Guitar Player, May 1979

David Gilmour
Beginning a Second Decade as Lead Guitarist
for Pink Floyd

By Steve Rosen

David Gilmour has been playing guitar with Pink Floyd for 11 years now - about one-third of his life. And for more than a decade, his style has been undergoing a contant refining process that parallels the band's evolution from a spearhead of the psychedelic movement of the 1960's to a mainstay of the outer-space rock of the 1970's. Joining Pink Floyd in February 1968 (after the band's original guitarist and founder, Syd Barrett, began to show wear and tear from drugs and the band's almost constant touring), Gilmour was relegated to rhythm guitar. In early April of the same year Barrett left, and Gilmour, then 21 years old, became the group's only guitarist. He proceeded to carry on with the chores of upholding the band's tradition of psychedelia that had made them standouts on the British music scene - along with groups like The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown, Soft Machine, and Tomorrow.

With Barrett at the helm, Pink Floyd had released one album, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, and had achieved fame in England for their innovative use of light shows. They had also released two singles in 1967: Arnold Layne and See Emily Play (the latter reached the #6 position on the British charts). The band had already established a momentum when Gilmour joined, and in only a few months they were again performing concerts. At the of June 1968, their second album, A Saucerful Of Secrets, was released. Since that album the personnel of Pink Floyd has remained static, with Gilmour, keyboardist Rick Wright, bassist Roger Waters, and drummer Nick Mason. As a unit they expanded their musical abilities and consistently drew critical praise for their use of quadraphonic sound and visual special effects.

Pink Floyd also composed and performed the soundtracks of several movies, including More, Tonight Let's All Make Love In London, The Committee, and in 1969 Michaelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point. Also released in 1969 was the band's third album, Ummagumma. This was a double-record with two sides devoted to live performances of earlier works, and the remaining two sides divided in half, giving each member of the group space to experiment. In October 1970 Pink Floyd's next album, Atom Heart Mother, was released. Propelling the LP was the addition of a horn section and male and female choruses. This fourth album reached #1 on the British charts; it was followed in 1971 by the less well-received Meddle. In 1972 the band was featured on yet another soundtrack, Obscured By Clouds. It was their only offering that year, but they weren't just sitting around - they spent the majority of 1972 recording what was to be their mammoth tour de force - Dark Side Of The Moon.

This 1973 release became Pink Floyd's first #1 album in the United States and was a mainstay on the British charts for two years. The band toured throughout 1973 and then went into a period of semi- retirement that lasted until the release of the next album, Wish You Were Here, in 1975. Its popularity hardly measured up to that of Dark Side Of The Moon, but in 1977 the Animals LP reached the Top 5 on both the U.S. and British charts. In 1978 David Gilmour was the first member of Pink Floyd to release a solo album, simply entitled David Gilmour. [Note: Syd Barrett had released two solo albums, Barrett and The Madcap Laughs, although he did so after permanently leaving the band]

While there are obvious parallels between Gilmour's solo work and his efforts with Pink Floyd, the album stands on its own and shows that David has long passed the stage of being a replacement for another musician - he is an identifiable guitarist with his own distinct style that lends instant recognition to anything he does.

Gilmour, born in Cambridge, England, on March 6, 1947 [Ed. note 1946] began playing when he was 14 years old on an instrument lent to him by his next-door neighbor. He practiced on this nylon string Spanish guitar for several months before purchasing a guitar of his own for $20.00. His main instruction came from trying to play along with records - when his parents bought him a Pete Seeger tutoring album, he progressed rapidly. Young Gilmour was always acutely aware of the popular music scene, and interested primarily in the folk and rock and roll genres. He listened to everyone from Seeger to Bill Haley, and after playing on his own for a couple of years he started to become involved with his first bands. It was then that he bought another acoustic guitar - with f-holes - and planted an electric pickup in it. Upon feeling the power of an electric guitar, he found himself hooked. soon, he acquired a Burns Sonnet, which he says was dreadful; he used it for a short time until he switched to a Hofner Club 60.

