Ritchie Blackmore: The Link Between Hendrix and Van Halen - Part 1

Everything you want to know about the great guitarist.

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Ritchie Blackmore: The Link Between Hendrix and Van Halen - Part 1
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Today, we're again testing a new format of our articles where you can learn almost everything about the best guitarists ever. Previously, we posted an article about Dimebag Darrell. So because it's our new format, we will wait for your feedback - as in the case with our Complete Guides your comments are essential to develop these new series.

And for our second issue, we'll take a look at the great Ritchie Blackmore, often considered to be the missing link between Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen.

NOTE: This article is only the first part of his career that was centered around Deep Purple's "Mark II" period - we'll post updates about Blackmore's other notable periods (early days, other Deep Purple periods, Rainbow and Blackmore's Night) later.

Ritchie Blackmore (born Richard Hugh Blackmore, 14 April 1945) is an English musician, guitarist, and songwriter. He is best known as a guitarist and founding member of Deep Purple, Rainbow and Blackmore's Night.

Ritchie Blackmore was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April 2016 as a member of Deep Purple.

Bands and projects featuring Ritchie Blackmore: Deep Purple, Rainbow, Blackmore's Night, Roundabout, Green Bullfrog, Baby Face, Heinz and the Wild Boys, Ritchie Blackmore Orchestra, Rock Aid Armenia, The Chaps, The Lancasters, The Outlaws, The Sessions, The Trip, The Dominators, The Satellites, Neil Christian & the Crusaders, Screaming Lord Sutch & the Savages, Lord Caesar Sutch & the Roman Empire, Mandrake Root, The Three Musketeers, 2 I's Coffee Bar Junior Skiffle Group.

1. Playing style and distinctive sound

Ritchie Blackmore is one of the most important and influential guitar players in the history of rock music. His solos were perfect constructions, memorable pieces of music. Blackmore's career with Deep Purple and Rainbow influenced a lot subsequent rock and metal guitarists.

He was one of the first guitar players to incorporate classical components into a rock/metal music. His style is based on his classical training, but also combines elements of jazz, classical, blues, baroque and hard rock. Blackmore claimed the classical training showed him how to properly utilize all four fingers: "When I first started playing, I was taught to use my little finger. If you don't learn that in the beginning, you're lost.”

From his classical roots, he has also developed his own exotic "snake charmer" scale, which is a variation of the "Hungarian Minor" scales.

Ritchie Blackmore can be categorized as one of the pioneers of the shred guitar playing style, with his fast and technical style. He said: "When I was 20, I didn't give a damn about song construction. I just wanted to make as much noise and play as fast and as loud as possible." Examples: the solos to "Highway Star" from Deep Purple and "Gates of Babylon" from Rainbow.

Despite his speed, Ritchie's playing was always musical; Blackmore always approaches his solos very melodically. His solos also feature the use of a pentatonic minor scale runs with some dabbling of Dorian modes, scalar descents on a single string, and ascending/descending arpeggios. Blackmore frequently used open string pedal tones to create eerie tones and open string for lightning fast finger changes during solos. Many of the songs in the Deep Purple were written by Blackmore in the key of F# and Dm.

According to Blackmore, he never worked solos out in advance: "I never work out my leads. Everything I do is usually totally spontaneous. If someone says, 'That was good; play that again,' I'm not able to do it. The only solo I've committed to memory is 'Highway Star' [from I972's 'Machine Head']. I like playing that semitone run in the middle."

Blackmore frequently used the minor pentatonic blues scale but the songs often had modulations to other keys to make them interesting.

Ritchie is also known for writing a lot of memorable riffs, with such songs as "Smoke on the Water," "Speed King," "Space Truckin'," "Gates of Babylon," "Stargazer," "Lazy," "Burn" and more being great examples.

