Ritchie Blackmore audio interview at bottom of page!
RITCHIE BLACKMORE INTERVIEW
AA Can you describe your early days as a session guitarist in London?
RITCHIE BLACKMORE Back in 1963, when I was 18, one of the steady gigs I had gotten was as the guitarist for the Brenda Lee show. At the time, I was in the band that was backing most of the artists that would appear on the show. I was talking to another guitar player about James Burton, the guitarist with Rickie Nelson [Burton also played with Elvis Presley and was featured on Dale Hawkin’s 1957 hit song, “Susie Q”]. This guitar player knew Burton personally, and he said, “Oh yeah, James—he uses banjo strings, that’s how he can bend the strings so easily!”
AA At the time, weren’t you a big fan of James Burton’s work with Ricky Nelson on songs like, “Too Late,” “Stood Up” and “Waitin’ In School?”
BLACKMORE Oh yeah! I was a huge Burton fan and a rockabilly fan, and I always had wondered how in the hell he could bend the strings the way that he did. So I went home and put banjo strings on my guitar, and when I discovered how easy they were to bend, I thought, “This is fantastic!” What I didn’t realize was that the strings went out of tune very easily, too. I was the primary guitarist in the band, there to back everyone else up. So, after my first show with the banjo strings, everyone complained that my guitar was so badly out of tune. This happened during a matinee of two shows, so on the break, the bandleader said to me, “Put some bloody different strings on your guitar!” I did a great solo—bending all of the notes to my heart’s content–but then when I played a chord, it sounded terrible. All of the singers, from that point on, were not amused.
AA But you probably wanted to keep those banjo strings on there.
BLACKMORE I did, but I had to change them back to regular strings, because it was so embarrassing! No chord sounded right—it was dreadful! And I wanted to keep my job.
AA What gauge strings were you using in the early days of Deep Purple?
BLACKMORE I like a .010 on top, but I used very light strings for the B and G strings, usually a .012 for the B and a .013 or .014 for the G. Jeff Beck likes to use very light strings on top but very heavy strings on the bottom. Everyone to their own; I like more of an “even” type feel across all of the strings.
AA Who were some of the contemporary bands during Deep Purple’s heyday that you and the band thought highly of?
BLACKMORE We used to listen to the Allman Brothers quite a lot back in 1969. In fact, a lot of what Purple did was influenced by the Allman Brothers. Right before that, we were hugely influenced by the Vanilla Fudge and Mountain, and of course Jimi Hendrix, and a little bit of Cream.
I really loved Leslie West’s playing. I remember being in a place in Germany, and Ian [Paice, DP drummer] and I were out drinking together. In those days, you could go to a club and listen to the new records in their entirety that had just come out. Paice and I heard, “Mississippi Queen,” and we both went white! We were thinking, “Who the hell is that?!” It had such a big sound! For three guys, it was incredibly heavy.
Ultimately, Purple and Mountain did a few tours together. Every now and again, Leslie would just walk out onto the stage unannounced and start playing, while his band was still in the dressing room. They all come running out of there and to the stage as fast as they could, after which he’d immediately walk off. Madness! I like that eccentricity in him. And he plays mostly with just three fingers; he doesn’t bother with the pinkie much at all, but it’s all there. Great vibrato.
AA Is it true that hearing Mountain influenced the direction of the band, which was to become much heavier as evidenced by the band’s 1970 release, In Rock?
BLACKMORE Yes, that’s right. At the time, we were trying to find our way as a band, some sort of “category.” Jon [Lord, DP keyboardist] was into the classical stuff, and, although I love classical music, I wanted to follow up the Deep Purple album, the last one with the original line-up, with something much heavier, out-and-out rock. I said, “If that doesn’t work, let’s go back to playing with orchestras [as the band had previously done for the ill-received Concerto for Group and Orchestra in 1969]. And that’s how In Rock came about.
AA On In Rock, the solo “trading” you do with Jon Lord, for example during the breakdown of “Speed King,” was revolutionary and tremendously innovative, in terms of the cross-pollination of classical and blues/rock type themes, as well as in your use of unusual modes and scales.
