GUITAR HEROES: THE EARLY YEARS
When Ritchie Blackmore was 11 years old he persuaded his fatHer to buy him his first guitar. It cost eight pounds and became the boy's most valued possession as he practised endlessly to master it. The young lad was quick to learn... the rest, is as they say, history . Nowadays Blackmore often smashes a guitar to pieces during a concert. There are plenty more around, and besides it's a good showmanship gimmick. Unquestionably he is one of the top heavy rock guitarists and throughout his long career has delighted fans around the world.
Yet the public tend to be presented with the serious side of Ritchie Blackmore and this, coupled with his 'monster' image must leave many fans wondering what he's really like. 'It's been written that he is a man of moods, something he'd hardly deny, and he once told me: "I've always just been myself, you can often offend a lot of people by being yourself that's why live got a bad image. I like to surprise those who think I'm a bastard by being Mr Nice Guy just for the hell of it... and vice-versa. It seems I do the latter more!"
Born in Weston-Super-Mare, Blackmore was attracted to music at an early age. However, he found school in Heston to be less stimulating. "I left school when I was 15 and I couldn't wait to get out. I was like a drop out. A slight rebel I was a butly. Flashman had nothing on me! I was terrible at school and I think I was threatened with being expelled every week. I used to do athletic events like javelin throwing and swimming and they kept presenting me with all these awards. After hymns at assembly the headmaster would say: 'Blackmore's done it once more - he's put Heston up there' and I'd be given a medal for same sport. By the afternoon I'd be in his office getting the cane and being threatened with expulsion!
"I was always talking in class. I couldn't stand classes. I was always being caught out. I remember my physics teacher saying, 'Blackmore, never become a criminal' and when I asked him why he told me, 'because you look so bloody guilty all the time - don't bother'. Meanwhile, bunsen burners would be going strong and we'd have blown something else up! Happily, Ritchie took the advice of his physics' master and shunned a tife of crime. On leaving school he took on his one and only job before becoming a professional musician, which was as a radio mechanic at London's Heathrow Airport. Although he now has a host of nostalgic anecdotes to tell about that period of his life, at the time Blackmore was far more interested in guitars than the airline that employed him.
"When all the planes were out it was great fun. Everybody was doing something for the home making chairs and tables. I made a guitar!" By then he'd been playing for four years. To begin with Ritchie had a private tutor and then was taught by Big Jim Sullivan, a neighbour who played with Marty Wilde, for a couple of years.
"When I was 13 Les Paul was a great influence on my playing," he recalls. "Albert Lee was the first person I knew to have a Les Paul guitar and at the time I wanted one very badly. I thought they were incredible until they became fashionable - now I won't play one on principle. I still believe in the identity of a guitar. The Fender is harder to play because it's a very bare guitar and so you have to say a lot before it will reward you by saying something for you. These days I basically own three Fenders and two Gibsons, but I haven't played my Gibsons for years. In fact, one of them is under the bed at home! I prefer the Fender because you can really make your individual mark with it. With a Gibson, no matter who you are, I defy you, and this is going to upset a lot of people (which I usually do) to have a personality and an identity coming across."
During his early teens Blackmore played with several bands, among them the Detonators and the Safonites. After nine months at the airport, he turned professional. His first pro job, as one of Screamin' Lord Sutch's Savages, lasted for over 18 months. In 1962 he joined Mike Berry and the Outlaws, then followed a period of session work and occasional live playing with Neil Christian and the Crusaders (following Jimmy Page's departure), Heinz and countless others. In 1964 Ritchie left England for Germany to join a group called the Three Musketeers. He stayed there for several years, playing in various outfits as well as doing a good deal of session work, and has fond memories of that era.
"There was so much happening in Germany during the sixties and there were a lot of excellent musicians around at the time, I lived in Hamburg, where there were loads of clubs and plenty of places to play. Germany's very interesting and it's still one of my favourite countries in the world."
One person Ritchie met while he was in Hamburg was a young drummer by the name of Ian Paice. It was 1967 and Blackmore had started looking for possible members for a new band. At the time Paice declined an offer to team up with Ritchie since he was earning a comfortable wage with his own group and was wary of embarking on a fresh venture. By the end of the year though Blackmore returned to England and formed Roundabout with Jon Lord, Dave Curtis, Bobby Clark and former Searchers' member Chris Curtis. Eventually Paice was recruited and when the group embarked on a series of dates in Denmark, singer Rod Evans and bassist Nick Simper joined. After changing their name to Deep Purple the five musicians gigged consistently before recording an album. The band's early work however was no match for what was to surface. Indeed, it was the second line-up of Blackmore, Lord, Paice, Gillan and Glover that is always remembered as the classic formation. In 1970 they unleashed the 'In Rock' LP, which still ranks as one of the most explosive heavy metal albums of our time.
