Billy Duffy has long been a different sort of bloke. As his peers in rock bands of the mid ’80s mostly fell in line to play modified “superstrat” guitars with locking vibratos suitable for the trickery of the day, Duffy stuck with his trusty Gretsch White Falcon as his band, The Cult, scored its first international hit, “She Sells Sanctuary.”
Growing up, Duffy was like any of a million other kids who listened to rock-and-roll music. As punk become popular in England in the mid ’70s, he was all over it, and both styles influenced his playing – as well as his taste in tone. The White Falcon became something of a trademark, as Duffy used it to record The Cult’s early albums and tour the world. Ironically, though, it was at first more a solution than a choice…
“I wanted to get my own guitar sounds,” he said of his early work. “I was very conscious of not wanting to be a bad version of Steve Jones – I wanted to be a good version of Billy Duffy! The Gretsch represented an opportunity for a different sonic approach. That’s how it all started; I was aware of the guitar’s visual appeal, then started looking at its possibilities and limitations, like its incredibly long fretboard and how it’s difficult, on the single-cutaway ones, to get much higher than the 12th fret – unless you wear the guitar up around your neck, ya’ know (laughs)?”
Once he plugged in, the White Falcon’s sound helped him quickly acclimate. “For me, it was a perfect storm of experimentation,” he chuckled. “And I like to think I’m a guy who pushed the boundaries of what you could do with a Gretsch in the early ’80s. I don’t know too many guys who put them through a wah and phasers and flangers and that stuff!”
The Cult’s new album, Choice of Weapon, is aimed squarely at Cult fans, whether they jumped aboard the fanwagon early or after the release of the band’s 1987 classic, Electric. With its mix of layered guitar sounds a la the band’s first hit album, Love, or the straight-up bashing rock brought about by Rick Rubin’s production work on Electric, Choice of Weapon is set to draw fans back to the fold.
We recently spoke with Duffy to learn about his approach to the guitar in the various eras of The Cult.
Do you remember the first Gretsch you tried?
Yeah, it was a double-cutaway stereo ’70s White Falcon, which was a guitar that would have greatly been improved had they made it mono and, like all the Gretsches of the ’70s, would have benefitted greatly from much-higher-output pickups! What I did like was that the thing stayed in tune well, it pretty much took a thrashing.
Do you still have it?
No, I had to sell that one to get what I really wanted, which was the single-cutaway Falcon with the curved palm bar, which has a very different feel than a short-armed Bigsby. I like the way they look on Les Pauls; I think it makes a Les Paul look interesting, but it just adds weight.
But I really fell in love with ’70s Gretsches – the neck. That was kinda how it started; we were trying to do something along the lines if Jimi Hendrix was trying to play an Ennio Marconi soundtrack on a Gretsch with very limited ability (laughs)! And writing at the same time. That was kind of like what I was trying to do as a young man… which in retrospect, is kind of amusing.
Did you go through a lot of guitars in the ’80s, or were you pretty loyal to just one or two?
I was a Les Paul guy, initially. I had a Les Paul Custom, and thought they were the Les Paul for me, probably through seeing Thin Lizzy in the ’70s, and then Steve Jones, who made the white Les Paul Custom kind of iconic. Which is a kind of a funny aside, because Steve’s a mate of mine and has been for like 20 years now. And he told me the story of he got that white Les Paul via Syl Sylvain of the New York Dolls, and there was a Gretsch White Falcon that Syl brought over, as well, in the early punk era, that Joe Stummer played. It was a double-cutaway ’60s White Falcon that Jonesy had got his hands on. And, there’s all these guitar-folklore stories of how they fell into the hands of different musicians. So, Steve kind of made that white Les Paul iconic – one of the punk rock images.
So that was the guitar. But I always loved Gretsches, pre-punk. I mean, I was in a high school band, we played a lot of Neil Young and Crazy Horse stuff – “Ohio,” “Cinnamon Girl,” all that. I was into this sort of slightly barnyard, cavalier approach to guitar playing, and the Gretsch kind of helped! So there was all these elements, but only had enough money to buy one guitar.
The irony was, when I got my first real job in a band, I went from a ’58 double-cutaway Les Paul Junior in Cherry Red to a double-cutaway White Falcon. I got into the Gretsches in ’81, when I was in a band called Theater of Hate. The Gretsch has always been a big part of that particularly on The Cult’s Love album, and from what I can remember, I played the White Falcon on pretty much all that album. Ian had a Vox Teardrop, which somebody discovered a load of them in England; if you look at videos from ’85, you see a bunch of [British] bands using them because somebody found all these parts for Voxes. We brought in a red 12-string Teardrop that appears a bit in the video for “Revolution.” We used it either for the intro or the middle section of the song. The rest of it was either a Gretsch or a Telecaster [frontman Ian Astbury] owned.
Have you been a loyal Marshall guy?
Well, I’ve always had Marshalls, but since the beginning of the Cult in ’83, I used a Roland JC 120 combo, as well. I tried to experiment with just the JC 120 heads, but there’s nothing like a 2×12 combo for getting that glassy, clear sound. I used to mix that with whatever valve amp I could get my hands on. At one time, I had a Ampeg VT22. But I’ve always had Marshalls, and that’s generally the valve sound I go for. I don’t have anything against Fenders, but living in England at the time, I could never find enough good ones – they were very hit-and-miss. I don’t think they like the British voltage, so basically, one Fender in 20 would be killer, and the rest would be horrible, and that’s just not a percentage game I could play. Marshalls gave me that kind of ballsy thing; I went for a slightly overdriven sound, then lay on overdrive pedals and different front-end stuff, because with a Gretsch, you can’t crank the amp because the guitar would be uncontrollable. Then figure into that how the pickups on the Gretsches I had were horrible. By ’86, right after the Love album and right before Electric, Seymour Duncan was gracious enough to make me a couple sets of pickups, which I put in both Gretsches – by that time, I had a the White Falcon and a ’70s Country Club as a second guitar which I had resprayed – my idea was a Black Falcon.
You were 20 years ahead of Gretsch with that idea!
Well, the video’s there to prove it! I just thought it be cool – the evil twin to my White Falcon. It was originally a natural-finish, and there was a lot of them in the ’70s and ’80s. They looked like a piece of Danish furniture, really! I had Roger Giffin spray it in London, in his shop in the arches under the Kew Bridge, and I think something happened when he sprayed it because it got slightly cloudy and has a slight green tint to it, which is actually quite attractive. I remember, we were on tour in Saskatoon or somewhere in Canada, in winter, when it was minus 20 [degrees], and the lacquer cracked a little bit on both guitars; gave them that real vintage-looking finish checking.
I never really played the black one a lot. It looked great, but it didn’t have the same neck and didn’t have a vibrato arm until maybe 10 years ago.
How much of your tone relies on your touch?
I hit ’em pretty hard. I know different guys have a different physicality on guitars, and I’m definitely on the more aggressive side. I apply a bit of “weight” onto the guitar when I play it.
I think what I do comes from a combination of being the only guitar player in The Cult for a long time, and needing to make the guitar sound as big as possible, and the JC120 created that glassy, ethereal chime, which a Gretsch has anyway; one of the qualities of a good Gretsch guitar is this sing-song, chimey, almost cathedral-like quality to the sound. If you can harness that, but give it some chug at the bottom end, that’s what I tried to do when Seymour Duncan made the pickups.
When people see a guy with a Gretsch, they tend to think “rockabilly influence.” Is that true of you?
Well, yeah, because when I was living in London – I moved there in ’79 and early in ’80, into ’81, that was a huge psychobilly scene, which was punk mixed with rockabilly sound. There’s a hardcore following of that in the States, in Orange County, and Texas. But I saw the Stray Cats in London, and they were one of the best bands. I saw the Pistols before Sid was in the band, saw the Who on Keith Moon’s last tour, Queen on the Sheer Heart Attack tour in a 2,000-seat venue. I remember those moments and to me, those are pivotal live bands. I couldn’t work out how a band could be as good as the Stray Cats! What they did… it was hot-roddy rockabilly, the guitar player was shredding. It wasn’t just ’50s-sounding – it had punk-rock energy, and that was a big influence, as well. It all fit into a picture.
We always talk about how we were fans of punk rock who were looking to express ourselves with our own music and tools of our trade. We were trying to be more expansive, and we’d use pedals and any new technology. It wasn’t good enough for me just to sound like somebody who’d already done something, I wanted to make my own sound.
“She Sells Sanctuary” was the Cult’s first big exposure to an international audience..
It was a game-changer, yeah.
Do you consider your guitar tone on that song to be one of your trademarks?
In all honesty, that album was very experimental, and “She Sells Sanctuary” was recorded before the album, as a single. It was an experiment with the producer, recorded with a couple of other tracks that were kind of just throwaway B-sides – a song called “The Snake” and a song called “Number 13” – I can’t even remember how they went. But we did those songs as a little taster before we committed to an album, and a bunch of different s**t just worked out. There’s a funny story; we were trying to get in touch with Steve Lillywhite, the rock producer who was producing U2 and Simple Minds and such at the time. So we approached his management and sent a video of us playing. Well, they accidentally gave it to a another Steve at the company – Steve Brown – who was friends with Steve Lillywhite, but had not really produced any rock stuff. I believe he was involved in Wham’s first album, and was more of a funk/pop guy. So we took the meeting anyway, me and Ian, because Steve Lillywhite didn’t want anything to do with this, because we had blue hair and I looked like some kind of Germanic-Nordic Hells Angels cowboy! We weren’t guaranteed success at that point, ya know? So we ended up getting involved with Steve, and he was brilliant – such a crazy guy. He said, “Look, I grew up mixing, being an engineer at Polydor studios in London. I’ve done Thin Lizzy, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band…” and he listed off a load of bands that I loved. He said, “When I became a producer, I became known for this funk stuff, and pop.” So what we got was a guy who knew about rock, but his expertise was more in pop. That combination mixed us with him, and we told him, “We want to record in Olympic, because Led Zeppelin did the first two albums there, and Free recorded there.” He said, “Well, that studio’s really out of date. Orchestras record there. It’s really expensive, and it’s really old-fashioned.” And we went, “Yes! We want to record there…” (laughs)!
’Cuz think about it; it was ’85, right? Everybody wanted the most modern, technologically advanced gear. And we’re going “Led Zeppelin!” and we’re talking to the house engineer – “Tell us about Jimmy Page, what did he use?” And he’d tell us about the amps or whatever, and we’d be like, “Awww, f**k!”
And so the combination of people, along with our stupid, naive insistence, kind of tapped into this mojo where real records were made. We weren’t caught up in that punk attitude where bands thought every record made before 1976 was horrible. We were like, “There was some cool music there…” That was the thing about The Cult – we were open to saying, “You know what? Jimi Hendrix wasn’t all that bad!” Well, wearing a cape and having a stage set that’s castle, singing about demons and dragons… We can’t really relate to that. But that doesn’t mean Led Zeppelin or Free or blah, blah, blah is all horrible. Punk rock tried to throw the baby out with the bath water.
Anyway, on “She Sells Sanctuary”… On that whole Love album, I couldn’t get one amp to get me the sound I wanted. So we mic’d up every amp I could get my hands on, and that included Ian’s Yamaha combo, there was definitely a Marshall or two, and possibly that Ampeg VT22. We just mic’d them all up and blended them all together to find the sound. On “Sanctuary,” the guitar’s pretty thin, but if you listen to “The Phoenix,” “Love,” and “Rain,” the guitars are slightly thicker. “Sanctuary” was really the first effort.
How did the band’s approach to songwriting, and your approach to guitar playing change from Love to Electric?
Well, it was quite a cathartic change. We did Love, toured the world, had quite a lot of success, and changed our complete frame of reference. So, being sensible, we went, “Let’s go and do another album with the same producer.” So me and Ian tried to do the follow-up, and didn’t really have a firm title. We recorded it, and it just wasn’t there… we didn’t have the songs down, we hadn’t honed them enough. We’d been on the road, then did the usual rush to the studio before we were ready, and spent a lot of time messing around.
We had this overblown album that didn’t quite capture what we wanted. It was all the songs from Electric, with maybe one exception. But we’d lost the grace of the Love album; we had a different drummer, got a bit more self-indulgent, and grew very much into the whole rock-and-roll lifestyle. We’d lost the lightness we had with the Love album, and we knew something was wrong. So, we started talking to Rick Rubin, who said, “I’ll re-mix the whole album, but you have to cut one track, from the ground up, with me.”
Well, we had hung out with Rick in New York – talked to him about music and all that. And he asked us, “Do you like AC/DC?” We went, “Yes.” “Do you like early Aerosmith?” And we went, “Yes.” And he’s like, “Do you want to be a rock-and-roll band?” And we were like, “Yes.” So we went about it.
Which track was cut just for him?
Well, actually we didn’t do one. That was his way of luring us into a studio – his bait-and-switch! We talked about doing another cut of “Removal Machine,” which was going to be the first single. After the demo sessions – which weren’t all rubbish, but overall were overblown and indulgent – Rick came in and asked, “Which songs on the record do you hate the most?” I think I said, “Peace Dog,” because it was nothing like we meant it to sound like, and he said, “We have to work on that one.” And Rick, with George Drakoulias, who was his partner in crime on that record, and Andy Wallace, the engineer, set about and basically cut everything to pieces, just disassembled it. Rick’s quote about it is the best; “I didn’t produce The Cult so much as I reduced The Cult.” And that really sums it up. We stripped it down to the bones, re-jigged the fundamentals a bit, changed the foundations and the beats, then just played the s**t out of the songs – all with rented equipment. That whole album was done on rented gear, because we thought we were only going to cut one song. The whole album was literally the best two Marshall heads we could find, the best cabinet, a couple of Les Pauls – one Standard and one Custom – and a wah. That was it.
At the time, Anthrax and the Beastie Boys were all hanging out around there, and Public Enemy was on Rick’s Def Jam label. It was New York and it was 1986, and that’s what was going on. But in essence, the whole album was just Les Paul through a Marshall, pure and simple.
And no White Falcon, right?
No, not at all. It was in England. I didn’t play a lick on the White Falcon for Electric. It was on all of the Love album, but none on the Electric album. It was quite a transition, to be honest. For the way I was getting those echoey wah kind of things. Rick just stripped all that away – I wasn’t allowed any delay. Rick was all about the space, he was into Dantzig and Slayer… he was about leaving holes. Like analyzing why there’s a hole on “Highway to Hell” where Angus does the pick slide, or the importance of the length of time of that hole in the song. Rick was about the spaces between the notes, and he probably still is.
Where does Electric rate for you personally?
Oh, I don’t know, I would say it was an important record. I don’t know if it’s great compared to other stuff.
When you hear a critic or writer talk about Electric as one of the top albums of the ’80s, what do you think?
That’s not really for me to say. But I’d definitely say it would be foolish to say it! I think it influenced a lot of people. I’m not saying it’s any way original, but it was heartfelt and real for that moment in time.
There’s talk of doing a tour where we play the whole album. So, I’ve revisited the album within the last year, just played along.
Both Love and Electric have a pretty obvious influence on the band’s new album, Choice Of Weapon.
Yeah, I think so. It’s all in the DNA, you know? And it could be a bit of a kindred spirit to Sonic Temple in that it has a certain brashness and feel.
How did the songs come together?
These days – being adults as opposed to adolescents – Ian and I don’t spend our off time in each other’s pockets! Everybody has wives and children and stuff. So, on our own, we compile stuff, then, when we feel it’s right, get together and go through it. He writes and… basically primarily The Cult has always been him singing to my music and together, we listen to the riffs and categorize songs. Then we start putting them together, and he has taken a very active role the last two albums, listening closely for riffs that really speak to him and suggest what type of lyric to go for. It’s nothing too mystical.
This time, we decided to record “capsules” prior to doing a full album. Ian was adamant about that, and we released some about a year and a half ago – songs from the writing sessions for Choice of Weapons.
And you worked with two producers, right?
We did the capsules with Chris Goss, then did some gigs, then got back to writing more stuff, this time with Chris. We got most of the way through the project, and then just ran out of steam. We needed to bring in a new “coach,” as it were, to finish the game; we didn’t have the luxury of sitting around. So we brought Bob Rock in to close the album.
Which guitars and amps do we hear on it?
I used a couple of White Falcons – a new single-cut with TV Jones pickups, and I a ’60s double-cut I found that sat well on the record. I had about 10 guitars lined up, and just grabbed it to put a different bit of paint on the canvas. I also used a Bill Nash E model he made for me, and a Nash S, which was on the album a little bit.
The majority of the album was on a Les Paul, mostly a ’57 Les Paul goldtop reissue from the Custom Shop that records nicely. I used a fair bit of those two Gretsches, a little bit of a single-cutaway Les Paul TV Junior made for me by the Gibson Custom Shop – thank you, guys!
So it was those three food groups – a couple Les Pauls, a couple Gretsches, a couple of Nashes with Seymour Duncan pickups. I’ve always liked Seymour’s concept of tone.
How about amplifiers?
It was my Bad Cat 2×12 combo and a Matchless 2×12 DC30. I used one of my venerable Marshall heads and one of my 4×12 cabs. I’ve had four of my Marshall since the ’80s, two were used by the Sex Pistols when they reformed in ’96 and in 2002; they’re JCM 800s that were modified by Harry Kolbe in ’88, and those are what I’ve always used live and in the studio ever since.
There’s nothing too clever or slick. Chris Goss has a fantastic collection of amps, and I used a couple of his little Supros. He’s into those “pawn shop” amps, and I used one with a 12″ speaker, and that JC 120 a bit, for the same reason I’ve used one since 1981 – for that glassy tone. And that was about it. There was nothing too exotic, really.
What did Kolbe do to your Marshalls back in the day?
He ups the quality of the power supplies, so when you hit the bottom-end, it’s loud and doesn’t make the amp sound thin. In my experience, on certain Marshalls, the preamps used to sound kind of sizzly. So he just added some kind of black box that you can’t take apart.
Do you still use mostly Marshalls live?
Live, I use a three-amp setup; Marshalls, Matchless DC30s, and a JC 120. Even when you see just Marshall cabinets onstage, there are a couple of combos hiding in back.
Basically, from the Marshall I try for an Angus Young tone, from the Matchless I get Malcolm Young, and from the JC 120 a bit of my own personality. Onstage, I switch between all three amps in various combinations.
Which effects do you use?
I have a couple of overdrives, a couple of wah wahs that Jim Dunlop makes specially for me, and a few different delays.
Are you using digital rack-mount stuff, or old-school stompboxes?
I use old-school stompboxes, mostly Boss stuff, because they’re readily available and give me the sound I’m familiar with. I only use one analog delay pedal for the “She Sells Sanctuary” and “Fire Woman” intro sounds in combinations with one of the digital delay pedals. I’m kind of like, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” I’m not a guy who wants to be twiddling; a gig is about performance, excitement, aggression, not about twiddling knobs on pedals! That’s not the time or place for that. I just want to stomp on boxes.
I’m not a great gearhead. I stick with what works. I still wear Levis. You try other brands but you go back. That’s me with equipment.
And you’re working with Gretsch on a signature White Falcon?
Yes! They forensically analyzed my guitar – the ’70s Falcon I used on “She Sells Sanctuary,” with all its battle scars and whatnot, and we’re going to make something based on it. Most of the Falcons they do at Gretsch are from ’50s or ’60s designs, and the ’70s ones are very different – they have a different construction – smaller f holes, different headstock. It’s a lot of detail stuff, minutiae… like a zero fret. But we’ve got some great allies at Gretsch – Joe, Michael, a bunch of friends who have greenlighted it. So that’s ongoing.
What’s your favorite pick?
I use Herco Flex 50s, and I grip them sideways.
…ahhh, like Stevie Ray!
Now there’s a guitar player! I could go on for weeks talking about guitar players. But I dig in quite hard, and use them that way so I have more to hold on to between my thumb and forefinger. And a lot of my tone has to do with where I pick. If you listen closely to a lot of the Cult stuff, you can hear I’m doing a lot of the picking right on the bridge, and I’m doing a bit of palm-muting. Somebody once said it’s a lot to do with the right hand. A lot of guitar players who are very gifted do great stuff with the left hand, but there’s quite a lot of technique on the right that plays into the sound. Where I choose to play some of the Cult riffs could be done more efficiently on different parts of the neck, but they wouldn’t get the feeling and intervals and you wouldn’t get the repeats off the delays that create that locomotive thing you hear on “Sanctuary.” I’ve heard guys play it, but they don’t have the locomotion. It’s not too hard – any 14-year-old can do it, and they probably have on Guitar Hero. It was cool to hear that song on the Budweiser commercial during the Super Bowl. It was pretty powerful – and kind of a shock, though I knew it was going to happen. Still to actually hear it, you’re like a bit “Whoa!” you know?
This article originally appeared in VG July 2012 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.