“When Noel asked me to join High Flying Birds, he said I could use any of his gear. I asked if he still had the Epiphone Sheraton, and he said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘OK, I’ll join’”: Gem Archer on playing with Oasis – and both Gallagher brothers’ solo projects

Gem Archer
(Image credit: Getty Images)

As a mainstay of the British guitar scene, Gem Archer has influenced countless young players to pick up the instrument. With workmanlike technique and a catchall mentality, he made noise with his bands The Edge, The Contenders and Whirlpool. In the mid-'90s he broke ground with Heavy Stereo, a glam-meets-hard rock act that recorded a monster yet overlooked record, Déjà Voodoo, in 1996.

Archer fronted and had high hopes for Heavy Stereo. “In Whirlpool we got away from guitar music, and I had to go back to the drawing board because I wanted to get back to basic guitar,” he tells Guitar World. “That's what led to Heavy Stereo – and soon we signed to Creation Records. That's when I first met Noel Gallagher, Liam Gallagher, and Andy Bell, who was with Ride.”

While Heavy Stereo didn’t stick, Archer’s reputation as a capable player with a good attitude and knack for penning quality tunes did. That led to Noel Gallagher calling on him in 1999 when Oasis’s original rhythm guitarist, Paul ‘Bonehead’ Arthurs, split at the height of their Britpop fame.

The new arrival was far from a hired hand – Gallagher didn’t just draft him in to play rhythm guitar, but to help reshape the dynamic of Oasis. “Bonehead was part of getting that wall-of-sound thing,” Archer says. “He was there even before Noel joined. Once Noel got there, it was, ‘Right, Bonehead, it’s barre chords for you, and I’ll handle everything else.’ It was fucking brilliant and we all loved it.

“When I joined, on the first day, we were doing Cigarettes and Alcohol and he said, ‘Can you do this part?’ I said, ‘Oh, wow, that's lead!’ I told him, ‘Sure I can. Let’s go!' And it was the same thing with Morning Glory – he asked me to do some leads.”

For 10 years, Archer was an anchor for the Oasis sound, lending his talents to the live record Familiar to Millions (2001) and three studio records: Heathen Chemistry (2002), Don’t Believe the Truth (2005) and the band’s final record, Dig Out Your Soul (2008). Soon afterwards, a guitar-bashing bust-up between Liam and Noel in Paris in 2009 led to the end of Oasis.

We were doing Cigarettes and Alcohol and Noel said, ‘Can you do this part?’ I said, ‘Oh, wow, that's lead!’

Archer then hooked up with Liam for his post-Oasis band, Beady Eye, leading to two more albums – Different Gear, Still Speeding (2011) and BE (2013) – before eventually rejoining Noel as a member of his High Flying Birds, where he remains.

Asked to explain the chemistry between him and Noel, Archer says: “When we do Don’t Look Back in Anger or The Masterplan, it’s different live than on record. God knows, after 24 years of playing music together, we know each other well. We have an understanding; a certain wavelength.

“But Noel still writes songs that have me saying, ‘Wow. That’s the best you’ve ever written,’ and we’re off again!”

What inspired you to pick up the guitar?

“It was a combination of being too young to know why I was drawn to it, and seeing Elvis movies, Beatles cartoons and bits and pieces of things here and there. You start being drawn to something.

“I remember seeing guys who played football with guitars on stands in the dressing rooms and thought, ‘Oh, those look great!’ I didn’t know if they were fucking basses or guitars, but I thought, ‘That looks fucking alright.’”

Do you remember your first guitar?

“I don’t remember what type it was, but apparently I had my first guitar when I was four. I asked for it and broke it, running to show it to my auntie! I’ve still got a little dent in my head where the guitar hit me!”

That dent might be the catalyst for your creative muse…

“I can still feel it now… The funniest thing is when I was young, I thought the more knobs a guitar had, the better! I’d say, ‘Oh, look at that,’ not knowing what a Telecaster even was. And then I saw a Les Paul, which had more knobs, and I thought, ‘That must be better!’”

