Return to the Rainbow

Wanna read all about personality clashes within the legendary rock band Deep Purple, or about the temperament of guitarist Ritchie Blackmore???

Well, try to find those stories in the backissues of various and sundry sanctimonious, pusillanimous "rock journals," because you won't find such sordid gossip herein. Legendary Stratslinger Ritchie Blackmore is now back on the scene with a new incarnation of Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow, the hard rock outfit he founded when he departed from Deep Purple in the mid 1970s. A reunited Deep Purple recorded several albums in the late '80s and early '90s, and then Blackmore departed once again, for pretty much the same reasons he left the first time two decades earlier.
But let's not get into the details, okay? When Vintage Guitar interviewed Ritchie Blackmore, he was between phases of Rainbow's world tour, promoting their recent release, Stranger In Us All (Fuel Records), and his polite and eloquent conversational abilities belied the stereotype that seems to have dogged the guitarist since Deep Purple burst onto the rock scene in the late '60s with a "heavy" cover of Billy Joe Royal's "Hush."

- The liner notes for Stranger In Us All include a note of thanks from you to "...My Dad, for buying me the guitar that started it all." What were the circumstances, and what was the make and model?

When I was 11 years old, I pestered my dad to get me a guitar; I'd been listening to performers like Elvis Presley on the radio, so that would have been Scotty Moore I heard playing guitar. He bought me a Framus acoustic at the local guitar shop; I thought it cost about seven guineas, which would have been the equivalent of 20 dollars, and that was a lot of money in those days. I remember him telling me "If you don't learn how to play this thing, I'm going to put it across your head."

I had also been listening to Tommy Steele, who was big in England. I wanted to play like him; I'd watched him on a show called "Six-Five Special," which was a rock and roll show much like "Shindig" was in America. I used to watch "Six-Five Special" and strum along with my guitar; although I couldn't play any chords, it looked good (chuckles).

I was lucky, because I went to lessons at the very beginning, so I got off on the right footing. I had to ride my bicycle to lessons; I had to hold my guitar and try to steer the bicycle, and such trips were interesting, because I had to travel six miles.

- Did you listen to Radio Luxembourg as well?

Yeah, it was a big highlight of my life back then. I'd listen to it from eight to 10 at night, but after 10 o'clock I had to listen to it very quietly, because my dad thought I was sleeping! Radio Luxembourg was a big thrill to listen to at the time; they played Buddy Holly and Duane Eddy, who were my heroes. The bands I played in as a teenager did a lot of Buddy Holly and Duane Eddy songs.

- What kind of guitar were you playing once you began playing in bands?

I got a pickup for my birthday, and I wired it up to the Framus, along with volume and tone controls. I eventually put a total of three pickups on it, and then I got a Höfner Club 50 when I was about 15 or 16, and I also got a Watkins Dominator amplifier. We worked maybe once a week if we were lucky, and the amplifier looked really good, but every time I plugged it in, it would blow up during the first or second number! I'd have to carry on playing through someone else's amplifier.

I had to trudge all the way back into London whenever the amp blew up. I carried it three miles to get on the tube, and it weighed about 30 pounds. The shop would give me another amplifier, but the same thing would happen again the next time we played. As soon as I began playing, I'd blow the amplifier up again.

- How many times did that happen?

Six. I went to the shop once a week for six weeks. They finally asked me to bring in my guitar as well, and when I did, they asked me to play something for them right there, and I blew the amplifier up in front of them!

They finally gave me an amplifier that lasted for a couple of months before it blew up. But I think that model of amplifier had been designed to be played at half-volume, and I was playing at full volume.

- And the Club 50, which I recall other players using in their earlier days, didn't really have potent pickups, did it?

No, not at all. They were great-looking guitars; they had some fantastic wood. But when I was about 17, I bought a used Gibson ES-335 with dot inlays; I believe it was a '59, and I know that they're collectors' items now.

- Is it fair to say you first received some public notice, at least in the U.K., with Nero & the Gladiators?

I never played with Nero & the Gladiators, but I often see that in print. I did play with an early rock band called Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages. I liked the way Nero & the Gladiators performed unique versions of songs; they were among my heroes at the time.

- About half of Shades of Deep Purple has some unique cover songs as well, including "Hush" and a couple of Beatles tunes. Was there any connection to Nero & the Gladiators, influence-wise?

Well, it was similar, but we hadn't written enough tunes of our own. I heard "Hush," by Billy Joe Royal, when I was living in Germany, and I thought it was a great song, and I also thought it would be a good song to add to our act, if we could come up with a different arrangement.

- What about the Vanilla Fudge? They would have been doing unique cover songs around the same time.

We'd heard about them, and they ended up being one of my all-time favorite bands. We couldn't believe they were doing eight-minute versions of songs, which was exactly what we were doing. That would have been in '68.

