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Sometime in the mid ’70s, Roger Waters, the leader of the progressive rock band Pink Floyd, began to feel a wall developing between the group and its stadium audiences—who were increasingly rowdy and beer-swilling, and seemingly indifferent to the music. This sense of alienation served as the inspiration for Floyd’s epic 1979 double album, The Wall—a rock opera that also addressed some of the other difficult personalities in Waters’ life, including abusive schoolteachers (“Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2”) and an overprotective parent (“Mother”), among others.
Despite its derisive tone, The Wall earned Pink Floyd even larger audiences. A decade after the album was released, more than a quarter of a million fans saw a live concert of the album in its entirety in Germany as Waters and guests like Cyndi Lauper, Van Morrison, and Joni Mitchell celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now, 20 years after that historic concert, and 30 years after the album was released, Waters has embarked on an ambitious worldwide tour: The Wall Live is playing before packed houses from Toronto to Manchester, England, until June 2011. The mammoth tour features some killer guitarists: former Saturday Night Live mainstay G.E. Smith, Dave Kilminster (known for his work with legendary keyboardist Keith Emerson), and Snowy White, a British instrumentalist steeped in the blues.
White, now 62, got his start as a professional guitarist in early 1970s London. Thanks to his tasteful playing—and to being an affable bloke in general—he made a name for himself on the UK scene without great difficulty. White’s first big gig was a stint as an auxiliary live guitarist for Pink Floyd in the late 1970s, followed in the early ’80s by a slot in the rock band Thin Lizzy.
Since then, White, a consummate pro, has had an enviable career. As a solo artist, he scored a major hit with the 1984 single “Bird of Paradise” from the album White Flames, which is also the name of the band he’s long fronted. At the same time, White has regrouped periodically with Waters for the 1990 Berlin performance of The Wall and for Waters’ 2000 In the Flesh tour, among other occasions. Meanwhile, the Snowy White Blues Project finds White in a more straightforward bluesman mode. “I’m lucky, really—I’ve got both worlds here,” he says.
We met up with White in the lobby of a swanky hotel in Manhattan’s SoHo district—which is, appropriately enough, a neighborhood rife with guitar history—to talk about everything from the Wall tour to his blues roots.
How’d you get into the blues?
What’s the story behind the goldtop Les Paul that has been with you throughout your entire career?
When I was 18 I met a Swedish girl, so I went to Sweden, because that’s the sort of thing you do when you’re younger—you go where the girlfriend is. I got in a band there—a trio called the Train—and the drummer knew somebody who had a Les Paul for sale. I didn’t know anything about guitars at all—and I still don’t—but I wanted a Les Paul. I had a Stratocaster, which I didn’t like, and I swapped it for the Les Paul— an all-original 1957 goldtop. That was in 1969. I’ve had the guitar for 41 years.
Is it still 100 percent original?
It’s a working guitar, and I’m not precious about it, so I’ve changed things when they needed changing. It’s had different machine heads. It’s been rewired. It’s been refretted a couple of times. And it’s got a different bridge, which I put on because [Fleetwood Mac founder] Peter Green gave it to me, even though it was identical to the original bridge. It’s a fantastic guitar, really true in the neck and fingerboard after all these years—and it sings on every fret just as it should. It’s just lucky, really.
For about 30 years, my Les Paul was my only guitar, and I never wanted another one. But since I’ve been doing other things, like with Roger Waters, I’ve needed a few guitars. I bought a Strat, which is similar to the black Stratocaster David Gilmour has—I figured I would use that for a couple of songs to get the appropriate sound. And on the last tour for Dark Side of the Moon [2006–2008], I bought a ’57 Les Paul reissue, which felt exactly the same as my old one. I put a tremolo arm on it, because I needed to do a few tremolo bits. I also got an ES-345 from Gibson, which is a really great semi-hollowbody. And I’ve got a Martin acoustic, a D-28 that came straight from the factory—they found a nice one for me. So I have bought some guitars I only use when I’m playing with other people. When I’m doing my thing, I just use my Les Paul.
What amps do you prefer?
I used to use a Fender Twin Reverb, but for many years all I’ve used is the Vox AC30. I switched to Vox because it was more complimentary to the sound of my Les Paul. With Roger, even on big stages, I use an AC30. I’ve got two, and I kick the second one in only for solos—that’s it.