Robin Trower

Groupology

  • The Paramounts
  • Procol Harem
  • Robin Trower
  • BLT

Jurassic

Watch Robin Trower in Action at the bottom of this page!

Famous / Infamous for

Famous for: The Bridge of Sighs album. UniVibe abuse. Touring incessantly for three decades — regardless of his career status. Endless unfavorable comparisons to Jimi Hendrix.

Infamous for: The worst case of guitar face I've ever seen! Robin has been referred to as "Old Fish Face" or "Robin Trouter," and for damn good reason. See the pic above.

Influences

Obvious: Hendrix, BB King, Albert King. Trower has been around forever. He's an original Dino. He's been playing professionally since 1963 (with a band called the Paramounts) and was in Procol Harem when Eric Clapton was in Cream.

Not so obvious: James Brown, Bobby Bland, Otis Rush, Pink Floyd.

Strengths

Tone. Trower's tone is the audio equivalent of a massive toke off the Doomsday bong. You may even find yourself with a bad case of the munchies after an extended listening session! HEAVILY processed with vibe, various fuzz tones, wah, flangers, and other gadgets, Robin's sound is massive and incredibly sustained, yet clear. Robin puts the "ether" in "ethereal". He always manages to sound exactly like Trower no matter what amps or effects he's using.

Vibrato. Robin has awesome vibrato — generally very fast, yet smooth and controlled, very musical and expressive. Many other players with fast vibratos have problems with pitch and keeping the vibrato even and controlled (for example, Kirk Hammet). Robin has no such problems. His vibrato is perfect no matter what speed he elects to employ. Scott Gorham has a similar touch and perhaps borrowed a little bit from Trower.

Bending. Trower's bends, like his vibrato, are executed perfectly on pitch and rhythm. Due to the ridiculous amount of sustain he gets, he can really milk a bend without it dying on him.

Taste. Robin's approach to guitar is very "English" for lack of a better word: a place for everything, and everything in its place. He often throttles down the volume during the vocal parts of his songs, and dances around the vocals with little fills and stabs. He waits until his solo before he really hits you with both barrels. Trower is also very good with dynamics and "building to the end", raising the intensity as the song moves along.

Weaknesses

The Hendrix thing. Robin has had to endure countless comparisons to Jimi Hendrix throughout his career. He has often been dismissed as a mere Hendrix imitator. Obviously these people aren't listening! Trower is undeniably Hendrix influenced, but rather than regurgitate Voodoo Chile or Machine Gun note for note for the past 30 years, Trower has his own style and sound. Sure he plays a Strat through Marshalls, loves UniVibes, wah, fuzz, flangers, but there's a lot more to Trower than a pure Hendrix imitator like Randy Hansen, or even another Hendrix influenced guy, Frank Marino. Trower's music owes as much to Pink Floyd as it does Hendrix.

Songwriting. There have been some really strong moments (and albums) along the way, but there's also been a lot of mediocrity in the songwriting — especially in the last 20 years. Robin's music has never been geared for mainstream pop success. One of the things he's particularly known for is slow songs that plod like a dying Brachiosaur. Over these, Trower works his ethereal guitar magic. The slow psychedelic stuff worked for Pink Floyd because people were drawn into the lyrical imagery of Roger Waters — and stoned out of their minds — but with the straightforward blues-based approach Trower takes, the slow tempos can wear on you. Hannah, and Bridge of Sighs are terrific exceptions. I have to be in the right mood to really listen to Trower.

The Blues. Like a lot of other great rock guitarists, in the 90s Robin decided to reinvent himself as more of a straight blues artist. This was a bad idea when Gary Moore did it, a really bad idea when Pat Travers did it, and a really bad idea for Robin as well. There are millions of guys playing straight blues on Strats in the world — both well known and unknown — and stripped of his signature tone and style, Robin sounds like any one of those millions of guys. How many bad albums does it take before these guys realize that abandoning your past for the blues does not insure your place in the Holy Pantheon of Guitar Gods? Why turn your back on an entire body of work? The things that are lost are the very things that made these guys unique.

Tone

Trower's recorded sound comes primarily from the insane volume level he runs at and the way he mics his cabinets. Rather than close mic'ing, Trower used one mic about three feet from the cabinet, and another about five feet from the cabinet, pointing down at the speaker. This takes a lot of the edge off, and allows the amp to push some air. On later albums, like the BLT collaboration with Jack Bruce, you can hear more of a close mic sound — it's edgier and a little brighter. Trower's Marshalls were modified by his tech to boost the preamp, and he generally ran them at 7 - 8 on the master, 7 - 8 on the preamp, presence on 0, and the treble, mid, and bass controls between 2 - 3. In the 80's, Trower gradually began incorporating Fender amps in place of the Marshalls, and interestingly enough, the sound didn't change or suffer a whole lot, which would implicate that custom built preamp as a primary component of Robin's tone. There's no telling what mods may have been made to those Fenders, either. He seems to be back to Marshalls these days, and if you want to characterize his career in general, he's definitely a Marshall man. He has adjusted his tone settings significantly, however. On his most recent tour, he was running his tone controls as follows: bass - 0, treble - 0 to 3, mids - 10, presence - 0 to 3 - for more of a midrange boost.