David used the Hofner until his parents bought him his first Fender Telecaster for his 21st birthday. Gilmour was surprised to receive the Telecaster. He had always wanted a Fender, and realizing a Stratocaster was far too expensive he had hoped that he might eventually come into possession of a Telecaster. David's parents had traveled to America, and because Fenders were far less expensive in the U.S. they were able to buy the instrument for him. The Telecaster remained with Gilmour for one year, until he made his first flight to the United States, and it was lost by one of the airlines.

Prior to joining Pink Floyd, Gilmour's group had an offer to work as the resident band at a club in Spain. David stayed there for several months and then moved to France, where he remained for one year before returning to his home in London. After accepting a temporary job that was to last for only a couple of months, he was offered the position in Pink Floyd.

For the first few months, when he played alongside Barrett, Gilmour assumed the rold of a de facto rhythm guitarist. "I was playing rhythm guitar and Syd wasn't really playing anything," says David about Syd's growing disorientation in the band. He had listened to Barrett's work on the first Pink Floyd album but wasn't really influenced by him. In fact, it took Gilmour a while before he felt a true identity within the group; "I didn't really start playing lead guitar for a long time. I didn't know what to do. I was a bit lost for quite a while, so I just stuck to the chords and sang to words on the record - which is what they wanted at the time in order to fulfill their contractual obligations. And it took me some time to actually feel my way around and become completely assimilated."

When the second Pink Floyd album, A Saucerful Of Secrets, was released in 1968, it marked Gilmour's first appearance on record. David was still feeling around on this release, and while he performed several guitar solos on it he states that there is nothing that he found particularly profound in his work. For this album, as well as for Pink Floyd's early performances, he was using a Selmer 50-watt amplifier with a single cabinet containing four 12" speakers, and a Binson echo unit. His guitar was a second Telecaster that he had purchased. This was later stolen, and David replaced it with a Stratocaster. Eventually the Selmer amp was replaced with Hi-Watt gear, and effects pedals started creeping into his setup.

He began using various fuzz boxes, wah-wahs, and volume pedals. Of this proliferation of electric enhancers, David states, "I worked up to where I had a huge line of them all sitting onstage with wires everywhere; batteries kept running out and everything kept breaking. Eventually I just had to consolidate them." In 1972 all the pedals were built into a special cabinet, although since then he has gone through several different setups. Gilmour's current stage panel consists of an MXR Phase-90, an Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress flanger, an Orange treble and bass booster, a Big Muff fuzz, an Arbiter Fuzz Face, and a custom-built tone pedal.

All pedals are wired so that any one of them can be bypassed. At various points in the circuitry there are outlets which connect externally to the pedalboard. These have two sockets housing short-circuit connectors so that two short wires can be attached to connect another external effect into the system. There are also three output switches allowing David to route the signals to different amplifiers.

The board is on at all times and there are no individual on/off switches; there is one in/out selector switch so that the signal goes through the circuitry only when a pedal is being used. Thus, David can preset any combination of pedals he desires and send the signal through them simultaneously.

On a previous board he employed, the signal always went directly through all the pedals in series. This caused tremendous degradation of the original sound, not to mention the addition of screeches and hissing. There were no LED on/off indicators on earlier boards (his current one had them), and Gilmour was never sure what was on and what wasn't.

David currently uses three Stratocasters, two Telecasters, and a Gibson Les Paul. His main guitar is a black 1979 Stratocaster with a DiMarzio replacement pickup and a 1962 Strat neck. The fingerboard is rosewood, although Gilmour generally prefers maple; he likes the sound of maple necks better and feels more comfortable playing on them.

The Stratocaster has also been fitted with an extra switch which allows him to add the neck pickup in any combination with the other pickups. This guitar was Gilmour's primary choice on his solo album (David Gilmour).

Another guitar he frequently uses is a 1955 Esquire converted to a Telecaster by the addition of a front pickup. The modifications were performed by Seymour Duncan (721A E. Yanonali, Santa Barbara CA). One modification Gilmour has made on all his Stratocasters is rewiring the ground to improve the shielding from noise. He connects the volume and tone controls directly to the outside of the jack in order to eliminate a crackling caused by faulty physical contacts between the grounding plate and the volume and tone controls.

