This is the transcript of my interview with Ritchie. He may have a reputation for being particularly difficult to interview, but even at breakfast time, with the last vestiges of a hurricane retreating from his door, he was politeness personified.
Pete Langman and Ritchie Blackmore – Jan 2005
So, what is it about this music which keeps you so enthralled? It may well have seemed to some that this was a side project when you first started, but it is quite obviously much more than that. Do you find there’s a cross-over between people who were fans of your more famous projects and fans of this project?
Could be the music, it could be because I enjoy it. I have a habit of not doing side projects, of not getting involved in other people’s records, I have trouble getting motivated if it’s not something I believe in. I’m kind of lazy on the side too, I like to take a lot of time off. So that’s why I don’t get involved in side projects.
Ever since, I think, ’73, I was watching the tv in england and it was a programme on music for henry VIII and his wives, and it was done by david Monroe and the early music consort, and it just grabbed me, this music, to me was incredibly insightful, it just fulfilled my soul as far as where music was going. Although, from then onwards, I would be playing rock and roll still, I would always be listening to renaissance music.
Were you actively playing it from then, or just listening?
I never thought I’d be involved in playing it, it’s much more structured, and a lot of it is reading, and I decided at a very early age that I would would be a reader, and play what other people had written, or I would write my own music and probably not learn to read, so I was more of a free-form player. This music is so structured, and this was a big challenge as well to me, because I think one of my better points is improvisation, whereas one of my weaker points is learning something note for note, and remembering it. So, I would never make an actor, because I would never make any lines. So, it was a challenge, so I never thought of playing it, it was purely the pleasure of listening to this music all the time when I wasn’t playing rock and roll, and it wasn’t until the last ten years, or probably fifteen years, that I started fiddling with the airs of these tunes from the 1500, and I would sit around pretending that I was playing that music, almost improvising on their scales, and giving the impression that there was a melody from the 1500, when in fact. A lot of the time, it was just something that I made up that sounded like that.
Where do you get these melodies from
My record collection is all renaissance music, so I hear a lot
Actual pieces that survive?
About 50% of what we do is the melody taken from the 1500’s, things like, I don’t know if you’re familiar with our tunes, things like I Still remember is a tune called Mon Ami, written by Tilman Susato 1550’s, you have things like renaissance fair, which is TS again, one of my favourite composers, though he wasn’t so much a composer as he collected music, back in those days, he was the publisher, so it was a bit like today, where the publisher takes all the glory for what some artist has written somewhere along the line.
Ever seen real books…? The rhythmic notation is odd
It can be, some of the rhythmic parts can be very difficult, and of course you have your counterpoint, and with that stuff, I usually make up my own counterpoint and rhythm, occasionally … I have most of the music to these songs, and I’ll give it to our keyboard player and hear exactly what the counterpoint is, and sometimes I’ll prefer what I’ve put in to what was written down.
You still work by ear…
Yes, but sometimes I’ll read it, if I’m really stuck for something, a piece like Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring [Bach] I’ll read, and it’ll take me forever to read it, but it’s easier than working it out note for note.
Do you play old instruments?
I play Mandola, and the hurdy gurdy. The hurdy gurdy’s a great instrument, it’s like a two-octave chromatic instrument …
What’s the difference between a strat and a mandola…how does it affect the way you play?
There’s a big difference. With the strat the action is very low, and you can bend the note, you play off the sustain from the amplifier, with a normal acoustic guitar, for instance, you can’t bend the notes – because I use very heavy gauge strings – and I play fingerstyle, so I have to grow my nails and put acrylics on them and mess with them in general.
You play the mandola fingerstyle?
Even though it has courses of strings?
I play the mandola fingerstyle, put heavier strings on…it kills my fingers. I don’t know whether that’s standard technique, I’ve never seen standard technique…
So you’re saying this is the sound I want, this is the instrument I have…?
Exactly. And I tune them to whatever I want to tune them to. Sometimes a standard tuning would be in fifths, I keep it in fourths most of the time, similar to the guitar, and other times I tune it to just octaves down. If I’m playing the mandola I’ll tune it to…the four strings would be E, then an octave down E on the third string, the second string would be a B, the fourth string would be an octave down on the B.
In fourths, like the top four strings of the guitar…
Ever played the lute?
I’ve thought about it, but do you know what, when I got into this music, I was taken by the woodwind, and the brass, and I think because it had that bombastic style…I’ve listened to qute a few lute players, and I’m not taken by that music, funnily enough.
A couple of my friends play the lute, and it sounds great…but the tuning of the lute throws me. The more I research on how the lute was tuned, I’m picking up different tunings. The latest one from David Monroe that I’m reading has it exactly the same as the guitar. Just up a tone and a half…
Ren texts, of course written in tablature.
Harmonic difference? Known for riffs, but how now compose…? Songs were based on the guitar as a physical instrument.
I think, when I’m writing these tunes, even though I’m borrowing half the melody, the most important thing for me is the melody. When I was in the rock band, I realised that the riff was the important thing, after hearing whole lotta love by Led Zeppelin, or a lot of the jimi hendrix music, I purposely wrote in a riff style. But what comes naturally to me as a way of writing is is not paying a riff but writing a melody, and working around a melody. I only got into that riff way of writing, roundabout the late sixties, so it’s more natural for me to get an acoustic guitar and whistle the melody to myself or hum the melody to myself, and not have some big riff going on.
So the riff has changed into the melody…
Different playing live now with these instruments compared to a standard rock set-up? [track 2 MD]
Night and day difference. I feel like I’m onstage in my underwear sometimes. With the strat and the loud guitar it’s so easy to hold a power chord and impress people with slurring a note, but you have to work so much harder playing an acoustic guitar, especially when it’s very quiet. When I play an acoustic onstage it is very very quiet, because I can’t play a loud acoustic. Some people can, I believe that the acoustic guitar, when it’s amplified should just be audible electrically. I don’t like the sound of an acoustic guitar when it’s really turned up loud, then it sounds like a really bad electric. Onstage, I’m playing much quieter with the band, and to try and captivate the audience playing that quietly can be tricky sometimes. I have to really know what I’m doing, I can’t just wing I, sometimes…
Is that the reason you play such idiosyncratic venues?
When I first started this music, having played to thousands and thousands of people, I wanted to go the old route, the other route, because I somewhat envied musicians who could sit down, with a guitar, and play to ten or twelve people in a small room or a restaurant, believe it or not, I was kind of impressed by that, because I knew that the band that I was in couldn’t do that. I knew that we had to have our full set-up of marshalls to play…and they would never do that, so I think it’s like anything else in life, the grass is greener. I felt that I really wanted to play to just few people very quietly, almost like a guitar seminar.
Advantages and disadvantages?
There are not too many disadvantages, in fact I love it. But there are certain songs we have to avoid. When we play in the very small courtyards or castles or banquet halls, sometimes we’ll play to as little as a hundred and fifty people, and when you’re playing to that amount of people you can’t start plugging in the electric and crashing away on the rock stuff, you have to keep it all renaissance music and ballads, really.
The set list is influenced by the venue?
If we’re playing to a couple of thousand people we go into the rock mode, the heavier songs, like 16th century greensleeves, and I plug in the strat, and then maybe the ten or twenty people who remember me in the hard rock days are happy with that, and it kinda works, but it doesn’t work in that context with just a couple of people.
A bit of both. A lot of the old fans have grown up, and sort of mellowed in their old age, and a lot of them prefer this music, I suppose, now that they’re in their forties and fifties, they don’t go to the rock shows any more, they come to our shows because they know it’s going to be much quieter, and a little bit more different music, and candice has acquired a lot of followers from the new set up of the band, it’s a bit of both. Luckily it works for us, because the name is getting bigger, and the crowds are getting bigger, almost too big … we did say when we started this that we wanted to keep it a small venture, we noticed that if you’re playing to five hundred people it’s very quiet and they’re listening to every nuance, whereas as soon as you get to a couple of thousand, you get a few drunks in, they want a bit of rock and roll, up the whole thing to a party time, so we’re sometimes caught in the middle with that, because we do prefer the smaller audiences, but it’s always nice for the ego to have a lot of people turning up. Then you change the act accordingly.
Do you miss the thousands.
We’re having to stretch our renaissance quiet music into the rock field, almost, because it’s more appropriate, bigger venues, and they’re outside, so we’re making a lot more noise.
Rearranging the same tunes, or a different set?
We have a different set, a quiet renaissance ballad set and a loud rock set that we put in towards the end of the show., We build the show starting with ballads renaissance music and, probably the last eight numbers are more rock oriented with the strat…
The last couple of renaissance tunes we play are quite bombastic, [MC 5] so we’re going into that rock set, so it doesn’t come as a complete shock. I do play thorugh a small amplifier, I play through an Engl on a crunch setting. So although it’s loud-er, it’s not as loud as, say, a marshall.
Your set-up is very different.
The alverez yairi guitars, made for me – they’re sort of semi-acoustic, they’re not semi-acoustic with the big holes, they’re very thin guitars, because obviosuly I was having too much trouble with feedback with normal acoustic – the mandolas are made by Fylde – he’s actually making me a double neck at the moment, two six-strings, we do a lot of songs that are tuned down a tone, and I’m so used to playing in different keys that I’d rather just tune it down –
So it’s a semi-acoustic, six-string guitar double neck.
That’s right. Half the time I don’t know what I do have. I play the mandola though a mic, the alverez is plugged in, the Hurdy Gurdy is made by Helmet Gotsky, a german, and that’s plugged in, that’s electric. I think a lot of guitar players would play the hurdy gurdy if they heard it properly, because it has a really roaring sound, almost like a heavy rock guitar.
You play it with the handle – it’s two octave chromatic, you push the pegs and the pegs hit the strings and there’s a kind of wheel that revolves.
Lots of fingerstyle
I’ve developed the style in the last fifteen years – I have two ways of playing, one with the pick, for obviously the rock stuff, and obviously if I’m playing the renaissance it’s all fingerpicking. I don’t mix the two, like some people are lucky enough to be able to pick and use their fingers to play, I’ve never acquired that technique. For me it’s either picking or with the fingers.
Very seldom [do I pick acoustics] sometimes I’ll do strummy chords, but it’s usually f/picking
With DP we used to always record on 24 track analogue machines, which I kinda prefer, and the editing was done with the old fashioned razor blade. Now, I have stuff in my house – we always record here – it’s a radar system, and it’s all computerised, I don’t even know how it works. I have a producer come in to set the whole thing up – I don’t particularly want to be involved in reading loads of manuals on how to works machines, I’d rather just sit and play the guitar. So we do our recording in the house – these guys, they’re like scientists. I speak to some of them and say I prefer the 24 track analogue and half of them say the same thing. That to me makes sense, you’re going through one channel, and that goes on tape…and that’s the end of it.
Any tough tunes?
There are a couple of moments when I have to be on my toes, one is the minstrel hall, because I improvise on that. In the old days, it was just a question of going on stage and running around, and acting very, kind of like monkeys, I suppose, but now people are sitting there waiting to hear you play, so you have to be on your toes more, and minstrel hall a good standard of where…I’m always a little bit relieved once I’ve played that one because that sets me up for the whole evening to be on or off, because it goes deathly quiet when I’m playing it and for me, and I think for any musician, playing the piece is only one part of playing, it’s having the nerve to carry it off in front of all the people. I still get nervous, so I’m always relieved when I get through that particular tune, and it’s our fourth tune, we throw it in early in the set. And you never know when you’re going to have an audience shouting ‘come on, come on, get out the rock and roll guitars’, but luckily that hasn’t really happened, but it’s quite a difficult piece when it’s played properly. The way I played it on the record is different to how I play it onstage, I put a lot more improvisation in…
Does that happen a lot?
No, but sense that it could at any moment, because ….we’re so quiet, if we had the wrong element in there, they could…
No, not that. Different on stage to the record.
Always, they generally play what they sh…what has been played, and I’ll go off on a tangent, always, and it kind of throws them sometimes. I’ve always found it very difficult to repeat myself not for note, for instance, if I’m listening to someone like Lindsey Buckingham, who can play the guitar, he’s good, he plays note-for note every show, and that amazes me. I couldn’t, I have to … all my notes are different, I just improvise on the spot, around the melody, obviously.
Who do you rate…these days?
On the acoustic side, Gordon Giltrap is someone, I put his stuff on and I pick up a lot of tips from him, and luckily I know him as a friend a bit, so he’s advised me on a lot on how to amplify things. I went to see John Renbourn the other day, he’s great. I like the way that he treated the audience, he kind of pretended they weren’t even there, he didn’t say hello or anything, to the audience, it was quite funny. He just started playing, which is – I love that anti-showbiz thing. Electrically you’ve got people like Eric Johnson, who’s brilliant. There are…I find myself not listening to guitarists. I’ll find myself more excited listening to a renaissance piece of a schawm player, it sounds strange, but I collect schawms – it’s a relative of the oboe, it’s where the oboe comes from. And these are instruments that were played in the 1500’s, and I just love these instruments so much, I just love touching them and looking at them.
Never tempted to pick one up and blow?
I do blow it, but I can’t get anything out of it. Candy plays these things, and I don’t know how she does it. She was never taught. It’s amazing, whenever I come to England I’m off to the early music shop in bradford, and I’m buying up all these schawms. And I can’t play a note on them, but they look so good on the shelf.
I’m more taken by woodwind than guitar. I think I’ve heard so much guitar music through the ages that I’m not particularly taken by the guitar almost, sometimes I’m impressed by a player, like Joe Satriani, but at the same time, I would play it once and then I’d be back to playing schawm music.
If someone were interested in investigating as listener or player…
Philip Pigot, he’s the foremost authority on it now after David Monroe passed away, I think he plays for the London consort. He plays a lot of shakespearean music at the globe…
Have you played there yet
No. They said that they wanted us to, but I think it holds about five thousand, so we were not sure about playing there, but, I don’t know there were some other things involved. We prefer the two thousand seaters – once we get to five it’s a bit big for us. I haven’t been. I’ve just seen pictures…it’s just going to the back of a record shop, though I can imagine in England it’s not even in the back…sending away for a lot of stuff from magazines, getting the renaissance stuff that way. They are hard to come by. There are lots of European bands, I’d recommend some friends of mine called des geyer’s, they’re a group of real purists who play renaissance music, with a very good guitar player, and they play the hurdy-gurdy, the schawms and the whole bit. Very exciting to watch – I collect their videos. It’s like an underground movement. In its own way it’s getting quite famous…
There is a lot of snobbery involved in renaissance music, because you’ve got the purists, the academics that just what to recreate what they think happened then, and I think it gets a little bit too stuffy for the normal person in the street to listen to. We like to think that we’re not modernising it, but that our interpretation is more accessible for the average person.
So it’s very much an interpretation? Has your playing grown?
I think it has, I think I’ve become a better player, because I tend to practice more, the guitar to me started to almost bore me about twenty years ago. I’d go onstage, play the heavy rock stuff – which I enjoyed – but I felt I wasn’t getting any further. Now, playing these various acoustic guitars, it’s opened up another world, and it’s almost like playing all over again, and I seem to have go tback the interest I had when I was twelve looking in a shop window at guitars and drooling at the latest models…I kind of lost that for a long time, and now I seem to have it back, though now it’s acoustic guitars and instruments related to acoustic guitars. It’s very exciting again, so I’m happy aboput that.
Definitely [ac and elec diff instruments] again it’s that the electric guitar relies heavily on the amplification, whereas the acoustic – I don’t think they’ve come out with an acoustic amplifier yet which amplifies the acoustic to how it can soundin a room. One of these days someone will come up with an acoustic amp that just sounds like a BIG guitar. Which would be interesting.
Do you know what any of your old cohorts think of what you’re up to now?
I think they think I’m pretty crazy…they think I’m, there’s politics involved as well as music. Jon Lord – I get along with Jon, form Purple – and I think he’s embarking on his tour of Italy and playing a little bit of renaissance inspired classical music, so he understands where I was going, but some of the others just though I was just being awkward, a bad little doggie.
