Steve Hillage has been reaching for the cosmos with his music since the 1960s. For the past few decades, he’s done so with a Steinberger L series as his primary instrument. Photo by Peter Hart
Steve Hillage belongs to an extremely exclusive club. It is made up of guitarists who, after six decades, are not only still recording and performing, but continue to evolve as players and artists. Really, outside of Jeff Beck and John McLaughlin, what other guitarists from the ’60s stand with Hillage in releasing new music that sounds, well, new? In System 7, his current duo with longtime partner Miquette Giraudy, the guitarist takes the echo effects that have been part of his sound since the invention of tape units and syncs their digital versions to programmed beats and synth arpeggios for music best described as “guitar meets EDM.” This is viewed by Hillage as part of a natural progression, which comes as no surprise since Hillage is considered one of the pioneers of progressive rock.
From his earliest school combos with keyboard player Dave Stewart (not of the Eurythmics) through bands like Khan and the highly respected prog stalwarts Gong, a stint as guitarist for Kevin Ayers, a live performance of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, and a solo career spanning over a dozen recordings, the London-born Hillage has been pushing the sonic limits of rock guitar. Yet, despite complex arrangements and swirling synths, Hillage’s music has never been your typical prog. On records like 1977’s Motivation Radio, 1978’s Green, and 1979’s Open, and especially his live recordings, his compositions embrace decidedly more “urban” rhythms than those of bands like Yes or ELP.
For his PG interview, the guitarist spoke about of his love of funky grooves, mind-altering substances, “glissando guitar,” and Searching for the Spark, a new 22-disc box set that includes a 188-page hardcover book chronicling his journey.
What first drew you to the guitar?
I was listening to the Shadows and Lonnie Donegan. I decided I wanted to play the guitar, got obsessed with it, and made life difficult for my parents until they eventually got me one at age 9. After a couple of years, I started taking it quite seriously.
Did you take any formal lessons?
At about 15, I took classical guitar lessons. When you play classical style, you hold the guitar differently with both your right and left hands. I decided that wasn’t for me. I went more for the rock way of playing with a plectrum. The useful thing I learned from classical guitar lessons was to read and write music. That has come in quite handy when I have done complex arrangements.
Which guitarists influenced you when you were starting out?
I became a complete sucker for the blues guitar sound with distortion and sustain when it appeared. My big guitar influences became Eric Clapton—particularly from the time he was with John Mayall—Peter Green, and Jeff Beck. But my absolute number one influence was Jimi Hendrix, who I was fortunate to see live on several occasions.
How did your guitar style evolve?
A significant thing was picking up a John Coltrane record with the song “My Favorite Things” on it. I started transcribing sax phrases to the guitar. Coltrane used what I later discovered was the Lydian mode. I started learning about the Lydian mode and then about the Phrygian mode, which is more Oriental. A lot of my compositions are in the Mixolydian mode. The next big technical progression was working with my friend Dave Stewart. [Editor’s note: Initially this was in the bands Uriel, Egg, and Khan, starting in the late ’60s.] We became interested in different time signatures and chord changes. I started trying to make my modal, bluesy guitar playing fit. That was the music I was hearing in my head.
Many of your compositions have multiple guitar parts. In the days before home recording systems were readily available, how did you work those out?
I had a tape recorder that let me build up things by bouncing from left to right. But a fair amount of it was constructed in my head and then put on paper. I would work out how it was supposed to go before I ever recorded it.
Your music seems much funkier than most prog. How did you get interested in funk?
I always liked a good groove, going back to ’60s soul and Motown. Jimi Hendrix had a fantastic funky side as well. In the ’70s, I became friendly with a sound system designer who used to set up these rigs and play Funkadelic, Bootsy’s Rubber Band, and stuff like that. In ’74 and ’75, we would have parties where we listened to funk music played very loud. It was almost like the early raves. That really reinforced my liking for funk rhythms.
When my band did an American tour in early 1977, I met lots of fans after the shows. On several occasions people asked me what kind of music I was listening to. I would say, “I am really into Bootsy’s Rubber Band, Parliament/Funkadelic, and Earth, Wind & Fire.” They would be horrified, but I didn’t want to be seen as a generic prog artist. I wanted to be my own person. I decided to take a left turn and actually incorporate a bit more funk into my music, keeping my own sound and style, but with a funk-based rhythm section.
Watching early videos, it looks like you started out playing a Les Paul and then at some point switched to the Stratocaster.
No, the Strat was before that. My first electric guitar was a thing called a Watkins Rapier. A guy heard me playing when I was 14, thought I played well, and said, “I’ve got this guitar—take it.” Later I worked at a shop to earn some money, and with some very generous parental support we bought the Stratocaster when I was 15. That was my guitar until ’73 or ’74, when I got a Gibson SG and a Les Paul.
What amps were you using in that era?
I’ve alternated between a Vox AC30 and a Fender Twin. When I had my first band, Khan, I had a Hiwatt head and a 4x12, but I reverted back to a smaller amp.
What were you using for overdrive in those days?
I had a huge collection of pedals, various fuzz units and wah-wahs. I tried all kinds of things. Funnily enough, no matter what effect unit I’m using, I always end up sounding like me. It’s like the trumpet, which has this set of valves and a mouthpiece that are like the cables, effects units, and speaker of your amp. But what makes the sound of a great trumpet player is what he does with his lips. When I play my guitar with no amp at all, I still sound like me. Obviously, all the technology and wonderful devices are part of the galaxy of making great guitar-based music, but the fundamental thing is your fingers.
What were you using for phasing and flanging in the early days?
I used the Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress. Also, there was a friend of Todd Rundgren’s in Boston who made the Pipe Flanger. There were only about three of them made, and I got one, but it broke. I had a really good phaser called the Wing Phaser, which I had to work with a pedal. You could get a sound a bit like a wah-wah, but with phasing. That broke as well. That’s the problem—after intensive use, these things break and you find out the guy who made it is doing something else and can’t get you a replacement.
When you do Gong reunion gigs or resurrect your solo bands, what do you use to replace those early vintage effects?
I basically use a Line 6 POD XT Pro. I spent a lot of time recreating the sounds with that and then run it into a Fender Twin.