Blackmore also frequently used a whammy bar (also known as tremolo arm), especially live. Early he had a custom arm in his tremolo unit that was not unlike the Floyd arms that came later. Blackmore said about his use of whammy bar: "I went crazy with it. I used to have quarter-inch bars made for me because I'd keep snapping the normal kind. My repairman would look at me strangely and say, 'What are you doing to these tremolo bars?' Finally, he gave me this gigantic tremolo arm made of half-an-inch of solid iron and said, 'Here. If you break this thing, I don't wanna know about it!' About three weeks later I went back to the shop. He looked at me and said, 'No - you haven't.' And I said, 'Yes, I have.' In graphic detail, I explained to him how I would twirl the guitar around by the bar, throw it to the floor, put my foot on it and pull the bar off with two hands. He was a bit of a purist, so he wasn't amused."

One of his distinctive features is his own unique finger vibrato style. In his early days he never used finger vibrato at all, but after meeting with Eric Clapton he started working on his vibrato and later developed his own technique.

Blackmore sometimes played rhythm parts without a pick, but with his fingers. He said about it: "That's from being lazy. It's like Jeff Beck - when he can't find a pick, he just plays with his fingers... Even on something as simple as the riff to 'Smoke on the Water,' you'd be surprised at how many people play that with down strokes, as though it were chords. I pluck the riff, which makes a world of difference. Otherwise, you're just hitting the tonic before the fifth."

Another Blackmore's distinctive feature was his signature rhythm figures using only a pedal root note and double-stopped fourth intervals. He said about his riff in "Smoke on the Water: "I actually got the idea for that riff from Graham Bond. He used to play in fourths like that on a record called 'Wade in the Water' by his group, the Graham Bond Organization. Playing those two notes together a fourth apart was very nasty sounding. Ever since then, I've tended to play a lot in fourths for structured riffs, rather than play a single note."

The violin or cello sounds heard in some of Blackmore's solos are caused by controlling volume knobs while picking the note.

He also used a bottleneck for a slide on occasions.

Blackmore is a well-known user of Strat guitars (although he played a Gibson ES-335 before acquiring his first Fender Stratocaster from Eric Clapton). Over the years, Ritchie installed jumbo frets and Schaller machine heads on his Strats, and scalloped his fretboards - lightly for the first seven frets, but quite deeply above that. Blackmore heavily favored the neck and bridge pickups, switching between them an average of 20 times per solo (according to Blackmore, he never used the middle pickup at all). His sound was derived more from power tube distortion rather than preamp.

Aside from his 200-watt Marshall Major amplifier and the occasional wah-wah, Blackmore's other killer feature was an old Aiwa reel-to-reel tape recorder. Since 1970, Blackmore would plug his guitar directly into the recorder's input, and with the machine kept paused in "record" mode, use it as a preamp to kick his Marshalls into high gear. He said about it: "The Aiwa gives me a fatter sound. If I don't use it, the tone is too shrill. I find it very difficult to play without it. It's become this little soul on the side of the stage - like my little friend."

2. Influences

One of the main Blackmore's influences came from classical music. He said about it: "Someone was saying the other day that I came up with the idea of playing classical music to a rock beat. I didn't really come up with that, although I like having the honor. But there was a band I saw when I was 15 called Nero and the Gladiators, and they dressed up in Roman togas, and they were playing all this classical music rocked-up. It would be [Vittorio] Monti's 'Csárdás,' it would be 'In the Hall of Mountain King' by Edvard Grieg. I was mesmerized by this band. I’ve never been so moved by a band onstage. Everybody else was playing Chuck Berry and stuff like that. Although I do appreciate Chuck Berry obviously - especially for his lyrics and singing. Most bands around that time - the Rolling Stones came a bit later and a few others - were all influenced by the blues, but I was influenced by classical music."

Ritchie's favorite composer is J.S. Bach and he enjoyed a lot of medieval, Renaissance and chamber music. He said about these influences in later Rainbow music: "I decided to gravitate more toward the ballads and Medieval/Renaissance music, which of course has been my favorite music since 1972." In his other interview, he said: "I would love to go back to the 1520s, the time of my favorite music."

Later some Indian music influences can be heard in Ritchie's music as well.

In an interview with Sounds magazine in 1979, Blackmore said that he started the guitar because he wanted to be like Tommy Steele, who used to just jump around and play.

