By: HP Newquist (National Guitar Museum) – December 1996
Deep Purple is the longest running hard-rock band in existence. Period. The group and its recordings precede both Led Zeppelin and black Sabbath by several years, dating all the way back to 1968. Yet Deep Purple, after three decades, is still a huge concert draw and an established rock legend, touring with much of its earliest lineup intact.
Of course, the one aspect of that lineup that has been subject to constant change is the lead guitarist role. Having paved the road to heavy metal with the crunching riffs of Ritchie Blackmore and proto-metal vocals of Ian Gillan, Purple has spent much of its career playing musical chairs with singers and guitarists. When Blackmore left the band after 1974’s Stormbringer—for the first time—he was replaced by fusion-master and cult favorite Tommy Bolin. Bolin’s personal excesses soon forced him out the Purple door, and the band seemed to crumble under the weight of its own history, splintering into various pigment-inspired bands like Rainbow and Whitesnake. But when Blackmore rejoined his former bandmates in 1984 for the phenomenally successful Perfect Strangers, the band reclaimed ownership of its own motto: When we rock we rock, and when we roll we roll.
Of course, bliss was never a prevailing emotion in the reformed Purple Mach II, and Blackmore quit in the middle of a 1994 world tour that had somehow turned acrimonious. He was replaced quickly by Joe Satriani, who finished out that tour before returning to his solo career. While Mach II struggled to carry on, it came across the most unlikely of candidates for inclusion in its illustrious legacy: Steve Morse.
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Steve Morse has maintained the guitar helm with Purple for two years now, and was instrumental in the making of the band’s newest release, Purpendicular. It seems as if the old Purple guard has finally found someone they can record with who is not burdened with the history of the band’s past. Yet, while Morse takes to the stage with his new Deep Purple tunes and covers Blackmore signature songs like “Smoke On the Water” and “Highway Star,” Blackmore himself is preparing his own return. He has just released a new album—Stranger in Us All—with the reformed Rainbow, and will return to tour the States on the strength of his own name for the first time in nearly a decade.
The setting is a small restaurant an hour outside of New York City, very dark and very quiet. It’s late at night, and Ritchie Blackmore is sitting in the darkness, wearing black, drinking wine, and looking younger now than he did twenty years ago. He laughs easily, and is not at all the somber and menacing human that his photos—and his detractors—make him out to be. He is, quite simply, one of rock music’s most important, legendary, and notorious guitarists. And on this evening, he is more than willing to talk about all of that.
Why do you have this reputation as being one of the most difficult guitarists around?
Ritchie Blackmore: Well, I’m not a man of many words. I’m one of these people—I really don’t have much to say. A lot of people think it’s a moody thing, but it’s not. It’s just that I have better things to do than, say, interviews of have lots of business meetings. Things like bathing the cat, sitting outside and eating fruit [Laughs]. What do interviews and meetings have to do with music? But I am my own worst enemy. I tend to say nothing, which of course earns me the title of being “difficult.” I heard Betty Davis say once, “You’re nobody until you’re difficult.” [Laughs].
So why have you chosen to release another record, especially a Rainbow record, after all the events of the last couple years, given the bad blood with Purple and the management changes and record company runarounds?
Ritchie Blackmore: With the last go round in Deep Purple, the guys were very “Well, another day, another dollar—just get the job done. We’re doing good business.” And I thought “Good business, yeah, that’s great, but we’re not sounding good here, lads. We’ve got someone out front there who’s making a mockery of things.” But nobody seemed to give a damn. Maybe I don’t have too much to say, but I decided I’ve got to say something other than being in the lot. So that’s when I decided to pull out. Then I put together a new band, and I wasn’t going to call it Rainbow. But the record company decided that’s what they wanted—Blackmore’s Rainbow. And I said I didn’t r really want to back to that, it’s not the same guys. I want to call it something else. No, they argued, there were marketing concerns, demographics, all those very important business concerns. So I went okay, I’ll go along with it. Again, I would prefer to call it something else, and take it from there.
How did you find the lineup for the new record, Stranger In Us All?