What do you think of what they’re doing now?
I haven’t heard one piece of music that they’ve done. So I don’t know which way…I know obviously Steve Morse, when I first heard him, back in ’79, I remember telling Roger Glover about him, and what a brilliant guitar player he was, and…but I’ve never ever heard anything that they’ve done. Of course, I’ve not gone out of my way…to listen, because when you’ve been in a band that long, you kind of know what they do. And I’m sure they feel the same way about my stuff.
The line-up changes, yet always the consistent sound…have you had a lot of changes in this set-up?
Yes I have. Probably for the same reason, because when I first started this I thought that it would be relatively easy to get people to play the parts, and I found out later that there were a lot more subtleties involved, than I had anticipated, an what I thought was quite simple to play, a lot of players were finding it hard. Because they were used to the rock style. And it took me a long time to get the right band together, and people were coming and going all the time. It’s about now we’ve got it together, we’ve got a good band now…and we have more people in the band who are motivated by renaissance music, when I first started this project we had a lot of rock and rollers, thinking I was going to play rainbow stuff all the time, but it took me a long time to find the right players.
In what way couldn’t they get it right? What it a sitiuation where you could do the subtleties but you weren’t quite aware of what you were doing?
That’s right, it was a bit of both…I just assumed anybody could play what I was playing, and then I found that the dynamics and the subtleties that were involved they couldn’t come to terms with because they were much more brash, and again when you start turning down the amplifiers you start hearing everybody’s musical inadequacies…so there was a lot of that going on in the beginning. Of course, I had a lot of friends involved in the beginning, and I though ‘well, it’s OK, you don’t have to be that good, I’ll take this part, you just take the simple part,’ and that simple part just turned into a nightmare. And I was again getting through a lot of people, and I refused to, in my own way, settle for second best, and friend or no friend, if he’s not playing properly, I’m going to have to say we’ve got to move on here.
Do you find a simple part almost more important for the work than the tough part?
A lot of guitarists today have jumped past the rhythm stage and they’re into tricks and doing all the hammer notes and if you try and get them to play a simple rhythmic right hand part they seem to fall down…a lot of the old school went through that, when I was growing up you obviously had to learn your rhythm, in a way like Bruce Welch from the Shadows, there’s an art to playing rhythm. And they seem to have bypassed that in some ways…something I took for granted, a lot of players could play all the flashy parts but couldn’t play the meat and potatoes parts…and I notice that even today…people bypass that rhythm stage.
Well, I find it more in up-coming players, student sthat have got done all the fast Joe Satriani but they don’t quite know why. They’ve got all the videos, nd they know how to play very fast, but they don’t know the reason for it, and of course there’s no rhythmic…that’s just an observation.
They want to know the tricks, they want to jump straight into that. What makes me laugh today is that people ask me ‘what guitar should I buy my son?’ and you know, anything, and I give them a few names, and they go ‘what about the amplifier, and I go ‘what about it, and they say I have to buy an amplifier for him, and I say you don’t want an amplifier if the guy hasn’t played one note, but they have to buy the amplifier…they have to have a marshall when they get their guitar, and that is ludicrous. Can you imagine someone learning the guitar going through a hundred watt marshall?
Why is it that this record is a compilation…
That record is a ballad romantic release, so it’s done for like marketing purposes, because a lot of people were telling us that they were getting married to our music, so we thought it would be a good idea just to put together all the romantic ballads, with a lot of Candy’s singing and that sort of stuff. One of these days I’ll put out an instrumental of technical stuff, but at the same time I like to throw in techniques hidden in simplicity, like what might appear to be very simple…
You know what, I don’t even know what’s on this album, they put the stuff out so quickly, I have to ask Candy ‘what the hell’s on this one?’ they try to put DVDs out and we’re trying to hold stuff…I think we’ve had three records out this year, it’s too much, and again, some people might think this is ridiculous, but I’m more ‘let’s just play the music’, and whatever they want to put out…especially on this last release.
