“I’ve always been very intense about anything I wanted to do. I think that’s part of my character, being intense about whatever it is I want to get into, whether it’s research, or kicking a ball around in soccer, or playing the guitar, or delving into medieval and Renaissance music. I can’t just do things passively; I have to really study something and try to figure it out.”
Ritchie Blackmore is, by any estimation, one of the greatest and most important rock guitarists in history. He emerged at a time when the competition was stiff—his late-1960’s contemporaries included Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, and Eric Clapton—and from the start, Blackmore displayed a wholly distinct rock style that proved as powerfully innovative as any of his peers, while simultaneously pushing the limits of technical brilliance and virtuosity to unprecedented heights. Intrinsic to his unique approach was the incorporation into the rock genre of classical themes and, for the time, very unusual scales and modes such as Phrygian, Phrygian dominant and harmonic minor.
“I wasn’t schooled to play medieval or Renaissance music in the traditional sense, but it still really excites me when I hear it played in its purest form. My contribution is to take it into another realm, which is a little bit of rock and blues thrown in there, disguised.”
“I was initially inspired to explore that direction because of my love of classical music,” Ritchie describes. “I was obviously into rock guitar playing, but I was also very attracted to the classical overtones. I wasn’t schooled to play medieval or Renaissance music in the traditional sense, but it still really excites me when I hear it played in its purest form. My contribution is to take it into another realm, which is a little bit of rock and blues thrown in there, disguised. I don’t do a lot of string bending when I’m playing this music, but I’ll certainly be thinking almost like a blues/classical player. Above all, I try to approach this music with a spirit of creativity.”
Following his initial rise to fame with Deep Purple (1968-1975), fueled by the eternal smash “Smoke on the Water,” Blackmore found success with Rainbow (1975-1984), initially featuring singer Ronnie James Dio, followed by Joe Lynn Turner. In 1984, Blackmore reconnected with Deep Purple Mk. II (Ian Gillan, John Lord, Roger Glover and Ian Paice) and the newly reunited band released the very successful Perfect Strangers album. Tensions between Blackmore and Gillian led to Blackmore’s departure and the reformation of Rainbow, from 1993-1997, after which Blackmore redirected his energy into Blackmore’s Night.
What I find fascinating—amongst a lot of other things that I find fascinating with this music—is that, when they did write the music out, they’d hardly ever write out the timing.
In this exclusive Audio Chronicles, Ritchie Blackmore describes in depth his earliest experiences as a guitarist, his days as an in-demand session player, and the rise of Deep Purple. He begins by discussing the principles of “concert pitch” and his preference for the feel of a Stratocaster, his instrument of choice, tuned down one half step.
AA: Has your study of this music included a look at written manuscripts of medieval and Renaissance music, along with listening to various recordings?
BLACKMORE: Yes, and what I find fascinating—amongst a lot of other things that I find fascinating with this music—is that, when they did write the music out, they’d hardly ever write out the timing, so one couldn’t determine how the phrasing was intended to sound just from reading it. For the musicians reading the music back then, a lot was left to the individual’s interpretation. This is true for many of the notes, too.
I think that’s great; when you are reading a piece of music that was written back in the 1300s and 1400s, it’s debatable what some of the actual notes really were. That’s why you can hear so many different versions of the same piece of music. I follow this type of music very closely, and I’ll hear the same tune played in many different ways, with different notes. So this type of music was always open to the interpretation of the performer. In that era, it seems that, as long as you were within two notes of the actual note, it was okay!
AA: Many guitar fans view your incorporation of classical themes, along with nods to medieval scales and melodies, as the foundation of the neo-classical rock movement. Have you always had an interest in medieval and Renaissance music?
BLACKMORE: I first got into the type of music that I’m doing now when, at the age of nine, I first heard “Greensleeves.” This choirboy sang it at school, and the song moved me so much; it took me back to another time. Ever since then, that song has remained at the back of my mind. “Greensleeves” is a great example of the beauty of the medieval musical form, because it revolves around the harmonic structure of parallel fourths and parallel fifths, exactly the stuff you would hear being played on a shawm, which is a medieval and Renaissance double-reed woodwind instrument from the late 13th century that is similar to an oboe. The harmony of fourths is the structure I used for writing the main licks in “Smoke on the Water” and “Burn.”
DIALING IN RITCHIE’S TECHNIQUE
As Ritchie states in this interview, the language of the blues remained a huge part of his vocabulary, while he brilliantly devised ways to incorporate unusual scales, such as the Phrygian mode and the Harmonic minor scale, into blues-based music. Throughout my Progressive Blues Power course from TrueFire, I demonstrate ever-evolving licks that build on a solid foundation of the blues, while pushing the envelope into more complex harmonic territory.