Legendary Artist Profile: David Gilmour
David Gilmour holds a special place in the heart of many guitarists, let alone among the fans of Pink Floyd’s music. By sheer virtue of his expressive playing and songwriting, he should be mentioned in the same breath as Clapton, Page, Townshend or Beck. While he may not be the technical virtuoso, he has clearly defined his own sound and style, one that is unique and beautiful. From his early forays into psychedelia to his solo albums, numerous guest appearances and the entire Pink Floyd canon, his ability to bring his own voice to the music stands as a remarkable achievement. With the recent release of a live solo DVD and continuing interest in the Floyd catalog, the Gilmour phenomenon continues to delight guitarists and music fans alike.
Far from being a complete dissertation of Gilmour’s sound and style, this article strives to paint a broad picture of the tolls used and offer some insight into the David Gilmour phenomenon. As noted by The Wall producer/collaborator Bob Ezrin, “…with Gilmour, equipment is secondary to touch. You can give him a ukulele and he’ll make it sound like a Stradivarius. He’s truly got the best set of hands with which I have ever worked.”
Careful with that Axe, Eugene: Gilmour’s Guitars
Gilmour is primarily identified as a Fender Stratocaster player and indeed, for the most part he continues to be known as a Strat player. Most pictures of David show him playing a Stratocaster and he used them for the lion’s share of his stage work and in the studio. In fact, though he’s not an “official” Fender artist or endorser, he is often pictured in their catalogs and promotional material! The (2002) Fender Frontline catalog has a picture of Gilmour from the Dark Side of the Moon (DSOTM) era with his black body, maple-necked Strat to accompany their 70s reissue Stratocasters. Of course, pictured is a black, maple-neck 70s-style Stratocaster. If there was ever another candidate for a Fender Signature Stratocaster model, David Gilmour should surely be one of the front-runners.
Upon joining the Floyd in 1968, Gilmour used the Fender Telecaster given to him by his parents. This guitar was unfortunately “lost” by the airlines on his first trip stateside with the band. GP 05/79) He replaced it with another Telecaster and a white 60s rosewood fingerboard Strat. Both of these guitars (and the rest of the band’s gear) are clearly pictured on the back of the Ummagumma album. Those of you with only the CD booklets to peruse will have to look slightly harder. Listening to the live disc of this particular release reveals a tight, dynamic Floyd stretching the boundaries of psychedelia with a minimum of equipment and a maximum amount of creativity. Recorded in the summer of 1969 at some local venues, many consider this to be among the Floyd’s finest work. It is also a great revelation of the tones and choice playing Gilmour was able to achieve at an early stage of his Floyd career.
The Black Strat
At the close of the 60s and during the early 70s, he primarily used a black 1968-71 era Strat with a maple fingerboard, a large headstock, four-bolt neck and large Fender logo. It featured a white pickguard and accessories. All indications point to it being a stock instrument, save for Gilmour’s setup (see below). This guitar came from the transitional period of when the CBS-owned Fender Musical Instruments was updating the Stratocaster model. This particular mix of old (four-bolt neck) and new (large headstock/logo) Strat appointments lasted only a couple of years, as in 1972 Fender settled on the version that remained until the end of the decade. All CBS Stratocasters from the late '60s to the '70s are identified by their large headstock and large Fender Stratocaster logo. The Stratocasters made from 1967-71 have a single string tree, a 4-bolt neck and truss rod adjustment at the bottom of the neck. In 1972 Fender/CBS put a bullet truss rod at the top of the guitar and changed to a 3-bolt neck. In 1973 they added a 2nd string tree, but by that time Gilmour had moved on to a rosewood fingerboard again.
