The essential guide to David Gilmour's mysterious, magical
There are great guitarists who are known for their chops, while others are famed for their stage presence or songwriting. But there are also a few esteemed mostly for their tone. Names like Stevie Ray Vaughn, Billy Gibbons, Eric Clapton, and B.B. King are among the greatest tone barons, but also essential to that list is Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, a man whose bluesy Strat solos established him as one of the finest rock leadmen to ever emerge from England. His classic leads are all over epics like Dark Side Of The Moon, Wish You Were Here, and Animals, but his fans always point to his soul-wrenching break in Comfortably Numb (from 1979's The Wall) as the ultimate Gilmour solo.
How did he get that perfect balance between of tonal girth and Strat earthiness? Magic, it seems. With that as our starting point, Guitar Shop set out on an odyssey to track down every last guitar, amp, and box that Mr. Gilmour has used over the last 30 years to create his spectacular tone. It's an amazing journey - one almost as intriguing as a trip to the dark side of the moon.
Born on March 6, 1947 [Ed.note-1946], in Cambridge, England, Gilmour began playing guitar at age 14 on a nylon-string acoustic. Eventually, the teenager moved on to Burns Sonnet and Hofner Club 60 electrics before getting his first Fender at age 21. This was a pivotal move. You should recall that most English guitarists of the pre-Hendrix era were already infatuated with Fenders, largely because of Hank Marvin's Strat work with the Shadows and James Burton's Tele string-bending with Ricky Nelson. When Hendrix arrived in late 1966, Strats were again the rage, surely influencing the 19-year old Gilmour even more on his choice of a Fender.(It's also no accident that he and fellow English picker Mark Knopfler have such a long-time fondness for *red* Stratocasters, since that's what Hank Marvin used during the Shadow's heyday. Furthermore, Gilmour has also gone on record as a big Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton fan - yet more great Strat heroes from which to catch the Fender bug.)
In high school, Gilmour met future Floyd members Roger Waters and Syd Barrett (for a while he even played with Barrett in a folk duo.) Bassist/vocalist Waters and guitarist/songwriter Barrett put together Pink Floyd in 1965 with keyboardist Rick Wright and drummer Nick Mason. Within a short time, Pink Floyd was garnering a great deal of attention in London's underground psychedelic scene, primarily for their wild light shows and for Barrett's brilliance as a composer and rock visionary. In early 1967, the group put out their first album (The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn) and toured America. At the same time, Barrett became increasingly dependent on drugs, and would often simply stop playing - or play something different - during live shows. By the beginning of 1968, his position in Pink Floyd was on questionable ground.
Around the same time, a band called Joker's Wild would open for Floyd at various gigs - its guitarist was David Gilmour. In February 1968, Waters and Company decided to bring their old schoolmate Gilmour into the fold to support Barrett's sporadic guitar playing. Within two months, however, Barrett's mental state was such that he wandered away from the group. He was never formally fired and never formally quit - he just stopped showing up. Gilmour, who had been earning a living a male model, then became Pink Floyd's sole guitarist, although Barrett was expected to return at any time. Several albums ensued with Gilmour in the guitar seat. A Saucerful Of Secrets (1968), Ummagumma (1969), Atom Heart Mother (1970), and 1971's Meddle, as well as several movie soundtracks, each one progressively more electronic and ethereal than its predecessor.
Around the time of A Saucerful Of Secrets, Gilmour was playing a Telecaster through a Selmer 50-watt amp witha 4x12 cab and a Binson echo unit. The Tele was later stolen, so the guitarist replaced it with a Strat. The Selmer eventually gave way to Hiwatt amps, and soon a variety of effects pedals (fuzz, wah, volume pedals) were entering his setup. Like many guitarists, he had the problem of having a huge string of pedals wired together onstage, with batteries running out frequently; so in 1972, all his pedals were housed in a single cabinet - a forerunner of rack setups to come.
Floyd took most of 1972 off to work on a new studio album. When released in early 1973, Dark Side Of The Moon shot up album charts all over the world and established Pink Floyd as a world-class rock act. The record stayed on the pop charts longer than any other record in history and the Waters-penned hit Money can be found on AOR radio stations almost hourly - nearly 25 years after it was written. They followed it up with Wish You Were Here in 1975, Animals in 1977, and The Wall in 1979, each one selling bazillions of copies and cementing the band's massive international popularity. Pink Floyd codified the 'space-rock' sound that appealed to the album-buying masses: a soft, balladic style with extensive synthesizer layerings, bluesy guitar solos, and cloudy, message-riddled lyrics, just perfect for bored teen suburbanites everywhere. Another major selling point was the inclusion of stage extravaganzas, which at times involved laser light shows, massive floating dirigibles in the shapes of farm animals, and, on The Wall tour of 1980, a huge wall that eventually crumbled around the band as they played. Snowy White, later of Thin Lizzy, was the band's second guitarist on these mega-tours. Snowy's main stage axe was Les Paul, along with a 12-string Ovation round-back acoustic.
