The humble guitar that learned to speak

By Sergio Ariza

Peter Frampton was always ahead of the rest, in high school he got together with a boy 3 years older than him to play, his name was David Jones, but the world would end up knowing him as David Bowie, at 16 he hung out with members of the Beatles and the Stones as lead singer of The Herd, at 18 he formed a band with his idol, Steve Marriott, and at 25 he released one of the greatest selling albums of all time. All this thanks to his innate talent as singer, composer, and mainly, guitarist.

Frampton was born April 22, 1950 in the United Kingdom. His father was the head of the art department at Bromley Institute, so, having excelled in music since he was a boy, once there he asked his father about students who were interested in music and he told him about a very talented student called David Jones. He was 3 years his elder and had his own band, but was delighted with the talent of young Peter Frampton and began hanging with him at lunch hour to sing and play Buddy Holly songs. It was the future David Bowie and Frampton was there the day that his father told him that there had been a fight, and one of Bowie’s eyes had been seriously damaged, giving him one of his recognisable features in the future. By then Frampton was already in a band called The Little Ravens, where he played a Hofner 60 that his parents had given him.

At 14 he went for the first time into a recording studio, with the band The Preachers, a band produced by Bill Wyman himself of the Rolling Stones. While most teenagers were agog watching TV or going to the concerts of their idols, Frampton hobnobbed in the London clubs with dudes like Brian Jones and Paul McCartney. His talent and physique did not go unnoticed and in 1966 he became the lead singer and guitarist of The Herd, a ‘mod’ band marketed to the teenage audience and had several hits in the U.K., which led him to be chosen as ‘The Face’ in 1968 by the magazine The Rave.
It would be with this group that he was discovered by Steve Marriott. Ever since he saw Small Faces playing Whatcha Gonna Do About It live on Ready Steady Go, Frampton fantasised about being in the same band as the little giant. In 1968 the opportunity presented itself when Marriott and his mate Ronnie Lane offered as volunteers to produce Sunshine Cottage by The Herd. On side B there was a song called Miss Jones that sounded like Small Faces themselves. Marriott was impressed with the ability of the young guitarist and started toying with the idea of getting him in his band.

In late ‘68, Johnny Hallyday, the biggest French rock star, started recording an album and asked Marriott and Lane for some help writing some songs for him. In the recording session Frampton was chosen as session guitarist, Marriott saw more and more clearly that Frampton was what his group needed but Lane refused to add him to the band. Marriott felt increasingly out of place with Small Faces, so he began looking for a band for the young Frampton, with Greg Ridley and Jerry Shirley, but after a disastrous show in Paris he called Frampton, they chose the name Humble Pie, and he told him I’m going with you. The funny thing is that Lane called Frampton shortly after asking if he’d be willing to replace Marriott in the Small Faces. Frampton couldn’t believe it, “we could have all been in the same band” he thought, but went with Marriott and Humble Pie.

It was with this group that he would find his sound as a guitarist, always jacked into a 100-watt Marshall, at first with an SG, a Les Paul Standard or a Gibson ES 335. Until when in a show in 1970 his 335 began producing feedback and Frampton decided he had to change. One of his mates had a ‘54 Les Paul Custom fitted with 3 double pickups, so Frampton tried it and fell in love with it, telling his friend he would buy it then and there, but out of generosity he gave it to him. It would be the main guitar of his career.

His first single with the band, Natural Born Bugie, came out in August ‘69 and climbed the charts to the top 5. That same month they debuted live and responded well to the expectations they had created with one of the first supergroups, with an acoustic part at the start and a second part where they unleash an electric thunderstorm.

