Whether playing rock or blues, Gary Moore has always possessed a distinct and identifiable style.
While he is well-known for his contributions as a member of Thin Lizzy, Moore maintained a successful solo career which began before he was enlisted to play with the group, and continued doing so between his stints with Lizzy.
Additionally, he worked as a session musician who recorded with an assortment of top artists, as well as having been a member of the prog rock/fusion outfit Colosseum II, with which he recorded three albums in 1976 and ’77. His solo career intensified in the ’80s, scoring hits with songs like “Nuclear Attack,” “Run To You Mama,” “Victims Of The Future,” “Murder In The Skies,” “Back On The Streets,” “Empty Rooms,” and “Parisienne Walkways.”
Moore eventually grew tired of competing in the commercial rock scene, and by 1990 he realized that his true calling was to play blues. He decided to change directions by returning to the music that initially inspired him and released Still Got The Blues, which included collaborations with Albert Collins, Albert King, and B.B. King. The decision proved fruitful when the album became the most acclaimed of his career. On his latest release, appropriately titled Close As You Get, Moore has achieved many of his artistic goals as a musician, and went about doing things in the manner he had long hoped for in creating a blues album. As it turned out, this was the first time he really got to do things his way in both the execution of his actual performance and the methods used for recording.
Moore spoke with Vintage Guitar from his home in Brighton, England, and unraveled the process he went through in making this album, talked about the creation of his original songs (and why he selected the cover tunes on the disc), detailed the gear used, explained how he captured performances in an old-school way, and also discussed some advice he received from a blues master – and why it had a tremendous effect on his own growth as a bluesman.
On Close As You Get, Moore has not just come close, but demonstrates that he truly is one of the greats himself.
In what ways have your influences changed in recent years, if at all?
Well, they kind of have, and they haven’t. I started playing guitar in the ’60s, when I was 10 years old and there really weren’t many guitarists around. The people who were popular at that time were Hank Marvin and the Shadows, and the big change came with the Beatles. I was really into George Harrison. I loved his melodic style and his inventiveness. The real big turning point came when the British blues boom hit with people like Eric Clapton, John Mayall, Peter Green, and then Jimi Hendrix came along. Then I started listening to all the blues guys, like B.B. King and Albert King. It still goes back to those guys, and I think my playing is a combination of all of those elements, but at some point it came together and became my own style.
What do you listen to these days for inspiration?
I still listen to blues. I was doing a blues program called “Planet Rock” for a radio station in London; I did a six-part series, two-hour shows every week. So I was digging back into all the really old blues stuff, like Son House. In fact, I found a lot of the material for the new album through that radio show. I was listening to Leadbelly, [harmonica player] Sonny Terry and [his partner, guitarist] Brownie McGhee, and all the acoustic stuff that I never got into when I was a kid. So I’ve rediscovered a lot of that recently, and I ended up including some of the songs on this album, particularly the Son House song called “Sundown,” which is my first-ever acoustic blues track on record.
Was “Sundown” played on a resonator?
Yes. It’s an Ozark – a cheap copy of a National with a skinny body, very comfortable to play and has a really good sound. I used open-G tuning, like Son House.
What type of slide did you use?
I used a brass slide on my third finger.
On the opening track, “If The Devil Made Whiskey,” you played electric slide. Which guitar and slide did you use?
That was a 1968 Telecaster tuned to open E and then dropped down a whole step to D. I used a glass bottleneck for the different vibe and I played through a ’60s Vox AC30.
Which other guitars, amps, and effects were used to create the tonal textures on the recording?
The main guitar is a 1959 Les Paul Standard – the same guitar I used on Still Got The Blues. I’ve had it since 1989 and I use it live a lot. It’s not pristine by any means, but it’s a really great guitar and I’ve used it on lots of albums since Still Got The Blues. In fact, “Still Got The Blues” was the first track it was used on. That’s the first song we did that day, and I thought it was a good indicator of what the guitar could do. I’ve used it ever since. On “Have You Heard,” I used an ES-335; I think it’s a ’64. It has PAF pickups in it and sounds a bit like a Les Paul. I also used the ’68 Telecaster. For amps, I used that Vox on a couple of tracks – “Thirty Days,” the Chuck Berry song, and “If The Devil Made Whiskey,” and then I used an 18-year-old Fender Vibroverb reissue with two 10s and the reverb. I used that on a couple of the slower ones like “Trouble At Home” and “I Had A Dream.” I used the Marshall DSL100 that I’ve been using for 10 years on “Have You Heard” and “Checkin’ Up On My Baby” – the heavier-sounding stuff. And I also used an Orange Tiny Terror, which looks like a toy amplifier, with a little hand-wired Marshall 2×12 angle cabinet. That was it for amps.
