Whitesnake's Jon Lord talks gear & Technique with Gary Cooper
At a time when keyboard instruments have probably developed a greater influence on modern music than than they have done since the 1950's gave us the Rock'n'Rollers with their early electric guitar sounds, it's really surprising how few genuine 'stars' there are on the scene.
Talk about guitar 'greats' and it's difficult to know where to stop. But keyboards? Well, obviously you've got the old U.K. rock guard like Wakeman and Emerson (Patrick Moraz too, if he doesn't mind being bracketed alongside U.K. players) like Jan Hammer and Joe Zawinul, George Duke and others. There are the synthesiser brigade among the newer British players too (although how many of them are regarded as being individually significant players?) plus the 'esoteric' types like Jean Michael Jarre, Tomita, Klaus Schulz and so on. But still the list seems pitifully short when compared with the prominence of the instruments on the market today and the comparable list of 'big name' guitarists. Why this should be is a puzzle, but either way, Jon Lord, pioneer of heavy rock organ in Deep Purple and now playing in the tremendously successful Whitesnake, definitely counts as one of the all-time greats, one of the few keyboard players to have made a lasting (and still very much continuing) contribution to Rock Music generally. Possibly something which separates Jon from many of the players around today who fail to achieve recognition in their field, is sheer technique. He's by no standards a purely technical player but he does have a remarkably wide ability and a considerable depth to his playing which, he admits, only comes about the hard way.
But, before we got onto playing and the instruments he uses, Jon and I spoke about the recent hugely successful tour of Japan that Whitesnake had undertaken.
"This was the third time that Whitesnake had been to Japan" Jon explained, "and it was by far the best tour that we've had there. "They're still at a stage over there that Western music seems fairly new to them and they seem to have this boundless enthusiasm — they're delightful people.
"The tour that we did was the longest and largest tour in Japan that anyone's done, ever. We did more dates than English bands usually do — three weeks there, which is a long time to be in Japan — normally people go for about ten or twelve days. It was very tiring but tremendously worthwhile."
I asked Jon how he had found the venues over there. Normally U.K. bands only play the really big major city gigs like the Festival Hall in Osaka and the Budokan — how had he found the smaller gigs?
"The smaller towns, the provincial towns where not a lot of Western bands go, have their own venues. We did four or five of those very much on purpose, to try and widen the appeal of the band over there, and succeeded.
"There you have smaller places, like 2,000 seaters immaculately kept, with marvellous acoustics, and they really are superb gigs."
I wondered if Jon had found any problems transporting his gear around over there?
"THE REAL REVOLUTION IS IN THE CHEAPER AND MEDIUM PRICED EQUIPMENT..."
"No, there are no problems at all. It possibly depends on who the promoter is but if you go with a good promoter they provide another crew who put the gear in, take the gear out and your road crew don't have to do a thing." Sounds like a roadie's heaven, doesn't it?
I asked Jon if he found himself heavily pursued by Japanese instrument manufacturers while he was over there. Several musicians with whom I've spoken have told extremely amusing stories of the lengths to which Japanese makers will sometimes go to gain endorsements and I'd wondered whether Jon, who is after all one of today's leading keyboard figures, had received the same sort of treatment?
"They certainly do tend to be there quite a lot, the companies like Yamaha and Pearl. That's actually quite pleasing, I find, as it does give you the chance to try out their latest ideas even before they get over to the West. I don't think they're easy touches — they're not going to actually give anything away, they want something in return. But they are very anxious for us to try things out.
"On the most recent tour I did get the chance to try out a lot of their latest stuff and it's really quite incredible what they're doing.
"Seeing it, it made me wonder where on Earth this keyboard revolution's ever going to stop. It seems as if one day you'll just sit there with a pair of headphones on and think a piece of music which'll then get played!
"I didn't see anything out there that was really revolutionary but I do keep hearing whispers that there's a new Yamaha which is going to be like the Synclavier and the Emulator all rolled into one, but they're only rumours.
"JAPAN - AND IT WAS BY FAR THE BEST TOUR THAT WE'VE HAD THERE."
"The real revolution is in the cheaper and medium priced equipment where they're producing such a volume of easy to play, easy to understand equipment. That does lead me to wonder, though, whether in the long term it might actually prove to be a bad thing for keyboard players as a whole — maybe life will become too easy for them?
"In the future the danger could be that technique could suffer very badly and that practice might take a second place.
"Technique really should be high on the list of priorities of any keyboard player and if we're not careful we might end-up with something which is really too easy and not challenging enough. That would be a musical detriment, I would think — but we'll have to wait and see, I suppose."