When did your mindset begin to change?

“I got my first proper guitar when I was around 10. I’d been playing violin and cello at school, and I liked violin because my teacher played guitar too. My violin teacher wore jeans and looked cool, but my piano teacher, man, was a pain in the fucking ass. He wouldn’t let me pack it in, but eventually my dad did.  

“Then one day I went around to this guy’s house with my uncle, and that’s when I first heard two guitars together. I was shown a D chord, and the whole experience was a lightbulb fucking moment for me. I’d never heard two guitars together before.

“I took lessons with that guy for two years, which was fucking brilliant. The things he showed me cracked the code for me and I went from there.”

How did your first proper band, The Edge, form?

“After I got done with that teacher, I went to a different school, and that was where The Edge got together. It was just a couple of guitars, which came from hearing a lot of the music coming out of Liverpool, Glasgow and Manchester – our local scene was nonexistent.

“We took it as far as we could go in the north east of England, doing lots of Jam, Blondie, Undertones, Buzzcocks and Vaselines covers. When I was around 20, I moved the band to London.”

“The Contenders was basically The Edge part two – it was like The Edge, but the London version. I thought, ‘Right, let’s have a little reinvention.’ The new version of the band was essentially built around this 12-string Rickenbacker I had.

“I got that guitar because I had been unemployed and got a housing benefit, but they overpaid me – so I took that money, bought the Rickenbacker, and moved to London very quickly!”

I got a housing benefit but they overpaid – I took that money, bought the Rickenbacker, and moved to London very quickly

Is that the only guitar you had when you formed Whirlpool and then Heavy Stereo?

“For a long time, the Rickenbacker was the only guitar. But it was good enough because I loved the sound; and in the three-piece setting, it was great plugged into a Marshall. It gave me this big sound, and I often used a WEM Guild Copycat tape delay, which I didn’t fully understand then – but it gave me a mega sound.

“When we formed Whirlpool we got more into samplers and loops. We got a record deal with Food Records and made an album, but it got hung up in hell and had us going in circles, which lead to Heavy Stereo.”

Digging into the basis of Heavy Stereo’s distorted guitar sound, what gear were you using when you recorded Déjà Voodoo?

“I had sold the 12-string Rickenbacker by then because I needed to pay rent! I lined up all my guitars and said, ‘Right, sadly, that one has to go.’ So for Heavy Stereo, all I used was an Epiphone Casino, and I believe I had a Gibson Les Paul Studio Deluxe with mini humbuckers.

“I also had an Epiphone J-200 acoustic, and I used to weirdly feed that into a DOD FX55-B distortion pedal. I liked the lack of sustain it gave.”

Where were you and Heavy Stereo guitarist Pete Downing pulling influence from at the time?

“I was going for that T. Rex thing. I only had a Vox AC30 then, and Pete had a master volume Marshall. We didn’t have many pedals, so we were always using our amps to push for that ballsy, distorted thing. Pete was maybe a bit cleaner-sounding, so I guess I was the one who really was going for the more broken-up sounds.”

From there, you joined Oasis. What led to Noel giving you more lead opportunities than he’d done with Bonehead?

“In the early days, I think Noel and Bonehead would just put it all on 10 and say, ‘We’re gonna flatline the crowd,’ you know? But then (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? comes, and suddenly they had Whitey [Alan White] on drums, and there’s a whole different dynamic. They were using acoustics and things got more complex.

“Things changed when Andy Bell and I joined. I remember Andy learning Wonderwall exactly as it was on the record, and Noel said, ‘Can you give it another try?’ I went to him and said, ‘Give it a little Sid Vicious,’ and Andy said, ‘Right. Got it.’

“With Andy and me in the band, Noel could do other things. I can tell you that there was never a directive to play barre chords.”

Andy Bell, Liam Gallagher, Noel Gallagher (standing), Gem Archer performing live onstage.

(Image credit: Paul Bergen/Redferns/Getty Images)

You had some beautiful amps onstage with Oasis. What did your typical touring rig look like?