The only effects were tremolo and vibrato from the amps. But there’s one place where I did use a pedal. I originally recorded the rhythm track on “Nowhere Fast” with the Vibroverb, using the vibrato in the amplifier, but it was breaking up. I think the tube was going. So I just plugged into the desk and used a Boss tremolo pedal. The other effects, like reverb, are mainly the spring reverbs on the Vibroverb and Marshall. When we wanted to use studio reverb, we used an Alesis Midiverb II, which I’ve been using since the late ’80s for all my guitar sounds. I have my favorite programs, but you can’t even store anything in it – you can press buttons and it goes to 30 or whatever, and you just put in whatever numbers you like in your favorite programs, then tweak it until it sounds good. But we didn’t use the Lexicon or any sort of really expensive reverbs. For guitar, I think cheap stuff is always best. For vocals, it’s a bit different. But for guitar, for me, it works really well.
The album sounds very much like a live performance. Were the songs recorded that way?
Yes. I had two things in mind before I went in; one was to play live with the band and do as many solos live as possible. There was only one overdubbed solo, and the rest of it was all on the backing track. I left the door open where my guitar was to go so that I would have to get it right, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to get rid of the spill [from the other instruments]. So the one solo I did overdub was “Have You Heard,” and that was because I was playing too many Clapton licks from the original version. It was kind of ingrained. I had to change guitars and I did it after the band left, so you can hear a little bit of the spill from the original track in there. I had to do it very carefully. But that was the only overdubbed solo.
So the album sounds live because it is, pretty much, and that’s the way I wanted to do it. I often said I wanted to record like that, but it didn’t end up working out because the band wasn’t getting the songs down quickly enough. We’d be working out songs, then I’d peak with my playing, and you know how that goes when you play guitar. You do a couple of solos and you’ve already peaked, but the band still hasn’t got the song right. It’s frustrating. So this time we kind of learned them together. We didn’t rehearse anything before we went in, and I was happy because on the other records where we’ve tried to do it like that, it was a complete disaster. I ended up not really getting what I wanted, but had to make do. Power Of The Blues was like that, and the production was a bit of a nightmare. But this record didn’t even feel like we’d made a record because it was so easy.
There’s a fairly distinct downward vibrato bar sound at the very end of “Hard Times.” Was a second guitar overdubbed for texture on that track?
Yes. That’s a Burns Artist guitar from the ’60s with a tiny body. A friend was selling it. She didn’t play anymore and I thought it was really neat. It was great for playing the James Bond stuff. It’s got the original Burns pickups and was in really good condition. It had some cards, like the Ace of Spades, that someone had stuck on it. It looked like a really cool kid’s guitar. So that was the whammy bar on that track in a couple of places. You can hear the noise of the springs kind of catching at the end. It’s got a personality. It’s important, sometimes, to have that. It just gives the song a little bit of character.
Otherwise, did you usually use just one guitar on each song?
It was generally one, yes. You can hear on the first track, “If The Devil Made Whiskey,” that it’s just one guitar all the way through. Then I did the vocal again because I wrote the song that morning when I was sitting in bed. I couldn’t sleep, and I kind of had the words, but I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. I thought I’d give it a really dirty slide and would do it like that. So I just tuned to open E dropped to D, got the bass player and drummer, and we did it in about three takes. Then I stuck the vocal on, and that was it. On the track after that, “Trouble At Home,” the vocal and everything on that is live – you can hear the way the guitar plays off the vocal.
The guitar and vocals sound live and connected on that track. With the blues, the guitar and vocal parts often play off of each other in a call-and-response style.
Yes, absolutely. That’s one of the really good things about playing blues. When I used to play rock in the ’80s, especially live, it was really hard to keep the rhythm tight and keep the vocals right all the time. You were just never off because you had to play a lot more rhythm behind the vocal. The good thing with the blues is that you don’t have to play all the time when you’re singing. You can actually just answer the vocal – call and response – which leaves a lot more space in the music, and I think it makes the vocal sound stronger.
Were you able to record your guitar and vocal parts at the same time on many of the songs?
Yes, sometimes I did – amazingly!
Were most of your solos improvised and off-the-cuff, or were they worked out beforehand?
They’re mostly improvised.
The album also has a very organic tonal quality.
Well, everything was recorded on tape. That was very important to the way I wanted to do this album. I don’t really like Pro Tools all that much. I know the sound is one thing, but even the young assistant engineers in the studio discovered there’s a difference after we had tried doing a mix with Pro Tools. My engineer suddenly decided he was going to do that, and it sounded different after he transferred everything into Pro Tools. Even the assistant engineer started to hear it, as well. So I freaked them all out. I said, “Look, I can hear the difference, men.” And even the young guy agreed. He said, “Yeah, you’re right. There is a difference.” So I said, “Can we not do this in Pro Tools?” I really wanted to keep it all on tape because otherwise you’re kind of mixing by committee. You’ve got the guy operating the Pro Tools, and you’ve got your guy passing instructions on from you to a third guy. I think it just ends up taking a long time, people get carried away with all the options, and they don’t want to commit to anything. I like the old-fashioned 24-track one reel of tape. You know what you’ve got, and you know what you have to do. It works for me. So that’s how we did it.