It was during this gold-and-platinum-laden period that Gilmour's core equipment philosophy began to take shape. In accord with the high-fidelity sound of albums like Dark Side Of The Moon and Wish You Were Here, the guitarist also adapted an almost 'hi-fi' mentality to his rig. Instead of just plugging into a 100-watt tube amp and cranking the bejesus out of it to get overdriven distortion, as many other '70's guitarists did, Gilmour set out first to create a strong clean tone and then blend in any fuzz or other effects on top of that solid clean sound (again, harkening back to the clean Strat tones of Hank Marvin and other early rock'n'rollers). His main pedalboard during the Dark Side Of The Moon era contained an array of fuzz boxes and MXR pedals; ironically, this same board was being used in the '90's by Gilmour's live co-guitarist, Tim Renwick. The turning point in the creation of his amp rig was the discovery of an Alembic F2-B bass preamp, which had been used by Waters for his bass rig. One day, the techs tried it out on Gilmour's revolving speaker cabinets (at the same time, Yamaha RA-200's) and Gilmour liked its warm sound. The Alembic soon became an integral part of his main guitar rig. The signal then traveled to the output (power) sections of the Hiwatt heads and finally out of a series of 4x12 WEM cabinets. This powerful clean tone has been the heart of Gilmour's tone ever since, especially for live work.
This is not to say, of course, that Gilmour doesn't like effects; in fact, he has tones of them. Back around Dark Side Of The Moon David had just discovered wah-wah, and was filling out his effects with a Electro-Harmonix Big Muff and Uni-Vibe (these showing a strong Hendrix influence). Another vintage device he used during the '70's - and still does - was the Maestro Rover, a small rotating speaker on a stand that looked more like a space satellite than a guitar effect. Via a crossover, it sent the lower-frequency sounds to your amp, while the upper-frequency tones could be miked off of the swirling, variable-speed speaker. As has been seen again and again in Gilmour's gear for over 25 years, the man just can't get enough of that Leslie sound.
By the release of his first solo album, 1978's 'David Gilmour', and Pink Floyd's '79 epic, The Wall, Gilmour's effects setup had progressed considerably. Along with the old Big Muff, you could now find an MXR Phase 90, Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress, Orange Treble/Bass booster, Arbiter Fuzz Face, and custom tone pedal. His new state-of-the-art board had sophisticated switching capabilities that were far ahead of most late '70's pedal setups. Each effect could be individually bypassed or configured in any sequence, and there were three outputs for various amps. Sound familiar? This is almost like today's MIDI rack processors and foot-controllers, albeit using old analog technology. Like Pink Floyd's classic records, Gilmour's effects setup was way ahead of it time.
For guitars during this era, his main axe was a '79 black Strat with DiMarzio pickups and a '62 neck with a rosewood fingerboard (it also had a custom switch that allowed him to turn on the neck pickup in conjunction with other pickup configuration). Gilmour also had two Teles, a Les Paul, and a '55 Esquire that had been modified by Seymour Duncan with a new neck pickup. All the Strats were also shielded to cut down on extra noise, something endemic to most Fenders. For extra tuning stability with his Fender trems, he screwed down the front six screws on top of the trem faceplate as far as they would to to make total contact. He felt this kept the bar in better tune. Another trick was using different spring setups on the tremolos for different situations: three springs in studio, four onstage.
In the amp department for live work, there were two 100-watt Marshall stacks and two 200-watt Yamaha Leslie amps with WEM cabs for all. In the studio, David also experimented with various Fender Twins and MESA/Boogies. But he wasn't always beholden to amps, however, for his famous clean solo in Another Brick In The Wall, Part II, he DI'd the lead right into the board. His picks were Herco heavy-gauge, while strings rotated between Ernie Ball or Gibson Sonomatic sets in the .010 range. Career-wise, Pink Floyd faced a few rough years after The Wall. Their 1983 set, The Final Cut, was a critical loser, largely as the result of weak songwriting and fierce internal disputes between Gilmour and Roger Waters on the direction of the music. It didn't help that the taste of the times had turned towards New Wave music and big acts from the '70's were dropping like flies (Led Zeppelin, Bad Company, the Allman Brothers, the original Yes, and Deep Purple had all bitten the dust by this time). As if to take a break, Gilmour cut another well-received solo album, 'About Face' (1984). Again the guitarist's rig had advanced with the times, but as always, he kept the hi-fi quality of his setup. Among his amp and effects choices of the day were a pair of Fender Showman amps fueling two Marshall 4x12 cabs with Celestions and two WEM 4x12 cabs. Another favorite was a BOSS Heavy Metal Pedal into a MESA/Boogie, then feeding out into a DDL and finally a Fender amp.
