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David Gilmour – the story behind the best guitar sound in the world

June 24, 2015

I CAN STILL remember the summer of 2005 like it was yesterday. It was three a.m. and about to nod off. I tried to focus on the small portable TV set I had taken to my cabin, where I had been watching the Live 8 concert nonstop. I wasn’t going to go to bed, as I was still waiting for the event’s climax.

Pink Floyd were set to appear in their classic line-up, in their home country, live on television. Guitarist David Gilmour and bassist Roger Waters had finally managed to set aside their considerable differences to headline this event, which protested against the undue power of global corporations and banks. The last time this line-up had played together had been 25 years ago.

In my book, David Gilmour is the best guitarist in the world. Waters, too, had left quite an impression with his solo record, Amused to Death (1992), that had been brim full with very intelligent lyrics, which were probably the best in that decade. I was clear that if the guys could make it work, they could do miracles. It was almost as if the whole world was holding its collective breath. The lights went down on stage… Showtime!

The first notes of the familiar intro tape started seeping from my TV set’s tiny speakers, and I instantly knew it was the opener of their seminal album The Dark Side of the Moon, called “Breathe”, one of their most classic tracks. The song kicked off proper, and I had water in my eyes when I saw these gray-haired middle-aged men smiling at each other. This was really it! The classic line-up, sharing a stage after all those years. In my mind, I was wondering how the rehearsals went. Did the guys bicker and argue, like they had done before? Would Pink Floyd make a proper comeback for a stadium tour?

A VAN IN psychedelic colours pulled up in front of a terraced house in Cambridge, and honked its horn. It was February 1968 and today was going to be crucial. A 21-year old guitarist by the name of David Gilmour had recently joint a local group on their way up. Gilmour had already played a few gigs with the band, filling in for their regular guitarist. Today, though, the spotlight would be solely on him.

Pink Floyd’s success, up to this date, had been mostly due to their extremely charismatic frontman and guitarist, Syd Barrett. Barrett was much more than simply a singer and musician. His otherworldly songs, his unprecedented and trailblazing sounds, his hip dress sense, as well as his magnetic charisma were all part and parcel of the package. Thanks to Barrett, Pink Floyd were quickly becoming the darlings of Swinging London’s psychedelic scene in the mid-to-late 1960s. But that was then, now he was gone, for good. His intake of psychedelic drugs had badly damaged his psyche, leaving only ruins of his erstwhile magnetic personality.

During his last run of shows with the band, Syd Barrett had stood on stage motionless, and never played a note on his guitar. During interviews on the band’s latest tour of the States, he never said a word. Jimi Hendrix had picked Pink Floyd as his supporting act for his next tour, but the band had to decline, due to Barrett’s unraveling situation. He had become schizophrenic and thus sidelined.

The rest of the band weren’t ready to throw in the towel, though, which meant Pink Floyd had to take a crushing decision – their estranged and ill frontman had to stay home. At first, Gilmour’s brief was only to fill in for Barrett during the band’s upcoming gigs, until the situation with Barrett was resolved.

Even though the two guitarists had completely different playing styles, Gilmour had to fall back on Barrett’s existing backline for the shows. Gilmour’s foundation lies in the Blues, while Barrett’s inspiration lay in Surf music. Barrett had one ace up his proverbial sleeve – he used an Italian Binson echo that used a magnetic drum – looking a bit like a miniature turntable – instead of a tape loop to create the effect.

Hank Marvin, lead guitarist with the Shadows, was Britain’s first bona fide guitar god, years before Jimi Hendrix stepped on the scene. Both Barrett and Gilmour were huge fans of Marvin’s. Marvin had used an echo effect to add breadth and depth to his guitar tone. When “Apache” was released, Syd Barrett and David Gilmour were both only 14 years of age.

Syd wanted to take the “Shadows Sound” to the next level. Many famous bands of the Sixties, like the Rolling Stones or the Animals, didn’t think much of reverbs and echoes. They thought the sound was already too old-fashioned. But Syd was pretty sure Hank Marvin had only scratched the surface when it came to the tonal possibilities of echoes. A few years down the road, the 19-year old art student was using an echo effect like an instrument, using the Binson like a synthesizer or early sampler/looper. The resulting wild sounds formed the cornerstone of Pink Floyd’s early style.

Syd and his band were at the forefront of London’s psychedelic scene, with the creme of the Rock scene attending their shows in awe. The band even secured the headlining slot at the largest psychedelic music event of that time, the 14 Hour Technicolor Dream.

There was a colourful light show, plenty of psychedelic art, and a whole wash of psychedelic films being shown on multiple screens. The event was also attended by the Beatles’ John Lennon, who came to relax after a long session for Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

This all meant that Gilmour had to step into rather large boots, by becoming the band’s new frontman. This made it even more important for Gilmour to come up with an unmistakable sound of his own. He had to steer a band, still in its formative phase, who had lost their visionary, their driving force.