Gilmour has stuck with Fenders from the beginning and finds them far easier to play than Gibson instruments. "I never got on with Gibsons," he says. "I think people tend to stick with what they started off with. When I was a lad I always wanted a Fender because the people that I saw and dug were playing Fenders."

Hi-Watt amplifiers have been with David since the early days. He uses two 100-watt stacks and two 200-watt Yamaha Leslie amps, all of his cabinets are made by WEM. In the studio he will revert to less amplification by using a Fender Twin Reverb or a Mesa/ Boogie. Gilmour also dabbles with acoustic guitar and owns two Martins - a D-18 and a D-35. He occasionally plays acoustic onstage, and he alternates between fingerpicking and using a plectrum.

David always uses a Herco heavy-gauge pick on electric. He started out using Gibson Sonomatic strings but found them a bit too heavy and changed to Ernie Balls, which were a touch lighter. He now uses Sonomatics again, but in custom gauges. In the studio the setup is .010, .012, .016, .024, .034, and .044. His onstage string gauges are .010, .012, .016, .028, .038, and .050.

Gilmour admits that he is a bit heavy-handed in his playing approach, but makes it clear that it is a major factor in his style. His lead work does not often involve fast lines, but rather melodic and moving phrases. "I've never managed to become a very light-fingered guitarist," he says. "I'm not that sort of player. That's just the way I am. I don't really mind that, though, I'd like to have the technique there, but I think a lot of other people abuse it."

For Gilmour to work up a solo in the studio, he will usually play around the neck paying little attention to the key of the song, or where his fingers fall. He tries to poke around in the dark, hoping that something unusual will crop up. Once he finds a spark, he develops and shapes it into a full form. When he feels confident that the solo is ready to record, he will tape it after just one or two run-throughs.

There are times when David will use a simple hammer-on/off technique to add speed to his runs. "I try that at times to sound faster than I am. For just a few seconds, a tiny bit of sheer speed is very effective it it's put into a proper context. Basically, I'm a person who's stuck within certain limitations, and I have to work within them." Gilmour is very pleased with the guitar work on his solo album. He feels he approached the instrument in much the same fashion he does with Pink Floyd but thinks the solos are a bit more "off the cuff" and fresher.

And while it is often rumored that Gilmour dabbles in all manners of studio wizardry, he in fact does very little. He employs both close and far miking to achieve dimensionality in the sound and will lay down rhythm tracks first and then overdubs leads and vocals. He views the production of a good guitar sound as a permanent struggle. He looks for a bright tone, but one which embodies a bottom also.

A major part of Gilmour's sound revolves around his use of a vibrato bar, which was one of the main reasons for his playing a Stratocaster. Because he has used the vibrato for years, he has found that certain adjustments aid in keeping the guitar from going out of tune. In front of the vibrato unit are six screws that fit directly into the top of the guitar body from above. If these are the least bit loose, the main block of the unit will move up and down, causing the guitar to go out of tune.

To eliminate the problem, Gilmour removes the strings from the guitar and tightens each of the six screws so that they touch the surface of the plate; there is no gap between the screws and the plate, so there is no room for movement. Another problem he came across was getting the strings caught in the nut. When the vibrato bar is used, the strings move back and forth through the nut, and if they do not come back to their original position, they will not be in tune. David has found that if the nut is checked and adjusted properly beforehand there should be no problems. Gilmour switches from three to four springs in the vibrato tailpiece depending on the situation; onstage he uses four springs, and in the studio he chooses three - with adjustments made to the rear screws holding the springs in place.

While Gilmour has gone through periods of intense practice to see whether he could bring more speed to his playing, he has found that there has been no dramatic change in his technique. However, he does feel that his playing on David Gilmour is as creative as anything he has ever produced.

David adds, "I think my playing is as strong as it's ever been. There have been periods when I was very in practice - when we'd been working on the road for a long time. Generally speaking, I feel I'm playing as well as I can, but I still think I can improve."