By Mark Kemp
All Peter Frampton ever really wanted was to be the greatest guitarist he could be. And he was well on his way—having played lead guitar as a teenager in the Herd, then in Humble Pie, and then, in his early 20s, with his own Frampton’s Camel—when 1976 happened. That was the year his fifth solo album, Frampton Comes Alive!, rocketed to the top of the Billboard album chart, produced earworm hits in live versions of earlier songs “Show Me the Way,” “Baby I Love Your Way,” and “Do You Feel Like We Do,” and cemented Frampton’s place in pop as a pin-up teen idol and not a serious guitarist. The very thing that made Frampton a household name nearly destroyed his career as a respected player.
It wasn’t that Frampton was no longer a serious guitarist, it’s that his dazzling fretwork had taken a back seat to his blonde locks and boyish good looks.
Enter childhood friend David Bowie. By the late 1980s, Frampton had spent a decade trying unsuccessfully to shed the stigma of his brief, but intense ’70s mega-stardom when Bowie tapped him to play lead guitar on his 1987 album Never Let Me Down and subsequent Glass Spider tour.
“The greatest thing that Dave ever did for me was to give me the opportunity to go on the Glass Spider tour, where he introduced me as the guitar player and not the pop star,” Frampton says in a phone interview from his home in Nashville, Tennessee. “It completely restarted my career and my thoughts about my career. It reenergized me, and I could never thank him enough for that. And I’ve told him that many times. He could have had any guitarist he wanted, but he chose me.”
Since then, Frampton has come alive again, producing not a great many albums, but all solid testaments to his guitar playing. And his instrumental prowess was finally rightly acknowledged when his 2006 release, Fingerprints, won a Grammy the following year for Best Instrumental Album. For that project, Frampton had brought in a range of guests to shred with, including jazz saxophonist Courtney Pine, blues-rock guitarist Warren Haynes, and the Rolling Stones’ original rhythm section, bassist Bill Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts. For his latest album, Acoustic Classics (Phenix Phonograph), Frampton decided to pull out all the plugs entirely on a totally acoustic set of 11 reworked classics from his 1970s solo records, including the biggest hits from Frampton Comes Alive!, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.
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Frampton says he had to do a little “reverse engineering” to get songs he’d been playing with bands for the past four decades back to the way they sounded when he first wrote them. It seems he succeeded. Acoustic Classics begins with the first two tracks from his 1972 solo debut, Wind of Change, and from the initial strums of the delicate “Fig Tree Bay,” together with a vulnerable, unvarnished vocal delivery, it sounds and feels as intimate as a living-room performance. And that feeling never subsides. He works up gradually to the hits, performing the title song of Wind of Change and “All I Want to Be (Is by Your Side)” before launching into a bright, but warm acoustic version of “Show Me the Way” (see music on page 60) that even includes a talk-box solo on acoustic guitar.
‘A pop star’s career is usually only about 18 months—a musician’s career is a lifetime.’ —Peter Frampton
Why did you decide to re-work these songs for an acoustic album?
I’d never done an all-acoustic album before, so that idea came first. And then I wanted to do the classics. The idea was to just do some old favorites and maybe some of the lesser-known ones, but do them as they were written. I wanted it to be as if I said, ‘Mark, sit down, I’m going to play you this song I just finished writing.’ And then I play you something off the album. That performance between me and you would be on a completely different level, performance-wise, than it would be in front of 5,000 people, or certainly 65,000 people. I was going for that one-on-one vibe, so when you listen to it, you get drawn in on an intimate level. That was the approach. But it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be.
What made it difficult?
Well, I did two or three songs, came into the control room and listened, and was like, “Aw, I miss the band!” The performances had changed—40 years later, they’d become reliant more on a band than a guy sitting down and playing. That was the reverse engineering I had to do to get back to imagining how it was when I’d just written it—just the most simplistic form of the song. I also felt like if it was going to be done right, it would be all about the sound. The sound of something—whether it be a song done a different way, or your instrument in a different environment, like playing your acoustic guitar while sitting in a bathroom—it’s just so important. It can be great or it can be horrible. I have to be inspired by the sound of the instrument I’m playing, so I really went to town working on, “OK, I’m using one acoustic guitar—well, it’s going to have to sound like one huge acoustic guitar! And it’s going to have to be very warm-sounding.” So, once we got that, we were practically there—and that was all gotten with lovely guitars and lovely old microphones.
I know you’ve played an Epiphone Texan for years, but what other acoustic guitars did you use on this album and what will you be playing on the tour?
I have a Gibson J-45—a newer one that Gibson has given me, which is very nice. But I also play a Tacoma Chief, which is a 1999 guitar and . . . [laughs] the price was probably about $19.99, too. It was recommended to me by George Gruhn [owner of the famed Nashville guitar shop]—he’d had something to do with the inception of the guitar, and he’d classified it as the “Telecaster of acoustics.” It’s definitely got more of an attack-y sound.
I also have a Martin D-42 Frampton’s Camel Edition. Martin did that for me because, when I left Humble Pie, I ordered a D-45—I wanted one just like Stephen Stills’. So I spent my last paycheck from Humble Pie buying a Martin, and I did the whole Frampton’s Camel record with it—I wrote “Lines on My Face” on it, and all that. But when we went on the road, I lost it. It got stolen. And that was a major bummer, so I lost the taste for a Martin—I just didn’t want to replace it. Well, fast-forward to a few years ago: I met up with Martin’s Dick Boak at the NAMM Show and told him the story, and he said, “Oh, well, we gotta do a Frampton’s Camel version.” And it’s great—it’s even got a little camel on the headstock, and it’s got a beautiful sound.