Gilmour wasn’t going to copy Barrett’s style. Instead, he put faith in his own, much more sophisticated and tasteful, style of guitar playing. The was no going back, even though it was clear to him that some fans would always miss Syd Barrett.

THE BAND LOST its plot for a few years, as a direct result of the change of frontman. Luckily, their first album with the new line-up, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn (1967), was a moderate success, which secured them the renewal of their recording contract.

Originally, Syd Barrett was to have written new material for the band, even though he was no longer a proper member. The managers still believed that he was the driving creative force behind the band. The plan hit a brick wall very soon, and the band members were forced to come up with their own original material.

Gilmour received some help in songwriting from the band’s keyboardist Richard Wright, who was an accomplished musician. Drummer Rick Mason and bassist Roger Waters were still, at that time, students of architecture, who had ambitions of playing in a Rock band. The record label wasn’t very helpful when it came to songwriting, either. Some A&R-men did turn up occasionally at the studio, but mostly for drinks and joints.

The next album, A Saucerful Of Secrets (1968), was like the second part of The Piper. This record still had a few of Syd Barrett’s guitar tracks in the mix of some songs. This song is one of the few to feature both Barrett and Gilmour.

The band’s internal chemistry started to change and shift rapidly. Waters started coming up with ever-longer arrangements for songs. As Rick Mason had difficulty in remembering all the parts, Waters had to resort to drawing intricate sequence sheets, which resembled a mix of architectural drawings and street maps, for the drummer. Gilmour had also sung in his previous band, which made him a natural choice as the group’s main vocalist. Water’s nasal delivery didn’t work well in higher registers, while Richard Wright wanted to concentrate on his keyboards.

The band next recorded three albums, which can be regarded as minor works in their oeuvre: the film soundtrack More (1969), Ummagumma (1969) which is half studio and half live, and Atom Heart Mother (1970) – an album the group members unanimously describe dismal. The Floyd also recorded a second soundtrack album during this phase, called Obscured By Clouds, but it only saw the light of day in 1972.

These records may not have been masterpieces, but the work nevertheless managed to fuse the band members into a coherent working unit. Their next album – Meddle (1971) – rang in Pink Floyd’s classic phase and proved to be a milestone in the group’s career. This is the album on which Gilmour and the rest of the band had finally found their own, unmistakable sound. This record set ball rolling for real.

THE SUMMER OF 1971 was scorching in Italy. David Gilmour was sitting in the hot sand of Pompeii’s amphitheater. Pink Floyd had assembled all their equipment in the round and they were planning on filming their performance. There were bound to be some problems, though.

The band’s vital Binson Echorec unit was extremely sensitive when it came to sand, dirt, and dust. Because the Binson was so important for the band’s sound, the band’s technicians had to go through a lot of trouble to keep it working. The echo’s unreliability put additional pressure on Gilmour.

Meddle had been like a reboot for the band. The album’s epic closer, “Echoes”, is a bona fide Pink Floyd classic that brings together Roger Waters’ architecturally influenced arrangements, David Gilmour’s and Richard Wright’s melodicism and Nick Mason’s Jazz-influenced drumming. The band’s progress, up to this point, culminates in this song, with the Binson – a part of Syd Barrett’s legacy – playing a more vital role than ever before.

The track starts with submarine type “pings” played on a grand piano awash with cave-like reverb. Richard Wright had used a Leslie on the demo version of the song. The band couldn’t recreate this sound during the “proper” recording sessions, so they copied the original pings from the demo to the multitrack tape. The Leslie – a rotating speaker cabinet developed for the Hammond organ – is easier to spot in the second piano that fades into the pings. Gilmour conjures up some magical dreamy texture using his famous violin technique, which employs a guitar slide, a mild fuzz effect, and the Echorec.

The Binson Echorec was also used for bass on the album. The opener, “One of these Days”, is based on a cool double-tracked bass riff with rhythmical delays, played by Waters and Gilmour. The bass culminates in its middle part (2:48), where the song is driven entirely by the bass-plus-Binson part, before it rises to its final climax. Along with “Echoes”, it is this track, which shows off the Floyd’s newfound prowess in arranging long tension lines in their compositions.

THIS DINOSAUR OF an effect has a magic tone that still inspires the minds of countless musicians, which is why many companies have worked on creating a digital version of the Echorec. Although there are some fine digital Binson recreations available these days, to me Strymon’s Volante pedal – released in January 2019 – is the cream of the crop. The Volante has quickly become the pedal others have to live up to, and I highly doubt anyone will ever come up with a Binson-inspired pedal to top it.

Buy Strymon Volante

The Strymon Volante has you covered for the whole Pink Floyd back catalog up to, and including, the Animals album. Its scratchy and bright, Binson type echoes and delays have all the personality and organic quality you’d crave. While the mechanical and analogue Italian original was infamous for the amount of service it required to work properly, you won’t be running into such problems with its modern, digital US-counterpart.

