“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 were doing.
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 Deja’Vibe pedals.
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 or Uni-Vibe?
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 that time.
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 ears up?
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, do you?
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 come from?
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.