David Gilmour’s solo career started way back in the late 70s, when Pink Floyd was in the middle of their hay days. Often overlooked, David’s first solo album feature some great moments and beautiful tones. In this feature we’ll dig deep into the history of the album, the gear and the tones.
I’ve always loved David’s first solo effort. There are no Echoes or Dogs on it but it’s just a solid, no frills album, with great guitar playing. What I especially like, is that you can hear that the band had great fun playing together. This feeling is certainly lacking on Wish You Were Here and Animals, despite being the great albums that they are.
About Face sounds somewhat out of character. On an Island sounds a bit forced and uninspired. The first album sounds very much like a musician who wants to play and stretch out beyond what the boundaries of the band can offer in terms of creativity.
Why a solo album?
In a recent interview with Uncut Magazine, David explains his motive for doing a solo album in 1978 “I don’t think it was a counteract to some sort of frustration I was feeling within Floyd. If anything, I thought it would be nice to have a bunch a guys in a room, play some tunes, knock ’em down and put out record”.
This might very well be one of the reasons for doing the album, but there definitely was a lot of tension within Pink Floyd at that point – both during and after the Animals tour, which ended in July 1977. They were sick and tired of each other and from touring.
Roger, especially, went through a though time and didn’t feel comfortable with the exposure and the rabid fans. His pissy mood was a stark contrast to David, who, according to himself in later interviews, enjoyed the tour.
There might also have been a financial motive for doing a solo album. By 1978 it was evident that although Pink Floyd was one of the biggest selling bands of all time, their investments had failed and they were now also subject to massive taxation. In short – they were broke.
Both Rick and David recorded solo albums in early 1978 and they did it in France to avoid taxes. Roger started writing what eventually ended up as The Wall (and Pros of Cons of Hitch Hiking) and although having a great idea for the band’s next album album, he also knew that he needed to create a success that could save the them financially.
The recording sessions
David Gilmour was largely written between November 1977 and January 1978 and recorded and mixed at Super Bear Studios in Nice, France, during a few weeks in february 1978. The album was released in May to fairly good reviews and it charted decent in both US and UK.
There are very few sources from the sessions. David has stated in several interviews that everything went really fast, which was, and still is, quite unusual for him. Sadly, there was also a fire that burned Super Bear Studio to the ground in 1986, and with it all the documents, reels and pictures from the sessions.
Interestingly, the guys David chose for his project, was his old band mates Rick Wills (bass) and Willie Wilson (drums). Both from Joker’s Wild and Bullitt – the bands David played in before joining Pink Floyd. The power trio rehearsed and recorded all of the songs together and additional session musicians were hired for piano, backing vocals and other overdubs.
Using close friends and old band mates seems to be a pattern in David’s musical career. Willie Wilson continued to work with Pink Floyd as the drummer in the Surrogate Band during the The Wall tour. Snowy White, who played rhythm guitar during both the Animals and Wall tours, is an old friend of David’s. So is Dick Parry, who played saxophone on Dark Side, WYWH, Division Bell and On an Island.
On an Island was a joint collaboration between David, his wife Polly Samson and Phil Manzanera (Roxy Music), who not only produced the album, but is an old friend and neighbour. This creative trio are also the minds behind David’s most recent album, Rattle That Lock.
Comfortably Numb was originally written by David in early 1978 and intended for the solo album. A demo that surfaced in the early 90s, reveal that although the key was different, most of the structure of the song is very similar to the finished version that ended up on The Wall.
Run Like Hell also dates from the sessions. In an interview with Musician (1992), David hints that Short and Sweet and Run Like Hell was based on the same ideas, which makes sense when you listen to the main riffs.
By 1978, David Gilmour had established himself as a guitarist with a unique tone and style. His playing was firmly rooted in the blues but he also had lots of contemporary influences. His first solo album, much like On an Island, is a tribute to those influences.
Mihalis, the opening track, starts off with a lead that could very well have been nicked from an instrumental by The Shadows. That clean Strat tone, with the heavy use of the trem arm and echo, is typical of Hank Marvin, who is undoubtedly one of David’s biggest influences. After a few passages, David hits the Big Muff and reveals his unique ability to make influences into something of his own.
There’s a lot of blues and BB King references on the album too. Songs like Cry From the Street and No Way are reminiscent of King’s slower numbers like The Thrill is Gone. Raise My Rent is another that hints towards the dreamy landscapes of Pink Floyd, but there’s also a lot of both King and Peter Green in it.
Interestingly, some of the songs also hints towards some of David’s later compositions. So Far Away could very well be written for On an Island. A beautiful and timeless ballad featuring one of David’s finest solos (in my opinion anyway).
I can’t Breathe Anymore has some of On the Turning Away in it, with the slow intro and the tempo change during the outtro, with they also did on songs like Yet Another Movie and Keep Talking.
There are some bits and pieces on the album that are strangely familiar. At least to the avid listener.
The solo on There’s No Way Out of Here is more or less identical to what he did on the live version of Pigs during the 1977 Animals tour.
The intro lick on Short and Sweet is a variation on D, which dates back to one of David’s compositions on Ummagumma, Narrow Way, and later on songs like Sheep (outtro) and Run Like Hell.
And the first bars of the solo on Raise My Rent? Check out What Do You Want from Me on Division Bell!
