahara Desert. While Procol was dabbling in classical forms with droning organs and mystical lyrics, Robin was diving into the mystique of Jimi Hendrix and writing moving ballads like "Song For A Dreamer." Although the band was primarily centered around Gary Brooker's voice and piano, the guitar was oftentimes the main point of appeal, and indeed on Broken Barricades, Robin's Stratocaster dominated all eight tracks. It was a growing confidence in his own writing and playing that prompted Trower to break away from the band at the height of its popularity.
Following his departure from Harum, he formed Jude, which included ex-Jethro Tull drummer Clive Bunker, but after a short-lived existence the group disbanded. Robin wasted no time in putting together his long-hoped-for trio, which found Jimmy Dewar (former member of Jude) on bass and vocals and session man Reg Isadore on drums. The first album from this trio (which goes by the name of Robin Trower) titled Twice Removed From Yesterday embraces the fluid Hendrixian style in arms of musical freedom that was never before realized.
Robin readily admits the influence Hendrix had on him and feels the left-handed player had as much impact on the guitar as Henry Ford did on the car. But in no way does the ex-Harum guitarist feel he is copying the late Fender Master. Rather, he defines his work as merely carrying on in Hendrix's path and trying to re-create the aura that surrounded him and his music.
It wasn't long after his stint with The Paramounts that Robin was phoned by Gary Brooker to play guitar in a new band being put together called Procol Harum. Trower had since abandoned his Burns-Wheel, having picked up a Gretsch Chet Atkins solid body six-string which he quite liked. Switching to Gibson, Robin alternated between his two Les Pauls and a Gibson SG Special for Procol Harum's first four albums. The Pauls were 1956 deluxe models in Sunburst with white humbucking pickups, and although he used Gibson for several years, his last album with Harum showcased Robin on a Fender. "The only trouble with Gibsons was the neck was too fat behind [toward the higher reaches of the fretboard], and my fingers are a bit short. This is why I like Stratocasters so much because [the wide neck] is hardly there at all."
Broken Barricades was his stepping-out period. A totally guitar controlled album, it also included three Trower compositions - "Memorial Drive," "Poor Mohammed," and "Song For A Dreamer" (his ode to Hendrix). It was an inner mounting flame of confidence burning inside the guitarist, which caused him to reach out on his final record with the group. "It was just a moment in time when I was ready to break out, and that was it. I built up a lot of confidence on the road [in the States], and I think that built up my confidence gradually. Come the time of Broken Barricades I had written some songs, and really I just made that whole album. I was on top of it with things like "Power Failure," but the thing that really did it was "Song For A Dreamer." I couldn't believe I did that."
Oddly enough, Robin's switch from Gibsons to the Stratocaster wasn't prompted by Hendrix's use of that guitar. During a tour with Jethro Tull, Robin arrived early for a sound check and found Martin Barre's Stratocaster (which Barre used for slide playing) propped up against an amplifier. Trower picked up the guitar, plugged it in, and with a shout that resounded around the auditorium yelled, "This is it!"
"I then switched to Strat," he recalls. "Up to then, I had been playing Les Pauls. I always felt there was something missing on Les Pauls. They had a good fat sound, but they never had that 'musical' sound. When I played a Strat I realized it had that strident chord."
Presently, he owns two Stratocasters, the black one that he deems unplayable, and a recently purchased white one, which he feels, is a real gem. Never altering his guitars, he has only two stipulations when it comes to buying one: It must be new, and it must have a maple neck. The Strat used on Broken Barricades had a rosewood neck, and it was only after changing to maple-necked guitars that he noticed the difference in sound. Maple necks, he explains, give a much "cleaner" sound than the rosewood models, although the former are much more difficult to play in that the fretting hand tends to slip over the surface because of its smooth texture. He feels, though, that once you can master the difference, the maple wood gives a far better performance, playing- and sound-wise.
