Ritchie Blackmore: The Return of the Dark Knight

A few Englishmen who began their ca reers in the ’60s are now rightfully revered as rock guitar’s “greatest generation.”
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A few Englishmen who began their ca reers in the ’60s are now rightfully revered as rock guitar’s “greatest generation.” Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck are universally cited as exemplars and role models for the legions of rock guitarists that followed. However, a later and more virtuosic generation of guitarists—including Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Brian May, Steve Lukather, and Yngwie Malmsteen—who took rock guitar to dizzying heights scarcely imagined by earlier axe-slingers, all add this significant name to their short list of influential Brits: Ritchie Blackmore.

Blackmore was the original wizard of rock guitar, seamlessly incorporating fluid arpeggios, classical cadences, and astounding technical flourishes into what had been an almost exclusively blues-based musical idiom. Blackmore blazed a trail for the elite generation to come. Through the successive marks of Deep Purple and the many iterations of Rainbow, he created and maintained a unique and instantly recognizable voice on the electric guitar. From “Black Night” to “Highway Star” to “Lazy” and even “Smoke on the Water,” Blackmore set standards of virtuosity that propelled a subsequent generation of great guitarists to loftier achievements than they might otherwise have attained.

Having secured his status as a “guitarist’s guitarist,” Blackmore might easily have continued onward in the same direction, but it seems he had other ideas. In 1997, he mothballed his Stratocasters and Marshalls, and dived headfirst into medieval and renaissance music. Seeking an authentic voice and musical style that “stirred his soul,” Blackmore immersed himself in a world of crumhorns, viols, sackbuts, and shawms. He drew inspiration from Tielman Susato, Michael Praetorius, and other ancient luminaries. And with his partner, now wife, Candice Night, he built a new band called Blackmore’s Night, which has released seven albums, and toured extensively—primarily in Europe, as Blackmore has a penchant for playing his music in ancient, preferably haunted, places.

But Blackmore never stopped focusing on guitar. You may not have heard “Possum Goes to Prague,” “Spanish Nights,” or “Morning Star,” but if you’ve appreciated Ritchie’s earlier work, you might give these songs a listen. They are every bit the virtuosic equal of his earlier high-wattage 6-string excursions. His more introspective creations also speak quietly and eloquently for themselves. The critics have not been unanimous in their praise, but Ritchie, ever the contrarian, has followed his muse with little regard for the opinions of others.

After two decades, and with similar disregard for what anyone might think, Ritchie has elected to once again take up his Stratocaster and Marshall (or possibly Engl) amps, and revisit his hard-rock roots. Rainbow will soon ride again, but rather than a lineup of grizzled Rainbow vets, this band will feature a new singer named Ronnie Romero, along with keyboardist Jens Johansson (who has recorded with Blackmore’s Night), and bassist Bob Curiano and drummer David Keith, both of whom were drafted from the current BN rhythm section.

Once again and true to form, one of the most iconoclastic of guitarists has chosen to throw caution to the wind, and move forward into the unknown. Bravo Blackmore!
—Jim Hurley

You said that you wanted to “get back to some rock and roll” with the Blackmore’s Rainbow dates. How did it feel to musically revisit those Rainbow and Deep Purple songs?

It was interesting, because I now have to relearn the songs that I have completely forgotten about. Some of them have a lot more in them than I remembered, so I am listening to a lot more of the riffs I used to play and relearning them. I haven’t played these songs in 20 years.

Given the passage of time, did you feel like rearranging or reinventing any of the classics?

No, I haven’t changed hardly anything. We’ll be playing the old songs the way I played them two decades ago.

Throughout the original Blackmore’s Rainbow years in the ’70s and ’80s, you were reportedly very particular about the musicians who shared your vision. What kinds of musical miscues would force you to ask a member to leave?

I really just wanted the musicians to play in tune and remember the song structures. Force them to leave? When they asked to be paid.

How did you choose the current members of Blackmore’s Rainbow, and how do they inform your playing?

David Keith is currently in Blackmore’s Night, and he knows how to groove. I’m a fan of drummers that keep a tempo, rather than those who do drum solos. I’ve also played with Bob Nouveau [whose real name is Bob Curiano], who was in Blackmore’s Night from 2000-2007. He is a great musician and very good guitar player, as well. I used keyboardist Jens Johansson on Under a Violet Moon—an album that Blackmore’s Night released in 1999—and he was always just incredible. Apparently, he is now one of the best in the world. I told him he would be playing more of a supportive role this time, which he loved, because he said that’s how he was brought up. He’ll still be doing some solos, though.

