Ritchie Blackmore

Machine Head at 45: Tone Secrets of Deep Purple’s Masterwork
Ritchie Blackmore
Photo: Ian Dickson/Redferns.

In any conversation about the dawn of hard rock and metal, several bands rise up –  Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Mountain, Grand Funk Railroad, and Uriah Heep. But you simply must celebrate the mammoth contributions of Deep Purple and its notorious guitarist-in-chief, Ritchie Blackmore.

The band’s 1972 album, Machine Head, put Purp at the top of the hard-rock heap and was a global smash thanks to the hit single “Smoke on the Water” and its monster riff. About 20 years ago, Blackmore stepped away from rock and began exploring the sounds of acoustic music from the Renaissance era, but he surprised fans by putting together a new lineup of Rainbow and releasing Live in Birmingham 2016.

With Blackmore once again on the prowl and Machine Head turning 45, we asked him to divulge whatever secrets remain from the sessions.

Fender’s Ritchie Blackmore Signature Strat.

Hidden Roots

Before the metallic crunch of Machine Head, psychedelia and blues-rock were evolving. In the latter half of the ’60s, the Yardbirds, Rolling Stones, Cream, Jeff Beck Group, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Vanilla Fudge, and Led Zep began pushing the envelope of heaviness – 1970 was watershed, with Deep Purple’s In Rock, Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen,” and Sabbath’s Paranoid. 

By this point, Blackmore had converted from a Gibson ES-335 to a Fender Stratocaster – a gift from Eric Clapton (we can see Ritchie with a Strat in photos from the Fireball sessions, September 1970). The guitarist’s blooming style traces from Les Paul to the electrifying achievements of Clapton, Beck, Greenie, Page, and (considering Blackmore’s razor-sharp triplets) perhaps, Alvin Lee of Ten Years After.

If you tally these players with the classic Strat and Marshall stack, you’ll begin to see Blackmore morph into the young guitarist who stepped up to record Machine Head. Even Queen guitarist Brian May concurs, as he noted in The Ritchie Blackmore Story documentary.

“Ritchie was already a source of mystery and wonder – nobody could play like that in those days,” May said. “It’s not just the speed – there were other people who can play fast… but they aren’t Ritchie Blackmore.”

We asked Blackmore to fill in the gaps about the many guitarists who helped shape his early style.

“Les Paul was a hero of mine,” he said. “But there were lots of country players back then that were incredible and incredibly fast – Jimmy Bryant, Chet Atkins, Cliff Gallup, Scotty Moore, Glen Campbell, Buck Owens & The Buckeroos, and others whose names I didn’t even know – I’d see them on television shows. Their style was country, mine was more rock and classical. I would improvise mostly in minor keys, whereas country music was in majors. When our management wanted us to go to America to play, I thought, ‘Why? They have so many brilliant guitar players.’ I was kind of reluctant.”

This mix of country and classical is a critical part of the Blackmore attack, but certainly there is lots of blues in there.

“I liked Peter Green with John Mayall, and saw B.B. King live, and thought he was great, even though his selection of notes was pretty limited. Johnny Winter was a brilliant player and of course, I would often play Hendrix stuff, but I always thought of Jimi not as a technician but more of a brilliant singer that could emote amazing stuff on the guitar. He would come up with riffs that nobody else would, like ‘Manic Depression,’ ‘Stone Free,’ and ‘Burning of the Midnight Lamp.’

“One of my main inspirations in blues was Shuggie Otis, the son of [R&B artist and impresario] Johnny Otis – I thought he was great, and he was only 15 years old at the time. I loved Mike Bloomfield in the Paul Butterfield Blues band, and Mick Taylor is a fine blues player. I was also influenced by English rock and roll players like Tony Harvey and Joe Moretti.”

Blackmore discussed one of his biggest influences with H.P. Newquist, of the National Guitar Museum.

