Ritchie Blackmore

by Paul Guy

Interview for FUZZ #2/98

© Paul Guy 1998

Blackmore's Night website

Ritchie Blackmore and Candice Night had just released the album "Shadow of the Moon" when this interview took place.

This is a very interesting turn-up for the books, to hear you playing Renaissance music - they tell me this is something you've been wanting to do for years?

- Yeah - I've loved this music since the 1970's. I often play it with my friends, privately, and it wasn't until a couple of years ago, someone said, why don't you make a CD of that, cause they really liked it, and I went, yeah, that's a good idea. That's how it came about really, but it's not new to me, any of my close friends know that I always listen to and play that music much more than rock'n'roll.

It makes sense to me, because I think I hear the influences in what you've done in rock'n'roll.

- That's right, yeah, it's just played a lot louder on the electric guitar, but it's very similar really, the scales and everything.

Yeah, you've always had that kind of feel and taste in what you've done.

- That's right. Exactly.

How long did you spend working on the album and the songs, was it a long project?

- We took - I think it was two months recording, and Candice and I had been writing basically two years before that, just putting odd songs together.

You've been working with Candice for a while now, haven't you?

- That's right, it probably started about three or four years ago - she would interpret any of the ideas that I had - cause I'd often say, sing this a minute, I just want to hear how it sounds. And the more she did it, the more I thought, well maybe I'll use her. That's how it all started.

Her voice certainly suits it.

- Yeah. She's got a great voice, very lilting, very melodic, sweet. We were after that sweet sound, I was always very impressed with Michael Oldfield's stuff, some of that stuff, and there was one song in particular, "Moonlight Shadow" - we often used to play that at parties - and we thought, we'll have to write one like that, so we wrote "Shadow Of The Moon". So - thanks to him!

On the album cover it says you were using Fender, Alvarez, Taylor and Washburn guitars. Could you tell me a little more about them?

- Most of it was the Alvarez. Some of it was the Taylor - obviously the Fender guitar was the electric stuff. Basically the guitars were just miked up in the studio, but live I use a Seymour Duncan Woody pickup. That is what I find is the closest to what I like to hear. It's very difficult amplifying an acoustic guitar properly - especially since I'm used to playing loud, and if I turn the thing up to get a little bit of resonance, it starts feeding back. I've still got all my problems to work out there. Of course this was done in the studio, so it was just a mike on the guitar. I'm not sure which mike we used.

The Taylor has a bad habit - if you leave it in a room at the wrong temperature, it goes berserk. Starts buckling up and all sorts of things.

I've got a feeling they make them a little bit too light, trying to get the maximum amount of sound out of them.

- Exactly. That's the problem.

The Japanese tend to make sure they're going to stay in one piece, and so on.

- That's it, exactly. My Alvarez is really good. But the Taylor just goes berserk. The action is too high one second, and the next day it'll be down so that it's - phew. It's just so hard to deal with. But that's true, they make it too light, and it's just not supporting that neck.

I have to ask you about your signature model Fender... when did that come about?

- About six months to a year ago - there's two out, one with three pickups, and one with two. The three-pickup one is just like my standard Strats, with just the pickup cover in the middle position. But they put out one that I designed, too, cause I wanted to make the whole guitar out of one piece of wood, not the bolt-on thing. It has really big frets, and just the two pickups on it, and a two-way switch.

Not a three-way?

- No, I never use the two pickups together. I always thought that was a really thin sound. That's the sound Mark Knopfler gets.

What about the scalloping? You are one of the first people I can ever remember doing that...

- Yeah - for what it's worth, I was the first one to do it - everybody thought I was crazy... I did that way back, in about '69, I suppose. And then John McLaughlin did it in about '75. And then of course they alll started doing it after that. I always thought that it was the right thing to do, because you find that, when you're playing a Fender especially, you push the string over, and you're hoping it's going to hang there, cause it starts to drift under the finger. And I'd think, well. surely it should be more concave, so that you can really push it over and keep it there, and feel confident that the string is going to stay up there.

I guess you might never have done it if they'd had those big frets you can get now back then.

- Yeah, that's true. Once they got the big frets it became much easier to play.

I also thought I caught you playing a bit of electric slide on a couple of the numbers.

- Yeah. I like playing slide. It's kind of a - sometimes it's like an easy way out for me, I prefer the slide, but sometimes you can be very lazy playing that style. It's usually my last resort, to play the steel. But a lot of times it works, it adds that sustain, obviously, with the metal bar, but it's much easier for me to play that way.

