Had Peter Frampton done nothing more than release Frampton Comes Alive!  — the gazillion-selling live set that changed the music industry — his place in rock history would be assured. Fact is, however, Frampton was never comfortable in the role of pop star, and always held firm to the nobler goal of becoming the best guitarist he could possibly be.

Those six-string skills are on full display on Thank You Mr. Churchill, Frampton’s just-released follow-up to his Grammy-winning instrumental album, Fingerprints. Rife with riff-laden songs that evoke the guitar legend’s classic ’70s work, the album unfolds, thematically, as the most autobiographical disc of Frampton’s career.

High points include “Solution,” a ferocious rocker fitted with ringing power chords; “I’m Due a You,” a shimmering pop-rocker flavored with stinging lead lines; and “Suite Liberte,” an instrumental that blends rock, jazz, and blues into a seamless tapestry.

In the following interview, the veteran guitarist talks about the making of the album, and the instruments he used to bring the songs to life.

The songs on Thank You Mr. Churchill have a classic-rock vibe, in a ’70s sort of way. Did that direction unfold in a natural way?

Absolutely. I wanted the album to be more rock and roll, even though it also contains some of the most introspective songs I’ve ever done. Take the song “I Want it Back,” for instance. I wrote that song during a break while on tour, year before last. I was trying to come up with something new to do as an encore, really. I wanted something that worked live, in a sort of Humble Pie-ish way. And that’s what came out. I had the riff, which was sort of an ad-lib piece I was doing on-stage, just before we played “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” When I got home, I started to see that riff as part of a much bigger piece. So yes, I agree that the album is very much “classic rock.”

For Fingerprints, your main electric guitar was your Gibson Signature Les Paul Custom. What did you play on the new album?

I used that same electric, along with some others. There’s a bit of a story there. I used to have a real 1960 Les Paul Standard Sunburst, which I foolishly sold. The Gibson Custom Shop then did a very nice thing. They surprised me with a ’60 reissue, a “vintaged” Les Paul that’s phenomenal. It’s a wonderful guitar. It’s very light, and has all the things you would expect. It’s very close to the ’60 Les Paul that I sold.

Did you pick up the Les Paul Standard – the guitar you sold – as a replacement for your original Les Paul, which was lost in a 1980 plane crash?

Well, when I lost all my guitars in that horrible plane crash, I went and got a lot of guitars. Smaller necks work better for me – I have small fingers – so the ’60 neck is much better for me. In fact, all my Les Pauls, the Peter Frampton models, are modeled on a ’60 neck. Anyway, after the plane crash I got the Standard Sunburst, and stuff like that. But nothing was quite like my original Les Paul. I went through a period of not knowing what to play, because I hadn’t known anything except my original Les Paul, for so many years.

How does the ’60 Les Paul Standard reissue compare to the guitar you sold?

To be honest, it sounds better than I remember the other one sounding. Not every guitar – just because it was made in 1960 or something – sounds amazing. It depends on which day of the week it was built, who built it, what care went into it, and all sorts of things. Every guitar sounds different. But anyway, I’ve now got this wonderful ’60 reissue, and I’ve also got my original ’62, Humble Pie-era SG – the guitar I played on the [1969 Humble Pie] Town and Country album. John Nady, of Nady Wireless, somehow ended up with it, and he graciously sold it back to me.

The SG is the guitar you were playing prior to getting the Black Beauty?

Yes. I’ve been trying lately to reach out for as many guitars that I used to have as possible. I also have a ’61 SG, which sounds amazing. I love SGs, and I always have. For me, the SG is halfway between a Strat and a Les Paul. It has a thinner sound, it’s not quite as weighty as a Les Paul, and it cuts through a bit better in certain situation. Both SGs are on the new album – the ’61 and the Humble Pie-era one – as well as my main Les Paul, and the reissue.

You mentioned “Restraint.” That song has a very unusual riff. How did you come up with that?

That came to me while I was jamming on the couch, watching TV with the sound turned down. I noodle like that all the time. It was such an ominous riff. I think the “D” may be tuned down. In any case, it’s a low tuning. I was just jamming with some loops. A lot of the guitar parts on the album started in front of the TV, with the sound turned off.

Did you come up with the solos in the studio, on the spot?

Pretty much. Maybe I’m lazy, but I don’t like to work solos out. When I’m recording, my usual method is to do three solos, all the way through, and then stop, have a cup of tea or coffee, make a phone call, and go back and do another three. Then I go through them all, and choose bits. Usually one of the solos done at the beginning sounds right, nearly all the way through. But I don’t grade them as I’m going along. I’m not thinking, “Oh, we need another bit here, or something.” I just do them.

That said, though, I would have already played around with the songs, getting used to the chords, and playing along, and jamming along with myself. It’s not as if I haven’t practiced the solos, or messed with them before I actually blast away.

You once said your best guitar playing nearly always happens when you play live. Is that still the case?

I would adjust that comment a bit. I would say, “Yes, in essence,” but I’m finding that because I have my own studio, and can work any time, day or night, I’m more fluent now. Sometimes, out of the blue, at home, I’ll come up with something that’s just as good as what I do on the road. It may be different, but that’s what I’m always searching for. I want things to be different, to be new, and to be something I haven’t played before. And I want to get better, as a guitar player.

You won a prestigious Grammy, in the category of “Best Pop Instrumental Album,” for Fingerprints. Did winning the Grammy make you contemplate doing another all-instrumental album?

It did, although not straightaway. The beauty of it is that the music business is sort of artist-driven, these days, because we have such direct contact to the fans. I’m basically doing what I want, all the time, and not following any trends. But yes, at some point I think I’ll do another instrumental album. It may even be a film soundtrack.

Photo Credit: Sandy Campbell