In retrospect, the last blog I wrote about Duane Allman was [in my view] extremely long-winded. Today I will keep it much shorter. The object of today’s exercise is David Gilmour, the man with the humungous Fender who is responsible for all the guitar noise from Pink Floyd.
It was the week between the last day of high school and graduation. I decided to expand my musical horizons beyond the Beatles, so I bought four albums – two by the Doors [Morrison Hotel, LA Woman] and two by Pink Floyd [The Dark Side of the Moon, The Wall]. What struck me about Pink Floyd besides all the cool sound effects was the guitar playing of David Gilmour. I noticed that he didn’t get very many songwriting credits while Roger Waters was in the band, but I did notice that fact didn’t stop David Gilmour from shining brightly. Gilmour sang well [much better than Roger Waters], he played lots of different guitars, and he played them with an economy unheard of in most bands, especially the metal bands. I thought he played a lot like George Harrison in that he always seemed to choose his notes wisely, the notes that he chose always seemed perfect for any song he played, and he was never in any hurry to say what he wanted to say musically. In short, Pink Floyd was a very cool-sounding band. After the Floyd reportedly went their separate ways after The Final Cut , both Roger Waters and David Gilmour put out solo albums [The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking and About Face, respectively]. What caught my ear was how much Gilmour’s album sounded like Pink Floyd, and how much Roger Waters’ album did not sound like Pink Floyd. That little tidbit didn’t escape Kurt Loder either when he reviewed The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking for Rolling Stone. I believe his comments were along the lines that Gilmour had the patent on Pink Floyd’s sound, and that About Face had taken on a new luster in comparison with Roger’s work. But I’m not here to trash Roger Waters. Roger may have had all the songs, but without Gilmour to give them shape and form I didn’t think they were as good as what he produced when he was the guiding hand of Pink Floyd. David Gilmour really was [and still is] “the guitar and voice of Pink Floyd.” And as such, he also became my favorite guitar player. What makes David Gilmour such a standout? Let me count the ways…
The acoustic – Given all of their electronic wizardry, Pink Floyd doesn’t come to mind as a group that would play what David Crosby calls “wooden music.” Given the opportunity, Gilmour can unplug with the best of them. Wish You Were Here is the obvious example of Pink Floyd going “unplugged.” Fat Old Sun from Atom Heart Mother is another good example. He uses the acoustic as a soloing instrument on songs like Lost For Words [from The Division Bell] and Near the End [from About Face]. He’s used it as a rhythm instrument – the rhythm track for Dogs [Animals, 1977] is acoustic. He’ll play half a song on an acoustic before abruptly switching to an electric for solo work like On the Turning Away [A Momentary Lapse of Reason, 1987]. He did a live DVD where he unplugged for Shine On You Crazy Diamond. I wasn’t sure how he’d pull that off, but he did so effortlessly. Another good usage of the acoustic is found on Murder [About Face]. His use of a capo [on the second fret, I think…] makes the song sound like Norwegian Wood [both songs are in the same key]. That’s appropriate since the subject of Murder is John Lennon.
The “Nashville” tuning - This tuning on an acoustic guitar substitutes the wound E, A, and D strings with lighter gauge strings of the pairs of a twelve-string guitar. The guitar sounds like it’s an octave higher. Gilmour replaced the lower E string with a second six-string high E. I first heard this tuning utilized by Keith Richards on the Stones Wild Horses [Sticky Fingers, 1971]. Keith’s usage made Wild Horses sound more like a country song [hence the name of the tuning], but Gilmour’s use lends a shimmering, ethereal quality to whatever song he thinks needs such a quality. Gilmour first used it on I Can’t Breathe Anymore [David Gilmour, 1978]. He also used it for Hey You, Mother and Comfortably Numb.
The lap steel – Sometimes Gilmour used the lap steel for coloring [Breathe, Hey You, The Great Gig in the Sky, Comfortably Numb], other times he used it for soloing [Shine On You Crazy Diamond Part VI, High Hopes], and one time [the only one I can think of] he used it for taking over a song [One of These Days]. Until I heard One of These Days [Meddle, 1971] I had no idea you could play very loud power chords on a lap steel.
Speed kills – David Gilmour can wring more emotion out of four notes than Yngve Malmsteen or any other shredder [ahem…Steve Vai or Joe Satriani] can with one hundred. Why four notes? Shine On You Crazy Diamond. Those four notes that start Part II [3:56] of this song were all that Roger Waters needed for inspiration to write about Syd Barrett. How else can one make those long string bends that he gets on Part I of the same song? You can’t get there by playing lightning fast. Since Gilmour plays slowly compared to many guitarists, he can inject a lot of melody into his playing. You can practically sing his solos [I’m listening to Mother as I write this…].
The solos – David Gilmour’s soloing prowess is legendary. His solos are not terribly complex. It’s the age-old argument of “speed vs. feeling.” David Gilmour has feeling in abundance. For him, soling is a fun thing to do. He told a BBC interviewer once that he can’t imagine what it’s like being in the audience and listening to it. He went on to say that soloing “is the best way that some of us express ourselves.” He has a bunch of great ones [in no particular order]: Young Lust, Mother, Hey You, Wish You Were Here, SOYCD, Dogs, Time, Money, High Hopes, Have a Cigar, The Final Cut, On the Turning Away, Another Brick in the Wall Pt 2, Echoes, Comfortably Numb. Those are just the ones off the top of my head.