Candy saw Ronnie Romero on YouTube just as I was going to bed, and I really had no interest in hearing a vocalist. But when I heard him, I thought, “Who is this guy? He’s really good.” Ronnie is actually the reason I thought it would be a good idea to do some dates, because he’s excellent and rather unknown. I love to introduce new people to the public. It always makes me feel good to discover someone.

Did you feel somewhat nostalgic bringing these songs to life again onstage after so many years of pretty much abandoning rock music?

There’s a lot of nostalgia involved. I love nostalgia. I often listen to the old people I grew up with—Duane Eddy, Hank Marvin, and the early Beatles stuff. Nostalgia is within all of us. I just don’t want to play old songs every day of my life. I’d rather have the occasional get-together at the local pub, where we’d play all these nostalgic songs and have a good time.

Speaking of nostalgia, could you please detail what you remember about recording some of your famous Deep Purple riffs? The obvious one is, of course, “Smoke on the Water.”

I wrote the riff during a jam while we were recording Machine Head at a theater in Montreux, Switzerland. I asked [Deep Purple drummer] Ian Paice to come up with something new—a rhythm we haven’t played before—and I basically played along. It wasn’t worked out. But I was aware—mentally—of trying to write something very, very simple and straightforward. We were in this big ballroom, and Paice and I started playing the riff and a chord progression. Then, the police arrived to tell us to stop, because we were playing so loud that there were complaints. We kept the door locked so that we could keep recording that particular take. The police were hammering on the door during the final take in the last three minutes of the recording session. Had the Montreux police had their way, we never would’ve recorded “Smoke on the Water”—so, no thanks to them!

As iconic as the “Smoke on the Water” riff is, most people don’t play it correctly. You pluck the stacked fourths with your fingers, right? And do you play it in the third position starting on the A and D strings, or at the eighth position starting on the E and A strings?

It’s third position, and plucked. Never with a pick.

What about “Woman from Tokyo”?

I think I wrote the riff for that in Rome while we were recording there. In fact, maybe at the back of my mind was “Cat Squirrel” by Cream. There are similar notes, but done in a different timing. Recording it was a disaster. We had the Rolling Stones unit, and we stopped recording within a week. We left, went to Frankfurt, and carried on.

And “Highway Star”?

That was one of the only solos that I worked out completely at home. Most of my solos were improvised on the spot, but that one was arranged before I went into the studio.

In Deep Purple, you employed a lot of innovative and extreme whammy-bar techniques.

Yes. I would use the tremolo bar in a vicious manner when I first started, and I would often break the arm. I had to have them specially made for me at twice the thickness. I used the tremolo arm to excess in the ’70s and ’80s, and then I noticed everyone else started using it a lot, so I stopped. Now, I don’t use it at all. I clamp down the bridge. Some musicians are still overdoing it.

When did you discover scalloped fretboards?

I was playing an old classical guitar back when I was 15, and I liked the feel of the scalloped neck—the concave wood. When I was about 19 or 20, I started sandpapering down the fretboard in between the frets and it felt better.

What did you think when players such Uli Jon Roth and Yngwie Malmsteen also began using scalloped necks?

Both of them are fine guitar players, and I think it’s an obvious thing to do. I’m surprised all electric guitars don’t have naturally concave wood in between the frets.

Can you describe your D.I.Y. “kitchen table” fretboard-scalloping procedure?

It’s three days of scalloping with tape over the frets. Then, I take the tape off the frets and have it re-lacquered.

What was the story on your custom-made Marshall amps back in the day?

I didn’t like the sound of the regular Marshall—it was too mellow and too muted. Hendrix always had trouble with the transformers blowing up if you pushed the amp too hard. They corrected the transformer problem, but it’s interesting to note that Jim Marshall didn’t know much about amplifiers, and yet he knew how to design something that caught on like crazy. This is a similar situation with Leo Fender, who never played a guitar.

