Session guitar player
Published in PM April 2009
People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers
Session guitarist Phil Palmer, whose career comprises working for a glittering array of big-name artists, including Eric Clapton, George Michael and Dire Straits, talks to us about touring, Fender devotion and playing when it counts.
If theres one thing that Phil Palmer isnt, its a volume-to-11, cucumber-down-his-trousers, 111-notes-a-second, testosterone-dominated type of guitar player. While virtually all guitarists, particularly of the lead variety, would have to admit to being fuelled to some degree by one or more of the above, Palmer has quietly and consistently built a career out of playing tasteful, intelligent and very musical guitar as a sideman to a whole swathe of well-known artists. As a result, Palmer is currently one of the UKs foremost session musicians. The full list of people hes worked with is intimidatingly long, but to name a few: Eric Clapton, Dire Straits, Paul Brady, Wishbone Ash, Joan Armatrading, Tina Turner, Bob Dylan, George Michael and Roger Daltrey. In addition, big-name producers like Trevor Horn and Rupert Hine have repeatedly hired him for studio sessions.
Playing from the heart
Testosterones competitive drive — look at me, Im the best —says Palmer, “isnt very useful in music. Its not sympathetic to what is going on around you. There is a place for it in music and certainly the testosterone hasnt disappeared out of my life, but for most of the things I do, if I play too much or get too enthusiastic about things, it would be the wrong thing to do. Ive never fallen into the category of the typical look at me lead guitar player. I much prefer to stay back a little and let someone else make the moves and be needed when it counts. If you play all the time, its boring. You have to listen to whats going on around you and leave space for others, and then when you do play, make it count.”
The latter Phil Palmer certainly manages very effectively. Type his name into YouTube with that of some of his former taskmasters and youll find some excellent live footage. There are, for instance, great clips of Palmer playing lead guitar alongside Clapton when he was a member of the legends band in the late 80s and early 90s. Theres also an excellent video of Palmer with singer Murray Head in 1985 in Paris, performing a barnstorming version of Boy On The Bridge in front of 300,000 people, with the guitarist showing off his solo chops with the volume, if not to 11, then certainly to 10. When soloing, Palmer sounds rather like Clapton; both play melodic, fluid, bluesy solos on their Strats with extensive use of left-hand vibrato. On all videos, Palmers strong sense of economy of means is clearly noticeable. Is the guitar grandstand gesture really not that tempting for him?
“Well, in the past I used to be a little paranoid about incredibly gifted young guitarists coming through,” admits Palmer. “There are great kids out there that do fantastic things. But it doesnt seem to affect me. Ive managed to get through nearly 40 years as a professional guitar player doing what Im doing without being threatened by anybody. I did a couple of guitar seminars a while back and invited some young kids up to play to see what they could do, and they were fantastically competent players who had clearly studied in their bedrooms for years on end. But they always played in someone elses way. Who wants 17 Eddie Van Halens? My advice to young players is always: dont try to be someone else.
“Another mistake many young guitarists make is to play too much from the head. One of the things I learned from playing with Eric was to play from the heart. For most guitar players, the impulse from the heart goes first to the head and then out to the fingers. But with Eric, things didnt go anywhere near his brain; messages went straight from his heart to his arm. You could feel it, and sometimes hed make horrible mistakes because what he did was not processed in his brain. I think thats owning up to being a human being and its admirable. Sometimes you paint yourself into a corner musically and you wonder how youre going to get out of this. Thats always exciting. Its one reason why I continue to go on tour with Murray [Head], because he does things that are out of the ordinary, suddenly playing an 11/16 bar or something, and you have to find your way around this one way or the other.
“As for the party tricks, as I call them, if theres no musical reason for them to be there its a bit pointless really. You get these guitar festivals with people getting up and doing their virtuoso stuff, and I once went on and did a couple of tunes and everyone was bored really because I didnt do any tricks. In general, I do a certain amount of tricks, some gentle hammering sometimes, but its not fast. I dont do the fast stuff. I do use harmonics a lot, and sometimes I dampen the strings with a piece of foam under them close to the bridge. It gives a very different sound. I change tunings occasionally and I like to play slide these days. Theres something very zen about playing slide, as you try to play the right notes and chords in standard tuning. I use pretty heavy strings on electric — 10-52 — so I dont need another guitar for playing slide.”
