David Gilmour reflects on his creative partnership with Roger Waters and his own role in making Pink Floyd one of rock’s most innovative and experi- mental bands.
Amid the psychedelic explosion of new groups making their debut in the charmed world that was London, 1967, was a quartet called the Pink Floyd. In small, smoky clubs like UFO and the Roundhouse, the Floyd galvanized the London scene with their extended, free-form instrumental jams. Fledgling flower children grooved to the heady new sounds in rooms that seemed to bob and levitate as blobs of multi-colored liquid light melted the walls around them. Perhaps even more than Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, two other groups that debuted in ’67, the Pink Floyd were psychedelia personified.
By the following year, however, the band was forced to confront the rapidly deteriorating mental condition of Syd Barrett, their brilliant but unstable guitarist and leader. In 1968 the Pink Floyd dropped the “The” from their name—and they dropped Syd Barrett. Guitarist David Gilmour, an old school friend of Syd’s, was drafted to replace him. Unquestionably, Barrett invented the Pink Floyd, and his troubled genius would later furnish the subject matter for some of the band’s best songs. But it was David Gilmour and his lyrical guitar work that provided Pink Floyd with the sonic signature that helped carry them to international stardom in the Seventies, when the smoky clubs of their swinging London days gave way to vast arenas and stadiums. The Floyd’s ever-evolving trippy instrumental textures reached the highest levels of complexity, perfectly complementing their otherworldly concert visuals.
Pink Floyd’s next big crack-up didn’t occur until 1985, when David Gilmour and bassist Roger Waters came to a bitter parting of the ways. Gilmour assumed sole leadership of the band in 1987. With Waters’ brooding lyrics out of the mix, Gilmour’s searing, expansive guitar style—the core of the band’s sound since its Flower Power days—assumed an even greater importance.
These days, David Gilmour is a distinguished, gray-haired English gentleman who becomes instantly youthful once he gets a guitar in his hands. In celebration of Shine On (Columbia), the new Pink Floyd box set, Gilmour consented to share some of his memories with Guitar World.
GUITAR WORLD Long before Pink Floyd, you and Syd Barrett hung out together in college, in Cambridge, playing guitars. Can you recall what you played or how you influenced each other?
DAVID GILMOUR We were friends first, then we picked up guitars later on. I was playing professionally in groups before Syd. So, technically speaking, I was a little better than Syd when we were at college. We sat around learning Beatles songs, Rolling Stones songs, r&b, blues songs… I can recall spending some time working on “Come On,” the first Stones B-side or whatever it was, working all that out, playing harmonicas and stuff. He’d know something, I’d know something and we’d just swap, as people do in back rooms everywhere. He then left that college and moved up to an art college in London, which is when Pink Floyd got formed.
GW There’s a famous story about Syd being phased out of the band in 1968. You were all in a van, on your way to a gig in Southampton…
GILMOUR Not in a van, no. In a Bentley.
GW Right. And someone said, “Oh, let’s just not pick up Syd tonight.” Can you recall who said that?
GILMOUR Probably Roger. Certainly not me—I was the new boy. I was in the back. Someone probably said, “Shall we go and pick up Syd?” And Roger probably said [in conspiratorial tones] “Oh no, let’s not!” And off we went down to Southampton. We were playing with the Incredible String Band and Tyrannosaurus Rex that night.
GW In the early days of Pink Floyd, did you feel like you were just a Syd surrogate?
GILMOUR Oh, I was; no question about it. They wanted me to play his parts and sing his songs. Nobody else wanted to sing them, and I got elected. That was my job as far as live shows were concerned, anyway. Me and Syd played only five gigs together in Pink Floyd. Or maybe four. Maybe Southampton was supposed to be the fifth one; I don’t remember. While all this was happening, we were also trying to make the new album, A Saucerful of Secrets. But live, we didn’t play the tracks from that, but virtually all Syd’s stuff. Because there wasn’t anything else to do. It was either that or back to Bo Diddley covers.
“A SAUCERFUL OF SECRETS”
A Saucerful of Secrets (1968)
GW What made the band decide to take on a lengthy, abstract instrumental like “Saucerful”?
GILMOUR That’s hard to say. I had just joined the group shortly before that. I don’t think the band really knew quite where they wanted to go after Syd’s departure. “A Saucerful of Secrets” was a very important track; it gave us our direction forward. If you take “A Saucerful of Secrets,” “Atom Heart Mother” [Atom Heart Mother, 1970] and “Echoes” [Meddle, 1971], all lead logically to Dark Side of the Moon. “A Saucerful” was inspired when Roger and Nick [Mason, Pink Floyd’s drummer] began drawing weird shapes on a piece of paper. We then composed music based on the structure of the drawing.
GW You mean you used the drawing to diagram the dynamics?
GILMOUR Yeah. We tried to write the music around the peaks and valleys of the art. My role, I suppose, was to try and make it a bit more musical, and to help create a balance between formlessness and structure, disharmony and harmony.
GW There are varying opinions as to whether or not Syd is on the “Saucerful of Secrets” track.
GILMOUR No, he’s not. That’s totally false. He’s on three or four other tracks on the album, including “Remember a Day” and “Jug Band Music” [Syd’s sole composition on the Saucerful album]. He’s also on a tiny bit of “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.” I think I’m on “Set the Controls” as well.
GW Can you recall any of the techniques you used to get unusual guitar tones back then?
GILMOUR Well, on the middle section of “A Saucerful of Secrets,” most of the time the guitar was lying on the studio floor. You know how mic stands have three steel legs about a foot long? I unscrewed one of the legs and just whizzed one of those up and down the neck—not very subtly. Another technique, which came a bit later, involved taking a small piece of steel and rubbing it from side to side across the strings. You just move it and stop it in places that sound good. It’s something like an EBow.
“ONE OF THESE DAYS”
GW Another technical point: the instrumental “One of These Days” was born when someone plugged a bass into a “Binson Echorec.” What is this device?
GILMOUR The Binson was an Italian-made delay unit. It was strange because it didn’t utilize tape loops, but used a metal recording wheel instead. [Binson’s Echorec was basically a wire recorder—a precursor to magnetic tape. It had six knobs, an input volume, one to control the length, volume and tone of a swell, a threeposition selector knob and a 12-position switching knob. The selector accessed either echo (one repeat), repeat (more than one repeat) or swell (reverbs cleverly devised by feeding the outputs of the heads back to themselves), while the switching knob accessed 12 variations of these.—Ed.] You could get some wonderful delay effects that aren’t attainable on anything that’s been made since. “One of These Days” evolved from some of my experiments with the Binson, as did “Echoes” [also from Meddle]. One day, Roger decided to take some of the techniques that I was developing and try them out for himself on bass. And he came up with that basic riff that we all worked on and turned into “One of These Days.” For the middle section, another piece of technology came into play: an H&H amp with vibrato. I set the vibrato to more or less the same tempo as the delay. But the delay was in 3/4 increments of the beat while the vibrato went with the beat. I just played the bass through it and made up that little section, which we then stuck on to a bit of tape and edited in. The tape splices were then camouflaged with cymbal crashes.
GW So you played the bass on that track?
GILMOUR Yes. The opening section is me and Roger. On “One of These Days,” for some reason, we decided to do a double track of the bass. You can actually hear it if you listen in stereo. The first bass is me. A bar later, Roger joins in on the other side of the stereo picture. We didn’t have a spare set of strings for the spare bass guitar, so the second bass is very dull-sounding. [laughs] We sent a roadie out to buy some strings, but he wandered off to see his girlfriend instead.
GW How did you hit on the idea of playing slide guitar on the track?
GILMOUR I guess I was never particularly confident in my ability as a pure guitar player, so I would try any trick in the book. I’d always liked lap steels, pedal steels and things like that. I can’t remember exactly what I used on “One of These Days”; I may have bought a lap steel by that point, but maybe I used a regular guitar. When I tour, I use two cheap Jensen lap steels customized with Fender pickups for slide parts. The lap steel on “One of These Days” is tuned to an open E minor chord—E B E G B E low to high. The other lap steel is basically tuned to a modified open G chord [D G D G B E, low to high]. I use that for “The Great Gig in the Sky.” You’ll notice that I kept the top string tuned to an E so that I could do major and minor chords on the first three strings.
The one thing I don’t do is regular slide guitar with the thingie on your finger. I’ve never had any interest in that.
Dark Side of the Moon (1973)
GW Where did the famous 7/4 time signature for “Money” originate?
GILMOUR It’s Roger’s riff. Roger came in with the verses and lyrics to “Money” more or less completed. And we just made up middle sections, guitar solos and all that stuff. We also invented some new riffs—we created a 4/4 progression for the guitar solo and made the poor saxophone player play in 7/4. It was my idea to break down and become dry and empty for the second chorus of the solo.
GW Were you purposely trying to get away from just playing a 12-bar blues on guitar?
GILMOUR No, I just wanted to make a dramatic effect with the three solos. The first solo is ADT’d— Artificially Double-Tracked. And the third one is actually double-tracked. I think I did the first two solos on a Fender Stratocaster, but the last one was done on a different guitar—a Lewis, which was made by some guy in Vancouver. It had a whole two octaves on the neck, which meant I could get up to notes that I couldn’t play on a Stratocaster.
GW What amp did you use on that?
