50 years of evolution from art-rock to R&B to pulsing EDM have kept the British guitarist—and his Strats, Gibsons, Steinbergers, and effects—dancing along the cutting edge.
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.
Although shown here with System 7 playing through a Fender Twin, Hillage goes direct these days, using his Line 6 POD XT Pro multi-effects unit. Photo by Peter Hart
What is glissando guitar?
In the ’60s, people were experimenting with echo units. Early on, I got a Watkins Copicat. If you tap, stroke, or strike the guitar with the echo on, you find it makes all kinds of funny, beautiful sounds. At an early Pink Floyd gig, I saw Syd Barrett doing this glissando-like thing with a Zippo lighter [as a slide] and was very impressed. When I got involved with Gong in the early ’70s, Daevid Allen had become a master of glissando guitar using some surgical instrument handles he had found at a Paris flea market. I still use a collection of original handles from that flea market. The great thing about the surgical instrument handle is that you can rough it up slightly with a file, which gives a little bit of edge to the sound. Daevid moved away from that and started using the tremolo arm from a Steinberger for a bit more weight. I prefer the softer, subtler sound I get with the surgical instrument handles. Other people use screwdrivers and things like that.
How did System 7 start?
It was a logical progression from when I made the turn to a more funk-rock sound. At the end of the ’70s we stopped the Steve Hillage Band because my partner, Miquette, and myself were a bit jaded. We felt we had said all we wanted to say in that context and wanted to do something else, but weren’t quite sure what it was. I noticed the remnants of psychedelic culture were embracing electronics. I got involved in club culture, and it developed from there. I went along with that flow, and then it all exploded in the late ’80s with acid house. I joke that what interested me with acid house was more the acid than the house. With System 7, we wanted to retain some of our classic sounds like the glissando guitar and the synthesizer sounds Miquette had developed, but use them with dance-based rhythms.
After years of playing music with complex time signatures, syncopation, and very different sections, you are now playing simpler licks, with a different style of dynamics and a straight-ahead 4/4 groove with System 7. Do you miss the complexity of prog?
I’ve managed to find a way of getting various parts of my musical universe in. It all works together quite well. What I like about dance music is the minimal side. Though you only have a few sounds, it opens up the whole universe.
In 1973, when I was in Gong, we had this fantastic house in a forest in France. We had a music room where we used to play all the time. I was working on echo loop stuff with my Watkins Copicat, jamming with our drummer Pierre Moerlen. If your tempo is spot on, you get to a point where you go through an amazing Stargate kind of doorway, and I got very attached to that. But if the tempo is shifting, you lose the Stargate effect. I would say to Pierre, “You are moving the tempo out of synch with the echo loop.” He would reply, “I am not a machine. I’m a drummer. If you want to play with a machine, play with a drum machine.” I thought, “That’s quite a good idea.” But I love playing with drummers as well. The sound has more “oomph,” and I love it when the tempo moves. Still, there is something about fixed tempo music combined with my echo that I will love to my dying day.
What gear are you using with System 7?
In ’85 or ’86, I got my first Steinberger, second hand. I fell completely in love with it 30 seconds after picking it up. I felt I would be doing different and new things with this guitar. It has more tools for exploration. I love the trueness of the neck and the carbon fiber construction. The first one I got was stolen, so I bought a second one in 1988. That is my main guitar. I’ve also got a more modern Steinberger Synapse, which is part graphite, part wood. It is half baritone, so I can play some deeper stuff on it, but it’s a different kind of sound. I still like the original the best.
What is your signal path with System 7?
I used to use a Zoom 9050 effects processor, preceded by a Cry Baby wah-wah and a Boss CS-3 compressor pedal. It was a good sounding rig, but a bit less versatile than the Line 6. Now, I use my POD XT Pro, but set to direct-out mode as opposed to going into an amp. I have actually recorded a lot digitally, out of the USB port, directly into Pro Tools. When recording, I use some Pro Tools plug-ins for effects. My favorite echo effect is Soundtoys EchoBoy. Back in the ’70s, when I did the L record with Todd Rundgren, a big part of our sound was the prerelease version of the Eventide Harmonizer, and the engineer of Soundtoys is one of the original Eventide engineers. But I don’t go through the computer for plug-ins live. I use the POD XT Pro direct out.
How are you syncing the delays to the beats?
The beats are in Ableton Live, and I set a matching tempo on the POD.
What prompted the release of Searching for the Spark?
We decided to remaster all the CDs in 2006. At that time, the Virgin label wanted to do an anthology. I said, “No, let’s just do the remasters,” but it planted the seed. A few years later, I thought if I was going to do an anthology or box set, I wanted to tell my whole story, so it had to include all the released CDs from the very first record we did, Uriel’s Arzachel, right up to the first System 7 album. As our fans would likely have these CDs already, and might even have the new remastered versions, it would be cheesy to sell them what they already have, so I wanted to find a lot of extra material to balance it out and include a book that tells the whole story. A couple of years after that I was at the Progressive Music Awards in London and Snapper Records won an award for product design for the U.K. band Family’s box set. I was very impressed with it. The next year Snapper contacted me, we had a meeting, and I told them I wanted to do a boxed set that might be up to 22 CDs. They said, “Great. Let’s do it.” I chose the stuff in the box set very carefully, based on what would work to tell the story, but I have other stuff I’m probably going to release separately—maybe on vinyl.
Next, more recordings of System 7 and our “chilled out” project, Mirror System, will be released. We’re also hoping to come to the United States and play at an Oregon solar eclipse festival this summer, if we can get our visas sorted out.
Here’s classic Steve Hillage: In this live 1977 performance of “Solar Musick Suite,” from his 1975 debut solo album, Fish Rising, he opens up his humbucker-equipped Les Paul for a singing solo at about 3:25.