In the music world, no musicians are more prevalent than guitarists. Through the evolution of popular music, we have seen a plethora of noted ‘legends’ in the guitar community. The entrant rules for the ‘legends’ guitar club is different for everybody, but personally, the rule is simple: style. Instantly recognizable feel and tone. As young guitarists, we get lost in attempting to sound like so many of our heroes, as opposed to sounding like ourselves.
Robin Trower is one of the prime examples of a legend- harnessing both incredible feel and a nearly instantaneously recognizable tone. Hell, when I bought a Univibe-style effect, every single YouTube demo started with ‘Bridge of Sighs’, a piece so pinnacle to the popularity of the pedal (say that five times fast) that our judgement of a good replica is if it achieves THAT sound. The Trower Sound.
In anticipation of his latest offering- Coming Closer to the Day releasing on March 22nd– I had the honor to chat with Robin Trower about his songwriting process, inspirations, and guitar gear- you know I had to…
G: Thank you so much for taking the time out to talk with us here at AZ Culture!
RT: My pleasure!
G: Your new album Coming Closer to the Day is set to release on March 22nd, and from the tracks I’ve had the pleasure of checking out, this album is really a great exposé of your style. I was interested to see how you approach the songwriting process- some people start with lyrics, others with instrumentals- How did you start the process of writing this album?
RT: I usually start writing a song with the guitar- a guitar chord sequence or a guitar riff or just something on the guitar. I build it up from there with the melody- the top line melody- and then the lyrics.
G: Has this process evolved over time or has this been a technique you’ve employed since the beginning?
RT: I think, more or less, I’ve always worked like that. It’s always been about the guitar part. The guitar part has to be something that I’m really buzzed about playing and enjoy playing. So that’s sort of the initial thing that gets the ball rolling, if you will.
G: One of the tracks that really jumped out at me, and I’ve heard is one of your favorites, was Diving Bell. How did that track come about?
RT: That’s one of those cases of starting with a guitar track, that’s what that song is really based around. And I can’t quite remember how I came up with the lyrics, but it’s just one of those things, you know- Going Down Like a Diving Bell– that’s what started it off and everything seemed to fall into place after that.
G: I really like the trudging groove of that track, and it makes for a great opener for the album. Did you anticipate opening the album with that track as you were recording it?
RT: No actually. I didn’t decide to put it as the first track until I finished all of the tracks and put the running order together.
G: Every musician has their preferred way to record an album as well. What are your ideal conditions for creativity and productivity as far as the recording process?
RT: Well I’m very comfortable in the studio I use at the moment and most of the time it’s just myself and Sam (Winfield) who also owns the studio (Studio91). Just the two of us working together. At some point, I bring in Chris Taggart (drummer), but most of the time I enjoy working on my own with the engineer.
G: Do you usually write the material on your own or do you like collaborating during the process?
RT: I prefer to write on my own.
G: I noticed throughout a couple of other interviews, you have a passion for R&B music and in fact, your first group, The Paramounts, was in the R&B/ soul realm. How do you think that genre of music influenced you?
RT: When something like James Brown “Live at the Apollo” came out, it was life changing basically. And then people like BB King and Albert King during that same time influenced my guitar playing more directly. And then Jimi Hendrix came along and that was a big influence on me as well. But my background is definitely blues- rhythm and blues.
G: What was one of the first Rhythm and Blues records you heard that gave you that “a-ha” moment?
RT: I think it was the track “Think” by James Brown that really blew me away that you would call R&B.
G: Your playing is very iconic- it’s come to the point where if people hear one of your songs they maybe haven’t heard before, they can tell it’s you. One of your mainstays through your solo career has been the Fender Stratocaster. As a fellow Stratocaster guy, what drew you to that guitar?
RT: The main quality it had, I mean, first off, it’s a very musical instrument anyway, because it has non-humbucking pickups, single coils, it’s quite an open sound. But the main thing is when you play lead on it, it has a human voice quality to it- that sort of expressiveness. You can get some great sounds out of it, no doubt about that.
G: Strat’s can vary largely from each other- big necks, thin necks, light bodies, heavy bodies. Is there something you look for specifically in yours?
RT: All the Strat’s I use currently are my signature model built by the Fender Custom Shop. They are all pretty much exactly the same components. The necks could vary slightly, but not by a lot. When they asked me if I’d like to do a signature model, I got together with Todd (Krause) who’s one of the custom shop builders and we went through everything that I would like on it to make it how it’s most comfortable for me.
G: What is most comfortable for you?
RT: I would say a medium sized neck, not necessarily thin, but they do make some pretty chunky necks. I would say it’s like a middle C shape. I use big frets as well. I prefer the larger headstock on Strats as well because my theory is that with a bit more wood there’s a bit more resonance.
G: When you designed your signature model, did you have a guitar that you used as a reference point or was it new from the ground up?
RT: I was in good hands with Todd and he had somewhat of an idea as far as what necks I was using and what I was comfortable with. I went through a couple different sets of pickups so I chose a 50’s reissue in the neck position, and a couple other pick up reissues they make.
G: And how about the rest of your set-up- amps and effects? Was it a lot of trial and error or did you know what you needed from the get-go?
RT: Well, since about the early 90’s I’ve used stuff (effects) made by a California company called Fulltone and all my pedals are made by them. I’m messing around with different Marshall combinations- At the moment, I’m using a reissue of the JCM800 coupled with a Bluesbreaker.
G: That sounds like a great combination. In regard to the pedals, is there something you heard in the Fulltone effects that you didn’t hear in others?
RT: Yes, Mike Fuller (the owner of Fulltone) will actually make some effects for me, as well as some pedals that he makes for public release. But there’s a great pedal he makes called the Deja-Vibe which I use to kind of cover the songs from the past that I used a Uni-Vibe on like ‘Bridge of Sighs’ and some other tunes.
G: On that note, the Uni-Vibe has been a huge part of your set up, and it has almost become synonymous with the ‘Trower’ name. How did you come across that effect?
RT: I think it was actually at Manny’s (a guitar shop) in New York. I’m not sure if it’s still there, but I was trying stuff that they had when I was in Procol Harum. In those days, there weren’t many effects you could buy- we’re talking about the early 1970’s I think is when that was. So I was always trying what was coming out and I fell in love with that as soon as I played into it. It gave the guitar sound a bit more atmosphere- slightly ethereal.
G: Though equipment helps convey the ideas, a lot of it comes from the hands and I’m sure you spent a lot of time developing your own style. What sort of music did you listen to as you were developing your style?
RT: I initially started playing guitar because I was a big fan of Scotty Moore who played with Elvis. I never tried to play like him, but he’s the reason why I wanted to have a guitar. So I guess that’s a pretty big influence, isn’t it? *laughs*
But I didn’t start to truly develop the style I have now until I heard BB King. I was a big fan of some of those early BB King tracks. I was already starting to do vibrato a little bit, but his type of vibrato was something that sent me off on a different road.
G: BB King has that unmistakable vibrato. Were there any other guitarists that continued to inspire you throughout your career?
RT: Albert King is another one, and Jimi Hendrix is another big influence obviously. There have been some very good guitarists through the 70’s/80’s but nothing that caught my ear particularly.
G: It’s hard to compare to BB King when it comes to feel. And Albert King is one of my personal favorites.
RT: BB King, Albert King, and Jimi, those were my mentors. Albert was one of the best guitarists I’d ever seen live.
G: When did you happen to see Albert King live?
RT: I’ve only saw him live once, and it was in Los Angeles in 80’s. I was already a big fan before though, I had all of his records, but seeing him live was another thing all together.
G: What kind of music do you listen to on a regular basis these days to get inspired?
RT: Of the stuff I grew up on, I would say Howlin’ Wolf is one of the main guys I keep going back to. But I also listen to a lot of stuff from the 1930’s as well. I’m very partial to that period in popular music.
