NOTE: This website is frequently updated. Last update November 2021.

Gilmour Playing Techniques - Fingers, Picks, and Tremolo

It is almost cliche to say this, but a majority of what is percieved as Gilmour's tone and sound really does come from his fingers and playing. Gear selection helps, but much of the tone comes from the way the strings are picked, fretted, and how the tremolo is applied. Note choice is obviously a key to what makes a guitarist's style unique and identifiable, but you really need to invest the time to learn the picking, tremolo techniques, and phrasing to repicate the overall sound. David rarely lets a note just sit still. It is always moving or changing. Much of what people think is the gear making the tone sound good is simply the fingers making the gear sound good. For example, Big Muff's tend to be a bit harsh and fizzy, but when you add some fluidity and subtle harmonics to your playing it makes the Muff sound very un-Muff like, bringing something out of the it that you can't get with any other fuzz pedal. Add a sweet chorus or flange, some long delay, and you are in tonal heaven.

I spent a lot of time trying to be Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Pete Seeger, Leadbelly…all sorts of other people on the guitar…and there was a moment when I actually liked something I played myself and started realizing that what I saw as my deficiencies actually could be turned into my qualities. - Gilmour interview by John Edginton in 2001

I think one thing about the fingers and the brain that I have been given is that the fingers make a distinctive sound. The fingers aren't very fast, but I think I am instantly recognizable. I can hear myself and just know that's me. And other people do, too. The way I play melodies is connected to things like Hank Marvin and the Shadows - that style of guitar playing where people can recognize a melody with some beef to it - Gilmour from Guitarist 2006

It's very hard to advise people, but in general I would say listen to as many different types of music as you can. And don't worry. Let everything come out of you in whatever way feels right, rather than wasting a lot of time and energy in trying to be someone else. That's what I'm trying to do myself. - Gilmour from Guitar World 1988

Although this website is dedicated to a study of David Gilmour's tone and gear, I suggest you use it as a jumping point for your own tone and style. You should also study other artists you like and learn their techniques as well, then mix them together to create you own unique signature sound and style. Any style you study and play frequently will eventually filter through your brain and come out in your own playing in some form. I do not go into the blues scales David uses or the mechanics and theory of the type of music he plays, but below are are a few pointers about his style and the techniques of his playing.

dg fingers dg fingers

It sure sounds better when you use the right gear, guitar, pickups, amp, and settings - but you still won't have that Gilmour sound and tone unless you take the time to learn his style of playing. Most of what we hear as "tone" is from the playing. Using the right gear just brings out the colors and accents of the playing more.

I remember when I first began learning Gilmour songs around the time of his About Face (1984) album. I bought basically the same pedals David had at the time and a Strat style guitar, but I was frustrated that I could not get anything close to his sound. I learned the solos note for note, but I was just pressing frets, not actually playing in his style. Years later when I actually took the time to learn the subtleties of his style - finger and whammy tremolo, subtle picking harmonics, string bends, and phrasing - that sound came together rather easily. The correct gear was just tonal icing on top of that. That's why David says he can go into any music store and with just some basic gear he can still sound like himself - the gear does not make him sound like him. He does.

FINGER AND WHAMMY BAR TREMOLO - Much of the beauty and soul of David's playing comes from his signature use of tremolo. Playing standard one-speed tremolo on every note like 90% of the players out there do does not have even half the feeling that David can get out of one note with his style. He does not just generically shake a note when he adds tremolo. Sometimes he uses finger tremolo on the fret, other times he uses the tremolo/whammy bar, and sometimes he goes from one right into the other on the same note. David uses a floating bridge, and his whammy bar tremolo is just as smooth as his finger tremolo. He sometimes uses wide, deep, and slow tremolo for a more dramatic and emotional feel, like in the first Comfortably Numb solo. Other times his uses shorter faster tremolo for a more intense, harder-edged feel, like in the second Comfortably Numb solo. He sometimes lets a note sustain before slowly starting the tremolo, other times starts right into the tremolo. He also sometimes goes from slow tremolo on one note to fast on the next, which adds dynamics to his playing.