- What kind of equipment did you use on Shades of Deep Purple?

My 335, and a Marshall 200-watt amplifier. I used an English-made fuzzbox, and a Vox wah-wah now and again.

- I thought "Hush" had some great guitar tones on it. Was that more than one track and/or more than one guitar?

We did the whole song in two takes, and we did the whole album in 48 hours. We had a total of two tries at everything. Sometimes I like working under pressure like that, because I can really "flow," whereas a lot of times I get into a studio situation where I have to go over something too many times, and I get bored stiff, and I lose the spontaneity. There's actually one part on "Hush" where the guitar is feeding back; sustaining. I have a tendency to switch pickups as I'm playing, almost like a nervous habit. If I'm playing something that's syncopated, sometimes I'll throw the switch across in syncopation, too. I never realized I was doing it that much, until someone told me. But I like to play certain phrases with different sounds, so I switch back and forth from the bass pickup to the treble pickup a lot.

- Tell me about your equipment through the first incarnation of Deep Purple.

I'd started with my 335 and a Vox AC-30, which I took to Marshall and asked them to copy; I wasn't 100 percent happy with their combo amps. I probably drove all of the people at the Marshall factory crazy, because whenever I stopped by to test something, I'd play very loud. In fact, Jim Marshall's office was down the road from the factory, and on the other side of the road as well, but he said he always knew when I was there, because he could hear me (laughs).

They finally came up with an amplifier that was suitable for me; they added an extra output stage that added more "beef."

- When did you switch to a Stratocaster?

Probably around '71. After playing a Gibson for so long, it took me quite some time to get used to the neck on a Fender; I had a hard time at first. And a Fender sounded very "clean;" with a Gibson pickup you got a certain amount of sustain, but a Fender is very right-to-the-point and very unforgiving. It's brilliant if you get the note right, but if you don't, it'll let you know.

The first Stratocaster I played had actually been owned by Eric Clapton. He gave it to a friend of mine, who was a roadie at the time. That guitar was the one that got me interested in Fenders. I think the first album where I played Fenders was Deep Purple In Rock.

- How was the first incarnation of Rainbow supposed to differ from Deep Purple?

There weren't as many egos (chuckles)! Obviously, the setup was very similar, with an organ and guitar.

- Why was the cover of "Still I'm Sad" on the first Rainbow album an instrumental version?

I really don't know; I think someone suggested that we put an instrumental on the album. I always thought that Yardbirds song was great, and it had what was almost a Gregorian chant on it. I thought it would work as an instrumental, and there's a new version of it on the new Rainbow album, with vocals. I heard the rest of the band playing it, and they wanted to do a new recording of it. The key was a bit too high for the singer, so we now do it in a different key.

- Is it fair to say that the first incarnation of Rainbow was a proverbial "One-Hit-Wonder" with "Street of Dreams?"

We had quite a few hits in Europe; "Stone Cold" and "I Surrender," among others. "Stone Cold" became a hit in the States, too.

- When Deep Purple reunited, were you still using Stratocasters and Marshalls?

Exactly, although I was trying to use a Roland guitar synthesizer a bit around '85. I was fascinated by the sounds you could get out of one, particularly the string effects.

- Guitar enthusiasts have heard terms like "Renaissance" or "Baroque" applied to your style, and my perception is that you seem to be more at home playing those types of runs rather than blues licks.

Sometimes that's true; it depends on what mood I'm in. Renaissance music from the 1500s is my favorite music; I love classical as well, but I don't play classical music very much. I like to play blues licks, too, but I find that sometimes the blues can be a bit limiting and repetitive. I can jam with someone and play blues then, and I've heard some great blues players, but in some respects I've heard it before, and Renaissance music is what really gets me going.

- One would presume it's more challenging as well.

Yeah, I think it is, but a lot of blues players would think not. You can't just fly off and extemporize with Renaissance music, however. It's very disciplined and rigid, but at the same time, it doesn't come across as "planned;" it can be very exciting.

- Was the music supposed to be any different when Deep Purple reunited?

Not particularly. We really didn't have anything planned; we just played. I think Perfect Strangers was a pretty good album, possibly because we hadn't played together in a long time, but I wasn't so keen on what came after.

- You participated in a benefit recording of "Smoke On The Water" for Armenian earthquake relief. Chris Squire of the Yes also took part, but when I interviewed him, he didn't know many of the details concerning the project. Can you enlighten us?

(chuckles) I probably know less than he does. I was asked if I would like to play on it, and I thought it was a great idea to do a charity project; one of the things that stirred me up was that Paul Rodgers was singing on it, and I've always been a fan of his.

- Which means I need to ask if you've heard either of the last two Bad Company albums, since Robert Hart has been their lead singer?

I like what they're doing. I thought the singer was very close to Paul Rodgers, but I still thought what I heard was very good.