Phil Palmer was born in 1952 in London and began playing ukulele at age five. Ray and Dave Davies of the Kinks were his uncles, and by the time the young Palmer was a teenager the brothers had their own record company and studio. This provided a stimulating environment for the guitarists budding skills. In the early 70s he performed on sessions for Claire Hammil and Café Society (featuring a very young Tom Robinson), and in 1975 he began working with David Essex, which was, recalls Palmer “my first proper gig. I did a world tour with him. From there, the session work snowballed. In 1980-02 I worked with Joan Armatrading, and after that I played with Frank Zappa for a while. I did session work over a period of six to seven years for producer Christopher Neil on records by Sheena Easton and so on, and from the mid 80s onwards I worked with Paul Brady. I also did a stint with Tina Turner before playing with Eric, and after that I was with the Dire Straits until 1993. Next, I lived in France for six years, in Nice, where I built a very strong connection with Italy.”
Palmers Italian connection continues to this day. He currently lives in the UK again and regularly flies to Italy, where he produces major artists — among them Renato Zero, the countrys top performer. These days, Palmer continues to be a first-call session player in the UK, working with the likes of Robbie Williams, Pet Shop Boys, Pete Townshend and George Michael (with whom he also tours). The guitarists career has been and continues to be extremely successful by any standard, but Palmer still seems a bit bemused by it. He reflects, almost apologetically, “All this just happened. I never had a plan. All I wanted to do was play well. I was very ambitious in that and I still am. I still have no plans for the future and I feel quite fortunate that I am able to sustain my career as a session musician.”
Palmers laid-back temperament and aversion to the spotlight have certainly helped smooth the challenges of life as a session musician, like having to play music or a style that may not be 100 percent to his liking, and having to be polite to people that one might perhaps prefer to punch in the face. By contrast, Palmer enjoys playing boss when he does his production work in Italy, and in 1993 he put the all-star Spin 1ne 2wo band together — featuring singer Paul Carrack, keyboardist/producer Rupert Hine, bassist Tony Levin and drummer Steve Ferrone — who released an album with covers of classic rock songs. Apparently, theres talk of a second Spin 1ne 2wo album. In all other respects, though, Palmers career continues to be a balancing act on the sharp edge between self-expression and fulfilling the musical needs of others. It helps that hes well known and that people tend to call him for what he has to offer, rather than for off-the-shelf guitar playing.
“Im very happy to explore whatever Im asked to explore,” comments Palmer, “but there is a me and it comes out often. In Italy, people say that they can recognise my playing from a long distance. I suppose that when I play with Murray [Head] Im at my most natural, because I have complete freedom to do what I want to do. Ive always made a point of not being influenced by anyone, though obviously there are certain people that jump out at you. Aside from the usual suspects like Hendrix and Jeff Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughan, I was always very keen on listening to Adrian Belew. I like the way hes able to play proper guitar and at the same time take it one step further. I admire anyone who can push boundaries. Im also influenced by country, for example Roy Buchanan. I love his playing.”
A purist approach
Looking in from the outside, there are a number of aspects to Palmers style that can fairly easily be distinguished. Most strikingly, with regards to his electric playing, hes through and through a Fender man, with the Strat his signature guitar. He explains that it gives him a subtlety and purity of tone that he cant get with other electrics. In recent years, this purity has become more and more important to him, to the point that he now leaves his large effects racks at home and prefers to stick to the basic elements of wood, metal, fingers and an amplifier.
“Im much more of a purist today,” Palmer says. “The only pedals I use are a Boss CS-3 compressor with everything at 12 oclock and a volume pedal. If theres distortion to be had, I will use the amplifier. What comes out of the end of my fingers is what matters and there doesnt seem to be any point if thats disguised by lots of effects or distortion. If forced, Ill use a wah-wah, but I hate the bloody things. I had huge effects racks in the past and I still have some in my garage, full of preamps and phasers and all sorts of rubbish. I never use them anymore. I might for a studio session, but I dont carry a car full of gear around with me. Everything is in the studio nowadays anyway, and if its not then you can get the sound with a plug-in in the computer. The plug-ins are getting fantastic.”
When listening to Palmers playing from 20 years ago, for instance at the Place de la Concorde concert with Murray Head in 1985, hes clearly still in the thrall of heavy distortion, wah-wah and all sorts of sonic gadgets. By contrast, during his last tour with Head at the end of 2007, he played his Maton acoustic and his Custom Shop Strat with a very clean sound via rented amplifiers. “My sound has certainly developed over the years,” comments Palmer. “The subtleties of my playing come out more with a clean tone, and as I get older that becomes more important, hence just my fingers and a nice, pure amp. I dont bring my own amp when playing with Murray, and part of the game is getting a good sound out of something Ive never tried before. But when I go on tour with George [Michael], I will take my Matchless or a small Mesa Boogie. The latter is a nice, flexible amp with lots of sounds. I had a 50 percent endorsement deal with Mesa in the 1980s and I have every amp they ever made.
“I enjoy listening to what I was playing 20 years ago, and whoever said that less is more was absolutely right. Particularly in working with Eric, I realised whats important, and that its not about how many notes you play or how fast you can play them, but about whats appropriate in the situation. I learned when to play and when not to play, and when to be visible and when not. All that came from standing next to him on a regular basis. Having come from a life of jingles and sessions — all the stuff that you do when youre becoming a working musician — I also learned a lot about soul, which was very important for my development.”
Highs and lows
Palmers life as a working musician with Clapton clearly continues to have a large influence on him. It also had its challenges, most notably and tragically on the night of 25th/26th August 1990 at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre near East Troy, Wisconsin. Palmer had appeared in Claptons band, and for the last song his boss invited Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan on the stage. “Erics manager had organised four helicopters to take us back to Chicago after the show and I went on the first one I saw, but [drummer] Steve Ferrone said, Dont go on that one, come on this one with me. He saved my life, because Stevie Ray boarded that other one and it went in the wrong direction and crashed. In the first press reports it was said that some of Claptons band had been killed, so there were mad panic phone calls in the middle of the night to our families, telling them we were OK. It was a very, very tough moment.”
The death of Stevie Ray Vaughan cast a lasting shadow over the entire music world, particularly lovers of the electric guitar. Palmer was no exception, and the fact that it could as easily have been him in that helicopter only made the whole situation more poignant. Nonetheless, this was an exceptional event in a career that has otherwise been full of heartwarming, inspirational and amusing occasions. To illustrate the latter category, Palmer recalled a delicious, so to speak, anecdote that would undoubtedly have made it into the script of the Spinal Tap movie, had the writers been aware. It occurred during the Dire Straits On Every Street tour in 1991-92. (Warning: if youre a vegetarian, you may want to skip the following paragraph.)
“Wed been on tour for two months or so in the US and were really suffering the American food, which was bland and always the same,” recalls Palmer. “One night, we ended up in Toronto, I think it was, and someone in the catering company found a Marks & Spencer there and bought a thousand pork sausages. So the caterers made this classic English dish of bangers with English mustard and mashed potatoes with fried onions and vegetables, and everybody was drooling. When we came to the gig venue, everybody launched into this massive heap of sausages, but Mark being Mark, he decided that he would have his food after the show and asked the caterers to set a plate aside and keep it warm.
“While we were on stage, somebody found his reserved meal and pinched one of the sausages. I still have this image of Mark coming off the stage and going to the caterers with his headband still on, and then screaming at the caterers because his sausages had gone and there were no more left to replace it. He got the whole crew one by one into his dressing room, without even changing shirt, questioning them about the missing sausages. It was a serious situation, because he was saying, Whoever ate my sausages, he is going home. It was a total Spinal Tap moment. He never found out who it was. The next day, to try and make light of the situation, the road crew made a set list with titles like Romeo And Sausage, Sausages For Nothing and so on, but that did not go down too well. It took several days before the whole thing calmed down!”
Perhaps it has to do with the mind-numbing tedium or the sense of displacement that many experience during touring, but the on-the-road situation is generally much more prone to behavioural excess than the recording studio. Phil Palmer nonetheless far prefers the former. “I love to play live,” he comments. “I pick up chops playing live that I then use in the studio. Its the stuff that you do spontaneously in front of thousands of people with the adrenalin going that is useful when you get into the studio. How far I develop as a player live depends on the gig. George [Michael] wants the same thing every night, so its difficult to develop, but playing with someone like Eric [Clapton] really stretches me.”
Now in his mid 50s, Palmer has none of the reservations about touring that are common among his contemporaries, many of whom find the whole hotel and airport experience increasingly taxing. “I did go through a phase of not enjoying it so much, explains Palmer, “but I now really look forward to going on tour. I love to travel. You also have a lot of time to yourself during the day. While touring with Dire Straits I learned to play tennis, for example. It was a great way of getting out, getting fresh air and preventing myself from staying up all night doing all sorts of things, which is always a possibility when youre on tour. I once played tennis on the Centre Court in Adelaide with some wonderful coaches. So I find myself in wonderful places, doing what I love doing most and getting paid for it. Whats wrong with that?” 0
Phil Palmer owns approximately 25 guitars, but only uses about half a dozen: a Maton steel-string, a Takamine nylon-string and a selection of Strats. “Most of my guitars are stored,” explains Palmer. “I have a Nocaster from 1951, when Fender were making guitars that they wanted to call Broadcaster, but couldnt because there was a court case going on over the name. Its an early version of the Telecaster. I dont use it live, because its too valuable.
