William Henry "Billy" Duffy was kind enough to meet us in Hollywood, where The Cult were preparing for their Electric 13 World Tour. Over the course of our conversation Billy proudly presented his signature Gretsch Falcon, spoke of his preferences for certain effects pedals and amps, and shared his perspective on how his guitar-playing aspirations have evolved over the years. He also gave us some great advice on becoming a better guitarist. A delight to interview, this introspective Englishman had a lot to say.
Musician's Friend: What first drew you to play a Gretsch? Was it the aesthetic, the sound, the Bigsby?
Billy Duffy: The Gretsch thing is definitely the look, because the first Gretsch I was really interested in was a White Falcon. I believe it was just pre-punk. A lot of my mates and I were in little high school bands and we were into Neil Young. Neil Young and the Falcon was my main (reason for) getting into Gretsch—those images of him in his barn with the old one without a tremolo and the four switches. They were quite rare in America and in England they were unbelievably rare. So it was this mythical beast, almost like the great white buffalo. I thought one day maybe I'll get one of those. Up until that point I'd been into more attainable guitars that I could afford or steal or whatever.
MF: You have a signature Gretsch Falcon out now. How did the partnership with Gretsch come about?
BD: The Gretsch thing actually happened very organically. On the last Cult album I needed a double-cutaway Falcon and I didn't have one. I needed to get really high up the neck and had some particular things I needed to do in the studio. So we just contacted Gretsch and a guy named Mike showed up. We were sitting around with these Gretsches around and he says to me, "You know, you really should have a signature model." And I'm like, "Yeah, I probably should." I've never really been that type of guy who works too much with companies and all that. I like the under-the-radar-type situation with The Cult. So really, it was his enthusiasm that made it happen.
MF: It's based on an existing model you've owned for a long time. Can you tell us what you like about it?
BD: Physically it's identical to the first single-cutaway Falcon I ever owned. It's been forensically copied in a lab deep underground. So it has the same weight, the same feel. It's just more modern and fresh, and better made. To be honest, the era that I ended up buying a Gretsch from wasn't one of their halcyon eras, the Baldwin era. They were very hit or miss, but with mine there really weren't any issues. I made a decision to change the hardware to chrome. Nearly every Falcon I've ever seen is gold and white and I just thought for mine I wanted to change it up, primarily because with my original one most of the gold's worn off through 10,000 gigs. So that was the big decision that we made aesthetically.
As regards the mechanics of it, it's exactly the same as another one. It just has, as Joe Carducci from Gretsch would say, "a reverse-engineered pickup", which is basically a version of what was made for me by Seymour Duncan in the '80s. Because in the dark days before boutique amplifiers and this and that, there were very few people making pickups, and Seymour Duncan was one of them. I always was more about tone because in the '80s, contextually, a lot of people were really into metal and I was at the other end of the spectrum in terms of what I was looking for. I wanted power, but I wanted to retain the chime of the Gretsch. Like any semi-acoustic you're going to get some problems with bottom-end feedback. You just have to work around it. There's no get-out-of-jail card with that.
But this one's pretty good. You can hear that the levels of the top and bottom strings are equal, which is important for articulation. When I started, I was the only guitar player in the band, so I tried to make what I did as filled with sound as possible. Plus, in the days we started, '83-'84, it was still a bit of a post-punk hangover. There weren't a lot of solos. It wasn't really about blues rock. It was an experimental phase of music where we, as fans of punk, were trying to find our own identity. We didn't want to sound like bad versions of the Sex Pistols. So a lot of bands in The Cult's peer group were looking experimentally at the instruments, and that's why Gretsch really made a unique sound. And that was what became synonymous, me with the blonde hair and the big white guitar and him (Ian Astbury) with long black hair, almost like a trademark thing even to people who weren't really aware of The Cult.
So the Gretsch has always been part of it. It's not the only guitar I've ever used. I've used Les Pauls as well a lot and my first ever guitar was a Les Paul, but it's certainly the most unique. And again, I think as my singer most eloquently put it, "It's a man's guitar." Not every guitar player can handle one of these. If you think you're tough enough, turn up all this stuff, put it on and see what you've got. It's like trying to tame a wild horse. You know what I mean? It kicks back. It's a big guitar physically. It has a big sound and you have to be able to man it out and tell it who's boss.
MF: How has your pedal selection changed over the years? Are there three that are your favorites, your go-to pedals?
