Pat Travers: Rockin' Steady on 'Retro Rocket'

One of the great things about rock guitarists who became famous in the 1970s is that many of them continue to make albums and tour, albeit typically on a smaller scale than in their heyday.
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One of the great things about rock guitarists who became famous in the 1970s is that many of them continue to make albums and tour, albeit typically on a smaller scale than in their heyday. I recently had the chance to see Pat Travers and his band at a bar in Northern California, and it was an intense experience. Travers, his guitarist Kirk McKim, bassist Rodney O’Quinn, and drummer Sandy Gennaro absolutely killed it on a set that included old hits like “Heat in the Street” and “Snortin’ Whiskey,” cuts from his most recent studio albums Can Do and Retro Rocket, and classic covers such as “Born Under a Bad Sign” and an amazingly dynamic rendition of “Red House.” When I checked the GP index the next day and found that the last time we did anything on Travers was a cover story in 1980, it seemed like high time to catch up with him again. Not that much has changed since that time, as Travers still rules the riff-rock roost and delivers ass-kicking live performances that prove guys of his vintage (he’s 61) just seem to get better with age.

Travers’ signature sound came together pretty quickly following his stint with rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. Like Jimi Hendrix, Travers went to England and metamorphosed into a powerful solo artist with blazing guitar chops and a creative zeal that would influence a ton of upcoming hard rockers in the 1970s. Reflecting back on his meteoric rise with the albums Makin’ Magic and Putting It Straight (both from 1977), Heat in the Street (1978), and Crash and Burn (1980) Travers said, “I think it’s because I started so young. I was playing in bars and clubs six nights a week from the time I was 15 to the time I left to go to London when I was 21. So I’d had five years of playing regularly, and I think I’d managed to store up a whole bunch of ideas because I’d done so much already. It seemed to me at the time that I was just winging it, but I did know what I liked, and I was pretty experimental too. We tried things just to see if they were going to sound any good, and sometimes we got lucky. I was also lucky enough to start playing music at a time when bands and musicians were looking for new sounds, and everybody’s next album sounded nothing like their last album.”

What’s the key to keep doing what you do at such a high level for all these years?

Well, the thing I learned from guys like Johnny Winter and Billy Gibbons is that it requires quite a bit of energy to do it right. Both of those guys put in a very high energy level to do what they did all the time, and there’s really no other way to perform properly. I know Johnny didn’t have the same kind of energy level that he had in the ’90s or whatever, but the one night I played with him he was tearing it up.

How did that happen?

I was lucky enough to meet Johnny for the first time in Daytona Beach in late 1987. I went to a club he was playing at and he was awesome. He invited me onto his coach and told some war stories, and I was so star-struck—but he was so cool and nice to me. I met him again a couple of years later, and then quite some after that we were doing this big rock legends cruise together and he invited me to get up and play with him. It was a lifelong desire of mine, and I’m so glad it actually happened.

Early on in your career you added a second guitarist, and you’ve kept that format ever since. What are the qualities you look for in someone to back you?

Well the first double guitar thing I did was years ago in Ontario, Canada, and it was a fellow named Derek O’Neil. I looked up to him and his playing, and he seemed to always be on that next level above me. Plus he played a Strat and I didn’t. Then later I tried a couple of other guys for a while, and nothing really worked out until I met Pat Thrall, who was recommended to me by Neal Schon. The common thing about Pat Thrall and Derek O’ Neil was that other than playing music, we just seemed to have a good time together. That was important, because in both of those instances we weren’t competing to get any kind of limelight, except in a healthy way. So I guess what I look for is somebody that knows a little bit more than me and is fun to get along with.

You and Kirk have great interplay onstage from what I’ve seen.

He’s been with me for 10 years. Plus, he’s like the professor of musicology and just seems to know every obscure player. The way he plays guitar on my songs is just amazing. It’s so cool because I’ll record some stuff and then I have Kirk come in, and I’ll just leave the studio because I don’t want to be any kind of an influence at all. I come back, and it’s like he’s done stuff that is so completely different than anything I would ever think of, yet it fits perfectly. So it’s a magical kind of effect. I’m very lucky, and like you observed, we like each other. We’ve spent a lot of time together traveling, and you’ve really got to watch out for each other.

You’re both using effects live, so how do you decide who uses what on any given song?

Usually I’m the only one using any kind of chorus. Kirk will use a Uni-Vibe on some jangly chord things, but he generally stays away from the chorus and just leaves that to me. I have a Line 6 M9, which is a cool pedal system that’s got every known stompbox, plus all kinds of very high quality digital delays. That’s basically all I use. And sometimes I don’t even use that, because usually by the middle of the set we’re slightly out of tune with each other and start to get a natural chorusing effect—especially when we play in unison, which we do quite a bit.

