Few rock guitarists play the silence as well as David Gilmour. Through eleven albums with Pink Floyd and two solo records, Gilmour has established himself as a master of mood rock. In doing this he's found a way to apply the blues to contemporary settings, making it sound as if it were just discovered. Unlike guitar great Stevie Ray Vaughan, who revives interest in the classic blues style, Gilmour has shown the genre to sit in settings of the future as well as it sat on the back porches of its Delta past.
His legacy with Floyd started in early 1968
when he took over for founding member Syd Barrett, who had become a
casualty. Gilmour's first recording with the band was the "Saucerful of Secrets" collection, his last '82's "Final Cut". His two solo albums, "David Gilmour" and "About Face", both feature plenty for Floyd and guitar fans.
A meticulous craftsman, David Gilmour stands motionless on stage, letting his guitar lines hang in the air or swirl over the band. As stylish, economical and bloozy as Billy Gibbons, Gilmour's signature sound as heard in songs like "Run Like Hell" from "The Wall" is a fat, clear Strat with digital delay. But with "Dark Side of the Moon" now on the charts for close to 550 weeks, it's songs like "Money" that have helped put Gilmour in the guitar hero category. In fact, he surprised many by beating out Police-man Andy Summers in round one of our own Guitar Wars. A relaxed and quiet man, David Gilmour has not always been forthcoming with the press. But with a major push for "About Face" underway, he was open and thoughtful with his answers as Guitar went in search of his lost chord.
JS: Did you set out to create an economical style?
DG: I couldn't say where it arrived from. You use whatever talent you've got and try to make the best of everything that's available. I can't play very fast and I don't practice much. Through my personal aesthetics, I edit things out that I don't like and keep things I do. One is always editing down, but at the beginning there were many more things to try than there are now because I've tried a lot. It takes years of looking to find out what you like and don't like. I would like to be a fast guitar player. There are moments when it's nice to use speed as an occasional punctuation. To get that crisp and clean and precise between other moments would be something nice to do. But I've never been happy with the way I play.
JS: Did you start out as a fan of the blues?
DG: I was a blues fan but I was an all-around music fan. For me it was Leadbelly through B.B. King and later Eric Clapton, Roy Buchanan, Jeff Beck, Eddie Van Halen and anyone you care to mention. Mark Knopfler has a lovely, refreshing guitar style. He brought back something that seemed to have gone astray in guitar playing.
JS: Was there a particular song or songs that sparked you to imitate another player?
DG: Of course, there were many. I was trying to learn 12-string acoustic guitar like Leadbelly at the same time I was trying to learn lead guitar like Hank Marvin and later Clapton. All of those different things had their moments and filtered through my learning process. These days I don't listen to other people with the objective of trying to steal their licks, although I've got no objections to stealing them if that seems like a good idea. I'm sure that I'm still influenced by Mark Knopfler and Eddie Van Halen as well.
JS: Have you tried to adopt any of the post-Van Halen techniques?
DG: I can't play like Eddie Van Halen. I wish I could. I sat down to try some of those ideas and I can't do it. I don't know if I could ever get any of that stuff together. Sometimes I think I should work at the guitar more. I play every day but I don't consciously practice scales or anything in particular.
JS: You are a producer, guitar player, songwriter and singer. Do you put them in any order?
DG: When I'm making an album I'm primarily a songwriter. Being a guitarist is secondary because the one only exists with the other. I don't want to be a guitar player and do a lot of other peoples' songs. When I'm performing live I tend to think of myself more as a guitar player and I try my best as a singer. I'm a lot better at singing than I used to be. I've been working on that for years.
JS: The sound of your guitar must play an important role in your music.
DG: Sound is very important to me; it makes my life easier and playing a lot more fun.
JS: Was it something you sought or did you stumble onto it?
DG: I gradually worked towards it. I used all sorts of effects and ways of playing, getting more and more precise and deliberate about what I wanted. After a while I stopped fumbling around so much. But you never stop completely.
JS: Your Strat has a much fatter sound than usual.
