Playing guitar in a tribute band is about more than memorizing parts note for note. Especially when the band is Pink Floyd, and the guitarist is David Gilmour. You’ve got to be able to master the tones, the moods, the spaced-out massiveness of the legendary solos – and the Floyd nerds who know every note you’re about to play. Backwards. This is the story of a Blog Of Tone writer who took on one of the biggest – and most challenging – six-string tribute jobs in the business…
“I think I could walk into any music shop anywhere and with a guitar off the rack, a couple of basic pedals and an amp I could sound just like me. There’s no devices, customized or otherwise, that give me my sound.”
That’s what a certain Mr. David Gilmour had to say about the origins of his stellar tone.
As you probably know, his deft touch left an indelible stamp on the sound of a certain psychedelic blues-rock combo that ended up selling gazillions of albums.
And if you weren’t aware of this man’s ability to make the guitar sound as soulful as angels sighing, know this: no matter what equipment David Gilmour chooses to play, he indeed always sounds like himself. And since I am clearly a dispassionate, utterly objective observer, you’ll allow me the liberty of adding this: he’s the man!
The power of Gilmour
That quote wasn’t the first thing to come to mind when I was offered the David Gilmour role in a German tribute band – the imaginatively named The Pink Floyd Project – in May 2015.
I suppose I’ve long harbored a secret desire to be part of a project like this. Although I haven’t spent decades obsessing over David Gilmour’s every musical move, the opportunity to mimic his sailor-slaying-siren-song-like lead lines was too sweet to pass up.
I’d always been fond of his trademark tone, beautiful phrasing, and world-beating talent for creating epic classics with just a few well-chosen notes.
Of course, there’s no law that compels us to love Pink Floyd’s music, but if you’re like me in that your licks are steeped in blues-rock, Gilmour is one of those giants upon whose shoulders we stand.
Time to get practicing
With just four weeks to go until the band’s first rehearsal, I hit my practice pad immediately.
The band wanted me to audition with three numbers: Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Money, and Another Brick In The Wall. The latter was to be played in its entirety, and Pink Floyd certainly didn’t rush any of its tracks.
With the whole opus of Part 1, The Happiest Days Of Our Lives, and Part 2, we’re talking about more than an half an hour of music chock full of tasty licks for me to learn. And it takes a healthy helping of humility and patience to decipher Pink Floyd tracks, especially if you’re trying to nail the guitar work note for note.
Authentically replicating Gilmour
I was somewhat familiar with the leads of Shine On, Money and Another Brick because I had played these songs at one time or another in various cover bands.
Back in the day, no one really expected truly faithful renditions of these classic Pink Floyd tracks. You just had to hit those notes that everyone recognizes and fake your way through the rest.
Nobody complained as long as it rocked, and I suspected this might be the case because occasionally someone in the audience would come up to me and say something like: “Yo dude, you rock!”
But this was nothing like that.
If the band’s billing itself as a tribute to Pink Floyd, I had to get that Gilmour touch and tone down pat.
Although I had a healthy respect for the magnitude of the challenge, I wasn’t wracked with anxiety until I started researching David Gilmour’s rig. Thumbing through the usual guitar porn magazines, I soon discovered that his backline was prime centerfold material; precisely the kind of gear that we lecherous guitar-types lust for with such indecency.
From a distance, his setup looked suspiciously like the command center of a spaceship from an ’80s sci-fi flick.
It was the bridge of the Nostromo from Ridley Scott’s Alien, only without the alien. But then what was that gnawing away at the pit of my stomach?
Breaking down the sound
An antacid cleared up that problem, but the touch-taste-tone conundrum still tormented me until I remembered that the key to solving big problems is to break them down into smaller parts.
You can’t completely separate the three, but Gilmour’s tone was informed by his choice of amps, effects and guitars. In other words, these are the sounds I would have to imitate – and I’d already had a go for a previous blog, here:
Gilmour’s taste and touch – his choice of notes, pick attack, phrasing, bending and so on – determined how I would have to play.
Tone is in your fingers
Once I had compartmentalized these challenges, the problem no longer seemed so daunting. If I had had the presence of mind to call to mind the Gilmour quote, I could have spared myself all the agonizing.
But David’s right: what you’re playing on isn’t as important as what you’re playing. Tone is in your hands, and that’s a good thing.
The dirty business of tribute bands
And so I proceeded to learn the licks with all the calm of a Zen master on valium.
My newfound composure also helped me keep cool when my bandmates gleefully described the gory details of the tribute band business.
I thought they were joking when they told me that some hardcore fans time performances of Comfortably Numb to see how many seconds the tribute version of the Pink Floyd classic varies from the original’s length.
I’ll tell you this much now – their stories turned out to be true.
Is note for note the best way to learn?
For lack of a better plan, I started in alphabetical order, with “A” as in Another Brick In The Wall. The song isn’t exactly a piece of cake to memorize in its entirety.
A second, relatively long and freely improvised solo in the outro of the 1994 Pulse version of the classic second part makes it particularly tricky to learn.
Lucky for me, this lead hasn’t wormed its way into the public collective musical consciousness, so I didn’t spend a lot of time copping every note. However, there’s no way I’d be able to sham my way through that spacey part at the beginning with the delay all over the rhythm guitar.
The entire part is tightly arranged, and the guitar parts are very much locked in with the other instruments. The delay time has to be right on the money, or the whole thing falls apart.
So at this juncture it wasn’t so much the dry sound I had to get right. The echo pattern is such an integral ingredient that it was my first priority.
One amp for so many sounds?
That magical delay really floats my boat anyway, so I decided to start by decoding its DNA.
Time was an issue in another respect: with so much left to learn, I had none to waste fussing with unfamiliar gear.