So I used to go to the factory in Bletchley to speak to Ken Flegg and Ken Bran, and I’d try to get them to give me more distorted treble on the output side. I’d go into a soundproofed room to test the amps—which still didn’t stop the women who worked in the factory from saying they couldn’t work or concentrate with me playing so loud. They ended up building an extra output stage on the 200-watt Marshall, which took the wattage up to 280 watts. At that point, I basically had the loudest amp ever made by Marshall. They said if I told anyone, they would deny it, because they didn’t want to have to make any more like that. I think I caused them a bit of grief.

Do you have any memories of Jim Marshall at the time?

I knew him as a friend, because I used to buy my guitars from him. He was a drum teacher, and he had a music shop in Ealing. Mitch Mitchell used to work there. Jim was a very nice man. His office was down the road from the factory, but he would always come in when I was in there, because he could hear me blasting away. He would say, “I knew you were here!”

You used—and may still use—an Akai tape deck as a preamp back then. How did you hook it up, and what did you like about the sound?

I liked the fact that it fattened up the sound without distorting it too much. It was really just an old tape deck that was lying around the house. I thought it would be a waste not to use it.

Although your tone was always heavy, it wasn’t that distorted. How much gain on the amp do you need to get your sound?

Just a bit of overdrive. Then, I turn all the treble off, have a bit of middle, and turn the bass off. That’s what I did with the Marshalls, and I do the same thing with the Engls I’m using now.

What’s the perfect guitar tone for you?

The combination of an owl meeting a bumblebee in mid flight.

What rig are you bringing on the Blackmore’s Rainbow shows?

I don’t bring much. It’s just a straightforward Engl amp with my tape-deck preamp. I don’t use pedals or boards for effects switching. The more effects you use, the thinner the sound. Having that stuff is just one more thing that can go wrong.

What kinds of pickups are you using in your Stratocasters? Is the middle pickup a dummy coil?

Sometimes. I have all sorts of pickups in my guitars—Seymour Duncan, stock Fender, and so on.

How big of an issue is single-coil hum in your Strats, and what steps have you taken over the years to deal with it?

I usually use whatever pickups come with the guitar, but I had a lot of trouble around 1977 or ’78 with hum. In fact, I had to cancel a couple of shows because of the horrendous buzz. It didn’t help that we had a metallic rainbow over our heads, which caused most of the problems. A friend of mine installed anti-hum pickups that helped, but they changed the tone a bit, and it was not the sound I wanted. I just had to live with it for a while. Now, people will ask me what I use, and I think they’re Seymour Duncans, but I’ve had them changed out so many times that I can’t always remember what I use.

Have you ever considered going back to humbuckers?

I’ve thought about it, because the Fender sound is much more shrill compared to the humbuckers in my Gibson ES-335TD, which are more muted. But I spend more time playing the guitar, practicing, and drinking than reaching for new equipment. I tend to use whatever I find laying around the house.

How do your distinctively shaped, custom tortoise-shell picks affect your technique and/or tone?

When I was 12 or 13, that was the shape of most picks of the day, so I’m used to a pointed plectrum. I didn’t develop the picks myself—I just didn’t change to the shape that’s now more popular, which is more like an oval. It’s really all subjective to the player. I know most guitar players use oval-shaped picks.

What initially inspired you to give rock a rest and explore the music of Blackmore’s Night?

I simply became totally immersed in medieval German music and renaissance music.

You cite medieval German composer Tielman Susato as a major inspiration. How does his work inform the compositions for Blackmore’s Night?

We take a lot of his melodies and invert them, transpose them, and give them a different approach—which I find very musically satisfying. We do the same thing to other composers of the era—Michael Praetorius, Pierre Phalèse, and King Alfonso X of Castile, to name a few.

What is the typical songwriting process between you and Candice for Blackmore’s Night material? I’ll be strumming away on something, and she’ll enter the room, and I’ll say, “Candy, what’s for dinner? By the way, I have a bit of a melody for this. How does it sound?” She’ll sing along to it, and if we see any potential, we’ll take it to the next level. It’s a very natural process because we are always around each other. It’s not like we go to rehearsals and try to come up with ideas. You once did a pilgrimage to Bach’s house. Where there any epiphanies from the visit?

There was an ice cream store there, and I did indulge. Then, I proceeded into the garden where I picked up a stone and put it in my wallet as a keepsake.

How do you amplify your acoustic instruments?

