Interview: Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott on "What Makes a Renegade Tick" | Bacon's Archive

Photo by: Fin Costello / Staff. Getty Images.

Editor's note: This post is part of a series of unpublished interviews from the personal research archive of noted guitar writer Tony Bacon. These interviews will be appearing on Reverb in the coming months.

For previous installments, take a look at Tony's interviews with Les Paul, Tom Petty, and Chet Atkins, as well as a deeper look into the recording of Sgt. Pepper's.

It was November 1981 when I went to Battery studio in north-west London to interview Phil Lynott (1949–1986). Phil and some members of Thin Lizzy were there in the control room at Battery as I arrived, busy trying to finish the mixing for their forthcoming album, Renegade.

The band was just about to set off on a wide-ranging tour to support the new record. Phil and I popped into the main studio room to have a chat, and we talked about his bass guitars and amps, his preference for touring rather than recording, his thoughts about the future of Lizzy, and quite a bit more.

Phil, I noticed you've been using an Ibanez bass lately.

I went to Japan and to Ibanez, about two years ago [on Lizzy's September '79 Japanese tour]. See, when I started playing the bass, I had a perspex Dan Armstrong. It was very flash, but if you hit too hard [laughs], the strings got bent out of tune. So then I found that this bass was playing me. I thought I was playing much faster than I was, but when I got on a big-neck bass guitar, I couldn't play, because that Dan Armstrong had two octaves or something.

Then I went on to a Rickenbacker. First of all, it was to learn an original tone, to get an original sound that was mine. Rickys have this habit of giving you an original sound. It was also good for the fingering—because it's so big, I had to get all my fingering right.

When did you get that Rick?

Well, that was about '73, '74. And then I went to a Fender, and the Fender was ideal, you know? A Precision, yes [a rosewood-board model and then also a maple-board one]. A great knockabout guitar. But they slipped for a while, Fender—they didn't improve. And there were all these other guitars coming up that were passing them by, and they were sort of going, "But we're Fender." And they never did jack shit fire, you know? You could have a hundred of them, and nobody would even say thanks. That's what I'm used to, honestly, that's what I was used to.

But then the Japanese crowd were just falling over backwards to do the merest whim: "Do you want your name on the guitar, do you want this, do you want a triple neck guitar?" They're throwing them at me free.

How did you get to Ibanez?

Well, they came up to me, threw a few guitars at me, and I found their guitars are great. They're very, very sturdy, because I hammer them. I got a couple of them, but I just use the one. It just seems that this one gives me the sound. [An Ibanez Roadster RS900, with one of his famous Mighty Mite mirror pickguards added.]

And I sweat a lot. One of the reasons I can't use a Rickenbacker stereo is that the sweat goes right into the pickup and it cancels the pickups out. I just sweat that much! So you really need a strong guitar. We have jokes that the road crew are scared to open up the inside of my guitar. They're afraid they'll find something like Alien jump out at them, you know? This sweat monster jumping out, this fungi living inside my guitar [laughs].

I believe you also have a fretless bass?

I have a fretless Schecter that I've used on this album [Renegade], and it's great. I play it all the time at home. A fretless is good fun to improve your technique. It was totally bizarre trying to get used to it. But once I did, well, it's a beautiful guitar. I just stuck at it. It's a lovely neck, a lovely piece of wood.

One of the things I like about the Ibanez—it's huge, a big guitar that I've got—and I'm convinced now that if you've got a good piece of wood, from that comes your resonance. In the old days, we used to think it was the pickup or the amp, but I think an awful lot now depends on the actual bass itself. Mind you, it's one of them things that if I turn too fast it drags me with it [laughs].

Where did you get the Schecter?

I bought that legit [laughs]. I know it sounds very, umm, bourgeois, but faced with the problem of people throwing guitars at you free, what do you do?

OK [laughs], so where did you buy the Schecter, then, Phil?

One of the roadies brought it down, said look at this, because Scott [Gorham] was buying a Schecter, and soon as I saw it I just fell in love with it. I couldn't play it, and then I couldn't play it, and I knew it was going to lay in the house for a good six months of the year, but I still wanted it. It was a matter of see it, have it [laughs].

Do you get a lot of info from your crew about gear?

