Former Yes Man Trevor Rabin Talks Favorite Guitars, Film Scores and "Owner of a Lonely Heart"

(Image credit: Rob Verhorst/Getty Images)

He helped make prog-rock monsters Yes MTV stars in the Eighties, and he’s scored dozens of high-octane Hollywood blockbusters. But what Guitar World readers really want to know is…

What was the last film score by somebody else that knocked you out? —Norm Balford

Oh, boy. You know, I think there's a cue in the [1985] film Witness called “The Building of the Barn.” That’s something I liked a lot. Witness is that great film by Peter Weir, starring Harrison Ford. I should probably have a more current one than that to mention, but I do remember that piece of music as impressing me a great deal.

Have you ever turned down a film score because you really hated the story? —Rick O’Brien

I'm afraid I can't say which film it was, but yes, I have. It was an action film that just didn't go anywhere, and the dialogue wasn't good. I remember going to see the film, and I guess the director read my face pretty well because he said to me, “Well, we’ve just lost our composer." It happens sometimes. You read a script that you think isn’t the greatest, but because the director is someone you enjoy working with, you'll tend to go with it. A lot of times the picture does turn out great, but sometimes it doesn’t and I’m disappointed by the end.

Are there any guitar parts Steve Howe performed that you just can't replicate? —Sally Mertel

I wouldn’t say “can't replicate.” I remember Chris Squire saying to me when we went on the 90125 tour, "You know, there’s certain songs we're going to have to do, but then there are optional ones that we could or couldn't play. I'll give you a list, and you can choose which ones you want to do.” He was very kind about that. I chose some songs and worked out a different way of doing them. I really didn't want to just replicate Steve’s parts; otherwise, you're a session player or a hired hand. I always wanted to try and do it in a way where I could re-represent the music my own way.

I detect more of a blues influence in your solos than in Steve Howe's playing. How important was the blues to you growing up?" —Alan Kowal

It’s funny, but I don’t think American blues influenced me much. I think it was much more the regurgitation of the white blues bands in England, like the Yardbirds. Guys like Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton were important to me. I also liked Peter Green a great deal. It’s interesting to me—the British guys really did something with the blues. It wasn’t just a copy. It was a restructuring of the whole format.

If you could’ve joined any other band than Yes, which one would it have been? —Tim Steer

Let me think about that…I don't know! [laughs] I’ve honestly never considered that. Probably Mahavishnu Orchestra, although who knows how that would have gone? I like John McLaughlin and Chick Corea a lot. When that band first came out, I really got into them.

You were a teenaged star in South Africa in your band Rabbitt. How awesome was that? —Guitar Pete

It was pretty great, although it was quite strange because it had never been done before in South Africa. The four of us just kind of lived in this bubble, and we thought that’s just what this job was. When I left Rabbitt to go to England and pursue music, I thought I’d have the same success, and I was woefully surprised. But Rabbitt’s success wasn’t overnight. I was working very heavily as a session musician while that was going on. I would do sessions in the day, and then we did month after month residencies at clubs. It was really hard work, but once it happened, it just happened.

What are the relationships like between all the past and present Yes members? Are the guys in Yes upset that you and Rick are going on tour? —Chris Gallen

I really don't know. It's not something I concern myself with, so I don't know and I don't care. It’s not something I spend a lot of time thinking about. The only guy I speak to quite often is Alan White, who has always remained a very close friend. Alan and I don’t have any issues at all.

I love the demo of “Owner of a Lonely Heart” from your album 90124. A lot of cowbell on that. Were you influenced by Blue Öyster Cult’s “Don't Fear the Reaper”? —Roscoe L. Jenkins

No. [laughs] I'd have to say no to that. There is a lot of cowbell on the demo, but I guess that just sounded right to me. When we recorded it with Yes, it was kind of a conscious thing to take out the cowbell because I wanted it to be much cleaner—I wanted the drums to be very crisp. I did that demo on a very unsophisticated system, and I'd had to mix things in a certain way to keep on recording. Doing the Yes album, there were certain parts from the demo that were loud and unbalanced, but I kind of liked them. We kept those ideas intentionally.

I assume you have a lot of guitars, but do you have a particular favorite? —Antonio La Penza

I have three favorite guitars: My old Fender Stratocaster, and then I did a signature model with Alvarez many years ago, which I still play, and I've just recently done a new signature model with Washburn, which I also love playing. I use it mostly in the studio. I probably won't be using it on any of the songs we're doing on tour.

What's the story with that one Strat I always see you play? —Leo Trinsty

Oh, boy, that guitar goes back a long way. I must have been 15 or 16 when I got it, and it’s stayed with me since. I remember very clearly during a Rabbitt concert, at the end of a show, I threw the guitar pretty hard to my roadie. He was actually a bit of a fucker, and he said, “I'm not catching that!” The guitar dropped and the neck broke. That wasn’t good. I used a Telecaster neck on it for six months while the original neck was being fixed. We've been through wars together, that guitar and me. The neck still has a little piece of wood, like a stent, on it.

What's the most money you ever spent on a guitar? —Samuel Bader

Oh, God. I’m not like some people who spent silly amounts on guitars. I think I spent around $8,000 on a brand-new Gibson 400 Super Custom. It’s a great guitar, but I don’t know if it was worth the money because I decided I wanted to get another one just like it to take it on the road. I ended up getting a Washburn copy of it, which I actually prefer.

I'm a huge fan of your album Jacaranda. Your previous solo album was 23 years before that one. Will I have to wait another 20 years for the next one? —“Big” Mike Moody

[laughs] The answer to that is definitely no. The wait won’t be quite that long. But the thing that makes me kind of smile is when people say, “You haven't done an album for 20-odd years,” and they don’t take into account the dozens of soundtrack albums I’ve done. There’s lots of good stuff on them, but for some reason they’re not looked upon as rock albums.

I love the last Yes album you did, Talk. How did the guys take to you being in the producer's chair for that one? —Melissa Malloy

Jon Anderson was completely into it and loved it. Tony [Kaye, keyboards] and Alan were completely fine with it, too. Chris was a little apprehensive at first, because we were really close—he didn't want anything to get in the way of our relationship. But I think he realized very early on that that wasn't going to be an issue, so it was fine. They all got into it. I think the fear was that I was doing the album on a technology that had never been done before, and it was kind of time consuming. People had to stand around and wait, so I think it frustrated some of them. But the end result was something they were all pretty happy with.

On your upcoming ARW tour with Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman, will you concentrate on a certain period of Yes, or will you feature bits from the whole catalog?" —Adam Wilkens

We're featuring stuff from the whole catalog, and we're really trying to approach the songs fresh and do them differently. We don’t want to just pull the records and say, “Okay, here it is. Let's learn it.” Obviously Jon, Rick and I know all the stuff and can play it, but we're really trying new ways to do it, so it's got a new perspective. I think it’ll be fun for everybody.

Do you ever show pictures to Rick Wakeman of him in the capes and gowns in the Seventies and ask, “What the hell were you thinking?” —Ed Santangelo

[laughs] There's no reason to show Rick all that stuff. He's the one always telling the jokes. Honestly, he’s got to be the funniest musician I've ever worked with. He takes everything in stride.

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Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar World, Guitar Player, MusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.