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.