And then I have the 1964 Epiphone Texan, which is either three months older or three months younger—I can never remember—than Paul McCartney’s. He used his for ‘Yesterday,’ and I used mine to write pretty much all the songs I wrote between 1968 and now. All the acoustic songs that were on the Humble Pie records—“Take Me Back,” and all those—were written on that guitar. And most of the ones I wrote in the ’70s were written on it.
I saw a photo of you with a Gypsy-style tenor guitar in one of the advertisements for the album. Is that yours?
Yes, it’s actually a Henri Selmer Maccaferri D-shaped-hole that was given to me by Django Reinhardt’s producer. He was also the head of the record label that A&M was distributed through in France. One Christmas I went out to dinner with him—I wish I could remember his name—and he gave me this guitar case and said it was one of Django’s “have around the house” guitars.
Really? It was Django’s guitar?
Yes, it was Django’s tenor guitar. Isn’t that wild?
Do you play it live?
I don’t take it out of the house! Well, I took it to the session, but otherwise, no, it stays under lock and key. And it’s a four-string, so it’s not as playable as a Gitane, which is a copy of a Maccaferri with the oval hole. That’s the one Django played more than the D-shaped-hole—his brother Joseph played the D-shaped-hole one. But for lead, the louder guitar was actually the smaller oval-hole, and that one cranked, it was brash-sounding—really great sound.
Do you write all of your songs on acoustic first—even the electric stuff?
Not necessarily. I have a 1959 Gibson 335 that’s cherry, which is very unusual for a ’59—and it’s probably my favorite guitar. I mean, I love my ‘Phenix’ Les Paul guitar, the one that I got back. [Editor’s note: Frampton lost the ‘Phenix’—pictured on the Frampton Comes Alive cover—in a 1980 airplane cargo crash and presumed it had been destroyed until it was recovered in the Caribbean and returned to him more than three decades later in 2012.] But the 335 is just amazing. It plays like butter. It’s got a wonderful, wonderful sound, and so I’ve been writing a lot on that as well, because it’s semi-acoustic. I’ve been playing fingerstyle on it, too, which is different for me. But I’ve just been trying everything different. Over the last few years, I’ve been like, you don’t have a pick, so you pick up a guitar and start playing with your fingers. I’ve always been a very pick-oriented player, but over the last five years I play a lot more with my fingers than I ever have before. I’m still not as good as with a pick, but I’m getting there.
You’ve been trying different things for decades. Even though most people still think of you as the pop star from the mid-’70s, that was only a tiny sliver of your career. How does it feel when you think back on the mania surrounding Frampton Comes Alive?
You tend to wonder—when it gets to that mania level, which it did—if you’ve bitten off more than you can chew. The event becomes bigger than the music, if you know what I mean. That phase I went through was just surreal. And I’m very grateful for it, but I would never wish to go through it again. As Cameron Crowe so aptly put it when he was asked, “What happened to Peter between Wind of Change and Frampton Comes Alive?” he said, “Well, it was like they strapped him to the nose-cone of a rocket, fired him to the moon, and when he got off he said, ‘What’s going on, man? There’s nobody else here.’” I was the only guy up there. And it was great, but it was also lonely. It’s like the guy at the end of [the film] 2001—he’s got his little pod over in a corner and he’s got this table and he’s got what looks like a room-service set-up. That always reminded me of where I was at that time. You know, you go out in front of 65,000 or 75,000 people in a stadium and then you’re whisked offstage and you end up back in a hotel room, and you’re alone. It’s quite surreal.
David Bowie helped you navigate your role back to guitarist when he invited you on the Glass Spider tour. How did you two know each other?
We went to school together, so we’d known each other since I was 12 and he was 15. I had come to visit the school before I actually attended the school. It was for an outdoor event, and he was in the band that was playing on the steps—the Konrads, a very good local band with a great guitar player, and Dave singing Elvis Presley songs and playing sax. And I looked at him and said to myself, “That’s what I want to do, but I want to be the guitar player. He can sing and play sax, and I want to be the guitar player.” [Laughs] It took me until the Glass Spider tour for that to happen. Our careers had sort of paralleled and he went off and did his thing and I did mine and went on to form Humble Pie and all that. I miss him dearly. He was a genius. But I just knew him as Dave.
You said earlier that his inviting you on the tour changed your thoughts about your career. What did you mean by that?
I mean it gave me the confidence to think, “Well, let’s get this show on the road!” It just gave me a kick up the ass. It was like, “OK, I’ve reintroduced you to the world again as a guitar player—now, go and do something with it.” Which I did.
And that’s what you always were—you were a guitar player—except for that small period in your life when you were a pop star.
Exactly. And a pop star’s career is usually only about 18 months—a musician’s career is a lifetime. So, Dave just kind of reminded me of that. He also helped me when I was doing the instrumental record [Fingerprints]. I was telling him at the time what I was going to do, and he was thrilled that I was doing something different. He even helped me choose some of the players for it. And he was the first person I called, after me mom, to tell him I got a Grammy!
Your mom and David Bowie.
Yes, and you know, they knew each other very well, too.
Watch Frampton perform an acoustic “Show Me the Way”: