The punch line for the old joke “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” is the same as the answer for “How do I begin to sound like Gary Moore?” Practice.
Moore — who would be celebrating his 59th birthday on April 4, had he not died of heart failure on February 6 last year — was a fantastic technician whose speed, articulation and vibrato are the stuff that legends are made of, to say nothing of his amazing tone, which coupled clean wallop with mad-dog-mean snarl.
Whether playing the blues that first inspired him to pick up a guitar or the rock and Celtic-rock he perfected with groups like Thin Lizzy, the original Skid Row and Colosseum, and on a long chain of outstanding solo albums, Moore cut the path of a musical giant on whatever stage he strode.
To begin approaching Moore’s technique as a songwriter requires a broad compositional palette gleaned from years of listening to jazz, electric and country blues, early — as in Chuck Berry-era to Cream era — classic rock, as well as the traditional Irish music that helped fuel such notable Moore tunes as “Over the Hills and Far Away.” For an earful of his melodic jazz-rock playing, dive into “Parisenne Walkways,” arguably the most emotional piece in his repertoire, and an instrumental at that.
Let’s first consider Moore’s vibrato, which was exacting. A good example of his magic fingers is the blues tune “Oh Pretty Woman,” which fellow Gibson Les Paul wrangler Mick Taylor also played on the Bluesbreakers album Crusade. Both Taylor and Moore had exemplary models: B.B. King and Peter Green. Green, in particular, was Moore’s mentor — who swapped Moore $200 and a Gibson SG for his legendary Holy Grail 1959 Les Paul Standard, a guitar that Moore played in many of his greatest performances and live shows.
To learn vibrato the way Moore did, check out Green’s “My Dream” from Fleetwood Mac’s Then Play On. His shivery string approach is delicate and superb. And listen to any prime 1960s B.B. King, where he squeezes Lucille until she cries. Remember, as you play along and try to emulate these sounds yourself, vibrato is accomplished with the fingers, but the secret is in shaking your wrist. Ask B.B.
In the old days, a great way to learn how to play fast with perfect articulation was to put on an LP and set the turntable speed to 16 and play along. It’s easy to become articulate at slow speeds. After achieving an acceptable level of precision, the next step was methodically increasing speed. The CD era makes that much more challenging. Instead, take passages and short melodic runs you enjoy very slowly. Lift a section from a favorite song, transcribe it in tab or notation if memory doesn’t serve, and keep rolling. The slower you go now, on your way to establishing mastery, the faster you will ultimately be able to play. Trust me.
Now, here comes the relatively easy part: the gear. The main tools in Moore’s kit were a Gibson Les Paul Standard and a Marshall amplifier, albeit a Les Paul that eventually sold at auction for more than $2-million. Nonetheless, a Paul and any decent amp with high gain characteristics will get you into the ballpark.
Set your amp’s gain at nine, the treble at eight, the mids for seven, bass at eight, and the volume fairly high if possible — over eight, if you can. Moore liked it loud! Then you’ll be on the way to the sound captured on Moore’s rock albums like the 1984 classic Victims of the Future. Moore also favored an Ibanez Tube Screamer for a little overdrive and attenuation. Reverb is optional.
The most important part of the equation is rolling back the tone pots of your guitar. Zero them out and add highs until you get in the zone that sounds right to you.
And if Moore’s bluesy sound is what you seek, keep the gain high — on nine — and roll the bass back down to six with the mids pasted at around five. Crank the treble up to nine or 10 and set the master volume at six or seven. Add in the tube screamer and, for blues-thenticity, a small amount of reverb.
And then… practice.