Gary Green on Gentle Giant

Gentle Giant’s quirky amalgam of hard rock, classical, and medieval-flavored European folk distinguished them as a unique force in the progressive rock movement of the early ’70s.

Founded by three brothers who all sang and played multiple instruments, the group quickly developed a reputation for complex arrangements that took full advantage of its timbral diversity, including madrigal-style vocal harmonies. Derek, Ray, and Phil Shulman played saxophones, clarinet, trumpet, piano, recorder, clavichord, bass, violin, viola, mellophone, and percussion between them; keyboardist Kerry Minnear also played cello and vibraphone; and guitarist Gary Green doubled on recorder.

Although Gentle Giant’s music freely employed prog staples such as odd time signatures and dramatic tempo and key shifts, the band refrained from the extended soloing typically associated with the genre. “The flashy virtuoso thing really wasn’t our bag,” explains Green. “We felt that taking long solos was just flaunting egos, and we preferred to accentuate the music and the interplay within the band. The challenge was to make the complex arrangements sound natural.”

Despite his emphasis on rhythm playing, Green did occasionally take some very tasteful and creative solos, and he coaxed remarkably gnarly sounds out of his stock ’60 Les Paul Standard—particularly considering that on many recordings he played through a 100-watt H&H solid-state amp with a 15" speaker. Green typically used cleaner tones, however, sometimes sexed-up with an Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress, a Schaller Phaser, or a wah pedal.

Gentle Giant began as an experimental group, and became more pop-oriented as time went on—a trajectory that led to wider acceptance at the cost of alienating many original fans. Albums such as Acquiring the Taste (1971), Three Friends (1972), and Octopus (1972) are highly idiosyncratic efforts that reveal a young band following its muses. “At that point, we were still feeling our way, and a lot of times something special comes out of that naïveté,” says Green. “Giant had a great deal of musical integrity—at least early on—and although we didn’t consciously try to evolve the music beyond rock and roll, that’s what we wound up doing.”

By the late ’70s, Giant fell prey to the anti-prog sentiment generated from the punk explosion. “Punk had a blatant f*** you attitude, which was taken up by the press and put on everybody,” remembers Green. “No one wanted to write about prog ‘dinosaurs,’ because there was this new thing that was much more sensational. Punks were spitting on interviewers live on television. What could a prog guy do to compete—break his recorder?”

Gary Green continues to play and record, most recently contributing to Back Against the Wall [Purple Pyramid], a Pink Floyd tribute.