Somebody forgot to tell Robin Trower that, at the age of 72, he’s supposed to be slowing down. In 2016, the veteran guitar master issued Where You Are Going To, packed with enough fiery blues-rock to satisfy his legion of fans for years, and he recently followed it up with Time and Emotion [V-12], a deeper, more expansive and extravagant work on which he raises the bar for brawny, soul-rattling soloing to almost vertiginous heights.
“I don’t see any reason to stop,” he says, adding, somewhat casually, that he’s working on yet another new record. “The fact is that I write a lot, and I enjoy playing, so I keep making records. Now, that said, I’m always trying to improve, and I imagine that will continue. Certainly, in this last couple of years, I feel like I’ve hit some sort of sweet spot. I can’t imagine why I’d just be content, and go, ‘Okay, that’s as good as I can get,’ because the goal should always be to get better.”
Trower cites the amps he’s using as a key element of his creative renaissance. Moving from 50-watt Vintage Modern and 1987X Marshall heads to the company’s 30-watt 1962 Bluesbreaker reissue combo amps has had a dramatic impact on his playing.
“It’s something I noticed right away with the Bluesbreakers,” he notes. “There’s a more active response coming through the speakers, and I can hear the attack I’m putting into my playing—whether it’s a bend or some vibrato. That sort of leads me on, and it helps the flow of ideas. When your amp gives you a real musical sound, it’s incredibly inspiring.”
The songs on Time and Emotion are a bit more adventurous structurally than on Where You Are Going To.
That’s the big difference between the two records. I didn’t want to get more complicated production-wise, but I wanted the new songs to be more interesting for people who aren’t that interested in the guitar, per se. Some people just want songs. They don’t care so much about all the playing.
For a while now, you’ve been recording tracks by playing guitar to a click track and adding instruments from there. What do you like about recording that way?
I guess things are easier to control. I start off with a drum-machine part that feels right, and then I lay down a guitar part. After that, I do a guide vocal, and then I try a bass part, or I might do the guitar again. After that, I work more on the guitar, the lead, and I might upgrade the vocal a bit more. That all happens before Chris Taggart puts down the real drums. While I’m doing this, I am aware of how the songs will sound live. Even when I’m writing, I do like to have half an eye on how everything will work in a three-piece band.
Your co-producer, Livingstone Brown, plays bass on some cuts, but most of the bass tracks are your own.
I got Livingstone on a couple of things, because he’s a better player than me. I was quite happy with pretty much everything I did, but there were just a few things that needed a more accomplished feel. I like playing the bass. When I write, I try to come up with a bass part that fits hand in glove with the guitar. That kind of puts a little jet fuel in my performances.
By making records in a piecemeal fashion, are you more inclined to change your guitar parts around as the arrangements evolve?
Oh, yeah. I quite often change guitar parts. As you’re building the piece, certain things become apparent where it needs to be more this or more that, or less. But, mostly, the original guitar part will go all the way to the end, because the song is written around that guitar part.
Your phrasing on the extended solos for “Returned In Kind” and “If You Believe In Me” sounds so deliberate, but I have a hunch that it isn’t.
Those long solos could be made up of different takes. What I do is, I play it all the way through, and then maybe there will be licks here and there that I think can be better. Those are long solos, so I probably did go back and replace a phrase or two. You try to have a sense of what you’re doing as you’re doing it, but you don’t want it to get in the way of the moment.
You’ve often cited B.B. King as the player who got you into bending when you play a vibrato. Can you speak a little about that?
Photo Credit: Ken Settle
Well, you see, I did have a natural vibrato early on—when I was about 18 or so. Then, I heard B.B. King, who did that bend in the vibrato. It was just so emotionally potent. He’s one of the daddies of it all. When I heard him, I really felt it, and I knew I could do something with that. B.B., Albert King, and Jimi Hendrix were my mentors in terms of lead work. Their vibrato was so emotive. That was part of their magic.
At this point in your career, do you ever practice to work on something specific, like a new part or a technique?
My practice is wailing. I just pick up the guitar and go for at least 20 minutes a day. I even do that on days off while on the road. I don’t like to miss a day of playing. I don’t call it “practice,” though. I just play and try to come up with things I haven’t done before, like little bends or groups of notes.
Let’s talk about your gear. You mentioned the amps you’re currently using, but what about effects?
I’m using all Fulltone stuff from Mike Fuller in California. At the moment, I’m using the original Full-Drive from 1992, a Deja ’Vibe, and his WahFull. I quite like that you can set the wah to one fixed sound. He makes great stuff.
Have you ever thought about checking out digital amp modeling?
Oh, no. I don’t like the sound of those things. I’ve tried them, but they’re not for me.
I assume you’re still using your signature Fender Strats?
Very much so. I have two that are really my favorites, but I have about six all together. I’ve had these for eight or nine years now, and I don’t do any updates to them. They’re exactly the same as when Fender first came out with them.
Do you ever get the itch to pick up something other than a Strat?
No, not really. I did go through periods during the ’70s and ’80s, when I messed about with other things, but I always came back to the Strats. If the guitars weren’t turning me on, I’d look around, but that isn’t the case. There’s the playability aspect of a Strat, but I mainly love the guitar because it has such a musical sound. Especially when you’re playing leads, the Strat has a very human-voice quality to it. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. I still get inspired and turned on by that sound.