Playing guitar for Peter Gabriel demands an unconventional approach -
and definitely no MIDI! As the latest Gabriel album comes slowly to
fruition GT gets behind the scenes...
Back in 1979, David Rhodes was 'making nice noises' in a band called
Random Hold. At the same time, Peter Gabriel was scouting around for
musicians and, on the recommendation of artist Graham Dean, went along
to a Random Hold gig, liked what he saw and asked David along to
rehearsals for a new album. Thus, a 19 year working relationship was
born, with David providing ambient guitar grooves on Gabriel's albums
David enjoys a philosophy which is simple; merely that no matter whether
your musical environment is the live stage or the studio, it's got to be
Gabriel's approach to song writing, releasing albums and touring is
hardly the conventional norm, projects always taking years to come to
fruition. The band are in the studio once again, the music having grown
slowly and painfully over the past couple of years from the demo stage,
through to basic tracks and on to its current state - a sort of
semi-completeness. Apparently, the project is about 18 months overdue
so far and release is not expected before this autumn.
Last time David toured with Peter it was 1993, to promote the Us album.
Dubbed the Secret World Live tour, it was a mammoth production, with two
stages connected via a moving platform, a revolving projection screen,
trap doors, telephone boxes appearing from nowhere... In other words, a
typical Gabriel stage show! Up to that point, you were most likely to
see a Steinberger in David's hands, but on this occasion, a Van Halen
signature model played a significant role on stage. An unusual choice
for him, perhaps?
"The stage set for Secret World was a square stage and a round stage and
initially, Robert Lepage, who was the designer, and Peter had the idea
that the square stage was meant to represent the hi tech end of things,
but when we moved to the round stage, this was meant to be the lower
tech, more human end. The idea was to work with very different
instruments on both stages and to be more 'organic' at the round end -
and so I needed a wooden guitar! [laughs]. Because, on the square
stage, I was using a graphite guitar. So I spoke to my tech and we
tried some old guitars, but the tuning wasn't good enough, or something
wasn't quite right and we thought we'd speak to Music Man (who were
producing EVH's signature guitar at the time)."
Was there an instant bond between man and instrument? "It was a lovely
little instrument; the neck felt fantastic."
So it wasn't called upon so much for specific numbers, more for a
specific stage area?
The idea was to use it just on the round stage for a visual thing. But
the songs that we did at that end of the stage were meant to represent
the more feminine side of Peter's oeuvre, however, it soon became
apparent that if we merely decamped from one stage to another, it didn't
make a lot of sense! So even when we were on the square stage, we would
actually use the whole length of it and go along the walkway to the
other stage. But effectively, when we were playing down the round end,
I did use wooden guitars. Except for one song where I didn't! I still
used the Steinberger 12-string..."
Ah well, the greatest plans, as the poet said... The last tour was an
enormous production with all the usual problems for the technical crew.
Were there any particular nightmares on the guitar side?
"Initially, because I wouldn't use a MIDI system, and we needed two
pedal boards for the guitar, one on each stage, it meant running cables
the full length of the stage. I think it was 120 metres of cable, in
the end! So there were always nasty hums and buzzes and all that.
Other than that it was just odd playing on the round stage with no
amplifiers there and so you were relying entirely on ear monitors and a
couple of wedges."
The stage area was awash with 'no tread areas', did this pose any
"Oh that's always great fun. It's just like being a little kid."
There's a fair degree of choreography involved in Gabriel's stage show.
Are there any things David has to do which are awkward to play and
perform at the same time?
"I find it difficult to do anything and play at the same time...
[laughs] No, you're aware that you have to make everything a spectacle
on those shows - we're very slow learners, but we try! It's all pretty
tongue-in-cheek, but, particularly when you're playing in big places,
there has to be a high entertainment factor."
What's the difference between doing the big shows and smaller ones from
a playing point of view?
"On a big show, everything has to be worked out well in advance and
consistency from night to night becomes a key area. If you start giving
the soundman something he's not prepared for, he'll take you out of the
mix without any respect to your feelings. Irrespective of whether
you're having a fabulously creative evening, you're out! And if you're
having a real bummer, he'll take you out, too. So the trick is to be as
consistent as possible all the time. It's the complete antithesis of a
club gig where the excitement of the moment is shared by people close to
you. A big show is a big machine and you're a very small element."
Bearing in mind that David's work with Gabriel, despite being generally
ongoing, is not of the "album, tour, album, tour" norm, how does he
occupy his musical time in between projects?
"Right now, I'm doing the music for an Italian animated feature film
called The Little Seagull. [Actually, in English it's called "Lucky &
Zorba" - Ed.] I've done a couple of other short films for a couple of
people, an artist and a photographer and then one for a painter. I like
working to pictures a lot; it's something I've wanted to get involved in
for a long time. But as I learn a bit more about it, I'm finding that
the film world is full of people who say they want to take risks, but
they still want everything to sound a little like something else! I
think the really good film composers are very good at dealing with those
people and being a little magpie-like and making references to other
forms of music. What I do is guitar-based and I'm kind of doing things
my own way, but I think I'm going to have to start making more nods
towards already existing things for people to approach me and ask me to
What's David's approach to writing for film as compared to working in
the studio on an album project?
"The fact that you're working to pictures makes it different
immediately. When you're working on a song for Peter, for instance, he
never has any lyrics, but he often has an idea of the mood he wants.
Working to pictures, you're trying to tie things in and it's there in
front of you and so you have to do something which relates."
But what's 'the way in'? Where does the initial spark of an idea tend
to come from?
"I start off looking for what I think is the tempo of the particular
section I'm working on. What feels right - and that can take a couple
of hours, experimenting. You may start with a click track and then
maybe try playing a few things to it and find what isn't going to sit.