One of the objections raised against the current crop of keyboard players which has sprung-up in recent years is that a great amount of the music that results from their sequencers and whatnots lacks feeling. It's a sense which Jon is very aware of and we get onto the whole question of feel in playing.
"The instruments themselves aren't capable of expressing feeling. They're only capable of expressing what's put into them and if the musician playing them is not accomplished enough to generate feeling and to use the machine instead of having the machine use them, then you are going to get a very sterile result — and that does seem to be showing through in a lot of synthesiser bands. Unless you work at it the synthesiser can be a very sterile instrument."
Moving onto his own equipment these days I asked Jon (who does have a reputation for being a bit of a conservative with his gear) what he was currently taking on the road with him in Whitesnake.
"TECHNIQUE REALLY SHOULD BE HIGH ON THE LIST OF PRIORITIES OF ANY KEYBOARD PLAYER..."
"I still use my old Hammond organ, which has been modified I don't know how many times. It's got all sorts of things built into it. On top of that there's a Clavinet and a Moog Opus which I basically use just to fatten-up the sounds. That's all on one side of me on stage.
"All that group of equipment is capable of being phased and echoed and all sorts of things. Behind me there's a Yamaha CP80 and on top of that this wonderful new MemoryMoog that I've got.
"I'm really thrilled to bits with the MemoryMoog. It's the polyphonic Moog which is absolutely sensational and that has actually replaced something like about four or five synthesisers which I used to take on the road with me — now all I do is just take that one in their place. It's even, sad to say, finally replaced my Mini Moog, which I still think is the greatest synth ever invented. I do still take the Mini Moog on the road as a standby but the MemoryMoog is really just like having eight or ten Mini Moogs all linked up together. The MemoryMoog remembers about 200 sounds, it's totally polyphonic and is really a wonderful machine. You can dump those sounds that you've got onto tape and they can be recalled at will in about 4½ seconds and then put another 200 sounds onto tape, it's really a quite remarkable instrument."
"I find that I use the tape dumping facility to store sounds on tape so that they're not lost. I do take a cassette of my sounds around with us and if I want to change sounds at a soundcheck or something I can put those on tape too and then play them back through the cassette interface. It seems as useful to me as having a floppy disc, it's just a different system, that's all."
When Jon mentioned that he was still able to take his Hammond out on World tours with him I'd done an instant double-take. The old faithful keyboard is still revered by many experienced players but hasn't been obtainable for many years now, later Hammonds (and many other organs) never seeming to have been able to quite capture that archetypal Hammond sound. But the Hammond was never really designed for a hard life on the road — so how had Jon kept his going?
"I had one Hammond when Purple started but that kind of exploded on one occasion. I must admit that I also find it quite remarkable that I've still got one going after all this time but I suppose that shows how well they were made — it's a pity you can't get them anymore.
"I'M REALLY THRILLED TO BITS WITH THE MEMORY MOOG. IT'S THE POLYPHONIC MOOG WHICH IS ABSOLUTELY SENSATIONAL..."
"What I managed to do when Hammond stopped this model was get hold of four old tone wheel generator systems for them, so I've got the spares to keep me going. No synthesiser manages to get quite that sound. The Korg, for example, is a very good organ and it does a very creditable job of trying to get that Hammond sound but it's not quite the same, there's something more massive about the Hammond's sound which no synthesiser has ever managed to duplicate. Certainly, I'd feel naked without it."
For amplification on stage Jon still uses four Leslie speakers in a block ("it looks like a block of flats there at the back of the stage!" he quips). He feels that, once more, there's a sound quality he can get using the Leslies that he can't recreate in any other way. Furthermore, so much of his style is based on using these rotating speaker systems that he admits it would be very difficult to make a change now. Two of them are miked-up through the P.A. and used as a stereo feed. The sound effect produced by the movement of the speaker system inside the Leslies enhances stereo pans, resulting in a sort of phasing sound which is most noticeable when you hear Jon on stage.
"Change for the sake of change seems pointless to me" Jon adds.
Going on to talk about players who are in the position (as many are these days) of just having decided to take advantage of all the tremendously capable and yet inexpensive keyboard equipment which is on the market right now, I asked Jon what advice he would give them.
"It doesn't really matter whether you play an organ, piano or synthesiser there's really only one technique which can only be arrived at, unfortunately, through the practising of scales and arpeggios etc. Once you've got those going properly things do become a little more pleasurable but they're a bitch to start with. But I'm afraid there's no short-cut to technique, there's just no way round those things and practice still makes perfect and that's one thing that I'd have to say. If you ever want to become an accomplished keyboard player then the only way is to practise.