Another big influence on Blackmore was Django Reinhardt. Ritchie said: "My whole thing comes from Django. He's my hero, not just because of his playing, but because he was such an awkward bastard. It was brilliant how he would be scheduled to be onstage, and he'd still be in bed at a local hotel. We need more Django Reinhardt's going, 'Fuck everybody. I'll show up when I feel like showing up.'"

On of his early musical influences was session guitarist Big Jim Sullivan. Big Jim was one of the most respected session guitarists in England during the 1960s. Ritchie later took electric guitar lessons from Big Jim. "He taught me quite a lot of tricks," said Blackmore.

Another influence on Blackmore was Screaming Lord Sutch, with whom he played later in various groups.

At the urging of his father, Blackmore listened to Les Paul and Chet Atkins during his late teen years.

His vibrato-bar technique was inspired by Jimi Hendrix and the guitarist in the James Colton Blues Band: "I'd seen the James Cotton Blues Band at the Fillmore East, and the guitarist in the band played with the vibrato bar. He got the most amazing sounds. Right after seeing him, I started using the bar. Hendrix inspired me, too."

Blackmore noted the influences from Jimi Hendrix, Wes Montgomery and The Allman Brothers Band around Deep Purple albums "Fireball" and "Machine Head" (1972): "I was impressed by Hendrix. Not so much by his playing, as his attitude - he wasn't a great player, but everything else about him was brilliant. Even the way he walked was amazing. His guitar playing, though, was always a little bit weird. Hendrix inspired me, but I was still more into Wes Montgomery. I was also into the Allman Brothers around the time of those albums."

On the question how many springs did he use on his vibrato bar Blackmore answered: "Four. And I have a friend who balances the arm. He loosens the screws at the very front of the tailpiece and sets the whole thing at a different angle so it is in perfect balance. It's amazing, you just can't go out of tune. I never thought it would work. I just used to bolt them down and forget about it. I pull and push the vibrato bar - it goes down a whole octave when I push it."

Ritchie also noted guitarist Johnny Winter: "Johnny Winter, who is one of the best blues players in the world, is also very underrated. His vibrato is incredible."

Blackmore credited Eric Clapton for inspiring his own finger vibrato technique. Ritchie said: "In my early days, I never used finger vibrato at all. I originally carved my reputation as one of the 'fast' guitar players. Then I heard Eric Clapton. I remember saying to him, 'You have a strange style. Do you play with that vibrato stuff?' Really an idiotic question. But he was a nice guy about it. Right after that, I started working on my vibrato. It took about two or three years for me to develop any technique. Around '68 or '69 you suddenly hear it in my playing."

With the first studio album from Purple's "Mark II" lineup, "In Rock" (1970), that signalled a transition from the band's progressive rock sound to hard rock, Blackmore's impression at that time was the King Crimson's first album "In the Court of the Crimson King" (1969).

Blackmore also took cello lessons from Hugh McDowell of Electric Light Orchestra in 1974. Ritchie later stated that when playing a different musical instrument, he found it refreshing because there is a sense of adventure not knowing exactly what chord he's playing or what key he is in.

One of the groups that inspired Blackmore's own music were Mountain and Vanilla Fudge. Ritchie said: "My biggest influences were Vanilla Fudge and Mountain. I remember Ian Paice and I were out for a drink in a bar in Germany, in 1970 I think it was, and we were pretty pleased with our record 'In Rock,' and they were playing it. And then this other record came on, and we didn't know who it was, but it was such an amazing, big, hard sound. We looked at each other very nervously and thought, 'Who the hell is that?' We asked the DJ and it was Mountain, with 'Mississippi Queen,' and that thundered! We couldn't speak because we didn't know what to say. We thought, Oh, my God, that is one hell of a sound."

In another interview, Blackmore also said: "We [with Jon Lord] loved Vanilla Fudge - they were our heroes. They used to play London's Speakeasy and all the hippies used to go there to hang out - Clapton, the Beatles - everybody went there to pose. According to legend, the talk of the town during that period was Jimi Hendrix, but that's not true. It was Vanilla Fudge. The whole group was way ahead of its time. So, initially, we wanted to be a Vanilla Fudge clone."

