When Bridge of Sighs landed 40 years ago in April 1974, it was like some beautiful alien handed rock fans a masterwork from the cosmos. Robin Trower’s psychedelic Hendrix echoes were delightful enough—Jimi’s influence and sound being much missed even just four years since his passing—but Trower also added his own mix of soul, funk, blues, rock, and the mournful sorcery of the title track. He picked his former Procol Harum band mate Matthew Fisher to produce, and grabbed renowned Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick to work the faders at London’s Air and Olympic studios. Quite a team! He also had a great band in vocalist/bassist James Dewar and drummer Reg Isidore. Sadly, of the power trio, only Trower remains to celebrate the album’s 40th anniversary. Dewar succumbed to a stroke on May 16, 2002, and Isidore died from a heart attack on March 22, 2009.
“I appreciate the music,” says Trower, looking back on Bridge of Sighs with a four-decade view. “Jimmy [Dewar] and I wrote some powerful songs for that album. But I can’t really listen to my guitar playing anymore. It’s not what I’d like it to be. The thing that bothers me most is the very, very fast vibrato that I had back then— not on the standing notes, but the ones I bent up to. It doesn’t sound right. How I do it now feels much more emotional to me. I guess I was too young to know better [laughs].”
Despite conjuring such a potent mix of musical styles, fiery players, production and engineering smarts, and his own formidable guitar talents, Trower watched a lot of journalists paint him as perhaps too obvious a disciple of Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix’s name always seemed to pop up in the lead paragraphs of articles and album reviews. The facile journalism meant little to fans, however. The spell was cast, and Bridge of Sighs stayed on the U.S. album charts for 31 weeks, ultimately reaching #7.
“You know, I did worry about the Hendrix references back then,” admits Trower. “But only because I felt those people weren’t hearing the album’s originality. I had wanted to play blues for the modern era. Power blues. Oh, I know it was really rock and roll, but that’s what I was trying to achieve. Now, to me, Hendrix was the first guy to really play modern power blues, so of course his influence was there on Bridge of Sighs. To be fair, no one else at the time was creating music like Hendrix’s on the guitar, so the press had to pin some kind of label on what I was doing, and I got ‘Jimi.’ But it’s still funny to me—even to this day—that no one ever said anything then about how much James Brown influenced me.”
Although Trower may have a few beefs with his 1974 vibrato, his tone has always been simultaneously ballsy, rich, full of sustain, and very articulate. As a big part of his tonal fingerprint, he has stuck with the Stratocaster as his main guitar, and has been honored by Fender for a few years now with the Robin Trower Signature Stratocaster— a model he currently plays almost exclusively.
“To get the best tone, it was always important to me to get the acoustic sound of the guitar right,” he says. “In the ’70s, I used to go to Manny’s [Music, New York City] and play half a dozen or so acoustically, and then pick a couple of the best-sounding ones. Now, obviously, I’m having them built for me, so it’s much easier [laughs]. But even with these great guitars that are made to exactly the same specs, I’ll find a couple that I don’t get on with. I think I have eight signature Strats, and I really like two or three. The others don’t have the type of sound I’m looking for, and they are a bit down in the pecking order, as it were.
“But that’s the magic of certain guitars over others. My signature models are everything I like in a guitar. For instance, I’ve got the larger ’70s Fender headstock, because I figured with a bit more wood, you’re going to get more resonance. There are locking tuners, as well. And I’ve got the vintage saddles, because you can’t go away from them and still have it sound like a Strat. I’ve got a Custom ’54 pickup on the neck, a Custom ’60s in the middle, and a Texas Special on the bridge. I’m pretty much always on the neck pickup, and I use a bit of a high action so that the strings ring clear and with body all the way up and down the neck. I tune down a whole step to D, so I use fat strings for the top—a .012 and a .015—and then it’s a pretty standard .017, .026, .036, and .048. I always use Ernie Ball strings.”
Trower plugged into a 50-watt Marshall Vintage Modern head and a Marshall 2x12 open-back cabinet loaded with Celestion Vintage 30 speakers to record his most recent release, 2012’s Roots and Branches. Pedals on that session included his signature Fulltone Robin Trower Overdrive and a Fulltone Fat Boost.
Speaking of Roots and Branches, the album mixes his rearrangements of classic blues and rock songs with his own original material (the “roots” and the “branches”), and his playing remains as unique, identifiable, and devoid of obvious musical totems as it did when Bridge of Sighs first hit the airwaves. What is going on here?
“Rule number one for me has always been to avoid clichés at all costs,” explains Trower. “So while I’m avoiding the obvious clichés, I’ll often come up with something else. It’s difficult, because you’re working in a very narrow area. You’ve only got these few notes. But it’s the way you bend up to a note, or bend away from it, and how your vibrato comes in. Then, the task is putting together phrases that are hopefully far away from the clichés.
“I think the thing about guitarists who fall into the trap of clichés is that great blues players like B.B. King created such amazing licks that their stuff works even when somebody else plays it. Think about it. Those lines are so strong. I’ve avoided all that because I’ve never been interested in working out other people’s stuff, and I never really developed the ability to do it. Inevitably, I had to come up with my own licks and things. This may sound pretentious, but I always strive to play what feels good to me, rather than what feels good to somebody else. In fact, I’ll let you in on a little secret: I was never interested in the lick itself. I was more interested in the emotion that made the player play the lick. That’s the more interesting side of it for me. Emotionally— and with blues guitar in particular— what you play has to be a very personal thing.”
As Trower has grown musically since Bridge of Sighs, that “personal thing” has developed into something that recently affected the making of Roots and Branches. Gone was the old-school method of getting into the studio and creating the basic tracks along with a band. For the first time in his career, Trower built up the songs himself using just a click track. Only after he was happy with his final guitar and vocal performances did he bring in bassist Richard Watts and drummer Chris Taggart to complete the tracks. (Keyboardist Luke Smith and harmonica player Paul Jones also overdubbed their parts, as did album producer/ engineer Livingston Brown with a few bass tracks.)
“Roots and Branches was made in a completely different way than any other album I’ve made, because I wanted to be in complete control of every part that went on the record—the drums, the bass lines, and so on,” says Trower. “I had a basic drum pattern of one on the floor, and two and four on a cross stick, which gave me enough to get the feel I wanted without stating too much. I tried to get as much of a live feeling as I could into the rhythm and lead guitars, so when the drummer and bassist came in to do their parts, they had something very powerful to play to—rather than just a strumming guide guitar. I had my guitars as wailing as possible.
“Although this was a new method for me, as the process unfolded, I started thinking, ‘You know, I actually think it’s more difficult playing to live bass and drums in the studio!’ I mean, if you already have an idea how you want the tracks to go—which I obviously did—then there’s a certain amount of compromise when you work with other players. You get something that maybe isn’t as clean as you would like. But this way enabled me to take my time, and get the guitar exactly how I wanted it. The point being is the guitar is the basis for the songs, and I knew precisely what the drums and bass needed to do to complement what I wanted. The basic goal is, whether a song is slow, medium, or fast, it has to have some power to it, and I’ve got to be moved by it.”
Trower says he has always been lucky that his internal sense—or creative radar—is scrupulously honest about whether his work has power or not. I thought I’d put it to the test at evaluating the current landscape of young guitarists. Why hasn’t today’s generation produced a group of world-changing players, like Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck—guitarists that not only thrilled other musicians, but also owned the charts and popmusic culture at the same time? What does he feel guitarists might be missing today?
“Young players tend to go straight from their bedrooms into a record deal, and they don’t really get to explore things for enough years before they’re already making a living at it,” he says. “A lot of them also start out doing what I would call indie pop rock, and there’s not a lot of individuality in the guitar playing. I think that’s the problem. Take Hendrix, for instance. He obviously was a wonderful guitar player in terms of technique, but you can’t overlook that he also was very creative. Now we’re seeing people who can play technically, but I just worry that we’re not seeing so much creativity these days. If you listen to Albert King, his phrases are unique, soulful, and musically beautiful.
“I’ll tell you something that’s borrowed from James Brown. He said, “If you find t`hat little part that stings you in your heart, then that’s what you’ve got to look for.” It’s not, “Oh, I like what he’s done—I’m going to play that.” You’ve got to find the bit that you have got to say.”