Ritchie Blackmore: The drummer I had played with before, and the singer, Doogie Smith, I found because I literally stumbled across his demo tape. I had thought about Joe Lynn Turner, because we’re still friends, but has more of what I call a ballad voice, and I wanted something more bluesy and raw. The others were guys I had jammed with or were brought in by various friends and recommendations.
Are you going to tour the U.S. with this line-up?
Ritchie Blackmore: Yes, but I’m not necessarily pleased with the way we’re sounding.
But you’re still going to tour.
Ritchie Blackmore: Yes.
But you’re not pleased.
Ritchie Blackmore: No, I’m not pleased with anybody.
Why is that?
Ritchie Blackmore: It’s just a thing I have. I think as soon as I’ve known anybody for more than three months, I get tired of them. Really, it’s probably a psychological thing with myself. I’m basically kind of insecure with myself, and I take it out on other people.
Does that mean you won’t be doing Rainbow for long?
Ritchie Blackmore: Well, I’m recording a new LP, which is made up of music taken from Renaissance times. We go around calling it The Medieval Project, and a lot of people get a bit nervous by that, because they think I’m taking a big chance. What we actually mean is Renaissance-style music from the 1500s brought forwards but disguised in such a way to make it modern. We’ve taken those old melodies, added our own sections to it, and put it into a new style—almost acoustic pop. At the moment we have four members, including this girl guitar player. I’m kind of excited about it, and I don’t get excited about much. But it’s got the passion of the gypsy—that minstrel thing to it, without being caught up in the technical commercial world of record companies.
That’s a marked departure from everything you’ve ever done.
Ritchie Blackmore: Yeah, it is. It’s got a heavy emphasis on melody. I love melody. That to me is the bottom line of any music. It’ s more of a crossover thing, really. It’s all acoustic guitars, flutes, lutes, that sort of thing. I first got into minstrel music when I was in Germany in 1985 and ended up being in this castle with a group of friends on holiday. There was this big thunderstorm going on—typical gothic horror set. We were having a few German beers, which in itself is fantastic, and all of a sudden there was this minstrel group singing and playing in the castle with a hurdy gurdy, horns, and a lute. They’re playing away, and I’m going, this is unbelievable, this is what I want to do. I asked them at the time, would you want a guitar player in your band? They said, no, we don’t need a guitar. That was the first time I’d ever been turned down [Laughs]. But when they played it was magnificent. I just remember how they moved me, and I would love to be able to move people like that. To me, that was so innocent, and it was 100 percent music. I get really bothered by the distorted view of the music today. It’s all business, not music. It’s gotten to such an extent that music has become so syrupy, so homogenized.
Then what do you think of the state of the guitar today, with grunge and various alternative genres?
Ritchie Blackmore: I don’t like it, that’s all. A lot of people say it’s a way of young guys coming along and releasing energy. That’s okay, but there’s got to be a little musical talent somewhere. You can’t just get a guitar and beat the shit out of it. It bothers me. So I tend to be on the outside with it comes to that.
You’ve always managed to express melody with very simple yet interesting guitar riffs and lines. Where does that come from?
Ritchie Blackmore: The first band I really liked was the Who, back in ’64, ’65. I loved “Can’t Explain” and “My Generation”—that was just mind-blowing. I wanted to play “Can’t Explain” wearing a Union Jack jacket, and that was the end of the world for me. Everything they did was so simple, three chords with a slight riff. At that time, I was really into people like Wes Montgomery and Les Paul, and really fast country players, very complex music. So I was taken with Pete Townshend saying to keep it simple, and I began to write melodic lines that were simple enough that the postman could whistle whatever I played [Laughs]. Ever since then, sometimes to my own detriment, I’ve kept everything simple and clear, so people can understand it. Many a time with Purple and Rainbow, we’ve written these very complex arrangements, and we’ve played them for a couple of days, and then looked at each other and said, “Who are we kidding?” This is great for us as an exercise, but this means nothing to somebody who just turns on the radio.” So then we just hack it all apart, take out all the complicated bits, and keep it simple.
When you create riffs, are they patterns you feel in your fingers or see in your head? Or are they things that you work out?
