How To Sound Like David Gilmour

Oh dear. What a challenge I’ve set myself with this article’s title. David Gilmour is an amazing player, known for both incredible tone and highly emotive technique and note choice. He regularly appears in the top 3 (often at number 1) when guitar publications hold “best solo ever” polls. From iconic releases like Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here and The Wall through to 2006’s dreamy, reflective On An Island, great guitar tone and playing has been a hallmark of all his work. Rumor is he’s been back in the studio recently, so it seems like a good time to look at his sound.

I can’t promise that by the end of reading this article you’ll be throwing out the perfect Comfortably Numb tone and technique, but there certainly are many things you can do in order to get that Gilmour vibe into your playing.

Guitar

David’s most famous guitar is his black Strat. This is the guitar you are hearing on the classic Pink Floyd albums of the seventies and early eighties.

Modifications to the guitar include a shortened tremolo arm, internal shielding, and a small recessed switch that adds the neck pickup to any selected configuration.

Over the years David and his tech Phil Taylor made other modifications that were eventually decided against- for example, fitting a Kahler tremolo, adding a humbucker between two of the pickups, and installing an XLR socket. These changes have been reversed with varying degrees of cosmetic success.

These days you can own an incredibly accurate replica of this guitar, by buying the Fender David Gilmour Signature Stratocaster. It includes all the wear and all the dodgy repair work – but if that’s not your style, they also do a guitar of the same spec but in “as new” (NOS – “new old stock”) condition.

The Fender David Gilmour Signature Strat is a painstakingly accurate replica of the original guitar, right down to bdged repair work.
The Fender David Gilmour Signature Strat is a painstakingly accurate replica of the original guitar, right down to the bodged repair work.

 

Pickups

The neck and bridge pickups on the black Strat are the pickups that came with the guitar, but the bridge pickup is a custom pickup that Seymour wound especially for David, an overwound version of the SSL-1. The pickup in that guitar was called an “SSL-1C” (with the C standing for custom), but the pickup eventually went into production as the SSL-5. Putting the SSL-5 into your guitar is a surefire way to take a step towards the Gilmour sound. In fact, even if you’re not chasing his tone, it’s a fantastic pickup in its own right that everyone should try. If you want flat polepieces for modern fingerboard radii then you should go for the SSL-6, or if you like a noiseless pickup, the STK-S6 is the Stack Plus version.

The difference between the SSL-5 and a regular Strat bridge pickup is more mids, more power and more “beef.” It doesn’t lose the Strat character, but it has a more authoritative tone that’s great for lead work.

Strings

If you had your own signature strings, a strap that used to belong to Jimi Hendrix, and the royalties from Dark Side of the Moon, you'd be this happy too.
If you had your own signature strings, a strap that used to belong to Jimi Hendrix, and the royalties from Dark Side of the Moon, you’d be this happy too.

David uses a custom set of gauges on his Strat – .010, .012, .016, .028, .038, .048. These are available as a signature set of GHS Boomers. The first thing you’ll notice here is that the B and G strings are lighter than you’d normally see in a set of 10s. In fact, the G string is the same as you’d normally see in a set of 9s! The effect this has is to make bending a little easier on those two strings. We’ll talk about bends a bit later on, but this is quite important.

The other unusual thing about the set is that the three wound things are slightly thicker. This gives them a bit more resistance when digging hard into chords, and a bit more punch when you get down to them in lead work. The set doesn’t feel unbalanced in the way that some hybrid gauge sets can, and it’s very comfortable to play on.

Pick

It’s hard to find information on what picks David uses – in fact, he seems to change his mind quite a lot. My only advice on this would be not to use one that’s too soft, as you need to be able to dig in quite a lot.

Amp

Here’s where things start to get complicated. In the studio, David has used many different amps. A lot of his recorded tones actually result from plugging into several amps at once and recording the resulting mix. Still others result from taking a feed straight from the guitar to the desk, bypassing any amp completely. And yet it still sounds like him, on every track.

On stage, David usually uses his Hiwatt 100 watt heads into several 4×12 cabinets. However, again, this frequently changes – he often uses the Alembic B2 preamp, feeding it into the power stage of the Hiwatts. My recommendation to start approaching the right tone is to find an amp that can be turned up very loud while staying clean. This is the basis of almost all of David’s tones.

Pedals

David's 1994 Pulse rig, which handily doubles up as a life support machine for alien robot monsters.
David’s 1994 Pulse rig, which handily doubles up as a life support machine for alien robot monsters.

Where do we even start? I wonder if an effects pedal has ever been made that David doesn’t own. Some of the rigs he has used on tour are actually clinically insane. Rather than list all these pedals for you here, I’ll talk about what you can do to get yourself somewhere close without breaking the bank.

