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Interview: Billy Duffy - Captain Riffs

May 11, 2012

Billy Duffy is upset at his team. No, not his fellow players in The Cult—the now-legendary British band he founded in the early ’80s with singer Ian Astbury, a band who, despite their early androgynous image, flew the flag for heavy man-rock throughout a decade better known for twee synth bands. No, all’s good in the Cult camp, thank you—indeed, their new album, the Bob Rock produced Choice of Weapon, is a strikingly rich return to form, arguably deeper lyrically and broader stylistically than 2001’s Beyond Good and Evil or 2007’s Born Into This.

Nope, the problem is with Duffy’s other team, his beloved hometown Manchester City football club (that’s “soccer team” to us Yanks), who, after a dominant first stage of the Barclay’s English Premier League season—when they looked sure bets to clinch the title—have suddenly fallen behind their local arch rivals, Manchester United. “We should have at least won the Carling Cup Semi- Final,” Duffy grouses. Duffy’s devotion to his team (often simply called “Man City”) even extends to his Dunlop Herco Flex 50 medium-gauge guitar picks: Store-bought versions are gold hued, but Dunlop makes Duffy’s in Manchester City blue.

In soccer terms, Duffy’s role in Team Cult might be seen as that of a creative midfielder—he originates virtually all of the band’s meaty, majestic riffs, supplying spot-on harmonic opportunities for singer Astbury to finish off with his rich, full-bodied baritone runs and gutsy lyrical moves. Drummer John Tempesta (formerly of Testament) and bassist Chris Wyse round out the band’s formidable back line, working from the engine room to lay down a solid, technically adept foundation for Duffy and Astbury’s mazey musical dialogue. (On tour, Mike Dimkich accompanies the band on rhythm guitar—call him a “super-sub”!)

As with the most distinctive footballers, you can recognize Duffy’s style immediately. “She Sells Sanctuary” (from 1985’s Love)—perhaps his signature song—is built around a descending Mixolydian figure on the G string, played as a continuous double-stop with a droning open D string. It’s an approach Duffy initially used to fatten his sound within the context of a power trio, and it has made its mark on tunes throughout the band’s career. On Choice of Weapon, it turns up on “The Wolf,” “Amnesia,” and others. Still, Duffy’s equally at home with slash chords that recall the MC5 and the Stooges, while his parked-wah solo flights in songs like the classic “Fire Woman” recall Mick Ronson and Angus Young, two of his formative idols. Duffy’s other trademark— besides his impressive coifs—are the Gretsch White Falcons and Gibson Les Paul Customs he’s been using to deliver his kicks for some 30 years now.

Your classic-rock rhythms and single-note, Ennio Morricone-ish stylings are always great, but you’re probably best known for those droning D-string pedal tones, like on “She Sells Sanctuary” and “Rain.” Where does that come from?
If you go back to the song “Horse Nation,” from 1983 or ’84, that droning lick is already my thing, and then, yeah, it got typified by “She Sells Sanctuary.” What’s interesting is that you could play those notes in several places on the neck, obviously, and you could even pick them all out of a standard D chord shape. But I got into this habit because there was only one guitar player in the band, and it just helped filled the sound out. I also started adding a little echo, which filled the sound out even more, but partly gets eaten up by the band, so it’s not so obvious. If you heard it on it’s own, you’d probably think the guitar was a bit too echoy and busy, and you’d think, “Oh, that’s a bit odd.” But once you’ve got bass and vocals and tom-tom-heavy drums, a lot of that echo would kind of vanish, and the guitar simply gets “placed” in a nice way.

That drone style is sort of similar to what Peter Hook was doing on bass at the same time in Joy Division—another Manchester band.
Sure, that’s all in the DNA of The Cult. It’s all part of where we came from. See, back in the late ’70s, we were all into the New York Dolls and Iggy & The Stooges, the MC5, and Bowie, and then punk happened and we all sort of moved towards that. But after punk, bands like us wanted to find our own voice. How do you follow that? I didn’t want to have a safety pin through my nose and a stupid mohawk. So, you’re not reaching for Les Pauls and Marshall amps anymore—you’re looking for something different, which is how I arrived at the sort of spaghetti-Western sound and the Gretsch guitars. There’s a song called “The Hop” from my pre-Cult band, Theater of Hate—which is still a great band today—that people can find that’s really the first song I played on that way. That band had a saxophone player who electronically treated his sax, so it sounded more like Roxy Music. The drums were very tribal. After all, it was postpunk, so the drums were very tom-tom oriented. They weren’t straight rock beats. The bass used to do a lot of riffs, kind of like, yeah, Joy Division. So I had to find some way to make my guitar fit into that.

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.