Well-kept, still functioning Binsons are as rare as hens’ teeth and command exorbitant prices, these days. Some people even dare to drag them onto a stage, every now and then, even though they have become even more likely to fail mid-set. Pedal designer Janne Paasonen from Helsinki owns an original Binson Echorec unit, and is a huge fan of its sound. Janne is also a fan of the Floyd, whose “Live at Pompeii” video left an indelible impression in his younger self.

Paasonen thinks that the tonality of a Binson Echorec is still unique and unequaled, because the drum delay works differently from a magnetic tape delay. A tape echo’s repeats deteriorate with increasing treble attenuation, while the Binson’s repeats increasingly lose bass content. The result is a rhythmic scratching in the top end.

“If you’re running a well-serviced Echorec with a long-enough feedback time, the repeats will take flight all the way to the sky” Janne muses.

He also knows a lot about keeping an Echorec up and running, because the original effect was almost designed to be problematic.

The Binson echo uses a so-called magnetic drum – which is actually the rim of a rotating metal disc – to record and replay the signal, instead of using easy-to-damage magnetic tape. To get the most sound out of an Echorec, you want to keep all heads as close as possible to the drum, else you will get an increase in noise. This requires a decent oil film on the drum to keep the drum and heads from being damaged. This means you have to clean the drum regularly do remove any particles, before reapplying the right amount of oil. In actual fact, this isn’t as straightforward as it sounds.

Because of all the oil and the centrifugal forces of the rotating drum/disc, the lubricant is guaranteed to seep into areas of the machine, where it isn’t supposed to go. The most problematic part is the capstan roller that keeps the drum rotating. If the roller becomes oily the drum won’t rotate properly, or it will even stop completely. This means you have to be servicing the unit nearly constantly, so that there is enough oil to keep the priceless drum safe from damage, but not so much oil that it keeps the drum from rotating. Many of the Echorecs still around have suffered from a lack of maintenance, which results in poor sound quality.

“A well-maintained Binson in pristine condition is a thing of beauty. It will give clear reproduction with virtually no wow and flutter. But Echorecs in top condition are very rare these days.” Janne sums it up.

It says a lot about the Binson’s special sound that, even though many tape echo machines started to appear on the market during the Seventies, Gilmour kept sticking to his Echorec. He once said in an interview:

“I knew how to pull apart the Binson, and how to put it back together again. I could adjust the heads correctly. This was back in the day, when there were only two people in England, who could properly maintain the unit – our technician Peter Watts and I.”

Gilmour still keeps his Binson in top nick in his studio. You can spot it during recording sessions in 2014. To this day, it hasn’t lost its place as one of the most vital ingredients in Gilmour’s signature sound.

THE SUBJECT OF human insanity inspired Roger Waters to write new songs. He played his new song “Brain Damage/Eclipse” to his bandmates. The song’s meaningful lyrics made the musicians consider the possibility of composing Pink Floyd’s first concept album.

Waters’ themes seemed to fall into place all by themselves. Greed, despair, old age, and the follies of the human mind all touch on the dark side of human existence, forming the core subjects of their next record.

The Floyd had already played some of the new songs on tour, which freed up their creative energies for even more involved sound experimentation. The Dark Side Of The Moon (1973) was surprisingly easy to make, by the band’s standards, and the pieces seemed to fall into place.

Bassist Roger Waters took a large step towards claiming leadership of the band. David Gilmour responded to the challenge by honing his musicianship to unprecedented heights during the sessions. The struggle for control of the band took its first tentative steps, while the band was making this record. The fight was only to intensify further along the line.

The opening track is the elegant “Breathe”, which sees Gilmour applying a UniVibe effect to his guitar playing. There’s also a trippy, dreamy lap steel part with a lot of reverb (0:20), which leads the composition to Gilmour’s and Wright’s beautiful harmony vocals and Waters’ atmospheric lyrics.

Gilmour’s masterpiece on this album is his guitar solo on “Time”, which he played with a fat, well reverberated fuzz sound (3:18). This is one of guitar history’s finest lead parts, which still scores high in any guitar polls today.

Gilmour’s note choices, his phrasing, and the way he develops musical motifs are highly imaginative and timeless. One-and-a-half step bends and soulful triplet figures are spruced up by classy vibrato bar embellishments. His almost endless sustain became the stuff of dreams for many guitarists over the decade.

Even though the Floyd had already had a taste of success in their home country, which had eased their financial situation, their main objective hadn’t still been achieved: Pink Floyd wanted to break in the USA, but their record sales were disappointing.

Waters vented his frustration at the situation by writing a song called “Money”, which deals with negative side effects of human greed for money. The record label picked this song as a single, and the rest is history. The record climbed the US charts and the album really took off big time. Pink Floyd became very famous on both sides of the Atlantic.

Ironically, “Money’s” lyrics seemed a bit prophetic, when it came to the band, too. The single’s success brought in many unwanted side effects. Pink Floyd was now one of the biggest acts on the planet, making them very interesting for a swarm of businessmen and financiers. The musicians’ erstwhile insecure egos now got a major boost thanks to their success. Their most obvious objective had now been achieved, leaving them wondering about which direction their music should take next.

