Ritchie Blackmore: Medieval Times
Originally published in Guitar World, February 2009
Ritchie Blackmore reflects on his decades of fascination with
Renaissance music and talks about his latest endeavors to blend
electric guitar with old-world instruments on the Blackmore’s Night
album Secret Voyage.
“I've always been very intense about anything I wanted to do. I think that’s part of my character, being intense about whatever it is I want to get into, whether it’s research, or kicking a ball around in soccer, or playing the guitar, or delving into medieval and Renaissance music. I can’t just do things passively; I have to really study something and try to figure it out.”
Ritchie Blackmore—by any estimation one of the greatest and most important rock guitarists ever to have lived—is discussing his fascination with the type of music he plays with Blackmore’s Night, the band he leads with his wife, Candice Night, and has been dedicated to since the band’s 1997 debut, Shadow of the Moon. The group’s seventh and latest album, Secret Voyage (SPV), blends medieval and Renaissance-era melodies with Night’s original lyrics and Blackmore’s acoustic and electric guitar mastery.
It hasn’t always been thus, of course. The British guitarist found fame initially as a member of heavy metal pioneers Deep Purple, from 1968 to 1975, and wrote what is probably rock’s best-known riff with the smash hit “Smoke on the Water.” He continued to court success with Rainbow from 1975 to 1984, first with singer Ronnie James Dio and, afterward, with Joe Lynn Turner. In 1984, Blackmore reunited with former Deep Purple bandmates Ian Gillan, John Lord, Roger Glover and Ian Paice and released the very successful Perfect Strangers album. Tensions between Blackmore and Gillian led to Blackmore’s departure and the reformation of Rainbow, from 1993 to 1997. From then forward, he directed his energies into Blackmore’s Night.
As a guitarist, Ritchie Blackmore is truly one of a kind. Though he emerged at a time when the competition was quite stiff—his contemporaries included the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton—Blackmore possessed a wholly distinct rock style that proved as powerfully innovative as any of his peers, and with it he pushed the limits of technical brilliance and virtuosity to unprecedented heights. Intrinsic to his unique approach was the incorporation into the rock genre of classical themes and, for the time, very unusual scales and modes such as Phrygian, Phrygian dominant and harmonic minor.
“I was initially inspired to explore that direction because of my love of classical music,” Blackmore explains. “I was obviously into rock guitar playing, but I was also very attracted to the classical overtones. Above all, we, as a band, approach this music with a spirit of creativity.”
Within the context of Blackmore’s Night, the legendary guitarist explores traditional English, Celtic, Hungarian and Russian folk musical forms, as well as pre–Baroque Renaissance music from every corner of the globe. On Secret Voyage, Ritchie’s distinct musical signature propels such standout tracks as “Toast to Tomorrow,” which finds its roots in medieval Russia, “Gilded Cage,” which utilizes 17th century French musical forms as its inspiration, the propulsive “Locked in a Crystal Ball” and the solo instrumental showcase “Prince Waldeck’s Galliard.”
GUITAR WORLD Can you describe your musical modus operandi for the latest Blackmore’s Night release, Secret Voyage?
RITCHIE BLACKMORE A good place to start is the track “Locked in a Crystal Ball.” The melody of that song is taken from the Cantigas de Santa Maria [a manuscript that represents the epitome of the Mediterranean medieval musical phenomena], actually written by King Alfonso X in Spain back in the 1200s. Very old, great tune. Medieval and Renaissance music of this type is the kind of music I listen to most of the time. Candice wrote some new words for that melody, which is something I’m sure would annoy the purists out there. There are purist Renaissance bands that exist today that frown on that type of thing, because the song was originally written in Latin and was a religious song that was sung in church.
We tend to do that a lot: take a melody from very old music, from way back in the past, and I’ll come up with a chord progression that is true to music of that era. Then Candi will write words for it, or change the words, and make it, not more modern, but our interpretation of it.
That’s the bottom line with us: we are musical nomads, because no one else is doing what we’re doing. If other musicians do the old music, they tend to do it in a very traditional form, exactly how it was written. We like to mess with it a bit, which I think is how the minstrels back in those days would have done it. Oftentimes, the minstrels in those days could not read music, so they would improvise on a theme that they’d heard in the other village, which would result in interpretive changes in the music.
GW Has your study of this music included a look at written manuscripts of medieval and Renaissance music, along with listening to various recordings?