I use a Trace Elliot coupled with a Fender Acoustasonic. The Trace Elliot gives me the bottom, and the Fender gives me the top end and the effects. One of the things I find important is to keep the level down. You lose the nuances of the acoustic if the amp is too loud, so I play very quietly onstage in Blackmore’s Night, and I let the sound engineer bring me up through the PA system.

Do you prefer any particular techniques when playing acoustic guitar?

Most of my acoustic playing in Blackmore’s Night is fingerstyle, with the help of long, acrylic nails. When I play electric, I have to cut my nails shorter—especially the thumbnail—so that I can grip the plectrum.

Why do you mod your acoustic guitars by driving a finishing nail under the nut?

The reason I do that is most nuts are too high, and, consequently, the action is too high. I notice that a lot of acoustic manufacturers are afraid to make the action too low, so when buying an acoustic guitar you will always find the action is too high. So one has to file away the saddle and nut to make it more playable. But in trying to fix this myself, I sometimes file the nut down too much. Then, I have to raise the nut slightly, so I put a nail in between the nut and the neck. I correct my own mistake.

What are your thoughts on soundhole pickups vs. undersaddle pickups?

Obviously, the soundhole pickup is easier to deal with, but I like an undersaddle pickup, because it retains the true acoustic look. From the point-of-view of pure sound, a soundhole pickup is probably better. It’s a truer sound that tends to amplify each string at the same level. Undersaddle pickups can be very unreliable sometimes, as certain strings sound louder the others. But, I prefer the look of the undersaddle.

The Ritchie Blackmore Story has a lot of great old footage. What do you hear in your playing when you watch those early performances? I have never watched them. I’m highly critical of what I do, so if I did hear them or see them, I would probably want to change everything—which would waste everybody’s time in the new band.

Given your perspective from the 1960s to right now, what do you feel is missing—if anything—in current hard-rock music?

To be quite honest, I really don’t know. I don’t listen to hard rock.

You’ve said that when you where younger, you didn’t care as much about song construction—you just wanted to make as much noise and play as fast and as loud as possible. And yet your songs have always been very well crafted. Has your outlook on songcraft evolved over the years?

It has never evolved. I have always been a hypocrite. I like going against the grain. Only dead fish swim downstream.

In some ’70s and ’80s magazine interviews, you were somewhat reserved in your praise of guitarists such as Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Have you come to appreciate their playing any more over time?

I didn’t realize I was so reserved in my praise.

Are there any guitarists you are currently enjoying?

I like Brad Paisley, Vince Gill, and Monte Montgomery. They’re great. George Benson is the best jazz player I’ve ever heard. There are so many brilliant guitar players in this world these days. You see them on YouTube, and it’s refreshing that these people are coming to the forefront, and are no longer hindered by record companies signing the latest ice-cream flavor of the month.

What would be your advice to young players who are struggling to find their own signature guitar sounds?

Do not buy the latest video for how to play tricks from the so-called top guitar players. And when you get your first guitar, wait five years before you get a Marshall amp so your mother and father can sleep.

Those in the know cite you as one of rock’s premier pranksters. What guides your humor and drives you to punk band members and others?

Well, we all make our mistakes.

How do you feel about the way you’ve been viewed as a guitarist throughout your career? Do you feel like people understand what you do and appreciate it?

I hope not. I hate to be accepted in any form.

The Ritchie Blackmore Story

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No one can accuse Ritchie Blackmore of being too talkative—at least not to the public. He has seldom sat down for interviews since founding the renaissance/folk music group, Blackmore’s Night, with Candice Night in 1997. Until this month’s cover story—and many, many thanks for agreeing to make it happen, Mr. Blackmore—Guitar Player tried annually to arrange a sit down with the secretive guitarist, and we were politely denied. Perhaps, some of the recalcitrance from a public figure with albums and tours to promote can be explained by one of the recurring mantras he shares in The Ritchie Blackmore Story [Eagle Rock Entertainment/Eagle Vision]:

“I won’t do what I’m told to do.”

Happily for guitar fans, Blackmore did participate—enthusiastically, even—in this comprehensive documentary, which was released on DVD and Blu-ray in late 2015. (A Deluxe Edition was also issued that includes the film, a hardcover photo book, and a DVD/CD package of Live In Tokyo—a 1984 Rainbow concert at Budokan.)

