Three Guitarists | Phil Manzanera
Phil Manzanera's individual guitar playing has always been an integral part of the personality of Roxy Music who are currently starting work on a new album. Through his group and solo work plus contributions to other people's albums, he has emerged as one of the most creative guitarists in rock.
At the age of nine Colombian-born Phil Manzanera was living with his family in Venezuela. He began to develop an interest in music through American visitors to the country, boys a few years older than himself who would play electric guitars at parties and get a lot of attention. Phil's father was an airline pilot who took advantage of free air travel for his family, so between the ages of ten and 16 years Phil was commuting back and forth to England for schooling. At the same time he was being exposed to the explosive Beatles/Rolling Stones era first hand. Still thinking that being popular with girls at parties could be quite enjoyable, he became more and more interested in music.
'By the time I was around ten years old I was totally obsessed by rock music. I was spending all my money on records and anything to do with music. Then I bought a cello guitar with a Hofner pickup and later nearly bankrupted my father by getting a Hofner Galaxy for £50, a lot of money in those days.'
He worked at learning to play just like the other kids he knew who had guitars. He sent off for a book on music theory. Somehow he just wasn't getting on as well as the other kids.
'I used to try to learn how to play solos from records, I tried slowing them down. But I could never do it properly and there was always someone who could play better. So I gave that up and decided I would just have to try and play my own way and that if people didn't like it, that was just too bad.'
Towards the end of his schooling in England Phil formed Quiet Sun, which was to be his only band before joining Roxy Music.
'When Quiet Sun was first going Bill McCormick (bass player) and I used to listen to every kind of music we could lay our hands on. Varese, Bartok, Charles Ives, all the Miles Davis stuff and freeform jazz. Even the whole American east and west coast things. We just used to try and freak each other out with amazing records. We were friendly with Robert Wyatt who was in Soft Machine at the time and we admired that group. In fact I always wanted my guitar to sound like Mike Ratledge's Lowrey organ which he used to play through a fuzz pedal, a very smooth sound.'
In two years Quiet Sun rehearsed an awful lot and did three gigs, so when the chance arose to join a new and interesting band Phil checked it out.
'I got in touch with Bryan Ferry when the group first formed, before Dave O'List joined (in the band for five months only), but at that time they wanted a name guitarist to help launch the group. I met them in September '71 and Dave joined in October. They did gigs until Christmas but it didn't work out with Dave - though I think he is a great player. They rang me up, I went round to see them and it gradually worked out.
'I'd been playing quite structured music in Quiet Sun, with complicated time signatures for that long ago. In fact my 801 Live album is similar to the music that band used to play. I wanted a complete change and there was Bryan, Andy, Eno, and Graham Simpson, the original bass player, with music that seemed incredibly simple but very atmospheric with a real strong vibe about it. I really felt I was getting into rock music, but the type of rock that was more interesting. At the time I considered myself to be going from jazzy music into something really simple. It was amazing because having to deal with one or two chord numbers was much more difficult than playing complicated stuff. I added another dimension to my whole musical outlook by joining Roxy, creating moods and textures.'
By the time Roxy Music had recorded their third album, Manzanera had gone through considerable conceptual development and established an individual reputation. In 1974 he went on to contribute, be it as guitarist, co-composer or producer, to Roxy's Country Life, Eno's Here Come The Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Bryan Ferry's Another Time, Another Place, John Cale's Fear and Nico's The End.
'I like to think of myself as the typical primitive guitarist, I do everything on pure speculation. I'm always exploring the fretboard and sometimes hit bum notes, it's almost integrated into my style because I do it naturally.
'My whole approach has always been to see playing the guitar as a lifetime thing. A lot of people come into the business from different areas, art schools and the like, and have something else they can do which I always find incredible. But I've only got this one thing. I didn't want to learn everything about the guitar in a year or two, or improve my technique quickly. I just want to learn gradually and keep myself interested. Every year I learn something new.'
With two albums still to come from Roxy, Phil made his first solo album Diamond Head with help from Eno, among others. He went on to reform Quiet Sun to record the Mainstream album, teamed up with Eno, Simon Philips, Francis Monkman and Lloyd Watson for the infamous 801 Live set, and in 1977 released his Listen Now album on which Kevin Godley and Lol Creme were among the players. The latter duo are good friends of Phil's, and in fact Lol played some gizmo on one Listen Now track.
'Actually I use a lot of Lol's guitars, in fact I've got more of his instruments than he has. I've been looking after his two 1953 and '57 gold top Les Pauls for about a year now and using them on recording. Of my own I've also got a couple of Gibson Firebirds, a Rickenbacker 12-string and a 1951 Telecaster.'
Interview by Ralph Denyer
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