Even though probably the first pedal for lead tones that comes to mind when thinking about David’s tone is the Big Muff, the pedal that I actually found took my the furthest towards his sounds was a ProCo Rat. This has the advantage of being able to do reasonable impersonations of the Fuzz Face and the Big Muff as well as its own tones, so you get good value there.

On top of that, other essential items are a lush, whooshy phaser, a digital delay that will let you get up to at least 800ms of delay, a smooth overdrive pedal, a compressor, and possibly a chorus. You can research the exact units that David uses if you like, but I think it’s better to have devices that you feel comfortable using and that give a sound you like, because…

Playing Style

We all know the drill: you ask on the internet “how do I get that sound?” and after three or four posts someone always pipes up “tone is all in the fingers”. If that’s true, why do these guys carry around tens of thousands of dollars worth of guitar equipment?

Well, I’m sorry, but with David it’s actually true. You’ve seen hints at this throughout the article – he can sound like himself with any pickup, with any pick, with any amp, with any set of pedals. Or without any of that stuff, just plugging the guitar straight into the desk.

The last few times I’ve been lucky enough to receive a compliment along the lines of “you sound like Gilmour”, the first time I was playing a Tele with a Little 59 into an Orange Tiny Terror, and the second time I was playing a Les Paul with the Slash signature pickups into a modelled Marshall – both times, with no effects. And my rendition of the Comfortably Numb solo that I got the most awesome reaction ever for was an SG with EMGs in it, plugged through the RAT into a Fender Blues Junior. In this video of me attempting the Comfortably Numb solo, I’m using a Seymour Duncan STK-S6 Custom Stack Plus (the noiseless version of the SSL-5), through a cheap modelling unit.

None of this is really anything like what David uses. So let’s look at what you can do to pick up that vibe in your playing.

First off – bending. David bends a lot. And we’re not just talking bending the seventh up to the root here. We’re talking one-and-a-half, two, even two-and-a-half step bends. Sometimes he plays an entire melodic lick by bending one note up and down through the different notes that make it up. There are lots of quarter bends. The one thing that is completely consistent is that the bends are absolutely to pitch. If you want to be able to play like David, then your number one priority is to be able to bend to pitch accurately, every time. In fact, you even need to be able to bend the string to pitch accurately before you play the note. So get practicing.

David’s right-hand technique is quite aggressive on lead work. There is lots of digging in and almost every note will see a little skin touching the string after the pick. This means that there are lots of subtle harmonics on top of the main note.

There is no shredding here. David’s notes are individually chosen for effect and held for as long as they take to sink in. Vibrato is applied at various speeds and with left hand or tremolo arm depending on the desired effect. The only way to get a feel for this is to listen to the songs and then try to play them.

If you don’t believe me that technique is the most important thing, check out this video. In it, David plays an electric solo on an acoustic guitar and it still sounds like him.

What’s your favorite Gilmour solo?

Join the Conversation

40 Comments

  1. I read a story once, about how Dave uses his picks. It was someone in a PF cover band playing in Dave’s birthday party. Dave came up to the guitarist and wanted to play a tune or two (yeah I know it sounds completely bonkers). When Dave’s finished he gives back the guitar and pick to our luckiest-man-in-the-entire-music-universe and the pick looks like it’s been used to carve diamonds or some other hard, sharp substance.

    1. That was Steve Mac from the Australian Pink Floyd band. I think he even tells the story on a YouTube video where he shows his entire live rig. He’s pretty fanatical about playing the PF music 100% accurate to the point where he owns the exact models of effect pedals that Gilmour used on the recordings. SM said that he saved the pick and the guitar strings that Gilmour played on.

  2. Ah, The Holy Grail. Thing is no matter much gear you splash out for, or how slavishly you copy string gauge, pickup selection and t-shirt – if you ain’t Dave Gilmour you ain’t going to sound like Dave Gilmour. Most of his sound comes from his fingers through which he channels his emotions and intelligence. Everything else is just hardware and cotton.

    1. I didn’t mention Pete Cornish simply because for most people his effects are way beyond budget. And because I didn’t want to fall into the black hole of claiming that if you get all the exact same gear as David, you’ll nail his tone.

