Nigel Tufnel, shattering eardrums at 11

By Sergio Ariza

What can we at Guitars Exchange say about Nigel Tufnel and Spinal Tap that hasn't already been said? We're talking about a unique guitarist, as well as one of the greatest collectors out there, someone who has a '59 Les Paul, a Black Beauty, a Fender Bass VI with the label still on that you can't play (or even look at), an L5, a '50s Flying V and dozens more unique examples - not to mention he's the sole owner of a Marshall amp that has a volume control that goes to 11, giving you that extra push in case you want to throw yourself off a cliff.   


Also, if ‘fucking Jimmy Page played guitar with a violin bow’, Nigel Tufnel ‘plays guitar with a fucking violin’ - and is able to tune it while still playing; suck it Jimmy. Tufnel is a true legend, one whose only goal, like all good rock & roll, has always been to cause maximum damage, to make your ears bleed, to change your life, though not necessarily for the better....

Tufnel was born on December 28, 1948 in Squatney, London. From a very young age he was interested in the guitar, with Les Paul being one of his first idols and with whom he played as he was growing up. His first guitar was a Sunburst Rythm King that his father gave him at the age of six. Of course, his father's ears were not prepared for the noises that Tufnel extracted from that instrument, which ended up in splinters long before
Pete Townshend smashed his first guitar.


Tufnel's life changed completely when he met his neighbor David St. Hubbins - who shared his passion for music and was just as much of a musical nerd as he was. Both were obsessed with the blues, their favorite artists being Honkin' Bubba Fulton, Little Sassy Francis and, most notably, Big Little Daddy Coleman, a guitarist who had been born deaf. While still in their teens they formed their first band, The Thamesmen, which played skiffle. Their first song, (Cry) All the Way Home, perfectly described the reception at their first gig.

They had to wait for the success of the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks, the Animals and dozens of other bands to open the door for bands like the Thamesmen to get a record deal. On their first single they quickly made clear what their maximum ambition was – as the song was called Gimme Some Money. Spinal Tap had it very clear from the beginning, here there were no double entendres, no hidden metaphors, give us some money, that's what this band has always been looking for; although at that time they were still the Thamesmen. In the end they had to remove it from the repertoire because people took it literally and threw money at them, although, curiously, they always threw coins and not bills. In fact a flying coin to the eye resulted in an infection that led to the early demise of their first drummer.


In 1967 two fundamental changes took place: the first was the entry into the band of the indispensable third member, bassist Derek Smalls; the second was the change of name, as the Thamesman became Spinal Tap. By the end of that year they felt that the money was in ‘hippism’ and 'flower power' and released Listen To The Flower People, with Tufnel's sitar solo included. The message was clear, don't talk, don't think, just listen.

Shortly afterwards Listen To The Flower People climbed to 28th in the US charts and 5th in the UK, and the band's drummer, Eric "Stumpy Joe" Childs, died choking on vomit - although it probably wasn't his own. Fame had claimed a new victim. His replacement was Peter "James" Bond with whom they would record their best known albums and songs.

The sign of the times had changed again and the fever for psychedelia was followed by the rise of hard rock and heavy metal and the appearance of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. Tufnel got his hands on a '59 Les Paul after seeing Jimmy Page with one, and soon after he was playing it with a violin - while with his leg he was playing a '61 Stratocaster. If the money was in hard rock, Spinal Tap would not hesitate to turn their amps to 11 and turn, like a weathervane, in that direction.


Their first great classic in the genre was Big Bottom, a tribute to a large part of their female audience who had huge buttocks. So Spinal Tap decided to dedicate a song to them, with a Smalls’ bass riff that is part of rock history, the moment for which he should always be remembered, almost as much (or more) than for his mythical mustache. Just by listening to that riff you have the image in front of you… the biggest ass in the world bouncing. However Queen then shamelessly plaigarised their work with Fat Bottomed Girls, but that's what always happened with Spinal Tap, they were ahead of their time and behind in everything else. But when Soundgarden did their version of the song you could see the mark of Spinal Tap in Grunge.

That song was included in Brainhammer, an album in which Tufnel's Les Paul began to show those sustained notes that can last an eternity and that, legend has it, can be heard even when he is not playing the guitar.

In the 70's the classics kept coming, like the romantically titled Swallow My Love and the not at all repetitive Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight, before their most mythical song Stonehenge; a progressive rock song in which hard rock merges with folk and mysticism. They are clear that it is their Stairway To Heaven, the song that can never be missing in their live shows, however, for most critics, quoting the words of the immortal Lester Gang, "they are like Led Zeppelin, only much worse".


Their big song was penned by Tufnel who was an expert on the famous monument. There are people who say that Stonehenge was built thousands of years ago, but no one can fool Tufnel who believes that the monument must have been built between 1920 and 1931 by a single man, and a very strong one at that - called Duncan. Possibly a druid, but then druids are among us today; who knows if Tufnel himself and his magical guitar playing ability are not a part of it? It is a monumental song, as big as the monument it talks about, as well as a history lesson.  

He also created the riff of Hell Hole, released in 1982, when sales were scarce and his popularity was fading. It is one of those riffs carved in stone by Tufnel himself. The lyrics also talk about his humble origins in a tiny house where there was not even a bathroom - when he wrote it and read it to his mates, they could see tears falling from his eyes, no wonder because, despite his humble origins, Tufnel ends up missing them, now that his butler has abandoned him and the IRS wants to give him an inspection.

In the end Tufnel leaves the band to seek a solo career, with his most famous piece from that era being a classically influenced composition, mostly by his two favorite composers Mozart and Bach - or as he prefers to call them, Mach. The song is in D minor, the saddest of all notes according to Tufnel himself - and is sublimely entitled Lick My Love Pump.


Tufnel eventually returned to Spinal Tap and got the band back to the top. He was blessed by many subsequent bands - even playing Big Bottom at Live Earth in 2008 with 28 bassists, including members of Metallica, Foo Fighters and the Beastie Boys.

Nigel Tufnel's fame is so great that he even had his own day, the 11th of the 11th in 2011, in homage to that mythical Marshall that goes up to the number 11. And some party poopers would have been happy to put more watts in the amp - and make the 10th louder - but Tufnel, and us with him, will always prefer to go up to the 11th.   

**** (Our small contribution to Innocent Day, the equivalent of April Fool’s day in spanish talking countries, arrives with special thanks to Rob Reiner, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and, above all, to Christopher Guest)