“It evolved from when I joined in ’99 to the end of ’09. I often had at least two amps on stage; sometimes, Noel would have even more. My main amp was a Vox AC50, which was very bulky, but it’s different than a Marshall or Fender – it has a lot of meat on its bone. I often had a Marshall head with that.

“As for Noel, believe it or not, his all-time favorite amp is a Fender Blues Junior. We always had amps that would give us clarity, even if the gig was massive. A mainstay of the Oasis sound was an Ibanez Tube Screamer TS9. 

“When I first joined I had no pedals, so I’d turn the guitar down to clean things up and turn it up for more grit. But Noel said, ‘Don’t turn down, man – we hit the fucking boost, and we go up.’ So, we always had the Tube Screamer, and we also always had the white Boss Delay DD-3, and another massive part of the sound was the SIB Echodrive – this big metal box with a valve in it.”

And how about guitars?

“I mainly went with Gibson Firebirds, which fit alongside Noel well. I wanted something with a different tonality, which I especially got with my red one; it has fantastic insulation. That guitar was so amazing while doing Champagne Supernova!

“And I’d often borrow Noel’s Epiphone Sheraton, which was and is the fucking best. When he asked me to play with him with High Flying Birds in 2017, he said I could use any of his gear that I wanted. I immediately asked if he still had the red Epiphone Sheraton, and he said, ‘Yeah, I do,’ and I said, ‘Okay, yeah, I’ll join.’ I use it on all sorts of songs.

“But I also use a Gibson ES-355 and a Paisley Telecaster, which I got back in 2001. It’s funny – Noel and I got Paisley Teles on the same day, without knowing it, and then turned up at the gig with them! They're brilliant guitars and Mexican-made, so they only cost us 500 quid.”

Noel seems more focused on rhythm guitar, making you important. I assume he has a lot of trust in you after all these years. 

“Yeah, I think he does. We’ve got a long history and evolved to where I understand what Noel will do guitar-wise, which is good because the High Flying Birds are different.

“I’m asked to cover a lot of different approaches and sounds, which can be tough because some of the stuff on the records has me saying, ‘This isn’t humanly possible!’ But Noel has always said, ‘That’s the studio version, but this is live – the nuances change.’ I really like that, and we both get that.”

You've navigated the choppy waters of being in a band with Liam and Noel over the years, and you’re still here today. What’s your secret? 

“Ah, I’d be a fool to think I knew the secret to that! There must be something in our mutual Northern souls that allowed the same influences and mindset to seep in. And as far as Liam and Noel go, none of us will ever know the depth of where some of those emotions come from. It’s better left between the two.”

That's a good lesson for anybody who speculates on their musical future.

My daughter said, ‘Are you lot getting back together?’ I had to laugh; I said, ‘Oh, not you too!’

“Oh, yeah, that’s for sure. That whole conversation is one I don’t really like to get too deep into, you know? It could go on forever and get nowhere. But the funny thing is there’s no escaping it.

”A few months ago my daughter, who is 24 – smart as a whip and a good kid – said to me, ‘Dad, can I ask you a question?’ I said, ‘Go on,’ and she said, ‘Are you lot getting back together?’ I had to laugh; I said, ‘Oh, not you too!’ And she goes, ‘Well, you’ve been up to Manchester.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, to shoot a video!’

“If anyone thinks we'd be getting back together or getting on some sort of track, it’s just not one of those things that’s happening. So when those conversations come up, or my daughter asks, I say, ‘Look, no. Shall we have a fucking cup of tea?’”

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Andrew Daly

Andrew Daly is an iced-coffee-addicted, oddball Telecaster-playing, alfredo pasta-loving journalist from Long Island, NY, who, in addition to being a contributing writer for Guitar World, scribes for Rock Candy, Bass Player, Total Guitar, and Classic Rock History. Andrew has interviewed favorites like Ace Frehley, Johnny Marr, Vito Bratta, Bruce Kulick, Joe Perry, Brad Whitford, Rich Robinson, and Paul Stanley, while his all-time favorite (rhythm player), Keith Richards, continues to elude him.