By common agreement, David Gilmour’s solo on Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb– particularly his playing on the outro section – is right up there with the best. Planet Rock’s audience put it top of its list of the Best 40 Guitar Solos of All Time; Guitar World’s readers put it fourth in their top 100; visitors statistics from LickLibrary.com shows consistency amongst the top five requests with learners searching for online guitar tuition, DVDs and guitar lesson downloads.
Though Gilmour – as singer, guitarist and de facto leader – has now become synonymous with Floyd, he was not even part of the original line-up. Ironically, it was only because Pink Floyd’s leader Syd Barrett was becoming constantly numb that David Gilmour was drafted in, simply to ensure that the show could go on.
Barrett, who had formed Pink Floyd with fellow Cambridge musicians Roger Waters, Nick Mason and Rick Wright, was a heavy user of psychedelic drugs, and his behaviour (and mental state) had become increasingly erratic. The plan was to use Gilmour – a friend of Barrett’s since childhood – as cover for live shows, but after a few gigs, Barrett left.
By the time Gilmour joined, Pink Floyd already had a well-received debut album, Piper At The Gates of Dawn, plus a pair of hit singles – Arnold Layne and See Emily Play – under its belt. They enjoyed a strong underground following and the band continued for some time to be influenced by Barrett’s exploratory style.
It was with the runaway success of Dark Side Of The Moon that Pink Floyd’s classic ‘middle period’ style became truly established, combining Gilmour’s blues-influencedguitar work with triad-based chord structures to produce a very ‘English’ sound, enhanced by Roger Waters’s reflective lyrics and a distinctively ‘non-American’ vocal delivery. (The one exception is the track Money, a heavy blues based around a riff in 7/4 with a blistering 4/4 solo from Gilmour.)
Dark Side, which has sold more than 40 million copies, holds the record – 741 weeks, or nearly 15 years – for consecutive weeks spent on the US Billboard 200 chart. Like its follow up, Wish You Were Here, it is a concept work, both albums dealing with themes such as ageing, madness and conflicts, whether on a general scale or within the music industry in particular.
During this period Roger Waters increasingly became the dominant personality within Pink Floyd, writing all the lyrics and nearly all of the songs, and taking on the major production role. The next album, Animals, failed to live up to the success of its predecessors, but The Wall re-established Floyd as a creative force.
While Waters might have been the leader of the band by this time – even sacking Rick Wright for under-contributing – the music itself relied more and more on Gilmour’s guitar work, still based principally on a blues pentatonic but powerfully atmospheric both because of his effortless timing and through the wide tonal range he employs.
While Comfortably Numb, which appears on The Wall, is typically Floydian – major triads, for the most part, and slow-medium in tempo – the band’s ability to play funk-rock (and Gilmour’s ability to rock out as a soloist) was showcased in Another Brick In The Wall, Part II , which duly became Pink Floyd’s biggest selling single and first chart topper.
The Waters-dominated classic period came to an end with The Final Cut, widely considered a disappointment in its departure from Pink Floyd’s typical instrumental style, after which Roger Waters left, stating that the band was “a spent force”. Despite an acrimonious legal tussle with Waters over the use of the band’s name, Gilmour and Mason continued (with Gilmour now the band’s undisputed leader), eventually winning the right to continue performing and recording as Pink Floyd in and out of court settlement, and reinstating Rick Wright, first as a salaried sideman then as a full member.
Although albums such as A Momentary lapse Of Reason and The Division Bell enjoyed commercial success, the band has failed to achieve the same critical acclaim as in its Waters-dominated period, and all the members have also embarked on solo projects. The band, however, has lost none of its popularity as a live act.
One of the highlights of the 2005 Live 8 charity gig was Roger Waters’s appearance on stage with the band – the first time Waters, Gilmour, Mason and Wright had performed together since 1981 – to play Speak To Me/Breathe, Money (both from Dark Side Of The Moon), Wish You Were Here, and – of course – Comfortably Numb.