Peter Frampton is in an upbeat mood, mainly because his decades-long career as a guitarist, singer, and songwriter was also headed back in an upward direction. Since Vintage Guitar‘s first conversation with Frampton (VG, February ’98) , he’s been involved with all sorts of new and innovative projects, and was eager to talk about the evolution of a career that dates to the ’60s, when he played in a British teen sensation band called the Herd. He subsequently played with Humble Pie, departing after its live album, Rockin’ the Fillmore, became its best-seller. The zenith of Frampton’s solo career was, of course, his own live album, 1976’s Frampton Comes Alive! The double-LP effort, with a soft-focus cover photo of the guitarist clutching a three-pickup (sans covers) Les Paul Custom sold 17 million units worldwide.
Framp-ton’s career has had its ups and downs (he even lampooned such in a mid-’80s video, parodying a movie called Tender Mercies; in the video, a youngster asks the guitarist, “Hey, mister, didn’t you used to be Peter Frampton?”).
But nowadays, the “Face of ’76” is all over the musical and visual entertainment map, and he’s working on his own terms. In a cordial and wide-ranging conversation, we started by addressing a perception about changes in Frampton’s status…
Vintage Guitar: It seems a paradox that you’ve moved from the Nashville area, because a lot of veteran musicians have been moving to Nashville. Why Cincinnati?
Peter Frampton: Well, I’m not really moving out. I’m still going to be doing all of my writing and recording in Nashville. We’re going to get a new condo down there, but one of my residences is now going to be in Cincinnati because my wife’s family comes from there. I’m commuting. And besides, Nashville’s such a great place – I’ve made new friends.
Around the time of our first conversation, a live album by another band that was prominent in the ’70s, Grand Funk Railroad [Bosnia, Capitol] featured a guest appearance by you on a couple of tunes. Details?
I was just starting to rehearse with Ringo’s All-Starrs that year, and they asked me to help them out on a track or two, because it was for a great cause. Humble Pie and Grand Funk had virtually toured the world together in ’70-’71, so we were great friends.
They flew me in, I did the soundcheck and the gig, and as soon as I left the stage, I went back to the airport and flew back to L.A. I don’t know where I was (laughs), but it was a great experience!
Your newest release is a live album, and like the Grand Funk album,was recorded in the Detroit area.
It’s a three-fold project that didn’t start off as a CD at all – it started off as a DVD. That’s the main release as far as I’m concerned – I’m not putting down the CD, but everyone keeps calling it “…another live record,” and that’s not really the case.
It started when Image Entertainment asked if I’d be up for doing a live show on DVD, and I said, “Absolutely,” because when we did Frampton Comes Alive!, it wasn’t filmed, and there was no MTV. This was a wonderful opportunity for me to do something of cutting-edge quality; we filmed it in high-definition and I got to mix the sound in (Dolby Surround) 5.1. It was a joy to do, and when you watch the DVD and listen to it in 5.1, you’re in the middle of the audience at Pine Knob! I think eventually most releases are going to be on 5.1 – VHS tapes and CDs, as well.
The VHS of the concert is in stereo, and we went to CMC International because Image wanted it out on CD, as well, which meant it could get on the radio. But all three formats promote each other.
I’ve had a home theatre system for a while, and have been enjoying DVDs, so I did have a little experience with them, and it was basically, “Okay, now I get to do one myself.” Chuck Ainlay is a fantastic engineer, and he’s got a 5.1 mixing studio in Nashville, and we were the first to go in.
Another new item for you to manipulate is your Gibson signature instrument.
Yeah, what an honor! It looks like the one on the cover of Frampton Comes Alive! – the one that went down in the plane crash in South America. I’d made cosmetic, pickup, and wiring changes to it, and over the years, I haven’t been satisfied with other Les Pauls because they’re too damn heavy, and I could never find one that sounded like mine.
When Gibson asked if I’d be interested in doing a signature model, I said, “Of course,” and I started working on it with Mike McGuire, the head of their Custom Shop. We took the Les Paul and chambered it to make it lighter. These days, we can’t use Honduras mahogany, which is why all of those early Les Pauls were so light. When Gibson started to use other mahogany, that’s when they started getting heavy. When Mike suggested we start with as light of a piece of mahogany as we could get, then chamber it, I wasn’t sure how it would sound, but I was thrilled that it ended with a sound that was very reminscent of my old guitar.
I had the neck put to my own specs, as well – very similar to a 1960 Les Paul neck. There’s a big difference in the ’59 necks and the ’60s; the ’59 was a baseball bat, the ’60 was much thinner. It’s either/or – you either like the big necks – Jeff Beck can’t get them big enough (chuckles), or for people like myself, you can’t get them small enough. This guitar has a small neck. Some will really like it, some won’t.
Three pickups, obviously. There’s a Gibson ’57 in the neck position, a 500-T in the bridge position – it’s pretty loud. The middle pickup is a ’57 Plus. The way they’re wired is different from the way the original three-pickup Les Paul Customs were, but it’s the way my old guitar was wired. The middle pickup was always on with the originals – when you put the toggle switch all the way down, you couldn’t get just the bridge pickup, for example. I treated the guitar’s toggle switch like it works on a two-pickup model, and those two pickups use the top volume and tone knobs. The center pickup isn’t part of the switch at all, and is adjusted by the bottom volume and tone knobs; you blend it in. It’s always on, as was the case for the original three-pickups Customs, but you can turn just the middle pickup off by using the bottom volume control. Bringing it in gives the guitar a sort of a thick Strat sound, and of course, turning the top volume completely off, and having just the center pickup on means that it really sounds like a Strat.
The new signature model also doesn’t have pickup covers.
That’s because I took them off of the originals. In the old days, there was no Seymour Duncan company around, and pickups were pickups, generally on the quiet side. You took the pickup covers off to try to make them louder. People associate that cosmetically with my old guitar, so I went the same route.
A lot of your back catalog has been re-released on CD.
I fought to get those released through record company ownership changes (chuckles)! They keep swallowing each other up! But yes, I remastered Wind of Change, Frampton’s Camel, Something’s Happenin’, Frampton, and I’m In You, and they were released on CD in August. And I’m working on others, like Breaking All the Rules. There will also be a 20-track compilation because Polygram now owns Phillips/Fontana, which was the Herd’s label in England, and of course, Universal now owns Polygram. The compilation will include tracks from the Herd, Humble Pie, and my solo career.
Things are starting to build for me again, I think mainly because of the touring; I haven’t as many records out recently, but I’m still out there playing. I think how my career is going to go is related to my live following. So the awareness level is up again, and my “Behind the Music” episode on VH-1 premiered in August.
And January 17 is the 25th anniversary of the release of Frampton Comes Alive!. So Bill Levinson – who I call “Mr. Box” (chuckles) and is now in charge of my entire catalog at Universal – and I worked on the new deluxe edition of Frampton Comes Alive!, with three numbers that weren’t on the original, but were recorded live at the same time.
A while back, you did a guitar instructional infomercial.
Three or four years ago, Emedia asked me to host an infomercial about their CD-ROM guitar tutorial. I told them to send me one so I could see what they were talking about, and I was impressed. It’s very interactive, with an inboard tuner. They supply with the tracks from a lot of different songs, and you can record what you’re playing along with the tutorial, then you can play it back to see how you sound, if you’ve improved, or whatever.
When I was making the infomerial, I met a lot of people who had started to play using the system, and they sounded pretty good! I started with my dad showing me three chords, and a book called The First Step to Guitar! But there’s so much more now that one can do, and it’s an amazing piece of technology for someone who’s just starting out. I didn’t just put in a cameo on the infomerial; the shoot took about 15 hours. Then there were voiceovers and updates, and I’m still onboard with that.
And you recorded music for a motion ride simulator.
Yes. It’s made by Ronbotics and it’s in arcades. It’s all six roller coaster-type rides from Cedar Point Amusement Park, in Ohio. They put a camera on the front of roller coasters and programmed the simulator for the twists and turns. The simulator is a two-seater with surround sound speakers – again, 5.1 (chuckles) – and they showed me what they’d one with one of my instrumentals, “Off the Hook,” which was on Relavity. They said, “We’ve got two of your instrumentals, and we’ve got six rides programmed into the simulator; would you like to write the music for those other four?” Each ride is about three minutes long, so I lived with those other four roller coaster rides on video, and wrote to the curves. It was sort of like doing a very short movie. I recorded all of the new stuff at home, and it turned out fantastic.
So anytime somebody rides one of those simulators, you get a music royalty…
Yes, I do (laughs)! But it’s another unique outlet for my music. We’re even thinking about putting out a little CD with that music on it. We’ll probably put that out on my website.
You’ve also done some soundtrack work for a Disney movie recently, right?
It’s a CD called Tiggermania, which will accompany the release of The Tigger Movie video. I did “Show Me the Way” and a new track called “The Tigger Bop.” It’s for the kids.
What about the movie Almost Famous?
Cameron Crowe (writer and director of the film) and I have known each other since he did the liner notes for Frampton Comes Alive!. It’s about family as much as it is about rock and roll, and it’s very funny. First he asked me to be a consultant on the authenticity of the band and the time period, and I actually rehearsed with the band for six weeks before we shot anything; I was trying to turn them into rock stars (laughs). The amps, drum kit, michrophones, straps – all of it had to be right.
I wrote two songs, and Cameron and his wife, Nancy Wilson, wrote four. Then Cameron asked if I’d like to be in the movie. I played Reg, Humble Pie’s road manager, which is quite ironic seeing as how I was in that band! I had a great summer working on that movie.
Perhaps it’s a credit to your perspective at this point in time of your career that unlike some acts, you haven’t tried to stay in a time warp. One example might be the aesthetics of your current hairstyle…
(pauses) That was very gently put (laughs)!
It is indeed a credit to Frampton that he’s exploring his options in the ever-increasing diversity of the audio-visual entertainment field, and is succeeding in cutting-edge areas. There aren’t too may veteran guitarists participating in as many facets of who biz these days…and besides, does anybody know of any other guitarist – veteran or not – who’s garnering royalties from a arcade ride?
Photo: Ken Settle.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s March ’01 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.