How to Nail Gilmour’s “Comfortably Numb” Solo

With the advent of Rattle That Lock, David Gilmour’s newly announced solo album, and a world tour on the horizon, I thought now would be an excellent time to tackle the powerful tone of one of David Gilmour’s seminal solos—“Comfortably Numb”. Nestled smack dab in the middle of a powerful story of a burned-out rock star and the struggle with his personal demons, one will find Gilmour’s powerful statement and interpretation of isolation, disillusion, and clawing at the wall that separates one from being true to oneself. Still being played on classic rock stations all over the world, and still hailed as one of the greatest guitar solos of all time, “Comfortably Numb” has solidified itself in the annals of rock history through a continued relevancy to each generation that listens to it, even more so in today’s world. But as guitar players, “Comfortably Numb” has an entirely different side that casual listeners or fans can understand. It is one of the Holy Grails of guitar tone, combining sheer power, emotion, and well-implemented effects to create the “wall of sound” (no pun intended) that we know and love today. Let’s dive right in.

Pink Floyd - "Comfortably Numb"

First Solo Audio - The first “Comfortably Numb” solo, taken from the 5.1 mix of The Wall with echo and reverb removed. Courtesy of Kit Rae

The making of The Wall was a tumultuous time for Pink Floyd. Tensions among band members were so high that they couldn’t stand to be in the same studio together. Each day, a different member came into the studio, recorded his parts, and let the other members do theirs the next day, with minimal communication between other members. As The Wall was about isolation, it was a strange coincidence that the album was created in such an air. Producer Bob Ezrin mediated the band and kept the delicate peace long enough to get the album done. When Gilmour recorded the solo, it sounded as if he channeled his feelings about the band’s situation into the strings, which translated beautifully across the backdrop of the album. He reportedly did three takes, marked out the bars that he liked, and combined them all to finish the solo.

David Gilmour’s Black Strat

David used his famous black Strat on “Comfortably Numb.” It went through a lot of changes over the years (you can learn about the history of the black Strat in Phil Taylor’s book), but when it was time to record The Wall, the black Strat had a ’69-style single coil in both the neck and middle positions and a custom wound Seymour Duncan SSL-1C (the modern production version is the SSL-5) in the bridge. This bridge pickup has a higher output than most Strat bridge pickups, and a more pronounced midrange response, almost like a cross between the meat of a humbucker and the snap and clarity of a single coil. The SSL-5 (or similar) is very important to getting this tone. If you don’t have one, a vintage-style PAF or P-90 can get very close. A normal Strat pickup can do it, but it won’t have the same focused midrange. David strung his guitars with GHS Boomers, and he used heavy gauge teardrop picks.

As far as amps, David used a few to achieve his tone. His main amp was a Hiwatt DR103. Hiwatts are famous for their extremely powerful clean tone, high headroom, and piano-like sustain and harmonics. They have a lot of mid presence, which helps them cut through the mix, and when paired with mid scooped single coil pickups the Hiwatt is a force to be reckoned with—a high-headroom amp with the same character is what you need to get you in the ballpark. High headroom doesn’t necessarily mean a loud amp, it just means you will need more power to reach breakup. There are many faithful recreations of the Hiwatt that are true to their legacy, however, the modern branded Hiwatts pale in comparison, (that is a long-winded tale for another time). Hi-Tone and Reeves are two excellent companies that build Hiwatts to Dave Reeves’s original military-spec standards, but you don’t necessarily need a Hiwatt to get this tone—just a high headroom tube amp with a good clean tone. I use a Laney Cub 12R 15-watt half stack, but you can easily get away with using a Fender Blues Jr., or even a Hughes & Kettner Tubemeister.

David Gilmour’s amps backstage on The Wall tour in 1980

The second amp used on “Comfortably Numb” is slightly more unconventional, but is considered by many to be the “secret sauce” to achieving Gilmour’s tone. That amp is the Yamaha RA-200 rotary speaker. Originally designed to be paired with Yamaha’s Electone line of organs, it employs a very different style of achieving the rotary tone than a traditional Leslie. In a Leslie, the speakers are stationary while a baffle or horn on top of the speaker spins and spits out sound in every direction.

