Forty years ago Robin Trower discovered enlightenment. Its name was Jimi Hendrix.
Trower was already a notable guitarist in the British blues-rock scene and a huge fan of blues guitar innovator Albert King, who also influenced Hendrix. As a member of Procol Harum, Trower contributed to the moody 1967 hit “Conquistador,” which remains a staple of classic rock radio. But Hendrix’s debut album Are You Experienced? arrived that same year, and Trower — like virtually every other guitarist who heard Jimi — started to question his own, more traditional playing.
As Hendrix took full control of his music in the studio over the course of ’67’s Axis: Bold As Love and ’68’s monumental Electric Ladyland, his use of effects, volume, distortion, and production technique so ensnared Trower’s imagination that Trower began to change his own playing. By 1969’s A Salty Dog, Trower was blanching at the limitations of Procol Harum’s basic blues, rock, and pop compositions and began pushing those barriers with his beefier tone and more elaborate playing on tunes like “Crucifixion Lane.”
It took another two years for Trower to leave Procol Harum and a false start in a short-lived group with singer Frankie Miller before he founded the Robin Trower Band and recorded its debut Twice Removed from Yesterday in 1973, earning his rank as a classic-rock-era six-string icon.
Trower’s career-defining masterpiece Bridge of Sighs came the next year. By then he’d fully developed his trademark style of fluid legato lines support by a sustained, overdriven tone and colored by his smart, spare use of effects like the wah-wah, Octavia, and phase shifter — all, not coincidentally, favorites of Hendrix.
What’s different about Trower’s playing is his unhurried melodic craftsmanship and his comparative avoidance of the chitlin circuit rhythm licks that were a fundamental part of Hendrix’s playing, at the fore of tunes like “Gypsy Eyes” and firing the main riff of “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return).” And in the studio multiple microphones set at various distances from Trower’s 100-watt Marshall amps driving 4 x12 cabinets gave his Stratocaster-driven tone tremendous ambiance.
Over the course of his next few albums Trower continued to develop his sound and his array of gear. By 1977’s In City Dreams Trower was using a modified wah-wah pedal with an expanded sweep and gadgets like the Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress, which blends stereo flanging and chorus effects.
Trower’s hottest rig blasted his array of Strats through a pair of 100-watt Marshall JMP-100 Mark II heads feeding two 1960-B 4x12 cabs and had an impressive effects chain on the floor: custom preamp and clean booster pedals, a Dan Armstrong Red Ranger treble booster, a Tychobrahe wah-wah, an octave/fuzz Fender Blender, a Uni-Vibe chorus/vibrato, Mutron II phase shifter, and two Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistresses. All of those are available today as reissues, although Trower has now downsized his pedal board to a Jennings or Vox wah, a Tube Works Real Tube Overdrive, a Boss Tremolo, and a Fulltone Deja Vibe.
The real challenge is approximating Trower’s deep, long-held bends and the other elements of his ultra-relaxed style of phrasing. For that, go to the finest sources, like Trower did. Before Hendrix came on the scene Trower was studying records by Albert King, B.B. King, and Otis Rush. Albert and Otis were both southpaws, so had the natural advantage of pulling downward to bend strings, and all three have masterful vibrato. Remember, it’s all in the wrist, not the fingers.
In the ’70s Trower used a set of .10 strings for a slinky, but not slithery, feel. He also tuned his guitar down a whole step for concerts, to D-G-C-F-A-D. And while much of Trower’s playing favors standard blues boxes, chromatic melodies are his hallmark, so think about the notes between the notes of standard pentatonic patterns.
At age 64 Trower still soldiers on with a mighty roar, touring with his Robin Trower Band — currently a four-piece. His latest album, however, is a departure. Last year’s Seven Moons is a collaboration with bass legend Jack Bruce.