Music Maker 1978
Arguably the best electric rock guitarist is Ritchie Blackmore, a riddle and legend in her own right. Others may argue with such a designation, claiming that Beck, Clapton, Page are better taste and that as a result someone has a preference for one of these three. You may not like Blackmore's feeling but his technique alone is definitely superior to that of Page and Clapton and probably equal to that of Beck.
In fact, his "feel" or style (call it whatever you want) is one of Ritchie's most remarkable qualities. Today most of his solos, and certainly the better Rainbow songs, are based on his affection for medieval and baroque music, which has led him to play the cello for diversion and entertainment.
Although he only started it in '74/'75, his influence is starting to become clear, as well as the development to work with modal forms rather than scales. Listen for example to the strange oriental/medieval integrated sound of "Gates of Babylon ", a song from his latest album "Long live Rock'n'Roll". Where most guitarists have a blues background, Blackmore is completely individualistic, working with unique ideas that only he can handle. There is no apparent reason for this in his background. He started at a very normal age (eleven) with a cheap Framus guitar and at the age of thirteen he was in his first band, a skiffle group. By the way, "skiffle" enjoyed as sudden as great popularity in England during the fifties and was a type of Country and Western music involving several great guitarists. From Country & Western to modal structures is a long way and there is no simple denominator to identify his early influences. Ritchie only studied classical guitar for a year, he admits that he had to give it up because he wanted to improvise and not play fixed parts. However, he had the advantages of that year.
"I think it is very important to keep an eye on basic training when you start with an instrument. I was taught to use all my fingers which a considerable amount of modern guitarists do not. They self-taught and only use three fingers."
In fact, long ago, Ritchie owed his reputation as a fast-playing guitarist simply to the fact that he used four fingers in his riffs when most guitarists only had three at their disposal. Anyway, and he's modest enough not to give it up. Admittedly, he is still faster than most with a rather exceptional right-hand technique. He spent a lot of time on the latter. The reason for this lies in the belief that no matter how much time it takes to store he would never really master his instrument. He claims that he initially practiced six to eight hours a day, some of that time under the guidance of expert session guitarist Jim Sullivan. He claims that he no one has knowingly copied.
"If I do listen to someone, I go my own way. In the beginning I tried to play people like Scotty Moore and James Burton but a lot of those solos were too difficult for me, so I did it my own way. Everyone has his own playing style and really you should only play in that style - that's one of the things Jim Sullivan taught me. I think he is one of the best guitarists England has ever produced but hardly anyone ever bothered to. I would say he and Albert Lee are the best two, I like Steve Howe and there are several others who are good in certain areas but I have never been impressed with Clapton and don't see what all the fuss is about. But probably my favorite guitarist is Jeff Beck. He has the best sound I've ever heard and he thinks ahead of time about what he wants to play and that's what distinguishes a good guitarist from a bad one."
Regardless of his loyalty to Beck, Albert Lee and Jim Sullivan, B1ackmore has regularly made himself unpopular through his harsh criticism of his colleagues: he stands strong, however.
Regarding reputation, Ritchie B1ackmore has often been his own worst enemy in a way. To interview he is a difficult person, only wants to give a technical interview a few times a year. He has a strong personality and is known as the greatest practical joker in the music business yet he is often cold and unapproachable in private at the same time. He cannot stand the hype associated with bands and hates the people around them, something he has had to do with Deep Purple for many years life and which, given the rising popularity of Rainbow, is also causing problems now. Behind all this, however, there is a dedicated, serious and gifted guitarist. He has been using the same equipment for years. Since his entrance with Deep Purple, he has been seen with the inevitable Fender Stratocaster and a wall of Marshall towers. It is strange that a guitarist like him, who has an at times extravagant style, has an aversion to effect equipment.
"I find that the more effect devices you use the less you can concentrate on playing. The only effect I use is echo."
That echo device is a modified Revox tape recorder, which, considering the standards of the stage equipment, is a fairly fragile case. Ritchie uses it given the good quality. However, that echo is not his only effect because it also has a treble booster, but I suppose you can argue whether a treble booster is an effects unit or not. The rest of his sound is produced by his strangely modified Fenders and Marshalls. His Fender guitars are cut in such a way that most guitarists probably won't be able to handle them. Ritchie has the maple necks sandpapered in between the frets so that a fairly clear hollowing is created. He is convinced that it gives extra room for vibration and makes the instrument look like a sitar because the finger pressing the string does not contact the wood, so the finger in question only feels the string. This makes guitars so difficult to play that the most will soon give up but according to Ritchie's reasoning the advantages outweigh the difficulties. But if you compare the Stratocaster with a Gibson Les Paul, is it more difficult to play anyway?
"Yes, Fenders play less than Gibsons, much heavier in fact, but they are more rewarding to play, they have a much cleaner sound so you will hear all your mistakes! I love the distortion coming out of the amp, then I can check it, not if it's inherent to the instrument which is the case with Gibsons."
The distortion that is a sound-determining factor in his sound is caused by extensive modification of his amplifiers. During the conversation he is only reluctant to give details and only says the following about it: "I always use Marshalls, they are unbeatable. I bring mine to the factory and have them boosted by about a million watts. I also had an extra stage built in it which gives me more high. I had the bass taken out and when I play I turn the high up and upset my speakers as much as possible."
What happens is that the modifications to his installation are quite extensive which can really only be done by the Bletchley factory. They take apart the entire input part of his 200 watt Marshall amplifiers (which are unfortunately no longer made) and add an extra ECC83. This produces a significantly increased gain. In addition, it is Ritchie's habit of taking his amps to the factory (which he does about every year to check everything for wear and tear) and then in cooperation with the technician concerned, the amplifiers are then fine-tuned. Ritchie's contribution consists of the fact that he will indicate "here a bit more high and here a bit more low." In this way, the end result is left with three slightly different amplifiers that together produce the total Blackmore sound. The accompanying speaker cabinets are standard Marshall 1982 A and 1982 B boxes with four Celestion G 12H speakers each of a total of 30 watts each. The lion's share of Blackmore's distortion is caused by a hefty overdriven output stage of his amp plus, of course, the effect of his playing style that should not be underestimated. It's important to remember that even if you had exactly the same equipment as a particular guitarist, you will never sound the same because the sound of your fingers.
One of the problems that Ritchie's style entails is his strings that have a tendency to detune constantly. "I have to check the tuning for every song, there are songs where I play in fifths and fourths, where I first I have to tune for two to three minutes before I can start. Fortunately I rarely play full chords but mainly three-note chords which allows me to compensate one with the other to some extent. If my low E is not completely pure, for example, I can often get around that by the way I convert the chord."
Ritchie has been using Picato strings for six years. "Clapton pointed me to those strings and they sound really good. Every guitarist I talk to in America is after them because they sometimes have terribly bad strings there." Of course, these tuning problems are caused to a considerable extent by the often rather wild and uncontrolled way in which he bends the strings and especially by his use of the tremolo arm of his Strat.
Value for money
Generally unimpressed with the performances of many well-known 'established names', Ritchie Blackmore is an inexcusable guitarist, a perfectionist who works hard to create a style he does not care about what other people do. A style that is utterly unique. This can only be respected in fact, far from the cold sinister figure he apparently wants to portray so badly, Blackmore is sensitive to the fake music business figures and utterly committed to his craft which is, of course, as much entertaining as playing guitar.
The first is Blackmore's second ability. As well as an excellent guitarist, he is a showman who knows that people expect more than a figure standing still and playing a solo every now and then. They have come to see a performance and Ritchie B1ackmore delivers, without fail, value for money.
© Gary Cooper, Music Maker September 1978