BLACKMORE Yes, and what I find fascinating—amongst a lot of other things that I find you can hear so many different versions of the same piece of music. I follow this type of music very closely, and I’ll hear the same tune played in many different ways, with different notes. So this type of music was always open to the interpretation of the performer. In that era, it seems that as long as you were within two notes of the actual note, it was okay!
CANDICE NIGHT Even when we are working something that is based firmly on an old Renaissance song, Ritchie is such an improvisational player that, every time we play it, he interprets the music in new and different ways. He breathes new life into these songs with the way he relates to the music, and expresses himself within it. I don’t think it’s a conscious thing with him; it’s just the way he plays.
GW So, for example, on a song like “Locked in a Crystal Ball,” are the single-note lines you play between the verses and vocal phrases improvised?
BLACKMORE Yes, that’s right.
NIGHT So much of what Ritchie plays is improvised, and I think that’s one of the biggest challenges. Renaissance music, in its purest form, is so rigid and regimented. It’s very strict.
BLACKMORE To me, one of my weaknesses is sticking within a rigid musical form. So I’m attracted to that challenge of trying to play within the structure while still operating as a free-form type of player.
GW Is finding your own angle and approach to this music part of the endeavor, as opposed to sticking to faithful recreations?
BLACKMORE Absolutely. I wasn’t schooled to play this music in the traditional sense, but it really excites me when I hear it played in its purest form. My contribution is to take it into another realm, which is a little bit of rock and blues thrown in there, disguised. I don’t do a lot of string bending when I’m playing this music, but I’ll certainly be thinking almost like a blues/classical player. If anyone is really into this music, they usually stick to how it was played, or how they think it was played, back in those days.
Candice and I will often sit down and play this music like a real purist medieval band. I’ll be playing the mandola [an eight-stringed instrument having four paired strings tuned in unison] or the nyckelharpa [a stringed instrument played with a bow and fingered with keys rather than a fretboard], and she’ll be playing the shawm [the oboe’s predecessor], and we’ll say, “This is exactly what the purists would want.” But then we’ll say, “Ah, let’s make sure there’s a drum thing in there, and let’s add synthesizers and flutes,” because we really would rather be interpreters than recreationists. One of the strangest compliments I ever got was, “I don’t like Renaissance music, but I love your band!” Yet we’re playing Renaissance-inspired music.
GW Your interest in the incorporation of classical themes with rock is well represented by many Deep Purple and Rainbow recordings, one such example being Deep Purple’s 1969 release, Concerto for Group and Orchestra, recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
BLACKMORE That was an experiment, and that was more Jon’s [Lord, Deep Purple keyboardist] world. It wasn’t my world; I felt very awkward. I was supposed to play a 24-bar solo with the violins behind me, and of course I ended up playing like 52 bars instead. So I even messed that up! The conductor had to bring in the violins after my solo, and he was just looking at me, hovering…[laughs], “We’re now into the 52nd bar; it was supposed to be over at 24. When is he going to stop?!” And of course the violinists were all holding their ears!
GW In the YouTube videos of that performance you can see that some of them were actually smiling.
BLACKMORE They were smiling because they were thinking, Who are these… Everyone was complaining about my amplifier being too loud.
GW Have you had to change anything in regard to your playing technique in order to play the music of Blackmore’s Night?
BLACKMORE Yes, I have. I’ve had to come to terms with some real challenges since taking on this endeavor. It can be incredibly exhilarating and also incredibly depressing, because I have now adopted a different playing technique. In the old days, I always played with a pick, and that was the end of it. Nowadays I’m playing mostly fingerstyle because a lot of the time I am accompanying Candi’s singing, without the band, and I have to cover the bass lines and the chords simultaneously. So this plays its part in everything I write, because I write with the application in mind that I have to cover all of the parts.
What’s complicated about it is that I now have two styles: one is fingerstyle and the other is electric plectrum-style. I utilize both onstage, and it takes a few moments to get comfortable switching from one to the other. If I’m playing fingerstyle and I have to switch immediately to using a pick, my picking takes a minute to kick in. It’s like, “Wake up!” The truth is that I never practice picking anymore, because I’m usually playing fingerstyle when I play at home.
GW Many guitar fans view your Seventies-era incorporation of classical themes, along with nods to medieval scales and melodies, as the foundation of the neoclassical rock movement. Have you always had an interest in medieval and Renaissance music?
BLACKMORE I got into the type of music that we’re doing now when, at the age of nine, I first heard “Greensleeves.” This choirboy sang it at school, and the song moved me so much; it took me back to another time. Ever since then, that song has remained at the back of my mind.
NIGHT I think any fan of Ritchie’s can see the reflections of that influence in a lot of the music he’s played over the years, such as his versions of “16th Century Greensleeves” with Rainbow and Deep Purple. “Temple of the King” is another great example, and there are a lot of songs wherein the Renaissance era is reflected.
BLACKMORE “Greensleeves” is a great example of the beauty of the medieval musical form, because it revolves around the harmonic structure of parallel fourths and parallel fifths, exactly the stuff you would hear being played on shawms.
NIGHT We have all of those instruments, like the cornamuse—which is the true predecessor to the oboe—and the rauschpfeife, which are both double-reed instruments, as well as the gemshorn, which is actually a cow’s horn.
GW Candice, were you playing this type of music from a young age?
NIGHT No, I’d never even heard Renaissance or medieval music before I met Ritchie. The genesis of that music’s influence on me started when I would visit Ritchie at his big, old dark Tudor house in the middle of the Connecticut woods at the beginning of our relationship, and this was the type of music he listened to at home all of the time. He had his own “minstrel’s gallery” [a balcony from which musicians can perform] up there, and that music would fill the house. For myself, I can find so much inspiration in nature itself, and this type of music strikes me as the perfect soundtrack to nature; if you were walking through the woods, this music suits that feeling so well. The same can’t be said of most of the music you’d hear when you turn on the radio today. Most modern music makes me feel annoyed, rather than feeling inspired, or melancholy, or reflective, or uplifted.
GW Do you use some of these Renaissance-era instruments on Secret Voyage?
BLACKMORE Yes, we did. I’m obsessed with instrumental Renaissance dance music, and I probably always have been. We’re talking about music from the 1400s to 1600s. After that, you start to get into early baroque and more symphonic music. At first, I would adapt all of those melodies that really thrilled me to the guitar, but later on I began to learn to play some other instruments, like the mandola, the mandocello [a member of the mandolin family with a scale longer than the mandolin] and the hurdy-gurdy.
A hurdy-gurdy is a chromatic, two-octave stringed instrument with a handle that you have to turn while you play. Turning the handle causes a rosined wheel to vibrate the strings, similar to the way a bow is used on violin, and there is a keyboard that is used to sound specific pitches, as well as a drone string, or many drone strings. A lot of people think a hurdy-gurdy has a monkey on it [laughs], but it doesn’t. I learned to play one of those, too.
My latest acquisition is the nyckelharpa. It is an instrument that comes from Sweden and works in a way similar to the hurdy-gurdy except that you have to bow the strings instead of turning a wheel. I played that instrument on the song, “The Circle,” from Secret Voyage. So while also learning more about this music that I am so fascinated by, I’m now learning to play all of these instruments that were used when this music was first performed. The only instruments I can’t relate to are the woodwind instruments, and that’s where Candi comes into the picture. Anything to do with strings, I can get into. I played the cello for about seven or eight years, so it's easy for me to relate to the nyckelharpa. It’s a bit of a strange instrument, but when it’s played properly, it resonates so much with the soul. It sounds fantastic; it’s like hearing rock and roll guitar for the first time.
I have a guy that makes my hurdy-gurdies, and I asked him what got him interested in the instrument. He said that he originally made guitars, but the first time he heard a hurdy-gurdy plugged into an amplifier, he said, “That was it! It was so breathtaking, I never made another guitar!” His name is Helmut Gotschy, and he is the chief maker of all of the German hurdy-gurdies for the medieval movement going on over there. It’s much more prevalent in Europe than it is here. If you go to a Renaissance gathering over here, they tend to simply strum Celtic music instead of offering something more representative of the era.
It was very funny when I was first learning to play the hurdy-gurdy. My producer, Pat Regan, who is very good at patching things up, said, “Just play!” I was playing so many wrong notes, I was laughing my head off. But he said, “Keep playing, keep playing!” Out of that solo, he cut it up and made it sound like I could actually play the thing. He took out all of the crap and pitched a few other things, and I couldn’t believe it when I heard it.
NIGHT You should hear him play it in concert now. It’s amazing.
BLACKMORE I’ve got a handle on it now, no pun intended.
GW Had you ever tried to play any of these unusual instruments when you were in your teens or twenties? And did you every try playing the lute?
BLACKMORE No, this is all in more recent years. And I never related to the lute. From 1970 onward, the music that I was listening to the most was medieval dance music played by David Munrow and the Early Music Consort of London. They were playing the real stuff from the 1500s. What got me really entranced with that music was the woodwinds and the brass, not the guitars. The guitar took a backseat to a variety of other instruments in that era.
GW Many electric guitar players express an attraction to reed instruments and brass because the sound is produced by the breath, which enables one to achieve much greater sustain than that of a vibrating string.
BLACKMORE That’s very true. Jimmy Page told me once that he based many of his solos on sax solos, and, of course, therein lies the attraction to distortion. It is usually accompanied by increased sustain.
What is so interesting, too, is that, when you start using these organic period-faithful instruments that I’ve become obsessed with, you can run into a lot of trouble trying to work in a synthesizer. Synthesizers tune perfectly, but with any organic, old-world instrument, especially shawms and hurdy-gurdies, they go in and out of tune constantly. When all of the old instruments are together, it works; throw in a synthesizer and you’re in trouble. I came to realize that having any synths or electronic keyboards on there would make everything sound sterile. To get the hurdy-gurdy in tune with the keyboard, it has to be pitched up digitally, and that just ruins the character of the hurdy-gurdy.
So in the studio, we’re torn between carrying the music through with just the organic instruments, or have a synthesizer and a bass; as soon as you have a bass, the music becomes “modern.” In the old days, they wouldn’t use a bass guitar, but they’d use a bass drum, which supplied just one or two pitches. As soon as you add a bass guitar, you go forward three hundred years.
Night It's things like this that make us feel we are constantly being taught by this project. When we first started out, most of the instrumentation was done on synthesizer. Slowly, we started incorporating the organic instruments, and it was on Fires at Midnight  that we started using the shawms. Suddenly, we were faced with, “Uh oh…how do we pitch this?” and “How do we triple-track it to make it sound big?” and “What effect can go on it that won’t make it sound like a synthesizer and will allow it to keep its organic sound?”
The next thing that happened was that we really wanted to get into the real instruments, so that’s when the hurdy-gurdies and the rauschpfeifes came along. And it’s easier when the two of us can play these different instruments, because we don’t have to call someone else to come over and do it.
BLACKMORE There are really only three people in the band, though onstage there are usually seven or eight.
NIGHT And we both play the hurdy-gurdy now. So it’s really a constant learning process, and each time we put a new album out, the songs pull us in some new directions. It never gets boring, because we are always learning something new.
BLACKMORE I’m always torn between making a track purely organic, with just shawms, lutes, mandolas and percussion, or getting into a highly produced thing, with a synthesizer used to create effects. Sometimes we fall down the middle, because we do both, like on “Locked in a Crystal Ball.” If you listen, there’s an electric rock and roll guitar in there; I’m playing my Fender Strat over a medieval song. That can be dangerous, because it could end up sounding so incongruous. If you try playing rock solos over a very strict melody that was written in the 1200s, you’ve got to watch it.
GW And that’s exactly what you ended up doing.
BLACKMORE That’s right, but we were in two minds with that tune. In the beginning, I was just playing mandolas and Candi was playing the shawms, and we were going to leave it like that. And we probably would have sold about two copies, to the purists only. But we thought, well, we’ve got a producer, let’s bring in all of the guns!
NIGHT And the next thing you know, we have 98 tracks! [laughs] And we end up saying, “What can we take out? It’s too much!”
BLACKMORE That’s one of my biggest dilemmas: Being that I’m so into the organic, old music, I sometimes don’t want to water it down to make it more palatable for a less adventurous audience, one that says, “Oh well, if I don’t hear an electric guitar, I don’t want to buy it.” Because there are times when an electric guitar will sound wrong.
NIGHT One of the songs from our Village Lanterne album is called “25 Years,” and Ritchie had recorded an amazing electric guitar solo for it. When he heard it back, he said, “You know what? It doesn’t call for a guitar solo, so let’s take it off and put a hurdygurdy solo on.”
BLACKMORE The older you get, the more you realize that the end result is so much more important than me showing off and playing exercises on guitar. But whether we are using period instruments or not, we are still approaching what we do with a musically creative attitude.
NIGHT There are so many brilliant bands out there playing this music in a purist style, and Ritchie loves listening to that stuff. It’s a part of what’s kept him so passionate about music. We like to draw from that inspiration and take the music to a new place.