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Peter Green: The Super-Natural

Published 3 months ago on November 3, 2020

By Jonathan Graham

Peter Green: The Super-Natural

In July of this year, we lost Peter Green. One of the finest rock guitarists of his generation; Green was a charismatic figure at the forefront of a fast-moving rock-and-roll revolution, as the music evolved in the late 1960s from its blues-based origins to a more ornate and theatrical style, with overtones of spiritual endeavour. In this issue's cover feature, Nick Jennison explores the rich history or the Fleetwood Mac founder and how his impact helped shape modern rock guitar.

The 1960s were a very fertile time for the electric guitar: Jim Marshall had just started dabbling in building amplifiers, Leo Fender was still at the helm of his eponymous brand, Gibson had just finished building what would go on to be the most expensive guitars in history and had moved on to making the first widely available fuzz pedal… oh, and there were some pretty hot guitar players knocking around too!

Jimi Hendrix was both figuratively and literally setting guitars on fire, and making legions of stunned guitar players consider throwing their own instruments on the bonfire. Eric Clapton was in his fiery pre-AOR prime with rock's first bonafide supergroup Cream, and had been succeeded in the Yardbirds by both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. His playing and tone were on John Mayall's Bluesbreakers' "Beano" album became the yardsticks against which all other guitar players of the era were measured. So when Clapton left for greener pastures, only a very special talent could fill his shoes.

Enter Peter Green. Born to a poor Jewish family in Bethnal Green, London and taught three chords by his older brother Michael, Green would begin his professional career at the age of 15. At 21, he would replace Clapton in the Bluesbreakers on their third album "A Hard Road", which features the stellar instrumental "The Supernatural" - a haunting, latin-inspired psychedelic number that introduced the world to Green's incredible guitar work. Where Clapton was ferocious and ostentatious, Green was restrained, thoughtful and supremely expressive - qualities that would define his playing throughout his career, and influence generations of guitarists that followed.

QUALITY OVER QUANTITY:

The "flash vs feel" argument has raged in the guitar-o-sphere for more than half a century now, and it's pretty played out. But if there was ever a guitar player that exemplified the oft-touted but rarely displayed virtues of taste, restraint and expressiveness, it's Peter Green. Humble and ego-less enough to name his own band after the drummer and bass player (Mick Fleetwood and John McVie), Green's playing was deliberately economical with a focus on the quality of the notes he played: no doubt influenced by two of Green's early heroes, Hank Marvin and BB King. Green himself stated that he "liked to play slowly and feel every note" and that he aimed to "express as much as he could in the music, playing as few notes as possible".

Of course, if you've ever tried to mimic Green's minimalist approach, you'll no doubt have quickly realised that just playing fewer notes is the tip of the iceberg. For Green, restraint served a more important purpose: by cutting the clutter, all of the listener's attention is drawn to his incredible touch, tone and vibrato. BB King himself famously said that Green "…has the sweetest tone I ever heard; he was the only one who gave me the cold sweats".

The moral of the story is that just playing fewer notes will not a Peter Green make - rather it's the depth and quality of those notes that matter.

VIBRATO:

In a previous article, I discussed how Jimi Hendrix gave birth the slow, wide vibrato style that would define some of rock's greatest contributors: Leslie West, Yngwie Malmsteen, Michael Schenker, the list is endless. On the other side of the spectrum is Peter Green. Completely different to Hendrix but possibly even more exquisite, Green's vibrato was fast, fluttery and ran the gamut of emotions from shivering to stinging.

In my opinion, it's a much more difficult style of vibrato to master, because it's so easy to get it wrong. Without completely clear intent and total precision of execution, things can quickly become jagged, irritating and sheep-like. But if you take the time to get it right, there are few sounds more hauntingly vocal. Take a listen to Joe Bonamassa and Gary Moore, both of whom were directly influenced by Green's legendary vibrato. Moore would draw even more heavily on Green's influence with his use of sustaining feedback (a la "The Supernatural") on songs like Parisienne Walkways.

TONE: 

Peter Green's tone is the stuff of legend - clear and glassy but still sweet, surprisingly clean but with astonishing sustain, and with a character that's unmistakable. Of course, Green had what he called his "magic guitar" - the legendary '59 Les Paul he bought for £114 which would later be owned by Gary Moore, toured by Joe Bonamassa and finally bought by Kirk Hammett for an alleged asking price of a cool $2million. Much has been made of the famously botched pickup repair that ended up in the famous "out of phase" sound that, and while that's certainly a huge contributing factor to Green's tone, modding your guitar's wiring to match "Greeny" in the hope of producing instant Peter Green tone will likely lead to disappointment - unless you know how to use it.

Green was a master of dynamics, and had an incredible awareness of the tone quality of his notes. Watch any of the (sadly rare) footage of Green playing live and you'll see him constantly toying with the balance of his guitar's volume controls to manipulate the amount of phase cancellation between the two pickups, and using his right-hand dynamics to produce a whole range of tones - occasionally playing so gently that it's tough to actually strike the string, and at other times laying in with Freddie King-like aggression.

As if this wasn't proof enough that Green's tone is more about the man and less about the gear, we can take a look at the amps he used throughout his early career: Marshalls with the Bluesbreakers, Vox, Fender, Matamp, Orange… and yet he always sounded like himself? Just like his phrasing, Green's tone is much more than the sum of its parts.

INFLUENCE OUTSIDE THE BLUES:

Ok, hands up if you thought "Black Magic Woman" was a Carlos Santana track? There's no shame in it, but the sinister latin-flavoured masterpiece was a hit for Green's Fleetwood Mac two whole years before it would feature as a breakout single on Santana's Abraxas. In a touching obituary, Santana remarked that Green's instrumental "The Supernatural" (an epithet Santana would take for himself in 1999) was "just sacred".

In heavy metal, Green's influence can be felt just as strongly. First heard on an infamous live recording "Live In Boston" and later released on "Then Play On", the year before both Black Sabbath's eponymous debut and Deep Purple's "In Rock", Fleetwood Mac's "Green Manalishi (With The Two Prong Crown)" is every bit as important to the burgeoning genre as "Born To Be Wild", "Summertime Blues" or "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida". Inspired by a terrifying LSD-induced dream where Green was visited by the devil in the form of a green dog that represented the evils of wealth, "Green Manalishi" is a profoundly heavy and lyrically dark cry for help from an ailing Peter Green.

British Metal legends Judas Priest would famously cover the song on their legendary albums "Hell Bent For Leather" and "Unleashed In The East", as well as during their set at 1985's Live Aid. The song was also covered by sludge/doom metal pioneers Melvins on their 1999 album "The Maggot". As if that wasn't enough, Green's legendary Les Paul is now owned by Kirk Hammett - a man who knows a thing or two about metal!

About as far away from metal as it's possible to get without the use of pan pipes, Green's "Albatross" is a peaceful-yet-mournful instrumental that draws on Santo & Johnny's "Sleepwalk", but does away with the latter's sweetness in favour of melancholy. It might be a stretch to suggest that "Albatross" was an early example of post-rock guitar, but all the hallmarks are there - dense washes of reverb, sparse chordal soundscapes, melancholic-yet-beautiful harmony. Pixies founder Joey Santiago has proclaimed his love for the song for it's "big and simple statements with the guitar".

Lastly, how can we forget what Fleetwood Mac would become in Peter's absence - the soft rock hit-making machine of the 1970s (I love this iteration of Fleetwood Man too - just saying!). It is tempting to think that this sound was ushered in with the addition of Nicks and Buckingham, but take a listen to "My Dream" from "Then Play On" (and "World In Harmony", recorded in 1969 but unreleased until 2013) and tell me you can't hear the seeds of the "California Mac" sound!

Much like Hendrix, Peter Green's most influential period was cut short by tragedy, as Green's mental health deteriorated as he struggled with the effects of LSD. To have such a profound impact on the trajectory of electric guitar music in such a short period of time is testament to the genius of Peter Green and his deep, nuanced style. Green was so much more than some sparse, tasteful blues phrases on a magical guitar: he was a true master of dynamics, tone and expression, and the longer you listen to his work, the deeper it gets.

 


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