You use a metal slide?

- Yeah. I use it like a Hawaiian steel though, I don't play it like a bottleneck, over my finger, I use it grasped in the hand.

Do you use a bar, or a tube?

- A tube. But I use it like a bar. Most people would play it like the bottleneck style, but I find you can get a better vibrato by grasping it, because you move the whole wrist and hand, as opposed to just a finger, which is little bit more jerky.

I guess you remember back in London in the 60's when Pete Dyke used to demonstrate the steel guitars down on Charing Cross Road...

- He was very strange, cause when I went into the guitar shop - Jim Marshall's shop in Ealing, when I was 15 - and I wanted to buy the Gretsch guitar, and he said, "No, no, you don't want to buy the Gretsch guitar, you want to buy this" and he got the Gibson out, and I said, "No, I really like the Gretsch ", he's going, "No, no, you don't want the Gretsch, listen to this". And after about an hour I walked out - with the Gibson... Great guitar.

Is that the 335 that I heard you kept under the bed?

- That's it, yeah - that was Pete Dyke's fault! I could not convince this guy I wanted the Gretsch! And after a while I went, "OK, I'll take the Gibson then!" He did talk me into it. And Jim Marshall, of course, he was the guy that ran the shop, he was a drum teacher - and of course he invented the Marshall amp.

Yeah, him and Ken Bran.

- That's right.

I worked at the Marshall factory one summer...

-Did you?

Yeah, I was putting the Tolex on the cabinets...

- Really? I remember going up there a couple of times, and I used to blast out, because they'd say to me, "Come up and try the amps", but obviously if you're going to try an amplifier out, you want to try it out as loud as you're going to play on stage, so I'd be blasting out, and all the women would down tools and start complaining, saying they're not going to assemble the amplifiers with me there! And then Jim Marshall would arrive, saying, "I knew you were here, I could hear you down in the offfice" - across the road!
But they had a hell of a time trying to duplicate - I wanted a sound like a Vox, my AC30, which was perfect. But it wasn't politically correct, it wasn't a Marshall, so they tried everything. And you know what they did in the end, after six weeks of trying to copy it? They put the Vox in a Marshall cabinet... And I used to use that on stage, in the combo amp - it looked like a Marshall, but it was a Vox.

To tell you the truth I never got along with Marshalls.

- No. It took me ages just to warm up to a Marshall. But it just - it looked really good, didn't it? But it was really hard to play, the sound was just totally uninspiring. You had to really get a good preamp to boost the signal to get a bit of an overdrive sustain - I found that there was just nothing there.
I changed the whole Marshall circuit - I went there, and the guy was adding resistors, all sorts of things in front of me, and he said, "Don't you dare tell anybody else how this is done, we're not going to do this for anybody else". And they put an extra output stage on to just give it more sustain. I did have the loudest amp in the world, it was like 280 pure watts. That was the secret - "Don't you tell anybody how we did this for you, because we'll just say that we never did it, if they come here and they want the same!"
It took me ages to get used to them, but they looked so good, you had to get used to it. I like the smaller amps, with one or maybe two speakers. As soon as it gets to four, or eight speakers, it gets overwhelming, it's just too fucking loud. I'm glad it's gone back to the smaller amps, and not just big showy things, cause there was a time when you just couldn't be serious if you went on stage without about three stacks behind you. That was the wall of sound that had to be there.

You have had quite a lot to do with those Engl amps, how did that come about?

- It was in Connecticut about ten or twelve years ago, and this guy said, "Try this amp out", and it was a very small amp. And I thought, well, I need a small amp, with a big sound. So I tried it out, and I really liked it. And I got to know the people came from Germany, and I spoke to them and then they built one, a bigger amp, and I just got together with them, basically.

Did you have a lot of input in the design?

- No, I didn't - they did it more on coming to see me and hearing my sound, the design was totally theirs. In fact I want them to build a small amp for acoustic guitar, like those little Crate amps, with all the delays and effects in it, cause they make great amplifiers - for loud musicians I think they're the best. Much better than Marshalls.

You've always had a very individual guitar sound, you can always hear - "Yeah, that's Ritchie" - where did you get it from? What do you attribute it to?