My GrandMeister 36 would be able to imitate a lot of different sounds, and the ability to store each tonal preset in a memory slot would make my task so much simpler.
Speaking of ease of use, the remote app on my iPad, paired with the wireless capability provided by the WMI-1 wireless MIDI interface, made my choice of amp a no-brainer. In a just world, this setup would be pictured in every dictionary under the definition of ‘convenience’.
A smaller rig = less back pain
The GrandMeister and I were soon on a roll, replicating one Gilmour sound after another rather convincingly, if the measure of a ‘convincing’ sound is that works well for that number.
And even if I couldn’t duplicate the man’s sounds to perfection, it was close enough for surprisingly satisfying sessions practicing alone at home and with the band in the rehearsal room.
The thought of hauling around all the equipment he uses to make that crazy diamond shine on stage was as disagreeable as the prospect of spending my retirement complaining to grandkids about what a pain in the back it is to be an aging rocker.
Getting the delay right
It turns out that 440 milliseconds of delay was just right to nail those dotted eighth notes and raise goose bumps with spine-tingling accuracy. I dialed in just enough feedback to weave a carpet of echoes just dense enough to play the tasty fills without ripping holes into the rhythm tapestry.
With all those echoes bouncing around, it takes some fierce concentration to lock back into the groove right on the downbeat after each fill. But with a little practice and patience I got the hang of it.
Touching my tone on the iPad
As the band rehearsed and the songs evolved, I was able to fine-tune my settings on the iPad. I can’t tell you how convenient this arrangement was for me.
I placed my iPad off to the side and slightly behind me, but within reach from my standing stage position up front as well as further back from the lap steel I used for Breathe, The Great Gig In The Sky and High Hopes, among other tracks.
That way I was able to access the GrandMeister remotely.
I had the bridge of the Nostromo – shrunk down to the size of a notepad and a largish toaster – at my fingertips, and I was able to switch sounds and keep an eye on everything from both positions.
Nailing that Another Brick sound
As for the spacey intro to Another Brick: it didn’t take me long to figure out what Gilmour had been up to.
It seems to me that for this number, he used a relatively light touch with an unusual amount of sustain for a Strat. So, I set the gain to 2 o’clock to conjure some tasty compression that would let those notes ring. I liked the neck pickup best for this; it just felt right to me and sounded close enough to the original for my purposes.
Trust your ears to get the tone you need
And speaking of feel: the Internet is vast beyond measure, and you may well find a place where someone in the know has posted your favorite player’s 100% guaranteed bona fide original setup, sourced straight from the cousin of the guy who used to deliver pizza to a studio that his guitar tech may have frequented on a Thursday in April of 1973.
Something tells me it’s probably not a good idea to slavishly follow this guidance.
Instead, trust your instincts. Dial in a tone that’s in the ballpark, but suits your personal touch and taste, and then work your way as close to the original as you can.
Pretty close is plenty close for me.
Adding ingredients to the tone recipe
On Another Brick, I found that cranking the gain made the dynamic response just a little too volatile, so I used an outboard Carl Martin compressor to keep things in check and add even more sustain.
The basic sound was still squeaky clean, yet powerful and assertive with a chiming attack that rung my bell.
With the added compressor ironing out the kinks in the dynamics and volume, my sound was almost as satisfyingly smooth and homogeneous as the original. I spiced up my sonic stew with what I thought would be the finishing touch, a pinch of phaser with the rate set slow and the depth low.
I was wrong; it wasn’t quite there yet, so I dropped a Rotosphere pedal (the legendary Leslie speaker simulator) into the GrandMeister’s FX loop to give it a whirl. The organized chaos of this organic rotary effect added just enough random modulation to achieve liftoff, elevating my sound into the stratosphere where Pink Floyd’s space rock dwells.
It’s not the size of the rig – it’s what you do with it that counts!
All this has led me to realize that I don’t need a massive rig to perfectly recreate the sounds of the original Pink Floyd songs. My fairly modest setup would get me more than close enough.
I also realized that a persuasive cover is less about fussing and finessing until you nail the sound just so, and more about playing the parts faithfully, with fire and passion.
Play it fairly right, and put some heart and soul into it, and even those obsessive-compulsive Pink Floyd fans will buy into what you’re selling.
In other words, even if David Gilmour descended from the mother ship and agreed to lend me his rig, I’m not going to sound just like him.
The tone is important, of course, but the touch and phrasing will determine if the lines sound sufficiently Floydish.
Adding your own musical personality to covers
There was one more lesson in all of this for me: if it rocks, let it rock.
Gilmour is a wonderful stylist, but he’s not exactly Angus Young. As hard as I tried to play his solos note for note, there were still some lines that felt foreign.
Gilmour’s tailored suit wasn’t a perfect fit for me; it was a little too loose here and a bit too tight there. I suppose what could be called my signature style shone through from time to time, and after a while I decided to stop fighting it and go with the flow.
I started with David’s licks, but filtered through my personality, whims and fancies, I sometimes ended up with something else.
And I can I live with that.
One last word of advice
So my advice to fellow guitarists in tribute bands is this: don’t worry about buying every piece of gear that this or that iconic guitarist plays.
Instead, decode each song’s sonic DNA.
Do your best to approximate that sequence, but play every line like it’s the last you’ll ever play. If you put your heart into it, it will steer your touch and tone in the right direction, and your audience will believe when it hears the truth according to you.
And that brings us back to that Gilmour quote. He’s right. QED – ’nuff said!
There’s more to come
By the way, we’re planning another blog on the issue soon, where our budding guitarist will discuss his amp presets, FX, guitars and more – don’t miss it. Until then, so long and shine on!
First published: July 07 2016. Most recent update: December 22 2016.
Edit: if you’re still here, we’re sure you’ll want to read the second part of this story. Just click on the picture to go there now: