Peter Frampton 

Up until 1971, you would never find Peter Frampton’s name on a list of the top 25 guitar players. He was never mentioned in lists detailing the 50 greatest guitar tones. For some insane reason, Frampton was simply unable to command attention the way so many of his 1960s-era contemporaries did. English blues brothers like Mick Taylor, Peter Green, and Robin Trower all walked in the limelight of respect, while he was usually relegated to some anonymous seat in the last row.

And whenever he was compared to rock’s mainframe, players like Clapton, Beck, Hendrix, and Keith Richards, Peter all but disappeared beneath their long shadows.

Humble Pie Performance Rockin' the FillmoreBut all of that would change in 1971. That year, Peter took a giant step forward in finally establishing who he was. With Humble Pie, he recorded the live album, Performance – Rockin’ the Fillmore. On that hallowed San Franciscan night 37 years ago, Frampton came alive!

For 72 minutes, Frampton magically stitched together jazz, blues, and rock, a style that had been evolving over the course of two years and four albums. Frampton had joined Pie in 1969 and on the group’s first quartet of releases?As Safe As Yesterday Is; Town and Country; Humble Pie; and Rock On?had been working on blending these different approaches. They all came together on Performance.

On an album that contained only one purely original song, “Stone Cold Fever,” Frampton riffed and rocked and burned his way into rock guitar’s mainstream. He danced lightly on Dr. John’s “I Walk On Gilded Splinters” and crushed the stage beneath him on Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah (I Love Her So)” and the Ashford/Simpson rocker, “I Don’t Need No Doctor.”

Frampton did all of this on a borrowed Les Paul Custom that he’d never played before. On that night back in 1971, he established himself as a premier player capable of going six strings with the world’s greatest. And additionally, would become forever recognized as the guitarist who created the essential Gibson Les Paul Custom three-pickup tone.

No other player had really used the Les Paul Custom before. How did you come to play that guitar for the Performance recording?

I got given the original one when I was in Humble Pie in San Francisco. Mark Mariana gave it to me. Right before that I had a 335 that I had swapped a 1960 SG for which I should never have got rid of. I played the first of two nights at the Fillmore West and the first night I’m playing, every time I went for a solo, it was horrible. Humble Pie were getting louder and with a 335 you know what happens? [mimics feedback sounds] Urrrhhh ruhhhh urrrrrrrrh! I stuffed that thing, I gaffer taped the holes closed; it was horrible. I was visibly an unhappy camper.

After the second show, this lanky sort of very shy guy came over to me and said, “I notice you’re having a little problem there.”  So I said, “You could say that.” He said he had this Les Paul. But I’d had a bad Les Paul when I was in the Herd [Frampton’s former band].

You obviously relented.

I said, “Believe me, I’ll try anything just so I can play a solo.” Mark came to the hotel coffee shop in the morning with this brand new case. What he’d done was he found a ’54 Black Beauty because he’d always liked that Miracles cover. Smokey and the Miracles with the guy holding the Les Paul Custom which I’d always seen and it always fascinated me. [Note: Peter is referring to the 1963 release The Fabulous Miracles that features guitarist Marv Tarplin on the cover holding a classic black Custom.] He’d taken the ’54, taken the finish down, sanded it down so it was a little lighter. It was made out of Honduras mahogany so it was as light as a Strat anyway. 

Did he alter the electronics?

He routed it for three PAFs, put them in, and wired it so the two outside pickups (neck and bridge) were adjusted by the top volume (knob) and the middle pickup was adjusted by the bottom volume (knob). So you could make them individual. And the outside two were selected by the selector switch but the middle one wasn’t. That’s how my wiring started. 

You never thought twice about using a guitar live that you’d never played before? Especially at such an important venue as the Fillmore West?

As soon as he asked me if I wanted to try it, I said, “Yeah, please!” And of course my feet didn’t touch the ground the whole night. It was the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard. After he’d done all that stuff to it, he’d just got it back from Gibson who had re-finished it so it looked like a brand new guitar.

I can't imagine you wanted to return the Les Paul after using it that night.

