When Pink Floyd’s enigmatic guitarist and singer David Gilmour was voted the greatest Fender guitar player of all time some years ago, beating out Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, he responded with the wry wisdom of a rock star who has seen and done it all before: “Best ever Fender player will come around again, and it will be Eric or Jimi or someone. You can’t believe that stuff. Much as I’d love to believe I’m the best ever Fender guitar player, it just doesn’t really make sense.”
It was an interesting answer, to say the least, and one that perfectly described the Pink Floyd man’s calm and collected character. Few guitarists are as measured and poised as Gilmour when he begins to play, and it is an asset to his style and Pink Floyd’s work as a whole. From the very beginning of his time with the Floyd, Gilmour possessed a kind of untouchable equilibrium, which, in turn, gave him the foothold to achieve the wild and dangerous heights he did. But how did he become such a great player?
Usually, when posing such a question, in the case of Gilmour, we have a concrete answer: “I copied – don’t be afraid to copy – and eventually something that I suppose that I would call my own appeared,” he once gleefully told a reporter. But, in a recent TV appearance, Gilmour cracked open the door a little further and gave a blissful insight into how he became one of the greatest guitarists ever to live.
The story begins not in London but New York as Gilmour describes how his parents departed for the Big Apple and found themselves living in Greenwich Village—settling down as the folk explosion puffed billows of smoky subversion and exultant exclamation into the broader world from Bleeker Street. “I had Bob Dylan’s first record for my 16th birthday, which they sent me from Greenwich Village,” Gilmour tells the interviewer.
“Before then,” Gilmour continues, “they’d send me Pete Seeger’s guitar tutor record.” The album has gone down in history as one of the first of its kind and a handy roadmap for some of your favourite stars. Officially titled Folksinger’s Guitar Guide it came with Seeger’s warm tutorials and diagrams, and for Gilmour, it was an essential learning tool. In fact, it was his only one: “It is my only actual instruction, Pete Seeger’s guitar tutor record.”
The record begins as such: “For most of us, playing the guitar is about as simple as walking. Of course, it took us all a couple of years to learn how to walk.” It’s the exact words Gilmour would have heard when learning his craft. The guitarist continues: “It came with a big book with all the chord shapes you might need, and it started out with a pitch pipe, playing all six notes of a guitar. The most important thing was to learn how to tune it.”
This may seem a somewhat logical thing to remember, pragmatic even. But what it also does is provide a snapshot of Gilmour both as a young man and as one of the superstar guitarists of his generation. Logical, methodical, meticulous and expansive are all words that could go on to describe Gilmour’s output, and it all begins with this kind of detail. “The second band was teaching you how to play a D chord,” continued the Pink Floyd man, “which is three fingers, and you then strum. And then, he sang some words so you could do ‘a’ song. Instantly. With just one chord.”
So there you have it, David Gilmour learnt how to play the guitar just like everybody else did: one song at a time.