Peter Frampton: Come Again?
Originally published in Guitar World, June 2010
Back in the spotlight with a new album, Peter Frampton gives an in-depth look at his rig and talks about his years in the wilderness after Frampton Comes Alive!
"Show Me the Way" was one of the biggest hits on Peter Frampton's breakthrough 1976 live record, Frampton Comes Alive! Yet, for all the acclaim that album brought him as a guitarist, songwriter and performer, it seemed that he was still trying to find his path for most of the Eighties and Nineties.
“After Frampton Comes Alive! became a huge success, I really needed to take time off to work out what the hell just happened. Instead, I just kept working,” says Frampton, who has just released his 14th album, Thank You Mr. Churchill. Though he didn’t take a break at the time, he certainly deserved one. The double-disc live album was one of the biggest sellers of 1976 and held the top spot on the Billboard Top 200 for 10 weeks, thanks to the hit songs “Do You Feel Like We Do,” “Baby I Love Your Way” and “Show Me the Way.” Prior to it, Frampton was relatively unknown, despite four well-received solo albums, three hit singles with the British group the Herd, and a stint in Humble Pie that culminated in the group’s classic 1971 live album, Rockin’ the Fillmore. After its release, everyone knew the British guitarist with the long curly locks.
While hits like “Show Me the Way” and “Baby I Love Your Way” dominated pop radio, Frampton was equally popular on FM album rock stations, which played the album’s full 14-minute version of “Do You Feel Like We Do,” complete with extended talk box solo and an abundance of tasteful melodic chops that the guitarist performed on a three-pickup Les Paul Custom.
In the course of things, Frampton became something of a guitar hero for his time. His powerful, soaring guitar solos—characterized by a sonorous, singing midrange and thick Leslie rotating speaker tones—were among the factors that helped Frampton Comes Alive! become so successful. But immediately after releasing the album, he traded the role of guitar hero for that of pop star. His follow-up, 1977’s I’m in You, downplayed his taut rhythm guitar work and massive swirling leads in favor of synthesizers. In 1978, Frampton starred as Billy Shears in a poorly conceived film version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and when the movie flopped, it seemed he had done irreparable damage to his reputation as a musician.
Frampton notes, “I was only a teenager when I played with the Herd and Humble Pie, and I was still in my early twenties when Frampton Comes Alive! came out. That was an immense amount of work in a relatively short period of time. I needed to stop for a while and grow up, but I didn’t do that. Somewhere along the way things got confused and the pop-star side of my career got in the way of my musician side.”
Several more solo albums followed, none of which served to further his status. When his 1995 live album, Frampton Comes Alive II, failed to meet sales expectations, the guitarist decided to put his solo career on hold. He found satisfaction and steady work playing the sideman role, making records and touring behind artists like Ringo Starr and Bill Wyman. By 2003, he was ready to hit the road on his own again, and he released Now, his first studio album in nine years. Frampton’s follow-up, the 2006 instrumental effort Fingerprints, earned him both critical acclaim and a Grammy, and it seemed that he had finally found the direction he had been seeking for so many years.
“Fingerprints finally put me back in the spotlight as a musician,” he says. The album, which included Frampton’s cover of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” featured a number of guest guitarists, such as Warren Haynes, John Jorgenson, Wyman and Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready. “I needed to make a guitar record,” Frampton says. “The perception that I was just a pop star was pushed upon me by the public, and it’s very hard to change the public’s perception even though I never really pushed aside the musician aspect of my career. After I released Fingerprints, my peers reassured me that I was on a level that I always hoped I would be on. I was regarded as a guitar player again, as I was when I was with Humble Pie and before the Frampton Comes Alive! period. It felt really good to do that and to play with all of my heroes and people who inspired me, like Warren Haynes, John Jorgenson, Hank Marvin and the Shadows, Pearl Jam and the Stones.”
Frampton has kept that creative energy flowing on his latest album, Thank You Mr. Churchill. While the album contains mostly vocal-oriented songs, Frampton delivers some of his most spirited and inspired solos since his Humble Pie days. His playing is as fiery and aggressive at it was in his youth, but he now attacks the instrument from a more refi ned and mature perspective.
“I came into this record with a new confidence that resulted from the acceptance of Fingerprints,” he says. “Making Fingerprints was like starting again. I approached it from a completely different viewpoint, which is something I should have done years ago. After I won a Grammy for Fingerprints, I thought that maybe they were trying to tell me that I shouldn’t sing!” He laughs. “But I enjoy singing, so I decided to sing on this album anyway. I don’t ever want to repeat myself. I learned that the hard way by trying to recreate things I’d previously done throughout my career. I don’t know what I want to do next, but I know it won’t be anything like this album.”
