“The guitar is such an interesting instrument; it can be a sound palette, create harmonies and be presented in endless ways”: Trevor Rabin breaks down the tales and tools behind some of his greatest guitar highlights

Trevor Rabin
(Image credit: Hristo Shindov)

Esoteric as it is, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Trevor Rabin has crafted a record that’s “stylistically tough to categorize”. But if one were to try, you could call Rabin’s latest, Rio, a guitar-driven, proggy, yet oh-so very poppy, country-and-western opus. Oh, and it’s loaded with political and social undertones regarding his native stomping ground of Johannesburg, South Africa, too. How’s that for an earful?

Of course, if you’re Rabin, this eclecticism is par for the course. After all, this is the man who wrote beloved radio staple Owner of a Lonely Heart yet still seems comfortable refuting all labels slung his way, instead “visiting other genres, and injecting influences along the way.” 

And that’s saying something considering Rabin’s work with Yes is nearly universally loved, with “nearly” being the operative word, as there’s always someone who must remind the group that Rabin’s debut with Yes, 90125, is “overplayed.”

Again, that might be true, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that 90125, which wasn’t even supposed to be a Yes record, captured the zeitgeist in the fall of 1983 through its merging of prog, pop and proto-MTV bluster.

Looking back on his mindset as he entered the fold, Rabin tells Guitar World, “I’ve always tried to approach the guitar with an open mind. And back then, I looked at it from the point of view of being an arranger for an orchestra rather than just aimlessly soloing over things. 

“The guitar is such an interesting instrument; it can be a sound palette, do swirly things, create harmonies and be presented in endless ways. I have never taken a single-minded approach and always wanted to be rather acrobatic about it, which is an approach that created wonderful results on 90125.”

To Rabin’s point, his inventive mindset, which dates to his days as a teenage phenom in Rabbitt, was the perfect juxtaposition alongside Jon Anderson’s vocals and Chris Squire’s basslines.

“The funny thing about that record is what preceded it, which was Geffen unceremoniously dropping me via a phone call and hanging up,” Rabin says. “I had Owner of a Lonely Heart, but Geffen felt it was too left field for the marketplace, and that I should make music that ‘sounded more like Foreigner.’ I’m glad I ended up joining Jon, Chris, Tony [Kaye] and Alan [White], and the plan was that we form Cinema.”

History shows that it was suggested, okay, insisted, at the behest of Atlantic/Atco Records, that Cinema change their name to Yes. And while this “wasn’t ideal,” it probably made a lot of sense to the former members of Yes.

I didn’t like the idea of Yes holding a shadow over us, as this was supposed to be a new band. But that’s how it went

History also shows they had it right; even Rabin agrees: “I didn’t like the idea of Yes holding a shadow over us, as this was supposed to be a new band. But that’s how it went, and the writing dated back to what I put together for Geffen, so it didn’t feel like I was fitting into a pre-existing mold. Looking back, it worked out incredibly well.”

It’s not difficult to see why 90125 is well-loved, and Rabin’s spirited performance is a massive part of that. All these years later, that same spirit is present throughout Rio’s 10 tracks. With that in mind, Rabin dialed in with GW to run through the backstory of Rio’s finest cuts and a few well-loved classics from “back in the day.”

Big Mistakes – Rio (2023)

“I found some cool sounds with the Fractal going into speakers different from a Marshall. The sound was more like a stereo hi-fi type of thing, and once I found the initial riff sound, I knew I had something. But the song is based around two chords, with other bits and pieces sprinkled around that. 

“There’s a lot of power and clean-sounding tones, which I did with my Strat. Regarding inspiration, it’s about my teenage to 20-something years. I was in a band called Rabbitt, and we were some pretty naughty guys. [Laughs] As I was writing Big Mistakes, I told a friend, ‘I should have called this I Can’t Believe I’m Still Alive,’ because that era was pretty wild.”

Oklahoma – Rio (2023)

Oklahoma is about the Oklahoma City bombing [April 19, 1995], which happened when I was a new guest in America. Even though I’d come from South Africa, a place with terrible systems and problems of its own, the bombing deeply affected me. I said, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe this is happening here.’ 