- Well, being brought up on a Vox amplifier, I suppose, and trying to emulate that sound - but trying to get it louder. As you know, the Vox, you could get sustain, but you also got a true note, and the two don't normally go together. You usually get that grungy sound, or that fuzzy sound, when what you really want is sustain. And I always used to want a clean sound, but with sustain. Jeff Beck used to get it, too. And so I knew it was possible. I think it's just an ear sound, you're just not content until you track that sound down. The Marshall took me forever trying to get the sound, but it helped when I used this tape recorder that was just lying around the house as a preamp, and overloaded that signal on the input stage, and it seemed to work.

I used to use a Copicat echo to do that.

- Yeah, that's a similar principle. You just boost the signal a bit. You can take it down on the output, on the input you really turn it up, so it's not getting louder, it's getting a bit more distortion. Of course, if there was too much, it would be fuzzy, but it's that fine line between the two things.

No, you never sounded like fuzzbox or distortion box.

- No. I never used them. I have a tendency that while I'm playing, I don't change my level, either. If I'm playing rhythm, I'll be playing like a bass part, with a dampened right hand, so the notes are kind of stopped, and then when it comes to the solo, I just let the notes ring out. But then I'll go back to the dampened right hand, I never play your full Beatles chords, you know, you'll see George Harrison playing the bar chord - to me, I would play the triad - well, actually just the fifth, and then an octave up from the root note - I just play those three notes, when you're playing that loud, you can't knock out a big loud G major chord. I never played those chords that George Harrison would play - big chords, like on "Taxman". We were playing so loud that just one note on the guitar was sufficient - if you wanted to play a chord, then it would become - two notes.

I talked to Steve Morse when he was here last year with Purple, he had a lot of nice things to say about your playing.

- He's a great guitar player himself - people often say, "Oh, they've got this guy in Deep Purple now..." and I just say, look, you know, I left - that's nothing to do with me, the guy is a brilliant player. I'm surprised - he's a really good guy, I'm surprised that he can take the nonsense that goes on in the band. But maybe he's the man for it... It's like a marriage - if you're with a band for seven years, you can get to despise them, you know! All their little habits just get blown out of proportion.

Did you ever consciously think about putting like Bach scales in what you did, or did it just happen?

- I think it was a bit of both - I mean, I listened to Bach all the time, so I suppose subconsciously it was there. I love that minor, dramatic, majestic feel that he gets on a lot of his stuff. For instance, like "Toccata and Fugue", that's very intense, and I think that in a way reflects rock'n'roll - he was a rock'n'roller of his time.

It's nice to hear you say that, cause I always used to say about Bach and Beethoven, a lot of their stuff is based around the three-chord-trick...

- Oh yeah, and a lot of it is power. That majestic power stuff. Not tinkly stuff like say, Liszt, or Chopin.

I really liked a lot of that stuff you did on "Concerto for Group and Orchestra", I still listen to that record sometimes, I like it.

- Really? I had trouble with that, I didn't enjoy doing it. It was more of a gimmick - I didn't really feel that the music was that substantial, I didn't feel that the melodies were there, I thought it was all a bit - very gimmicky, and it was a way of getting into the papers.

I got the impression from the record that Paicey was the one who enjoyed himself most.

- He might have done, yeah.

Cause he played some lovely drum solos on that record.

- Yeah, indeed.

Coming back to the new record, are you going to be out on the road promoting it now?

- Yeah, I hope so - we're rehearsing down in the basement at the moment, and there's the two girls in the band, and three guys.

What's the live lineup going to be, instrumentally?

- There's a girl plays guitar or bass, and we have keyboards and a drummer. So it's very similar to the normal setup. We have a synthesizer doing all the flutes and cellos and that stuff. Otherwise we'd have about sixteen people, I think.. To make it kind of a viable unit, we keep it to five, the basics.

I like your outfit on the album cover...

- Oh yeah, it's a great outfit, isn't it?

Yeah, it's really cool!

- I love all that dressing up stuff. It's like, in for a penny, in for a pound... I just love dressing up, I've always been a savage, or a crusader, or something like that! I've been a musketeer, too, in Germany. It reminds me of those days. I just love dressing up, it gives it that - something.

Well I guess when it comes down to it, Neil Christian and the Crusaders, Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages, and Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, they were the first bands to ever do anything like that.

- That's right. I loved Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. I always wanted to be in the Pirates so that I could dress up in the costume. I always thought that loooked so good. But today, you know - you've got these guys in the T-shirts and the baseball caps turned backwards, and it just doesn't make it. The long shorts, or the short longs...it just does not make it. I love that Renaissance dressing up - we're always going to fairs over here and having friends around and having Renaissance parties.