Because I have to do so much peripheral stuff, like the interviews [laughs], our road crew are all experts in their field, so if they come down with something that they recommend highly, I'll at least give it a look, because I respect their opinion. So much of the sound is in their hands, the maintenance of gear.

How many crew now?

We've got three backline guys who do the guitars, one guy that does the drums, then we've got Pete out front who does the sound, and Finbar does the lights. I give each the room, themselves. I'm not like a tyrant where it's This is the way it is, lads, and this is what you've got to do.

What do you find you're complaining to the backline guys about most?

Well, we've used radio gear. We find a lot of trouble making sure that they all work without any interference. We constantly seem to pick up taxi drivers, or a buzz, or the feed from the lights to the gear. Basically, it's getting rid of all the splutters and hums and all. It takes a while to get that right.

But presumably it's worth it not to have cables trailing across everywhere?

For the freedom, yeah, obviously. You've got freedom, you cut down the chance of an electric shock, and really, to be stuck to an umbilical cord is a bit old fashioned, to me, knowing that there are these systems out, that there are other ways of doing it. But I still think there's a lot of room to develop all that.

After that, the majority of the faults would be man-made. Like I said, I sweat too much into the gear, or there's just the gear getting humped around from gig to gig, and obviously the crew has to keep up a certain maintenance. But the lead guitar boys [Scott Gorham and Snowy White] have more probs, because they use more effects racks, and there's more likely could go wrong with that gear.

Roland bass synth advertisement.

How long have had your Roland bass guitar synth?

I got that in the last year [an Ibanez/Fuji-made Roland G-series bass "controller" plus external synth unit]. I only use it in the studio. I look forward to the day when a bass could trigger off a Moog, because I tried—the only reason I have the Roland synth is because I tried every which way to get a bass to trigger a Moog, and it just seemed virtually impossible to get it done. And if I could do that, it would give the keyboard player a lot more freedom, instead of having to double all the bass things.

What have you used the Roland on?

I've used it on a lot of my solo album [Solo In Soho, released 1980]. You can get some really nice sounds, like elephant roars [laughs]. That's the only way I can say it. Some bizarre little sounds. You can get anything from cellos to—it's just great to have a Moogy sound where you don't have to re-learn how to play it, you can actually play it on an instrument you're used to.

I have used keyboards, of course, but I use them out of necessity, because there was no other way I could get that sound except on a keyboard. But obviously I'd like to do it the lazy way and do everything on the bass.

Thin Lizzy - "It's Getting Dangerous"

How about this new album, Renegade, have you used the Roland bass synth for that?

"It's Getting Dangerous," it's on that. But I've used it very subtle. The whole thing about Lizzy albums is that we try and capture what the band sounds like, whereas with my solo albums, it's me trying to get the best out of the song, you know? And I'll use anything. Nothing is sacred.

What amp will you be using on the upcoming tour?

Dynacord, the German crowd, came up with this new bass amp, said would I try it—and I've tried an awful lot of bass amps, you know, because it's hard to get a bass amp that has the power, that will give you the bottom. And it's hard to get an amp that not only works for the first month but works for the next six months. Because I find power on bass guitars, it seems to get sucked up, and by the time you're two months into a tour you need a new one again. I've found that with nearly every make.

Is projection a consideration as well? Something that sounds really good on stage but…

Well, that's the bass player's dilemma. We do go for a DI, but we still play over the limit for a DI to work perfectly, you still get an awful lot off stage. There's two ideal ways of doing it: play so low that your PA does it for you; or play loud and you have to therefore get the sound for in the audience, which isn't always the best for you on stage. This is the everlasting saga.

What other bass amps have you tried?

I've had custom-made stuff. I'll tell you one of things I found that was really nice, the old Marshall—well, they were a ripoff of the Fender, you know? I used to use that with an Acoustic, the Acoustic for the throw and that was for the sound down there.

And sometimes I used a flanger. I've gone off using it now, but I used to use a flanger on the bass, just to give it that bit of top without it being clacky.

But now this Dynacord has everything, it has graphics on it, it has simple tone controls, and I do like a simple set of controls.

What was your custom-made amp?