I remember one particular moment when I thought Gilmour’s playing coerced a “wow!” out of me. It was at a midnight movie showing of Pink Floyd: The Wall. Movies shown in a theater are fairly loud, but on this night it seemed especially loud [maybe because I wasn’t sober? who knows?]. The moment happened on the second song, The Thin Ice. The song itself is quiet, the piano sounding almost like someone is playing “Chopsticks” until suddenly there’s a drum break and there’s Gilmour’s guitar. The sound was ominous, sinister, and HUGE. It was a definite “whoa!” moment. It definitely set the tone for what came later. There’s a certain quality to Gilmour’s soloing that makes one drop what he’s doing and pay attention to the music. Comfortably Numb does that for me. I’ve heard that song hundreds of times, but whenever I hear the solos [especially the second one] I have to stop what I’m doing [unless I’m driving], crank up the volume and enjoy.
The rhythm – Overlooked in Gilmour’s playing is his rhythm prowess. One needs to look no further than Have a Cigar [Wish You Were Here, 1975] where Gilmour injects a shot of rhythm and blues after the bleak Welcome to the Machine. Another Brick in the Wall Part 2 [The Wall, 1979] is another example of rhythm playing at its most un-Floydian. His rhythm guitar sounds almost like Chic. Then there’s the aforementioned Dogs. His acoustic rhythm playing sounds like a scythe cutting through the fog.
Know when to support, know when to lead – Gilmour knows when to play, and more importantly [I think, anyway…] when not to play. When Dick Parry plays his sax solo in SOYCD Part V, Gilmour plays a nice arpeggio figure in the back. He also does the arpeggio thing on Dark Side of the Moon’s Us and Them. No guitar solo is required for this song, but his playing on top of Rick Wright’s song sets the appropriate mood. As good a support player that he is, he also knows when to step to the forefront. Hey You [The Wall, 1979] is Roger Waters’ song, but it has Gilmour’s stamp all over it. He throws in practically everything in his guitar arsenal into the song. The intro is played on an acoustic guitar in the “Nashville tuning.” He sang the verses before the guitar solo, he played the fretless bass as well as all the guitar solos and acoustic overdubs. Plus, he’s got the lap steel on there that you can hear right after he finishes the guitar solo. Everything you want to know about David Gilmour’s talent as a guitar player and arranger can be found in Hey You.
Have guitar, will travel – In addition to his work with the Floyd and his own solo work, Gilmour lends his talents to other people as a session player. He’s worked with the likes of Bryan Ferry, Paul McCartney, Supertramp and Kate Bush. His latest contribution outside his own work came with The Orb. Such was the nature and extent of his contribution to their work, their latest album [Metallic Spheres] was credited “The Orb featuring David Gilmour.” My favorite bit that he did for someone else was to provide the lead guitar for Pete Townshend’s song Give Blood [White City: A Novel, 1985].
Careful With That Axe, Eugene – Gilmour’s axe of choice on the electric side is a Fender Stratocaster. I have seen him use other guitars though. For his solo on Another Brick in the Wall Part 2 he used a Les Paul. He uses a Fender Esquire with the heavy E string tuned down to D for playing Run Like Hell. I saw him use a white Fender Telecaster for Astronomy Domine. For Sorrow [A Momentary Lapse of Reason, 1987] he broke out a headless Steinberger to get a tone from Hell. For some of his solo work he has taken to playing a Gretsch Duo-Jet. He uses it to great effect on Where We Start [On an Island, 2006]. It’s a very nice sounding guitar – I want one! For acoustic work he’ll use a Taylor 712 CE acoustic steel string, a Martin D-28 acoustic steel string, a Jose Vilaplana acoustic nylon string, and an Ovation Custom Legend 1619-4 acoustic steel string with high strung unwound strings. They all sound very good in his hands.
I won’t go into what amps or other gear he uses. There is a website called Gilmourish [http://www.gilmourish.com/] that provides an exhaustive look at how David Gilmour gets the sounds that he does. It claims to be the largest David Gilmour gear source on the net. And having looked through the site, I believe them. If you’re a gearhead, and especially a David Gilmour gearhead, this site is your one-stop shopping to get your gear fix. It’s a very good site.
Not much else needs to be said about David Gilmour the guitar player. Carol and I had the pleasure of seeing him in person twice, both times on Pink Floyd’s last tour in 1994. The sound was crystal clear, the laser lights were very cool, the films shown on the round screen behind the stage complemented the music well. Throw in a giant mirror ball and a couple of inflatable pigs for good measure and you’ve got yourself a very good show. With Rick Wright’s death a few years ago, Pink Floyd is now history. David Gilmour has seen it all and done it all. He doesn’t have to work if he doesn’t want to. I understand that he’s working on another record these days. If so, it will be mine!