The Live at Pompeii film provides excellent reference shots of this infamous black-and-maple Strat, arguably the guitar most identified with Gilmour. The film also has many close-up shots of Gilmour playing and of his live setup from the period. Filmed in the coliseum ruins at Pompeii during a warm week in October, 1971, it shows the Floyd playing live but without an audience. Several of the songs previously appeared on UmmaGumma, but the film features spectacular versions of “One of These Days” and “Echoes.” Other footage was shot later the next year (1972) in the studio as the Floyd recorded the DSOTM album. One side note, in the live performance sections of the film, the guitar has the regular white knobs; in the studio “takes” it sports chrome knobs. So much for continuity…
For the early years and the DSOTM era, the Strats were basically stock models with medium-action setups and Gibson Sonomatic (.009-.042 gauge) strings (GP, May, 1979). At this point, Gilmour preferred to keep the bridge plate in contact with the guitar body and not in a “floating-style” tremolo setup. Special care was taken to ensure the vibrato worked properly. That included making sure that the six bridge plate screws were set evenly and the springs tightened to a proper tension. Other than having the nut cut properly with perhaps a bit of graphite, no modifications were made. He did not use a locking tremolo on his Fenders. Gilmour admitted that there was no secret to his setup and it could be accomplished by anyone with simple tools. (GP, 05/79, 11/ 84)
By the time recording for Wish You Were Here began, Gilmour began swapping around various Strat parts, finally settling on the combination of a 70’s black Strat body with a 60’s rosewood-slab neck. (GP, May, 1979) The guitar featured a black pickguard and white pickup covers, switch tip and knobs. Gilmour used this guitar from 1974 until the 1977 Animals tour. This guitar was set up to Gilmour’s preferences and served as a test-bed for experimentation.
At one point, a DiMarzio pickup was placed in the bridge position. To further combat the single-coil noise issues, the ground was re-wired to improve the shielding from noise and the volume and tone knobs were connected directly to the output jack to cut down on bad connections. Another switch was added to combine the sounds of the bridge pickup with the neck pickup. To help the guitar stay in tune, the six screws that hold the tremolo in place were tightened so there would be no space between the screws and the plate. For tuning stability, four tremolo springs were used in the back for live performances, while only three tremolo springs were used in the studio.
Many pictures from the mid-to-later 1970s tours show both the black/rosewood Strat, along with a sunburst 1955 Fender Esquire Custom getting onstage workouts. By the end of the 70s, he was still using the black Strat body, but it now sported a maple neck again, with black pickguard and white knobs. This particular Strat must have been a favorite, for it also appears in The Wall tour photos and films from 1980 and 1981.
Still, for all the Stratocaster use, Gilmour sometimes used other guitars to achieve extraordinary sounds. On the DSOTM, he used a Lewis, a black, custom-built 24-fret guitar from a Canadian luthier, to achieve the high notes in the “Money” solos. (Also, perhaps, the solo in “Echoes?”) Conveniently, this guitar has a cameo appearance in the Pompeii film during the studio sequences as Gilmour tracks “Brain Damage.”
Lap steel guitars also contribute to the palette of Pink Floyd guitar sounds. According to Gilmour, these were “cheap Jensen lap steels, I had customized with Fender pickups for slide parts.” The earliest use of the lap steel is heard on “Fat Old Sun” from Atom Heart Mother. They received even greater play on the Meddle album. For “One of These Days,” the tuning is an “open E minor chord, low to high: E B E G B E. The other lap steel is basically tuned to a modified open G chord, low to high: D G D G B E.” The top string was kept tuned to E to allow Gilmour to make both minor and major chords with the top three strings. This tuning is used for songs such as the “Great Gig in the Sky” and “Breathe” from DSOTM. (GW, 12/01)
Checking the Acoustics
Another part of the Pink Floyd sound employs the use of acoustic guitars. Gilmour reported that his favorite acoustic, a Martin D-28 is featured on many of the classic Pink Floyd songs, including “Wish You Were Here.” He explained that in 1968 he bought the guitar outside Manny’s Music in New York City and it has remained at the forefront of his collection ever since. (GP, 01/03) For acoustics on tours, both Gilmour and Roger Waters relied on Ovation acoustic guitars, because, as Gilmour noted “they are robust-sounding and my (then very young) daughter Alice can kick them around!” (Circus Magazine, 09/79). In the studio, Gilmour used a variety of other Martin acoustic guitars and other brands to achieve the required sounds.