- Here's the point: Doogie White, the lead singer on Stranger In Us All, seems to have a style somewhat like Ronnie Dio, who was the first lead singer for the band the first time around. Is that a "bonus," for lack of a better term?

I'm not sure. He can sing various types of music, but there wasn't a conscious effort to have a singer who sounded like Ronnie Dio. Otherwise, I would have gotten together with Ronnie Dio! But Doogie is very influenced by Ronnie Dio.

- Another recent project for you was recording with Pat Boone for his In A Metal Mood album, which ended up being considered somewhat controversial with some religious groups.

Well, I've always looked up to Pat Boone; I listened to him in the '50s, when I was going to school, and when I was asked to play on one of his modern recordings, I considered it an honor. It's great to be able to play on an album by someone who inspired you when you were growing up.

But it's amazing how some people are so narrow-minded in their thinking. If someone has long hair or has a leather jacket, they're automatically a villain. That kind of bigotry has been around for years, and it's sad.

- Still Stratocasters and Marshalls in the new incarnation of Rainbow?

No, I've made a considerable change on the amplifier side. I now use Engl amplifiers; they're German amps, and are amazing. They've got a lot different settings and overdrive sounds. I find they work very well at low volume and high volume. My Marshalls only seemed to work best when they were flat-out; when I turned them down they sounded thin. But the Engls sound great at any volume.

- As for your ongoing use of Stratocasters, your association with that brand and model dates from around the time that Fender began making their Strats with the three-bolt neck configuration.

I tend to search for good necks more than anything else; the electronics are always very similar. A friend of mine used to go down to the Fender factory and get the thinnest neck he could find for me. I'd always put together guitars myself; I'd change out necks and sometimes the electronics as well, until I was satisfied with the feel and the sound.

So I really don't have any "old" Stratocasters; I have old parts, but sometimes I can't remember what I did to which guitar. I used to glue a neck in place after I'd changed it out, because they had a tendency to shift.

- Have you used any Stratocasters since Fender returned to a four-bolt neck attachment system?

Yes, and there's also my signature model, which is quite unique. The neck is built-in as part of the guitar; it's not a bolt-on. It's really interesting to feel the back of a Fender guitar that doesn't have bolts in it. I also wanted thick fret wire, and it has two pickups instead of three, because I never use the middle pickup. Like I said, I like to switch from one pickup to the other, and sometimes if I caught the middle pickup, it would throw me.

- So you never would have had any interest in trying out a Strat with the newer, five-position toggle switch.

Not at all; I found that it could be too confusing and too subtle. When you're playing that loud onstage, it's basically a case of "black and white" and "loud and quiet."

- So it's "neck pickup or treble pickup?"

That's right.

- Are there any specifications to your signature model's pickups?

No, they just have to be loud!

- Considering what you said about assembling various Stratocasters to your personal taste, I take it that you're not much of a collector.

No. It's strange; sometimes I've had heated arguments with people who will sing the praises of a '58 Strat, but for me, they're almost all the same; I think that the person playing the instrument is where the difference lies.

I've seen some Gretsch guitars that I thought looked fantastic, and a guitar's looks is what will get your attention first, but I've never been one who would pay thousands of dollars more for a nice-looking Strat that was made before '65. I think they've been making some good ones all along.

- Another current project for you that I've heard about is something called Blackmore's Night; I understand it's primarily acoustic.

Right; I've always wanted to play Renaissance music, and this is my effort. Candice Night, who's my fiance, sang background vocals on Stranger In Us All, and co-wrote some of the songs on it as well. She loves Renaissance music as much as I do, and we were always playing it around the house, and people were telling us we ought to do an album of that kind of music. I play acoustic guitar and mandolin on it; Candice sings, and there are some other musicians augmenting us. We're quite pleased with the way it turned out; it's out in Japan this week. It's kind of an eclectic, "majestic"/"regal" rock album. It's probably my favorite album of all the ones I've ever played on.

- Where has the tour supporting Stranger In Us All taken you so far, and where else will be you be going?

We've gone all across America so far; we've gone to South America and Japan, too. Next month we go to Denmark and Poland.

We're also planning on touring to support the Blackmore's Night project; there should be about five musicians in that band, and we'll be playing in some selected places like some castles in Germany, trying to get the "atmosphere." That should happen in about two or three months, and should be quite interesting.

- It's obvious Ritchie Blackmore is very intense about his music, but the dialogue we had with the veteran guitarist was cordial and enlightening. Even though he's had decades of experience playing loud music (and he'll keep on purveying such), his offshoot effort with Renaissance music indicates that he's dedicated to broadening his musical horizons by recording a musical genre that's been a personal favorite of his for years. Considering his accomplishments as a rock guitarist, Blackmore has more than earned the right to pursue his personal musical dreams, which should make for interesting listening, as well.

© Willie G. Moseley, Vintage Guitar Magazine - October 1997