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David Gilmour: "A Saucerful of Strings" - Guitar Player, Jan 2003

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A SAUCERFUL OF STRINGS (David Gilmour's Chamber Odyssey) by Darrin Fox

Rock musicians exploring classical instrumentation is nothing new. Deep Purple did it. Ditto for Metallica, ELP, and new-wavers ABC. Hell, ELO made it part of their sound. The musical success of these collaborations is a purely subjective judgment, but one thing is for sure -- when the words "classical" and "rock" appear in the same sentence, the term bombastic is usually not far behind. Thankfully, tastefully executed classical rock does exist, as the music on legendary Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour's new DVD, David Gilmour In Concert [Capitol] demonstrates.

Filmed at London's Royal Festival Hall during the 2001 Meltdown Festival, the 130-minute DVD shows a gloriously successful pairing of classical music's highbrow aesthetic and rock's organic power. Piano, double bass, cello, percussion, and, occasionally, a second guitar and a gospel choir are used to present music as diverse as Pink Floyd classics and a Bizet aria with an understated elegance.

In addition, the classical elements are not employed to impart an air of puffed-up sophistication, but rather to bring out the inherent beauty of songs such as "Comfortably Numb".

In Concert isn't all about rock music with classical overtones, however. Gilmour also performs several tunes with just an acoustic guitar, and in these solo settings, he demonstrates why he deserves to be included with Clapton, Beck, and Page among British guitar royalty. David Gilmour In Concert is a wonderful document of a rock legend pushing himself and his music in new directions.

How did you go about choosing the material for the shows?

I went through the entire Pink Floyd catalog, and I picked the tunes I liked. Then, after I figured out which ones would work with the instrumentation I had in mind, I spent about three months fiddling around in my home studio mocking up the arrangements.

How did you decide on the instrumentation?

The lineup came to me in a flash of inspiration. After I thought of it, however, I wasn't sure how to go about making it work -- that was tricky.

What was so tricky?

Well, I discovered that the instruments I chose for most of the songs -- like "Comfortably Numb," for instance -- are used to a fuller treatment than I was anticipating. Taking that tune and making it work with guitar, piano, cello, and plucked double bass was quite a challenge.

How did you decide on which guitar to cast for a particular song?

I stuck largely to what was on the original recordings. However, on "Comfortably Numb" I had to change from acoustic to electric for the solo, so I threw in a few extra bars for the band to vamp along to while I did my quick-change act. I also switched to a high-strung Ovation acoustic towards the end of the song.

What was the most challenging tune in the set?

"Je Crois Entendre Encore," from Bizet's opera The Pearl Fishers. That one was seriously frightening. It was very tough to sing, and difficult for me to imagine that I wasn't kidding myself in even attempting it. Luckily, when I got the choir in my home studio, they instilled a lot of confidence in me because they immediately sounded so great. Still, both my wife and I broke into cold sweats just before the concert.

Had you ever played Pink Floyd tunes in a solo-acoustic setting before?

Never, and it was very interesting to see which ones worked. Attempting "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" with just acoustic guitar and vocal was a bit of a challenge, and it required a big delay loop for me to manage it. I created a pad underneath, and I swelled it up and down with a volume pedal. That way I had a big, ringing guitar orchestra underneath me.

What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome for the shows?

Perhaps the biggest challenge was trying to imagine what the sound out front was like. The stage volume was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Every time there was a little error it seemed like it was enormous.

If you were to study your style from the beginning of Pink Floyd to now, would there be one constant that always shows up in your playing?

I don't know if you can tie it down to one thing. My style is my style, and it was created out of an amalgamation of the folk and blues I started with -- as well as my early years in Pink Floyd when I was attempting to be a psychedelic-type guitar player. That being said, I think I always come back to certain elements of blues phraseology. The blues run pretty deep in my playing.

What do you mean by "attempting" to play psychedelic?

Well, when I joined Pink Floyd I was trying to play some of Syd Barrett's parts, yet adapt them to my own style and taste. The framework I was working in was already set, and it included a style of guitar playing that was already a part of it. It took a while for me to allow myself to stray from what I thought I should be doing.

Was there a lot of post-production work on In Concert?

Not a whole lot. My throat was a bit sore, and there were a couple of cracked notes. And not in a nice Rod Stewart way -- more like a horrible, rendering noise. So I threw in a couple of words from other rehearsals or soundchecks. That's the wonderful thing about Pro Tools. We recorded the shows on tape, but, for the repairs, we jumped over to Pro Tools, and then we went back to tape for the mixes. I think if you start off with tape and mix to tape, it adds a certain warmth that gets lost in digital.

Do you ever find yourself working with Pro Tools and thinking, "Man, I wish we had this when we made Dark Side of the Moon?"

Well, the ability you now have with technology is just unbelievable. In the early Pink Floyd days, we had bits of tape and razor blades, and a lot of sticky tape to put it all back together. At some points, we were editing multitrack tapes -- taking actual tracks out of the tape and gluing others back in.

Where does your penchant for steel guitar come from?

I've always had a jack-of-all-trades mentality. I like to be able to pick up different instruments and be competent on them. It would be nice to be good at everything, but, well, you know [laughs]. I've always loved steel guitar. I bought my first steel -- a pedal steel with no pedals -- at a junk shop in Seattle in 1968. I had to get the pedals made when I got back to England. That was the same instrument I used on "Breathe" from Dark Side of the Moon.

Everyone points to songs like "Comfortably Numb" and "Money" as being among your best guitar performances. Is there a performance you really like that people don't talk about?

There's a solo on "Dogs" [Animals] that I thought was pretty good and unusual. It hasn't entered the pantheon of the ones people seem to like because it's a slightly different style for me, I suppose. I tracked it with an old Tele, and I was really thrilled with it. Also, "Echoes" [Meddle] has a guitar buildup that I love -- it's a creation of dozens of different parts. That sort of textural thing often thrills me more than a particular solo I may have played.

When you hear that stuff does it still resonate with you?

It does. I get a charge out of thinking, "How the hell did I actually do that?" You get this out-of-body experience. You're not quite sure if it was you who did it.

Are you still collecting guitars?

Not really. One of these days, I'm going to start selling a few of them. I don't know how I managed to start collecting -- it was one of those things that just happened. It seems every nice new guitar that you get your hands on comes with a new song attached to it.

Which of your guitars has the most songs attached to it?

I guess it would be my Martin D-35. I used it on Wish You Were Here, and I've been using ever since. In fact, it's in my sitting room right now.

Do you think you'll continue in this rock chamber orchestra type of vein?

Although I think I'll make a solo record next year, I don't want to state that I'm going to use the exact lineup from David Gilmour in Concert. I like to be free to do what I want.
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