I never had you tabbed for being an Elizabethan freak, but obviously...

- Yeah, that's true. That was always way back in my subconscious, in those early days...

You've always had this very strong classical influence. You started off on classical, didn't you?

- I did, for about nine months to a year. It got me off on the right foot, but I found it a little bit too - boring. It's also very difficult to play, some of that Segovia stuff - playing "Gavotte" by Segovia was not music for me then. I got through the first page and I thought, "Mmm - that's enough... it's too difficult for me."

I think that comes through quite distinctly in a lot of your electric work, the rock'n'roll work. God knows how many hours I spent filing away at (sings beginning of solo from "Highway Star") in my room - and I still can't play it!

- (Laughs) Yeah, that's basically a Bach thing.

It is - that's just the most representative on of what I was trying to say. I can fix the first sixteen bars, but when it gets to the fast bit - I just can't get my fingers to go that fast.

- It's not important! That speed thing got really out of hand the last ten years. I don't like hearing that speed when there's no phrasing, or no melody.

Another thing I liked was that thing you did on the "Tribute To Hank Marvin" - I guess you enjoyed doing that one?

- Well, he's always been a hero of mine, back when I was 12 or 13 I used to copy all his stuff - but we got in the studio, and funnily enough, we thought we'd just knock it off, cause I knew the tune, I thought, this is going to take five minutes. Of course, that's the famous last words - "This is a five minute job..." We got in the studio, and it took like 24 hours, in this really awful studio that had this horrendous buzz, and we couldn't get rid of this buzz - and I had to play in such a way that every time I stopped playing I had to turn the volume down, cause there was just so much noise going on.

Oh, what a drag.

- Yeah - and we couldn't believe that this guy had a professional studio - we had like a day booked in there, and we were kind of lumbered, it was like well, "What are you going to do about it?" And this guy is going, "Oh, well, we have all sorts of people here", and we were like, "How can you have professional people here with this racket you've got?" God knows what it was. We tried everything we could to get around it, but we couldn't, so in the end, I said, you know what, fuck it, I'll just play. And I played it, I was like gritting my teeth, and I was really pissed off, trying to coax out this melodic little number... But I was pissed off. And I think back, after hearing back, I thought, God, I could have done this so much fucking better. But it was - at that point, it was, "Let's just do anything, and get the hell out of here."

I think it comes out pretty well anyway.

- Yeah, it wasn't bad, but it's just one of those numbers I know I could have done so much better. Great, great song.

Yeah, it's a classic. I loved Brian May's version of "FBI", too. And - don't take this the wrong way, but my favourite tune on there is "The Stranger", with Bela Fleck ...

- Really?

Yeah, I think that is amazing! I never heard anybody play a banjo and make it sound nice before...

- Right - I heard a guy over here doing the same thing, playing Bach on a banjo, and it worked - I couldn't believe it.

But anyway, I thought your version of "Apache" worked really well, you surprise me when you say you were pissed off playing it, I would never have sussed that out.

- If you listen to it carefully, you'll hear the buzzing - it was one of those really horrendous buzzes, you know, when you hear this buzz, you know you're in for trouble, it's not just, "Oh, it's a buzz, we can rectify that..." You just know it's all over. Experience tells you, just leave. You can't sort that out.

And you must have looked forward to doing that, I would have thought...

- Yeah, I did - I thought, "Oh, yeah, I'd like to do this." I knew the song inside out, and I was trying to think of a different way of approaching it, and I thought, well, it had to have basically the old feel, so we did it just a little bit different, but not much.

I thought that was what was nice about the record, that everybody kind of put their own thing into it, and didn't try to copy Hank. Cause I mean, you can't copy Hank, can you.

- No... I don't like to do - a lot of these tribute things come along, but I usually turn them down, cause you can get carried away with that nonsense. "A Tribute to AC/DC" - it's like, "Wait a minute... I really don't like that band!" I think one or two is enough.

What are your plans for Rainbow in the future?

- I'll probably put a whole new band together next year. This one - we've been together for two years, and that's long enough. It's amazing, you know, when you first meet guys when you're getting a band together, everybody's so humble... And you do a few dates, and people really change, the old ego sets in. And there's only room for one big ego, and that's mine! (laughs) It's amazing how people change. Most of the time throughout my history, I'll be with someone for three or four years, and then it gets really difficult.

Who were your first real influences on the guitar?