Many of the songs on Thank You Mr. Churchill are autobiographical. In the title song, he thanks former British prime minister Winston Churchill for helping to defeat the Germans in World War II, which in turn allowed his father to return from the conflict and led to Frampton being conceived. “Vaudeville Nanna and the Banjolele” tells the story of how he discovered his grandmother’s banjolele (a ukulele with a banjo-style head) in the attic and how his father taught him to tune his first guitar. But several songs on the album take a look at the world around us, such as “Restraint,” which reflects on the recent Wall Street bailout and “Asleep at the Wheel,” which was inspired by the story of a Japanese girl who was kidnapped by the North Koreans more than 30 years ago and is still being held captive.
The album also includes the instrumental “Suite: Liberte,” which is divided into two parts. After a bluesy, lyrical Jeff Beck–style intro, the song shifts to some tasteful acoustic playing that reveals a few hints of Frampton’s Django Reinhardt influences. “I’ll never be as adept a player as Django was,” he admits. “I’m not a shredder, and he was definitely one of the first shredders. And he played with only two fingers [on his fretting hand]! But I’ve also learned a lot from his melodic sense. I really love the notes he chose to play over his chords.”
Frampton recorded a cover of Stevie Wonder’s early Motown hit “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)” for 1977’s I’m in You, and he tips his hat to Motown once again on “Invisible Man,” which he recorded with backing by the legendary Motown studio rhythm section, the Funk Brothers. “I inducted the Funk Brothers into the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville several years ago,” he says. “I asked them if they ever wanted to record a track with me. They told me to just call them up and they’d do it. Everything on that song was played live and recorded all in a single take, even the tambourine.”
The album also reunited Frampton with producer Chris Kimsey, who he first met when playing with Humble Pie and who engineered and produced Frampton’s first eight solo efforts. Frampton says, “I really enjoyed working with him again. We recorded the album in my basement studio, and when you’re locked in close quarters like that with someone for four months, you really need to get along well.”
The studio that Frampton built in his Cincinnati, Ohio, basement is no ordinary home studio. It’s equipped with a 56-input SSL console and a large assortment of high-end outboard gear that he has collected over the years. But even though he owns several state-of-the-art digital reverb units, Frampton prefers the sound of the basement’s natural echo chamber, which is also his wife’s gym.
“My wife said I could build a studio in the basement as long as I also built her a gym down there,” he says. “I found out that it makes a perfect echo chamber. Chris and I went in there, and when we clapped our hands, we noticed that it has no standing waves. The sound is perfect. We put a speaker and a couple of mics in there and used it as a natural reverb chamber. It was perfect for the Motown track. I didn’t use my Lexicon very much, because that room sounds so much better. Now my wife has to move out of there when we record.”
For guitar players, one of the more enjoyable aspects of the album is Frampton’s rainbow of tasteful tones. Each track has its own distinct personality and palette of sounds, the result of his experiments with a variety of guitars, amps and effects.
“I love old vintage amps, especially old Marshalls,” he says. “I love effects. Most of the tones on this record were usually one amp head or combo with a little delay unit and maybe a couple of other effects. I might use one of my 1959 Fender Deluxe amps for one little bit in a song, and then I’d use a Marshall 50-watt head through a 4x12 cabinet for another part. But I can’t bring myself to take those amps on the road, because I’m afraid they’ll get destroyed. I have two that sound virtually identical, but when I tried to find another one to take on the road, I discovered that they’ve tripled in price. I’m now looking at the Tungsten Crema Wheat or the Fender ’57 Deluxe reissue as an alternative.”
Other amps in Frampton’s studio arsenal include a 1962 Marshall JTM45 (“the million-dollar Marshall”) that he uses for solos, a 1964 Vox AC30 Top Boost and a modified AC15. He also recently bought a limited-edition Vox Brian May AC30 that he uses with his Fender Hank Marvin signature Stratocaster. “When I got that amp I put my Top Boost away. Vox really got it right. It only has a volume knob, which is all you need with that amp. I sent a message to Brian telling him that I was using his amp, and he said that he’d have to tell Vox to make some more. I used that amp and the Hank Marvin Strat quite a bit on the album.”
Frampton recently retired an old Ampeg ET-1 Echo Twin that was a crucial part of his tone on the Humble Pie albums, Frampton Comes Alive! and his onstage rig for many years. “I did my time with the Echo Twin,” he says. “I love it, but I haven’t been able to find another one that’s quite like the one I used on Frampton Comes Alive! A few years ago I found one in Ohio at Fretware Guitars that had never been played. I bought it, but I don’t even play it. Now I use an old 1958 Ampeg Jet with a single 12-inch speaker in the studio instead.”