Later Blackmore also mentioned The Who as an influence: "When they did 'Can't Explain' that was an eye-opener. When I heard 'My Generation,' with that feedback, I thought it was wonderful. A guitarist would do a solo and have a feedback part. Whereas I used to do sessions, and heaven forbid, if I came up with any feedback, I was thrown out of the studio."

Other of Ritchie Blackmore's influences were Hank Marvin, Duane Eddy, Buddy Holly, Cliff Gallup, James Burton, Scotty Moore, Jimmy Bryant, B.B. King, and Jeff Beck.

3. Career periods

3.2 Deep Purple "Mark II" (1969-1973)

3.2.1 Guitar techniques/skills

Late 1969 marked the change in Deep Purple lineup to what now is known as "Mk II". This period has also marked a change in the band's sound - from their early progressive/psychedelic rock to more straightforward hard rock.

But the first Deep Purple record with the new lineup was "Concerto for Group and Orchestra" (1969), a three-movement epic composed by Jon Lord and performed by the band at the Royal Albert Hall in London with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It was one of the first collaborations between a rock band and an orchestra. But Blackmore wasn't impressed by the whole thing: "I felt that the whole orchestra thing was a bit tame. I mean, you're playing in the Royal Albert Hall, and the audience sits there with folded arms, and you're standing there playing next to a violinist who holds his ears every time you take a solo. It doesn't make you feel particularly inspired. "

So the first album marked the distinctive hard rock sound of Ritchie Blackmore was "In Rock" (1970), and one of the main reasons of it was Blackmore's impression at that time from the King Crimson's first album "In the Court of the Crimson King" (1969).

On the album's development, Blackmore stated: "I got fed up with playing with classical orchestras, and thought, 'well, this is my turn.' Jon was into more classical. I thought, 'well you do that, I'll do rock.' And I said, 'If this fails, this record, I'll play with orchestras the rest of my life.'"

Along with Led Zeppelin's "Led Zeppelin II" and Black Sabbath's "Paranoid," "In Rock" and Blackmore's playing, in particular, influenced the incipient heavy metal genre.

Between "In Rock" and "Fireball" (1971), Blackmore switched from Gibsons to Fender Strats. He said about it: "It was difficult because it's much easier to flow across the strings on a Gibson. Fenders have more tension, so you have to fight them a little bit. I had a hell of a time. But I stuck with the Fenders because I was so taken with their sound, especially when they were paired with a wah-wah."

Around "Fireball" and "Machine Head" (1972), Ritchie's guitar playing took more on a blues and funk edge. He cited Wes Montgomery and The Allman Brothers Band as his main influences during that time.

Also at this time, Blackmore began writing more simple yet catchy riffs, the most notable of them being "Smoke on the Water." Ritchie said about it: "Simplicity is the key. And it is simple - you can still hear people playing it at music stores. I never had the courage to write until I heard [The Who's] 'I Can't Explain' and 'My Generation.' Those riffs were so straightforward that I thought, 'All right, if Pete Townshend can get away with that, then I can, too!'"

3.2.2 Gear and settings

Guitars:

- Gibson ES-335 VOS Custom

Before switching to Strats Blackmore's main guitar was Gibson ES-335.

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Ritchie Blackmore playing on his Gibson ES-335 during Deep Purple's appearance on UK TV show in 1970

- 1968 Fender Stratocaster Electric Guitar

Blackmore switched from a Gibson ES-335 to Fender Stratocaster in 1968 and has been using it ever since.

- 1970 Fender Stratocaster Sunburst Maple

Blackmore used this guitar in a lot of gigs, one example is in New York (1973) with Deep Purple. This guitar is a 1970 Fender Stratocaster Sunburst, sometimes with a Maple fretboard or Rosewood.

