Normally I don’t like getting into the articles I write, but today I’m going to make an exception. In March of 2017 I was going to interview the great Alejandro Escovedo at Sala El Sol in Madrid, I got there early with my little brother, a great guitarist in his own right, and we got to speak with him, before long he got interested in our tastes, and showed us a guitar he had custom made. When he asked about our favourite guitarist, we immediately said Hendrix, and after him all the rest, so Escovedo then said, “so, you must like Robin Trower”. We confessed our sins, at the time we had no idea who he was talking about. So, taken by surprise, he told us he was the lead guitarist of Procol Harum, and that later on he had developed that solo sound along the lines of Hendrix. We were a bit shocked, the A Whiter Shade of Pale boys had a guitarist that sounded like Hendrix?
The next day I decided to look into it a bit and dusted off my old Harum albums, I had the first one, and A Salty Dog, so I gave them and check it out his solo albums. I couldn’t believe it, the guy was very good and his sound, despite being clearly in Hendrix’s shadow, wasn’t a mere copy, he knew how to make it personal. After listening to the rest of Harum’s material I could see how they had evolved to the Broken Barricades times, where he can already be considered an authentic ‘guitar hero’ by himself. Since then I’ve tried to imitate Escovedo and recommend a guitarist unfairly forgotten, with a tremendous taste for the 6-string, and a style full of strength and emotion.
Born in Catford, near London, on March 9, 1945, Robin Trower was a ‘late’ guitarist. He didn’t start playing till he was 14, and didn’t do it because he liked it, but because he saw Elvis with his guitar. His first model was a solid-body with which he played things by the Shadows. He didn’t practice much, but had a natural talent for the guitar. In 1962 he got into his first professional band, the Paramounts with whom he recorded a few R&B numbers. Their big chance came when the Rolling Stones asked them to be the opening act for their tour of the country. Upon their return to London, they had fallen from grace and replaced them in several blues clubs that they had outgrown. In 1965 they opened for the Beatles but they didn’t make much of an impact. Trower still took this like a game, but his experience in the band put him in touch with Gary Brooker and B.J. Wilson, with whom he would join in Procol Harum.
As the group was leaning towards pop, Trower’s tastes were more towards blues, so he decided to leave the band in late 1965. For 6 months he did nothing but absorb the great blues guitarists, people like Albert King, Otis Rush, Hubert Sumlin and, above all, B.B. King, whose Live at the Regal, he listened to for hours on end.
About the same time his ex-bandmate Gary Brooker, pianist and singer, got together with lyricist Keith Reid, organist Matthew Fisher, and they formed a group called Procol Harum. The three would write one of the best known songs of the time, A Whiter Shade of Pale, which became an absolute hit when it was released in May of 1967. But amid this success, two members of the band, the guitarist and drummer quit to form their own group. The label wanted to record immediately to take advantage of this success and Brooker remembered his mates in the Paramounts, Trower and Wilson. At first the guitarist had his doubts, he didn’t see himself playing in a band more interested in Bach than B.B. King, but Brooker promised there would be room for him, and overnight, he became a member of one of the most promising bands in England. The first thing they recorded was Homburg, a follow-up song to A Whiter Shade of Pale, with Fisher’s organ and Brooker’s piano in the forefront. The first record was made in a hurry, in June of ‘67, with almost all the songs written by Brooker and Reid. It was one of the first samples of what would become progressive rock, although it was still linked to the emerging psychedelia. Trower is felt in several songs, like Kaleidoscope, Cerdes, and mainly Repent Walpurgis where he shines with his Gretsch Country Gentleman hooked up to a Selmer Little Giant and a Fender.
The following year they cut Shine On Brightly where you begin to see his influence in many songs, although he hadn’t yet received any credit as a composer. The most evident is Wish Me Well, a blues/rock number in the Cream style, in which you can enjoy his work on a ‘68 Gibson SG. It’s around that time when Trower started to take himself more seriously as a guitarist. He already had natural talent (it’s amazing how well he plays with so little practice), so he started exercising. His private teacher was none other than the great Robert Fripp, a friend who was about to create King Crimson, and he taught him several exercises to speed up his fingering. He would get a lot out of them, so much so that in 1974 he met up with Fripp again, and it was Trower who would teach him a couple of tricks. Despite coming from having two completely different styles, their friendship and profound respect for each other almost got them to collaborate together.