BLACKMORE My interest in classical music overall is what led me in the direction of trying to combine blues, rock and classical ideas into the stylistic statement. At the age of 15, I saw a band that did rocked-up classical tunes, called Nero and the Gladiators. They all wore togas, and you would think they must have looked really silly, but it worked. They looked so different as a band, and since then, I had to be in a band dressed up as something, whether it’s a Roman, or a Musketeer, or something else entirely!
Everything Nero and the Gladiators did was originally a classical piece. They’d adopted themes by Grieg, such as “The Hall of the Mountain King,” or they did rocked-up versions of “Czardas,” by Franz Liszt, and that tweaked my interest. I thought, I want to do that: I want to play all of the classical tunes rocked-up. I was obviously a rock guitarist, but I loved the classical overtones. Not many people were doing anything like that back in the very early sixties. Classical was only performed in traditional classical settings and with traditional classical instruments, such as Julian Bream and Segovia, who played traditional classical music on the guitar. I always felt excited by any sort of classical music played in a rocked-up way, whether it was by Mozart or especially Bach, who was my hero. This type of sound moved me so much more than the blues, for example. I like the blues too, but I always found that I could only go so far into listening to the blues.
AA At the age of 15, were you already a fan of classical music, and had you been exposed to the music of Bach? And had you tried to play that type of music on the guitar?
BLACKMORE When I was eleven, my dad said to me, “If you are going to play this guitar, you are going to learn to do it properly. I’m sending you to lessons.” So I took classical guitar lessons, but I wasn’t very good. Apart from the fact that every time I went to my guitar teacher’s house, I’d fall off my bike, so I’d always arrive bleeding! It was a bit like a Monty Python skit. I’d get down to the end of my road and I would always fall off my bike, because I was holding my guitar and trying to steer at the same time.
AA That prepared you for a life on the road playing in a rock band.
BLACKMORE Yeah it did! Some days, I’d arrive at his house and the teacher would look at me and say, “What are you doing here?,” and I’d say, “It’s ‘guitar’ day,” and he’d say, “No it isn’t—it’s tomorrow.” This is after I’d cycled about 10 miles to his house. Another time, I arrived and he said, “I can’t teach you today, because my beer has blown up!” He was standing in about six inches of beer! His beer that he was making at home had exploded! And then another time–which is a great story–I was playing and reading the music, just coming to grips with being able to read sheet music and play it on the guitar, and I had a cold. As I was playing, my nose started to run but I didn’t want to stop playing. So I was trying to concentrate and play, and the teacher is watching me, and the discharge from my nose is now dripping down here by my waist! While all of this mucus was coming out, thank goodness he said, “Alright, you can stop and wipe your nose now!” It was very embarrassing.
AA Was he teaching you strict classical technique at the time?
BLACKMORE Yes, that’s right, straight classical finger-style. I was trying to learn some lute pieces by Bach. We also did some plectrum style, so it was a bit of both. He really didn’t think I was going anywhere as a player, and neither did I. Every time I arrived there, he’d ask, “Have you been practicing this week?,” and I’d say, “Of course I have.” He’d say, “No, you haven’t. Go home—I can’t teach you unless you practice!” So my musical lessons started to fade out at that point.
AA So you weren’t really practicing?
BLACKMORE No, not at all. I just wanted to hold the guitar and move around I front of the mirror, and be like Tommy Steele, who was my idol in those days [Steele is acknowledged as Britain’s first teen idol and rock and roll star]. That’s why I got a guitar—I wanted to be like Tommy Steele.
AA When did you first begin to dedicate yourself to the guitar?
BLACKMORE About a year later, when I was 12. The guitar lessons were so stuffy, and I wanted to play like Buddy Holly. I didn’t want to play “Canoe Waltz.” At 12, I was playing anything by Buddy Holly, Duane Eddy, and I would listen to Chet Atkins and Merle Travis, which left me completely flummoxed. At that time, no one could understand how Merle Travis could play the way that he did. So intense. And I also loved Django Reinhardt, but I was lost trying to figure out how to recreate his playing. And Wes Montgomery, and I realized that I’d be better off sticking to a simpler style of playing, because I could never understand where they were going, musically, but I had great appreciation for their technique. So amazing.