BD: Yes. If there was some kind of disaster, pedal-wise I'd have to grab an overdrive, a delay and maybe a wahwah. When I do little flying gigs or guest slots and those, you've got to have a really good overdrive pedal. It can save your life—a good quality overdrive that really enhances the guitar. Then you've already got two settings because you've got the amp setting plus the overdrive setting.
Lately, I've gotten into these clean boost pedals and really all they do with the signal is give it a clean boost, which is quite handy. The boost pedal's a thing I started using a lot the last couple of years, so that would probably be the third one. The other stuff is decoration. The flanging you can live without, but the overdrive and the delay is mandatory.
MF: Your amp rig consists of a Roland Jazz Chorus and Marshall equipment. What is it about Marshall?
BD: Well, Marshall, I mostly use for the bottom end, the punch. I like the closed back cabinet. I always like two cabinets going. And basically that just lets me bring out my inner Sex Pistols, which I still think is probably the best guitar sound through a Les Paul, even though it actually was not a Marshall and that I do know for a fact. It was a Fender, but a very unique Fender. But, it sounds like it was a Marshall and that sound to me really works.
MF: What do you enjoy most about touring these days?
BD:That's a very good question. You know, it sounds very unlike me, and I don't even believe I'm going to say this, but I actually get more out of the fact that the fans enjoy it. To be quite honest with you, in the old days it really was very much about me and me having a good time all the time. I suppose later in life it shifted a bit where I get the most satisfaction about my playing (from) seeing people having a really good time in the crowd. I mean, I was never a hater. I used to just do my gig and then it was where's the party? Nowadays I'm cool with the show, you know what I mean?
MF: How has your playing and your technique evolved over the years on stage?
BD: I used to drink a lot in the old days, so I don't know. I think I did all right, but it might've just been dumb luck. I used to play a lot. The band, one album we were out for about a year and you get proficient. The challenge in the last few years of The Cult, since '06, has been that our touring schedule has been very hit or miss. We'd always gig, but it'd be random and it would be difficult for me to get my chops up and just about the time I get fluid it's over again. And then there's a break, and then there's the next tour, and I never got into peak condition. So that's the challenge of where the band's at today, which hopefully we've rectified this year by not going out and now we're going out for a long period of time.
I used to drink because I was nervous actually. I mean I had chronic stage fright just like anybody else, plus I am English and I like to drink. I didn't know what else to do, but that's how I was brought up. But I never really thought it through. And then I just got done with the drinking thing and started to focus a bit more on the playing. But I would say the biggest change for me lately has been playing with other people, playing in different bands, playing in different pickup bands. Stuff that I never used to do. I just wouldn't because I was frankly too busy with The Cult. As The Cult had more downtime I'd start to play with other people and that really broadened my musical horizons and just was a lot of fun learning off them and bouncing ideas.
MF: In these other musical projects, do you attempt to create a new guitar sound from scratch, or do you have a consistent foundation you like to build on?
BD: It's a good question. I mean I just try whatever. Like when I'm a guest with one of those pickup bands, the [penultimate] rock-and-roll party bands that I do, I just try and help out. But I think in those situations they want you for what you do and it's just a question of tweaking what you do to fit in. I'm pretty much a two-trick pony anyway so it's not that complicated.
MF: What guitarists do you admire?
BD: Well, I admire any guitar player who plays honestly and plays from their heart, not their head. I have certain personal favorites and am lucky enough to have played with some of my friends who I
rate very highly on that basis. But I'm not going to name names. I just think I'm into feel players and soul players and guys who play from their body rather than guys who possibly spend too much time at home in the bedroom locked away when they should've been living life a bit more. Because I feel that music is an extension of yourself as a person for it to be real, for it to have any meaning. For it to have any honesty and legitimacy, it has to come out of you.
MF: If you could go back in time to that first gig and give yourself one piece of gear, what would it be? And if you could give yourself one piece of advice, what would that be?
BD: Gear-wise, I would have to say get the best overdrive pedal you can find. That would be my mantra. That can cover up a multitude of sins with any amp in any given situation with any guitar almost. You have to be able to express yourself confidently and I think that would be the one piece of equipment. Advice-wise… I think just, you know, have a cool pair of sunglasses and don't say too much is probably the best advice I could give myself, which I don't always follow.
Catch The Cult on their Electric 13 World Tour and look for an upcoming album release in 2014.