In addition to his trademark black three-pickup Gibson Peter Frampton Les Paul Custom, Frampton played a Les Paul gold top that his rack builder/technician Mark Snyder found for him and a 2005 1960 Les Paul Standard Reissue with a finish by Tom Murphy. Other electrics include a Nineties Telecaster that Jay Black of the Fender Custom Shop made for him and an original 1963 Fender Jaguar. “Whenever I need a quirky sound I go for the Jaguar,” he says. “It has some really wonderful tones.” Acoustics include a Gitane DG -255 Selmer-style gypsy jazz guitar, a Martin D-42 Peter Frampton signature dreadnought, and a Tacoma C1C Chief that can be heard on the beginning of the track “Restraint.”
Recently, Frampton discovered a few pedals of modern vintage, including the DigiTech Whammy and Gig-FX Mega Wah and Pro Chop. The effects can be heard on Thank You Mr. Churchill and have become permanent fixtures in his live rig. “I’m a huge fan of Tom Morello,” he admits. “Because of him I got into the DigiTech Whammy Pedal. I used that for the octave-up sounds that you hear on several solos.”
Faced with the challenge of duplicating all of the new sounds on the album as well as those of many of his past hits, Frampton hired his longtime technician Mark Snyder to assemble his latest stage rig. Snyder says, “The exciting challenge in working with Peter is that he has a really well-defined image of the sounds he wants to create. I recall being on the road with Peter, and if I moved the volume control on the Marshall from 5 to 4 and 7/8ths, he’d go, ‘Something isn’t right.’ He was always tuned in to each component of the rig.”
The heart of the rig is a Seventies 100-watt Marshall head that was modified by José Arredondo. “I had spoken with Eddie Van Halen about his sound, and he told me about Jose,” Frampton says. “Jose never ever gave me exactly the same thing that he did for Eddie, but whatever he did sure sounds good. [Luthier/amp designer] John Suhr cloned that amp for me and made a couple of copies that are also in my rig.” A Sixties blackface Fender Bassman head handles clean tones, and Frampton uses a 100-watt John Suhr–modified Marshall head exclusively to drive his Framptone talk box. An Egnater M4 preamp provides additional tonal color.
A good chunk of Frampton’s rig is taken up with stomp boxes and rack effects (see sidebar). The guitarist controls all of them, except for the Whammy and Gig FX pedals, via an Axess Electronics FX1 MIDI foot controller. The post-amp rack effects are amplified in stereo by a Mesa Recto 2:100 power amp, and the various output signals are then routed to three Marshall 4x12 cabinets or to a genuine Leslie rotating speaker cabinet that he uses for his classic swirling guitar solo tones.
“As big as this rig appears, it’s really not,” Snyder says. “There are several big components, like the speaker cabinets and Leslie, that take up space, but from a conceptual standpoint it’s somewhat simple. These are all of Peter’s tools that he likes to use. He may need certain tools for only 10 seconds, but they need to be there. It makes the song, so it’s a crucial item. I respect that. It’s a challenge to make that work, but that’s also the fun of it. We didn’t make this a big rig with lots of things added just for the sake of adding them. Everything has a specific purpose.”
Frampton elaborates, “I use an old Boss CE-1 chorus only for the intro to ‘Black Hole Sun.’ I tried just about everything else for that sound onstage, but the CE-1 was the only effect that sounded sweet enough. I don’t use it any other time except for those few seconds at the beginning of that song. People ask why I have so much gear onstage, and it’s because I want to emulate all the sounds that I’ve got on my records.”
The rig will be getting an extensive workout on Frampton’s summer coheadlining tour with Yes. He expanded his band to a five-piece a few years ago, adding an additional guitarist, Adam Messer, to replicate the overdubs on his albums. “I wanted to sound closer to my albums,” he explains. “Adam is a tremendous player, and he gets to do all of those elaborate parts that really make the track sound full. Sometimes we need three guitars, so my keyboardist Rob Arthur will play guitar as well. It will be a challenge to duplicate all of the parts from this record, but we’ll manage it.
“I haven’t stopped playing guitar since I went back on the road in 1992,” he concludes. “I grow when I play live, so you could probably say I’ve grown quite a lot since then. It’s always invigorating to play my music in front of people, and it renews me creatively. On the road I work in the fast lane, and then I come home to my studio in Cincinnati and play in the slow lane.”