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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.