IT IS A NEARLY INEXCUSABLE cliché to state that the sound of this or that musician is “immediately recognizable.” But in the case of David Gilmour, the transgression is nonetheless justified. The four-note arpeggio transitioning out of the opening drone on “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” the searing and frenzied slide work throughout “One of These Days,” the Uni-Vibed chords on “Breathe In the Air,” the choppy wah stabs and screaming solo lines on “Money,” the harmonized Tele melodies on “Dogs,” the spanky chording on “Another Brick In the Wall (Part 2),” and the majestic solo on “Comfortably Numb”—all these iconic notes and tones evidence Gilmour’s singular touch faster than you can say “Ummagumma.”
Since joining Pink Floyd at age 21 in 1967, Gilmour has continually avoided even the proverbial path less traveled, opting instead to craft a style that reaches for the galactic core while remaining rooted in the earthiest blues. Whether it be sitting amidst the empty ruins of Pompeii coaxing clusters of cosmic sound from a handful of pedals and a Binson Echorec in 1971, or standing in front of an elaborate assemblage of amps and effects processors playing “A Great Day for Freedom” to an audience of 50,000 in the Gdansk shipyards in 2006, Gilmour has remained true to his original trajectory.
Gilmour recently announced he will return to the stage this September for a brief tour around a new as-yet-untitled solo album. While we don’t know what we can expect from him this time around, we thought it was worth looking back at the gear Gilmour used for the tour of his last solo album, 2006’s On an Island. Music from that album was spotlighted in his Live in Gdansk record, as were Pink Floyd classics such as “Astronomy Domine,” “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” “Comfortably Numb,” and “Echoes.”
In this interview, Gilmour tells us about his favorite guitars, effects, and why no matter what he does, he always ends up sounding like himself.
You are generally thought of as a “Strat guy,” but you play quite a few different guitars. Can you describe a few of your favorites, and what it is about those particular instruments that you like?
The Stratocaster obviously has to take first place. That was the guitar I always wanted when I was a kid—mostly because Hank Marvin had one. I just loved the Strat, but I couldn’t afford one, so I played other guitars. The one I played most often while I was in bands in my hometown was a Hofner Club 60, which was a very nice little guitar. Then, when I was 21, my parents—who lived in New York at the time—bought me a Telecaster, which was the first actual Fender I owned. It was lovely, but I still lusted after a Strat, so I got one as soon as I could afford it. The Stratocaster is the most versatile guitar ever made, and it has this funny way of making you sound like yourself. In my view, you can recognize guitar players who play a Strat more readily than you can those who play Gibsons, and that’s an opinion I’ve held for some time. Having said that, it’s very nice to play something else occasionally, like my goldtop Les Paul with those old singlecoil P-90s.
Does it have Les Paul’s original trapeze bridge or a stop tailpiece?
It has a stop tailpiece. For the last album, I wanted one with a Bigsby vibrato, but I didn’t want to change the old one I’d used to play, for example, the solo on “Another Brick In the Wall Part 2,” so I found another one. I suppose you could say that they are a little raunchier than Fenders.
You also play a Gretsch?
I’ve got an old black Duo Jet I’ve had for a very long time. I actually used it on a couple of tracks on my first solo album in 1978. It’s quite hard to play, but it’s a real beauty, and it’s a beautiful-sounding instrument that fits perfectly for some things. I played it on “Where We Start.”
You’ve played Telecasters on a lot of songs, too, like the solo on “Dogs.”
Yes, that’s right. I think it was done using the neck pickup, which I changed to a Strat pickup, because the Tele neck pickups never seem to be quite up to the job. I did use a Tele on the new album, as well. It was the main guitar on “Take a Breath.”
Having used everything from a Fuzz Face into a Hiwatt, to a Boss Heavy Metal pedal into a Boogie into a Fender, you still wind up sounding like yourself.
Well, this is what I’ve found, too [laughs].
How do you account for that?
The sound you wind up with is the sound that is as close to the sound you hear in your head as you can get. And then it is the notes you choose to play, and how you play them, and that is entirely down to your own personal taste. One is constantly striving to get closer to this magical, perfect sound that is in one’s head.