Is there a particular reason you’re both using Marshall JCM2000 amps?

Because they’re the cleanest sounding Marshalls. I have mine set to a super clean, punchy sound, and then I use a Blackstar overdrive pedal to get my distortion and I run that into the M9. The cool thing about running all the effects into a clean amplifier is they sound real nice and bright. Kirk does the same thing—we don’t use any overdrive on the amps at all. A long time ago I used to run my effects through the effects loop and got my distortion from the amp, but that gets pretty elaborate. I just wanted to get as simple as possible, and what we’re doing now is pretty darn close, and most of the time it sounds pretty good. Actually, I would rather use a Blackstar Artisan 100- watt, but when we’re out doing fly dates and stuff you have to get backline gear, and most of the rental companies don’t have Blackstar.

What amps do you use in the studio?

It’s all Blackstar. I have a 100-watt Artisan that’s just like an old Marshall amp. There’s no overdrive or anything like that. I have a 30-watt 2x12 combo that’s basically the same thing, but with a smaller power section, and I also have a 15-watt 1x12. They all sound wonderful. I can get a great sound out of a Marshall too, but the Blackstars have a little more richness, and they’re real punchy when they’re clean.

What are your main guitars now?

I use PRS most of the time and so does Kirk. But lately we’ve been exploring Les Pauls. For Retro Rocket, I borrowed a Gibson ’57 VOS goldtop and just fell in love with that guitar. It just did everything and more that I wanted it to do. My very first electric when I was 14 years old was a 1968 goldtop with P-90s on it, so my history with Les Pauls goes way back—actually even further back than that, as my uncle had a ’54 goldtop that I saw for the first time in 1959. I love my PRSs and they’re wonderful guitars, but there’s just something about that big, fat Les Paul thing. They’re kind of heavy, and you’ve got to grunt and groan to get the good stuff out of ’em, but when you do it sounds so good.

You seem to go for a pretty bright lead tone. In that regard, do you have a preference for either PRS or Gibson PAF-style humbuckers?

Well, Paul Smith came out with these pickups a few years ago called the 57-08, which are supposed to be identical to brand new 1957 Gibson humbucking pickups because he bought the original winding machine and some of the original wire and magnets. I put them on my guitar and they sound wonderful. Then he made some 59-09s, which are supposed to be from a ’59 Les Paul, and now we’ve got the 58-08s. The thing is, they’re like brand new pickups, and none of us ever got to hear those pickups when they were new. That’s why they’re so chunky and loud and bright. In 20 years or so those magnets will diminish a little bit, and they’ll be warmer sounding because they’ve gone through their natural aging process. But I don’t mind having bright, vibrant, and ballsy sounding pickups, especially on the Les Paul. Whoever is making those pickups on those Gibson VOS guitars is also doing a very good job. You can move the volume control up and down and there’s a lot of variation in tone. Even if you go halfway down for a cleaner sound, you still get enough volume, and then it gets junkier as you turn up.

On the album Can Do, you get an interesting violin-like tone on the song “Wanted.” How did you do that?

That’s just my guitar, and it’s an effect I kind of stole from Pat Thrall. Basically you strike the string and use your finger to roll up the volume—so you don’t hear the initial attack of the pick, you just hear the swell. You need to have your volume control in the right spot to do it, which means a Les Paul isn’t going to work so well. I used to have a guitar that I’d had a master volume put in in exactly the right spot, and I had a piece of surgical tape around the speed knob. I could get some pretty cool things going with that, and yeah, it would sound like a violin.

There are a bunch of great tunes on that record. What was inspiring your songwriting at the time?

Can Do was definitely a mission for me, because just prior to getting the record deal with Frontiers [an Italian classic-rock label], I had spontaneously started to write what I thought were some pretty good songs. It wasn’t like I had a record deal in mind, and I was feeling pretty proud of myself. So then Frontiers expressed an interest and we struck a deal, and I was determined that every song I wrote could be the first song on the disc. So I chugged along for about eight months because I had to go out and tour as well. I didn’t spend more than three days in the studio at a time, then I would leave for a week and come back. I didn’t mind working that way, but I got most of the record done and then the inspiration just started to shut off. I was going, “Oh no, not now—please!” So the ending part of that album was really torture for me because I was working on songs right up to the very end and they were like the last things I thought about before I went to sleep and the first things I thought about if I woke up to have a pee in the middle of the night. It was driving me crazy, but I got it done and felt very good about it. I mean if it had been 30-plus years ago, Can Do would have been a multi-platinum album, but unfortunately the record business isn’t what it used to be.