“Jeff Beck is my idol. The guy gets notes from nowhere, you know? Sometimes he finds notes I just do not have on my guitar. When ‘Shapes Of Things’ came out, everybody went, ‘Oh my God! Who is that… and why is he playing this Indian stuff? It shouldn’t be allowed.’ It was just too good.”

Some Stupid with a Flare Gun

With this myriad of guitar creativity instilled in young Blackmore, he was ready to take on the world in the early ’70s. The recording of Machine Head commenced in Switzerland during December of 1971. The plan was to cut the album at the Montreux Casino, a popular concert venue. But it was not to be: a fan at a Frank Zappa & the Mothers show fired a flare gun during the show, igniting the ceiling material and causing a devastating fire. Miraculously, no one died, but the casino was heavily damaged and Purple bereft of a studio.

Using the Rolling Stones’ Mobile Studio (a.k.a. RSM, a then state-of-the-art Helios console and the outboard gear of a full recording studio housed in a commercial van), the band relocated first to a local theater, Le Pavillon, and cut the basic track for “Smoke on the Water,” but were evicted by police for playing too loudly. Finally, they found the empty Grand Hotel and set up shop.

Blackmore in ’74: Fin Costello/Redferns. Blackmore backstage in early 1974 with several recent Strats.

We ended up at the Grand Hotel

It was empty, cold and bare
But with the Rolling truck Stones thing just outside
Making our music there
With a few red lights, a few old beds
We made a place to sweat…

They ran long cables from the van and used bed mattresses to deaden the sound space. Much of the recording took place in hotel rooms and corridors – hardly a glamorous recording studio – but with now-legendary engineer Martin Birch (Jeff Beck Group, Fleetwood Mac), they made it work, and the tapes speak for themselves. The resulting music had the loose, cranked-up vibe of a concert, minus the screaming fans.

“We were recording in the corridors, and the amps were put in the rooms off the corridor for separation purposes,” Blackmore recalls with characteristic brevity.

That Magical Mystery Tone

There’s a world of myth and mystery about Blackmore’s guitar tone on Machine Head. Just how did he get that woody, airy Strat sound with a perfect amount of sustain and overdrive – but not overt distortion? His lead tone on the album is sweet, midrangey, and profoundly Fenderesque, evoking Holy Grail connotations. Let’s get to the facts.

First, the crunch heard throughout Machine Head is the critical mass of Blackmore’s guitar, Roger Glover’s Rickenbacker and Fender basses, and – crucially – Jon Lord’s massively distorted Hammond organ, which he pumped through Marshall stacks (his rig was known as The Beast for good reason), and he achieved a sound not unlike a guitar’s power chord. The combined efforts created that monster Deep Purple thud so clearly heard on “Highway Star,” “Space Truckin’,” and “Smoke on the Water.” Lord’s intro to “Lazy” is emblematic of his savagely distorted Hammond.

Solidbodies on Machine Head were CBS-era with big headstocks, maple fingerboards, three-way switches, and presumably four-bolt necks. In the subsequent Rainbow years, he converted to scalloped-rosewood fingerboards and three-bolt necks. He only used the neck and bridge single-coil pickups – the middle unit screwed as low as possible so it wouldn’t interfere with his picking; he avoided the in-between second and fourth positions.

When trying to decipher his tone, one key error is to confuse Blackmore’s live rig with the studio setup. On tour, he was plugging his Strat into a 200-watt Marshall Major head and two cabinets (with another stack as a backup). The Marshalls had been modded at the factory with an added output stage, increasing the volume, and the EQs were specially voiced. Yet we also know that Blackmore was fond of Vox AC30 amps for their warm, natural, and dirty tone. In some interviews he alludes to using Vox guts hidden in a Marshall housing then slaving it to the big Marshall head, in effect using a AC30 to preamp the Major. But again, this was the stage rig. Also keep in mind that tales of Blackmore’s famed Aiwa reel-to-reel tape recorder – which he used as a preamp – appear to date from ’74 forward, long after the Grand Hotel sessions. Same with scalloped fingerboards.

