Comfortably Numb is by many regarded as Pink Floyd’s finest moment. It’s a masterpiece in every way and not least because of David’s legendary guitar solo. In this article we’ll examine David’s tone and hopefully you’ll get some ideas on how to create your own killer tone too!
David wrote the chords and melody during the recording sessions for his first solo album in 1978. It’s not documented why it wasn’t used or why Roger wanted it on his project. Roger’s lyrics are based on several real events that happened to both him and Syd in their childhood and as touring musicians.
The recording of the song for The Wall caused a lot of tension between Roger and David. According to an interview with David from Guitar World in 1993 the issue was Nick Mason’s drumming. David though the first version was too sloppy and liked the second slightly tighter take. Roger disagreed but won eventually. The demo from the first band sessions also includes David’s fuzz chords on the verses, which came back on the 1980s and 90s live version but was not included on the album.
The guitar solo
The guitars were recorded sometime early autumn 1979. David used the Black Strat for the two solos and the power chords during the main solo. The guitar still had the DiMarzio FS-1 bridge pickup but was newly fitted with a custom Charvel maple neck. There are different reports on what effects David used for the sessions. The first demo recorded by the band – sans the orchestra – includes a MXR Phase 90 but this was ditched on the final version. Some sources also suggest that he used an Electric Mistress flanger but I’m having a really hard time hearing it. However, the main effect of course is the Electro Harmonix 1973 “ram’s head” Big Muff fed into a Hiwatt DR103 head with a WEM speaker cabinet and a Yamaha RA-200 rotating speaker. The Yamaha is mixed slightly lower than the Hiwatt adding a rich sort of undefinable character.
David explained to Guitar World in 1993 how the solo was written: “I just went out into the studio and banged out five or six solos. From there I just followed my usual procedure, which is to listen back to each solo and mark out bar lines, saying which bits are good. (…) Then I just follow the chart, whipping one fader up, then another fader, jumping from phrase to phrase and trying to make a really nice solo all the way through.”
It’s hard to tell why a guitar solo becomes so famous and loved by so many. Perhaps it’s the beauty of a perfectly written rock song or the contrast between the gentle voices and the climatic end. It’s by far one of the most aggressive solos David’s every played but not so much due to his playing or technique but rather the mix and the sound of it. The track is doubled and slightly delayed making it sound like two guitars and the tone is compressed and gated to make it sound even more edgy and “in your face”. I often go back (or forward) to the film version of the song, which is mixed with even more presence and volume. You can really feel the guitar cutting right through your spine.
David has always been fairly true to the album version when performing the song live. The first solo is sort of a signature and David rarely goes beyond playing it note by note. The main solo, in contrast, is a long jam piece where David brings out all the ammunition. Still, he keeps some of the signatures and improvises around them. One of the more familiar parts added in the mid 80’s is the so-called “waving part” at the end of the song just when the mirror flower opens up and shoots beams of light throughout the stadium.
Explaining the “waving part”
I must admit that I just recently learned how to play this bit. I’ve been doing it wrong all the time (thanks napnap1234)! Anyway, the trick is to use tons of delay to make it sound bigger and more dramatic. David increases the volume on the delay just for this bit and then lowers it again for the rest of the solo.
Pick the E string on the 17th fret and the B string on the 19th. Pick the E first and simultaneously bend down the tremolo arm one whole note. Pick the B string and bring the arm back up to pitch.
The rhythm guitars
While David played the acoustic guitar on the second verse and main guitar solo, session guitarist Lee Ritenour handled the duties on the chorus. All acoustic parts were played with an Ovation 1619-4 steel string with a so-called Nashville tuning or high-strung tuning, – the A, D and G string being the high strings from a 12 string set. It’s not known why Ritenour played the part but notice how the strumming follows the strings melody (ba-ba-ba-ba ba-ba-ba-ba). By strumming up and down in a strict pattern rather than the usual random strumming you’ll get a much more defined melody and the chorus seems to flow better. Try strumming up and down randomly and you’ll hear that the chorus changes character completely and almost turns into a cheesy sing along.
There’s also a pedal steel (apparently a ZB) on the intro and during the first verse.
Getting the Comfortably Numb tone
David’s tone on Comfortably Numb is perhaps THE tone every fan strives to replicate. The magic and the myth of it all often overshadow the fact that the setup is pretty basic and straight forward. It’s a cliché but the tone is mostly in David’s fingers and his ability to play a fairly easy solo with such power and expression.
Guitar and pickups
Comfortably Numb is one of those songs that could be played on a number of different pickups and still sound awesome. David mainly performs the song with either vintage single coils or the more modern sounding EMGs, which with some imagination could be mistaken for P-90s or low output humbuckers like Gibson Classic 57s. It depends on which tone you prefer. It’s hard to get that fat Delicate and PULSE tone with vintage single coils but IMO it’s even harder to get a true vintage tone with the EMGs. I use Fender CS69s, which gives you that classic Wall tour 1980-81 and Remember That Night tone and by adding a Boss GE-7 set to slightly boost the mids you can get very close to the PULSE tone as well.
