Rock And Roll Power Trios…

Ohhh the magic of the power trio. I just finished listening to some old Grand Funk Railroad, marveling at the simplicity and uber-kick-ass-coolability of what I like to call “talented garage rock.” I am afraid this sort of format is a “lost art,” and that is a crying shame.

In the late sixties and early seventies bands didn’t have three years to make an album. Contractually, most were required to produce two, or even three, albums each year…then hit the road and work their asses off to promote them. Not only did album production move quickly, but recording technology was still in its infancy. There was no Pro Tools with unlimited digital tracks. Effects, processing and mastering were in their infancy. All the basic rhythm tracks were usually recorded live, not as individual multi-tracks. But with all the unbelievable technology, with the massive amount of time spent in the studio, with the entire catalog of examples available…you can’t replicate what I just heard coming out of the speakers. Those three men probably recorded the entire song live, on an old analog eight track recorder, in the space of a few hours time. Of course, I am speculating…but that would have been the norm.

The reason I refer to it as “garage rock” is because it sounds like three fellas jamming in a garage with unmiked, un-EQ’d guitars and drums, along with un-processed vocals and concrete for reverb. It sounds raw, yet inspiring. I call it “talented” because not all raw garage jams are pleasing to the ear. The production is raw, the abilities are not.

A “power trio” is simply a rock band consisting only of guitar, bass and drums. The usual rhythm guitar, or keyboard used to fill out the sound with chords, is absent. Vocals are handled by one or more of the band members, but instrumental performance ranks higher in priority than vocals.

Some notable examples of power trios would be Cream, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Blue Cheer, Grand Funk Railroad, Robin Trower, Mountain, The James Gang , and pre-keyboard Rush. The power trio format was popular in the South. Consider bands such as ZZ Top, Johnny Winter, Stevie Ray Vaughn & Double Trouble, and Gov’t Mule.

You may note from this list the prominence of guitar virtuosos like Eric Clapton (Cream), Jimi Hendrix, Robin Trower, Leslie West (Mountain), Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughn et al. With emphasis placed on instrumentation, these guitarists had space to shine in…and they took full advantage of it. However, the bass guitar never found more center stage than in a power trio. Just listen to Mel Schacher on Grand Funk’s “Red” album or Allen Woody on the Mule’s “Dose” album. And then, there is Geddy Lee…no comment necessary! The bassist relishes the fact that he can “get busy” like never before, and sometimes even become the lead guitarist. Pure rock and roll ecstasy!

I titled this article “Inside Looking Out” after the song that inspired me to write about power trios. In some ways it makes a great poster child for the format. You’ve got your three instruments working that mojo. They trade off leads, and fill the gaps between vocals with kick-ass instrumentation. When Mark Farner plays the harmonica solo there is no guitar, only bass and drums behind him. In the interval before he starts the solo you can almost see him take off his guitar, set it down, and pick up a harmonica. Totally bad ass!

OK, why do I refer to this power trio music as magic?

  1. It sounded real, not perfect, not over-produced…but real
  2. It was unpretentious talent
  3. It was upbeat and rockin
  4. It was spontaneous and creative

Let me expand on these a bit:

  1. The band is playing live. They are playing together…like it was meant to be. You are getting vibes and energy off each other. You don’t have the time or patience to make the band play the song for the hundredth time to get it perfect. There are imperfections in the songs. A flubbed guitar lick, a mistaken rimshot or a vocal note a hair off-key. You didn’t have the slavery of “click tracks” so the meter may not be mechanically perfect. In other words, the music was real and you could feel it. Why is hand-made furniture more desirable than factory-made equivalents? The mass-produced goods may be machined to perfection with each piece just like the other but give me the hand-made! Let techno be really perfect and rock be perfectly real!
  2. I like the 80s music but c’mon—rockers are freakin’ men, not women. Lose the makeup, feminine clothing, teased hair…and quit shaving your chest. You are a man for God’s sake! Power trios were unpretentious rockers. We’ve already established there was no lack of talent but there was no need to flaunt it. Watch videos of these great guitarists: Eric Clapton, Leslie West, Warren Haynes, Johnny Winter, Billy Gibbons, Stevie Ray etc…They didn’t dress and act like little faggots. They were ugly as sin, but they got the master mojo and uber-kewlness shined out from them like rays of the sun.
  3. Nirvana and the 90s rock movement may have disdained lead guitar due to the excesses of the 80s, but you know you want syrup on your pancakes to make them taste a little sweeter. We are talking rock and roll here, not pop music. Jam on brothers…we want to get down and rock. Power trio rocked our asses off. I am a lyrics dude and love a well-written tune, but when I’ve got the power trio on…lyrics be damned!
  4. If you have never been an artist, this may be difficult to comprehend. Creative spontaneity is a genuine freak of nature. No one can explain it…it just is. A lot of musicians call it inspiration. I believe it is part mojo (the skills you have) and part magic (the sudden burst of creativity that comes seemingly from nowhere). I was a lecturer for many years. At the very beginning I would write out my entire lecture and repeat it word for word. As time went on I found myself departing from my notes as ideas would put up in speeches that I had not considered when typing out my notes. I’m talking better things…better examples, better arguments and so forth. Eventually, I stopped typing out my speeches in lieu of an outline, or sometimes nothing at all. The power trio format left a lot of room for improvisation. A five minute song from an album could easily turn into a 30+ minute jam on stage and, this nights jam was different than last nights!

Was power trio music the pinnacle of rock? As much as I love the music, I couldn’t listen to it all the time. It is A great form of rock not THE great form of rock. There are other “classic” formats I would not want to live without. Still, it never fails to get the blood pumpin’ and head bangin.’ Plus, the air guitar broom never had a closer friend.

I referred to the power trio as a lost art. The raw, analog, live-in-studio recording days are over. Plus the skills are more rare than a well-made Chinese product. Guitarists today measure skill by how fast you can shred scales. Canned music is the norm and outside-the-box creativity is scorned.

But I still have my Grand Funk!