DG: It's all standard equipment. Everything I used on this tour was brand new. I used a Vintage Series Strat on stage. I didn't want to take the old ones on the road. They get damaged and stolen too regularly. I tried out between thirty and forty guitars and picked a couple of good ones, as they do vary enormously. The red Strat is out of the box. The black one has the bottom string tuned down to D and uses a Kahler tremolo system. I'm using brand new Fender amps as well. They're 100-watt tops with two 4X12 cabinets in stereo. I've stopped using my old custom-made pedal board. Instead I'm using the Boss Programmable Pedal Board with a few modifications for flexibility. I started off with a Binson Echo unit, which is like a tape loop thing. It's actually a metallic disc that spins around. It's just like the old Echoplex units. I use the MXR Digital Delay. I use one of their old ones most of the time because the width is narrower. If you get too high a quality bandwidth on a DDL you hear too much pinging and lose the sort of echo effect I use it for. Some are actually too high quality for my personal taste. My sound has everything to do with what sounds good to me. I don't care how I get it.
I didn't use any of this equipment when I was making the record. It's always been different guitars, different amps and different effects. Sometimes you go in the studio and one guitar will sound great and you play well because it sounds great. The next day you go back into the same studio and plug in the same guitar into the same amp which has not been touched and it sounds awful. So you have to try a couple of other guitars and find one that sounds good on that day.
JS: What was the headless guitar I saw in concert?
DG: It's an exact copy of a Martin prototype from the early '60s. A friend of mine has the original guitar. He lent it to me but he wouldn't sell it, so I had it copied exactly.
JS: As a major guitar collector do you think that older is always better?
DG: All guitars are different from each other. Some I buy because they are old and beautiful. But the new Fender Vintage Series guitar I bought is probably as good as any Fender I own, old or new. There is something to be said for working in a guitar over time. Thay may be in my imagination but it seems to feel like that to me. I also tend to like guitars without the new sticky varnish on the neck. In fact I've had Charvel make me a few necks without varnish.
JS: Most guitarists I've spoken with over the years fall into one of two categories: they either enjoy everything they've recorded or they only hear the mistakes and places for improvement. Do you fall into these categories?
DG: I usually go over my mistakes so I don't have to go back and cringe a few years later. On very few occasions have I left a clunker. There are some mistakes that you like. If there's a mistake that I don't like, I change it before it gets out. I've got to live with this for years, but a lot of solos come out of clunkers. I tend to go for a solo by just putting on a guitar without even thinking about the key or anything. I just hammer through it until it feels right. I try to get disoriented, if you like. That helps me find an approach which I refine and work on.
JS: How do you disorient yourself?
DG: First I try to get silly. I don't try to get it right at all -- I'm not interested in that. I'd much rather just be wild and forget any sense of getting it right. I have time to get it right later. Out of those wild moments come good ideas that I work on, so I punch in a fair amount. Most of the solos start with doing ten different tracks. I wind up taking parts from three of them and sticking them together. I look for certain moments and if these moments match up with other moments that are right, those are the bits I keep. I'm looking for feel and a sense of movement. I don't think about it, I just say what's right is right. Performing live you try to get it right and you also try to be brave. It doesn't matter if you drop a clunker. The record lasts, the performance is transitory. They have different priorities. I'm an enormous fan of Jeff Beck because he is not afraid to screw up. People who are tend to get boring.
JS: Is disorienting yourself also useful for composing?
DG: It's the same idea. I can't play the piano well and a lot of the best moments come from that because I invent. Sometimes I hear a song by someone else and use their tuning to disorient myself on the guitar. It becomes a great medium for writing because you don't fall into cliches. That's the biggest single danger for me and many other players. We all fall into our own cliches so easily. I'll often write a song without a guitar by just singing to myself. I don't have a standard system. I compose differently every time.
JS: How did you come up with "Run Like Hell"?
DG: It's all on a D pedal. That came from an old trick I'd been using, which is having a DDL in triplet time to the actual beat. When you play across it, it helps you to double-track yourself. It has a certain feel, which sounds boring and ordinary if you put it in 4/4. If you put it in a 3/4 time it has an interesting bounce to it. Because the DDL keeps running along, you've got time to leave the pedal playing and play a couple of chords while the effects carry on.
JS: One of your stylistic traits is a distinctive vibrato. Can you explain how you do it?
DG: I do it with the fingers and the vibrato bar. In the middle of one note I may move from the finger to the bar. I love the bar and have always used one. My style comes fairly naturally to me. I don't have any intellectual plan for what I try to do in a song. I know there's a lot of people who feel they hae to assert an identity into what they do. They try to project their sound. Consequently they make a whole album with similar tempos. I'm lucky in that whatever style I seem to take on, it always comes out sounding like me. I don't have to worry about trying to have an identity. I enjoy making records that are a complete hodge-podge of styles, 'cause that's what I like. For example, whenever I tried to sound like another guitarist it sounded more like Gilmour trying to play Hendrix. People have physical characteristics in their actual movement process and their coordination makes them distinctive.