Axes on the Other Side of the Wall
In the early 1980s, Gilmour began using the new Fender Vintage Reissue Strats, choosing the 50s-style with a maple neck. These were some of the earliest of the series and Gilmour found them suitable for live use, rather than risking his true vintage instruments on tour. They also provided an excellent base for experimentation with electronics. He replaced the stock pickup and electronics assembly with an EMG SA pickup and wiring harness (with the SPC midrange boost and EXG expander modules) to achieve a wider variety of tones and less noise while onstage. This particular setup is currently available from EMG as the David Gilmour model. Pictures from the About Face period show him playing a red vintage reissue Strat.
Again, his setups were simple and straightforward, save for his practice of shortening and bending the tremolo arms to make them easier to “palm” while playing. (GP, 11/84) Gilmour reported at the time that he was using Ernie Ball Super Slinky’s (.010-.048) and heavy picks.
The Vintage Series Strats remained a constant for Gilmour during the 80s, from his solo album, About Face (1984), (though the cover depicts him with a battered 1955 Fender sunburst Esquire with a neck pickup designed and installed by Seymour Duncan) through the Momentary Lapse of Reason (MLOR) and The Division Bell tours.
Occasionally, other guitars would be employed in the studio or live, such as a Telecaster or Les Paul. Some non-Strat highlights include an early-50s Gibson Les Paul Standard “Goldtop” (with P-90 pickups) used for the famous solo in “Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 2.” The only official Pink Floyd single, it reached the Top Ten in early 1980. He later featured the Telecaster on the cut “Murder” from the About Face album.
Later on in the decade, a Steinberger appears on “Sorrow” from MLOR. Gilmour used this guitar on a rare non-Floyd performance on the “Saturday Night Live” show in November of 1987, where he played two tunes with the house band. He also used a blonde Telecaster tuned to D for the song “Run like Hell” during live performances from the same period.
Most recently, Gilmour played a 50s Gretsch Duo-Jet and some acoustics for a series of concerts he gave in Europe in late 2001 and early in 2002. A DVD of the proceedings was released late in 2002. While there was nary a Stratocaster in sight, Gilmour’s tone and phrasing were in ample abundance. Read more about this DVD in the A Partial Eclipse, Further Study section of this article.
It should be noted that Gilmour was an early and avid collector of vintage guitars and his collection is reportedly quite extensive. This would give him access to many different guitars sounds, so pinpointing which guitar appears where is mainly just educated guessing, especially for the studio recordings. Surely, more than just Strats appear on Pink Floyd recordings and live shows, though the Stratocaster is a constant in the Gilmour guitar sound.
According to Gilmour (GP, April 79), he joined Pink Floyd using the Selmer 50-watt top and matching 4x12 he later used on Saucerful of Secrets. By the time of Ummagumma, he had switched to Hiwatt DR-103 Custom 100-watt tops, which became his trademark brand. The Hiwatts are renowned for their massive volume and clean headroom, which Gilmour exploited to create the wide range of tones exhibited in the studio and onstage. Instead of turning the heads all the way up to push them into power tube saturation; Gilmour used them for a relatively clean sound, using the Fuzz Face or other overdrive units for an overdriven tone. Presumably this was done to accommodate the other effects and provide a solid clean tone.
Unlike many other bands of the day, the heads were not placed on top of the speaker to create “stacks,” they were housed in a shelf/rack to Gilmour’s right onstage, which provided easy access during the performance. The top of the rack also provided a spot for the Binson Echorec unit where it could be easily adjusted. Gilmour’s backline cabinets were WEM 4x12 cabinets loaded with Fane Crescendo speakers. By the time of the Animals tours in 1977, Gilmour was also using two Yamaha Leslie-style cabinets for a phased sound. These were driven by additional Hiwatt slave heads. This basic amplifier setup lasted right up through the Wall tour.