The Binson Echorec was once a huge part of your sound. Do you still have any of these, and if so, do you ever use them?
I don’t use them very much anymore, although there are some things that only a Binson will do. I used to be expert with Binsons. I was able to dismantle them, put them back together, and change the head positioning. In fact, there was a time when Pink Floyd’s original road manager, Peter Watts, and I were the only two people who could actually maintain a Binson. But they are so noisy, and I guess all the ones we’ve got are so old that it is impossible to keep them noise free. I have managed to nearly replicate what a Binson will do using a combination of modern digital units.
To get the multi-head sounds?
The multi-head sounds, as well as the Swell setting—which is what I use on the beginning of “Time,” for example.
Which combination of delay settings do you use to replicate the Swell effect?
To be honest, I don’t really know—or care—that much about these things, and I’m not exactly certain what I do use some of the time. I’ve said it before, but I’ll repeat it: I could go into any music shop in any city, get exactly what I need, turn it on, and it would be great. I think it’s a pity if people rely on the individual units too much. I do know that I don’t use the Big Muff or the Fuzz Face as much anymore. I currently have two BK Butler Tube Drivers on my pedalboard, and I just use one or the other. If I need a little something more, I’ll stomp a compressor with a bit of drive onto the beginning of it, and that will turn things up another whole gear.
Some of your lead tones over the years have been right on the edge of feedback. To what extent do you think of feedback as part of your expressive aesthetic?
It makes life easier. Maybe there’s a reckless side to my nature that likes to be only half in control of what’s going on, and I like being dragged along by the feedback, rather than really having to push the notes out all the time. I try to find the exact right spot on the stage, and the exact right level, and the exact right amount of whammy bar and finger vibrato to sort of tempt those notes to come on out. I’ve enjoyed that enormously over the years.
A lot of your soloing is based on minor pentatonic and blues scales. Do you feel a particular affinity for blues?
The blues is a part of my musical vocabulary. I received a wide and varied musical education in terms of what was being played on the radio in England when I was a kid. It could be John Lee Hooker, who would just do a big open E chord—boom—and that would be as expressive to me as something from the Threepenny Opera by Kurt Weill, or the sorts of scales that Leonard Bernstein used in West Side Story, or the melodic guitar playing of Hank Marvin and the Shadows. Those things all combine to give me the palette I use—part of the paint that one has to slosh about with— and the blues are very much a part of that. But you couldn’t get much farther away from being a blues purist than me.
Do you think in terms of scales and conventional harmony, or are you playing more intuitively?
I have no idea about scales. I didn’t really know what scales I use, or even that I was using anything unusual, until I started playing the saxophone. I would be playing for my sax teacher, and he’d say, “Oh, you’re playing in Slombonian and Lilliputian,” and I’d have no idea what he meant. He would play me that scale, and I would say, “Yeah, I guess that sounds like the choice of notes that seems to be right for me at that particular moment.” He was quite surprised at the variety of different scales that are a part of my normal working palette. I’m not trying to sound like an idiot savant—I know my stuff—but I don’t know all the names of the different scales.
What are some of the altered or open tunings you have used?
I’ve used a lot of different tunings in my time. I do the dropped-D for a number of things, such as “Run Like Hell” and “Short and Sweet.” On “Poles Apart” on The Division Bell, I used DADGAD tuning—which I thought I had discovered all by myself. On “Pillow of Winds” from Meddle, I used a tuning that I made up, which has the 1, 2, and 3 notes of the scale in it. I also use at least three different tunings on slide and lap-steel guitars: G, B, D, G, B, E [low to high]; E, B, E, G, B, E [low to high]; and E, B, E, G#, B, E [low to high]. I don’t know where these things came from. They’re just sort of my own personal adaptations for what I need.
When recording solos, do you still record several solos and then comp them together?
Pretty much. Often, the first take is the best, so it becomes the template, and I just try to tidy it up by redoing certain bits. There is no hard and fast rule, however. Sometimes, I’ll spend all day without getting anything that seems right, and then suddenly the part will just come. I have a penchant for melody, and sometimes melodies will just burst straight out. I have also resorted to singing a solo first, and then learning it on the guitar.