THE FLOYD’S STATUS as one of the biggest groups of the Seventies was cemented over the following years. Despite the rising tensions inside the band, the recording sessions for a follow-up to their megaseller started on schedule.

A piece, written by David Gilmour on a 12-string acoustic, inspired Waters to write about the feelings of sudden loss and grief.

His own success brought buried feelings of sorrow about Syd Barrett’s departure to the surface of Waters’ mind. He dedicated the song "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" to Barrett, the genius who couldn’t cope with the pressures of success and fame. Now that the band was earning a lot of money, its members felt more unhappy than ever in many ways.

Gilmour’s parts are vital to the song. After a long intro played on organ and synth, he comes in with a heavily compressed guitar solo (2:09). The song proper kicks off at 4:06 with the main four-note riff, which took guitar reverberation to a whole new level. This part was recorded in Abbey Road’s cavernous Studio 1, with Gilmour using his large stage rig just for this one part. The photo shows Gilmour with his guitar tech Phil Taylor.

In the end, the album Wish You Were Here (1975) wasn’t so much about Syd Barrett and much more about Roger Waters. He felt that his personality had split in two, as a result of his considerable fame. One part was the wealthy Rock star, the other part was the artist who believed in socialist ideas. Over the duration of the sessions, Waters began to drift further away from his bandmates. He felt that nobody in the band was genuinely present in spirit during the sessions. He felt that everybody was more interested in sorting out their financial affairs, and in enjoying the fruits of their newfound wealth.

Even though the recording sessions would turn out to be the second most tedious and laborious in the band’s career, their fans lapped it all up willingly. The album sold by the truckload, but, for the first time in their career, the band refused to tour the album.

Instead, Waters started making plans for a new concept album. He was deeply troubled by the way British society was still split into classes, which is why he decided to write an album based on George Orwell’s classic book Animal Farm, which splits humans into dogs, sheep and pigs. The band built their own studio to save on cost for studio time, recording the album Animals (1977) there. The Floyd made good use of some ideas that had already been floating around during the making of the previous record, and Waters came up with additional material.

Gilmour tried to wedge in some of his compositions, but Waters only accepted one song of his on the album, and named the track “Dogs”.

The harmonized guitar solo (3:40) is one of the cleverest in Rock history. The beautiful melody is carried along by spot-on bendings, which only goes to show that, even while the band’s internal situation started to deteriorate, Gilmour’s stylish touch continued to evolve.

You can also find an early version of the song. At this stage, there was a third harmony part in the solo (3:50), which, luckily, was left off the final mix. Roger Waters also sang his own verse part (0:42) in this version, which wasn’t suited his voice.

At this stage the band had already stopped working together, with each member turning up at the studio when they felt like it. The faction-building had started to get worse. Waters announced that he felt no motivation to play a US stadium tour, which had already been booked by their American promotors.

In the end, the whole band, and their considerable touring entourage, set off for the States, as soon as the new album had been finished. Tensions inside the band seemed to rise in direct relation to their success. Despite the fact that the Floyd’s records were critically acclaimed and million sellers, the atmosphere inside the band was downcast. Waters started to isolate himself from his band members, traveling to the shows by himself. It didn’t take a prophet to see things were going to escalate in a bad way.

PERFORMING THE FINAL show of the Floyd’s gruelling first stadium tour before 40,000 fans in Montreal, Canada, finally tips Waters over the edge. The majority of the crowd seemed to have come to the show to rock out and have a good time, and they don’t care for the softer moments during the band’s gig. After repeatedly admonishing the crowd to shut up and listen, Waters loses it completely.

He signals security to drag one especially aggressive fan onto the stage. Shocking everybody, Waters spits in the fan’s face, and then turns his back on the audience and plays on. The rest of the group were shocked by their bassist’s unprecedented behaviour. The band staggered on through the rest of the set, trying to concentrate on the music. Waters didn’t make eye contact with anybody during the remainder of the show – he seemed to have shut himself off from the rest of the world.

Gilmour decided not to return for the encore. Instead, he stood at the side of the stage, next to his technicians, and pondered the future of his band, while the remaining trio played an improvised Blues jam. Here’s a picture of Waters right after the infamous show.

THE BAND DIDN’T get together for quite some time after this tour. Roger Waters had sent tapes out to the others, which contained his main musical and lyrical ideas for a possible next album. Even though the dark lyrics seemed very depressive to Gilmour, he was still intrigued by his band mate’s plans for another concept album.

Waters had cooked up an all-encompassing concept, which would include – in addition to the record – a movie, as well as a live show spectacular of unseen scope and proportions. He was adamant that he alone would compose all the material, and he didn’t want any help from the others in the process. The later was a hard piece to swallow for the rest of the band. But their hands were forced by the band’s dire financial situation, brought on by bad financial advice, which is why they agreed to Waters’ demands. The Floyd agreed to start recordings sessions as soon as possible.