In the Yamaha, the speakers themselves actually spin, which gives more of a light chorus-y effect than a full-on Leslie. Gilmour ran it with an Alembic F2-B (basically a clone of the front end of a Fender Blackface amp), bypassing the solid-state preamp and amp built inside. The signal was split his board to the Hiwatt and RA-200 in stereo. The RA-200 is mixed very low, but the mix sounds empty without it. The problem with the RA-200 is—it’s extremely heavy, hard to find and difficult to maintain.

There are a few options to emulate this modulation. One is the Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Electric Mistress. There are many arguments as to whether or not it was used on the album version of the solo, but it was featured on Gilmour’s live board since Animals, and is great for adding that swirling character, although sometimes it can be a little dominating. A vintage Boss CE-2 is another option, and many in the Gilmour camp who own RA-200s say it’s the closest way to achieve that tone with a pedal. If you can’t hunt down on of those, a Boss CE-2B shares the same circuit, and with a few modifications you can turn it into a CE-2. Mooer’s Ensemble King is also a great clone of the CE-2. If you want something a little more complex, The Boss RT-20 has a similar character to the RA-200, and can also get you very close.

Second Solo Audio - The second “Comfortably Numb” solo, taken from the 5.1 mix of The Wall, with echo and reverb removed. Courtesy of Kit Rae

Colorsound Power Boost

Gilmour used a booster in conjunction with his famous ram’s head Big Muff to open it up and make it sound more dynamic and responsive. His booster of choice in those days was the Colorsound Power Boost, a transparent boost and overdrive that can be found on all of his work up until The Wall. It’s got a very glassy, mid-scooped character, that when paired with a Big Muff gets that “wall of sound” tone. Macari’s in London still makes Colorsound products, including the Power Boost. Some other faithful clones that still capture that character are the Throbak Overdrive Boost and the Buffalo FX Powerbooster (with the latter being one of my favorites). Any transparent booster in this application will do, so even Electro-Harmonix’s excellent Soul Food set to a clean boost or TC Spark Booster will work as well.

And now the most important aspect of “Comfortably Numb:” the Big Muff. There are more Big Muff clones on the market than anyone can count, and out of those there are many different “flavors” of Muff that represent the different circuit changes it went through over the years. We are just going to focus on the “ram’s head” models, as that was the type David Gilmour used during the sessions for The Wall. As with all vintage gear, Big Muffs are notoriously hard to wangle, especially vintage ones. Any vintage-style ram’s head Big Muff or clone will get you in the right direction. The Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Big Muff, The BYOC Large Beaver, or the SUF Ram’s Head are all excellent choices. Check here for more Big Muffs to achieve the Gilmour tone.

To add space to your tone, add a clean digital delay at the end of your signal chain. Gilmour used the TC Electronic 2290, but any digital delay will do. Set it to about 370 milliseconds, mix it low, and set the repeats to about 3–4 times. Delay is an essential part of the tone, as it makes it occupy it more aural space. However, In addition to the amps and effects used, there was a lot of studio trickery in the solo that made it sound like the record, so don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t sound exact. Echo, compression, EQ, automatic double tracking, and of course the micing technique, mixing desk, preamps, and many other factors contributed to the tone we hear on the record. There is one very important facet however, that has nothing to do with gear…

Listen. Listen to how Gilmour bends, how he picks, and how he uses his fingers on his fretting hand in conjunction with his pick attack to coax a multitude of tones from his strings. The most important part about learning to play Gilmour is learning how to use subtle amounts of vibrato (via the tremolo arm and your fretting fingers), and controlling your bends. Pick hard, concentrate on your bends, and use your instincts and emotion to play with the music, not over it. I hope that I have helped unlock some of the secrets of Gilmour’s elusive and massive tone atop the wall. Remember to listen, play, and most of all, enjoy!

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