“Those words reverberated inside my head; I added some of my soul influences, and the song and its general sensibility began to come together. But the thing was, I didn’t even want to do the song initially because it was too raw. I wasn’t sure if the idea would negatively affect people who were a part of that tragedy, so I held it for years. 

“But I realized that if I didn’t put it on this album, where would I put it? So, I grabbed my acoustic guitar, which is my trusty Martin, went at it softly, added an angry Strat solo in the middle and let the orchestra build and swarm to the end.”

Thandi – Rio (2023)

Thandi was a hero rhinoceros years back, like an actual rhinoceros. But the whole song is an anti-poaching commentary. The poaching trade in South Africa is awful; they’re killing off all the rhinos and selling the ivory to China. This incredible animal is being depleted, and it’s so devastating. 

“That’s close to my heart, so I wanted to write a song about it for Rio. Once I had a theme, I came up with the fast, single-note riff that goes throughout and loved the idea of having the drums bashing away. 

“I used my signature Alvarez acoustic [AER100WH], came up with that riff and used my Les Paul on the solo. But I worked on it for quite a while. I said to myself, ‘This has got to be perfect,’ once I had it, I sprang into action, saying, ‘Right, I’ve got it. I’ll record it tomorrow.’ But once I was recording, ‘I was like, Oh, shit, what I’ve written here is not that easy. I had to practice it for a while to learn the bloody thing. [Laughs]”

Tumbleweed – Rio (2023)

“The story behind Tumbleweed is quite simple: I knew I wanted to do an acapella thing and had these beautiful jazz chords, and I thought they’d sound good over that. But what’s interesting is the songs on Rio are somewhat simplistic chordwise, but Tumbleweed, with its jazz viewpoint, is more involved. 

“I wanted to do something that used a ton of jazz chords and extensions. So it’s a simple love song, but what went into it makes it a mystery-sounding thing. I used a lot of clean-sounding guitars and my Barney Kessel Gibson Les Paul for the solo. The song ends with me using my Gibson Super 400, playing those same jazz chords while doing the melody from the beginning.”

These Tears – Rio (2023)

These Tears is about falling in love with someone you shouldn’t. I’m sure we’ve all been through that; it’s almost like facing an addiction, but you’re addicted to a human being. You continue because it’s hard to stop, which is heartbreaking. 

“So, that’s the crux of These Tears, lyrics-wise. I decided to do the old 10cc trick of looping chords, but instead of using a keyboard, I sang one chord and then looped another over it with my guitar. 

“So getting the proper vocal treatment and performance was important, and I was diligent about that. And then, with the guitar solo, that came out weird, but I like it because it’s not what you’d expect, which sums up the whole thing.”

Toxic – Rio (2023)

Toxic has the same message as These Tears in that it’s about toxic relationships. I had written a shuffle-type thing, and I was playing with all sorts of guitar sounds and putting them over the top of it. In doing that, I came up with something I began to enjoy, and before I knew it, the song was coming together.

“But the solo was interesting because I was enjoying myself so much when I started, and it went on for about 15 minutes. It was this big, extended solo, so I knew I needed to break it up. 

“So, that’s why I have two solos there. And then in the chorus, there’s an almost ZZ Top shuffle thing where there’s the main guitar in the chorus, which differs from the verses to where I got these weird sounds that seem very experimental, looking back on it.”

Owner of a Lonely Heart – 90125 (1983)

“I recently saw an interview with [producer] Trevor [Horn] where he said I used a 12-string Rickenbacker, but that’s not true. I didn’t use a 12-string Rickenbacker on any record with Yes, so Trevor was mistaken. But I wrote Owner of a Lonely Heart in London while in a downtrodden mood. 

“I first played the riff in the bathroom and thought, either this is a great riff, or it’s nothing but the room’s sound. The next day, I played it again, it sounded good, and I thought, 'I should pursue this.' And once I brought it to the sessions for 90125, I remember using a Boss Distortion [DS-1] and had it cranking through a Marshall. 