When you do find something that works, you start building it up from
there. That's where it is similar to doing something for Peter because
we will invariably start with a groove and then find something to play
against it. I may end up losing the groove, but I always go for that
first. The way Gabriel always works is that he's after the groove. He
may have the melody, but then we'll work really hard to get things
sitting nicely and, once you've done that, it's much easier to find the
lines over the top."
David tends not to work in the conventional terrain of chords and
"No, you're not looking for the chorus lines or anything like that. You
just try things - a certain sound, perhaps. Then you'll try something
against it and if you like that, you maybe discard the first thing and
gradually fill up the layers that way. When I was at art school, one of
the teachers said that whenever you make a mark, you have to review
every other mark you've made, and I think the best music is made like
that. Unfortunately, a lot of people don't have time for that and end
up with the verse, verse, chorus, change key, go home approach."
So does David have to keep stock of all the latest gimmicks and gizmos
on the market in order to generate his guitar sounds? His palette,
"No, I have an armoury! It consists of a whole bunch of pedals, that's
Are we talking about analogue or are there some digital effects in
"Bit of both. I always claim to be totally analogue, but I do use a
digital delay! I'm a bit of a peasant, really; I'm not very hi tech at
Which, of course, fits in with David's 'just say no to MIDI' stance, as
"Yeah, I just think that it's wrong that when you're looking at all
those numbers and dials and having to create patches for sounds when all
you want to do is just stomp on a pedal!"
So what's in the current Rhodes FX array?
"There's a TC distortion, which I don't use very often. A couple of
Roger Mayer things, the Octavia and Voodoo Vibe. I love the tremolo on
the Voodoo Vibe, I think it's probably the best tremolo pedal in the
world. There's a Morley volume pedal, a Boogie pre-amp, the V-Twin. A
Boss Tremolo which I always use - very rare, you can't get those these
days. A Boss Octaver and Flanger. I've got an E-Bow and a Roger Mayer
upgraded Wah-Wah, an Electric Mistress and a Matchless pre-amp."
Is that line-up fairly constant or does it keep getting rearranged?
"No, it's constant. It's been like that for at least a year. It goes
with me to either the studio or the stage. On stage, I've been using
two Matchless DC30s, because I'm a little bit of a stereo geezer! But
in the studio just recently, I've been using the Rivera Bonehead, which
is very, very loud."
What do you like about it?
"Just some of the dirt on it; it's a very tuneful dirt. It's three
channels and you can have dirt on any channel. The eq is good, too; you
can either dial in a bit of tone or take it out, and for studio work
that's very good. I've always used combos before, but I find it so
useful to have the head with me in the control room and the cabinet off
in the live room. So if somebody says that they think something sounds
too thin, then woof - it's altered. I think I was so stupid not to do
that before. If you start buggering about between rooms, people lose
interest and the moment is lost."
David is a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to instruments, too.
In terms of guitars, the Steinberger, like the digital delay, is an
exception to a very basic, Fender Jazzmaster-shaped rule.
"I now only use the 12-string Steinberger, which is wonderful for
staying in tune and it's a good instrument, especially for the textural
stuff. But I've had the Jazzmaster since I got my first record deal. I
bought that and a Dan Armstrong Plexiglass guitar because I thought it
would look good on stage. But that went because it sounded shit! But
the Jazzmaster stayed and I've been using that almost exclusively for
Peter's new album. That's always the first one to get packed, whatever
You'll notice that David's Jazzmaster has had the tone controls taped
"I had some of the switches disconnected. It still has volume and tone
controls because it didn't sound too good when I took them out, but
they're gaffered up, and so if somebody says 'Can you change that?' I
just say 'Er, no.'
"Recently this guitar maker in Italy called Frudua made me a guitar
which is Thinline Teleshaped with Seymour Duncan pickups and he asked me
what hardware I wanted and I said, 'No volume or tone controls!' and,
when I sent the fax to him I thought he was going to write back and say,
'Bollocks!' (in Italian). In fact he was really up for the idea, saying
that, in general, the pots dull down the tone. So, in theory, without
the controls, your sound should be a little bit clearer and fuller.
I've only had it for a few days, but it seems good."
Might we see the Frudua on tour next time?
"Oh yeah, it's very comfortable - and pretty, too."
So, if there was such a thing as a David Rhodes signature guitar, what
would it look like? "It would have only the front pickup, because I'm a
neck man and I don't use the other one."
Single coil or humbucker? "Oh, I think they'd have to be some
experimenting there. A single coil might not be full enough, but I
wouldn't want the full humbucker... I've got a Les Paul with P100s in
it which I like and I like the Jazzmaster!"
So what's going on with the new Gabriel project, then? "Well, this is
probably the longest period between albums for Peter so far. It's
painfully gradual; he's had the bones of the songs for about eighteen
months, but the longest time he takes is writing the lyrics."
There is a story about producer Daniel Lanois locking Peter in a room...
"Peter was meant to be writing lyrics and Dan was at his wit's end. So
he nailed the door to the frame and told Peter he couldn't come out
until he'd got something. It was one of the few times that anyone has
seen Peter get angry about anything!"
Scott of the Anarchic: Rhodes on Tilt (Sidebar)
One of the more surprising projects for David over the past couple of
years was his contribution to the Tilt album by maverick 60s legend
"It's a truly brilliant record and I'm really proud to have been
involved. It's a really difficult album to listen to - very dense..."
We should add at this point that Tilt is a million miles away from the
lush balladering of Scott's 60s records with The Walker Brothers. It
teeters on the avant garde, in fact.
"With his voice and some of the arrangements going on, I think it's
remarkable," David enthuses. "And it's also remarkable that a record
company had the courage to let him make it..."
Copyright 2004-2012 Stacey Drucker & David Rhodes