Peter Frampton is a man weighed down by his own history. Frampton has told Rolling Stone of his ’70s fame: “I started out as a musician, and I ended up as a cartoon.” To many still, he remains the bare-chested, blond heartthrob who hit platinum pay dirt with Comes Alive! Right now, Frampton is still touring that ’76 album to acclaim 36 years on. But Frampton is, many forget, a superb guitarist. In a career that started in the 1960s, he’s proved that. Hey, let’s celebrate Peter Frampton, guitar player.
Frampton first found fame as a member of The Herd as co-lead guitarist and singer, scoring a handful of British pop hits. Frampton was named “The Face of 1968” by teen magazine Rave, thus setting him on a road to pin-up status. But England-born Frampton was always, primarily, a guitarist.
From Banjolele to Talkbox
Raised by a theater-loving mom and music-loving father, Frampton told journalist Steven Rosen he had music “in my genes.” He started off on the banjolele. “I was 8 years old, or 7, when I first went up to the attic with my dad to get down the vacation suitcases. That’s when I saw the funny-looking little tiny case which had the banjolele in it, which is banjo shaped, with the skin and everything, tiny version of a banjo, but tuned like a ukulele, with gut strings. So, I said to my dad, ‘What is that?’ and he said, ‘Well, your grandmother gave me this so hopefully one day, if you’re interested, she said when your hands are big enough you can play chords on it, if you want to try.’”
Frampton’s grandmother had bought the banjolele because she was a fan of English Vaudeville singer George Formby. Although Formby is now an arcane reference, Frampton’s proto-playing on the banjolele would help him make bonds. The Beatles’ George Harrison was a huge Formby fan, and Harrison even owned some of George Formby’s own banjoleles. Frampton would come to guest on friend George Harrison’s debut album All Things Must Pass. Frampton’s 2010 album tellingly included a track called “Vaudeville Nanna and the Banjolele.”
But after starting on “proper” guitars, Frampton found fame with The Herd. Frampton was only 16 when he joined The Herd, and success eventually came with “I Don’t Want Our Loving to Die,” a Top 5 hit in 1968. In 1967, the Frampton-fronted Herd supported Jimi Hendrix.
Frampton seemed to have a knack of falling into the right company. When Frampton was working in a guitar shop at just 14 years old, the Rolling Stones’ Bill Wyman liked his songs with his first band The Preachers and even produced some demos with Glynn Johns engineering. Frampton was also part of London’s then-rising coterie of guitar stars: “I used to go into Selmers in Charing Cross Road and Paul Kossoff would sell me my strings.”
But Frampton’s guitar playing came to the fore when he split The Herd to join Steve Marriott (ex-Small Faces) to form Humble Pie. Frampton was only part of Pie from ’68 to ’70 but, alongside Marriott, he cranked out some blistering guitar. 1971’s Performance: Rockin’ The Fillmore even out-rocks Led Zeppelin at times, with Marriott’s raw vocals its centerpiece. Frampton, though, excels, delivering lick-upon-lick of blues-rock power on “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” and an epic reworking (23 minutes long) of Dr. John’s “I Walk on Gilded Splinters.” Joe Bonnamassa is a huge fan of Rockin’ The Fillmore and Humble Pie’s Smokin.’
Even when Humble Pie were more folky, Frampton exhibited a deft guitar touch, drawing on the phrasing of the jazz recordings he’d learned from his father. Frampton originally balked at his father’s love of Django Reinhardt, but later admitted, “Django’s probably my favorite ever guitar player.”
When Frampton went solo, he got more attention for his hair and pin-up looks than anything else, but his playing remained impressive. His solos soared and he had an enviable midrange tone that he embellished with thick Leslie rotating speaker colors and, of course, a talkbox.
But you can also hear the jazz influences on Frampton’s playing and writing on the epic “Do You Feel Like We Do.” Yes, it rocks hard but Frampton’s guitar was swinging as well as dishing out hyper-amped blues licks. Watch “Do You Feel Like We Do” from 1975 in its 10-minute glory.
Frampton failed to top Comes Alive! commercially – but who could? He nevertheless continued making strong records and settled, for a while, to be a sideman for Ringo Starr and David Bowie among others. (Watch Bowie and Frampton, who went to school together, in desperate search of beer during DB’s Glass Spider tour!) Note: Other intoxicants may have been previously imbibed in this video.
Peter Frampton is no purist. He dips into a range of influences. As he told Guitar.com, “Anybody whose passion is a specific instrument will then go, in the very early days of learning it, and try to listen to as many different styles as possible. From Segovia to Chet Atkins, Django Reinhardt to all the Kings – B.B., Albert, Freddie, Buddy Guy, Robert Johnson, Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Joe Pass. George Benson when he was very young, when he played with Jack McDuff. All these different players influenced me.
“I think you start off learning their licks or trying to… you never sound like them because you’re not them. You can play it your way… Your vocabulary gets to a certain point and listening to all these people gives you a more varied vocabulary when you’re coming to write or when you’re coming to solo.”
Frampton can still wail, blues-rock style, but notice how he also plays quick flurries of jazz-inflected scales that make him very different from some contemporaries.
This 2010 reworking of Comes Alive! classic “Lines On My Face” showcases Frampton’s jazzy sensibilities.
Frampton’s own guitar triumph came with the release of the Fingerprints album. A 2007 CD of instrumentals, it returned Frampton to his first love – pure guitar. It won a Grammy. Again, it shows a jazzy sense of phrasing in a genre – instrumental guitar albums – that not many can pull off.
Peter Frampton’s most famous guitar is, of course, a retro-fitted 3-pickup black Gibson Les Paul Custom that he famously played in Humble Pie and on Comes Alive! Peter was dramatically reunited with the guitar, thought lost in 1980, in 2011. A luxury choice would be the Gibson Peter Frampton Les Paul. If you are on a tighter budget, the Epiphone Les Paul Black Beauty fits the bill. Frampton has played many other Les Pauls, including sunburst Customs, a Les Paul Classic 1960 reissue (with TransPerformance system for different tunings) and a Les Paul Jr.
For amps, he often veers towards Marshalls and MESA/Boogie. As a general rule, he uses a Shure SM57 mic close up to the speaker, pointed towards the middle of the cone at a 90-degree angle. He also, at times, will use one or two U67 tube mics or Soundelux U99s. Frampton uses many pedals. A Klon Centar Overdrive, an Electro-Harmonix POG2 Polyphonic Octave Generator, an MXR M-101 Phase 90, Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer, an Electro-Harmonix Nano Small Stone Phase Shifter and Digitech Whammy are just a few at his feet on recent dates. Pedals are a big part of Frampton’s sound – so much so, he has his own Framptone company. Framptone produces the 3-Banger amp switcher, a Talk Box and and Amp Switcher.
All this gear won’t necessarily make you sound like Frampton, but it’s a start. Even at 61 and now a rock elder statesman, Frampton continues to show he has the skills. After all these years, Frampton remains, first and foremost, an impressive guitar player.
More Peter Frampton:
Frampton’s Les Paul Found After 32 Years
10 Cool Albums That Feature Gibsons On Their Covers
Rockin’ the Fillmore: The NYC Venue’s Top 10 Gigs