Todays guest post comes to you from John Sagers. John is a professor of history who happens to have a passion for guitars, effects, and cranked amps.
David Gilmour’s soaring solo in “Comfortably Numb” stands out as one of the greatest moments in guitar tone history. This model of harmony and focused energy is all the more amazing in light of struggle, conflict, and intense pressure that were present at the time of its creation.
Pink Floyd as a band was in bad shape at the end of the Animals tour in 1977. Roger Waters was disillusioned with stadium shows that had become increasingly unruly. At the final concert of the tour in Montreal, he became so irritated at a raucous fan that Waters spit in his face from the stage. Horrified at his own behavior, Waters began working on material about an artist’s alienation from his audience for what would become The Wall album. The lyrics for “Comfortably Numb” were informed by Waters’ experience at a show at the Philadelphia Spectrum, in which he was given a dose of muscle relaxers for severe stomach cramps that allowed him to perform, but made his hands numb. (1)
Financial problems were also a factor in the creation of The Wall. Advised by the firm Norton Warburg, Pink Floyd had invested heavily in tax-sheltered securities, which performed poorly. When the band reconvened from their solo projects, Waters had demos of four ideas for Pink Floyd’s next project. Although Gilmour was not thrilled with the demos and knew it would take a lot of work to turn any of them into an album, financial pressure required the band to get to work on something quickly. Since no one had anything else, The Wall was chosen as the most promising concept. (2)
To mediate growing conflict in the band, Waters called in American producer Bob Ezrin, who had worked with Alice Cooper on Welcome to my Nightmare, to help produce The Wall. Ezrin recalled, “It became my job to be the interface between Roger and the rest of the band. I had to fight for there to be some Dave songs on the record, and if I hadn’t we wouldn’t have ‘Comfortably Numb.’” (3)
“Comfortably Numb” reflects the conflict and collaboration between Gilmour, Waters, and Ezrin. Gilmour created the music as part of a solo album project, but had not yet used it. Ezrin talked Waters, who wanted The Wall to be all his, into writing lyrics for Gilmour’s music. Ezrin orchestrated the first part of the song, which had originally been edgier in Gilmour’s demo. With the orchestral version blended with Gilmour’s harder rock solo, the song took shape as we now know it. Gilmour later said, “I think things like ‘Comfortably Numb’ were the last embers of mine and Roger’s ability to work collaboratively together.” (4)
The “Comfortably Numb” solo was recorded with a Strat into Hiwatt amps and Yamaha RA-200 rotating speakers. (5) In interviews, Gilmour says he usually uses a fuzz pedal, delay, and a bright EQ setting while playing near the threshold of feedback to get his signature sustain tones. His gentle use of vibrato from a shortened whammy bar also contributes to his distinctive sound. To compose his solos, he often records himself singing a part and then works it out on the guitar. To generate additional ideas, he will improvise several solos over a recorded chord progression and choose the best parts for the final version. (6) In this way, Gilmour combines a methodical approach to composition with the spontaneity of improvisation.
“Comfortably Numb” is a majestic blend of conflict and collaboration, artistry and raw power, as well as method and spontaneity and will long endure at the pinnacle of guitar tone.
1. Mark Blake, Comfortably Numb the Inside Story of Pink Floyd. (New York: Da Capo Press, 2008), 253-254.
2. Toby Manning, The Rough Guide to Pink Floyd, 1st ed (London: Rough Guides, 2006), 108-110.
3. Toby Manning, The Rough Guide to Pink Floyd, 110-111.
4. Mark Blake, Comfortably Numb, 274-275.
5. Matt Blackett, “The 50 Greatest Guitar Tones of All Time,” Guitar Player, October 2004.
6. Jimmy Brown, “Sorcerer Full of Secrets,” Guitar World, May 2006, 62. and “100 Greatest Guitar Solos: No. 4 ‘Comfortably Numb’ (David Gilmour) | Guitar World,” March 6, 2013, http://www.guitarworld.com/node/1539.