Learn To Play: Riffs in the Key of David Gilmour

Pink Floyd is one of the most iconic rock bands in history – so iconic that there have been thousands of bands since that have been referred to as “Floydian” or “Floyd-ish.” There are many dynamics within their sound that have contributed to their success. We couldn’t possibly name them all. But we can certainly attribute Mr. David Gilmour’s guitar playing to the list.

When I was a youngster, maybe nine or so, I remember hearing that Gilmour tone. I was blown away by the sonic atmosphere it created – the lush layers, the sustain, the mystery. And, of course, the tone itself drew all of us in.

Upon further observation of Gilmour’s riffs, I became equally drawn to the musical ideas that he was executing. I was drawn to these ideas not only because of their beautiful placements in the songs, but also because they empowered me as a player. I realized this when I heard a Gilmour riff and thought to myself, “I know how he’s doing that.”

David Gilmour’s use of music theory is intelligible. It’s not too difficult to recognize the logic he used while composing his guitar parts. They just make sense. There have been times when I have transcribed a Gilmour solo and just thought, “Of course!” It’s almost as if he is gifting it to us.

The "What" vs. The "Why"

In one of these videos, I take a look at the first solo in “Comfortably Numb.” As I take you through, I am constantly referring to chord tones and arpeggios. It’s full of them. And so are many of his solos, including the ripping Dark Side track, “Time.”

So why is this important? Who cares if it’s technically an arpeggio? Why can’t it be just a series of notes that sound great together? It’s important because it provides us with an understanding of the language. It allows us access to a tool, a very simple one, actually.

It’s important because as we learn these little theory bites, we’re not just learning the solo. We are relating the notes in the solo to the chords that lie beneath them. This legitimizes our approach.

What Gilmour plays in the solo is beautiful. Why he played what he did is a more interesting question. When we learn the why, we can use it in our own playing. We can take it and relate it to any key, any position, any chord, any day. And when we hear one of our guitar heroes using language that is actually quite simple, we are empowered.

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These same ideas thread through the other two videos as well: the suspended chords in “Us And Them” and the descending triads in “Run Like Hell.” These concepts are within our grasp. Perhaps these riffs and chord shapes were already in your regular go-to repertoire. If so, I hope these lesson videos unlocked yet another piece for you.

That is what learning has always been about for me: taking an idea and applying it through my own playing. As we all know, there is only one person who can play that “Comfortably Numb” solo like David Gilmour. But there is so much for us to learn from it.

So as you are memorizing the what (fret numbers, string numbers, bends, shapes, etc.), also challenge yourself to get in tune with the why (chord tones, arpeggios, roots, 3rds, 5ths, etc.). If you do this now, your future self will sound better. Good luck and keep playing!

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