AA One of the things that has always set you apart as a player has been your startling technical brilliance, combined with your inventive approach and signature distinct style. By the time of the release of In Rock, you had developed a sound and a touch and a technique that displayed incredible discipline, more in line with that of a classical or a jazz musician than of the rock musicians of the time.
BLACKMORE I used to practice a lot. From the age of about 14 on, I suddenly “clicked into” the guitar, and, later on, my initial music teacher was very impressed, because I think he thought I was a complete idiot. I’m the type of guy that it takes a while to learn something, but, sometimes I can get a heads up on the guy that picks things up very quickly. It might take me longer, but I am very compulsive and will zoom in on something in a very single-minded way until I get it, and then I’ll be manic about it—practicing and practicing and practicing. I was always very intense in regard to what I wanted to do. I think that is just part of my character—being intense about whatever it is that I want to get into, whether its research, or kicking a soccer ball around, or whatever. I like to study things very intently and try to figure them out.
AA Did you have a certain sound in your head, or were you aware of finding a sound that was representative of your personality?
BLACKMORE No. I think what happened was, I was terrible at copying people, so what I most often did was to make up my own stuff. It was like a compromise: I can’t copy this solo by James Burton, so I’ll make up my own. If something I was trying to copy by someone else was beyond my reach, I just make up my own things to play. I had guitar player friends that could copy every note, and I thought, Wow, that’s great—I wish I could do that! But my approach seemed to pay off in the long run, because all of a sudden I was playing things that I wrote and developed, while they would become lost, because they couldn’t make up their own stuff.
I was always after a certain type of sustain. When I first left school, I worked in an electrical factory, where they made stroboscopes and things like that. I had asked the top guys many times if they could make me an amplifier that would distort, because there were no amps that would produce a distorted sound. Their response would be, “We’re trying to make amplifiers that sound clean, and you want distortion?! You’re nuts!” [laughs] So I’d press them, “How can I go about making an amplifier that will distort?” I knew a little bit about electronics at that time. They’d say, “Welllll….it could be done….,” but they couldn’t understand why distortion was something I would want to have.
AA Did you eventually get an amplifier that could give you the distorted guitar sound you were after?
BLACKMORE I had a little Vox amplifier, and I decided to cut up the speaker to see if that would produce distortion. I got a three-inch speaker, I put 30 watts through it, and I cut up the speaker cone with a razor blade. This was around 1961. At that time, I’d started to do sessions, and whenever they wanted a certain effect, I’d play through the carved-up three-inch speaker, and I got some great sounds. The producer was very bemused by what I was doing, but he’d mike it up and love it.
AA There’s the famous story of Paul Burlison, of Johnny Burnette’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio, who dropped his amp, inadvertently breaking a tube, while walking into the session to record “Train Kept A’’Rollin’,” and he got this incredible distorted guitar tone on the track.
BLACKMORE Breaking the output tube is another way of achieving the same effect. Another way is to put the wrong voltage into it, and the amp will distort at a low volume level. These were the tricks we did in those days to get new sounds on the electric guitar.
AA Was Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra an attempt on your part to bring rock and classical music together?
BLACKMORE That was an experiment, and it was much more Jon Lord’s world than mine. I felt very awkward, because, for example, there’d be a section where I was supposed to play 24 bars of improvisation with the violins behind me, and of course I ended up playing much longer, like 52 bars or whatever. And the conductor would be looking at me, thinking, “When is he going to stop?!” I even messed up my solo! So the conductor was hovering over me, and the violinists were cringing the entire time. It was a bit of a joke. Every one of them was complaining about my amplifier being too loud, so the whole thing did not feel very natural to me.
RITCHIE BLACKMORE INTERVIEW MAY 2013