Robin strings his guitar on the light side, which is how he manages to achieve his sustain and ringing sound. He uses a combination of Ernie Ball strings: .010, .012, .014, .020, .032, .042. His only real difficulty is in tuning the D string (because it's so light), but the overall sound he achieves with this combination far outweighs this minor problem. Robin doesn't find broken strings to be a dilemma since he changes his after every show to insure clear resonance during his next performance.
Pick choice is also important for Robin because he has found that a plectrum which is too light doesn't create any substantial sound at all, and one that is too heavy produces a wooden sound. His preference is an Ernie Ball medium, which allows just the right amount of string sound to come through.
Trower has established that Marshall is far and away the best amplifier for his needs. At the present time he uses two Marshall 100-watt tops with two four-by-twelve 120-watt cabinets for smaller halls and four 120-watt cabinets (with the same brain setup) for the larger auditoriums. The amps are boosted to produce more than the designated 100-watt output, which causes the overload sound so reminiscent of Hendrix's playing. This high-gain system was built in at the Marshall factory in England where they altered the pre-amp setup to increase the output.
Guitar attachments consist merely of a Uni-vibe and a volume booster he had specially made for him. The Uni-vibe is a small box that creates a phasing effect similar to the Leslie and can be heard on his "Song For A Dreamer." The booster gives Trower the extra punch needed when he stops chording and begins a solo, and it also delivers the overtones and highs that make a break stand out.
The amplifiers are set up in a simple channel series with the use of a split lead cord. Amplifier volume is usually placed at two-thirds to three-fourths full up. When the amps are at full capacity, Trower says the sound tends to break up. He sets the volume loud enough to achieve a nice flowing sound for chords but not so loud that it will be unmanageable when he switches on the booster for a solo.
In the studio, Robin uses the same amplification setup that he utilizes on stage, but with amps and guitar turned down to lower volumes. He finds that distortion does not sound as good recorded as it does live, so he tries to set the amplifiers as low as possible while still maintaining a sustain effect. One of his favorite techniques for recording is a double-picking style where he rests the butt of his thumb against the string and strikes it simultaneously with the pick. This causes an overtone type of ringing where you can hear the original note struck at the same time as you hear a higher range of that note singing through the amplifiers.
The key a song is recorded in is also important for albums, because Trower believes that certain keys give distinct feelings to a song. For example, "Daydreams" (on Twice Removed From Yesterday) is written in E Major, which gives Robin the use of certain double-string figures (the twin sliding notes heard at the end of the opening instrumental) as well as the low open-E string for bass.
Like Hendrix, Robin also uses octaves considerably in his playing. The octave creates more tension than does a single note, but at the same time acts much freer than an entire chord would in that same situation. He bends single notes by pushing the string toward the top of his fret board. Trower's runs are derived mainly from the blues scale, although he occasionally dips into a major scale (as in "Daydream") to produce a certain feeling.
Apart from being a creative and energetic guitarist, Robin Trower is possessed of a positive drive toward his music, something that constantly reminds him to reach as high and as far as he can. His natural, quicksilver playing comes from the heart, and, while he admits it is a contradiction, his goal is to produce the most creative electric guitar music has ever heard. The contradiction lies in the fact that monstrous amplifiers and boosters are required to produce this sound, but they are really only tools that help him build such a sound. The unique tonal quality Trower draws from his Stratocaster is considered by many to be one of the most penetrating new guitar sounds since Hendrix. And while he may not yet have reached the Hendrix summit, "I think I've progressed," he says. "I mean, I've progressed as far as sound and getting much more out of the instrument during the last year. I'm beginning to understand it. I'm not really conscious about anything I do. I like our things to be musical. I like them to have music in them. I don't like just bludgeoning riffs. The electric guitar is the most expressive instrument, the nearest thing to the human voice, the human cry – it’s limitless, really. I just hope our music will progress and get better. Make better music – that's what I hope for. Make the best music anyone's ever made – that's all I want to do. Well, it's worth doing, isn't it?"