"As far as I was concerned that was the first LP," Ritchie maintains. His guitar contribution was of outstanding quality and his solo on 'Child In Time' was mind-blowing. Blackmore seemed to be the real driving force behind the band... Ritchie remained with Deep Purple until April '75, when he split to embark on Rainbow. He has of course enjoyed continual success with that outfit. Nowadays, he's happily married and lives in America, though he envisages that one day he'll become a resident of the UK once again.
"I have a very nice house and there's a lot happening musically where I'm now living. If I'm at home I usually go to a club in the evenings as there are quite a few nearby. In fact, the scene over there reminds me of what it used to be like in Britain 10 or 15 years ago. There are some very good bands and occasionally I'll go up and jam. I love playing guitar as much as I ever did and it's always fun to get on stage in a club and play some rock'n'roll or whatever. I try to practise at home and when we're on the road I always practice for a straight half-hour before a gig."
Never a fashionable guitarist, Ritchie Blackmore's influence on the rock scene has nevertheless been immense. As Guitar Player magazine recently wrote on the 'Live In London' album, one only has to hear his work on it to see where 90% of today's players got most of their ideas. Undoubtedly under pressure in the studio's when it comes to albums now he continues to reserve most of his talents for the stage. Even then it's possible to wander out of some Rainbow gigs and wonder what all the fuss is about. Catch him on one of those nights though and you're left in little doubt as to his talent; talent which continues to justify his fans loyalty and earns him the Best Guitarists slot in Sounds more often than not. This article isn't about to even attempt to try and describe the playing techniques which earn him that position though. Instead we're taking a look at some of the equipment he has used during his long career, gear which is the subject amongst those who do admire him of almost as much speculation as the man himself.
Interviews with him on the subject are rare, so we've made extensive use of archive photo's which we'll be using to illustrate many of the points raised. Ritchie Blackmore first took up the guitar when he was just eleven, strumming away on a Framus acoustic.
As it was the sound of players like Hank Marvin and Tommy Steele which first inspired him, and because he was interested in electronics, this guitar soon had numerous pickup's fitted (all right then, nailed on!). He played it first through an old radio and then a small valve amp which he fitted into a cabinet built during wood-work lessons at school. A few years later he purchased a Hofner Club 50, part exchanging this shortly afterwards for a cherry red Gibson ES 335, fitted with a Bigsby tremelo arm. It was this guitar which saw him through most of the sixties, upon which he developed his technique, and cut his first records.
His early session work is a fascinating subject in it's own right, too detailed to relate here and probably never to be completely uncovered. Anyone curious to sample it can purchase a copy of the recently re-released single 'Just Like Eddie' by Heinz on Decca, it'll give would be players hope if nothing else. This session work though was valuable experience, and by 1965/6 some of his breaks were phenomenal. Creatively though it left a lot to be desired and after a last fling with Lord Sutch's band he opted out and left for Germany taking his Gibson with him. However things proved little better there, with none of his short lived groups achieving any success. When he eventually returned to Britain at the end of 1967 it was to an embryonic Deep Purple. It was here that things began to happen on the guitar front. The story goes that Eric Clapton has passed on a somewhat knackered black Fender Stratocaster to Ritchie who'd given it a good work out.
Enamoured by the harder tone it gives in relation to the Gibson, as well as the looks of the thing, he decided it would be a more suitable guitar for the new band and the type of music he wanted to play. So, when Deep Purple's managers stumped up the pricey sum of £ 1,500 for the new group to spend on equipment. Ritchie Blackmore's share went on a Stratocaster. He didn't just ditch the old Gibson though. Realising it was going to take some time for him to fully master the Strat he used the two different makes side by side for some time. The Gibson was less used less and less and eventually dropped in early 1971. Thus Deep Purple's first three albums feature him on both guitars, and that Ritchie needed time to settle in can be heard from the rather tuneless Strat, work on their first LP 'Shades of Deep Purple'. Contrast that with the superb Gibson playing on 'The Book of Taliesyn'.