The turning point in the creation of his amp rig was the discovery of an Alembic F2-B bass preamp, which had been used by Waters for his bass rig. One day, his techs tried it out on Gilmour's revolving speaker cabinets (at the time, Yamaha RA-200's) and Gilmour liked its warm sound. The Alembic soon became an integral part of his main guitar rig. The signal then traveled to the output (power) sections of the Hiwatt heads and finally out of a series of 4x12 WEM cabinets. As mentioned earlier, Gilmour prefers his initial signal to be very clean. To achieve this he uses a mid-Seventies Alembic F2-B bass preamp and the power stage of his Hiwatt heads. The Alembic F2-B is a very straightforward unit -- it has a bright switch, volume, bass, middle and treble controls. To optimize the unit for guitar, it was modified by adding an extra tube in the preamp section for a little more drive, lowering the impedance in the output and changing the capacitor in the bottom end to eliminate some of the lows to prevent “boominess” in closed-back cabinets.
Gilmour still used the Hiwatt tops and WEM 4x12s during the MLOR and DB tours, though they were mixed with some Marshall 4x12 cabinets and some custom-made Doppola rotating speaker setups replaced the larger Yamaha Leslie units in an effort to save stage space. The Doppolas also looked cooler!
In the studio, Gilmour often used smaller combo amps, such as Fender Twin Reverbs or Deluxe Reverbs to manage the sound levels and create different textures. He also employed a Galien-Krueger 250-L on the MLOR record, most notably on the track “Sorrow.” (Though Gilmour was never really associated with Marshall amps, the sharp-eyed fan would notice an older, Plexi-style Marshall head in Gilmour’s amp rack on the Wall tour, evidenced in the In the Flesh CD booklet!)
Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun/Effects
In a Guitar World article, David stated that “I could walk into any music store, and with a guitar and a couple of effects, I would sound like me.” Gilmour’s sound is so distinctive and unique because of his abilities and his choices in gear. To obtain his technique would be impossible, but an investigation of his effects choices is relatively easy. Again, this section is based on available documentation; a totally comprehensive breakdown of every effect used during his career would be close to impossible. Gilmour’s ability and desire to experiment may have led to some unorthodox combinations.
During his first years with the Floyd, his effects arsenal was limited by recent standards. Early reports indicate that a Fuzz Face, wah-wah, volume pedal and Binson Echorec were the integral components of David’s sound.
The Fuzz Face provided a strong, sustaining distortion tone, but allowed for dynamic control via the guitar’s volume knob or the volume pedal. This way, he could select between a clean sound and a heavy sound via the volume pots or by switching the unit on or off. An excellent example of the searing lead tone of the Fuzz Face is the DSOTM version of “Time” during the solo section.
The wah-wah and volume pedals also added to his sonic palette, but saw less use than the Fuzz Face. During the solo section of “Astronomy Domine” on UmmaGumma, David uses the wah-wah to an aggressive effect. The volume pedal was often used in conjunction with the Echorec and a slide to create ethereal volume swells and “outer space” noises. During the performances in the “Pompeii” movie, the above effects can clearly be seen.
The Italian-made Binson Echorec unit was a unique type of delay/echo unit that utilized a spinning wire to record, rather than magnetic tape like an Echoplex unit. It had six knobs: an input volume, on to control the length, volume and tone of a swell, a three position selector 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 settings. This unique aspect of the Echorec made it capable of producing delay effects that Gilmour claims “aren’t available with anything produced today.” In fact, Floyd bassist Roger Waters also employed the unit for similar effects live and is featured on the bass part of Meddle’s “One of These Days” track. Keyboardist Rick Wright also used the unit extensively. Many of the truly “trippy” sounds of the Floyd were created with various instruments and voices fed through the Echorec. The Echorecs are especially rare these days, but some of its sounds can be approximated with more expensive delay units.
