Post-punk, rock and metal has lost one of its most influential guitarists of all time, as Kevin ‘Geordie’ Walker of Killing Joke has died, aged 64.
His death was announced by his bandmates, who said they were “devastated”. Walker had suffered a stroke, and passed away in the company of his family on November 26, in Prague, where he had lived for a number of years.
Few players were as capable of transposing societal tensions to a riff, or capturing a mood with an electric guitar tone. Jimmy Page counted himself as a fan.
So profound was Walker’s influence that some bands, most famously Nirvana, would appropriate his sound wholesale. Kurt Cobain took both Walker’s seasick riff and guitar tone on Eighties and reinterpreted them on grunge anthem Come As You Are. In 1987, Metallica covered The Wait on their $5.98 EP Garage Days Re-Revisited EP.
As it often is with trailblazers, those they influence often become more famous. But these bands were always ready to give Walker his due in interviews. Many have been generous in their tributes.
“May you rest in peace Geordie Walker. My thoughts are with his family and the Killing Joke guys,” wrote Duff McKagan of Guns N’ Roses on Instagram. “Geordie was a true inventor of a massive sound that has influenced so damn many of us. Man...a damn nice guy to boot. Damn.”
“Geordie was a such an influential guitar player and writer,” said Monte Pittman, Ministry guitarist and session player for Madonna. “His name is synonymous with his style of playing. When a musician of this magnitude passes on, the art they’ve made shines Brighter Than A Thousand Suns. One of the all time greats has moved on. Sending my love and condolences to his family, friends, and bandmates.”
Steve Von Till of Neurosis and Harvestman fame thanked Walker for “decades” of inspiration. “I can’t imagine what our musical landscape would look like without those songs, those riffs, that energy, and that tone!” wrote Von Till on Instagram.
That tone was as good as a thumbprint. Walker’s tastes in gear were typical of how he saw guitar. He approached it all from a different angle, favoring the Gibson Gibson ES-295 for most of his career. He alternated between a 1952 model and a ’54. The single-cut hollowbody guitar, tuned down a whole step, had a trapeze-style tailpiece that could be pressed into action as a vibrato.
“Originally I got that guitar because I wanted a distorted sound while still being able to hear the notes if I played a complex chord,” he told Guitar World in 2016. “So the idea was that I should get a semi-acoustic distorted sound, put a contact mic in it, and blend the two sounds. But I saw that [ES-295] in an old magazine and then found one in a little store in West London for £640, which at the time was like $1,000. And as soon as I plugged in, there was the sound.”
That sound didn’t come easy. Hollowbody electric guitars often don’t take to high-volume post-punk situations. Perhaps that sense of danger, that the guitar would squeal in protest, added to the appeal. Either way, Walker had to keep a close eye on it.
“You have to batten down the hatches,” he said. “All screws have to be tight. All the pickups have to be hard fucking bolted. No rattles, nothing. Otherwise it’s practically uncontrollable. With those big amps, as soon as you stop playing you have to turn the volume off. But once it’s going it’s got infinite sustain on the bottom notes if you hold them.”
Walker ran a dual-amp rig with delay and chorus widening that stereo spread further. He was particularly fastidious with that low-end response, preferring KT77s in his tube amps, which for large parts of his career were Burman Pro 2000 heads, and latterly a quartet of Framus Dragons.
He used a pair of PA:CE/Bell Electrolabs automatic analog double-trackers that were originally designed for bass players but worked perfectly in rendering his tone in three dimensions.
“It’s a single slap back, which you can adjust from a wet single slap to super tight. Pitch modulations, speed and depth,” he explained.
“What’s happening is you’ve got one guitar in, three guitars out. It’s like the Phil Spector effect, because the output on the effect rolls off at about 3,000 hertz. You don’t have any top end on it so all the sibilance and diction is in the center with the original guitar, and on either side, left or right, there’s a slightly delayed replica of that guitar. And that’s what gives it the spread.”
Walker came from a musical family. He recalled music always being on the stereo when growing up and Love Culture’s Sabre Dance, featuring guitar playing from Dave Edmunds, was the track that gave him the bug.
When he was 14, his mother bought him his first guitar, a 1969 Gibson Les Paul Deluxe in cherry sunburst that he retrofitted with P-90 pickups. The Who, Desmond Dekker, Wilko Johnson of Dr. Feelgood and the Sensational Alex Harvey Band were early influences.
Walker’s story with Killing Joke started in March 1979 when he answered an ad in Melody Maker and hooked up with vocalist Jaz Coleman and drummer Paul Ferguson. Martin Glover, better known as Youth, completed the lineup, and within months they had released an EP, Turn to Red, and found an early champion in the late BBC Radio One disc-jockey and tastemaker John Peel.
Their self-titled debut was released in 1980, opening with the synth-stab alarm of Requiem, the lush distorted texture of Walker’s guitar offering a melodic counterpoint at the back of the mix.
Its role would soon solidify into riffs, some of which could have been tapped out on a drum kit before being worked out on strings, giving the Killing Joke’s danceable and propulsive tracks the electricity they needed. Walker also played in industrial projects Murder Inc. and The Damage Manual.
Despite their last studio album, Pylon, being released in 2015, Killing Joke remained an active concern, still touring, releasing a new single, Full Spectrum Dominance, in March. Full Spectrum Dominance? That sounds very much like what Walker had been chasing all along.