The wonderful guitars that made the wonderful Midge the wonderful guitarist. That he is.
Tune in to a history of Midge Ure's boxes, from a 1960s Watkins Rapier, via a trio of chunky Gibsons, to a big new Yamaha semi.
"MY FIRST PROPER GUITAR? It was a Fender Strat. I'd had a Watkins Rapier, and I thought it was about time I got myself 'a real guitar'. So I happened to see this Strat in a shop that someone had painted with emulsion, it was the most disgusting, beat up thing you'd ever seen in your life. But it was going really cheap, I think it was £110 — it was in a shop in Glasgow called Golloms, it's not even there any more.
"I tried to do a part exchange, to trade in an amp for part of the guitar. So I turned up the next weekend with the amp and they said oh no, we'll take your amp as well as the deposit for the guitar. I didn't have any money! I had to go and get a magic bit of paper that only seems to come from up north called a Provident Cheque — it was a sort of forerunner to the plastic card, you could buy something and pay it up, the cheque allowed you to get something to its value. Luckily this shop took it, my parents managed to wangle this Cheque for me.
"NO SOONER HAD I GOT the Strat, stripped it all down and made it look good, than I saw a Gibson 330. My ultimate by then was a Gibson, something with humbuckers — you'll instantly sound like Eric Clapton. It was because of things like John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Peter Green, Clapton. I could never figure out how they got that sustain, how they got those notes to hang on that long. A lot of it had to with the amps; I think you'd find that Clapton was using either a very early Marshall or an old Fender and he would have whacked it right up to get that distortion. Most of the Gibsons they used at that period would get that infinite sustain, feedback, sustaining on harmonic notes, always a great sound to me — and it's still going now, I'm still using it, everyone's still using that sound.
"So I got the 330, and my parents couldn't quite understand why I'd got the Strat and done all this work on it, and then swapped it for this other beat up looking thing that I then had to strip down, and so on. Brilliant guitar, saw me through for a good couple of years. I had to tape up the f-holes cos it kept feeding back really badly — you had to stick paper in it first and then end up with gaffer tape over the holes. The 330 is completely hollow — it's the semi-solid 335 that has the block down the middle.
"I was mainly playing other people's things at the time I had the 330. Being in a Glasgow band then, about '72, '73, when I'd just started in a proper band, there was nowhere to play your own stuff, so if you wanted to survive as a musician you had to play discotheques or whatever, playing Top 40. We were more selective than most, we managed to get away with playing Roxy Music records, and early David Bowie things — yeah, the classier end of the pop market."
"BY 1974 THE 330 HAD DISAPPEARED, I'd sold it, and I bought an SG Standard, I had two of those, cherry red, the long chrome tailpiece. I always thought the SG was a great design, a great looking guitar, and that tailpiece looked so good too. It was a much narrower neck than the 330, easier to play — and it had humbuckers as opposed to the single coil 330 type pickups, which I liked. That got stolen, and I got a brown SG to replace it, the three pickup one. That didn't sound as good, wasn't as good a guitar, and it had a slightly wider neck, too. I couldn't figure out the variations on the necks — and they still vary now, generally, on guitars. You pick up a new Strat now and the neck feels totally different to the one sitting next to it. You'd think that the necks on bog standard new guitars should all be basically the same. No — you still can feel differences.
"The SG influence was probably Eric Clapton again. I could turn up the amp louder than with the 330, though the sound wasn't quite as mellow, it was harsher, but the sustain was better. The neck always seemed so long on SGs, 'cos the body was so short the neck seemed to stick out a mile. I found that great — specially after the short scale of the 330."
"AFTER THAT I BOUGHT a Gibson Firebird, not the reverse model, the other model, which was quite nice — again with a tremolo, and it was a triple pickup number, single coils, the ones with the polepieces in the middle.
"And then I started turning Japanese. Must have been 1976 when I got my first Yamaha SG2000. We'd bought some PA equipment from Yamaha, this was the beginning of touring with Slik. They told us they were starting to do proper guitars, 'cos up till that time Yamaha guitars were a bit of a joke, really cheap horrible nasty bits of wood. They had an SG2000 there, and I had a bash — it was great and I had to have it! It was like playing a Gibson again, almost. The neck was slightly wider than I was used to, but the weight of the body was fine. It just did everything I wanted, a good combination.