Let’s get specific about your preferences for the way your guitars sound and feel. How are they set up?
I don’t like really low action because it starts to get a bit “chinky” sounding. I used to use heavier strings, but a couple of years ago I injured my hand and I had to go down a gauge. I use .009-.048 now and I was using .010-.052 before. But I’m actually working my way back up again. I started with .009-.046 and I’m trying to work my way back up to .050 again. I think the tone is more noticeable in the bottom strings.
Do your guitars have stock pickups and hardware?
Oh, yeah. My ’59 Les Paul has the original pickups on it, my ES-335 has the original pickups, and my Telecaster has the original pickups. I think there’s something about the pickups from that era. I don’t know why, but there’s just something really good about them.
That’s probably why so many manufacturers try to copy pickups from that era.
Absolutely. There are some really, really good pickups around today by people like Lindy Fralin and Tom Holmes. I use Tom Holmes pickups sometimes. On one of my signature Les Paul models, I’ve played around with different ones. Some new pickups are really good. I mean, if you can’t get a good sound today, I think there’s something really wrong with you! There were two “good” guitars when I started, and I couldn’t afford either of them. It was kind of like you just had to make do with whatever you could afford. But for the kids starting today, it’s so easy to get a guitar and amp with a good sound. It’s so cheap now, and you can just walk in and buy a Gibson Melody Maker for about $300, and get an amazing little amp at a very low price. Or you can go much cheaper with an Epiphone guitar or another one of those various copies, and they still sound really good when you put them through a decent amp. There’s a big difference in the quality of what you can get today for a beginner or just an affordable guitar for someone who doesn’t have lots of money to spend.
What type of picks do you prefer?
I use Gibson extra heavy picks. A really heavy pick just suits my style better. I used to use those gray Hercos for years, even in Thin Lizzy. Everyone in Thin Lizzy used those picks, even Phil Lynott.
Describe your writing process and what inspires you when writing a song.
It works better for me if I’ve got the lyrics first because there’s nothing I hate more than going in the studio, putting down a backing track, and then I haven’t got any words for it. Even if I’ve got a melody, everyone’s sitting around waiting for me to write the words. It’s just a nightmare. So this time, I wrote all the words first, and that really helped me, because all I had to do was put the music to it, and that was really easy for me. But to do it the other way around, I always find that much harder. I think a lot of guitarists would say that it’s harder to write the lyrics because we’re all so used to putting music together, and we’re all adept at doing arrangements and getting everything in place. But if you haven’t got anything to say and you’ve just got a backing track, it’s meaningless. I like to try and write songs that are personal to me. A lot of the time, they’re pretty autobiographical, and when they’re not, it’s about something that maybe I’ve seen on the news, or a political thing. But they’re usually written about something that’s meaningful to me.
Do you have a favorite track or a favorite solo on this album?
I like a lot of tracks on it, but I especially like the solo on the second track, “Trouble At Home,” because it’s the first time I’ve ever been able to nail what I do live and leave those big spaces in the phrasing, and with a really nice tone. I think it comes across as really expressive. As a guitarist, I’ve had to learn to leave some spaces. Guitarists have this thing where they’re afraid to leave a hole because they think they’ll fall down in it. Where actually, the bigger holes you leave, the better. Albert King said something to me when I did “Oh, Pretty Woman” with him years ago on the Still Got The Blues album. He was leaving the studio on the last day and he said, “Gary, play every other lick.” That’s such a profound thing – play every other lick. Those four little words meant the world to me. It took me a long time to really take it in. But he was absolutely right. If you leave that space, if you’ve got a good tone and you play expressively, and you can make people feel from your guitar, they won’t be able to wait for the next note. It creates that tension if you’ve got a great sound and great feel. I grew up listening to Peter Green, and he was amazing when he would leave that space. You would just go, “Come on and play the next note, man!” It just sounds so amazing just when you play one note with great tone and feel. So that’s one of my favorite solos. And one of my favorite tracks is “I Had A Dream.” I like the solo at the end of that one as well, which has a Telecaster, and it’s almost like country blues, in a way.
What will you be using onstage?
The same stuff – my ’59 Les Paul as my main guitar, through a Marshall DSL100. I also use a Telecaster and sometimes a 335. I actually have four Les Pauls that I use live. There’s the ’59, my signature model which I use for “Parisienne Walkways” and a few other tunes, then there’s one from the Custom Shop which has the out-of-phase sound, and one I stole from the Gibson Artists Department about a year ago, which is a sunburst and has a skinny neck that I don’t really like so much, but it sounds really good.
I just got some new pedals by T-Rex, which is a company from Denmark. One is a Moller overdrive; a double pedal with a clean boost on one side and a distortion on the other. I’ll use that on “Oh Pretty Woman,” and sometimes when I’ll bend one string up to the other to give it a Hendrixy sound. I’ve also got their Room-Mate tube reverb, Replica delay pedal, and Mudhoney overdrive.
Many guitarists, especially vintage enthusiasts, are curious about the Peter Green Les Paul and how difficult the decision was to part with it. Why did you let it go?
It’s a long story. The instrument itself was a very special instrument, obviously. But it got to the point where I couldn’t take it anywhere.
I didn’t want to sell it – I had to sell it for various reasons, but mainly because I injured my hand a few years ago and the insurance didn’t pay up. I canceled shows and had to cover tour costs with my own money, and didn’t get paid for any of the shows. I ended up with debt. So it was a financial thing, and that was the quickest way to do anything about it. I mean, why would I want to sell it? That guitar was played by Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck. Rory Gallagher played it, I played it… It was a very special instrument.
Les Pauls are all so different, and that one is a big old battle axe. Peter Green never really liked the guitar because he thought the neck was too big, and he bitched about it quite a bit for years. He wanted me to have it because he said he wanted it to go to a good home.
You mentioned the advice you received from a legendary bluesman. What advice would you offer to other guitarists?
I think that space thing is very important. Because I’ve toured more within the blues context, I couldn’t offer rock guitar advice to anybody since it is so far removed from me now. Within the blues, you’ve got to learn what Albert King said – to play every other lick. Don’t feel the need to fill every space and be like a really boring guest at a dinner party, where you’re just going to talk over everybody and think that what you’ve got to say is more important than anybody else. You’ve got to learn to leave that space. And I think if guitarists listen to this new record, they’ll find that it’s something I’ve really worked on a lot. I was doing it live, but this is the first time in the studio that I’ve done it with that sort of control.
On the subject of collaborating with legendary musicians, in 1994, you recorded Around The Next Dream with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. Of course, you weren’t attempting to be the new Cream, although some people may have perceived it that way. What was the experience like to be playing guitar and writing music with Bruce and Baker, and why didn’t you tour together?
I think we kind of sounded more like Cream than they did on the reunion tour. I saw Cream at the Royal Albert Hall on the reunion tour, and to be honest, it actually wasn’t like what it was in the ’60s. Jack Bruce’s voice was amazing, but Ginger Baker was playing a different way and Eric was kind of doing his usual thing. But they’d all kind of moved on, so it wasn’t the same three guys being put back together. It was three different guys who were older, and they were all so different from what they were like in those days.
There are a couple of good songs on that album [with Baker and Bruce], but we had so much going on around us. I mean, can you imagine trying to go on the road with the people involved in that? We had so much pressure from the media over here. They all thought that it was just a big hype, but it wasn’t at all. It kind of fell together naturally. There was no hype whatsoever. It was actually a Gary Moore album and they ended up playing on it. But it didn’t seem right to just call it another Gary Moore album, so we had to call it a band name.
We had one of those meetings to think of a name, but everybody was just laughing and joking around, and the names got worse and worse. Ginger wanted to call the band “Beyond Repair.” That was one of those really funny nights. We ended up just using our initials and being really boring. But we didn’t last too long. Then again, Cream wasn’t around very long either!
Are there any new bands you enjoy listening to?
There’s a band from the U.K. called Muse that I like. I went to see them at Wembley Arena a few months ago. They’re a very powerful band. The kind of chords that they use and stuff they do is kind of classically-influenced and they have a very European sort of sound. It’s a dark sound, but it’s pretty powerful. They put on a really good show, as well. It’s great musically and visually. I recently saw Kings Of Leon, and I really like them, as well. I like their guitar style and what they have going on. They’re really good and I like their new album. It’s their third, but it’s very different from the first two. This one is pretty dark, and I think it’s much more creative. The other ones are much more poppy.
Will you be playing many shows this year?
Yes. We’ve already been doing some, including a big U.K. tour that started in May. We’ve got a lot of European shows scheduled through the summer, and that’s it for now up until about September.
Do you plan to return to the U.S.? It’s been a while since we’ve had the opportunity to see you play in the States.
I know it has been a long time since I’ve played there – the early ’90s. If somebody offers us something where I don’t have to mortgage my mother, I’d love to play in the States again.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s September 2007 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.
Gary Moore – Still Got The Blues (Live)