Instead of his old custom 'switcher' effects board, he now opted for the BOSS SCC-700 pedalboard, which he filled with a compressor, flanger, distortion, overdrive, and digital delay. To round things off, a couple of MXR digital delays and a Pete Cornish volume pedal were looped on the board, as was a Boogie amp that was being used as an overdrive. An early wireless advocate, he chose the Shaffer-Vega system. For the recording of 'About Face', Gilmour jammed on a Strat, his tweaked Esquire, and a Martin D-35 on 'Murder' (capoed at the 3rd fret). He later took the album on the road (with Bad Company's Mick Ralphs playing rhythm on a Strat). His tour guitars included a '61 Telecaster with a Charvel neck and five Strats (from the Vintage Series Strat line) set up in various tunings. He also used a Washburn solidbody acoustic-electric and Ovation Custom Legend, as well as a rare headless Roger Giffin electric with 19" scale.
David Gilmour's personal guitar collection of around 300 instruments was also peaking at this time. Among the masses were several old Gretsches, a Lake Placid Blue '57 Strat (serial #0040) that belonged to Homer Haynes of Homes and Jethro, the '55 Esquire, a '55 Les Paul goldtop with P-90's.
David Gilmour- DG
GS: There are lots of multi-tracked guitars on Pink Floyd albums. How do you make up for that in concert?
DG: I usually have a second guitar player along, like Snowy White, Tim Renwick, or on my '84 solo tour, Mick Ralphs. I also work out the parts that I think are important to have in the songs, and try to get one of us to be able to do any bit that is vital at any moment. So we sort of make up a composite part for each track. Sometimes you miss things and sometimes you can have the synth play a guitar part that was on the record.
GS: As far as your tone, you use a lot of squeals, but it seems that in other places, you're right on the edge of feedback.
DG: Well, I like to be there. If I want to get feedback, I just go into the studio and stay close to the amp. I control it with great difficulty. I like it to be at the point where it's all running away from you and you're only just about in control. In fact, I sometimes like it when I'm not sure whether I'm in control, or the guitar and amplifier are.
GS: Which pickup do you prefer to get feedback?
DG: I use the treble [bridge] pickup virtually all the time.
GS: Do you write on acoustic or electric?
DG: I work songs out on anything that comes to mind: piano, organ, synthesizer, acoustic or electric guitar. When you pick up an acoustic, for example, certain ideas tend to come-you tend to move into certain areas musically. And they're very different from the ones you come up with when you pick up an electric.
GS: You're known as a Strat player, but sometimes we've seen you holding a Telecaster.
DG: Actually, it's a converted Esquire. I started out on a Telecaster before I joined Pink Floyd, and it was the first really good guitar I had. I've used Telecasters ever since, though I play Strats a bit more and that's what I'm generally known for.
GS: Have you ever considered using, say, a Les Paul or ES-335 in addition to the Fenders?
DG: I can't really get on with them that well. I don't really feel comfortable with them-I don't know why. I've just always been with Fenders and haven't managed to make the change. I've got a hybrid guitar that's like a Strat with a tremolo and a humbucker. In fact, I find that I play guitars without tremolos less and less.
GS: Do you find that trems tend to make you use less left-hand finger vibrato?
DG: I use both fairly indiscriminately. I mean, I can be in the middle of a solo and do one note's vibrato with my finger, and then the next one with the tremolo bar. It's a different sort of sound. I don't plan to use both; I just do it without thinking. As far as the actual spring setup of my trems, sometimes I have three, sometimes four. Then I just adjust the tremolo up until it feels right with my gauge of strings and everything else. I don't find that I have too much trouble with it going out of tune either. There are a lot of little things to make it go better, but it's never been too severe a problem for me.
GS: Years ago, you occasionally used a slide in your right hand while fretting notes and chords.
DG: It was not really playing slide; it was more like making spaceship noises. But I usually hold the slide in my left hand. I really don't use bottleneck slides, either. If I'm going to play in that style, I'll use some sort of lap-steel guitar. For that style, I'll either use a pick or just use my fingers and no pick.
GS: Do you ever cut guitar parts direct into the board?
DG: Not very often, but it has happened once in a while. The solo in "Another Brick in the Wall, Part II" was done straight into the board. After it was recorded, the signal was then put through an amplifier to add that kind of amp tone.
GS: Do you mostly cut tracks with your amp in a large room to get your famed tone and ambiance?
DG: I've found that if you use a big amp, it only works in big
rooms. And little amps work in little rooms. Most of the tones
that sound like that come from fairly large amplifiers in fairly
large rooms. But I've got tiny Fender amps that sound positively
enormous if you get them in the right place. It's quite amazing.