“I put a little delay on and recorded that very heavy intro using my Strat. And then, when the band kicked in, I changed from the Strat to my Les Paul, which gave a heavy, clean sound.”

Leave It – 90125 (1983)

“Strangely, the biggest thing I remember about Leave It is that it was a victim of not getting a great drum sound. I don’t know what happened, but we couldn’t dial it in while we were in the studio. I say that, though, because we ended up doing it acapella, and if we hadn’t done that, the song would not have turned out as it did. Once we did, it became enjoyable because I’d never done anything like that before.

“As for gear, I used that same Boss Distortion I mentioned earlier, giving the song the heavy sound in the middle. I did that with my Strat through the Boss pedal into an old Marshall from maybe 1972. The gear wasn’t far off from what I used on Owner of a Lonely Heart, aside from this beautiful 12-string electric I borrowed from Chris for the staccato parts.”

It Can Happen – 90125 (1983)

“With It Can Happen, I again used my Strat. But I used another pedal – one of those old Boss Chorus pedals [CE-2], which is such a beautiful-sounding pedal. I had the Strat, the Boss Chorus and a Boss Compressor/Sustainer [CS-2], all fed into that same Marshall. That’s the whole sound of the song, with maybe a bit of delay. 

“I remember playing with the five-way switch on the Strat and settling on the one that gave me the total bridge tone. Chris had written this melody that I felt needed something like that, and I thought, ‘There’s got to be some kind of riff that I can write to fit this,’ and I came up with that, which went on forever.”

Cinema – 90125 (1983)

“The Grammy we won for Cinema was the most unbelievable thing. I couldn’t believe it. We were up against some stiff competition, and when we won, I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ But I’ll take it. The intro to that was part of a much bigger piece when we were rehearsing, but we decided not to do it, and it became the shorter version from 90125

“We just retained the intro of that larger piece, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise by now that I used the same Strat. [Laughs] But I used the middle setting on the five-way switch. I know I had the DS-1 again and fed that into the Marshall. Beyond that, it was simple and not too far from the rest of 90125.”

Saving My Heart – Union (1991)

Union was a peculiar record as we recorded [it], and things didn’t feel very unified. There were a lot of session musicians on it, which no one was pleased about, which led to Rick [Wakeman] telling me he sees Union as the ‘onion record,’ as it makes him cry to think about it. The business people got involved, and it turned into a “reunion album,” and to this day, I’ve never listened to it all the way through.

“No one had much to do with each other’s songs, and Saving My Heart, Miracle of Life and Lift Me Up were the only things I played on. But with Saving My Heart specifically, it was Jon who said, ‘Oh, I love that; let’s record it.’ So we did. But when we mastered it, there was no solo, so I decided to put a quick one on. I remember finding it enjoyable once we mastered it again.”

Endless Dream Suite – Talk (1994)

“I am proud of that set [which includes Endless Dream: Silent Spring, Endless Dream: Talk and Endless Dream: Endless Dream]. I was using quite a lot of different stuff, but I recall having an old Korg from 1983. I designed many sounds on that Korg, which was limited from a digital memory aspect, but I got the sounds I needed and added guitars later.

“We did the Talk album digitally, and it was quite an experience. But that whole Endless Dream thing was something I did entirely on my own. I stuck my head in the sand and didn’t pull it out until it was finished. And when it was done, I didn’t know if anyone would like it because I was too close to it. But when John heard it, he had tears in his eyes, so I thought, ‘I guess they like it.’ I look back on that, and yes, it’s one of my greatest highlights.” 

  • Rio is out now via Inside Out.

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Andrew Daly

Andrew Daly is an iced-coffee-addicted, oddball Telecaster-playing, alfredo pasta-loving journalist from Long Island, NY, who, in addition to being a contributing writer for Guitar World, scribes for Rock Candy, Bass Player, Total Guitar, and Classic Rock History. Andrew has interviewed favorites like Ace Frehley, Johnny Marr, Vito Bratta, Bruce Kulick, Joe Perry, Brad Whitford, Rich Robinson, and Paul Stanley, while his all-time favorite (rhythm player), Keith Richards, continues to elude him.