Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Lindsey Buckingham is Not Resting on Past Laurels

December 1, 2008

“I FEEL I’M AT MY MOST CREATIVE POINT,” enthuses Lindsey Buckingham. Quite an assessment when you stop to ponder everything the singer, songwriter, and producer has already accomplished in his 40-year career. As a San Francisco teenager, Buckingham was opening for national acts with acid-rockers Fritz. In the early ’70s, he and Fritz vocalist Stevie Nicks branched out as a duo, and recorded Buckingham Nicks, which earned fine reviews and a cult following, if not major sales. They did, however, catch the ears of Fleetwood Mac’s Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, who were in California recruiting a replacement for guitarist and vocalist Bob Welch. Buckingham was enlisted, brought Nicks along, and the rest is rock history. With Buckingham and Nicks in tow, the band metamorphosed from its early Peter Green-led blues incarnation to chart-busting arena rockers and AM radio mainstays. Buckingham assumed an MVP roll as lead guitarist, singer, songwriter, producer, and artistic avatar. Guitarists gave him props for his fingerstyle chops—his Travis-picked accompaniment to “Landslide” is one of the all-time must-know fingerpicking tunes—and his tasty right-for-the-song licks drew comparisons to George Harrison’s work with the Beatles.

Buckingham delighted critics and aggravated record company power players by encouraging the band to follow up the gazillion-selling Rumors with the dark, brooding, musically challenging Tusk in 1979. In the face of Tusk’s underwhelming sales—it sold a “mere” two million copies as opposed to Rumors’ 19 million—Buckingham spent the ’80s gracefully walking an artistic tightrope, simultaneously lending his skills to the Mac’s mainstream return, while indulging his more avant-garde leanings with a series of successful solo albums. He left the band in 1987, but rejoined a decade later for a wildly celebrated reunion tour, live album, and DVD. Say You Will, the first Fleetwood Mac studio album to feature both Buckingham and Nicks in 15 years, was released in 2003.

Although a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and bona-fide living legend, Buckingham’s latest solo CD, Gift of Screws [Warner Brothers], reminds the listener that he’s also an artist unwilling to rest on past laurels.

“After Say You Will, I asked the band for a three-year period to concentrate on solo projects,” says Buckingham. “Since then I’ve recorded Under the Skin, toured, released Live at the Bass Performance Hall, recorded Gift of Screws, and am getting ready to tour behind that. The most sustained and compressed stretch of solo career I’ve had yet.” And despite Gift of Screws’ emphasis on pop hooks and inventive production techniques, guitarists will dig Buckingham in an unrestrained solo setting. Songs such as “Time Precious Time” and “Wait for You” provide wide open canvases for his snappy signature fingerstyle chops.

How did you develop your right-hand picking technique?
As a guitarist, I consider myself a refined primitive. I’m not schooled, and I didn’t take lessons. My early education came from a chord book and my older brother’s Elvis 45s. Scotty Moore was one of the earliest players I was aware of, and he’d often employ fingerstyle to get that Travis roll going. I was also into the banjo and dug how bluegrass players with metal fingerpicks and plastic thumbpicks could get serious velocity going. I think all of that found its way into my playing. In Fritz I played the bass, because that’s what I thought my fingerstyle was more suited to in a rock and roll context. I didn’t start playing lead until ’73, during the Buckingham Nicks era, and just adapted to playing without a pick. When I first joined Fleetwood Mac, the other members unsuccessfully lobbied to get me to use one.
I honestly don’t think my fingerstyle technique is all that unique. The thing I can call my own is the way I’ve chosen to apply it. But in my mind that falls under the rubric of production and arrangement more than chops.