- Fender Classic Series '70s Stratocaster Electric Guitar Natural

Blackmore used this guitar, for example, in New York (1973). This guitar is a Fender Stratocaster Natural 70's Headstock with a Maple neck/fretboard.

Amplifiers:

- 200 Watt Marshall Major

Blackmore's amps originally consisted mainly of Marshall 200W Heads which were custom wired by Marshall with an additional Output Stage giving 278W to make them sound more like Ritchie's favorite Vox AC-30 at full volume.

"I knew Jim Marshall. He was a drum teacher, and I saw the Marshall setup and liked the way they looked. The design I liked, but the sound was awful. So I went back to the factory because I knew Jim and I said, “Look, I want this changed and I want that changed.” And I used to play in front of all the people that were there working - there would be women there assembling things, and I had the amp boosted to 400 watts. So I would be playing away right in front of all these people and they'd be trying to work. I'd go, 'That's not right, more treble,' and they'd take out a resistor. I had to play full blast or otherwise, I couldn't know what it was going to sound like. The people hated me."

- modified Aiwa TP-1011 tape recorder

"My preamp is an old souped-up Aiwa reel-to-reel tape recorder that I originally used as a tape delay. It has an input and an output stage, so I plugged into it and noticed that it gave me a fatter sound - about a 3-watt boost. I used it from that day on. If I don't use it, the sound is too shrill. It seems to calm the sound down and give it more midrange. I just thought it was a normal tape deck, but now it's become this little soul on the side of the stage. It's like my little friend."

Effects:

- modified Hornby Skewes Treble Booster

Blackmore also used a modified treble booster, which was often placed on the drum case behind his amplifier.

"A treble booster with a variable control which gives me sustain. Hornby Skues made it, but I had it slightly modified because I found that on some nights I had too much sustain, and on others, I didn’t have enough. So I had a variable control put on. Actually, using a Stratocaster, I don't really need any treble boost. I use the unit mostly for sustain."

- modified Aiwa TP-1011 tape recorder

He also had a modified tape machine built to supply echo and delay effects. The tape deck was also used as a preamp.

"I like a little bit of distortion which is controlled through my tape recorder. I built my own tape recorder - well, I didn't build it, but I modified it from a regular tape recorder to an echo unit. It also preamps and boosts the signal going to the amp. If I want a fuzzy effect, l just turn up the output stage of the tape recorder."

"I just keep it on 'record' so it records, and it's like a continual echo because I couldn't get that echo with any echo machine. A continual boom, boom, boom, repeat. Most echo machines are awful. It's like you’re in a hallway. The tape recorder doesn't interfere with the note you're playing.

It gives me an echo when it's played back. It's hard to explain. I just overload the input side and I can get my sustain as well. It doesn't thin out my sound like all the echoes do. Echoes always thin the sound. The way I've got this built is to give me the exact same sound that I've had if I was actually plugged straight into an amp without all that bloody extra circuit."

Picks:

"I use tortoiseshell picks, one end squared, one end pointed. I have them specially made for me because you can't get them at all. I use tortoiseshell because plastic is too soft. I like them brick-hard. I've used this shape ever since I was 11, and I just cannot play with those round things everybody plays with because when you jump a string you tend to hit the other string on the way. With this pick, you can be more nimble."

Strings:

- Picato 10-42 Nickelwound Electric Guitar Strings

"I use Picato strings. I've always used them. They're the best - Eric Clapton turned me on to them. He's now using Fender – I don't know why. Why Ernie Ball has the monopoly on strings I'll never know. The gauges I use are .010, .011, .014, .026, .036 and .042."

3.2.3 Song examples

"Child in Time" (1970)

Considered one of the epic songs of the Mark II era, especially prior to the release of the iconic "Smoke on the Water" in 1972.

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"Hard Lovin' Man" (1970)

Blackmore performs a few "pre-Eddie Van Halen" guitar histrionics during the final minute-and-a-half. Blackmore: "If I remember right, I was knocking my guitar up and down against a door in the control room. The engineer looked at me oddly. He was one of your typical, old-school engineers. Like my repairman, he wasn't amused, either."

