10 Things You Gotta Do To Play Like Ritchie Blackmore

February 2, 2010

Short of joining a flagship neo-classical rock band, recording a string of timeless albums—including In Rock, Fireball, Machine Head, Deep Purple and The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Made In Japan, and Who Do We Think We Are—touring the world (and defining the term “heavy metal” along the way), you’re never going to do Ritchie Blackmore better than Blackmore himself. However, by dissecting the finer points of his style, sound, musical upbringing, and harmonic DNA, you can learn what makes the master tick, and further your own playing in the process. So, without further adieu, if you want to play like Blackmore, you gotta …

1 Get Training
First, you have to study classical music beginning at the ripe age of 11, play with skiffle groups into your early teens, then cut your musical teeth in the studios at age 17 by developing a feel for rock music that session stalwarts and ace sight readers don’t seem to “get.” You’ll also need musical mentors as diverse as ace British session veteran Big Jim Sullivan (“He taught me quite a lot of tricks,” says Blackmore), and the outrageous Screaming Lord Sutch to offer guidance and the opportunity to hone your craft and stage presence.

2 Acquire Tools of Mass Destruction
Although he’s an avowed Strat cat, Blackmore played a Gibson ES-335 before acquiring his first Fender Stratocaster from Eric Clapton. Over the years, Blackmore installed jumbo frets and Schaller, ahem, machine heads on his Strats, and scalloped his fretboards—lightly for the first seven frets, but quite deeply above that. Blackmore heavily favored the neck and bridge pickups, switching between them an average of 20 times per solo (“I don’t use the middle pickup at all,” he says). The ever-particular Blackmore also relies on Picato strings (gauged .010, .011, .014, .026, .036, and .042) and custom-made, one-end-squared-and-one-end-pointed tortoiseshell picks.

3 Amass Some Firepower
A longtime user of the fire-breathing 200-watt Marshall Major, Blackmore’s secret weapon (aside from the occasional wah-wah), was an old Aiwa reel-to-reel tape recorder. Since 1970, the Sorcerer of the Strat would plug his ax directly into the recorder’s input, and with the machine kept paused in “record” mode, use it as a preamp to kick his Marshalls into high gear. “The Aiwa gives me a fatter sound,” says Blackmore. “If I don’t use it, the tone is too shrill. I find it very difficult to play without it. It’s become this little soul on the side of the stage—like my little friend.” Currently, Blackmore endorses the Austrian-built ENGL Ritchie Blackmore Signature 100 amplifier.

4 Gather Intelligence
Some purport Blackmore to be the missing link between Hendrix and Van Halen. To gain this status, you must start with a wide range of musical influences that includes Hank Marvin, Duane Eddy, Cliff Gallup, James Burton, Scotty Moore, Jimmy Bryant, Chet Atkins, Les Paul, Django Reinhardt, Wes Montgomery, B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and J.S. Bach; blend them into a unique, recognizable style by melding steamy blues and hot country pickin’ with classical caliber technique and melodic invention; and top it all off with one of the most dramatic finger vibratos in the biz.

5 Concoct a Battle Plan
To really get into Blackmore’s mojo, you have to project a menacing, almost-dangerous vibe onstage, and be willing to get “all medieval” on your audience’s ass. Far from an act, however, Blackmore’s brood is real, giving him the “difficult to work with” tag. “My whole thing comes from Django,” says Blackmore. “He’s my hero, not just because of his playing, but because he was such an awkward bastard. It was brilliant how he would be scheduled to be onstage, and he’d still be in bed at a local hotel. We need more Django Reinhardts going, ‘F**k everybody. I’ll show up when I feel like showing up.’”

6 Mobilize the Heavy Artillery
Blackmore’s raison d’etre is his slew of killer signature rhythm figures using only a pedal root note and double-stopped perfect, fourth intervals. You already know how to play Blackmore’s “Smoke On The Water” intro, right? But did you know that this classic fourths-only riff was inspired by a British jazz-organ icon’s cover of a popular Ramsey Lewis tune? “I actually got the idea for that riff from Graham Bond,” says Blackmore. “He used to play in fourths like that on a record called ‘Wade in the Water’ by his group, the Graham Bond Organization. Playing those two notes together a fourth apart was very nasty sounding. Ever since then, I’ve tended to play a lot in fourths for structured riffs, rather than play a single note.” Just in case, make sure you play “Smoke” using fourth intervals at the 5th fret on the A and D strings, and at the 3rd, 5th and 6th frets on the D and G strings—not as root-5 chords.

Ex. 1a shows what you can do with a single fourth interval, a pedal A root, and a lot of imagination, while the riff in Ex. 1b adds a second double-stopped fourth one whole-step higher and segregates the roots and intervals into each half of the measure. (Tip: Try fretting the sixth string with your thumb in both examples.) In Ex. 1c, we add still another fourth one half-step lower than the original one. Begin with an Am7 chord voicing right out of Mickey Baker’s Jazz Guitar book: Fret the low A root with your 2nd finger and use your third finger to barre the fourth interval at the 5th fret. This shape will align your fret hand’s 1st and 4th fingers with the remaining double-stops at the 4th and 7th frets, and allow your 2nd finger to remain stationary on the root. The same goes for Ex. 1d, where the low A’s in each repeated measure get increasingly busier while the fourths are cut shorter and shorter (if you read it literally). Experiment with the amount of ring-over between bass notes and fourth intervals, and note that all three measures utilize the same 2+3+3+3+3+2 rhythmic script. Lock in and learn.

