ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, MARCH 6, 2003
By Steve Newton
Unless you’re really up on your rock guitarists, Walter Trout may be the biggest guitar hero you’ve never heard of. In a 1993 BBC Radio 1 poll of the top 20 players of all time, Trout came in sixth, ahead of such six-string legends as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jeff Beck, and Eddie Van Halen. Trout is also hugely popular in Holland, where he once headlined a concert at The Hague before a crowd of 500,000. Yet most folks in North America don’t even know his name. So what’s the story overseas?
“They’re not as MTV-oriented in Europe,” says Trout, on the line from his home in Huntington Beach, California. “I mean over there, if a radio guy likes the record, he plays the record. For instance, Bob Harris—who is sort of the head disc jockey of the BBC—12 years ago he got ahold of a tape of me playing live at a club, and started playing cuts off that on his national radio show in England. This was before I had even made my first solo album! So he was really instrumental for me in that country.
“He’s just written a book about his 30 or 40 years at the BBC,” Trout adds, “and in the book he’s sittin’ there with John Lennon and Jimmy Page and Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger—you name it, he’s had ’em all on his show. He actually came to a gig in England and gave me the book, and he said, ‘Turn to page 186,’ and in the book he names me the best rock-guitar player in the world. So, you know, I’m doin’ really good over there.”
Although Trout had a No. 1 hit in Europe in 1991 with a power ballad titled “The Love That We Once Knew”, he’s best known on these shores for his ’80s tenures with Canned Heat and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Now his solo career is in full flight, and he’s bringing his quartet, the Radicals, to the Yale on Thursday (March 13). His current brand of music is straight-up blues-rock, and the 51-year-old plays it with a virtuosic ferocity not seen since the heyday of Stevie Ray. The Los Angeles Times calls him “a torrential, gladiator guitar player—the kind the term ‘guitar hero’ was coined to describe”. But it wasn’t any early fixation on Jimi Hendrix that led Trout to take up music full-time. His interest in pursuing a career in music was ignited by a chance childhood meeting with Duke Ellington.
“My mom was always taking me to see concerts,” relates Trout, who grew up in New Jersey. “She took me to see James Brown and Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald—an incredible list of people. And one time she said, ‘Hey, Duke Ellington is playin’ down the street in a theatre, how ’bout if we go? It happens to be on your birthday.’ So we went to the theatre at about 2 in the afternoon to purchase some tickets, and she noticed that a bunch of cars drove up to the back and a bunch of black fellas got out and walked in the stage door, and she said, ‘Look, it’s the orchestra.’ She went over and knocked on the door and said to the security guard, ‘It’s my son’s 10th birthday, and he’s a trumpet player; do you think Mr. Ellington would say hello?’ About two minutes later we were escorted into the dressing room, and ended up spending the whole afternoon there, hangin’ out with them.”
A few years after that fateful run-in with the Duke, Trout’s older brother brought home a guitar, and young Walter’s fondness for the trumpet grew less and less. Rock ’n’ roll came along and he embraced it—along with its papa, the blues. His early career as a sideman included stints with Big Mama Thornton, Joe Tex, Percy Mayfield, Pee Wee Crayton, Lowell Fulson, and John Lee Hooker. After years on the road with Canned Heat and Mayall, he developed his chops to the point where, nowadays, guitar manufacturers like Vigier and Carvin are lining up for endorsements. But there’s only one instrument dear to his heart, and that’s the Fender Strat he’s played every day since he bought it brand-new in ’73. When he purchased the guitar it was pure white; now it’s brown. He figures he’s had the frets replaced 14 times.
“One of the problems I have, when guitar companies endorse me, is I have to let them know I have played the same Fender Stratocaster for 30 years, and me and that guitar have a connection, like a spiritual bond. When I look at it, it speaks to me, and when I play other guitars it gets jealous like a woman would, and when I put my Strat back on, for the first coupla songs it doesn’t play right, you know; it’s pissed off. I have to kind of caress it and tell it I’m sorry and then it starts playin’ right.
“So I always have to tell these companies: if I’m up there with my old, beat-up, crusty, dirty old Strat, you gotta understand that that is a part of my body, and all these other guitars are really nice, but they ain’t it.”