Ritchie Blackmore: I trained myself in simplifying everything, so now—even when I improvise—I tend to play in riffs anyway. Most of my improvisation is runs. And I remember Jimmy Page saying to me once, “Where did you learn those runs that you play?” And I went, “I don’t know, I thought everybody knew those runs.” But he and Jeff Beck didn’t play runs, they played mostly single notes and sustaining notes. From studying the guitar the way I did, and listening to people like Les Paul, I came to think that inversions were very important to guitar. Inversions will teach you a lot more than just a basic positions or shape. Let’s say there was one particular time in music where every guitar player played the box shape. Then they would play the box shape at the top, and the box shape at the bottom, but they had no idea what was in between—the connectors. I thought it was strange that they didn’t realize that all it is is inversions; that they could play those inversions all the way up the neck.
Do you think in specifics of theory and tonality?
Ritchie Blackmore: Yes and no. Just in practice, I can hear different keys. I was obsessed with G for a while. G is very bright, and very obvious. F-sharp minor is very moody and very subtle, yet it can be very eerie. E is just very powerful. Then you’ve got D, which is very spring-like. Plus, D is a very old chord, more of a Renaissance chord. A minor is probably my favorite key right now. With E, I think it’s a bit too basic sometimes.
Starting around Burn and on the first few Rainbow albums, your playing heavily favored Middle European, Hungarian-type scales.
Ritchie Blackmore: Definitely. That’s my favorite. That moves me, that kind of gypsy passion thing. Basically, Turkish kind of gypsies, an Israeli modal-thing. I love to hear it. Sometimes you tune in on television or radio to these foreign stations, and you hear these Turkish bands playing, and they’ve got very weird instruments, and the singer is singing those weird semi-tones. It just motivates me, really hits me on the nerve.
Where were you first exposed to it?
Ritchie Blackmore: Nowhere that I can remember, not in this world. I have a feeling it was way back about 400 years ago, and that has to do with my belief in reincarnation. There’s something about it that just takes me back to another time again.
Has your interest in medieval music led you to explore alternate tunings like DADGAD?
Ritchie Blackmore: I haven’t looked into that as much as I should have. I’ve tuned my E to a D, that’s about as brave as I get. I’m still struggling with trying to get something out of a guitar with the right tuning. If, in fact, we’re using the right tuning.
Robert Fripp believes that all guitarists are in the wrong tuning.
Ritchie Blackmore: I have to say, Robert Fripp is incredible. I remember hearing “In the Court of the Crimson King.” To me, that was the first time I heard a guitar player play something that I couldn’t play. With my session background, it bothered me that I couldn’t catch the timing of it. You know, it’s that middle sections, with all the stops. Sometimes a very obvious thing will come along, and I can’t catch it. That’s why I do terrible in sessions sometimes. Maybe my subconscious didn’t want to pick it up.
Most people don’t know that you were doing a lot of sessions as a teenager, and that both you and Jimmy Page were the guys who followed in Jim Sullivan’s footsteps.
Ritchie Blackmore: Little Jim—Pagey—was doing a lot of rock and roll guitar sessions. He had a lot of confidence, whereas I lacked confidence. I used to say, “Oh, no, I can’t do that,” knowing full well that I probably could do it. Big Jim—Sullivan—was a brilliant reader and could play anything, so the two of them had the market cornered. I didn’t do as many sessions, but I was quite happy to be in my own little world, starving [Laughs].
You’ve a reputation as a perfectionist in the studio. Do you like recording?
Ritchie Blackmore: No. Everybody has a recording studio in their basement—I have a bar in my basement. I don’t want a recording studio downstairs, because recording to me is like going to a hospital. Music is an extension of my life: recording is like root canal work, going to the dentist. It’s all, “Well, we’d better get this one right, lads, so we’re going to get everything in tune.” I always feel like I’m in this torture chamber, but there’s a professional side to me that’s managed to kind of get by.
So you can play better live?
Ritchie Blackmore: I play better live because I know it’s one go at it. I have two strong drinks and I can just go, “Yeah, I’m really getting into it; there’s the audience, let’s go.” If I’m in the studio, every time I go to run, jump and dive, suddenly it’s, “We’ve got to do it again.” That ‘s my biggest fear, I think, hearing that line—“Can we try that again?”