      1. Gilmourish.com covers Gilmour’s tones in incredible detail.
        Vick Audio’s Overdriver (a clone of the old ColorSound Overdrive pedal that Gilmour originally used – think “Have a Cigar” or “Time” tones), plus the Vick Audio ’73 Ram’s Head get you very much into authentic Gilmour toneland.
        Both of the above pedals are very positively reviewed by Bjorn on Gilmourish.com, with accompanying video. Each pedal individually gets you a certain array of his tones, and the combo of the two together get you even more – Gilmour nirvana. Both are U.S. made, and sell at a very reasonable price. I am very happy with mine. Vick Audio also makes a clone of the Proco Rat.
        Alternatively, the Mojo Hand FX Iron Bell pedal (also positively reviewed on Gilmourish.com) gives you a great combination of the above two for tones (e.g ranging from saturated “Comfortably Numb” to a very light “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2” solos, but with a bit less overall flexibility than the above pedals used individually.
        If you’re lucky enough to live in a country that can receive insured parcels from the Czech Republic, the Electronic Orange “Pig’s Hoof” might be the closest to the holy grail of Gilmour pedal tones. Also received rave reviews on Gilmourish.com

  3. Comfortably Numb…. Undoubtedly. It is orgasmic and laxative at the same time. David Gilmour is a God.

  4. Not mentioned — and not better, is just another path — very hi-gain modern amp (Dual Rec, etc.) or model thereof — with SOME gain dialed in, maybe 25-30%, on top of aforementioned very loud clean tone for that saturated lead tone. Then add noise gate (very important), delay, reverb (likely dialed BACK from the clean tone), compression (ideally racked with the gate in a single unit, but any will do to get those quick attack yet long sustain notes) and your preferred modulation — chorus seems less important than a gentle tremolo for much of his lead work, but anything that sounds good to your ear and works with your fingers is good.

  5. Nice job on the Comfortably Numb solo. The guitar “sound” was a little different, but your technique was pretty damn impressive.

  6. You are playing as if you don’t understand the underlying swing feel that is the root of D.G. That, and the drums behind the beat feel is why practically all cover bands fail to replicate the sound of PF.

  7. Best Gilmour solo? It is from a bootlegged concert, Fat Old Sun, possibly Hollywood Bowl in very early 70s. Also, Astronomy Domine – Ummagumma

    1. You may be thinking of a boot alternately know as From Oblivion, The Embryo and just Embryo. Supposedly recorded in San Diego Oct 17, 1971. It has an amazing version of Fat Old Sun, as well as Cymbaline. Worth a YouTube search.

  8. Nice work sir! However, one glaring omission is the EMG strat and the songs/sounds he uses it for. I for one would like more info on that as I own a custom strat loaded with the Gilmour EMG set!

    1. I loaded the EMG set in a Lite-Ash Strat, sold the guitar to buy a Parker or something, biggest mistake…remember those mid-2000’s Lite-Ash models made in Korea ? they had a 2 point them with solid brass block, the best springs ever (I swapped them out, still use them on every Strat I buy), and a BIRDSEYED NECK !! I bought a new one on clearance for $350 !! came with real Seymour Alnico’s, not DD’s…when was the last time Fender used Birdseye ? Fender have become over-priced and the product is just inferior…a be careful with what you sell…
      I bought a Beck Strat last year for $1599, the neck was coated with some dye or something that makes the grain look even & much darker, it took a month to play off and a half-doz sets of strings…at month 8 I noticed fretwear !! I will never buy a new Strat again. in fact, I’d buy a Squire and Mod it, no diff…

  9. David Gilmour used an early 70’s Alembic F2-B with a modded eq for his basic tone…… Not an Alembic B2!!!
    Alembic, as far as I know, never made a B2

  10. Phil Taylor talks about David’s picks in the Black Strat book. He uses heavy picks. ‘tear drop’ picks (tortoise shell and plastic) and Nylon ‘normal’- shaped picks. Like the Dunlop ones.

  11. I don’t know… a long time ago in a guitar magazine interview, I heard David say that he plays 8’s. But now your saying that he plays all these mixed string gauges. So now I don’t know what to believe.

  12. I’m not sure about my favourite Gilmour solo, but I did like his guitar work on the Animals album, it seemed to have more ‘grit’ to it than his usual sound.

  13. Actually David also used a Les Paul godtop.on some Floyd tunes one example being the solo on Another brick in the wall.
    And he also used a Tele on some.

  14. Its not just about playing notes its about vibrato,bends in tune which takes aging like whisky the more age it gets more mellow it sounds!

  15. Still someone here?
    I’m playing guitar for a few months only but I understand what you guys are saying about getting the tone out of the fingers..
    But how the hell does he get the e-sound out of that acoustic in “Coming Back To Life”?

    1. On the studio recording, it is an acoustic with tons of compression and reverb on it. Live, he does it on electric with clean and clear pickups.

      1. Thanks for the answer but I’m still confused.In the live version (right over the disqus forum) he plays a normal(?) electro acoustic all the time, right? But for the solo starting @ 3:58 it sounds completely different as if he would have changed to an e-guitar but he didn’t.
        Confused…

        1. Oh, I was looking at the Pulse video. Here, he is playing his acoustic most likely through his electric amps and pedalboard.

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