As always I recommend a tube amp that doesn’t have too much mid range and the ability to stay clean even when you crank the volume, – Hiwatt, Sound City, Reeves, Marshall Plexi and JCMs, Fender Bassmans and Twins… the list goes on. It’s become a mantra on this site but David’s Hiwatts has a huge impact on his tone and the effects are carefully layered on top for subtle nuances. Tube amps are expensive but it’s an investment that’ll last a life time.
Don’t be intimidated by the scale of David’s rig. As long as you’re not playing in football stadiums a 50w head with a matching cabinet will be more than enough. If you’re only playing at home you’ll manage with even less.
It’s often a problem getting the desired tone from a Big Muff and the solution is very simple: volume. The louder you play the smoother it gets. What happens when you crank a tube amp is that the tubes gets very warm and saturated and unless your amp has a habit of distorting you’ll get a tone that’s nicely compressed with tons of dynamics just on the verge of bursting into overdrive madness. Pedals like the Big Muff, Colorsound Power Boost, BK Tube Driver etc are all designed to be used with tube amps and the magic happens when the amp and pedal reacts with each other. David also adds a booster or mild overdrive after the Muff to add more volume and character. This doesn’t really make the Big Muff sound more aggressive but it helps smooth out some of the harsh harmonics and add a richer character.
Solidstates or transistor amps can give you a great tone as well and the same “rule” should apply, – make sure that it can play loud without distorting. As described below you might need to add an EQ or a booster to compensate for the lack of the typical tube tone.
General amp settings
I recommend that you always use the front inputs on your amp. If possible, try to combine the inputs with a small patch cable, – upper normal and lower bright/brilliance and plug the guitar cable into the upper bright/brilliance. This will add brightness and presence without loosing the lower ends. General settings for both tube and solid states should be: bass 50%, treble 50-60%, mids 40% and the master at about 1/3 of the channel output. If the inputs are combined set the normal input volume a hair higher than the bright input volume.
As talked about above, David’s effects setup for Comfortably Numb is quite basic. Good sounding pickups and a powerful tube amp requires 4-5 effects at most. If you’re playing at home using a small solid state with a volume suitable for grumpy neighbours you might need to add a couple of effects to compensate for loss of sustain and dynamics.
Setup recommended for tube amps:
1. Warm, slightly dirty tone for PULSE
BIG MUFF (Sovtek/P-2/G-2) – gain 50-100%, tone 20-30%, volume 50-60%
OVERDRIVE (Tube Driver/Tube Screamer) – gain is depending on how aggressive the pedal is, – you want a mild overdrive, about 30-40%, tone 40%, volume 50-60%
DELAY – moderate volume and feedback and about 550ms time.
- Although not required I would also add a compressor (placed first in the chain) for a bit more attack and sustain. If you’re using vintage style single coils I’d also add hint of mid boost with an additional EQ for that boosted EMG tone (placed after the overdrive). For authenticity you could also add a subtle chorus (placed infront of the delay).
2. Bright, punchy tone for Animals, Wall and On an Island
BIG MUFF (“triangle”/”ram’s head”) – gain 50-100%, tone 40%, volume 50-60%
BOOSTER/OVERDRIVE (Colorsound PB/Boss BD-2) – gain, this should be as clean as possible without getting thin (find the sweet spot before it breaks), tone 50%, volume 70%
DELAY – moderate volume and feedback and about 550ms time.
- For authenticity you could add a flanger, preferably the Electric Mistress (placed in front of the delay).
Setup recommended for solidstate amps:
compressor > distortion > overdrive > EQ > chorus/flanger > delay
I usually recommend not to use a Big Muff on solid states or when you’re playing at home with a low volume. It’s hard getting a decent tone and you’ll often end up with something that just sounds thin and fuzzy. The RAT is an extremely versatile distortion that sounds great in any setup. I would also stay away from using overdrives and boosters designed for tube amps, like the Tube Driver and Colorsound Power Boost. Often they will react just like the Big Muff. The Boss BD-2 and an Ibanez/Maxon Tube Screamer are versatile substitutes. You might also realize that you need to set the gain slightly higher than the typical tube amp setup.
My favourite setup would be: BYOC Large Beaver “triangle” clone > Colorsound Power Boost > Deluxe Electric Mistress > delay. I sometimes also add a compressor to enhance certain climatic parts of the solo.
So there you have it! I hope I managed to cover most of the topic. Next time we’ll sink our teeth into Shine On You Crazy Diamond.
- “The Wall”, original recording 1979
- “Is There Anybody Out There – The Wall live 1980-81″, official live album 2000
- “Delicate Sound of Thunder”, official live album 1988
- “PULSE”, official live album 1995
- “Remember That Night”, official DVD 2007
- “David Gilmour live at the Hammersmith Odeon”, original concert video 1984
- “Under Construction”, bootleg (The Wall demos 1979)
- Numerous bootlegs from 1980-81, 1984, 1987-90, 1994 and 2006
- Guitar World magazine interview with David Gilmour 1993
- “The Black Strat – A History of David Gilmour’s Black Fender Stratocaster” by Phil Taylor
- “Comfortably Numb – A History of the Wall” by Vernon Fitch and Richard Mahon