GILMOUR I imagine it was a Hiwatt, but I’m not too certain. I used Fender Twin Reverbs in the studio a lot, too. But I’m certain the effects consisted of a Fuzzface fuzz box and the Binson echo/delay.
GW What was [producer/engineer] Chris Thomas’ role on Dark Side of the Moon?
GILMOUR Chris Thomas came in for the mixes, and his role was essentially to stop the arguments between me and Roger about how it should be mixed. I wanted Dark Side to be big and swampy and wet, with reverbs and things like that. And Roger was very keen on it being a very dry album. I think he was influenced a lot by John Lennon’s first solo album [Plastic Ono Band], which was very dry. We argued so much that it was suggested we get a third opinion. We were going to leave Chris to mix it on his own, with Alan Parsons engineering. And of course on the first day I found out that Roger sneaked in there. So the second day I sneaked in there. And from then on, we both sat right at Chris’ shoulder, interfering. Luckily, Chris was more sympathetic to my point of view than he was to Roger’s.
GW Was that the first album where tension emerged between you and Roger?
GILMOUR: Ah, there’s always been tension. But it was all quite controllable until after the Wall album.
GW There’s creative tension and then there’s outright hostility…
GILMOUR There’s creative tension and there’s total egocentric megalomaniacal tension, if you like.
GW Did the prospect of having to follow the huge success of Dark Side of the Moon create a lot of pressure on you during the sessions for Wish You Were Here?
GILMOUR Yeah, that’s what the album’s about, I think as far as Roger’s concerned anyway. It’s about that feeling we were left with at the end of Dark Side—that feeling of “What do you do when you’ve done everything?” But I think we got over that. And for me, Wish You Were Here is the most satisfying album. I really love it. I mean, I’d rather listen to that than Dark Side of the Moon. Because I think we achieved a better balance of music and lyrics on Wish You Were Here. Dark Side went a bit too far the other way—too much into the importance of the lyrics. And sometimes the tunes—the vehicles for the lyrics—got neglected. To me, one of Roger’s failings is that sometimes, in his effort to get the words across, he uses a less-than-perfect vehicle.
GW On the next Pink Floyd album, Animals, “Dogs” is the only song not written solely by Roger. What was your part in co-writing “Dogs” with him?
GILMOUR I basically wrote all the chords— the main music part of it. And we wrote some other bits together at the end.
GW What did you play on that?
GILMOUR A custom Telecaster. I was coming through some Hiwatt amps and a couple of Yamaha rotating speaker cabinets—Leslie-style cabinets that they used to make. I used to use two of those onstage along with the regular amps. That slight Leslie effect made a big difference in the sound.
GW Throughout the Seventies and Eighties, each successive Pink Floyd album grew slightly more elaborate. Was it difficult to reflect that growth on stage?
GILMOUR Actually, very difficult. We spent years gathering experts around us—just gaining the necessary expertise in all the areas we wanted to be good in. It was always a lot of work, but we looked forward to playing.
GW Would you say you felt more at ease in the very early days of the band’s free-form psychedelic experimentation onstage, or in the later period, when you relied more on carefully orchestrated stage extravaganzas?
GILMOUR Somewhere in the middle, really. For me, the Wall show was terrific fun, and a great achievement. But I had to take on the role of music director, if you like, and deal with a lot of purely mechanical things onstage so that Roger didn’t have to think about them. I had a huge cue sheet up on my amps, because we had all these cues coming up on monitors or on screen and different delay settings which I had to transmit with very primitive equipment to all the delay lines onstage. Very tricky. Once you got over being satisfied with how clever it was and how wonderfully it all worked, there were virtually no moments except for the solo in “Comfortably Numb” when you could say, “Forget it, just blow. Just play.” Having said all that, though, I should add that I like structure. I’m very keen on melody, I’m a big Beatles fan, and just about everything else I love—like the blues—is highly structured. Totally free-forming is not my thing. But totally rigid structure isn’t either.
The Wall (1979)
GW “Comfortably Numb” is one of your few co-writing credits on The Wall. By all reports, it wasn’t born easily.
GILMOUR Well, there were two recordings of that which me and Roger argued about. I’d written it when I was doing my first solo album [David Gilmour, 1978]. We changed the key of the song’s opening from E to B, I think. The verse stayed exactly the same. Then we had to add a little bit because Roger wanted to do the line, “I have become comfortably numb.” Other than that, it was very, very simple to write. But the arguments were over how it should be mixed and which track we should use. We’d done one track with Nick Mason on drums that I thought was too rough and sloppy. We had another go at it, and I thought that the second take was better. Roger disagreed. It was more an ego thing than anything else. We really went head to head with each other over such a minor thing.
GW Have disagreements between you and Roger ever reached the point of physical violence?