Like vibrato, for instance. I like a kind of refined version, which I do either with a finger or with a wang bar ... sometimes both at the same time. - David Gilmour, Guitar World, July 1988

As most guitarists know, David uses a lot of finger vibrato as well as the whammy bar, often at the same time. On the first solo of ‘Comfortably Numb’ he was exaggerating the effect quite dramatically. I asked if he thought it was too much and he replied, “No, I want it to sound drunk!” And there it was. - James Guthrie, producer/engineer on The Wall - Brain Damage 2013 interview

The tempo of the tremolo is also very important. It really should be as close in time with the song tempo as possible. Most people can learn fast tremolo easily, but it takes some practice to learn how to accurately do slow tremolo and stay in time and pitch, especially with the tremolo bar on a Strat. Using a floating tremolo, the pitch from sharp to flat should be as smooth as possible, without going too sharp or too flat. Practice recording yourself playing a single note, intentionally trying to bend your tremolo up above the note pitch, sharp. Then do the same intentionally trying to go below the note pitch, flat. Then record yourself trying to do it right in the middle, not too sharp or too flat, and listen back to all three. If your correct attmept sounds more like the sharp or flat recordings, that indicates what you need to work on more. This was probably the most important part of applying Gilmour style temolo that I learned.

The bridge plates on Gilmour's Strats are resting on the body on the bridge screw side and raised on the saddle screw side.
The 4th edition of the Black Strat book specifies that the bridge floating 1.5mm off the body.

One part of David's whammy bar tremolo that took me a long time to figure out was if he was just pitching notes up, or pitching up and down evenly between flat and sharp. Non-floating bridges, like I believe David used in his early Pink Floyd days, can only pitch down. The bridges on David's Strats from around 1976 and later are floating just slightly off the body, so he can pitch up or down. What I noticed when trying to replicate certain solos is that he sometimes pitches up and down evenly, other times his tremolo is pitched slightly sharp, other times slightly flat. It really depends on the note in the solo.

When using the whammy bar it helps to have your bar cut short so you can hold the tip in your plam when playing, as David does. Some information on how to do this can be found here. It is not necessary, but it does help playing the way David does if you can hold it in your palm so it does not interfere as much with picking.

............Mistress Mystery Page. .... . .

NOTE BENDS - Practice those bends! The Another Brick in the Wall II solo is a great one to study and master. David can bend and hold notes in exact pitch fluidly, and his bends are precise and in time with the song. He often bends up a whole or half step, holds, then bends up or down another step, then back to the original bend position before dropping the bend back to the original fretted note - sometimes adding his subtle tremolo to a few areas of these notes in mid bend! David also mixes slow bends with fast bends, but all in very precise time with the song tempo. It is rather easy once you get it down, and adds some great phrasing to your playing, but practice, practice, practice. Being slightly off key or out of time in a bend can ruin the effect.

PINCH SQUEALS AND PINCH HARMONICS - This is one of the most important keys to David's style of playing, and the one aspect of his sound that people most often confuse as something the gear David is using is doing. If you listen you will occasionally hear him add a pinch harmonic squeal to certain notes - such as the very first note in the Comfortably Numb outro solo, or many times in the Young Lust solo. David's sound very unique and subtle compared to the harsh, trebly pinch harmonics of some other players. Those pinch squeals are important to learn, and not very difficult for most players to master.

More important are the other harmonics that David applies. If you listen to his playing closely you will find that there are other subtle pick+thumb harmonics in many of the other notes in his solos, not just those pinch squeals. Many people mistake this as something the effects he uses are adding to the sound. Effects like chorus and the Big Muff can accent those harmonics, but David's fingers are where that sound is coming from, or more specifically, his thumb. When using a guitar pick he lets part of his thumb flesh brush across the string as he picks to add those subtle harmonic tonal variations to the notes. This harmonic phrasing and coloring is all over David's playing - to the extreme on just about every note in the Young Lust solo, and more of a subtle harmonic coloring in the Coming Back to Life or the On an Island solos. It is very evident in David's playing for Pink Floyd's Division Bell tour, heard on Pulse, and David's On an Island tour, featured in the Live in Gdansk film. Below are some examples of harmonic picking, comparing phrases with and without thumb+pick harmonics.

mp3 Harmonic Picking Samples - each phrase is played first with the pick only, then with pick+thumb to add harmonics

To learn this method of harmonic picking, first practice and master the less subtle pinch squeal effect. That is achieved by brushing the thumb across the string with the pick to get the harmonic squeal. We call it 'pinch harmonics' because you are pinching the pick and your thumb together as you pick hard, but it's really just making both your thumb and pick touch the strings when you pick, so both touch the string at nearly the same time. When you have mastered being able to do that any time you want, then practice being more subtle with the thumb so you hear some of the harmonics, but not the harsher squeal. It often does not require hard picking to do this, and you will find that using more of the thumb than the pick creates one type of harmonic, and more of the pick than thumb another type. Once you have mastered that, then practice going back and forth between the subtler pinch harmonics and the harder pinch squeals until you can do it fluently.