- I suppose I'd have to say the very first one would be Tommy Steele - on the Six-Five Special... (50's BBC TV programme) And then it went to Hank Marvin. And then to people like Django Reinhardt, who I pretended I could understand, but I couldn't really understand when I was 14. I just knew that he was incredibly good.

My first guitar was called a Six-Five Special - cheap roundhole plywood Italian thing, with an action like a cheesecutter...

- My first guitar was a Framus, it cost 7 guineas. My Dad bought it for me, he threatened to smash it over my head if I didn't learn to play it!

I guess your Dad must be pretty proud of you now...

- Yeah, but you know what English Dads are like - they don't often say what they think, they just pull you on the mistakes.

I know what you mean... Are you going to be coming to Sweden at all?

- Yeah, I hope so - I like playing in Sweden. In fact most of the bands I like come from Sweden. You know a band called One More Time? I really like them, they play some good stuff. A lot of great melodies, that's so important to me.

Do you like blues players at all?

- Yeah. I used to like Shuggie Otis, he was the first one who came along for me who struck me as having - he didn't just play the usual notes that those guys play, he played a bit more, and it was very tasteful.

What else do you listen to nowadays?

- Probably just Renaissance music. I never really listen to rock'n'roll - maybe Brother Cain, but that's about it. Everything else is just built around novelty time, isn't it? You can't take MTV seriously. It has absolutely nothing to do with music.

I certainly hope you'll be able to get a better acoustic sound than most of them do on Unplugged!

- Oh, right, yeah. But it is difficult getting a good acoustic sound. I've got a Crate amplifier I'm using, with all the effects, it's great at very low volume, but when you have a band and start to turn it up, it's difficult to control. It reminds me of the old days, when the feedback starts, and you have to take all the bass off, and you're left with this horrible sound, but it's not feeding back. I've tried a lot of the effects and stuff that you can buy, but they don't seem to work properly.

You've never used any effects, really, have you?

- Not a lot. I still have trouble with the stuff that I have. And I know that every so often I'll start using effects, and they just fall apart. They always let you down just when you need them. I use the synthesized octave thing, and that usually lets me down - just when I get used to it. So I have it there for show, you know - you kick it in, and it just falls apart. It's amazing how all these effects, you think it's a great sound, and you rely on that sound for one particular song, that's it - you'll come to that song, and on the night, bang, it's gone.

What strings are you using these days?

- Anything I can get my hands on - but I'm endorsing Dean Markley, and I use those on the acoustics. I use Picato for the electrics.

You're still using Picatos? They were the first string sets to come out in England with a plain third, weren't they?

- (Laughs) Yeah, that's right! I like them. I heard that they went bankrupt and were out of business, so I didn't use them for a couple of years, but then I found out they were still going. So I just got more strings from them. On the electrics I use 010, 011, 013, 024, 034, and I usually like an 048 on the bottom. But the acoustics, I use bigger strings, I like a 050 on the bottom.

Do you remember when we all used to charge down to Clifford Essex and buy those 008 banjo strings?

- Yeah, it was Clapton who turned me on to those - I said, what are you using, and he told me about these Clifford Essex strings.

What's your position on vintage guitars, compared to new ones?

- I love the look of vintage guitars. I have a vintage guitar book open in front of me. I love the Gretsch DuoJet, and I love the old black Les Pauls from the 50's. But to me, I think they're fantastic looking, but I don't see any difference in playing. I tend to go with the 70's Fenders, they're just as good. I would go into guitar shops and people would say, "Oh, this is a 1958 Telecaster", and I'd go, "How much is it?", and they'd say three or four grand, and I'd play it, and say - "This is awful! Dreadful piece of shit!" But because it was so old, they'd want the world for it, and I didn't get that. It was like a form of snobbery, you get that musical snobbery. I love the look of this DuoJet, and I'm thinking I'd love to have one of those, but I know if I bought one, I'd be looking at it going, "What the hell did I ever see in this, other than the way it looked in the shop window?"

You've always been famous for playing Strats - what about soundwise, do you think there's any difference with the old ones? Personally I think a new Strat is much nicer to play than one of the 58's...

- Yeah, I know, that's what I think. I don't agree with this myth that the old ones sound better. I think it's all in the hands and the head, it's not really in the guitar. I think guitars have got better - but like I say, I love the look of the old ones, I remember when I was a kid, and I'd look in the shop windows at a Gretsch Anniversary, or a Tennessean, they just looked amazing.

© Paul Guy 1998

Blackmore's Night website