"I've never thought the Fender Strat was particularly good. I know people'll swing for me for saying that, but I could never play them, they always sounded too thin and tinny."
"I've got four or five SG2000s, but the only one that was really any good was that first one, the sunburst one, a really good guitar, a really raunchy sound. A few months ago, after the tour, all the guitar cases came over to the house, opened 'em all up, opened up the SG2000 case and there's a Les Paul Junior in there! Someone had taken my SG2000 and put in a Les Paul Junior. I mean! It's fair exchange really... but I didn't want this Les Paul Junior. I tried to find whether it was a mistake, who'd done it, but nobody knew a thing. So that guitar's gone now.
"I used two 2000s in Ultravox, a black one as well as the favourite sunburst one. The black one wasn't nearly as good, but it went with my outfit, ha ha. I've got some more 2000s, yeah. I've got a tobacco one and a brown one, two different black ones — I think Warren's got one of those just now — and there's the red sunburst one. I think that's it for SG2000s."
"WHY ARE STRATS SO POPULAR? I don't know... it's way beyond me. It's probably because tremolo units became so popular. The wang bar syndrome, where everybody learned how to hit octaves and harmonics and make funny noises. I've never thought the Fender Strat was particularly good. I know people'll swing for me for saying that, but I could never ever play them, they always sounded too thin and tinny to me — yet I've got one, I got a new Strat, but I wanted it for its looks more than anything else, I wanted a clean sound for some rhythm things I was doing on the 'Rage In Eden' LP, I'd always used guitars with humbuckers. I wanted a Strat, but I didn't want a straight, ordinary, boring old Strat, I wanted an old black Strat. I mean everything black — black fingerboard, the lot. So I bought a new Strat, gave it to Roger Giffin, and he pulled it apart, resprayed it, cut a black scratchplate, black pickup covers, black ebony fingerboard, put in Gibson frets on the fingerboard... it's a really nice looking guitar, but it still sounds like a tin can, you know? I just cannot use them, that really thin, single coil pickup thing, can't to get to grips with it."
"The Yamaha 2000 lasted into Ultravox up until I bought my grey Ibanez Roadstar thing. I got it three years ago when we were doing the grey stage set, and at that point I wanted a reasonably light guitar, and something with a tremolo unit and humbuckers — and Ibanez did that Roadstar which is a brilliant, very straightforward guitar. To this day it's one of the best guitars I've got, very beat up and battered but does the business.
"WE'VE USED QUITE A FEW acoustics on the new album and we've reworked some of the old songs — we had another guitar player on tour with us, a young Swedish guy, Max Abbey, a great player, and he did my guitar parts. So I'm just playing 12-string and six-string now and again, it adds a sparkle to the overall sound which is quite nice, something we've never done before.
"I tend to be playing a Washburn Woodstock 12-string all the time, and my new Yamaha AE-2000 when I get round to playing some proper guitar at the end of the set.
"The Yamaha's great, I've just bought it. I knew Yamaha would be good, I've got their 335 version — they've got a version of just about every guitar you can think of. I've always wanted a big, full bodied guitar, and I didn't even go looking anywhere else — I glimpsed the Ibanez one and basically didn't like the shape of it, though it'd probably sound all right. But Yamaha, you know you're talking serious business when a guitar costs a thousand pounds. I just knew it would be a good guitar, I got it down for a day and it was brilliant.
"I took it to my usual guitar guy and asked him to put a Kahler tremolo on it and he sent me away, said it was impossible, you might as well build a new guitar from scratch. So I took it to Keith Page and he did the job. Everyone said it couldn't be done, you'd have to put a great big solid block of wood inside it for a start, which would make the guitar far too heavy — and it's heavy to start with.
"So Keith strengthened the top piece of wood by putting in layers of quite light wood before sinking the Kahler into it, bolting it on. I've got so used to making funny noises with my guitar that I had to have a Kahler on it, you don't know what to do with your right hand half the time, you need something to grab hold of and pull about. I think once you get into the swing of using vibrato your style changes totally, and that's what my style is just now. If you took that away I'd be back to playing sort of three-chord blues things."
Interview by Tony Bacon
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!