Many people have heeded their calling to be musicians, and for this we should all be grateful. The world would be an immeasurably more depressing place if there was no music. Music is one of the great triumphs of humanity – it cuts across all racial and social and geographic boundaries. While the way the notes are organized may vary from continent to continent, and the rhythms may vary from culture to culture, music is still a language that unites everyone.
While many musicians become very technically proficient at their craft, there is a select few that manage to have their own unique musical “voice”. I was lucky enough to see Eric Clapton in concert around a decade ago; music emanates from his guitar like heat from a fire. When he plays, it’s like he taps into something from another dimension, it just seems so effortless and pure. Same thing for Steve Winwood at the Hammond organ. Mark Knopfler and Keith Richards have very distinct voices when they strap on their electric guitars. And there may never be another guitarist that will ever sound like Jimi Hendrix; he was so unconventional (backwards-strung guitar and HUGE hands) and he just seemed to be a conduit through which joyful, sexually-charged music freely flowed.
But if I have to choose one song that I wish I could play properly, it would be the guitar on Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”. David Gilmour plays two solos on this song, both of which are staggering examples of fluidity and power. Gilmour’s musical voice is unique. It’s been said that the notes he doesn’t play are even more important than the ones he plays. The chords to the verse are pretty basic (B minor, A, G, D/F#, E minor) and the chorus is even simpler (D, A, C, G), so I can plug along okay on rhythm guitar. But the solos – my god what a glorious noise.
The first solo is very short, maybe eight bars long over the chorus chords. It is just about perfect in its brevity. I read in a magazine a long time ago that Gilmour’s distinctive guitar tone comes from using a ’57 Stratocaster modified with hi-gain EMG pickups. The tone he gets on the first “Comfortably Numb” solo sounds like musical electricity.
The second solo is the famous one, the one where Gilmour stretches out a little differently each night and lets it rip. This time he’s soloing over the verse chord progression. To hear it live in all its glory is like watching volcanos erupt or a star go supernova. This is the solo where the disco ball usually makes an appearance, bathing the audience in a thousand shafts of diffracted light. I would give just about anything to play “Comfortably Numb” with the same feel and voice as David Gilmour.
Epilogue: you have to listen for it a bit more closely, but Richard Wright also had a very distinct voice on Pink Floyd’s records. His organ and keyboard playing on everything from Piper at the Gates of Dawn to The Wall, plus the latter-day album The Division Bell, gave the Floyd a much richer sonic palette. Before he passed away, Wright toured with Gilmour’s band and played his ass off. Maybe he knew his days were limited, I don’t know. But if you can track down a copy of Gilmour’s Live at Gdansk album, listen to the organ on “Echoes”. It is mindblowingly good.