People may forget that Trower was a Gibson man in Procol Harem (SGs and Les Pauls). But once he heard Hendrix, it was Strats from then on. Trower's Strats were stock Fenders of various vintage — a new black '74 Strat was used for Bridge of Sighs, while the Live album was a '56. A primary concern was that he did not want to get too attached to a particular guitar, in case it was stolen or lost. String gauges were .011 - .046, and he tuned down 1/2 step to Eb. Although he used the whammy bar a little early on, he eventually blocked off the bridges on his Strats with a piece of wood so that the whammy wouldn't move, effectively converting his guitar to a hardtail. Robin has always had a very thick Strat tone with very little treble in it. It's thicker than Gary Moore's 80s Strat tone, but with much less top end bite. Perhaps because most of the time Trower played on the middle pickup, with the guitar's volume around 7 or 8 and the treble rolled almost off at the amp.

To produce the classic Trower tone from his 70's heyday — to do it right — you're going to need these things:

  • A Strat
  • At a minimum: a vibe, a wah, and a fuzztone. FYI: Bridge of Sighs is the official music store test riff for vibes and phase shifters . . .
  • A Marshall 100 watt amp (though any EL34-based amp should do a good job)
  • A LOT of volume

Failing that, just turn on every flanger, phase shifter, and chorus you own, open jar of ether in the room to help get you in the proper anesthetized, 40 BPM mood, and have at it.

Trower used a lot of different effects to generate his distinctive throbbing tone. His 1980 interview in Guitar Player Magazine gives the signal chain as follows: initially, the signal hit a preamp built by Robin's tech to boost the level. Following that, he would run it into a Dan Armstrong Red Ranger (treble boost), a Tycobrache wah, a Fender blender fuzz tone, a UniVibe, a MuTron II, and two Electro Harmonix Electric Mistress flangers. His tech also incorporated buffers between the effects pedals to minimize any signal loss. Out of all this hardware, the one effect that I most associate with Trower is the UniVibe, although the various boosts also play a huge role in generating his signature sustain.

Later he began using Fulltone effects pretty much exclusively. Robin's tech in the 70's was named Mike. Mike Fuller? Coincidence?

Guitar Style

Guys like Trower, Frank Marino, and Uli Roth were all extremely influenced by Hendrix. What's really interesting is that all of them took that same influence to very different places.

On rhythm, Trower is very funky and soulful. This is where the James Brown and other R&B influences creep in. You'll hear a lot of "Shaft" style wah, various 7th and 9th chords, 16th note muted scratching, and various other funk trappings. A great example of Trower's hot rhythm playing is on the track Caledonia from Long Misty Days. You'll also get clean, arpeggiated chordal passages that often sound very jazzy, in addition to the more standard hard rock riffing. Daydream, from Twice Removed from Yesterday, or Bluebird, from In City Dreams, are good examples of the softer side of Trower's approach to rhythm. Too Rolling Stoned, from Bridge of Sighs, is probably my favorite Trower song and a great snapshot of the man's style. He starts out with a fairly clean funky rhythm over a double-time bass and drums groove, with wah, turns on the vibe and the fuzz for the solo section, and unleashes one of his trademark slow, heavy grooves on the rideout.

Like many of his contemporaries in 70s hard rock, Trower is primarily a pentatonic blues box player when soloing. However, his solos have always had a certain elegance and grace to them. His choice of notes may seem simple when compared to 80s shredders like Malmsteen or Vai, but there are very few guitarists capable of wrenching as much expression out of a guitar as Trower. He relies on the basics: tone, taste, execution, and dynamics. His guitar solos have a very vocal quality to them, and he leaves a lot of space for breathing, as a vocalist would. The array of different tones that Trower employs in the course of a song is staggering — and he is a master of build and release.

He's not a particularly impressive player in terms of speed, but he is very accurate and very fluid. Most of the time he claims to just roll tape and play.

Trower's picking style is also typical of his 70s contemporaries. He is primarily a legato player and doesn't stick to a regimented alternate picking attack. He is very smooth; you rarely hear the attack of the pick on the string. He doesn't use false harmonics or squeals — he lets volume and feedback take care of adding any overtones that he wants to inject.

Vibrato:

Fast, smooth, not particularly wide, perfectly even, and very controlled. There are a lot of contemporary guitarists who could learn a few things about vibrato from Trower. The word that comes to mind is elegant.

Robin Trower in Action

Recommended Listening

Robin Trower

Profile by John Walker. Copyright ©2003 All rights reserved.

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