Blackmore 2016: Fabrice Demessence. Onstage with Rainbow in 2016.

We asked VG amp guru Dave Hunter about these perceptions.

“We remember those riffs from Machine Head as being huge, and convince ourselves they were recorded via some massive Marshall stack. Largely, though, it’s just that they sounded so big compared to much of what else was being recorded at the time, and because of the attitude put into them. Listening back today, they really don’t sound stack-like at all.”

After 45 years of debate and controversy, Blackmore himself helped clear the air.

“I was using a 100-watt Marshall with four 12″ speakers in the cabinet. I probably would’ve also been using the Vox at that time. They would’ve been my primary amps.”

So, he had a Vox at the Grand Hotel. Next, we put forth another million-dollar question: Did you use a treble booster?

“Yes, I used the Hornby Skewes treble booster,” he said. “It was a [tabletop] box, not a pedal.”

The Hornby Skewes used a germanium transistor in its circuit to add overdrive boost to a signal, kicking the preamp with coloration.

We posed a final guitar-tone scenario to Blackmore by asking whether he used less “distortion” than many players think.

“Yes, that’s exactly right,” he said. “In those days there was no overdrive in the Marshall amps.”

At last, we can visualize Blackmore’s rig in December, 1971, as he stood in the corridors of the empty Grand Hotel. He had at least two CBS-era Strats, Marshall and Vox amps, and a Hornby Skewes treble booster. At long last, we understand how he got those glorious Machine Head tones (see sidebar).

Finally, don’t underestimate the studio gear. Purple had the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio and an array of microphones, preamps, compressors, mixer, and 2″ analog tape to capture the music. Guitarists often play mental hopscotch over recording gear, but these elements had a powerful impact.

For a bit of final studio trivia, Deep Purple hired the RSM in a gap between two other projects – Led Zeppelin’s fourth LP (IV/Zoso) and the Stones’ own Exile on Main Street. Think about that for a second.

Critical Tracks

Machine Head cooks from end to end, but guitarists remain in awe of “Highway Star” for it’s terrifically fast tempo, Bach-inspired arpeggios, and Blackmore’s proto-shred chops. This is high-speed metal and sports the double-knockout of Jon Lord’s virtuoso organ solo and a raging guitar solo. For this break, Ritchie worked out the parts in advance, overdubbing the Baroque arpeggios for brilliant technical effect. In the Blackmore documentary, Joe Satriani says, “‘Highway Star’… makes everyone who thinks he’s a guitar player need to pick up the guitar and say… “Can I really do that?’”

“Smoke on the Water,” a U.S. hit in the summer of ’73, is a feast for fans of tone and taste. The essential riff – itself reminiscent of a 1966 bossa-nova standard called “Maria Quiet” – features Blackmore plucking double-stop fourths with his fingers, not a pick. Cut at Le Pavillon, his Marshall’s tone is also ambient, telling us the cabinet was room-miked (the microphone placed away from the cab), not close-miked, to pick up reflections of the space. That gave his Strat huge sonic girth. Considering the big tone of the riff, the cavernous interior of Le Pavillon makes better sonic sense as a location than does the Grand Hotel.

Blackmore’s solo, cut later at the hotel, is a masterpiece of bluesy understatement, echo, and chunky neck-pickup voicing (a variation on Clapton’s famed “woman tone”). You have to admire the guitarist’s restraint; instead of deploying his serious picking chops, Ritchie laid back and played one of rock’s most emotive solos, a nod to his ’60s British-blues heroes. For even more fun, check out Blackmore’s isolated guitar tracks online.

