His goal’s beyond: “In the ancient world, there was no difference between religion and science or spirituality,” Lloyd observes. “Alchemy and chemistry were the same thing. Astronomy and astrology were the same thing. It’s only in the modern era that this got separated.”
Photo by Ed Rode

Schooled by Hendrix, Hooker, and Gurdjieff, alt-rock avatar Richard Lloyd blends the spiritual and the visceral—from Television to his new solo album, The Countdown—and shares his philosophy of single-string-based mastery.

Nothing beats meeting your heroes—especially when they’re happy to share their secrets. In the late 1960s, then-teenaged Richard Lloyd, the Television co-guitarist and new wave pioneer, managed to get backstage and into the dressing rooms and inner circles of people like Jimi Hendrix and John Lee Hooker. He asked questions, took mental notes, and absorbed lifelong lessons about the guitar. He put those lessons to good use, too, and developed an alternative, holistic approach to the instrument. That approach was enhanced by his left-brain orientation, plus his never-ending spiritual quest.

Lloyd also studied the teachings of mid-20th-century mystical teacher George Gurdjieff, and those studies—in addition to the impact they’ve had on his spiritual life—transformed his understanding of music. The result, which you can check out in a series of instructional videos and columns that appeared in Guitar World about a decade ago (now on DVD as The Alchemical Guitarist), is a complex, pattern-focused, vertical approach to the instrument based on an idiosyncratic understanding of the major scale.

Not surprising, his career has taken a similar, alternative trajectory.

Lloyd came to prominence in the mid 1970s with Television, a group he founded with Tom Verlaine, Billy Ficca, and Richard Hell in 1973. (Fred Smith replaced Hell on bass in 1975.) Television, along with the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, and others, were integral to New York City’s burgeoning punk scene. That scene—which, except for a few bands like the Ramones, wasn’t really punk—was based out of CBGB, a club on the Bowery. The black-walled rectangular-box-shaped venue supported a smorgasbord of styles, like new wave, post punk, and art rock, that dominated the Top 40 in the ’80s, albeit in a more plastic, synth-drenched incarnation.

But those sounds in their pure, distilled form were Television’s home. Television was a guitar band—no wailing synths or bad hair for them—and their debut, 1977’s Marquee Moon, is an iconic testament to the early, pre-sellout days of new wave. Lloyd and Verlaine shared guitar duties and crafted tight, interwoven parts, and the band was a huge influence on later acts like the Pixies, Sonic Youth, R.E.M, and many others. Lloyd’s tone with Television, while often overdriven and warm, sounds sharp and somewhat stark when appreciated in context—and given his roots and early association with Hendrix, it was a clean break with the past.

Lloyd left Television for the first time in 1978, after the band released its second album, Adventure. They reunited in 1992, and Lloyd stayed in Television until 2007. Along the way, he’s worked with other artists, including Matthew Sweet and X’s John Doe, released solo albums, and established himself as a sought-after teacher and alternative-rock elder statesman. His new solo album, The Countdown, is a collection of fuzzy, mid-tempo rockers that, along with the paperback edition of his 2017 memoir, Everything Is Combustible, was released in November.

“Before, everything was sacred about music. Personally, I think it still is something sacred, because you’re dealing with vibrations, and the universe is made of vibrations.”

Lloyd took some time to speak with us from his home in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he recently relocated from Greenwich Village, about the things he learned from Hendrix and Hooker, his experiences with spirituality and Gurdjieff’s teachings, his unique approach to guitar, and some of the collectable gear he’s amassed (and lost) over the years.

John Lee Hooker once gave you advice about guitar playing—specifically about learning how to play one string at a time. Was your meeting with him a one-off or did you have a relationship with him?
No, that was a one-off. I went to see him in Boston, at the Jazz Workshop on Boylston Street. Back then, I just walked into the dressing room and sat down. Eventually, he took notice of me and he said—he pointed his finger at me, and he said, “And you, young man, what do you do?” I said, “I play guitar.” He said, “Are you good?” I said, “I don’t know.” He said, “No, no, no. You’re great. I can tell. Come over here and I’ll tell you the secret of playing the electric guitar.”

Then he cupped his hands and he whispered in my ear, “Take off all the strings but one and learn the one string up and down and down and up and bend it and shake it until the women go ‘oooo.’ Then put two strings on and learn two strings up and down and down and up.” I went home, but I didn’t take the strings off. I couldn’t afford to take them off—I didn’t have a replacement set. But I did practice what I call vertical knowledge, which is up and down pitch on a single string, a great deal. Jimi Hendrix had also suggested that to us—that we learn the neck that way.

TIDBIT: Lloyd stood in the studio’s live room with his amp, creating slithering lines of feedback, for the title track of his new solo album, The Countdown.

As opposed to horizontal playing?
Exactly. As opposed to playing it from side to side or across the strings—to learn the single string. In fact, some of Jimi’s solos … like on “May This Be Love,” are all on the B string. The entire solo. There’s another one that’s all on the G string: “I Don’t Live Today.” Except for the last note, it’s all on the G string.

He did that for tonal reasons?
I don’t know why he did it, but he could move up and down the neck pretty effortlessly. He knew his intervals. For instance, that solo starts on the A and goes up to a fifth of the A, and then down to the fourth, and then up a major third, and then a minor third, and a minor third, and then a major third. He’s building the chords on a single string, arpeggio style. It’s a very cool way to play. My solo on “Elevation” [from Marquee Moon] does the same thing on the G string. It goes up in A minor from the second fret to the 17th fret.

I’m asking because in the instructional videos you did for Guitar World, you talk a lot about Pythagoras, major-scale exercises, and using a single string. That comes from your conversations with John Lee Hooker and Hendrix?
It comes partially from them, but also from my study of music theory, which is based on ratio and vibrations—a man name George Gurdjieff, he was a spiritual teacher, and I am involved with his teaching.

He incorporates music into his spiritual philosophy?
Yes, he does. He takes the major scale as a way to look at reality. It is very interesting. It takes a lot of study to understand. That informed a great deal of my own musical theory and knowledge.

How so?
To concentrate on a major scale and all its modes and permutations. A single scale accounts for 84 scales. If you buy a scale book, you’ve got 84 pages of major scales, but it is really one scale that starts in different places on different pitches. You’ve got 12 pitches, and you’ve got seven modes—that’s 84—and you really only have to learn one pattern. The same with the pentatonic. There’s five modes, but only two of them are really used—the major and the minor modes of the pentatonic scale—but you really only have to learn one scale and then you just start it from a different place within the scale.

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