7 Pay It Forward
Blackmore credits Eric Clapton for inspiring his wicked-and-wide finger vibrato. And Blackmore’s bluesy head to “Lazy” (from Machine Head) fondly paraphrases Slowhand’s Bluesbreaker-era showcase “Steppin’ Out,” right down to the same style of third-position swing-sixteenth G blues riffing, as do Examples 2a through 2c. However, the non-bent b5 (Db) that appears in Examples 2b and 2c is way more R.B. than E.C. Ex. 2d features two typically dramatic Blackmore phrasing devices played within a single measure: a flurry of sextuplets built from a rhythmically displaced melodic motif followed by a trio of staccato quarter-note triplet bends. Interestingly, the second rhythmic grouping in this lick is a twice half-timed version of the first.

Moving up a whole-step to A minor, Ex. 2e utilizes more staccato phrasing as a held-then-gradually-released bend played as eighth-notes decelerates to a pair of quarter-note triplets, creating a signature stuttering effect. Don’t worry about hitting the exact pitches notated in bar 2; the idea is to start gradually releasing the held bend beginning on beat four of bar 1 and continuing a slow, even taper as you pick the quarter-note triplets through the total release target on the last note in bar 2.

8 Go For Baroque
You’ll definitely need a sizeable working vocabulary of neo-classical licks, plus the intuition to infuse them with emotive blues phrases. The rigorous 4th-finger workout in Ex. 3a begins with a busy IV-minor run copped from the D blues scale (plus its 6 and 9) before smoothly transitioning back to the I-minor chord via a classically-influenced ascending A minor scale sequence decorated with more staccato phrasing. “When I first started playing, I was taught to use my little finger,” Blackmore told GP in 1978. “If you don’t learn that in the beginning, you’re lost.” Ex. 3b makes use of open-string pedal tones, another Blackmore go-to device. Here, we navigate a Im-bVI-V progression (Gm-Eb-D) with a sequential four-note motif that alternates between two different G minor scale tones and two open G strings on each beat. Repeat the downstemmed part of the same motif over the first measure of Eb, then add a third fretted note and continue the descending G minor scale sequence down to the third position before nailing the target D bend on the downbeat of bar 3. Ex. 3c provides a template of harmonized Gm and Cm arpeggios—rhythmically grouped as 3+3+2 eighth-notes in each measure—which can be applied to F, Bb, Eb,and Cm for one bar each to form a Bach-inspired six-bar progression. Complete the phrase with the two-bar V-chord riff in Ex. 3d to create a full eight-bar cycle. Notice how Gtr. 2 switches rhythmic schemes (and positions on the staff) for the syncopated ascending-chromatics-against-pedal-D riff notated with downstems, while Gtr. 1’s upstemmed part carries on arpeggiating uninterrupted eighth-notes with a two-bar 3+3+3+4 motif. As always, you can experiment with different fingerings.

9 Respect the Lord
To rock some truly Purple riffs, you’ve gotta be able to keep up with an explosive organ player! Lightning-fast unison figures that may be easy for keyboardists often require guitarists to have tremendous picking chops and a clock-steady sense of time, and Blackmore’s got both departments well-covered. Examples 4a and 4b typify the kind of rapid-fire figures that Blackmore and Purple organ deity Jon Lord would team up on during the band’s heyday. There is no harmonic motion in Ex. 4a’s static A minor riff, though the G harmonic-minor-based gypsy dance figure in Ex. 4b covers a repeated V7-Im progression (D7-Gm-D7-Gm).

10 Hit the Highway
Finally, to play like Ritchie Blackmore, you’ve gotta have a substantial chunk of the maestro’s repertoire under your fingers, especially his blazing, must-know “Highway Star” solo from Machine Head. Ex. 5 illustrates a substantial excerpt from the Bach-influenced, blues-ified, single-note, harmonized Dm, Gm, and Csus4-to-C arpeggios in bars 1-6 (Gtrs. 1 and 2 have been arranged here to be playable by a single ambitious guitarist with a multi-tracker). Chromatically ascending oblique unison bends are harmonized in parallel perfect fifths over the V chord (A) in bars 7 and 8, and speed-picked ascending A minor scale harmonies are sequenced over the repeated Im-IVm-bVII progression in bars 9-12. This leads to Blackmore’s wild cascade of chromatically descending half-step pull-offs (separated by pairs of open-E pedal tones) played over the V chord in bars 13 and 14. You can also try picking every note. Gtr. 3’s primarily single-note rhythm figure provides harmonic and rhythmic support throughout. To prolong the rapture, jump back and replay bars 9-14 (including all repeats), during which Gtr. 3 lays down constant eighth-notes, then continue bar 14’s sequence of chromatic pull-offs through two more measures of an extended A chord, riding the riff all the way down to the 2nd and 1st frets. Long live rock and roll!

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