How did David Gilmour’s favourite guitarists inspire Pink Floyd?

David Gilmour is the reason why legions of guitar players pick up the instrument. Though Pink Floyd’s music might seem a bit daunting on first listen, hearing the sultry bends that Gilmour puts into every single song is enough to make hairs stand on end. Gilmour might be a one-of-a-kind guitar player, but no one gets in that position without years of doing their homework.

Before joining Pink Floyd, Gilmour was in the same position as many other guitar players, working through every song he could get his hands on and trying to emulate his favourite players. Once he had enough experience, some of the best guitarists in his record collection seeped into his own sound as well.

When talking to Uncut magazine, Gilmour talked about his habit of copying his guitar heroes, saying: “Trying to be too original when you’re too young is possibly not the best thing. But I learned copying Pete Seeger, Lead Belly, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix. All sorts of people”.

For most guitarists of his generation, Gilmour got his start figuring out legends like Chuck Berry. Although songs like ‘Johnny B Goode’ might sound like the stone age of rock and roll these days, the licks that Gilmour played on the first handful of Floyd records had a permanent imprint on his psyche. Even listening to massive prog rock epics like ‘One Of These Days’, listeners can hear the rock and roll raucous that Berry started initially.

Like most British guitarists who followed in Berry’s footsteps, Gilmour was changed when he heard The Beatles. When talking about the influence of the Fab Four, Gilmour mentioned them being more than just guitar practice, saying: “I really wish I had been in The Beatles. They taught me how to play the guitar, I learnt everything. The bass parts, the lead, the rhythm, everything. They were fantastic”.

That need to listen to your fellow bandmates was pivotal when Gilmour was making his classics for Floyd. Although he could have easily played a blistering solo throughout those few minutes on the song ‘Money’, it was all about knowing his place amongst the band, grandstanding for a second and reeling things back when it came time to work off of someone else. Just as George Harrison saw how lead breaks as their melodic statement, Gilmour plays in the same way, adopting Harrison’s lyrical style to make chords scream and for individual notes to have the same impact as the human voice.

While it’s impossible to separate Gilmour’s playing from his signature Fender guitar, he is indebted to the fellow Fender players that came before him, as he explained: “Best ever Fender player will come around again, and it will be Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix or someone. You can’t believe that stuff”. Like Clapton and Hendrix, Gilmour has always found a common vocabulary in the blues.

Pink Floyd may be known for their wild, expansive soundscapes, but Gilmour was always mining the same blues licks he fell in love with as a kid. If you look at both solos that play out during ‘Comfortably Numb’, it’s keeping within the pentatonic box, never straying out of the same notes heard in an average blues jam in a dive bar. It all comes down to how to use those notes, and Gilmour’s flash comes with the emotion he puts into the bends. Although the fundamentals of these tunes might sound like the blues, Gilmour was always about making the blues sound sad, and his licks are crying out in pain.

The emotional side of blues goes much farther back than British rock and roll, of course, with Lead Belly and Muddy Waters carrying on the tradition years before Gilmour got his hands on it. While Lead Belly may have used his bluesy wails to sing what was in his heart, Gilmour translated all that pain and anguish through his fingers. Artists like Clapton may have stayed with the blues all their life, but Hendrix is more influential on Gilmour based on his tone. While Hendrix is recognised as one of the best guitarists of all time, he knew how to make his guitar sound as un-guitar-like as possible, which was welcomed when Gilmour worked with Floyd. Although Gilmour’s touch could be trademarked, the opening chimes of ‘Wish You Were Here’ sound like they’re being played out of an old radio, putting the listener in a different frame of mind than an average ballad. Gilmour may have played around with knobs to get that tone, but the lack of fear came from what Hendrix gave him.

When talking about why Gilmour got to his position with Pink Floyd, it can’t get much more true to life than Syd Barrett. While Gilmour was brought in to fill out the guitar sound when Barrett was losing his way, the appetite to make something artsy with music wasn’t lost on him. Though Gilmour only knew him for a short time, the spirit of Barrett loomed large over every member of Pink Floyd, including the fractured session for Wish You Were Here. ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ may have been a way to pay tribute to Barrett, but hearing Gilmour’s haunting four-note riff in the midsection sounds like he conjured up a ghost from the past.

Despite not having that much in common with any of his heroes, these foundational pillars of rock history played a pivotal role in shaping Gilmour’s musical vocabulary. No matter how many times Gilmour reaches for his signature crying bends, he isn’t shy about where he took some of his greatest tricks from, either in the blues world or even within the confines of Pink Floyd. Then again, Gilmour’s way around the fretboard never lived in the shadow of another guitar player. Though fans might be able to pick out some of his inspirations here and there, no one will mistake Gilmour for anyone else whenever he straps on his guitar.

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