Due to his frustration of not being allowed to contribute to the upcoming album, Gilmour hit on the idea of recording a solo album in the meantime. While Waters was hard at work perfecting his epos, Gilmour traveled to France and recorded a batch of his own songs with a handpicked group of musicians.

“I had to step out of Pink Floyd’s shadow” Gilmour quipped at the launch party for his solo album in May 1978.

UP TO THIS POINT in time, Gilmour had always relied on his old Binson drum echo, but now it was time for it to step aside. The old capricious device was relegated to studio use, and would not be dragged along to any live shows anymore.

The huge advances in solid state audio equipment during the 1970s. Delay effects started making inroads. Early delays had been analogue, but they were superseded rather quickly by digital delays.

Let us clarify the terminology a little bit, here:

In the 50s and 60s guitarists only had electromechanical means at their disposal to add a sense of spaciousness to their playing. There were spring and plate reverbs, as well as magnetic echoes (tape, or other). One problem with the terms is that, especially in Britain, musicians often called any of the above effects an “echo”, even when talking about a spring reverb or a genuine room sound. In this piece, let us stick to the correct terms, which means that an echo is an effect that produces one or multiple repeats of the input signal, while a whole wash of reflections is called a reverb. The new delay effects were producing much clearer and more discrete repeats than their mechanical predecessors. Today most manufacturers adhere to a simple rule of thumb, when naming their products:

  • An echo is a warm-sounding effect that strives to emulate the organic, and slightly unpredictable, sound of vintage tape and drum echoes. Many effects offer multiple (virtual) heads that can feed part of their signal back into the input for rhythmically complex repeat clusters.
  • A delay is an effect that offers clearer, discrete repeats, with no wow and flutter. Analogue delays hark back to the earliest delay units, which used bucket-brigade circuits that would deliver quite crunchy and quickly deteriorating repeats, while digital delays tend to give you pristine copies of the input signal.

Gilmour never used an analogue delay, jumping instead straight from an antiquated vintage Binson into the digital domain. During the Animals Tour Gilmour acquired an MXR 113 Digital Delay, one of the very first digital rack delays.

In comparison to our modern standards, the technology used in the MXR seems almost primitive. Because the digital chips used in this unit haven’t been produced for years anymore, faulty units can’t be repaired, which is why there are hardly any left in action.

Because it’s almost impossible to listen to an MXR 113 these days, I felt I had to get to the bottom of how the delay was functioning. This would be the delay unit used on Pink Floyd’s next – and probably best-known – album, where Gilmour virtually reinvented his sound. How can you replicate these sound with our modern-day equipment?

I asked Janne Paasonen for help. He dug up the schematics of the original MXR 113 and sent them to Risto Niska, a man who has been building effect units since the 1980s. Here’s what Risto had to say:

“Digital effects always need A/D- and D/A-convertors to function. On the MXR 113 these converters weren’t off-the-shelf chips, but rather specially designed circuits. MXR’s converters were only capable of giving you a 5-bit resolution with 10 dB of dynamic range. At the devices longest delay rate of 300 milliseconds, the sample rate would drop to a measly 3 kHz, which means that the audio would only go up to 1.5 kHz.”

Due to the harsh technical limitations of this vintage digital delay the repeats it produced couldn’t have been especially crisp. This is what Gilmour’s guitar tech, Phil Taylor, had to say about the device:

“Dave likes it, because, despite it being a digital effect, it still sounds quite dirty and greasy, very much like a tape echo.”

It’s easy to believe that Gilmour became enamoured with this enticing mix of digital precision and analogue-type warmth. Gilmour has often stated that he likes tape echo machines, too, even if he has never used one in earnest. Risto Niska can also attest to the MXR 113’s distinctive sound:

“The repeats have to sound really dark and quite crunchy and dirty. This device was bound to have an idiosyncratic and charismatic tone.”

If you want to try these greasy tones for yourself, you can try to set the sample rate of a modern digital delay to the lower values used in the Eighties. US-maker Strymon has knows about the charm of the early digital delays, which is why its Dig pedal offers users the option to drop the “audio quality” down to 1980s levels.

You could also choose to use a digital delay pedal with the repeats EQ’ed deliberately dark, but without any additional deterioration. This is quite easy to achieve, these days, on units such as Strymon’s Timeline, which has become something of an industry standard in the field of digital delay units.

Nowadays it may seem like a step backwards to try to achieve “vintage” digital delay sounds, but back in 1978 MXR’s 113 Digital Delay was a portal into a whole new world. Its repeats may have sounded crunchy, but delay times were very precise, and the sound was much clearer than the sometimes clogged up repeats of the Echorec. This piece of equipment seems to possess that certain “something”, which is why Gilmour has relied on its tones to this day. The MXR 113 can be spotted in photos from recording sessions in 2014, for example.

PEOPLE BICKERING in public is always an embarrassing sight – especially when its grown up men being bitchy. The band was in the middle of the sessions for The Wall, and Roger Waters and David Gilmour were having lunch at an Italian restaurant with their producer Bob Ezrin, when things got to a head.