He also used a Lexicon PCM-70 to store the circular delay sounds you hear in songs like "Shine On" and "Time." Because of its multi-tap function, it can pretty accurately duplicate the kind of echo Dave used to get from his old Binson echo unit.
Back to the Boards
Around this time, (mid 1970s) he had legendary British effects pedal guru Pete Cornish assemble a custom pedalboard for him. Gilmour had complained of failing batteries, excessive noise and signal degradation as the main reasons for seeking out a custom solution. The Cornish board was set up with each effect independent of one another in and out of the signal chain. Buffered power supplies eliminated battery noise and reliability issues. Plus, it definitely beat scrounging around for the old Eveready 9-volts every night! This setup allowed David to switch multiple effects in and out in different combinations with less noise and without degrading the original guitar signal.
The 1977 tour for Animals also brought new technology forward as Gilmour toured with the Pete Cornish pedal board for the first time. Looking at the pedalboard, it featured three Cry-Baby Sweep Pedals on the left side of the board as a tone control, volume pedal and wah-wah. An earlier version of an Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress Flanger can be seen next to an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff fuzz box. Other pedals employed included an MXR Phase 90, Orange Treble and Bass Booster, the Arbiter Fuzz Face, a Noise Gate, and an MXR Digital Delay. Another set of three independent output switches was used to send the signal to any of his amps or any combination. Though other delay effects were used, the trusty Binson Echorec that Gilmour had used for many years still sat atop of his amp rack. This basic configuration lasted up until and through The Wall live shows.
BY the time Pink Floyd had resurfaced in the late 1987, Gilmour’s pedalboard had grown considerably. In addition to many of the above effects that made it to the MLOR configuration, he had added the following effects on the floor:
A Boss CS-2 Compression/Sustainer, Pro Co. Rat II Distortion, Cornish Big Muff, Boss GE-7 Graphic Equalizer (3 set separately), Cornish Soft Sustain, Sovtek Big Muff II, Chandler Tube Driver (2 units), MXR Dynacomp Compressor, Ibanez CP-9 Compressor, Boss Metalizer, Boss HM-2 Heavy Metal Distortion and an original Chandler Tube Driver.
Some of the effects were also housed in a custom rack system that featured a Furman PL-8 Power Conditioner, a TC. Electronics TC-2290 Dynamic Digital Delay + Effects Control Processor, a Uni-Vibe modified to fit in a rack, a Digitech IPS-33B Super Harmony Machine, the Lexicon PCM-70 Digital Effects Processor, an MXR Delay System II (another pedal fitted for a rack space), and in the Phil Taylor Custom Rack, a Boss CE-2 Chorus, Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress, a Tremulator, a Dynachord CL5222 Leslie Simulator, Samson UHF Dual Receiver and a Peterson Strobe Tuner.
Clearly, David’s fondness for effects shows in these impressive listings. And as with the guitars and amplifiers, though he favors some units over others, Gilmour is constantly experimenting with new sounds, so any listing could only be considered just that, a list.
A Partial Eclipse, Further Study
The following section serves to act as a guide to the more readily-available resources about David Gilmour. This includes books, periodicals, recordings and videos currently in print. More material may be found in collector’s circles and on the Internet in fan club’s and even at online auction sites. In fact, a simple Web search on “David Gilmour” returns thousands of leads, many very useful, but just as many that are rubbish. In researching this article, the author relied on the resources listed below, commiseration with knowledgeable individuals and some judicious Web-surfing. Using this article as guide and starting point, one can begin to delve further into the world of Pink Floyd and David Gilmour. Let’s have a look.
These are thoroughly indispensable in providing both general and in-depth information about Gilmour and the Floyd. They are listed in chronological order:
May, 1979 – feature article covering pre-Wall work and equipment
October, 1984 – cover article examining post-Wall work and the “About Face” album
January, 2003 – feature article covering the release of “David Gilmour Live in Concert.”
