With a new Best of Tubular Bells collection in the shops, TG caught up with Mike Oldfield to see how the guitar has shaped his music...
For many, Tubular Bells remains the defining work of Mike Oldfield with its haunting piano theme (tabbed for guitar in TG 83) and multifaceted arrangement. The truth is though, during a 30-years plus career it would be wrong to tag him only as a composer of long instrumentals. Indeed, not only did he create songs like Family Man (a UK hit for US duo, Hall and Oates, in 1983), Moonlight Shadow (1983) and To France (1984) but also music to films like The Killing Fields (1984).
However, at the heart of his creativity lies a well-honed guitar ability derived both from early days in folk clubs watching guitarist like Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Al Stewart and also playing his own music. Be it agile finger picking or adding a searing solo for a song, he has a very distinct style and it was this ability that we discussed when TG were invited to his lavish home studio recently.
With either an electric or acoustic in his hands, his picking technique shows a mastery of claw hammer (picking with thumb and first two fingers) and beyond. Figs 1 and 3 more than prove this, with challenging fingerpicking that is still fundamentally derived from a claw hammer technique honed on tunes such as Davey Graham's classic Anji. This takes on another facet when he picks up his well used '62 Strat to play a solo using distortion and wah (fig 2). With each finger (including the little finger) dedicated to a string, he keeps them silent until they need to be picked while the tremolo bar is secured in his palm ready for use. He can use a pick, but finds this way has advantages. "I think using a pick creates more attack noise," he states. "However, if I stop the stings with my fingers and pick with fingernails it's cleaner. I like 24-fret-equipped guitars to bend up to a high G (a virtual 27th fret) but releasing it without producing noise is difficult, so the fingers stopping on the strings really helps."
Vibrato and Grace Notes
"Most guitarists do vibrato by bending the string up and down, but I prefer a violinist's vibrato, which is along the length of the string. In addition, I like to make a note speak with vibrato and depressing a wah's pedal for a vowel-like sound."
It's not only vibrato that makes his playing unique though: when we discuss his hammer-ons and pull-offs (noticeable in all three examples here), Mike references them to his early folk days listening to Celtic and similar pieces. "I think of them like grace notes on bagpipies: you can't stop the instrument sounding, so the only way you can break phrases up is to add grace notes. It's so ingrained that I often add trills to add colour to a phrase as well as add emotion to single notes that's different to blues-type bending."
Mike Oldfield Tubular.net