Despite the fact that Frampton is usually hailed as the champ of the acoustic part, those who think he wasn’t interested in hard rock must have missed listening to  things like the powerful Shine On, written and sung by him, which opened the album Rock On, the one that, in the end, would be his last studio record with the band. The album was clearly focussed on hard rock, as you can see on the classic Stone Cold Fever, a quartet composition with a tremendous riff compliments of Frampton. But after the huge success of the follow-up, the live Performance Rockin’ The Fillmore, and its promotional single, I Don’t Need No Doctor, with one of the more amazing riffs from Frampton’s career, Marriott and the rest of the band threw themselves into this facet, forgetting the other side of Humble Pie, the acoustic side, something that didn’t convince the guitarist at all, so he took the chance to look for a career outside the long shadow of his friend and mentor.
That was how Peter Frampton set out on a new solo adventure just when Humble Pie had reached the top. It was a risky step but wound up very well. In October of 1971 he began to cut his first solo record, Wind of Change, a work where acoustics was a priority, built on his beloved Epiphone Texan, the guitar with which he would write the most important songs of his career. But he didn’t neglect the electric part either, with songs like All I Wanna Be (Is By Your Side), where he shines on 6-string, and his cover of Jumpin’ Jack Flash by the Stones. Frampton handles the most part of the instruments and vocals, but also counted on a few mates like Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, and Mick Jones.    

In spite of the outstanding collaborations and remarkable work done on the album, it was far from a success, and Frampton saw out of the corner of his eye how Humble Pie became superstars, and Smokin’, their first record without him, landed among the top 10 on the American charts. Frampton did not despair and formed a band with bassman Rick Wills, John Siomos on drums, and keyboardist Mick Gallagher. They would record Frampton’s Camel, with a dirtier sound, which showed the group effort. The album still didn’t make him a star but contained a song that was going to become one of the most famous of his career, Do You Feel Like I Do. In this studio version Frampton is brilliant on his black Les Paul with a great solo. But during Christmas of 1973 he was going to get a gift that would have a surprising impact on his career.    

It was a ‘talk box’ by Bob Heil, the same he had made for Joe Walsh, and which he had introduced successfully on the hit Rocky Mountain Way. Frampton locked himself in for a week with the gadget and when he came out his guitar could speak fluently. He first used it on Frampton, his 4th solo record. It was the album that included the original versions of Show Me the Way, and Baby, I Love Your Way. It was in the former that Frampton used it for the first time, which would be forever linked to his music. But it was onstage where he brought his best game. He would usually end his concerts with a version of Do You Feel Like I Do, that stretches for more than 10 minutes with an extensive talk box solo. People reacted enthusiastically to him, the funny thing about this was when he started using it, he was opening for Joe Walsh himself...


In addition, despite Frampton had been his biggest splash to date, he was far from being a star. But that was about to change when after one of his explosive live shows the label decided to record a live record. In January of ‘76 Frampton Comes Alive hit the market, a double LP recorded in the summer of ‘75, which would become one of the best selling records in history, making Frampton a shining star. The live versions of Show Me the Way, Baby I Love Your Way, and Do You Feel Like I Do dropped into the top 15 singles charts and the album sat for 10 weeks on the top of the charts. After a run of 10 years Frampton looked face to face with a popularity that was hard to manage. Despite his experience he was swallowed in the wave of success. He lost control of his career and of himself, was lost for some time, putting out disappointing material. To make matters worse, in 1980 he lost his beloved ‘54 Les Paul Custom in a plane accident.


He would be rescued from all of this by his childhood friend David Bowie, who called him for his album Never Let Me Down, and the subsequent tour in 1987. Frampton has always been grateful to him for re-introducing him to the world as a guitarist. In 1991 he would get back together with the most important person in his career, Steve Marriott, and the chemistry was still alive so they decided to hit the road together but sadly, not long after, Marriott died in a fire. Frampton was crushed and used one of his collaborations on his 1994 record Peter Frampton. Two years later he appeared in an episode of The Simpsons, showing a huge sense of humour.  

A sense of humour that never abandoned him, even now that he has announced his farewell tour, after revealing that he is suffering from a terrible degenerative disease. The tour begins June 18th in Tulsa Oklahoma, and ends the 12th of October in San Francisco, the very city where he recorded part of the legendary Frampton Comes Alive. Here at Guitars Exchange we can not only strongly recommend to those who may, to go and  pay tribute to this great musician who has always shown modesty, kindness and who was a gentleman to us in our interview a few months ago. Besides, on this tour, you will see him with his cherished ‘54 Les Paul Custom, which he has named Phenix, and like the mythical animal who arose from the ashes, and in 2011, after some bizarre events, it returned with its power almost intact to keep giving that same magic.