When you want to hear some proggy goodness, you’ve got options ranging from the adventurous explorations of Yes’ Steve Howe to the sonic bombast of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour and the off-the-beaten-path operatics of Genesis’ Steve Hackett. Or you could go modern and choose some of John Petrucci or Opeth’s nimble fretwork.
But when you want something more, something different – obtuse, undefinable, yet still as prog rock as it gets – you may be reminded of Marillion, specifically their harmonically rich and utterly atmospheric yet deeply emotive six-stringer, Steve Rothery.
In all his tone-perfect and sonically lush glory, Rothery is about as good as it gets. With soaring leads underscored by blues, punk, and even garage rock, he’s added a new garnish to a genre that often errs toward flash whimsy rather than blue-collar, lunchpail vibes.
He takes influence from areas that many of his contemporaries don’t, the most interesting of which is folk and acoustic legend Joni Mitchell. “The harmonic richness of her guitar work and her use of opening tunings really influenced my approach to chords,” Rothery says.
“You can hear it in the solo section of Warm Wet Circles from our Clutching at Straws album. And then there was Joni’s song, A Case of You. That had such beauty and sadness within the lyrics. Amelia is another Joni track that greatly influenced me.”
Rothery is as experimental as he is influential, leading to a career that’s included 20 albums with Marillion, several solo records and myriad sessions with the likes of Jadis, John Wesley, Steve Hackett and Mark Kelly.
Asked which songs and solos best define him, he returns to Marillion’s catalog: “I’d say Easter from Seasons End or the second solo in This Strange Engine for the DS-1/JC 120 sound. Then there’s The Crow and The Nightingale from the last album [An Hour Before It’s Dark] for the Trio/Blade combination.”
He shrugs when asked if he’s still searching. “Overall, I’m happy with the work I’ve done over the years, both with Marillion and with my Ghosts of Pripyat solo album. You always strive to do something fresh and not to repeat yourself.”
While you were surrounded by punk early on, you drifted towards prog rock. Why was that?
“I heard the original version of The Knife by Genesis when I was 16, and I found it incredibly powerful and musically interesting. There were only a few of the punk bands I could listen to; it seemed more about trying to be outrageous than anything else.
“And with punk, as far as influence, I think the energy and anger of punk came through, especially once Fish joined the band – I’m thinking of He Knows You Know and Forgotten Sons especially.”
How did you become tangled up with Marillion, and what was your vision?
“In 1979, I was 19 and living in Whitby in North Yorkshire. Most of the people in my original band had gone off to university. I was stuck there trying to decide what to do with my life when I saw an advert for a band called Silmarillion auditioning guitarists.
“I drove 250 miles, auditioned, and got the gig. It wasn’t even really a full band, just a bass player and a drummer. But it was the style of music I wanted to play, so I quit my job, moved away from my friends and family, and slept on a sofa with two cats for six months in a tiny cottage with no hot water and mold growing on the wall!”
Marillion came out of the post-punk scene but erred toward prog and neo-prog. How did that affect your approach?
“Marillion was always more guitar-led than a lot of the other bands. I essentially just tried to come up with exciting and original ideas. I was never the sort of player to copy people note for note.”
Your playing is profoundly atmospheric and emotive. Where does that come from?
“What has always appealed to me about the guitar is the emotion it can convey. All my favorite players – David Gilmour, Steve Hackett, Andy Latimer – had a melodic and emotional approach that called to me. I’m not a technical player; I just play to what the song needs.”
Focusing on wizardry can cost you emotion, but that’s never been an issue for you – your tone is so rich and distinctive.
“I think being obsessed with speed and technique can make you miss the point of music. It’s like a choice between dazzling people with your speed or making them cry with the emotion in your playing. But as far as tone, there is no real secret. Finding the right guitar and amplifier combination helps, as does finding tonal variety by finding some pedals that inspire you.”
You’re known for your use of Yamaha and Squier guitars. Are those what you lean on most when recording?
“A lot of different things. My main guitars over the years have been my Sumbro Stratocaster copy, which I bought when I was 15 for £50; an American Fender Stratocaster, which I bought when I sold my motorbike at 17; a Yamaha SG2000, which I bought when I was 18. That Yamaha is the guitar that I recorded the first Marillion album with [Script for a Jester’s Tear].
“Then there’s my Roland/Ibanez GR-300 Stratocaster-type guitar with guitar synth bought when I was 25, and that was my main guitar for Fugazi and Misplaced Childhood. Also, there’s my Squier Stratocaster fitted with EMG SA pickups and a Kahler tremolo. I bought that guitar second-hand in 1987 for £160 and used it on Clutching at Straws and every Marillion album until Anoraknophobia in 1999.”
And how did your signature Blade RH-4 come to be?
“The early Blade RH-4 is fitted with Lindy Fralin single coils/Blade humbucker and I’ve used it on every album since Anoraknophobia. It came to be when Blade approached me to do a signature model, but honestly, I’ve been disappointed by the lack of contact I’ve had with the company since I agreed to do it. They still owe me a guitar!”
What do you love most about Roland and Marshall amps?
“Nothing beats a Roland JC-120 for the clean sounds or the solo sound I get with a Boss Analogman-modded DS-1 distortion. And Marshalls are great for power chords. I switched to using a three-channel Groove Tubes Trio on the Anoraknophobia album, and it’s been my main amp since. I also use a Pitcher [Dumble clone] for my solo album The Ghosts of Pripyat.”
When did the use of loops and delays enter the picture?
“I’ve always used delays, but in the early days of Marillion, it was tape delays, and then the Roland SDE-3000 from around the time of Misplaced Childhood in 1985. I switched to a TC Electronic TC 2290 digital delay on the Seasons End album in 1989. That became my main effect controller, until I started using TheGigRig G2 controller and Free the Tone delay pedals a couple of years ago.”
You founded the British Guitar Academy in 2011. What led to that, and how do you plan to continue its growth?
“The British Guitar Academy was probably founded 10 years too soon. It was my attempt to impart what I think is important for guitar players. A lot of the people involved have since become very popular on YouTube, like Dan Steinhardt from TheGigRig, for one.
“But I’ve given masterclasses around the world, and although it can be hard work, it’s still very rewarding. So I’m going to start a YouTube channel next year explaining my approach to playing the guitar and how to play some of the Marillion classics.”
- An Hour Before It's Dark was released in March 2022 and is available via the Marillion website.