November, 1984 – details of early work and the About Face solo album
September, 1988 – breakdown of the MLOR tour and album
December, 2002 – overview of career & song analysis
Note: Each of these magazines also featured other articles over the years; the ones listed were used for this discussion. Visit guitarplayer.com or guitarworld.com for a complete list.
Obviously, any of the Pink Floyd albums featuring David Gilmour or his two solo efforts would be the starting point for any research or appreciation. Any of these albums are readily available, so rather than list a complete discography here, a trip to the record store for these basic titles should suffice:
* A Saucerful of Secrets (1968)
* UmmaGumma (1969)
* Atom Heart Mother (1970)
* Soundtrack from the film “More” (1970)
* Meddle (1971)
* Soundtrack from the film “Obscured by Clouds” (1972)
* Dark Side of the Moon (1973)
* Wish You Were Here (1975)
* Animals (1977)
* David Gilmour – David Gilmour (1978)
* The Wall (1979)
* The Final Cut (1983)
* About Face (1984)
* A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987)
* The Division Bell (1994)
A note about bootleg recordings and videos; the Floyd is one the most widely bootlegged bands in history. Scores of recordings have abounded since the early days and it is up to the consumer to choose which of these to sample. Try checking Floyd Fan sites for recommendations, as many of the recordings are rubbish. Others are truly great historical documents and are excellent for further study and appreciation. Though the author and this website do not condone supporting recordings of illicit origin (ROIO), it is important to be aware of these additional resources.
Some Newer Stuff
Though little has been heard from the Pink Floyd camp in nearly a decade, the popularity of the band shows no signs of waning. And in November of 2001, a two-disc compilation set, Echoes, debuted high on the Billboard charts and quickly moved several million copies. In April of 2000, a long-anticipated release of In the Flesh, a complete live recording of The Wall show also proved to be very popular. In the boxed edition, a lavish book provides many pictures of the incredible production, including some great shots of Gilmour onstage. The set is an excellent example of Gilmour’s tone and brilliant playing, exhibiting the guitars and amplifiers used during that period. Unfortunately, there are no official films of The Wall concerts, but a very good bootleg video from the February, 1980 shows in New York is readily available in trading circles.
For a great insight into the style, tone and techniques of early 70’s Gilmour, the “Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii” (1972) movie is indispensable. Featuring some classic songs performed in the Coliseum of Pompeii, the film provides many close-up shots of Gilmour’s hands and some great looks at the effects and amplifiers. Shot live without an audience; the film focuses on the performances and also shows a humorous side to the otherwise somber band. Additionally, some interesting and revealing footage from the DSOTM sessions rounds out the proceedings. Currently available on VHS, the film is a must for students of the Gilmour sound. After years of rumors, the film is to be released in the spring of 2003 on DVD in a special director’s cut version.
The “Delicate Sound of Thunder” (1989) live video of the MLOR tour is also informative and entertaining, though the constant shots of the audience can be frustrating for the student of the Gilmour sound. The live album of the same name provides great examples of the 80s Gilmour sound, especially for the newer material.
The cleverly-packaged CD set Pulse documents the band on the 1994 “Division Bell” tour and features a complete performance of the DSOTM. The video is currently available only on VHS, but is rumored to also be coming out on DVD sometime in 2003.
Almost too many to list, but some good ones to start with are the following:
* “Pink Floyd, A Visual Documentary” by Miles – perhaps the first Bible of Floyd, it features awesome photos, quotes, and a daily listing of Floyd activities up through the MLOR period. Try to get the latest edition, there have been four.
* “Pink Floyd: In the Flesh” by **** - Fairly recent, this is a great day-by-day breakdown of Pink Floyd gigs and recording sessions; excellent photos.
* “Another Brick in the Wall” by **** - explains the story behind each of the Pink Floyd songs (through the Wall album); excellent photos.
* “The Pink Floyd Encyclopedia” by ***** - Another new book that breaks down the recordings, tours and equipment used by the Floyd.
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