The Boys are Back: Thin Lizzy’s Great Guitarists
With news of nearly 700 unreleased recordings being selected for a new boxset, Thin Lizzy fans are in for a treat in 2012. Charismatic lead singer and main songwriter Philip Lynott – a Hendrix-ish charmer of Irish/Brazilian parentage – was always the focus and Thin Lizzy was very much his band. But the guitarists who passed through the Lizzy ranks helped define the sound of one the ’70s and early ’80s greatest hard rock outfits.
Guitar personnel changed regularly in Lizzy, with only Californian Scott Gorham being a constant of the dual-lead guitar glory years. If Spinal Tap had “exploding drummers,” Lizzy seemed to be cursed by “exploding guitarists.” But every guitarist played their part.
Here’s a rundown of the guitarists who delivered Thin Lizzy’s epic guitar sounds.
Bell was the first guitarist in Lizzy’s initial three-man recording lineup. Belfast’s Bell is credited with naming the group after Tin Lizzie, a robot character in U.K. children’s comic The Dandy. It was a reversed linguistic joke, as the Irish often pronounce with word “thin” as “t’in”
Bell played on the first three Lizzy albums: Thin Lizzy, Shades of a Blue Orphanage and Vagabonds of the Western World, as well as their breakthrough hit single “Whiskey in the Jar.” But as a sole guitarist and a Fender player, Bell’s (albeit excellent) work with the band was before the classic Les Paul-driven Lizzy sound. In a sign of things to come, Bell bailed out: “It was exhaustion, and the majority of things that were available to me. I couldn’t really handle it.” Bell went on to join Noel Redding’s band and was temporarily replaced in Lizzy by fellow Belfaster Gary Moore (more on him later). Bell hit a high mark on the enduring Thin Lizzy classic, “The Rocker.”
Prodigiously talented but volatile, Glasgow’s Brian Robertson was the first new piece in the classic four-piece Thin Lizzy jigsaw. A drummer-turned-guitarist, he joined Lizzy in 1974 at only 17. A superb soloist, “Robbo” spread his wah-fuelled Les Paul licks all over numerous Thin Lizzy classics. He had a fractious relationship with Lynott and the band, though, and eventually left in 1978. But this author recommends you listen to Robbo when he was on top of his game: “Romeo and the Lonely Girl,” Opium Trail” and his first solo on the Live and Dangerous version of “Still In Love With You” all sparkle.
(William) Scott Gorham is Thin Lizzy’s guitar trooper. In search of a guitar band to join, Gorham went to the U.K. on the advice of his brother-in-law, Bob Siebenberg, who played with Supertramp. Gorham auditioned for Lizzy in 1974 and impressed Lynott.
Robertson was already hired, but Lynott now wanted two lead guitarists. According to drummer Brian Downey it was Phil Lynott’s wariness: “it was because if one left…”
Gorham was a constant in Lizzy from 1974 to 1983, and remains a superb player. In his original Lizzy days he mostly favoured a sunburst Gibson Les Paul Deluxe with mini humbuckers and had the creamiest tone of any Lizzy guitarist. Gorham shines bright on all classic Thin Lizzy recordings, but perhaps his finest hour is on 1977’s Bad Reputation album. With Brian Robertson AWOL/“fired”/ill, Gorham recorded most of Bad Reputation’s guitars himself. Hence, only three Lizzy members are on the cover sleeve.
Below, are Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson in their Thin Lizzy prime, on ballad “Still in Love with You” and on U.K. TV covering Bob Seger’s “Rosalie.” The latter is mimed, but shows the charisma the Lynott/Downey/Gorham/Robertson lineup had on its best days.
The Ultravox frontman joining Thin Lizzy, albeit briefly, was a curveball. Ure temporarily replaced Gary Moore for a U.S. tour and while his new romantic clothes and trenchcoat did little to endear him to fans, Ure helped the band out. According to urban legend, Ure learned the then-current Lizzy set list by ear while on a Concorde flight from the U.K. to the U.S. Ure co-wrote “Get Out of Here” (from Thin Lizzy’s Black Rose album) and contributed guitar to the 1979 re-recording of Lizzy’s “Things Ain’t Working Out Down At the Farm.” He also co-wrote Phil Lynott's biggest solo hit, “Yellow Pearl.” Ure’s role in Thin Lizzy remains one of the strangest cameos in hard rock history.
The late Gary Moore was a hovering presence in Thin Lizzy. He played on some of 1974’s Nightlife album, he was close friends with Lynott (they collaborated on Moore’s solo efforts), and he joined full-time for the recording of 1979’s Black Rose album. The title track, “Róisín Dubh (Black Rose): A Rock Legend” was his Lizzy highlight, featuring Celtic-inspired dual soloing from Moore and Gorham. But like Robertson, Moore never seemed settled in Thin Lizzy (or any band) and he left soon after Black Rose was released.
Gorham’s fourth guitar partner in Thin Lizzy, Terence “Snowy” White, was an odd recruit from the off. Scott Gorham recommended White to Lynott after seeing him play backup guitar on Pink Floyd’s huge tour of The Wall. White also was a friend of Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green and his style (usually played on a Goldtop Les Paul) was similarly subtle. After the high-voltage escapades of Moore, White seemed like an outsider in Lizzy. He played well enough and stayed for two albums, Chinatown and Renegade, but left in 1982. White later had a solo hit with “Bird of Paradise” and recorded more blues-influenced solo albums. By now, Lizzy as a band were starting to falter from the constant lineup changes and Lynott’s health problems.
John Sykes replaced White in 1982. Like Robertson, Sykes was young (well, he was a comparatively “old” 23) and hugely talented. He had the required Gibson Les Paul, but was more of a straight-ahead metal player. Sykes did make his mark on the final Thin Lizzy album, Thunder and Lightning, in particular on the track “Cold Sweat,” which Lynott claimed was one of his favourite Lizzy songs. But after the tour from which the live album Life was recorded, Thin Lizzy disbanded. Three years on, Lynott himself died at just 36 years of age. Sykes and Gorham went on to tour under the Thin Lizzy name (it’s now just Gorham). Below is some great footage of Sykes with Lizzy playing “Cold Sweat” in an Irish pub!
Despite Philip Lynott’s quality songwriting, Thin Lizzy never really reached their potential. There were all manner of addiction problems in the band and a revolving-door of guitarists. That said, they starred some of the best Les Paul players of the ’70s and ’80s. There are many more great Thin Lizzy tracks not mentioned here. Add your own favorites below.
More Thin Lizzy:
Gibson Remembers Gary Moore
10 Greatest-Ever Singing Bass Players