The rolling nylon-string arpeggios of “Time Precious Time” (from Gift of Screws) seem to be a prime example of that.
The idea for that guitar part came to me when I was watching the movie The New World. There is an evocative Wagner piece [“Vorspiel to Das Rheingold”] that runs through the movie, and I was looking for a way to translate those welling orchestral strings to guitar. The arpeggio roll I’m doing with the right hand is not groundbreaking. What makes it unusual is the tuning. The strings on the bottom were tuned to a root and a fourth [F, Bb] and the top four strings were tuned [sings the pitches C, Eb, F, and G]—voicings that are only like a step or a step-and-a-half apart. Once I found the tuning, it was a matter of learning new chord shapes and practicing until I could play it fast enough. But the whole guitar part was the result of the arrangement I first heard in my head.

Are you still using your custom Rick Turner guitars?
Yeah. He made my original stage electrics back in about ’79. Before Fleetwood Mac, I was using a Telecaster because it had a really clean tone for my fingerstyle approach. The band’s pre-existing sound was much fatter and they felt the Tele really didn’t fit, however, so they asked me to use a Les Paul. But as someone who primarily uses his fingers to play, I found the Les Paul unsatisfying, especially onstage where it just wouldn’t cut through. The solution came in the form of Rick Turner, who had been working for Alembic and had made several basses for John McVie. I asked him if he could design something that had the fullness of a Les Paul but the bite and percussiveness of the Tele, and he came up with the Rick Turner Model 1. I also use several of his Renaissance guitars. And I’m a big fan of Taylors, especially the Baby Taylors, which sound great in the studio. They have this nice delicate midrange when strummed with a thin pick. Yes, I actually do use a pick on occasion if that’s what I think will sound the best!

You don’t use traditional drums on many of your songs.
There’s a certain tyranny to the traditional rock trap set that disallows other things. Joining Fleetwood Mac was an exercise in adapting to that situation. There were much fewer holes to fill in the sound than I was used to and I had to refine my whole concept of what to play, and when and how to play it. A drum kit forces you to play around it and tone your playing down. Even just having a kick drum on beats one and three and a snare hit on two and four largely defines what you can do, and cuts off a lot of the openness that you otherwise might have. That’s why the best jazz drummers play with such a light touch. They allow the other instruments to provide their own rhythmic structure.
If you just tap out a beat of unaccented eighth notes and use that as your drum track, you’re allowed to have other instruments provide rhythmic emphasis. “Great Day” from Gift of Screws was composed that way.

Did you first try to break traditional rock clichés and boundaries like that on Tusk?
Yes. That is probably my favorite Fleetwood Mac album because it was the point at which I was able to fully define the way I think as an artist. The success of Rumors offered a tremendous amount of freedom and credibility—but I felt that freedom was only valid if we used it. On the other hand, you’ve got the commercial machine that wants you to follow formulas so they can keep getting the most bang for their buck. It’s sort of a rigged game because it doesn’t allow you to keep growing. This is why I have so much empathy for Brian Wilson, because he went through a similar struggle.

Some of your best work has been your production on Stevie Nicks’ and Christine McVie’s songs.
Unlike Stevie, I’m not a natural songwriter. I’m a song stylist in that I know enough about music production and arrangement to assemble something resembling a coherent song. One of my innate talents is producing and arranging and knowing how to get the best out of a song. The perfect example of that—and the one I’m most proud of with Fleetwood Mac— is the song “Gypsy.”
When Stevie first brought that in it was sort of this flowing narrative of a song without an obviously definitive melody or discernable chorus. That little da, da, da, da, da, da, da hook placed underneath the lead vocal in the right spots really gave the song its structure.

Tusk, in some ways, represents your first solo album because several tracks were done in your home studio with you playing all the parts.
I had a 24-track studio at home and I was looking for found sounds. A song like “The Ledge,” for example, started with a pulsing metronome track. There’s no bass, there’s just a guitar tuned down to where the strings are snapping back against the fretboard. I found a shoebox and rapped out a beat and there was the track. It became the difference between making a movie—which is like cutting a track with the band where it’s a democratized, controlled, and scripted process—and painting, where you have a blank canvas and you’re just kind of slopping colors on and seeing what happens. I wanted to follow the creative vision I had. To me it’s about being honest, not being avant-garde. Being different just for the sake of it isn’t the point.

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