It’s Not Just About The Gear
A few years ago, I was providing private guitar tuition from my home and a new student showed up for his first lesson with a Zakk Wylde signature Gibson Les Paul. Zakk was this student’s favourite player and he genuinely believed that if he spent £2500 on his first guitar, he’d be good enough to play with Ozzy Osbourne by the end of the month.
More recently, I met an absolute beginner whose first guitar was a rather nice David Gilmour signature Fender Stratocaster. Again, he naively assumed that if he learned the basics, the guitar would do the rest of the work.
The fact is, buying the signature guitar, amp or pedal of your favourite guitarist probably isn’t going to make you sound any more like that player than any other gear will – especially if you’ve only been playing for a short time.
I spend a great deal of my year on tour, recreating the music of Pink Floyd and I am often asked why I don’t use a signature model guitar for my work with Brit Floyd. There are two reasons: The first is that I’m left handed. I may be wrong, but the last time I checked, Fender didn’t manufacture a lefty version of the David Gilmour model. The second reason is that I’m much more comfortable playing an instrument that feels the way I want a guitar to feel, rather than one designed with somebody else’s hands in mind.
I have owned many Fender Stratocasters over the years, which is no mean feat, given that I am far less spoilt for choice than right-handers. My main guitar for my work with Brit Floyd is my much-loved Suhr Custom Classic. I won’t bore you with the spec, but it’s absolutely perfect for my needs (in both feel and tone) and it sounds more like a classic Strat than any left-handed Fender I’ve owned.
Despite this, I have fallen under criticism on a couple of occasions by gig-going purists for the fact that my Strat-style guitar doesn’t have the word “Fender” on its headstock. This lead me to believe that when it comes to guitars, amps and effects, a lot of people subconsciously listen with their eyes, rather than their ears.
People enquire frequently about my amp and pedal set up, which has evolved constantly over the years; my touring rig is actually now in its third incarnation. Regardless, people are often surprised at the fact that I haven’t attempted to replicate David Gilmour’s set up. I know people that have, but unless you have upwards of 20 grand to spend, a backup for everything and at least two guitar techs on hand in case just one thing goes wrong in the complicated effects chain and derails the entire gig, you’re far better off keeping things simple.
I’ve used every kind of setup, ranging from more rack effects than you can shake a stick at, to the fantastic G System by TC Electronic. However, as soon as I discovered the Axe FX by Fractal audio, I immediately called off the search.
The Axe FX is arguably every touring guitarist’s dream and every purist’s worst nightmare. Actually, scratch that. It even converted the purist in me. I mean, who needs valves anyway?
Before I bought the Axe FX, I was becoming frustrated with constantly trying to shoehorn more and more pedals and effects into my rig, just to achieve one particular sound in one particular song. Previously, I’d shrugged off using amp-modeling technology for live use since, to my ears, it lacked warmth and rarely captured the valve saturation of a classic amplifier.
I could go on and on about Fractal Audio’s little box of wonders, but I’ll cut a long story short by saying, “Believe the hype!” This little unit does everything I need it to, both live and in a studio environment. In fact, all of the sounds you hear coming from my side of the stage at a Brit Floyd gig are coming at you direct from the Axe FX (via my guitar and my hands, of course. I still need to be there – It’s not that clever!)
I have been asked on a couple of occasions to share my Axe FX presets. While I don’t currently make any of them available, I haven’t ruled out the possibility of doing so at some point in the future. If I did, however, I think people would be surprised at their simplicity or even disappointed that, again, despite having access to a digital model of almost every guitar amp and effects pedal known to mankind, I haven’t gone all out to replicate David Gilmour’s rig, even in the digital realm.
Again, I don’t want to upset that guy in Ohio who complained that my guitar didn’t have a Fender logo, but rather than set up sounds using my eyes, I instead opted to edit by ear, as I would with any other amp.
I still strive to recapture certain effect parameters, such as delays, reverbs and modulation as authentically as possible, but more often than not, when it comes to the core tone, I’ll pick the amp model that sounds the closest to the original recording, regardless of whether it’s a model of one of Gilmour’s classic Hiwatt amps or an old Marshall Plexi.
Let’s not forget that there were countless variables in the recording process of those classic Pink Floyd albums. Nailing the tone isn’t always as simple as just recreating the amp settings and pedal chain. The recording desk, the microphones used and even the room itself all played a big part of the overall sound that made it to the album, so it pays to experiment in order to ensure the end result sounds as close to the original as possible.
Incidentally, for those looking for a closer insight into the gear that Mr. Gilmour used on Pink Floyd’s original recordings, check out www.gilmourish.com. This site, owned by guitarist Bjørn Riis, serves as great reference material for any Pink Floyd fan or guitar purist.
When it comes to tone, I’m not arrogantly claiming to be the world’s most authentic David Gilmour impersonator, but one thing I am is extremely dedicated to my work and respectful of the music. I find myself constantly revisiting David’s original recordings and trying to capture the subtle nuances in his phrasing, dynamics and vibrato. This is an ongoing task and it develops from one tour to the next. It’s important that I put in the work because it’s my job.
Nobody comes to a Brit Floyd show to hear me play like me. Granted, there are those carefully chosen moments where I’m allowed some artistic license, especially when playing solos that were previously performed by Snowy White or Tim Renwick when they toured with Pink Floyd, but for the most part, both myself and Damian Darlington are striving to recreate Gilmour’s solos note-for-note, because that’s what the public pay to hear.
In summary, Eric Clapton, playing a £100 guitar through a £50 amp, is still going to sound like Eric Clapton. While investing your money in trying replicate your favourite guitar player’s gear may bring you closer to getting their signature sound, it will never get you as close as your fingers or your ears can. The simple truth is that you’re far better off investing your time in some good, old-fashioned practice and ear training.
As we always say at FretHub, you only get out what you put in, but practice should never feel like work. Capturing the sound and feel of those classic solos and riffs should always be fun, so take your time and enjoy the journey.