By 'Deep Purple in Rock' he'd almost switched completely, though he did pull off that remarkable solo during 'Child in Time' on his Gibson. Live, it's a little more difficult to pin-point the actual change over mainly because Mk 1 did so few British concerts. He had both guitars on stage usually, and switched as numbers suited - so for example 'Wring That Neck' was generally done on the Gibson. For amplification he was using one of the original Marshall 8 x 12 cabinets (designed to Pete Townsend's specifications for an impressive looking speaker!). He put both guitars through this although the old AC 30 combo with an extra Vox speaker which he'd used prior to Purple was still lugged about and sometimes used to amplify the Gibson. Touring with the 8 x 12 got too much and Ritchie soon switched to the combination of two 4 x 12. One story has it that he still preferred the AC 30 sound and had this built into one of the Marshall's but we can't be sure of this.
To hear Blackmore with the Gibson live is a treat, he used it so beautifully. The Deep Purple 'Concerto' album is one example and the live songs on 'Powerhouse' another. In the end though, the Gibson was mothballed, it was last sighted on a mimed Top Of The Pops appearance in late 1971. From there on it was the Stratocaster/Marshall combination, except that the story isn't quite as simple as that. Since 1968 Ritchie has been tinkering with his Stratocasters, modifying them to suit his own requirements and the particular demands his playing places on his guitars. With the arrival of Deep Purple Mk 2 for example, the band's music along with Ritchie's playing became faster and more agressive. The tremolo arm on the Strat often couldn't take the treatment, so Ritchie had his own fashioned out of steel rod to replace them. These were fitted around 1969 and kept until some time in late 1972 when he began to ease up a little, and reverted back to the standard arms. In connection with this modification the tremolo access plate was sometimes moved down the guitar body or simply removed altogether for speedy string replacement.
It has been the guitar neck which has been the most drastic modifications on Blackmore's guitars. One short lived ideas was the removal of the Fender frets to be replaced by those of a Gibson neck, these being much wider. A more lasting change though has been the hollowing out of the spaces inbetween the frets, the hollows deepening slightly towards the lower end in each space.
He has been doing this at least since 1970, the hollowing being done by a skilled lathier - Sam Li, a noted guitar craftsman, used to do the job. Once done, this allows Ritchie to bend the strings far more than normal, but it's a very precise change and can easily wreck the tuning of a guitar.
As mentioned Ritchie continued to use the Marshalls, adding a second stack during 1969. He still wasn't too happy with their sound though, and spent a lot of time at the factory having alternations made. Deep Purple at this time were helping Marshall to promote their gear and even did special gigs for them at some trade fairs.
One of Ritchie's changed was to get his amp boosted; stories of them going up to 500 watts or more abound but the truth is nearer the 250/300 watt mark. This was achieved fitting two more valves into an extra output stage. He has continued to favour these souped up 200 watt amps even though the basic model was discontinued some time ago. This discontinuation may just explain a brief experiment seen in 1974 where he had two 100 watt amps racked up on each stack. 1974 and the arrival of the third Deep Purple line-up also saw several other alternations, the most noticeable being the change over from black and sunburst models to natural wood finished ones - though his older guitars were as always kept for back-up work. By the time the band toured in Britain that year, he had a bewildering array of guitars in tow. As well as his blond ones, there were a number of left-handed guitars too.
Some were off the shell models just strung and played upside down. Other began life this way but then had all the controls moved up so that they were once more in the correct position for a right handed player! Quite why we don't know; possibly he found it easier to get down the neck with the bottleneck which after months of practise he was beginning to use live (with special clips fitted to the cabinets in which to store them), or maybe it was easier to reach the volume control to achieve the violin effect during 'Space Truckin'. The fact that he only used them on certain numbers tends to suggest this. Hendrix once said that he continued to use guitars upside down as it took about half a second off using the controls. Maybe Ritchie just liked the look of it too.
The theme was continued in a hand built guitar made by the John Birch company and featured in their catalogue for some years. It was shaped to look like a left handed Stratocaster but with the controls placed in the right handed position. They also fitted it with their own John Birch Special pick-ups, which he was trying out on other guitars too though he normally leaves the fitted pick-ups in. For some time he did remove the middle of the three pick-ups altogether as he occasionally hit the selector switch by accident altering the tone mid solo. A fiddly job, he soon found it easier to simply screw the pick-up flush with the scratch plate. 1974 also saw Blackmore road testing the Synthi Hi-Fli, an early portable guitar synthesizer - it was generally parked out of the way behind the PA. Like most other guitarists he found it to be unreliable on the road; controls set in a certain place wouldn't always produce the same sound from night to night.