I said, “I know this must mean a lot to you. But I’ll give you my 335 and more money. What can I do?” He said, “No, I don’t wanna sell it; I’m gonna give it to ya.” It’s one of those special moments that only happen in movies. And I’m still in touch with him.

And do you still have that guitar?

I lost it in a plane crash in South America in 1980. I couldn’t really get too upset about it because people lost their lives; it was a cargo plane and three people went down. Gear is gear, people are people.

When you lost the Les Paul, did it affect you more than simply having to now go look for a different instrument?

To be honest, I couldn’t really play anything else. I didn’t want to play for a while; I went through withdrawals and all that. I missed it. And then I started realizing if I’m gonna do what I do, I better learn how to play on anything. But I couldn’t find a Les Paul that sounded anything like mine. 

Peter Frampton Signature Les PaulIs that when the prospect of having a signature model guitar presented itself?

In 2000, Mickey McGuire [son of Mike McGuire, the gifted guitarsmith who founded the custom guitar company, Valley Arts, back in the 1970s] said, “It’s about time we had a Peter Frampton model.” He was working at the Gibson Custom Shop in Nashville. I said, “That would be wonderful; I’d be honored.”

Was that a difficult process in trying to recreate the original Les Paul?

Mike and I worked on it for about nine months. He suggested that we do sound chambers because Honduras mahogany was restricted. I wasn’t sure about that; I didn’t think it was a good idea. We did one of each. When he put the pickups on it, it sounded more like my old Les Paul because it almost equaled the weight. And it sustained like crazy.

What else did you incorporate?

Basically, I copied the wiring from my original one. It’s a thin neck from a 1960 Les Paul. It’s perfect for me but Jeff Beck could not play that; his fingers would wrap around the neck. Jeff’s model is a baseball bat; he must have huge hands. 

Do you think your playing on the Performance?Rockin’ the Fillmore album was a defining moment for you as a guitarist?

Yeah, the Rockin’ The Fillmore album is the best example of me realizing I’ve got this almost recognizable style. My style completely evolved during Humble Pie. I had this melodic thing combined with jazz influences and then the blues and R&B and Steve Cropper is in there somewhere as well. My objective was for someone to listen to a few notes and go, “That’s Peter Frampton.”

Where did the pieces of that style come from?

When Eric Clapton came out with the Bluesbreakers record, that’s when I decided if I wanted my own style, I had to go in another direction. Because it was too seductive, it was way too seductive. I wanted to play like that like crazy. So did everybody else and they went that way. But I wasn’t going to go that way. 

So your style originally derived from not trying to sound like someone else?

Yeah; that was ’65 and ’66 when I decided to change over. I was in a band called the Preachers before the Herd and we did a lot of jazz. Whether I liked it or not at that time, the bandleader said, “Take these albums and learn them.” It was Friday night and we rehearsed on Monday. There was everything from Wes Montgomery, George Benson with Jack McDuff, to Joe Pass and Charlie Christian. I realized after studying it for a while that I really enjoyed it. But I loved the blues as well.

Did Clapton really hold that much influence over you? And other players of the day?

Oh, yeah! The only graffiti you saw in England was Clapton Is God. At that time, he did an interview and said, whether he did or not, that he used Piccato .008s. That was a Welsh company and the stock just went through the roof. Every guitarist including Pete Townshend and me said we had to have the Piccato .008s. And that’s what I used from then on. On Comes Alive! I used .008s and I don’t know how I did it now. Eric Clapton did this awful thing when he became God!

Was Clapton that far ahead of you and Townshend in terms of his fame and his style?

Ever since he was in the Yardbirds and then left them because they were too commercial and joined the Bluesbreakers at half the pay, that was it. That was the move that made him incredibly respectable. It was the shunning of commerciality and I think that’s what people liked; that he went back to the blues and wasn’t a pop merchant at all. 

You mentioned it earlier but the Bluesbreakers album was the one that cemented Eric’s legacy?

