While David Gilmour was close friends with Pink Floyd founders Syd Barrett and Roger Waters since they were schoolboys, he wasn’t welcomed to join the band until the dawning of Barrett’s mental decline and eventual estrangement in 1967.
As the second guitarist, Gilmour’s initial role was to support Barrett’s waning contributions as an understudy of sorts. He earned merit within the group for his astonishing ability to emulate Barrett’s style after such a short period. When Barrett was finally expelled from Pink Floyd at the end of ‘67, Gilmour could play Barrett’s compositions from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and contributed material of a similar style to complete the follow-up album, A Saucerful of Secrets.
Over the late 1960s, Pink Floyd’s sound developed from Barrett’s whimsical psychedelic rock of Alice in Wonderland escapism to a more refined and spacious sound that would foreshadow the prog-rock and space-rock trends of the 1970s. This sound was in no small part attributable to Gilmour’s unique and constantly developing guitar style.
Gilmour, like many of his peers of the 1960s, was first drawn to the electric guitar thanks to the blues. Over the years, he kept an open mind and allowed virtuosos of all different styles and genres to colour his imagination. Drawing from a healthy pool of influence, he could devise his own characteristic style, recognised for its sonorous gravity and pitch-perfect lead excursions, which valued precision over speed.
“I was a blues fan, but I was an all-around music fan,” Gilmour revealed in a 1985 interview with Guitar Classics. “For me, it was Leadbelly through B.B. King and later Eric Clapton, Roy Buchanan, Jeff Beck, Eddie Van Halen and anyone you care to mention. Mark Knopfler has a lovely, refreshing guitar style. He brought back something that seemed to have gone astray in guitar playing.”
During the interview, Gilmour was asked whether he had ever tried to emulate other guitarists or songs in his compositions. “I was trying to learn 12-string acoustic guitar like Leadbelly at the same time, I was trying to learn lead guitar like Hank Marvin and later Clapton,” he replied. “All of those different things had their moments and filtered through my learning process. These days I don’t listen to other people with the objective of trying to steal their licks, although I’ve got no objections to stealing them if that seems like a good idea. I’m sure that I’m still influenced by Mark Knopfler and Eddie Van Halen as well.”
“I can’t play like Eddie Van Halen, I wish I could,” the Pink Floyd guitarist admitted later in the conversation. “So I sat down to try some of those ideas and I can’t do it. I don’t know if I could ever get any of that stuff together. Sometimes I think I should work at the guitar more. I play every day but I don’t consciously practice scales or anything in particular.”