I better not say who made it, because he might get upset [laughs]. In theory it should have worked fucking brilliant, because it had the top, the middle, and the bass crossover and everything, the power. There were Crown amps in it, so the woomph was there. But it just didn't whack it. It just folded up and died halfway through touring.

It just lasted one tour?

No, it lasted a couple of tours, but it's like you don't want to change horses midstream. You're in the middle of a tour and somebody comes up with this wonderful gear, well, you're always a bit reticent to use it. It's always best during a period where you're off to try out new gear. We were touring so much that I didn't get a chance to try it, but I got this Dynacord and set it up, and it was great. And it was a time when some of my gear had broken down. It's really good for a working outfit. I know there are some great bass systems out there, but this is great for touring. I use two of them, but one of them gives enough.

How do you work in the studio these days? Your bass goes DI, I guess?

Yeah, just DI it. This album [Renegade] we rehearsed a bit, then put down some backing tracks, then did some dates in the summer, tried the numbers on that, then came in and finished up the second half. And also there's that thing, you know, where due to our success, we can't really introduce that many new numbers into a set until we're promoting the album. So there's always say three or four numbers that are created in the studio.

This sometimes can work out better. For example, I think the Live And Dangerous album gives a better example of how the numbers are written, they're recorded better on that. I think the live versions are much better, because after six months of playing them, we really had them down.

How long have you been working on Renegade?

About five months, but we did some dates in between, so really about three-and-a-half months. Soon as we finish this we're touring. We start touring next week. We've got a 31-date tour up to Christmas, which is sold out. Then we go to Ireland in the new year [1982], on to Scandinavia, then Japan, Australia, America, and Europe. You know, I'm just glad to get out of the studio and back on the road.

You're mixing here at Battery in north London, but where else did you use?

We did a few things across the road in Morgan, we used Townhouse, and we used Windmill studios in Ireland, in Dublin. I used that for my solo album. It's a good studio, they're really picking up now. It's handy for me—it's home for me [laughs].

So, as we made this new album, we put down most of the tracks, then the three harmony guitars went down as an overdub, and obviously the vocals went down as an overdub. But there was one backing track all the way through. The band has good dynamics—it's just trying to capture that. That was one of the ways that I thought Thin Lizzy could show their versatility without distracting from what you think of as Thin Lizzy.

Are you moving narrower, in that sense, though, as you try to keep within the confines of what people expect from Thin Lizzy?

No, I just don't think we've examined it strong enough. In the early days it was just Get up there, wham it, hit them hard. Now we've been hitting them hard for so long, I'm thinking what else can you do within that structure? And obviously it's got to be dynamics. You've got to have light and shade, you've got to use your power. It's just like what we do when we're pacing the set—you have to know when to pull it down and when to go with it. I think we haven't done enough of that on record. We do it a lot on stage, but we don't do it on record enough.

I suppose it can be difficult to summon the spontaneity for that in the studio.

Yeah, because on stage you're being an extrovert, and in the studio you're being an introvert, trying to get what's out from within. When you're on stage you're showing off what you can do.

Tell me more about this balance between live and recording.

It depends really on the song. Like, there's always x amount of the sounds that are just Lizzy. I just have to go look, here's how it goes, and everybody in the band knows how it goes. Then there's other songs, for example there's one song on the new album called "Fats," which is a pop-jazz thing, it's a song about Fats Waller. The idea just intrigued me, Thin Lizzy plays Fats, you know? And, by the way, that's where I use the Schecter fretless.

Now, with "Fats" I really had to make a rough demo to sort of give the feel of what I meant. So songs like that, which would be atmospheric songs—there's another song called "Mexican Blood," and the whole feel is sort of Spanish–Mexican—I was trying to get the boys to play in another style, but maintaining the Lizzy thing. Now, the ordinary straightforward rocky ones, it's just a matter of us rehearsing, knocking it out, putting on the lead, putting on the vocal, and mixing it.

Photo by: Fin Costello / Staff. Getty Images.

Did you make that demo for "Fats" at home?

Yeah, I've got an 8-track Brenell at home, a mini studio. I've had that about a year-and-a-half. Everybody uses it for trying out things. I've always had a very wide scope of interest in music, and obviously that would come out in the writing. Sometimes Lizzy would reject the songs, but the more Lizzy said, Now we've got to do something different, the more they examined the more offbeat stuff I did. Plus the boys have started to write more, because my things go to my solo stuff, so they've had more time to write when I've been doing my solo stuff. So I think it's a healthier situation all the way around.