In the more stable atmosphere of the recording studio though it was a different matter and Ritchie used it quite a lot on the 'Burn' album, notably on the stand-out track 'Sail Away', and was to use it later for 'Stormbringer' too. Prior to his thought he hadn't been into effects units on-stage much at all, apart from the reported use of a Hornby Skewess treble booster early on. A Revox reel to reel tape recorder arrived at the same time as the Synthi. Ritchie had converted it into an echo unit which was far more flexible than a normal echo box. It also prompted people to accuse him of miming to solo's! The Revox was later swopped for an Awai and can be heard to magnificent effect at the start of 'Mistreated' on the 'Live in London' Deep Purple album. It also appears on Rainbow's version of the same track on the 'On Stage' album, this time coupled with a phaser.
With the advent of Rainbow, Blackmore tended to branch out a bit. The Blonde Strats became all-white finished, while pictures taken the recording of the first Rainbow LP show him using a Telecaster. He even dug out his wah-wah pedal, last used (or rather over-used) on Purple's debut album. You'll need to listen very carefully to 'Snake Charmer' to hear it here, along with some hefty tremolo work. Pictures also surfaced of him rather awkwardly clutching a cello, an instrument he'd taken up in 1974 after lessons from Hugh McDowell, then in ELO, Purple's stateside support band that year.
The Yamaha acoustic also came out in the open, though he had used it on 'Stormbringer', and (if you're keeping count) he'd been playing bass once more (he did most of the bass on the 'Long Live Rock'n'Roll' album later on), though as yet we've not heard him on his drum kit.
As well as the phaser mentioned earlier he allowed him the luxury of some Taurus bass pedals, basically just a foot operated bass synthesizer to give him a few crashing chords over which he could solo (and possibly a reflection on Rainbow's earlier bassists too!). One final modification did surface around 1980, a large chrome knob on the guitar machine head (not that sort you perverts!) - Roger Glover said it had taken him months to discover it's use, the rest of us are still guessing. It's now been removed. Blackmore uses Picato strings (like the adverts say) and, they like anyone else. Normal guages are 010, 011, 014, 026, 036, 042, while his plectrum is Selmer tortois shell.
I suppose we ought to close with a brief mention of the demolition guitars. Although guitar smashing did happen in Purple days it was more often than not his day to day models which got it - hence roadies would often be sent scurrying out for pieces, especially the necks, to recycle. With Rainbow, the demolition sequence during the final encore became a planned event. This necessitated the purchase of guitars in some quantity, sometimes factory rejects, Japanese copies or whatever they could find cheap. They are obviously unmodified in any way, except to be snapped in two and tossed to the crowd!
That then is about it. Internal modification to the wiring have been made at times, especially when he was using the electronic rainbow stage prop, and it was causing a lot of problems with his amps, but such things can't be sussed just from pictures.
Maybe if there are any points arising from this article, you can drop us a line and Guitar Heroes can perhaps arrange to load Blackmore down with questions at some future date. In closing I'd like to thank Ernie Tull for his technical advice over the years, and Nick Robinson for checking this through. I'll not end with a discography, instead here's a list of the ten Blackmore solo's which have stunned me the most over the years:
'Movin' In' - HEINZ Columbia 1966
'Kentucky Woman' - DEEP PURPLE/BOOK OF TALIESYN Harvest 1969
'Why Didn't Rosemary' DEEP PURPLE/DEEP PURPLE Harvest 1969
'No One Came' DEEP PURPLE/FIREBALL Harvest 1971
'A 200' - DEEP PURPLE/BURN Purple 1974
'Hold On' DEEP PURPLE/STORMBRINGER Purple 1974
'Still I'm Sad' RAINBOW/RAINBOW Polydor 1975
'Stargazer' RAINBOW/RAINBOW RISING Polydor 1976
'Mistreated' - RAINBOW/ONSTAGE Polydor 1977
'Weiss Heim' RAINBOW/B-Side Polydor 1980
Sounds Guitar Heroes, January 1983