G: Any notable artists that you enjoy from that period?
RT: There’s a guy called Al Bowlly that I’m very fond of.
G: What do you enjoy about that era of music?
RT: I think I like the romanticism of it, you know, the slightly sentimental, romantic feel of it. But, the most important part about it is the musicianship is unbelievable. The arrangement and the musicianship was just beyond, you know?
G: For sure. Are there any younger emerging artists that have caught your ears?
RT: No, I can’t say there are. Not that I particularly go looking, but when I do hear stuff today, there are some good people, but it mostly sounds like bits and pieces to me rather than having an overall vibe.
G: I feel like vibe has been a hugely important part of your music, something I really gravitated towards when I first heard your music- something you felt rather than heard. During those early records, was that a goal or sort of a ‘happy accident’?
RT: It was something that just happened. It wasn’t an intellectual process, really. At some point, we had to define it to be able to do it well and put it into a shape but initially (the feel) was something I was emotionally just fond to and I think that’s created what I do now and what you hear.
G: Let’s actually talk about a couple of the tracks on the album, if you don’t mind.
RT: Yeah, sure!
G: As I mentioned earlier, I’m quite fond of that opening track, but the title track ‘Coming Closer to the Day’ is another great one.
RT: That’s one of those good examples of starting with a guitar riff and then develop it from there. The main thing about coming up with a riff is that you have a good idea of what the vibe is. So all the pieces that you add on top of that have to enhance that vibe. So in other words, you start with the thing that gives you the feeling and everything that comes after it- the changes, the top line, and the lyrics, all fit into that vibe. Nothing detracts from that initial feeling of when you first came up with that idea. You know what I mean?
G: Absolutely. That’s another thing I really enjoy about your songwriting style- at some points, your changes add a lot of suspense compared to a simple I-IV-V blues pattern.
RT: Yeah, you have to create and maintain tension. I use a lot of very jazzy chords, but of course they don’t sound very jazzy when they are done with a driven guitar sound.
G: Tide of Confusion is a lyrical cut- How did you come up with the concept of that track?
RT: That was me worrying about so much being put out on the internet that is untrue or half-true and people are believing it and ending up not quite knowing what to believe.
G: And Lonesome Road is a killer track as well.
RT: That lyric is about my experience being on the road, and slightly worried how long I’ll be able to keep it up and keep going. I really like that track, it’s one of my favorites on the album.
G: It is a great one, and this album is awesome as well. You’ve done a fantastic job.
RT: Thank you!
G: It’s been a while since I think people have heard a great blues/ rock and roll album with a great vibe as well.
RT: That’s very kind of you to say. I think of myself as a rock and roll player and musician, but I’m very heavily inspired by the blues.
G: Is there a piece of advice you would tell your younger self and up-and-coming musicians that you’ve learned throughout your career?
RT: The advice I like to give young players is something I used myself as a young player, when I was around 18 or 19 and listening to BB King. When I thought back about it years later, I didn’t want to imitate and play his licks, but what I was more interested in was what was behind the notes that he was playing. So I always advise younger players not to actually copy, you know, sit down and learn the phrases or how somebody else is playing… I mean, we are all influenced by our heroes. But not to actually work out what someone else played note for note, because I think that could potentially stop you from developing your own style. That would be the advice that I would give.
G: That seems like a very key point of how many guitar legends like yourself got started- by not actually copying one’s style, but more so playing along with those classic records and enveloping themselves in the vibe and feel of the song.
RT: Yeah, I think it’s a good thing not to copy- that’s what I would say.
G: It’s been a pleasure to talk with you, and we really appreciate you taking the time out to do this interview.
RT: My pleasure.
G: Pretty soon here, you’ll be coming through the states and coming to Arizona.
RT: Yep, I’m looking forward to it!
G: That should be a great show and we look forward to it as well!
In support of his latest release, Robin Trower will be embarking on a U.S. Tour starting on April 2nd, and will be in Arizona the following month (May 2nd) at the historical Celebrity Theatre.