Your studio solo on “Highway Star” has been cited as one of the earliest examples of Bach-inspired shredding. It’s possible that you invented Yngwie with that solo.
Ritchie Blackmore: Yngwie is very good. I think one of these days he’s going to come out with some great stuff, when he settles down and stops showing off. Perhaps he could be a little more original, but we all steal. I sole from Hendrix. Page stole from everybody—a lot—he has a great record collection. So we all steal. I just wish Yngwie wouldn’t wear the same outfits I wear [Laughs loudly]. That bothers me. No, he’s alright. I think that a lot of people expect me to put other guitarists down.
Are there guitarists you like to listen to?
Ritchie Blackmore: Jeff Beck is my idol. Fucking guy gets notes from nowhere, you know? Sometimes he finds notes that I just do not have on my guitar. When Shapes of Things came out—this is ’64, ’65—everybody went, “Oh my god, who the fuck is that? Why is he playing this Indian stuff; it shouldn’t be allowed.” It was just too good.
Frank Zappa’s another one. To quote someone, he’s dearly missed. I loved Frank Zappa. Everything would stop for me when he spoke. I loved the way he spoke about America and everything…and he said it all. I do think Van Halen reinvented the guitar. I remember seeing someone tap back around 1968, but I didn’t pay attention. I never really heard it until Eddie brought it in. He’s an excellent musician, a shrewd guitarist, and as a person, he’s wonderful.
Here’s the double-edged sword: What do you think of Steve Morse?
Ritchie Blackmore: Ahh, the big question [Laughs]. I was a big fan of his when he was in the Dixie Dregs. I heard a thing he played around 1981, and I couldn’t believe how good it was. I thought, who is this guy? Very fast country player, brilliant stuff. So I went to my room and brooded for half an hour and got drunk, because I realized that there’s always other players out there that can blow you away. I was really impressed.
I hear from a lot of people that he may be a jack of too many trades, but I’m still a big fan of his. He’s always got the guitar, so that’s his ticket to life. I can relate to that. I took up the guitar because I felt so inadequate. Maybe I could play the guitar, and be somebody and do something, and mean something. I have the feeling he did the same thing and I can relate to a man like that. Of course, I don’t know about the band he’s with [Laughs]. He’ll figure it out.
Speaking of that band, what about Joe Satriani?
Ritchie Blackmore: Joe’s a great guitar player, but not my style. I bought Surfing with the Alien and said, “This guy’s great.” But I found myself not finishing it and turning it over. There was something lacking. He had it all, but I think he sounds too focused. I don’t know him, but he sounds very grounded and in control. That I envy, but sometimes I think, wait a minute, it might be a little bit too easy for this man. He’s got to go through a few more trials and tribulations here. I don’t hear any wrong notes. I want to hear something kind of like, “Uh-oh, I don’t think I’m going to quite make this note or this solo…oh no…oh…ahh…I’ve made it.”
Purple seems to be quite intent on removing you from their legacy.
Ritchie Blackmore: Okay, here’s what happened in Deep Purple. During the last tour [for The Battle Rages On], I wrote them a letter saying I can’t hack this circus. The band’s great. I love them, but I can’t take the singer. I knew I wouldn’t after I rejoined, but they were after me to join for months. Then I said, “You know what? I’ll try it and see what happens.” And after about six weeks on the road, I really couldn’t handle it. Ian Gillan’s perceptions of music and mine were worlds apart. I like to hear melodies and have singers remember the words. I wrote a letter to all of them saying I have to leave, but I’ll stay for six weeks until you find another guitar player. As far as I was concerned, the boat was sinking anyway, but I didn’t want to go leaving the ship. I felt very strongly about that. Management said, “Let’s not rock the boat. Keep playing and we’ll all make lots of money.” And I’m going, “Yeah, of course I’d like to make lots of money, but not like this.” then management said, ‘Well then, we’re not handling you anymore,” even though I’d been with them for 18 years. They must have decided I didn’t fit in anymore, maybe because they don’t play soccer—it’s too vicious, too violent. They’re always skiing, golfing, diving, going to St. Croix, then to Vermont, the whole things And I’m the opposite. I’ll play soccer, and be in the worst places. Roger Glover would love to do crosswords, be on the computer, very cerebral crap. I’d always be, “Hey, let’s play a practical joke on someone, and go and look for some ghosts.” They’d say, “What? Don’t do that!” So there was always that disparity between myself and the rest of the band. They’re more academic people by nature, but there was no passion there with them. It was too safe, much too safe.