This improvement was beginning to be seen on A Salty Dog, the band’s best work to date. Juicy John Pink is an impressive blues with a pre-WWII style. As for the solos, as you can see in The Devil Came From Kansas, and in the intense Crucifixion Lane (another of his own), in the Otis Redding style, Trower was well on his way up to the big leagues of the great English guitarists. Certainly his most amazing work to date can be heard on Long Gone Creek, a B side entry which is one of the most direct rock songs of the band. As on the rest of the album, he uses a Les Paul Special and a Gibson amp.
From the brutal opening riff on Whisky Train you can see that Trower has taken control of the band on Home, the band’s 4th record, released in 1970. Although his contributions as composer limit him to this (one of his best songs) and to About to Die, something like Free, the rest of the record has the band embracing a more naked sound where Trower’s guitar is the main star, Still There’ll Be More sees him in his ‘guitar hero’ suit perfectly fitted. It’s his best solo to date with the band.
It was during the album’s presentation when the guitarist would discover the guitar that would define his sound forever. On September 6 Procol Harum shared the venue in West Berlin with Jimi Hendrix, the penultimate concert he gave before dying twelve days later. But it wasn’t that which made Trower embrace the guitar he’s always been linked to. Five days after Hendrix’s death Procol Harum was on the road in England with Jethro Tull. Tull’s guitarist, Martin Barre had a Stratocaster, and one day during a sound test, Trower decided to connect it to the amp...His cry was heard all over the grounds “This is it!”. He had found the guitar of his dreams, from then on, it would become his main model. The next day he ran to a store and bought a ‘62 Stratocaster, on which he wrote one of the loveliest tributes to the man who had the most influence on him, the creator of Little Wing.
Now Trower was ready to fly alone, but before leaving his mates, he delivered a great hard rock album, in which you can see how he reached the top as a guitarist, on Broken Barricades, released in 1971. The record opens with Simple Sister, one of the best songs by the duo of Brooker and Reid, but what most sticks out is the threatening lead guitar of a Trower totally on fire. On Playmate of the Month he shows his ability to respond to a singer inside the blues vocabulary. In addition he brings 3 of his own songs, with Reid’s lyrics (Memorial Drive, Song for a Dreamer, and Poor Mohamad) and he’s the lead singer on the last two. Memorial Drive and Poor Mohamad are pure R&B, but the most significant piece is Song for a Dreamer, his heartfelt homage to the man he owed the most to, Jimi Hendrix, whose death led him on a mission to continue with his legacy. It is full of references to the great left-handed guitarist, from This May Be Love to 1983 (A Merman I Should Turn), which shows how Trower was completely devoted to its author. Many years later the first thing that sticks out about Trower is his similarity to Hendrix, but when asked if it bothered him, the Englishman is clear, “Not really. In many ways it’s a compliment. I drew a lot of inspiration from Jimi, particularly the Band of Gypsys era”.
So, when he left Procol Harum, it was clear, he had to continue where Hendrix had left off, having reached a level that few others could do. His first solo album was full of that sound, one he was able to make his own. Another of his distinguishing marks was the presence of James Dewar on bass and vocals, getting a mix that sounds as if Hendrix had teamed up with Paul Rodgers to put out a record. Obviously they hadn’t invented the wheel, but Twice Removed from Yesterday sounds spectacular. The combo of Trower’s Strat and his 100 watt Marshall turn into a fixture.
It was 1973 in New York when he dropped into the fabled Manny’s music store to make him 2 more Strats. (It was the same store where David Gilmour got his legendary Black Strat) With these two new ones he would record his most memorable album, Bridge of Sighs, with which he became an improbable star when it made the Top Ten charts in the U.S.. It’s the best Hendrix album in which he doesn’t play, the title song is a delicate marvel where Trower shows his class.
The records kept coming, such as the remarkable Robin Trower Live from 1976, recorded the previous year in Stockholm. Over time, his popularity slowed down, but not his class. In the 80s he teamed up with Jack Bruce with whom he would cut a couple of records together and later, Fender would give him the highest of honours by dedicating a Signature Stratocaster model following his instructions to a tee.
He hasn’t stopped for one minute, over the last 3 years he has put out 3 records, and still tours carrying the Hendrix legacy to all those who couldn’t enjoy the great ‘lefty’ guitarist in person. If you haven’t heard of him, don’t hesitate one second and immerse yourself in his work, with Broken Barricades and Bridge of Sighs as first steps, if you like the electric guitar as much as we do, you won’t regret it.