It’s been a long, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time since Guitar World last spoke with Nigel Tufnel, lead guitarist of the legendary British hard rock band Spinal Tap.
Now that the band has emerged from prolonged hibernation to promote Back from the Dead, their first new album since 1992’s Break Like the Wind, it seemed like a good opportunity to catch up with Tufnel.
It wasn’t, but we got a long interview with him anyway — too long, in fact, to fit into the magazine, so we’re sharing the leftovers here to provide an amuse-bouche in advance of the main course that is Nigel Tunfel’s long-awaited return to Guitar World [September 2009 issue].
GUITAR WORLD A lot of metal artists have converted to Christianity recently. It’s quite a big trend. Does Back from the Dead mean that you’re born again?
NIGEL TUFNEL Oh no. No, no, no, no. Born again is a different thing. Isn’t that about religion or something? No, that’s rubbish. We’re talking about the metaphor of someone being either physically dead or their career is in jeopardy in some way and they’re re-emerging. It’s not some religious thing. We were in limbo, shall we say, for a bit and now we’re not anymore. Now we’re back again. “Back from the Dead” is so that people will maybe understand that. We weren’t religiously changed in any way.
GW I think that will be a relief to many of your fans.
TUFNEL And me as well.
GW The album features new recordings of 11 old Spinal Tap songs. Guitar players should be excited to hear how you revised your old solos on the new album. Tell me how you rethought them.
TUFNEL Soloing, as you know . . . you probably play the guitar, to a point. I don’t know you and I don’t know your recordings, but I assume you play a bit. I don’t follow your solo career to be honest. But my soloing is really otherworldly in a sense that there’s no thinking process at all. It’s not as intellectualized as yours might be, again, not knowing your actual work. So I’m in a bit of a dream state when that happens. After I do it I listen, then know what’s happening but not during. It’s mostly you’re in the moment, right? Yeah.
GW The new song “Warmer Than Hell” actually has a nice riff. What is the inspiration for that song?
TUFNEL Again, you’re asking me to explain the creative process. Basically when people get together and write a song you start developing a riff or whatever, and you say, “Oh yeah, that fits in there.” It’s a nice repetitive thing. [sings riff] That just happened messing about. The rest of it, screeching and squalling, comes from messing about.
GW It’s a great new song for the repertoire.
TUFNEL I think we’re going to do it on television in a few weeks.
GW On what show?
TUFNEL Conan. The Conan man. I think we’re going to do that song. I don’t know how long it runs. On television they say it’s got to be two minutes and 19 seconds, or whatever it is, so we’ve got to see if we can make that song work. But that’s what we’re leaning toward, at the moment.
GW “Warmer Than Hell” seems to be about global warming. What are your personal thoughts about global warming?
TUFNEL Well, where are you now?
GW I’m in New Jersey.
TUFNEL Interesting. Your choice?
GW Not exactly.
TUFNEL Yeah. That’s nice. Open the window, if you’re lucky enough to have a window, and you tell me.
GW It’s actually rather cool today, about 61 degrees, and it’s already June.
TUFNEL Well, that’s what I’m saying. It’s quite nice out. I think some of it is people being frightened. People get excited and when they get excited they get overheated. They go, “Oh fuck! There’s something going on with the climate.” Now, I think that something is going on with the climate, for sure. I don’t know what it is but something is going on. I don’t know what to call it yet. I’m doing some research of my own on it.
GW A few years ago Music Man made you a really wonderful global warming-themed instrument for the Live Earth concert.
TUFNEL Yes they did. We auctioned it off later for a charity event. It was an amazing guitar. It had the Taj Mahal, the Washington Monument, and various different things on it. It had a window on it and it was snowing inside the window. It had a thermometer going up the neck. And it was a great playing guitar as well.
GW Speaking of the Live Earth concert, Spinal Tap performed a very interesting version of “Big Bottom” there. I heard you had 19 bass players on stage.
TUFNEL That’s true — 19 of them. We had masses of people on stage and I didn’t know half of them. I know Rob Trujillo was there. Some of them I didn’t recognize. It was very powerful.
GW By contrast, the new version on Back from the Dead is rather stripped down.
TUFNEL It’s a quite simple song. We’re playing three basses, and I’m playing mostly up the neck. In some sense the drummer really is the bottom of the piece. Derek plays an octave device. It’s one of the most fun songs for us to play, really. It rumbles through your whole body.
GW It definitely does, especially through the bowels.
TUFNEL I think that’s more your issue. For me it’s mostly up in the chest. If it helps you be regular, great. That’s your thing.
GW What picks do you use?
TUFNEL I’m using new picks, which are absolutely unbelievable. They’re called BlueChip. Have you heard of them?