“My main acoustic is a Maton, which is an Australian instrument. Its fabulous — the best acoustic guitar I have ever played by a mile. Its not too big, its not too small, it has an even sound, you can hear all the strings all the time, and the intonation is incredible. Theyre hand built from Australian woods. It has a piezo and an internal microphone, and you can mix the two signals. I use 54-12 bronze strings, quite heavy, usually Dean Markley or Ernie Ball, but if its the right gauge it doesnt matter to me who theyre made by. I have a second Maton that I take on tour with me as a spare.
“I dont know the model number of my Takamine, but it has a pickup and a cutaway. In the studio I like to have a microphone in front of it, and the same when Im playing live with George [Michael]. Because we use in-ear monitoring, theres no sound on stage and I have this semi-circular baffle thing around me. I stick a mic inside the baffle and get it close to me, and it protects the mic from ambient sound. It works very well and its nice to be able to use a mic in a live situation. For a guitar to sound right it needs to be moving air, and thats not what youre hearing with a piezo.
“Ive always been a Fender man, and to be specific a Strat man. Ive had Gibsons, but Ive never really liked them. Today, I only have a couple of Gibson J-200 acoustics, but theyre stuck in storage. The Strats that I use regularly are a bog standard red one, a couple of Custom Shop Eric Clapton Strats from 1989-90 with active electronics, and my main Strat is a Custom Shop one, which was given to me for helping organise Fenders 50th Anniversary concert.
“Ive been lucky with that anniversary guitar. Like with my Maton, you pick it up and it immediately feels great. It has a whammy bar, but Ive locked that down, because I do a lot of double bending and I find that this makes the strings easily go out of tune. I dont use a whammy bar at all. I use heavy gauges on the Strat — 52-10. I like the sound of heavy strings; its more responsive and gives more body to the sound. I have built up a lot of strength in my hands over the years! I use a Dunlop pick when necessary, but I prefer to play with fingers. I think that gives a lot more flexibility than strumming with a pick.”
The Fender 50th Anniversary concert took place in September 2004 at Wembley Arena. Palmer was musical director and his connections and reputation as a top-notch session player helped in assembling an all-star cast featuring, among others, Clapton, Joe Walsh, Dave Gilmour, Brian May, Hank Marvin and Gary Moore. A DVD of the concert called The Strat Pack was released in 2005.
Like several of his contemporaries (see, for instance, the Performing Musician interview with Jan Akkerman, July 2008), Phil Palmer went through a phase of having huge problems with tuning, which was only resolved by returning to tuning by ear. Palmer gives his perspective and wonders whether its a matter of musicians ears becoming sharper as they get older, or the fact that AutoTune and Melodyne plug-ins have made music much more in tune than ever before, thereby highlighting the inconsistencies in guitar tuning.
“A while back, I went through a phase of a couple of years during which everything I played sounded out of tune. It started to drive me crazy and it stopped me playing for quite some time. In the end, I was not confident about tuning anything. You play an E chord and you think, Oops, the G is sharp. Twenty years ago this wasnt a problem for me at all, and I think that one reason is that your ear becomes acutely tuned to the instruments that youre playing. Also, when you listen to recordings from 20 to 25 years ago, the tuning and the timing are all over the place. They used to say that the tuning is a bit wide. In a way its more human. Twenty-five years ago everyone lived with it and did not realise that it was a problem. But with AutoTune today, people have become used to hearing things precisely in tune, and when a singer is slightly flat or sharp it sounds bizarre.
“At some point I stopped using digital tuners and havent worried about it since. I carry a tuner with me just in case I need it in the middle of a gig or something. But my experience is that if I tune each string with a digital tuner it will never be in tune, because the guitar is an imperfect instrument. What I do now is tune the G-string slightly flat, because you know what at certain points on the fretboard it will tend to be slightly sharp. I hate sharp. If a note is slightly flat, you can always adjust the tuning with your left hand. But if your strings are tuned sharp, you have nowhere to go. So I instruct guitar techs to tune everything a little flat so I can manipulate the strings with my fingers or pull the neck. Ive been doing that for years and my guitars appear to be OK with it.”
Published in PM April 2009
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