What would you recommend people listening to from your releases…
On record we haven’t really put a lot down that’s staunch renaissance, we always go in the studio, and we can play it two different ways, we can play it the acoustic way, as it was probably played in those days, but then we get a little bit nervous and probably overproduce a little bit and layer some synthesizer here and there. So it’s only an interpretation of renaissance music. I play reniassance music at home at my leisure, but I very rarely go in the studio and play it, I always think we have to overproduce something. There’s one thing I played on the mandola and just went up to the mike and played, and that’s called ‘Mr Peagram’s Morris and Sword’, that’s more authentic without being overproduced, there’s a few others, I think ‘Tosham goes to Prague’ was another, more sort of specialized music, but I still shy away from that, and at the end of the day I go back and put some electric on it and get the synthesizer involved so that it’s more acceptable.
Is that just fear of being on record wearing your underpants?
No, well, sometimes it is, sometimes I wonder to myself I whether people really just want to hear the basics of us, when we go out we often take our instuments with us and we’ll play in the corner of a restaurant, and that’s when we’re playing the real renaissance with just acoustic instruments, and not putting on any synthesizers and things, but I chicken out, and say no, we’ve got to put something more modern here, and this song it may be a good idea to modernize it in some areas, instead of just leaving it in the old fashioned way, I’m always torn between do we do it the acoustic way, the basic way, or do we modernise it, put more fairy dust on it. It ends up with more fairy dust on it, most of the time. It’s not a bad thing, I think it’s accesible to more people that way, they can understand it that way. In my own way I hope that it’s more renaissance-y, but I still haven’t got to that stage where I’m, well, I’m getting there, but I still haven’t come out with the totally authenti instruments playing ti the way that I hear it…though occasionally at home, Candice will play the Schawm, and we’ll have all the instruments, and I’ll be playing the hurdy-gurdy, but as yet we’ve never gone into the studio and finished it like that. It’s something to shoot for. I think it would be interesting to about ten people.
What motivates me is the pure honesty of renaissance music and the woodwind and the raw, majestic sound, and I sometimes get a little bit disappointed in hearing our records because we’ve glamourised it aa little bit too much, souped it up, but that’s kind of an opinion that I change from day to day – one day I’ll say yes, that’s too modern, and then I’ll see how people react to it, and I think, you know, if this was put out in the basic fashion that I hear it, they probably wouldn’t take any notice of it at all. Too basic for them, and too woody, um, historic, I don’t know.
Downloads on the website?
That’s right…of course we could do that. Again, I keep coming back to I’ve got a melody, I’ve got an idea, and of course you want to make the best of that idea, and I get into more the modern approach and overproducing it, but I do miss doing the purely organic side of renaissance music, but it’s taken me a long time to get to that stage, from the electric guitar, because you realise that things like even the normal six-string guitar doesn’t fit. When you’re playing hurdy-gurdy, they go in and out of tune, bagpipes go in and out of tune with their drones, so all this you have to take into consideration, and as soon as you start playing the six-string, normal acoustic guitar it just clashes because it’s too modern. So there’s a dilemma right there, in its own way. If I’m playing that way I’d have to play the hurdy-gurdy or a mandola, or something of that nature to fit in, or it clashes. As soon as you have a synthesiser playing with a bagpipe, you’re in trouble (ha, ha…) because that bagpipe will go in and out of tune, the bagpipe on its own will sound brilliant., these are all things that you learn after a while in the studio.
Next in england? Good question. We were looking at venues, trying to get into the castle mode, because we haven’t done that so much in england, we’d be playing to two or three hundred people in a castle, or a courtyard, but the weather…you’ve got the think [hampton court]… there are a lot of places. I’ve noticed that when I’m in Germany, anywhere south of Frankfurt you’ll find you’ll get good weather in the summer, whereas anything North of frankfurt tends to rain a lot, so it’s stupid little things you have to think anbout when you’re doing an open-air festival. Now in England, every time I did a festival it was always in the mud in the old days…I did festivals in june and it always rained.
Text © Pete Langman 2005 – ask nicely before you steal it, thanks!