You can do this type of picking with nearly any guitar pick, but it is much easier to do with smaller teardrop shaped picks than larger triangular shaped picks. Fender teadrop picks, size 354, are the best pick to use for this in my opinion. That is also what David uses.

This is how I hold a teardrop pick to produce harmonic tones when picking, keeping my thumb close to the tip of the pick to allow both to contact the string

FINGER PICKING - David has a very unique sounding finger-picking style that he often uses. Listen to Cluster One from the Division Bell, or 5 A.M. from Rattle That Lock. That is all finger-picking on electric guitars. Rather than using specific fingers on specific strings, David mostly just uses his index finger as if it were a pick, with the occasional use of his thumb. He gets a wide variety of sounds just from the way he picks the string. Picking soft or hard, sliding the finger across the string, pulling off hard so the string "pops" - these are all techniques that David uses to add color to the notes. He even gets subtle harmonics with his finger-picking. I learned how to finger pick traditionally, but I never got my playing to sound as expressive as David's. I thought it was something to do with the type of compressor David was using, or some other gear mystery. When I actually watched and studied how he finger picked, then re-learned how to pick just using my index finger, it all clicked into place. David does use a compressor when finger icking on an electric, but most of the compression effects are really just from his playing.

"It think it's just pretty much him. He is obviously using a couple of effects, like a Big Muff and a delay, but it really is just his fingers, his vibrato, his choice of notes and how he sets his effects. I find it extraordinary when people think they can copy his sound by duplicating his gear. In reality, no matter how well you duplicate the equipment, you will never be able to duplicate the personality" - Gilmour's backline and gear tech, Phil Taylor

MORE NOTES VERSUS LESS - You will notice that David is not a very fast player, but at times he can sound more intense that someone playing a barrage of notes at light speed. That is because David adds all of these elements described above to his solos. Each note is always moving and doing something, adding to the complex feel some of his solos have. Just pressing frets abd picking the individual notes of those solos is not very complicated. When you add the tremolo, harmonics, bends, and other elements of David's playing, and how he plays over the music, it becomes something very complex and moving.

VOLUME SWELLS - This has nothing to do with the way you pick or play the guitar, but it is another part of David's playing that adds color to a solo. You kill the volume using a volume pedal, or volume knob on your guitar, pick a note, then raise the volume back up so the note fades in. This is also called a volume swell, and David uses a volume pedal for this effect, typically when he plays slide guitar. He often does this when bending or sliding a note up, and he is careful not to over use the effect. Listen to the slide guitar on Breathe and The Great Gig In The Sky from Dark Side of the Moon, or Beauty and A Boat Lies Waiting from Rattle That Lock for examples. Cluster One from the Division Bell and Evrika from The Endless River Deluxe Edition are examples of this technique with a regular guitar.

PICKS - The size, shape, and hardness of the guitar pick will affect how you play and your sound. David has used various shapes and sizes of picks throughout his career. He used Plain Herco heavy picks in the 1970s, but around the time of The Wall in 1980 he changed to small Fender teadrop picks, size 354, which are still his preferred electic guitar picks. He used Dunlop Herco Flex 75 1.01mm picks for his 2006 and 2015-16 tours, as well as Fender 354 and Fender 351 style tear drop picks. David's pick attack on the strings can be very subtle or very hard, depending on the accent being applied to the note. When playing live, he is very hard on his picks. The edges look like they have been sawed into!

Gilmour Guitar Picks

Three standard sized pics (top) compared to Fender 354 tear drop shaped pics (bottom)

As a general rule, larger picks work best for the early Pink Floyd material, and smaller picks work best for his later material and for applying harmonic tones. You can let the flesh of the thumb touch the string while picking using most picks, but tear dropped shaped picks, like the Fender 354 pick, are much easier to use for this than larger triangular shaped pics. The 354 pick is almost the same length as a standard pick, but not as wide and with a sharper point. They are sometimes difficult to find, but I have found the 354 "heavy" picks allow me to be the most expressive versus any other type pick.



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