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Interview: Billy Duffy - Captain Riffs

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Interview: Billy Duffy - Captain Riffs

Although a lot of people think of you mainly as a riff maestro, you play a lot of great solos, often with the wah-wah pedal in a parked position.
That’s right, I don’t get funky with them. To be honest, I have difficulties with coordination when it comes to the wah. I’m right-handed, so I play guitar right-handed and write righthanded, but I throw with my left hand and I’m left-footed in soccer. If I were throwing a rock at you, it’d be a lefty! So, some element of the wiring of my brain gives me a little trouble getting the wah-wah to behave simultaneously with my hands. But I always preferred how Mick Ronson and some other guitarists would set the wah as a tone control, to give a certain EQ voice to things on record. Ronson was like a god to me. So was Mick Ralphs, obviously with Bad Company, but also with all those Mott the Hoople hits he played on. Of course, I love legends like Hendrix, but I never talk about Jimi Hendrix, simply because I think he’s beyond my commenting—what can I say about Hendrix that’ll have any relevance? I talk about the guys who, for me, were a little more approachable—Johnny Thunders, Angus Young. I really identified with that sort of thing.

Tell us about your original Gretsch G7593.
Well, it’s a mid-’70s White Falcon. I ordered it in 1982 in England—I had to go and score it from a guitar shop on Denmark Street in London. In those days, you’d put down the deposit, and then they’d go and find it. Then it was weeks of “Where’s my White Falcon?” “It’s coming, it’s coming!”

Now, I already had a doublecutaway Gretsch, a stereo model, also from the ’70s. It had the same neck, same [Bigsby] whammy bar setup, the square inlays on the neck— and I like those all right—but the body isn’t very thick. Those guitars are more like a [Gibson] 335. So I really still wanted a single-cutaway, which were hard to find in England. Basically, the one that became my trademark guitar is actually my second White Falcon. I just liked the single-cutaway better—it was fatter.

My understanding at that time was that all the single-cutaway Falcons were custom-ordered, and it was the double-cutaway that was the production model. Now, because you had to order them, they were all slightly different. Mine has a sort of patch on the back to protect the guitar from your belt buckle—from your country pants [laughs]. But the other one from the same era doesn’t. Anyway, Gretsch is now doing a Billy Duffy Signature Model based on my single-cutaway ’70s Falcon, and we’re going to be fine-tuning it. The Japanese guys who do the forensic work have X-rayed it, weighed it, and measured it. Sure enough, it’s a bit different from the ones they make now, which are what I use live. The construction and feel is slightly different, but the new ones are still great. Actually, the pickups are even better now, because the [new] G6136TLTV that I use has TV Jones Classic pickups. My original pickups from the ’70s were just rotten—the output was really pitiful. The difference in output between those and my Les Pauls was just chronic. That’s why I talked to Seymour Duncan and said, “I need a pickup for this Gretsch that’s got some balls and punch, but still keeps that Gretsch-y chime—that cathedral-like sound.” Seymour said, “I’ll get right on it,” and his pickups are what’s in that [original] guitar to this day.

I also have another ’70s Gretsch that I bought as a backup. It’s sometimes referred to as the “Black Falcon,” but it’s actually a Gretsch Country Club that I sprayed black. It didn’t have the whammy bar, but it was very similar to the White Falcon, and I needed a backup guitar for the road. Unfortunately, it was a natural wood finish—a maple-y-lookin’ thing. I thought, “Well, that’s not really very cool.” So I sprayed it up. But it’s never been on any records—it looks a lot better than it plays! These days, both of those guitars have been retired; they only do celebrity appearances. After all these years, I must say, I felt a little weird lending out the White Falcon so Fender could do the forensics!

Do you still stuff them with foam to avoid feeding back at high stage volumes?
Sure. We use all kinds of stuff— foam, T-shirts, whatever’s at hand. There’s a balance, because you don’t want to kill the resonance of the guitar that makes it so unique to begin with, but yeah, when you’re playing that loud, you’ve got to control it a bit.

Despite all this talk about drones and wahs and guitars, when all is said and done, you’re obviously the Cult’s riff engineer—it seems everything is built around your riffs and figures.
Yeah, that’s sort of my function. It couldn’t be simpler: I just record them onto my iPhone using a simple stereo recording app—although I used to use a Sony professional recorder. When we were touring a lot, I’d bring the band into rehearsal or soundcheck and the four of us would work on the stuff together. But these days, generally me and Ian get together in his home studio and we go through my riffs. And I mean, forensically go through the riffs—nothing gets overlooked. We make copious lists.

I’m a firm believer that the riffs you have very little attachment to at first may be the best ones, ultimately, and the ones you think are your best may not be the easiest to sing over. It’s all too easy to make your riffs too complicated, so the singer doesn’t have room to spread out. Yes, some of that creative juxtaposition can be what makes a band great. If it was all the way I heard it or all the way Ian heard it, it wouldn’t be a Cult record. You certainly need that creative jousting.

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