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"Fireball" (1971)

Unusually for Deep Purple, the song does not contain a guitar solo, but a bass solo played by Roger Glover. "Fireball (Take 1 - Instrumental)," a bonus track on the remastered album, features a Blackmore's guitar solo near the end, after the fade-out of the original version.

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"Strange Kind of Woman" (1971)

The boogie-inspired "Strange Kind of Woman" not appeared on UK version of the album, but was released as a single. Ritchie's solo is notable here too.

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"Smoke on the Water" (1972)

Ranked among greatest songs of all time and greatest guitar riffs ever.

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"Highway Star" (1972)

This song is characterized by long, classically-inspired guitar and organ solos. Organist Jon Lord claimed that the organ and guitar solos were based on Bach-like chord sequences.

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"Lazy" (1972)

The song starts out as an instrumental, keyboardist Jon Lord plays an overdriven Hammond organ intro, followed by the main riff and with the solo swapping between him and guitarist Ritchie Blackmore.

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"Woman From Tokyo" (1973)

Last single of "Mk II" era of Deep Purple.

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20 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Spinnerweb
    "When I first started playing, I was taught to use my little finger. If you don't learn that in the beginning, you're lost.” This is simply it. This is where so many guitarists dig a pit for themselves. It's easier to just stretch your ring finger in the start and neglect your pinky, but using all four fingers is the only way not to develop any bad ha its.
    haraldengels
    When I heard Deep Purple In Rock (I was 12 then) RB was my guitar hero ... I still love his organic and harmonic way of playing where technique is not dominating the music - it is always the other way round :
    Nitnatsnok
    One of my favorite guitarists. He was the one that got me into playing guitar. I had been listening to classic rock for a bit but then I heard the solos on Wasted Sunsets and I had to be able to do it. I think guitar is the best instrument in the world and he's a big reason for it.
    rffleenor
    Ritchie is great watch, his dexterity on the fret board is unmatched, his fingers have a graceful fluid motion like no other.  Reading his interviews can be misleading because of his very dry humor, if he says something odd or contradictory it's usually because he's taking a piss with interviewer.  I hope he does at least one gig next year in the U.S.
    diemydarling
    I'm really liking this series, keep it up! I for one would like to see more focus on techniques&styles (like which scales & intervals were preferred, and how) and their approach to composing, rather than biographical details and such. I may even subscribe or whatever that you call for paid-membership, to support you ppl.
    jasonhowardstanley76
    Very cool article. I love Ritchie Blackmore and he's so damn reserved, it's hard to find many interviews. Very cool that you guys were able to piece together the stuff about playing style and gear.
    Eifler121
    I'm looking at his list of bands and I'm like... so then just Deep Purple and Rainbow... I've never heard the phrase the bridge between Van Halen and Hendrix, but he and the Gillian/Blackmore Deep Purple are severely overlooked because of the effect of everybody learning Smoke on the Water their first day. Crucial band, and it surprises me quite a bit Gillian did not fit well with Sabbath.
    anibalbarbarian
    Tremendous Guitar player, i only have praises for him, a talent without parangon that has been blessing this earth, i always end stealing a phrase (or two...unconciously of course) when i play a guitar solo, my bad... long live to the king!
    PRSguitars87
    Might be a legend but his shirts are the gayest thing Ive ever seen. Im totally cool homosexual behavior, when I say gay I mean just really gay in a bad way
    dennis.1960
    Excellent article though the references to King Crimson are confusing:  "With the first studio album from Purple's "Mark II" lineup, "In Rock" (1970), that signalled a transition from the band's progressive rock sound to hard rock, Blackmore's impression at that time was the King Crimson's first album "In the Court of the Crimson King" (1969)." Since many consider the 1st Crimson album the very 1st prog album I don't really understand this comment.  Are you saying that he transitioned DP from prog to rock because he didn't like the 1st King Crimson album?  Can you tell us more? 
    helltrash
    I think the song 21st century schizoid man inspired him a lot to make heavier music. The riff in this song is very similar to the main riff of into the fire from In Rock.