Everybody had that same haircut! The long sideburns and the white sneakers. Every guitar player walked around reading the Beano magazine. If you were a guitarist you dressed like that; otherwise you weren’t considered. It was the whole thing. The Beatles changed the band situation, but within the musician world he did it. To a lesser degree, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page did the same thing.

Were you listening to Beck and Page as well?

It was a combination. My favorite out of those was Jeff Beck. When Jimi came around, everybody?including Eric?said, [makes a bowing motion] “I’m not worthy.” I think Eric was in awe of his playing just because he came out of nowhere and was doing stuff that Eric was doing. But he was doing it completely differently.

Ultimately, you were looking for a style that would combine the blues and jazz stuff?

Yeah. I’d come from the school of melodic rock playing. I copied every note from the Shadows, Hank Marvin, the Ventures, and a European band called the Sputniks. They did “The Orange Blossom Special.” A band called Nero and the Gladiators with Mick Jones [who subsequently founded Foreigner] I also listened to. I was the lead guitarist in a band and I had the Buddy Holly glasses. I knocked the glass out to look like Hank Marvin and I swear Hank did it to look like Buddy Holly.
I had learned from what you’d call surf bands, doing these cowboy themes. The change from that into jazz wasn’t that strange because jazz is more melodic than blues. Blues is the pentatonic scale and jazz is every note in-between.

On those early Humble Pie albums, you really were playing kind of a jazzy blues style.

I realized that the jazz part was working in rock music as well. And nobody else was really doing that. Maybe Steve Howe was approaching that but it was much more theatric, operatic stuff; like Queen almost. And I knew Steve and was always in awe of his playing. And then Humble Pie comes around and I’m back into the blues. Steve Marriott was singing Muddy Waters and he played me all the best blues.

Peter Frampton and Steve Marriott

Marriott was unbelievable on the Rockin’ the Fillmore album. Over the years, had you and Steve been developing this amazing creative chemistry?

Ummm [takes a breath], no, we weren’t really. We did at the end when we got back together again in 1990. Steve was always in high gear and he was so prolific at specific times that you couldn’t keep up with him. Lyrically and musically. I loved his lyrics.  You’d still be tuning up and he’d finished the song already.  He used to call us [mimics Marriott’s accent], “Chalk and cheese, love.” That’s what we say in England if something is really different.

I know that Steve was still drinking heavily when you reunited with him in 1990.

I said, “I don’t care, it’s your life. But if we can just be on the same plane when we write.  Drink whenever just not when we’re working.” I’d stopped drinking at that point. He couldn’t deal with that and we sort of blew up over that. I couldn’t communicate with him.

How did it feel to be working with Marriott again?

We had six weeks of bliss. We started working in November of ’90 and then he moved to Santa Monica in January. I had a little studio in West Hollywood and we went over there every day and did demos. I’m very proud of those songs.

Peter FramptonWas the magic still there?

I remember him sittin’ down one day after we’d laid down the vocals on a song called “I Won’t Let You Down.” He said, “Pete, I can’t believe that you and I are sitting here together having so much fun. Who’d have believed it after all these years?” I get chills thinking about it and that was the thing I’d always wanted to hear from him. That he enjoyed working with me as much as I loved working with him. 
You established yourself as a true guitarist.  And then you built on that with the astonishing success of Comes Alive! That must have felt amazing.

That’s the misconception from Frampton Comes Alive! I regarded myself first of all as a guitarist, and then a singer/songwriter. That album turned me more into a pop idol and took away the musician. As much as Comes Alive! brought, it took away a lot?the respect for me as a guitar player.

Peter Frampton on  Rolling StoneNo one would ever say a thing like that.

That Rolling Stone cover and the success of the live album put me right back where I’d escaped from before Humble Pie … into this teenybopper thing. I was so pissed. Whereby no one took me seriously anymore. And I’d felt like the perception had betrayed my true followers and they sort of said, “F--k you, go be a pop star.” And I feel I’d let them down as well as letting myself down.  

In one breath we wouldn’t be sitting here talking about anything if it weren’t for that album. I fully understand that. I appreciate that album immensely and my kids are in college because of it. It changed my whole life forever.