Is the home studio mainly for developing ideas?

For myself, yes. My output now is larger than my memory [laughs]. I think having a tape recorder at home makes me a little lazy—once it's on tape, I can forget about it, whereas back in the old days we'd be pushing left, right, and center to get it done.

I guess you could look at it as an easier way of keeping song ideas than, say, jotting things down on paper?

Yeah—but I still have to write reams and reams for lyrics.

Is your songwriting changing?

Well, on "Renegade," the title track of this new album, I was going for a different format. I thought if you were to hear that Thin Lizzy have done a song called "Renegade," you'd immediately think of something like "Jailbreak." And I thought fair enough, that's what the song conjures up. But first of all I wanted to give it, rather than being an outward look at a renegade, let it be an inward look, what makes a renegade tick. What is the renegade within this song?

That's why there's the description of the renegade at the start, and then I go on with why it's important that there are some people that are rebellious. Because they can start an idea, and through that some good can be achieved. That's basically what I wanted to put across.

So I started it with the verses being slow, building up to the power of the chorus. That's showing the power of the renegade. And then it goes through a turmoil section—that's what you heard us working on in the control room just now—and that's where we go into that sort of bizarre tempo. Then after the turmoil there's the calm, the resolve. That was the idea.

Phil Lynott - "Renegade"

You told me earlier that you try to capture on record what Lizzy sounds like live, and I still wonder about that making it difficult to introduce new things.

Well, it doesn't really, because there's rehearsals, you see, and rehearsals are very, very experimental. We approach things from different ways in rehearsals. With my solo stuff, I've been working really in textures, and if I found a good texture of sound, then I've been quick to try to get the band to get into that texture. They find their way into the feeling.

But it is harder for Lizzy to do stuff, because we are under a fair amount of—there are two lead guitarists, there is a drummer, there is a bass player, vocalist, and keyboards. Now, with the solo album, I could use drum machine. I could use radio voices. I don't have to use the bass guitar. I don't have to use a lead guitar. I can have strings on it if I want.

Do you still get a kick from rehearsals?

Yeah, for me, still the best feeling is locking in, when everybody locks in, even if it's only for like a couple of verses and it's just steaming. That's the best feeling of all. You don't have to hear a recording to hear that that was good.

How much has the Lizzy sound developed now?

Well, the keyboards are becoming more and more predominant, all the time. But to me, keyboards have always conjured up soft, dreamy type music. And that's not the way we're trying to do them at all. He's very talented, the new keyboard player [Darren Wharton], and I think there's an awful lot to come from him. But I think you'll start to hear it on this album, and I think we'll go more and more for it.

What made you add a keyboard player?

First and foremost it was just the pressure from having such a large repertoire of songs, that instead of them being bland and crass, just coming at you one after another with all the same sound, we tried to change the texture behind the sound. That was the first reason, so initially it was just doing backing stuff, just to change the texture. But the longer he stayed in the band, the more he's getting stuff into it.

How about your singing, how's that developed over the years? Do you think about it much?

Oh, I think more and more about my singing. I know more about my range, so now I try working within the range. I'm trying to perfect a style. But so much depends on the lyrical content and therefore the emotion needed in a song. The technique—if it works, everybody understands what you're doing, and if it doesn't, they don't.

Do you do anything to make sure you don't damage your voice?

No, in fact [laughs]. I think my voice has got a little more mature, there's more maturity in the voice, ever so slightly. And I'm more critical. A lot more critical of my vocals now than I used to be. I'm also used to hearing myself, and in the early days I wasn't. You hear yourself back and you go OK, if you say so. But now I've become my own worst critic in the studio.

Is that true of your bass performance as well, that you've become more critical?

Yeah, yeah, but to a lesser extent, though, with the bass. Because there are more people out there that can play bass guitar. But there's not a lot of people out there with a voice like mine.



About the author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. He is a co-founder of Backbeat UK and Jawbone Press. His books include The Bass Book, Paul McCartney: Bassmaster, and Guitars: The Illustrated Encyclopedia. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

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