JS: I noticed that when you want to build intensity, you don't play any faster, you simply change backgrounds.
DG: Any trick I can think of using, any effects pedal I can make work, I will use without compunction. I've got all that stuff available to me. I hear people say, "What would you do if you didn't have all those effects?" I say, "What would I do if I didn't have an electric guitar and an amp?" It's the same thing. I'm sure you understand by now that I am not a purist.
JS: What got you going with these repetitive patterns?
DG: I've always fiddled around with leaving a bass note the same and changing the chords above it and vice versa. I'm forever fooling around on piano or something with one chord and working out different bass things that could work with it. On stage I like to finish with a low E on a C chord. I try not to restrict myself. I've got quite a large amount of musical knowledge in there with no formal training. I don't read music. I listen to chords on the record and say, "That sounds nice," but I can't work out what the hell you're supposed to call it.
JS: Have drum machines made composing any easier for you?
DG: They make demos so much easier. Even if you play the drums reasonably well, the time and energy you spend learning to play and getting a sound is harder than using the first-class, recorded drum sound you get from a Linn drum machine. There are things that drum machines can do that can't be done with real drummers. That precise, robotic insistence is great in certain applications.
JS: What differences were there between recording "Dark Side of the Moon" and "The Wall"?
DG: They were made very differently. "Dark Side" was actually performed live on stage for a while before we went in and recorded it. Most of the work was done ahead of time so we were a little more together in the studio. Generally speaking, we put the bass and drums down together and tacked everything else on afterwards. With "The Wall" we did most of the drums with Nick playing to a drum machine through a click track. We'd take a drum fill from one take and use the next fill from another take. We would chop things around for whatever we wanted to get. Myself, Roger and Bob Ezrin were in full attendance, but Roger used to take one day off a week to play golf. Nick's work was largely finished when we put down the drum tracks. Generally speaking, Rick came in and played keyboards when we asked him to.
JS: Would you have enjoyed playing more shows of "The Wall"?
DG: We did that show over thirty times. It was terrific fun but in the beginning it was incredibly hairy and difficult to do. The cueing was like in a huge scale theater. After a while I got to know everything like clockwork. You could never risk having a drink before the show -- it was so precise that I couldn't afford to let my attention wander. I had to count the whole band in and do various directing chores. If you missed a cue you'd have a whole film going that was out of synch. You couldn't afford to make a mistake. I thoroughly enjoyed it but it's not something you'd want to do that much because it's slightly restricting musically. You can't just start over, like I did in one of the New York shows.
JS: Do the songs take on their full life in composing, on record, or in concert?
DG: It's in all three of those things and different in each of them. I love them all equally in different ways. When you're performing you're not going for perfection. I don't care if I make mistakes. Trying to capture life, imagination and sparkle and put them onto tape is a difficult and demanding job. It takes months of painstaking work for me. But when you've done twelve vocal parts yourself and mixed them with a block of harmonies and guitar solos and gotten all that perfection, it's wonderful to listen back and have it sound fantastic. I'm not interested in that live 'cause it's impossible. You can only be one person on the stage; you can be an orchestra by yourself in the studio.
JS: How did you work with Pete Townshend on "Love on the Air" and "All Lovers are Deranged"?
DG: I had lyrics for those songs but I really didn't like them. I asked him for help because I was running short on time and even shorter on inspiration for improving the lyrics. I was very pleasantly surprised when I got the cassette back for "Love on the Air". I like where he had put the line and how he had done the vocal. I had heard the vocal line in a completely different place and deliberately sent Pete a tape with no melody on it. It was just a completed backing track with no lines on it at all and no ideas as to what I thought the lyrics should be. He didn't have any restrictions. Of course in some places which I intended to be instrumental, he put words on. "Lovers" was the same situation, only I changed the placing of his melody and lyrics a bit.
JS: Do you have any favorite guitar solos on record?
DG: Both solos on "Comfortably Numb" are pretty good. The solos on "Dogs" from the "Animals" album I kept on because they're different and slightly outside my usual scope. I like what I did on the instrumental "Raise My Rent" from the first solo album. That was sort of an excuse to go on a 12-bar blues.
JS: You do a fair amount of instrumentals. Could they have been songs if lyrics were written for them?
DG: I guess they could have been. I don't know. They're an excuse for me to play guitar. It's all music. For me music is very lyric-dominated these days and I love lyrics and I love songs. But I also like listening to a good instrumental and a good piece of playing on any instrument. A beautiful chord sequence can be very provocative and emotional.