“I LOVE THE GUITAR AS MUCH NOW AS WHEN I BEGAN
playing,” exclaims the legendary Robin Trower. “It’s still a
great thrill to play. If I can get a bit of electricity from an idea
or a solo, that’s what it’s about for me. That spark and excitement
is what started me off down the road I’m on, and it’s
why I’m still doing this now.” Not only is Trower still doing
it, he’s owning it at a time when you can count on one hand
how many of his peers still play with the fire and fury they
exhibited in the ’60s and ’70s. From his
time in Procol Harum to his seminal solo
albums such as Twice Removed From Yesterday
and Bridge of Sighs, Trower has made bluesrock
guitar a high art with his wonderful
phrasing and jaw-dropping tone.
“I think I’m a bit more musical as a guitarist
now,” says Trower, whose new album, The
Playful Heart [V12], continues his decadeslong
streak of tonal excellence. “I’m better
technically, but it’s not like I’m faster—I’m
just more fluid. Because when it’s all said
and done, I’m still trying to do the same
thing I always have: I’m trying to hit that
note that stings you in your heart.”
Your playing has always packed an emotional
punch. How did you foster that?
I try to come from an emotional place,
and to get an emotional response both from
the audience and myself. I would listen to
B.B. King and T-Bone Walker as they were
making the guitar an extension of the
human voice—and that’s what I would try
to capture. I was always more fascinated by
the emotion behind what they were doing
than the technical things behind what they
Did you play to records growing up?
No. Very early on I was lucky enough to
realize that you should never learn another
guitarist’s solos or parts. I feel that attitude
made me look for my thing. Then again,
maybe I just couldn’t do it [laughs]. My influences
are obvious: The blues, R&B, Scotty
Moore was and still is one of my favorites,
and of course Hendrix. But I never sat down
and tried to learn their stuff. You’ve got to
find your own thing. That’s what always
sounds the most real.
You’ve never been a guitarist who layers a
bunch of parts. In fact, you often just have one
guitar throughout a whole tune.
What I’m looking for in a song is a guitar
part strong enough to carry the whole thing.
Sometimes you have to have a rhythm guitar
under a solo, but it’s great when you don’t
need one, and your rhythm guitar can just go
right into a solo. It affords so much space, but
it’s hard to pull off when recording.
How did you record The Playful Heart?
We did it using Pro Tools, and I feel I’ve
really keyed in to the potential of digital recording.
I like the speed you can work at, and it’s
much easier to knit two solos together, or to
go back and continue playing after stopping.
There’s also more opportunity to perfect
stuff. Tape still sounds the best, but digital
is a more practical medium.
Lately, I’ve been keen on using ribbon
microphones on my cabinets, about a footto-
18" away from the speaker. Ribbons get
a more natural sound, although you lose a
bit of top-end response. I really like that big
room sound. The guitars on Bridge of Sighs
were tracked with three Neumann U87s. The
engineer, Geoff Emerick, placed them close,
far away, and in the middle to get that tone.
What was your setup for the new album?
Pretty much the same as my live setup:
My 100-watt Vintage Modern Marshall
amps, my Signature Model Fender Stratocaster,
and my Fulltone RTO overdrive and
What are you using for cabinets?
I had Marshall build me two 2x12 openback
cabs loaded with Celestion Vintage 30s,
and I’m really digging them. I used one to
track The Playful Heart. Live, I use a 100-watt
head with one 4x12 cab, and another 100-
watt head pushing the two open-back 2x12
cabs. The closed 4x12 gives me warmth, and
the open-back cabs give me ambience—like
you’re swimming in the sound a bit more
and its not so direct sounding.
Have you ever considered using your old Marshalls
Never, I’m not really into vintage stuff. I
find the new equipment to be much smoother
sounding. My Fulltone Deja’Vibe sounds as
good as an old Uni-Vibe, and it’s more reliable
and quieter. I can’t be messing around
with stuff that breaks down. I’ve been using
Marshall Vintage Moderns since they came
out, and I truly feel that they are the bestsounding
amps Marshall has made since the
early days. Overdrivers with Marshalls—it’s
the same formula I’ve always used, but the
gear has gotten better.
You’ve been identified with the Fender Stratocaster
for nearly your entire career. What is it about
the Strat that has made it your go-to guitar?
For me, the Stratocaster has more of a
vocal-like quality when playing single notes
than any other guitar. It’s got an actual voice.
I’ve had a few signature Strats for about six
years and I haven’t played anything else in
What are the differences between your Strat
and a stock model?
I use three different pickups: a Fender
’50s reissue in the neck, a ’60s reissue in
the middle, and a Texas Special in the bridge.
I also like modern appointments such as
a flatter fretboard radius and jumbo frets
because it’s much easier to bend notes on
them than on Strats from the ’50s and ’60s.
Another really important difference is that
I use locking tuners. I’ve been tuning down
a whole-step to D for about 15 years now.
I used to tune down a half-step to Eb, but
I decided I wanted to use heavier first and
second strings, and the only way I’d be able
to bend and use vibrato with them would
be if I tuned down another half-step. I use
Ernie Ball strings gauged .012, .015, .017,
.026, .036, and .048.
What pickup settings do you prefer? I rarely
hear you use in-between settings.
I prefer either the middle or neck pickup
for most things. The middle pickup by itself
is great. If you think about it, that pickup has
some of the open-sounding characteristics
of the neck position, as well as a bit of the
crunchy midrange of the bridge position. I
rarely use the bridge pickup. The way my
tone is set up, the pedals and the amps are
dialed in to get a bright and punchy sound
on the front and middle positions, so if you
go to the bridge, it’s way too trebly.
You’ve always gotten tons of sustain without
an overly saturated sound.
It’s because I don’t get sustain electronically.
I get it through volume and the cyclical
thing that happens when the speakers react
with the guitar. It’s not an imitation where
the signal is overdriven to death.
Are there any new guitarists who perk your
No, but I don’t really listen to guitar players.
There is certainly no one who makes me
go, “Ohhhh wow.” I still listen to Howlin’
Wolf and Albert King, though. Albert is probably
my favorite. I listen to a lot of ’30s and
’40s pop music—stuff like Ella Fitzgerald and
Dinah Washington. It doesn’t get better or
deeper than a great, soulful singer.
You don’t consider yourself a blues guitarist,
No I don’t. I’m a rock and roll player. My
big hero is James Brown, specifically early
James Brown where blues is crossing over
into rock and roll. That’s very powerful music
and very original.
Your music has always managed to merge the
hard-driving rock thing with a somewhat spacier,
ethereal approach. Where did that mixture
Listen how eerie and otherworldly Howlin’
Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning” or Muddy
Waters’ “Still a Fool” sound. There was something
going on there that is more than just
the notes. It’s powerful, big, and deep. They
took the Son House thing and started crossing
it over to electric guitars and drums, and
they were able to conjure this tremendous
atmosphere. I soaked it up, then Hendrix
came along and I felt he was the next progression
of really soulful, deep guitar playing.
“Machine Gun” is the modern version
of the Howlin’ Wolf thing, isn’t it? Hendrix
took it into a more futuristic place, but it’s
still got that the same primal, deep something
behind it. That’s what I try to get to.