Keyboardist Richard Wright had just been dumped unceremoniously from the band. Waters hadn’t been satisfied with Wright’s musical input. Drummer Nick Mason, too, had come into Waters’ crosshairs, and was replaced for a huge part of the album by a session drummer. Now the bassist started putting the screws on his last remaining band mate, guitarist Gilmour.

Gilmour still had some stuff left over from his solo album sessions. He thought that some of the material was good and suitable for the upcoming record, but he craved additional input from the other members of the Floyd.

But Waters was adamant – he didn’t want anybody else’s material on a concept album that was so close to his heart. The story dealt with many personal traumas, such as his father’s death during World War II. Waters wanted to keep his vision “pure”, and was also strict when it came to the material sequence on the finish album.

Waters and Gilmour had decided to hire an outside producer – a first for the band – as an arbitrator to try to smoothe the tensions in the studio. Ezrin, who had produced Lou Reed’s monumental album Berlin, could see, how some of Gilmour’s material would make a perfect fit on the upcoming album. He tried to persuade Waters to reconsider, but this proved more than tricky. And tension kept being high.

In the end, Waters relented and Gilmour managed to squeeze a few of his songs onto the album. The first track made full use of his new delay unit. “Run Like Hell” is based on a rhythmic one-note pattern that would have been impossible to create with a mechanical echo unit.

Here’s an early demo version, which is still very rough, but already contains the song’s signature guitar part. The pattern is relatively easy to play, and consists of 16th notes, which are then spiced up by three to four, smoothly decaying, dotted-eighths repeats.

By using this timed delay Gilmour was able to create an arresting, primitive, even almost drum-like rhythm. The notes follow one another relentlessly, sounding like galloping horses, which slowly fade beneath a different rhythm. This song was perfected in the studio.

Early demos also reveal another interesting detail with regard to delay effects. “Another Brick in the Wall” started its life with a much less prominent guitar part (5:13).

After he had played a standard rhythm guitar part for the song, Gilmour must have realized that a clicky delay part – similar to “Run Like Hell” – would also sound well on this track. He came up with new guitar parts, and a later demo version already includes timed delays on the guitars. The song turned out to become the framework of the whole album, with the three separate parts forming pillars that anchor the rest of the songs.

The second song Gilmour offered was of a completely different nature. It had a very catchy chorus, even though Gilmour didn’t yet have any words to go with the melody. The song’s arrangement would become a constant bone of contention.

Waters had hired classically-trained composer/arranger Michael Kamen to come up with orchestral arrangements to replace the dismissed Richard Wright’s parts.

Gilmour didn’t want any orchestra on his song, he wanted to keep the verses raw and simple. Gilmour and Waters also kept on sparring over which – of two different – drum parts to choose.

In the end, Ezrin got the two to agree on a compromise. The orchestral arrangements would be limited to the choruses, while the final mix would include part comped from both drum takes.

This compromise really worked! “Comfortably Numb” is an iconic mix of intelligent storytelling, dreamlike sounds, and Gilmour’s superb guitar solo. The world wouldn’t be the same without this song.

The guitarist seems to tap into all the penned-up feelings of the sessions to talk to his bandmates with the help of the best solo he’s ever played.

Waters’ harrowing story of a Rock singer, who has to be pumped full of drugs, before being able to walk out on stage, is perfectly counterbalanced by Gilmour’s soaring lead lines. Even Waters, who has often been very dismissive of Gilmour’s talents, had to concede that the guitarist had outdone himself with this solo. It stands like a stark picture of drug-induced euphoria, after the phlegmatic beginning of the song.

Gilmour was a mere 33 years of age, when he recorded his masterpiece (4:28), which still stands as one of the best guitar solos ever committed to tape. You can look at any of the usual Best Of-lists and find “Comfortably Numb” right in the top group, along with solos by Eddie Van Halen, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix.

WATERS MAY HAVE been a despotic dictator in the studio, but you have to concede that the resulting album – The Wall (1979) – turned out to be a genuine masterpiece. In terms of its artistic vision and execution, the album turned out to be as potent as the band’s The Dark Side of the Moon from the beginning of the decade.

Pink Floyd defied conventions by not touring the album massively. They only presented the album in full in three live concerts in three cities – London, Dortmund, and New York – spread over almost a-year-and-a-half. They played a few regular shows, too, clocking up 31 shows in total. By now their shows were massive undertakings, which led to the band actually losing money in the process. Ironically, because he was hired as a touring musician and paid by the day, Richard Wright did quite well out of the tour.

Gilmour served as musical director for those shows. The whole concert was a tightly scripted and timed affair. In this documentary, you can watch him testing his equipment during soundcheck (4:56-5:30).

Some of the concerts were also filmed for later use in the movie. But to Waters’ great disappointment, the resulting takes turned out to be unusable for the largest part. Due to some technical error most filmed takes had been underexposed, making Waters look like a demon, which made our little “sandbox dictator” throw one of his raging fits. These snippets are the only released takes from the whole project.