"Having said that, I'm not suggesting that everyone should want to be a Rubenstein or even a Rick Wakeman or Keith Emerson but to be able to translate the ideas that occur to you mentally, to get those ideas through the instrument and out to the audience, the better your technique the better the translation of those ideas will be.
"PLAYING PIANO ACTUALLY STRENGTHENS THE FINGERS WHICH IS IMPORTANT FOR TECHNIQUE."
"I'd reiterate something I said earlier, don't let the machine master you, it's got to be the other way round, especially with some of these modern machines which are so sophisticated that you can sound accomplished while only using one finger. I would deny that as a useful thing for the future — I think the technique is worth acquiring.
"I have to admit that it's not very hopeful advice in so far as practising the scales isn't very interesting but it's about the only way. Another useful thing, if you can read music is to buy books and sight read from them, that can be more interesting.
"Another thing is that if you want to be a keyboard player, never, ever, overlook the piano as an instrument. The piano is a hard instrument to master, harder than an organ to master, for example, because it requires more strength. Playing piano actually strengthens the fingers which is important for technique.
"I realise that all this could sound a bit pedantic but I don't intend to be. It's just that I've found the value of technique and am very keen to pass that on."
Changing back to the subject of equipment, I heard that Jon's involvement with synthesiser makers Moog had lead him to visit the factory over in the States. What, I wondered, had he found things like over there?
"I was over there about a year and a half ago, when they were trying to put the MemoryMoog together. It was in bits then, spread over about fourteen different workbenches but it still worked. I also saw their research department, where they seem to be trying out a lot of new things.
"...A LARGE PART OF THE MUSIC LOVING POPULATION DOESN'T WANT TO BE SYNTHESISED AT..."
"They're a much more traditional synthesiser company in that they've found a way of making sounds which are very distinctive — look at the Mini Moog for example — and so what they've done with the MemoryMoog is go right back the way through the whole digital and floppy disc thing and then discard it, going back to using oscillators to get the sounds with, which was what they had with the Mini Moog. Perhaps on account of that the MemoryMoog is like eight or ten Mini Moogs all linked together and you can get this tremendously fat, glorious sound out of it but totally polyphonically."
I asked Jon if having had a fair amount of contact with the Japanese when he had been over there, yet having also been working with Moog (and having chosen to use Moog in preference to Japanese synths) he felt that the Americans were somehow more conservative in their approach.
"There was a certain period when they fell very badly behind some of the other makers — they were beaten very badly by the Prophet, for example, because they had nothing to put against it at all. I feel that with this machine, though, they've come a great way to getting right back there again. But they certainly don't seem to be pushing themselves into the directions that, say, Yamaha are going and I'm not so sure that I want them to. If they can go along producing a machine as good as the MemoryMoog every few years then I'm going to be quite happy with them!
"If you look at synthesisers like the Emulator and the Fairlight, you're not all that far away from a situation where the musician per se is almost becoming totally redundant. You're nearly at that point where a one finger player can programme the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and that's what he gets.
"But I do feel that audiences seem to be coming round to the point where they have their say about what is going on. Programmed music is not as affecting as music by a live musician — emotionally music works better when it's being played by a musician who knows his chops than it is by a machine which has merely been programmed. I think there's a large part of the music loving population that doesn't want to be synthesised at — they still like to see real players up there flailing away. In the end I think sanity will prevail."
Finally I asked Jon whether we would be likely to see a solo project coming from him in the near future. It's a hackneyed question and one that I'd normally avoid asking unless I felt that the person whom I was asking was someone who really could deliver a solo project of significant musical worth. I think that even a lot of non-keyboard players (like myself) would be interested to see just what a player as accomplished as Jon might come up with.
From his answer it seems as if the ideas might well be brewing but that Whitesnake's considerable and widespread success is occupying virtually all of his time at present. His main ambition, currently, is to get the latest incarnation of the band into the studio and get it down on tape.
Whilst Jon's attitudes towards technique may seem to some readers as being slightly hard on the latest synthesiser school (although I wonder if the word 'school' has just the ideally opposite implications of education and learning in it?) I feel that what he has to say should be engraved in letters of fire above the entrance to all keyboard shops. Here is a player who is accepted as being of world class right throughout the musical spheres. He has been at the top of his particular tree since the 1960's yet still enjoys as much success today as ever. He's equally at home on an acoustic grand piano as the latest synthesisers and that, he feels, stems from a grasp of technique. It would be a rash person indeed who would ignore his views.
I think we can safely anticipate Jon being around for many years to come, always combining the original with the innovative and backing it with a genuine talent and ability. There must be something there for us all to learn from that!
Interview by Gary Cooper
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