Throughout The Ritchie Blackmore Story, Blackmore freely details his early session days; the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of Deep Purple and Blackmore’s Rainbow; and his buoyant surrender to his love of medieval music in Blackmore’s Night. His life chronicles are further expanded via interviews with musicians he has worked with directly, or who have admired and cheered him on, including Brian May, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Steve Lukather, Glenn Hughes, David Coverdale, Graham Bonnet, and the late Deep Purple keyboardist, Jon Lord.
—Michael Molenda

Backin’ Blackmore

Blackmore’s Night performing at a local castle somewhere in Europe.

[The following is an account by multi-instrumentalist Jim Hurley, who played in Blackmore’s Night from 1999 to 2000. Hurley has also performed and/or recorded with Al Stewart, Ancient Future, Trans Siberian Orchestra, the Waybacks, Queen Ida, and the late Dan Hicks].

In early 1999 Ritchie was looking for a violinist, who might double on other instruments. He heard a solo recording of mine, on which I played multiple instruments. His manager contacted me, and asked me to go to buy the Blackmore’s Night albums “Under a Violet Moon” and “Shadow of the Moon,” and then to produce multi-tracked replicas of three of the songs, playing the rhythm section parts on guitar and bass, and the vocal melodies on violin. I did this, and mailed a mixed CD back to his New York address (I’m in California, and this was 1999). Two more songs were then requested, prepared, and sent. Finally, his manager called and said, “Call this number right now, and play an improvised violin solo onto Ritchie’s answering machine. We’ve been fooled by impostors before, and we need to know that this is really you.” So I did, and then I waited. Nothing. No word. It was probably only a few days, but it felt like ages. I finally called the manager, wishing to just get the bad news over with. Instead, I heard, “Welcome to Blackmore’s Night!”

I learned all the songs, and leaving family and my teaching business behind, I moved in to the Blackmore house. I enjoyed their warm and kind hospitality, and we rehearsed and jammed hours every day, sometimes into the wee hours of the night. Soccer was also played by all, at every available opportunity.

After a month of this, it was off to Europe for the first “Castle Tour.” Every single gig was in a castle, or “schloss,” and most, of course, were “haunted.” It was as fun as it sounds . . . maybe more. I was no stranger to touring, but this was something else entirely. I played violin, guitar, mandolin, and bass. Four more tours and some one-off gigs followed, along with weeks of rehearsals in between—and more soccer. Three keyboardists, two drummers, another guitarist, and a bass player came and went. Some soccer injuries occurred, along with much nonsense and a few pranks, and a good time was had by all. However, after a year of this my family and business were a bit worse for wear, so I retired in good graces, far as I know.

These days I’m mainly a music teacher, and I encourage my students to pick and choose as they will from a rather extensive musical library—which, of course, includes songs from Blackmore’s catalog. So almost every day I am pleased to hear Ritchie’s beautiful melodies, as rendered by students young and old. Thanks, you old badger!

Tributes to a 6-String Sorcerer

Brian May
“Ritchie Blackmore is a fireball. He’s beyond belief. His technique is incredible. Where did that come from? Now, this was before Hendrix. Ritchie is a great originator and creator of the wild electric guitar. I still find him a complete mystery. It’s also a mystery that people don’t talk about him that much. It’s odd, because he was absolutely there as one of the pioneers.”

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Steve Lukather
“He was such an advanced musician—way ahead of his time.”

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Joe Satriani
“The way he holds the guitar and everything, that was sort of ingrained in my mind—that’s what a cool guitar player is supposed to look like.”

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Steve Vai
“His precision when he plays is stunning. It’s like a sword—a clean, sharp sword.”

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Ian Anderson
“He is measured. He is thoughtful. He knows the value of clear space—of daylight between the notes. It’s not all about shredding. It’s phrasing. It’s about time. The spaces are as important as the notes that they separate.”

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Jon Lord
“Ritchie was astonishingly prolific with guitar riffs. They would just tumble out of him.”

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Above quotes excerpted from The Ritchie Blackmore Story DVD.

Win the Documentary!

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Eagle Rock Entertainment has provided us with giveaway copies of The Ritchie Blackmore Story DVD for a few lucky Guitar Player readers. The first ten Blackmore fans to send an email to mmolenda@nbmedia.com, subject line “Ritchie DVD,” with the correct answer to this question—What is Blackmore’s idea of his perfect guitar tone?—will be awarded their very own copies of The Ritchie Blackmore Story. Good luck!