Guitars
’70s Gretsch G7593 White Falcon with Seymour Duncan pickups, ’60s or ’70s Gretsch White Falcon double-cutaway stereo model, Gretsch G6136TLTV models, 2000 Gibson Custom Shop ’57 Les Paul Custom reissue

Amps
Two Marshall JMP MkII 100-watt heads driving two Celestion Vintage 30-loaded Marshall 1960B 4x12s, Roland JC-120 Jazz Chorus, two Matchless DC-30 combos

Effects
Two switchless Jim Dunlop 95Q Cry Baby wahs, Ibanez TS-808 Tube Screamer, Menatone Red Snapper, Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor, Whirlwind The Bomb boost, two Boss DD-3 digital delays, Boss BF-2 flanger, Boss DM-2 analog delay

Strings, Picks, and Accessories
Ernie Ball Power Slinky .011-.048 sets tuned a half-step down (live), Ernie Ball .010-.046 Regular Slinky sets (studio), Herco Flex 50 medium picks in Manchester City blue (held sideways for a fiercer tone), Line 6 Relay G90 wireless unit, Whirlwind cables, Custom Audio Electronics 1x4 switchable splitter, Whirlwind WT2000 Chromatic Tuner, Voodoo Lab Pedal Power, Dunlop DC Brick, Douglas Dunnam custom straps (including a 63 1/2" strap for his Gretsches), Levy Leathers straps

Choice of Weapons:
Billy Duffy's Gear

Billy Duffy’s Gretsch 7593 White Falcon may be his trademark axe, but he’s made a career out of getting a Les Paul Custom to do what it does best—crank out meat-and-potatoes riffs and big, blistering blues-based solos (think “Love Removal Machine”) and arpeggiated hooks, as on “Edie (Ciao Baby).”

“Growing up, all the guys I really liked were Les Paul players,” Duffy confides. “Mick Ronson, Mick Ralphs, Paul Kossoff. The black Les Paul Custom became my thing.” These days, Duffy’s favorite recording guitar is a black ’57 reissue two-piece Les Paul Custom that the Gibson Custom Shop made for him in 2000.

“It arrived when we were doing the album Beyond Good and Evil. I took it out of the box when we were doing a song called ‘True Believers,’” he recalls. “I literally tuned it up out of the box, plugged it in, and Bob [Rock, producer] said, ‘All right, are you ready for that solo?’ I did the whole solo in one take on that guitar—it still smelled like the guitar case! It’s just been that guitar in the studio for me ever since.”

The natural-finished Customs seen in videos like “Heart of Soul” (not one of the band’s finer moments, frankly) are black Customs with the front finish removed, in what Duffy calls “an homage to Mick Ronson,” who— legend has it—stripped all the finish off his own black Les Paul one drug-fueled night on tour with Bowie. A recent 1960 reissue goldtop, a cream-colored Custom, and a reissue ’59 Junior built by Steve Christmas at Gibson, round out Duffy’s Les Paul collection, while a Bill Nash ’63 Relic Esquire (used on the new “Embers”) offers him humbucker or single-coil tones (via a pushpull pot) from the Seymour Duncan bridge pickup.

Duffy pays homage with his amp array, too. Like his idols in the Clash, he places combos—generally a Roland JC-120 Jazz Chorus and a pair of Matchless DC-30s—atop three Marshall 1960B 4x12 straight cabs with Celestion Vintage 30 speakers (one cab is a backup), but keeps the Marshall JMP MkII 100-watt heads driving the 4x12s out of sight.

“Then, using the Bradshaw switcher, I’ll just switch on and off between combinations of the amps,” he explains. “The Roland is great for the early, chimey stuff, because of that chorus sound—which I can really only get out of the combos. But I’ve always paired it with a valve amp to get more balls out of it. Some guys get a great sound with just one amp, but I’ve never been able to do it.” On Electric-era tunes like “Fire Woman,” Duffy pairs the Matchless with the Marshalls for a straight-up rock sound without the JC-120’s solid-state shimmer. As to why his sound is so layered—both live and in the studio—Duffy’s explanation is simple: “Ian is an enormously powerful singer. When he lets rip, he’s got a set of lungs on him!” —JR



Youtube It


Wearing his go-to White Falcon and a platinumblonde pomp, a circa-’85 Duffy conjures sweet, ’80s-correct flange tone for this classic from Love.


Outfitted with more hair, more gain, and fewer effects, Duffy straps on a Les Paul Custom to crank out a blistering version of “Love Removal Machine” in a 1987 appearance on Britain’s legendary The Old Grey Whistle Test. Killer solo on this one.


In this spirited 2012 SXSW performance of one of the Cult’s biggest hits, Duffy rocks his wah just fine in front of his Matchless/Roland/ Marshall amp wall.