Ritchie Blackmore: Medieval Times
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.
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