The live performance
David never toured to promote album. Shortly after its release, Pink Floyd was back together working on The Wall. He did, however, perform five songs with his band (including his brother Mark on guitar) at London’s Roxy, which were filmed for promotional use. What you see is a stripped down setup, which very much reflects the sound and mood of the album.
There’s No Way Out of Here from the promotional clips recorded in London in 1978. David’s brother Mark, plays rhythm guitar, with former Joker’s Wild and Bullitt members Rick Wills (bass) and Willie Wilson (drums).
The songs are more or less true to the album versions, although some of David’s solos are clearly improvised. Again, the clips gives us a rare glimpse of David’s tones during that late 70s era, with the Black Strat and the unmistakable Big Muff in focus.
David’s debut solo album is a fantastic reference source for his Late 70s tones. It’s perhaps closest to the tones he had during the 1977 Animals tour, which were mainly driven by the use of Big Muffs and heavy modulation.
Some sources also indicates that he might have used a Gretsch Duo Jet (later used on On an Island) and the #0001 Stratocaster, which he acquired around this time. David also employed a lap steel slide (probably one of the Jedsons, blonde or red).
He might have experimented with the amp setup, using perhaps a couple of Fenders, but his main setup was a Hiwatt DR103 head driving a WEM speaker cabinet. The signal from his guitar and pedalboard, was split between the Hiwatt and a Yamaha RA200 rotating speaker cabinet. This setup was also used on the Animals album and tour, and later for the Wall album and tour and last on The Final Cut.
Effects-wise, David most likely used the 1976 Pete Cornish pedalboard he used on the Animals album and tour, and later on The Wall, but he might have used stand alone pedals as well. By early 1978, the pedalboard had gone through several changes and upgrades, but the main effects for the sessions, where an EHX Ram’s Head Big Muff, EHX Electric Mistress (1976 model), Pete Cornish ST2 (Colorsound Powerboost clone), MXR digital delay and the Yamaha RA200 for rotary tones and modulation.
Check out the David Gilmour 1978 gear guide for a complete run-down of David’s rig and a song by song effects setup.
Setting up your David Gilmour 1978 tones
Although David mostly used the Black Strat for the sessions, the album doesn’t come off as a typical Stratocaster album. At least on in the same sense as Division Bell or On an Island. Most of the tones can easily be replicated with a Telecaster, P90 pickups and even a Les Paul with low output pickups. Still, a Strat with late 60s neck and middle pickups and a hot wound bridge (DiMarzio FS1, Duncan SSL5 or similar), will get you the most authentic tones.
You want the amp to have as much headroom as possible. Fenders and Hiwatts has tons of it but if you choose a smaller amp for your bedroom then make sure it’s capable of producing a warm and well balanced clean tone. The amp usually sounds best just at the very edge of breakup, so experiment with the pre-gain and master volume controls.
If your amp has two channels then the gain channel can often produce a better result. It often has a dash more compression and mid range than the clean channel, which goes well with your pedals. See the Amp Tone feature for more on setting up your amp.
A Big Muff is a must to nail the tones on this album. It’s used on almost all the songs, for both leads and rhythms, and the pedal really defined David’s late 70s tones. David used a mid 70s Ram’s Head for that scooped and aggressive tone.
There is a lot of crunchy overdrive tones on the album as well. David might have employed an amp, like a Fender, to provide the dirt but he most certainly used either a Colorsound Powerboost or the Pete Cornish ST2, which is basically the same pedal. That glassy, fat low end crunch is crucial for songs like Cry From the Street and Short and Sweet.
The late 70s was the era of the flanger and David was probably one of the very first guitarists to really embrace the Electric Mistress and use it extensively on both albums and in live setups. That liquidy flanging is essential to songs like Mihalis (rhythms and solo), So Far Away (solo), Short and Sweet (rhythms) and I Can’t Breathe Anymore (rhythms).
You can’t really get authentic tones without that mild rotary modulation that’s draped around all of his tones. The Yamaha RA200 cabinet has a unique tone that’s much more liquidy and chorusy than the conventional Leslie cabinet, which has a more defined tremolo character. Blending the Yamaha with the Hiwatt amps, was also different to just plugging the guitar straight into the rotary cab, which is what most guitarists did at the time.
You could go for a chorus that has an effect volume control, like the CostaLab Chorus Lab, but the best pedal to simulate the Yamaha is the Boss RT20. It sounds OK as a Leslie simulator but it nails the Yamaha perfectly and it has a master volume, which allows you to blend in the amount you need – much like how David blends the Yamaha with the Hiwatts.
A good sounding delay is of course always a must for replicating David’s tones. While his first solo album feature a fairly modest use of delays, it is all over the album, on both leads and rhythms. By 1978, David had replaced the old Binson echo machines with new digital technology and the MXR Digital Delay rack systems.
You’ve heard the mantra before. The secret to nailing David’s tones is to keep it simple. There really isn’t a whole lot going on and as discussed above, what you hear is very much what went on in the studio. The guitars are unpolished to underline and capture the live feeling of the band.
You really need only 2-3 effects for each song. Experiment with your amp settings, to get a fat clean tone, and use the guitar volume control to create dynamics. Study the bends and vibrato techniques and also pay attention to how David’s using both familiar blues figures and more contemporary rock, blended with his unique use of effects.
What’s your opinion on David’s solo debut? Love it hate it? Please share your thoughts in the comments field below!