“Space Truckin’” is a great example of the Blackmore/Lord/Glover triumvirate, with Ian Paice pile-driving the beat underneath. Much of the song’s tritone riff is dominated by Jon Lord’s crunchy lines on the Hammond, but you can hear Blackmore’s isolated parts online. One thing you’ll notice is Blackmore’s super-solid rhythm – his timing and groove are metronome-perfect. His solo was short, but you can hear the country influence in the quick chicken-pickin’ lines. The tone remains overdriven Strat heaven.

After the organ intro for “Lazy,” Blackmore delivered sweet blues licks and slippery runs that pay more homage to the British blues of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Fleetwood Mac, and Ten Years After. Note his overall volume and gain are lowered for a cleaner, airier tone. He cranks it up, but not until well after the five-minute mark and, even then the Fender’s quack is clear as a bell.

“Pictures of Home” has another fiery solo, this one featuring whammy-bar jiggles and serious string bends. As a rare treat, we also get a short bass solo from Roger Glover, adding fast upward chromatics on what sounds like his Rickenbacker 4001 Stereo. It’s rum stuff.

Ritchie Blackmore: Michael Keel. In his work with Blackmore’s Night – this year marking its 20th anniversary – he uses instruments like this Fylde mandala.

Still Truckin’ Forward

It’s great to realize that, even 45 years after Machine Head, the 72-year-old Blackmore is still rocking the universe with his Stratocaster and Engl amps. We asked what’s on his schedule the rest of the year.

“We will be doing four electric shows with the Rainbow lineup, then straight afterwards I’ll tour with Blackmore’s Night for our 20th anniversary tour. That’s a Renaissance folk-rock band with my wife Candace and quite a change from Rainbow. When I play electric guitar, I have to have short fingernails on my right hand. Then, after a month off, I have to grow them back to play fingerstyle; sometimes I resort to acrylics to make them stronger for playing. We’ll be putting out various recordings of the Rainbow and Blackmore’s Night lineups.”

No question, Blackmore is busier than ever. Welcome back, sir.

Thanks to HP Newquist, Tom Guerra, Dave Hunter, Tom Mulhern, and Don Arney for their input. Lyrics to “Smoke On The Water” are copyrighted by Sony/ATV Music.

Purple Tone! 

By Pete Prown

Using conventional gear, a team of VG tone-ologists tried to replicate Ritchie Blackmore’s Machine Head tone. Among the tools were Fender Stratocasters made in the U.S. and Mexico, a Squier Classic Vibe ’50s Strat, and a Music Man Cutlass all fed into a basic overdrive pedal and a British-styled tube combo from Musicvox. After extensive experimentation, we achieved something very close to Blackmore’s woody, powerhouse Strat tone.

First, you should use a tube amp with signifcant output and preferably no Master Volume control; if yours has one, don’t turn the Gain past 1 o’clock. This creates more power-amp overdrive than modern “saturated” preamp distortion. Like Jimmy Page or Stevie Ray Vaughan, Blackmore used far less crunch than you might think, which is a good lesson for us all. You should also back off the Treble on your amp or guitar so it’s not too bright – Blackmore reputedly liked to deploy the midrange as his upper-frequency control and leave the treble off.

Of course, you’ll need a Stratocaster or one of the countless Strat-style solidbodies on the market, as long as it has single-coil pickups (a purist would prefer passive, but David Gilmour uses actives and his Strat tone is legendary in its own right). Single-coil-sized humbuckers, however, are not recommended.

Ultimately, the magic Machine Head formula is a combination of a classic Strat or something similar, an old-school tube amp with a good bit of volume on it, and an overdrive/booster stompbox in front. For that “Smoke on the Water” lead tone, add tape echo or thick analog delay. Again, don’t overdo the gain or distortion, but do flip between neck and bridge pickups frequently. In our tests, we got even better results by backing down the guitar’s Volume to the sweet spot. You’ll need to experiment with your own rig, but suffice to say, less is more.

Bottom line? You’ll know you’re on the right track if your Strat still quacks like a Strat when you crank it up loud. Just like the Man in Black.

This article originally appeared in VG September 2017 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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