The Humble Master of Technology

by Vicente Mateu

Back 50 years ago, the future Commander of the Order of the British Empire was dragging along half dead from hunger in search of non-existent adventures in France and Spain. He had barely turned 20 years old as the '60s started drawing to a close. His dream ended when he returned home, but only so a new one could begin. Pink Floyd was already taking its first baby steps and had a serious problem with its guitarist, who mixed inspired genius with madness in equal measure. It was not rare for him to be unable to finish their concerts. The solution was to hire a childhood friend, one of his six-string mentors from the streets, to cover for those crisis moments. That friend was David Gilmour (Cambridge, 6 March 1946), en route to becoming a legend; Syd Barrett, unfortunately, was on the verge of forming part of it.

The short circuit in Barrett's mind, in the end a cruel twist of fate, changed the life of that young musician from Cambridge and in turn marked the lives of millions of people spread over several generations who would also learn to soar through the neck of a guitar. The journey began in 1963 with his first band, Jokers Wild, and still isn't over, even with Pink Floyd occupying a place of honour alongside the Beatles and Stones.

And whether Roger Waters likes it or not, in the eyes of history and the fans, Gilmour's guitar playing buried him beneath the bricks of The Wall they built up between them. And with the contributions of Mason and Wright as well, as everyone knows. Pink Floyd was the magical summation of a group of musicians with exceptional talent and vision, the children of psychedelia and strict British education converted into superstars who wound up being torn apart by ego conflicts. They needed each other, but they could not stand one another, a classic situation in that era among the major groups of the rock Olympus.

The balancing act barely lasted a decade. Like it or not, Pink Floyd was over by the early 80s. Freed of the onerous presence of the bassist, Gilmour finally had absolute control of the group, or more accurately the brand until, after a pair of albums recorded in fits and starts, he was really the only one left and the whole thing stopped making sense. It was time to take off and fly solo from the riverboat studio on the Thames that had become his headquarters.

A new David Gilmour was born, a multi-faceted artist and multi-millionaire benefactor of non-profit organizations. His status as a guitar virtuoso and innovator in the rock world was no longer enough and he decided to expand his skills by becoming a world-class producer and sound engineer. A facet into which he has thrown himself more than in his own recording career and which has almost given him greater satisfaction. Kate Bush is a special case in point, elevated to fame as the result of her wonderful vocal trills, enhanced by the great technical knowledge of her mentor. Along the way, he managed to revive what was left of Syd Barrett in a joint project that included a tribute.

His personal career was on hold for all practical purposes. Half-a-dozen albums in over three decades with a gap of over 20 years between the first two –David Gilmour in 1978 and About Face in 1984- and the rest of his solo output. In 2006, he returned with On an Island; two years later with the bombastic live album in Gdansk recorded with a symphony orchestra, and, in 2010, with Metallic Spheres, a joint experiment with The Orb, the electronic heirs of Pink Floyd.

Five years later, he released Rattle that Lock in the wake of the success created by The Endless River in 2014, a new album released under the Pink Floyd marque and produced from outtakes recorded during the band's final years, when Rick Wright was still alive. He swears that is the final chapter, the last album by the legendary band. Both albums show that Gilmour is in fine form.

However, since the '90s, his guitar never stopped being heard as a special guest of B.B. King, The Who and Supertramp... just part of a long list of artists that also included Bob Dylan. It was an era of creative silence interspersed with numerous appearances, like the short series of acoustic concerts in London that he received rave reviews for in 2002.

His intensive use of available technology enabled Gilmour to create his own style by constantly exploring the limits of his instrument, sustaining each note endlessly without lifting his foot from the effects pedals or releasing the vibrato bar of his Fender; undoubtedly the preferred brand of a musician who has certainly tried out every make of guitar at some point in his career.

The humble Gilmour says his complex set-up helps him to conceal his technical shortcomings in a world –he forgot to add this point- where many people confuse speed with virtuosity. You don't measure the power and passion in his playing by the number of notes. One note was enough for him to stop time in the '70s and LSD took care of the rest.

Gilmour was also much more than a great guitarist: he knew how to get the most out of his voice and played a number of other instruments quite well, from drums to sax. He had everything under control ... except Roger Waters.

At this point in his career and with more than 70 years under his belt, Gilmour is going through that phase of technology disconnection common to guitarists of his age bracket who spent their lives plugged in to an amplifier. Many of the gadgets that blanketed the floors of studios with cables just a few decades ago –you can find detailed accounts of which ones he used on almost every song on the Internet- don't exist now except to prove how difficult life was without computers. And computers don't hold any secrets for him anyway. It is time to search for new challenges.

He has enlisted a world-class collaborator for this new stage, none other than Phil Manzanera, an old friend who turned into something much more than a producer over the last few albums. Manzanera is the perfect complement to be able to continue enjoying the guitar of Commander David Gilmour, a legend who still has yet to write the final chapter of his musical career. Or, better still, give the final lesson.    

(Images: ©CordonPress)