But I thought they’d say, “We understand, we’ll get somebody else. Let’s just be friends.” But no, it’s, “Ritchie’s being moody, difficult—he’s out of control.” And I was like, “Wait a minute! I sent you all a letter, I thought we were all the best of friends here.” That bothered me a lot. If someone decides to leave , that shouldn’t turn into character assassinations.
I do blame Gillan for the whole thing. The rest of them are good players, but I couldn’t handle the way Ian treated the audiences. He’d come up to me and say, “I can’t sing such and such a song because my voice is gone, I can hardly speak.” And I’d say, “Okay, well we won’t do it.” Then that night, instead of staying in bed, he’d be out and about for 48 hours. And that’s why I got so angry. That’s like me going onstage and saying, “I’ve only got 4 strings tonight, and I’ve forgotten the melody, and I’m out of tune,” and then just laugh it off. And that’s the story.
This has to be asked. You wrote “Smoke On the Water,” arguably the definitive hard rock guitar riff of all time. You can go to your grave and they’ll put that on your tombstone. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Ritchie Blackmore: It doesn’t bother me. It’s strange, because I went to a guitar store once, and a sign said, “Please do not play ‘Smoke On the Water.’” But that was something to be proud of in a way. I don’t play it that often, and I never rehearse it. You can’t muck what’s been successful. In this day and age, it’s so hard to be successful with anything, that if you are successful, take it for what it is. Maybe it’s like Beethoven. He probably went through his whole life with people saying, “Great notes on that 5th Symphony [sings opening strains].” And he was probably saying, “Thanks, but what about all of my other symphonies?”
What’s the proper way to play “Smoke On the Water”? There’s about half a dozen interpretations.
Ritchie Blackmore: It’s in 4ths, starting on the third fret, then down to the first fret. I was trying to get an edge to what we were doing in Deep Purple, which is why I wanted something so powerful. But the thing is, I’ve seen people play it, and they always seem to strum it. I actually pick the notes with two fingers at the same time, the thumb and the first finger. Just the two notes. As soon as a guitar player starts playing with a plectrum, they tend to hit other strings, too, so it all sounds a bit odd. But they should be pulled and not picked. It’s a fingerstyle riff [Laughs].
If you couldn’t play guitar anymore, or chose to give it up, would you just spend the rest of your life playing soccer?
Ritchie Blackmore: Yeah. That and psychic research. I love to stay in haunted houses.
Have any of them actually been haunted.
Ritchie Blackmore: Oh, yeah. We stay at this one inn that has six ghosts. We do séances, communicate with them. I love ghosts, to me it’s a step nearer to understanding why we’re here. I find it very hard to come to grips with people just dying, and fading away. What are we supposed to do when that happens? So I tend to be in the psychic realm to try to enlighten myself a little bit. I don’t really believe in organized religion too much. I’m constantly searching. Music is a help. It’s very soothing—it lets you go into another plane of thought.
About HP Newquist: HP Newquist is the founder of The National Guitar Museum, the first museum dedicated to the evolution and cultural impact of the guitar. He has authored books that have explored a wide range of subjects and include: Legends of Rock Guitar (with Peter Prown); The Way They Play series (including Blues Masters, Hard Rock Masters, Metal Masters, Acoustic Masters), with Rich Maloof and the award winning The Great Brain Book: An Inside Look At The Inside Of Your Head. Newquist is the past Editor-in-Chief of Guitar Magazine. He wrote Going Home, a Disney Channel documentary featuring Robbie Robertson, as well as directed the film documentary, John Denver – A Portrait.
Note: This interview is reprinted from an article by HP Newquist, originally published in GUITAR Magazine (December 1996). It appears here courtesy of Newquist and The National GUITAR Museum.