GW No, I haven’t.
TUFNEL You’re going to have to look them up. They’re called BlueChip (bluechippick.net). They’re made by this guy in Tennessee or someplace, Knoxville, or something like that. He makes these custom-made plectrums, and they’re custom beveled. Unbelievable. They’re quite expensive, but they’re the best picks I’ve ever used.
GW Players have really underestimated just how much effect the pick you use has on your tone.
TUFNEL Oh, there’s no question. You should really look those BlueChip picks up. They’re ridiculously expensive. One pick is about 30 bucks, but it’s worth it if you find the right pick. It makes the guitar sound—especially the acoustic guitar . . . it changes the entire tone of the thing. I’m also using a Monteleone mandolin.
GW As a pick?
TUFNEL No, as a mandolin, of course. He’s a guitar builder. He makes custom-made jazz guitars, but he makes mandolins as well. And that’s part of the technical thing I’m doin’.
GW You played some killer mandolin on “Stonehenge.”
TUFNEL Yeah. That’s me. That’s me.
GW Tell me about your acoustic dabbling.
TUFNEL It’s not really dabbling. It’s actually playing. Dabbling would be not playing. I like playing acoustic guitar. We’ve done that on “America,” the song on the new record. I begin it with acoustic guitar then it goes into another thing. It’s a setup. Acoustic instruments should be an appetizer for the loud. I play these Collings guitars, which I love. I do like playing acoustic guitar and the mandolin as well. Once in a while your head starts ringing and you say, “Uh oh.” You don’t want permanent ringing so you go and play acoustic guitars because it’s easier.
GW Do you have any specific jazz influences? I hear so many different players in “Jazz Odyssey.”
TUFNEL The thing is we’ve talked about this before, and I’ll say it again and again and again until someone listens, I suppose. People that play jazz are basically embarrassed and that’s why they generally play very quietly. It’s all hushed. It’s all, “Bloody hell, I hope they can’t hear me.” If you hear the notes they’re playing, they don’t bloody make any sense, do they? It’s just these random sort of squeaking and squalling notes. And sure, yeah, they play fast sometimes. [imitates a fast jazz run] But really if you slow it down it’s a nightmare. It’s like a train wreck. I think it comes from embarrassment, basically. What are they afraid of? Learn how to play the bloody instrument and you can play loud, is what I say. But having said that there are some blokes that can play. There’s no question that there are some guitar players that are good jazzists and can really do it. I like mostly people from a long time ago, but that’s my own taste.
GW Spinal Tap is playing a few shows coming up here in England.
TUFNEL Didn’t you say you were in New Jersey?
GW Yes. I’m in New Jersey.
TUFNEL You said “here in England.”
GW Did I say that? I meant “over” in England then.
TUFNEL You wish you were in England is what you meant to say.
GW I do, actually.
TUFNEL If you need a letter for me to write to your boss saying “he wishes he was in the English office” I’d be glad to do it.
GW That would be very helpful.
TUFNEL It’s fun over there. Anyway, we’re doing Glastonbury and we’re doing the Wembley Arena.
GW Those are good gigs.
TUFNEL Oh yeah. Oh, very big, yeah.
GW Will this be your first time in the new Wembley Arena?
TUFNEL It will be, yeah. We played the stadium two years ago, which holds 75,000. We played that for Live Earth. I think Wembley Arena is 10,000.
GW Oh, I forgot. It’s Wembley Stadium and Wembley Arena. The British have a confusing way of naming things stadiums and arenas.
TUFNEL That’s right. It’s not like in the States where you have places like Madison Square Garden.
GW I understand that these three guys who look suspiciously like the Folksmen were out on the road recently playing a bunch of your songs.
TUFNEL Yeah. I found out about that recently, about a couple of weeks ago. My first thought is, “What’s going on?” That’s also my second thought, by the way. I can’t explain it. We’ve had these people do these things once in a while. If they’re getting the music out there, great. It’s fine. Whatever. I don’t know what to say.
GW I’ve always wondered about those Folksmen characters. You’ve been very generous to them, inviting them to open for several Spinal Tap tours.
TUFNEL The folky guys is what we call them. They’re not cruel or evil people. They’re just folkies. They play these acoustic instruments, which is great if you’re playing in a room, I suppose. But they’re harmless, really. They do these bizarre songs. They’re technically nice guys. I wouldn’t want to spend long periods of time on a bus with them, though.
GW I guess having them open for you makes the band seem that much louder when you come out to play.
TUFNEL People notice the difference straight away. If you’re playing acoustic, soft, folk songs it really does set us up quite well. Then we step on stage and just turn it up.