Power to the Power Trio



15 Aug 1993 — Rock Band Nirvana — Image by ?Jesse Frohman/CORBIS OUTLINE

Mr. Egan

Probably the most iconic line-up for a true rock band is a lead guitarist, a rhythm guitarist, a bass player and a drummer.  One of those four musicians will perform the lead vocals, and it might not really matter which one does because none of them is remotely trained as a real singer.  Whatever the singer lacks in real skill, he compensates with volume and enthusiasm and by playing an instrument while he sings. That line-up, according to John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival fame, goes back to Elvis Presley who sang and played rhythm while backed by Scotty Moore, Bill Black and DJ Fontana.  That standard line-up worked for the Beatles, Creedence, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Metallica, and even the Foo Fighters for most of their career.

So what happens when you only have three guys in the band?

Simply put, you have a power trio, and everybody has to work a little harder.  It’s pretty much the punk ethos at its core (although power trios existed before punk was even a thought) – it’s all about economy, simplicity and self-reliance. There is literally no one else to fall back on to make the band work.  No one can hide or ride the coattails of the other members. The drummer ends up playing harder.  The bass player has to be way better. The guitarist has to play rhythm and lead when that’s humanly possible.  And somebody still has to sing.

Honor the bands that have to work just that much harder to make it work.  Take a listen to the best of the best when it comes to power trios:

5.) Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream (tie): Both bands are probably the most-influential blues-based-rock power trios in existence because of their iconic guitarists – Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton.  They revolutionized rock in pretty much the exact same time span of 1966 to about 1970.  Those guitarists needed solid backing to shine, and they had it with drummers Mitch Mitchell and Ginger Baker and bassists Noel Redding and Jack Bruce.

4.) Budgie: Not many American rock fans have ever heard of this 70’s power trio, and their albums can be pretty difficult to find.  Sometimes that’s part of the fun and mystique – you can’t just download from iTunes.  You have to search the record shops, dig up imports, find cassettes or vinyl copies at garage sales.  (Yes, I said it.  Cassettes.  C-A-S-S-E-T-T-E-S. Vinyl.  V-I-N-Y-L.  Look them up if you don’t know what I’m talking about.)  Budgie was heavy and weird and inspired bands like Metallica and Soundgarden as part of the new wave of British heavy metal in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Check out tunes like “Sky High Percentage,” “Crash Course in Brain Surgery,” “I Ain’t No Mountain,” “Homicidal Suicidal” and “Breadfan” to hear how just three guys can rock better than some groups with five guys.

3.) Rush: Rush is probably the undisputed royalty of power trios. Drummer Neil Peart and bassist/singer Geddy Lee are so unbelievable that I sometimes forget they even have the astonishing Alex Lifeson as a guitarist.  The older they get, the more progressive and technical they become – which is super cool in some respects.  They are technically amazing and lyrically complex – the thinking man’s rock band.  If you want raw power and emotion from a trio, go with the early albums like “Fly By Night,” “2112” and “Moving Pictures.”  If you dig thinking and admiring stellar musicianship, check out everything they’ve done since about 1982. So… if they’re so great, why aren’t they number one?  For me, it’s about wanting the raw emotion and energy from a trio, and Rush is more technical and cerebral – sort of like jazz.  I get it, and I admire it, and I have listened to them since I was about 14 years old, and “Tom Sawyer” is the gold standard of anthems. However, when I want a playlist that just rocks out and helps me burn off stress, the thinking part holds me back, and Rush gets passed over for the next two on my list.

2.) Green Day: Billy Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool are the punk rock trio that sold millions more albums than many pop musicians who have also sold millions.  Then they turned their “American Idiot” concept album mega-success into a Broadway musical mega-success that rocks harder and has even more dysfunction and vulgarity than the original album.  They might not be Rush when it comes to technique, and Billy Joe is no Clapton or Hendrix, but his lyrics speak to Generation X and tie together influences like the Beatles and the Ramones in ways the American public didn’t think was possible.  Even daring to make a punk Broadway musical gets style points.  Pulling it off musically with  same three musicians while letting a Broadway cast do the singing gets serious substance points.

1.) Nirvana: OK, this is a cheat. Nirvana lasted less time than any other trio on this list, they recorded fewer songs than any of the others, and on both their last tour and at their Hall of Fame Induction, they became a traditional four-piece rock band. Nonetheless, it’s my article, and I’ll write it however I want – especially if it’s a shameless plug for the greatness that is Dave Grohl.  Nirvana pulled together a trio that fused the weird rock/punk subcultures of the Pacific Northwest and Washington DC into something that looked weird and punkish but was really a Beatles-inspired rock band giving voice to a disenfranchised and alienated generation at the exact moment the hedonistic rock culture of the 80’s became a thoroughly ridiculous parody that transformed the famed mockumentary This is Spinal Tap into an embarrassing reality. Kurt Cobain’s angst-ridden lyrics and simplistic, chord-driven guitar were layered over the underrated bass work of Krist Novoselic and the bombastic, John Bonham-inspired drumming of Dave Grohl.  After their demise following Cobain’s suicide, Dave Grohl reinvented himself as a guitarist and lead singer with the Foo Fighters (who are the greatest living and functioning rock band).  Grohl even continued with another short-lived but cool power trio (Them Crooked Vultures with Josh Homme and John Paul Jones). As a consequence, Nirvana stands out as a power trio of generational significance – the new torchbearers for punk/pop-inspired rock after a generation of blues-inspired rock whose torchbearers were Hendrix’s Experience and Clapton’s Cream.