Big Shots

Fender Frontline magazine Winter 1993.
David Gilmour: Melodic Wonder

What makes a memorable guitar solo? Essential lead guitar is comprised of an equal mix of tone, feeling, and melodic sensibilities. And though one may have a hard time defining in technical language exactly what that montage consists of, people in general -- and guitarists specifically -- have no problem recognizing when the critical balance has been reached. Because when everything is just right, a great guitar riff has a magical quality that transcends the ordinary, and hits you right in the center of your musical soul. That is the quality that legendary Pink Floyd fretman David Gilmour seems to have at his beck and call: rendering each separate solo a stunning melodic wonder that leaves the ear aching for more.

Like the history of Psychedelia itself, the history of Pink Floyd began sometime in the mid '60's, and in the last three decades, has changed and grown until it has achieved almost mythic proportions. And though David Gilmour is now synonymous with that legendary band, his beginnings with that group were rather less than auspicious.

Gilmour came from a relatively musical family -- "My parents sung well, my brother played flute, and sister the violin," he remembers -- "and I was always very interested in music. Folk and blues at first: Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Leadbelly, Pete Seeger and all those people. Subsequently Elvis Presley and that whole thing."

David didn't receive his first guitar until he was 13, at which time he began to teach himself the instrument with the aid of an instructional record, and his ever-present crystal radio.

"I used to listen to a station called 'Radio Luxemborg' out of Europe," he explains, "and try to learn all the parts of my favorite songs -- bass, rhythm guitar, lead. Naturally it took a while, often involving 20 passes or more at the song during a week's time!"

He picked up the usual contemporary fair [sic] -- Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry and so on -- and was starting to form and/or join bands by his late teens. One fairly successful band, Joker's Wild, played regularly for three years. "We were quite popular," muses David, "because we played all the current dance music, and that's what people wanted to hear. At one point, we had 5 residencies (regular weekly gigs) at the same time."

Joker's Wild, in fact, had opened several times for a band called the Pink Floyd Sound, which had been assembled by some of David's friends from school. Pink Floyd had become quite successful in Britain and were starting to expand even further, but their rise was being blocked by the infamous psychiatric downfall of the band's charismatic guitarist/writer/singer Syd Barrett.

David was approached surreptitiously by several band members about "helping out", and later received a momentous call. "They rang me up, and asked me if I wanted to join," Gilmour recounts with characteristic aplomb. The transition was anything but smooth.

Assuming the guitar and vocal duties that Syd was no longer able to perform on stage, Gilmour was the recipient of unallayed hostility from his old best friend, who -- even after being officially fired from the band -- would glower at David from the front row of the audience.

But from those shaky beginnings arose a newer, more approachable Pink Floyd. Gilmour's 6-stringed virtuosity, combined with his incredible flair for melody, had forged a unique guitar sound that was to become Pink Floyd's trademark.

As David describes it: "My style is a mish-mash, really. A combination of blues licks, guitar solos I've learned from the past, all sorts of lovely, lovely tunes -- for instance those from musicals like West Side Story. You just put it all together, bit by bit. Every time you've learned someone else's melody, from any type of music, that melody gets inside your brain a little. Eventually, something from what is learned is going to be regurgitated into something else you do."

In addition to Gilmour's uncanny melodic sense was the use of effects and amps to achieve his unmistakably rich, singing tone. What drove him to experiment initially? "I figure it was mostly paranoia about my guitar playing! I thought I'd cover it up with all sorts of exciting effects and things." His "paranoia", however, evolved into a powerful facet of his individual sound, as well as that of Pink Floyd in general.

That evolution is quite well presented in the new box set available from Columbia records, which chronicles the Floyd's odyssey via 7 CD's and a 112-page book. The sheer size needed to adequately detail the band's musical exploits is in itself a sign of how much they've contributed to rock's aural landscape.

After two and a half decades of driving the "pink" machine, David is in an enviable position. Free from the need to pump out album after album in order to keep his image in the public's usually fickle eye, he creates when the muse strikes him, and devotes his energy to other pursuits in the meantime. As to whether he ever considers imparting his fretboard prowess in written form, he answers: "No I don't, because I can sum up everything about playing the guitar in about two sentences." And they are? "Play what you feel. And ignore everything else!"

Sage advice indeed, especially when you consider just how well that very philosophy has worked for David himself.