GILMOUR They’ve threatened to. But it’s never actually come to that. Once Roger and I had a real shouting match at this Italian restaurant in North Hollywood. We’d gone there with [producer] Bob Ezrin to have it out over something on The Wall—probably “Comfortably Numb,” because the only thing I’d really argue with Roger over was my own music. With his music, I wouldn’t bother to argue.
GW While the earlier Pink Floyd records were concept albums, The Wall is the first one with an outright plot. What were your feelings about that?
GILMOUR I liked Roger’s story line. Although I didn’t totally agree with it, you’ve got to let a chap have his vision. I just had a different view of our relationship with our audience than Roger did. Roger didn’t like touring. And he felt there was no connection between him and the audience that were in front of him. I had a different view of it; I still do. And my view of what The Wall itself is about is more jaundiced today than it was then. It appears now to be a catalog of people Roger blames for his own failings in life, a list of “you fucked me up this way, you fucked me up that way.”
GW What about your solo on “Comfortably Numb”? Did that take a long time to develop?
GILMOUR No. I just went out into the studio and banged out five or six solos. From there I just followed my usual procedure, which is to listen back to each solo and mark out bar lines, noting which bits are good. In other words, I make a chart, putting ticks and crosses on different bars as I count through—two ticks if it’s really good, one if it’s good, and a cross if it’s no go. Then I just follow the chart, whipping one fader up, then another fader, jumping from phrase to phrase and trying to make a really nice solo all the way through. That’s the way we did it on “Comfortably Numb.” It wasn’t that difficult. But sometimes you find yourself jumping from one note to another in an impossible way. Then you have to go to another place and find a transition that sounds more natural.
GW When you do a comp like that, are you concerned that you’ll wind up with a result that’s physically impossible to play?
GILMOUR Not if it sounds all right. I’m perfectly happy to puzzle the hell out of people who try to work out how it was done.
GW You’ve got an extensive guitar collection—a world-famous collection. When you go to record, how much of it goes into the studio with you?
GILMOUR Well…not much, really. Generally, I just use a Stratocaster and that’s the end of it. The ones I tend to use these days are modern ’57 reissue Strats with EMG pickups. Apart from that, I’ve got a few different acoustics and slide guitars. For some of the rhythm things, I have a black Gretsch Duo- Sonic that sounds really nice.
A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987)
GW Let’s move on to Pink Floyd’s most recent studio album, A Momentary Lapse of Reason. How did you hook up with Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera to write “One Slip”?
GILMOUR Phil is an old friend of mine. We’ve known each other for years and years, and we always talked about doing something together. So I went and visited him over at his studio, and we started playing around. During that whole period of time, I was trying things out with a number of people, to see if there was anyone I felt comfortable working with who could help to make the load a little lighter in doing the new Pink Floyd record without Roger. Phil basically wrote the music to “One Slip.”
GW On A Momentary Lapse, how did you deal with the whole issue of maintaining continuity with the old Pink Floyd?
GILMOUR By totally ignoring it. I didn’t bother with any of that stuff. I know it’s something that came up in Bob Ezrin’s mind; he felt a certain responsibility to make it sound like Pink Floyd. But that’s something I had no interest in whatsoever. If it’s done by me, it’s going to sound like Pink Floyd to a certain extent. Because it’s my voice, my guitar playing and my musical taste that are plastered all over everything Pink Floyd ever did, going back to A Saucerful of Secrets.
GWA Momentary Lapse is certainly a return to the lushness of pre-Animals Pink Floyd.
GILMOUR Yes. That’s what I like. “Signs of Life,” for example, is actually an old demo. I had to re-record a lot of things, but the rhythm guitar chords in the background are from a demo from way back in ’78.
GW So on A Momentary Lapse you got to follow through on ideas that, perhaps because of Roger’s dominance, you didn’t get to pursue earlier?
GILMOUR Yeah. I went back to this balance of more music and not quite the same preponderance of words. You do what you’re good at, you see. Roger’s very good at lyrics. I’m certainly not as practiced as him, so I wouldn’t put myself up there.
GW Was A Momentary Lapse a good experience for you, Nick and Rick [Wright, Pink Floyd keyboardist] in the sense that you assured yourselves that you could do it without Roger?
GILMOUR Yes. The album and the tour were a rehabilitative process for all of us.
GW It was good to hear you and Rick playing together again. [Wright, ejected from the band in 1979, rejoined for A Momentary Lapse.] The guitar and keyboards worked together so sympathetically on a lot of these old tracks we’ve been talking about.
GILMOUR Well, it’s like Bob Dylan says [in “My Back Pages”]: “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” You learn things about yourself and other people as time goes by. When the three of us sit down and play, it sounds like Pink Floyd. There’s a very distinct value in that which was important for me to discover. There’s something there that’s bigger than any one person’s ego.