Jumping at Shadows

By Ellis, Andy | Guitar Player, November 2000 | Go to article overview

Jumping at Shadows


Ellis, Andy, Guitar Player


PETERS GREEN REDISCOVERS THE GUITAR, RECALLS THE PAST, AND FINDS STRENGTH IN THE BLUES

Peter Green has been widely hailed as Britain's greatest blues guitarist. Not only did Carlos Santana call Green's "The Supernatural" a Holy Grail of tone, he even borrowed the name for his Grammy-winning comeback album. And B.B. King--the master himself--said of Green, "He has the sweetest tone I ever heard. He's the only one who gave me the cold sweats." * Born Peter Greenbaum in 1946, the Londoner achieved fame virtually overnight when he replaced Eric Clapton in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. With a unique guitar sound that blended Hank Marvin's reverb-drenched twang with B.B. King's throaty, hornlike phrasing, Green was dubbed the "Green God"--a reference to the "Clapton is God" graffiti that appeared in London in 1966. In 1967, Green formed Fleetwood Mac. Through incessant touring, the band built a large and loyal following. Hit singles followed, and when Santana scored a hit with Green's "Black Magic Woman," it seemed that the Les Paul-wielding Brit was destined for immortality.

Fate had other plans. Green became increasingly uncomfortable with his role as a rock guitar god, and, in 1970, suffered a mental breakdown that caused him to drop out of the music business and ultimately become institutionalized. For decades, Green lived out of the public eye, the subject of rumors and sightings--much like his contemporary, Syd Barrett.

But recently, life has improved for Green. Slowly, and with a lot of help from his friends--most notably guitarist Nigel Watson and his wife--Green has made strong steps toward recovery. Accompanied by Watson and his band-mates in the Splinter Group, Green has made four records for Snapper Music in the last few years. Released in 1998, The Robert Johnson Songbook received a W.C. Handy Award for Best Comeback Album. Last year's Destiny Road presented a variety of soft rock and blues, and the new Hotfoot Powder is another grooving tribute to Robert Johnson. The band's first album, Splinter Group, should see Stateside distribution about the time this issue hits the newsstands.

It's ironic that the music of Robert Johnson--the prototypical tortured bluesman--provided a path for Green to return to the guitar. As Green explains in the liner notes to The Robert Johnson Songbook "Nigel was playing some finger-style Robert Johnson--not the slide stuff that I've done in the past. And I thought, `Wow, that sounds more like the record than I've ever heard anyone do it.' When I saw Nigel playing so well, I thought maybe I could learn some new things, too."

We spoke with both Green and Watson from the latter's home in Surrey, England. Sometimes difficult to understand, other times completely lucid, Green recalled his early days in the Bluesbreakers, writing the Fleetwood Mac hit "Albatross," and how he tinkered with his Les Paul pickups. If some of his responses seem oblique, remember that it has been a long, hard struggle for Green to rejoin our world. It's fair to say that without the support of Watson and crew, Green would probably not be playing guitar and recording today. This became apparent during our three-way conversation, when, at times, I'd hear Watson gently steer Green back to a question, or help him fill in missing details.

While Green is sometimes conversationally challenged, he has no problem singing, as evidenced by his spirited vocals on Hotfoot Powder. No, you won't hear the burning Les Paul of old on his Splinter Group recordings, but you'll definitely hear Green's emotion seeping through the music in other ways.

Although you played some slide with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, I don't recall you playing slide in Fleetwood Mac. On Hotfoot Powder, however, you're playing slide, as well as harp.

Green: I'm not as proficient on those instruments as I'd like to be. I'm not so much more proficient on guitar. Maybe I am--you never know. …

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