After having taken the meaning of the term “perfectionist” to new heights during the making of the album, Waters next set his sights on making the motion picture version of The Wall. He wasn’t much of an actor, which is why the leading role went to another musician, Bob Geldof.

During the film’s shooting Waters went into control freak mode, which is why the film’s director, Alan Parker, finally had to sent him off on a “vacation”, in order to get the movie finished. The film version of The Wall had its global premiere in May 1982 at the Cannes Film Festival.

Despite both the record and the film being very successful, the band was still reeling financially, due to the high cost of their previous concert production.

Waters demanded that his work would only been shown in such venues, where all concert goers would be able to have a clear view of the spectacle. The Floyd’s American promoter offered them a huge sum, if they were willing to agree to a tour of US stadiums. Gilmour and Mason were eager to go.

To their chagrin Waters vetoed the whole idea instantly. He claimed that the whole album’s point was to show how irrational the whole idea of stadium concerts was, and that his traumatic experiences on the previous tour had prompted him to write the album. The others were stunned by Waters’ decision, and the band was close to breaking up.

THE START OF the Falklands’ War in April 1982 brought things to a head. The war was painful for the whole of Britain, but disastrous for the Floyd.

Roger Waters, whose father had died in WWII, felt that the war was further proof that the Victorian class society still held Britain tightly in its grip. He retreated to the studio to concoct Pink Floyd’s next album from outtakes of the Wall sessions.

David Gilmour was told in no uncertain terms that his compositional skills were not needed. He had virtually no input in the final album. Waters was on his own crusade against Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whom he saw as a dangerous warmonger.

Gilmour’s guitar part was lifted straight off demo recordings, Richard Wright was not involved at all, and Nick Mason’s original drum parts were few and far between. The resulting album, The Final Cut (1983), is, to all intents and purposes, Roger Waters’ first solo record.

Because Waters still refused to play shows with the other members of Pink Floyd, the band had more or less disbanded. The judicial battle over the rights to the name Pink Floyd only served to pull the band’s former leaders further apart. The scars would prove too deep to ever heal completely.

PINK FLOYD’S APPEARANCE at Live 8 set much speculation in motion. Would Gilmour and Waters be playing together again? Sadly it was not to be. This set turned out to be the final appearance of the classic line-up of the Floyd. The last, lingering hopes of a possible reunion were dashed by Richard Wright’s death in 2008.

Roger Waters took The Wall-spectacle on tour in 2010. In terms of guitar sounds the tour would prove to be very interesting. In Gilmour’s stead the guitarist’s seat was held down by Dave Kilminster, who was required to give a very faithful reading of Gilmour’s classic parts.

Even though Gilmour wasn’t involved, I decided to I had to go and see the show. Their appearance in Helsinki was fantastic, which is why I had to watch the concert a second time a year later.

The Wall-tour lasted for three years, and there were repeated rumours on the internet that Gilmour might make an appearance at some point. In the end, these rumours turned out to be true. Six years after the Floyd’s Live 8 set, Gilmour stepped onstage with his former bandmate.

It was a night to remember, and you could see many crying fans at the venue. Gilmour appeared to play “Comfortably Numb”, the song that once had been such a bone of contention, but over time had become a classic. This final joint appearance seemed to have let Waters’ and Gilmour’s story come full circle. The last chorus and the build-up to the final guitar solo starts at 5:10.

THE ENDLESS RIVER – the final album by one of the most influential groups on the planet – was released in November 2014. Some fans were confused, because they saw the record as a cynical attempt to cash in on the famous band’s name for a final time. Personally, I like the record very much. This album is very much a part of the band’s musical heritage, even if Roger Waters has not been involved.

The album was based on and inspired by material recorded during the sessions for Division Bell (1994), back when the late Richard Wright was still very much involved with the Floyd. His sounds were an integral part of the sonic fingerprint of this group, just like Gilmour’s guitar playing. The main purpose of The Endless River was, no doubt, to honour Wright’s memory. You shouldn’t forget Nick Mason’s importance in inspiring Gilmour, either.

This album fits perfectly into Gilmour’s recent output, which features a gracefully aging gentleman producing fine music that is pleasing to the ears. Gilmour’s music had been strongly leaning in a dreamy and flowing direction – some would call it Ambient – over the previous decade. For me, The Endless River rekindled my passion for Gilmour’s guitar playing, and I don’t seem to tire of the album, because the man’s playing and his sounds reach almost epic proportions (2:18).

MANY GUITARISTS strive to emulate Gilmour’s unbelievingly beautiful playing style. In terms of ethereal beauty he is in a league of his own, even though many have tried – and still are trying – to follow in his footsteps. It is worth noting that Gilmour has never stopped honing his craft. His music and his playing has only become even deeper and more evocative. When I recently compared his playing on a live recording from the PULSE era (1994) to Gilmour’s most recent output, it almost seemed like the difference between apprentice and master.

One main cornerstone of Pink Floyd's special sound is the band’s deliberate use of a lot of reverbs and delays. Guitarists know that Gilmour has always use relatively many different pedal effects. Guitar forums the world over are filled with fierce discussions on the subject of which effect was use where and what the specific settings were.

When The Endless River was released, photos in the press showed clearly that Gilmour had added several new delay pedals to his collection. It is interesting to note, that even at age 60, the guitar legend is still into checking out new gear like an up-and-coming guitar hero. Many of the 40-something musicians I know claim that they have found their sound, and they stick slavishly to the pedals they’re used to. Gilmour seems to have a different take on things. You have to feed your imagination and search for inspiration by experimenting.

Could anybody sound like Dave Gilmour, provided he (or she) just could lay their hands on the “correct” period-specific effects – such as the Echorec – which he has used on Pink Floyd’s records? I don’t think so. If you don’t even come close to sounding like Gilmour, even though you’re using the aforementioned Strymon Timeline pedal, the solution must lie somewhere else.

We could also ask ourselves does Gilmour himself even know what is so special about his sound? His guitar tech will probably know a lot more on this subject than any of us. Here’s what he had to say in an interview with the Guitarist magazine in February 2015:

“Dave knows his sounds are special, but he doesn’t like to show off. A part of his touch comes from his big fingers and his strong hands."

"A guitarist’s touch is his calling card, the way he approaches his instrument and its strings. Gilmour also has a special sense of phrasing, in the way he decides on whether to play before, behind or right on the beat."

"But Dave’s decisions aren’t conscious – he simply plays. This is what we all do, we play. Yet he has a special magic ingredient to his playing. I’ve listened to countless other guitarists playing the solo off “Comfortably Numb”, but nobody has ever sounded exactly like Dave. He owns this sound – simple as that!”

I googled the internet for older interviews with Phil Taylor and found similar statements:

“He is unbelievable in how in-tune he is and how he always finds the right micro-intervals. David hits his bluesy bends right on the head and then uses his delay to make it sound bigger and more beautiful. He plays each note a just the right time, and his bends are perfectly timed to each song’s rhythm."

"I find it rather amusing, that some people think they could copy his sound, simply by buying the same effect pedals, guitars and amps. In actual fact you could copy his equipment perfectly, but you cannot copy his personality!”

BEING AS GILMOUR is such an admired guitarist, does he think he is fully developed? I don’t think so. Listening to the last Pink Floyd album and his solo record, Rattle That Lock (2015), makes it very clear that the master is still pushing forward, he is still learning and developing.

You have to admire this man’s dedication and perseverance. In an interview with Guitar World, over 25 years ago, Gilmour has said the following:

“There is no magic effect or special ingredient that makes me sound like I do. To be honest, I don’t even remember many of the signal chains that I have used on classic tracks in the studio. I could walk into the next music store, buy an off-the-peg guitar, grab a few regular pedals, choose a regular amp, and still sound just like myself. My sound isn’t about custom-made equipment. My sound is in my fingers.”

About 20 years later, talking to the same magazine in 2009, Gilmour talked about his sound, and said almost the same thing:

“To be honest, I don’t really know – or care – so much about these things anymore. Often I’m not even sure which way my signal is routed exactly. I’ve said this many times before, and I’ll say it again: I could step into any guitar shop around the corner, get the things I need easily, and the result would be just great!”

His 63-year old self was repeating the same things he had said 20 years earlier, just like a mantra. Knowing that the man seems like a genuine connoisseur of delay effect, who will try most new pedals, this seems a bit weird. Is he still buying all those pedals for inspiration, or is there some sound in his head that he is still looking for?

FINDING YOUR OWN sound is a lifelong journey for most musicians. You can be as technically advanced as you like, but your career won’t ever truly take off, if all you do is imitating other guitarists. Regardless of this fact, far too many guitarists waste their time by trying to sound like somebody else. When he stepped up to the plate, David Gilmour deliberately chose a different path. Even though he had to fill Syd Barrett’s shoes, he never considered copying his predecessor’s sounds.

As long as a human being feels that he or she is improving in doing the thing they like doing the most, chances are the flame of passion will never die. I’m not sure, whether I will be as enthusiastic about anything, as Gilmour continues to be about his guitar playing. I hope so. There’s still so much to explore.

I could try by practicing string bending, until I’m able to control my bends perfectly, and until I can release them smoothly and in perfect time. Or I could try playing simple melodies, for a change, and really focus on the emotions that I want to put across. Play, so that each note means something. Maybe my own sound has been much closer than I’ve ever realized all these years. In my own head.

24.6.2015 Kimmo Aroluoma (updated 19.7.2020)

The writer is the owner of Custom Boards Finland. He is a veteran guitar tech who has toured for years with Finnish bands HIM, Amorphis, Michael Monroe, The Rasmus, and Von Hertzen Brothers. Today he designs pedalboards and runs his own webshop in Helsinki, Finland.


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