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Prog-Rock Legend Peter Banks Talks About Yes, Flash And ES-335s

Russell Hall
|
01.22.2010

As every prog-rock fan knows, Peter Banks occupies a preeminent place in the genre’s history. The founding guitarist in Yes, Banks helped the group forge its unique style before giving way to Steve Howe.

But it was in Flash, the streamlined band he formed after leaving Yes, that Banks truly established himself as one of rock’s most gifted guitarists. Comprised of Banks, Ray Bennett (bass), Michael Hough (drums) and Colin Carter (vocals), Flash released three brilliant albums in the ’70s that navigated a perfect line between technical virtuosity and mainstream appeal.

In the years hence, Banks has been anything but idle. Artists with whom he’s worked through the years include Phil Collins, fellow guitar maestro Jan Akkerman and the spectacularly gifted (if little-known) singer-songwriter Tonio K. Currently, he heads an off-again on-again project called Harmony in Diversity, a group characterized as a “free-form psychedelic improv three-piece.”

It’s no coincidence that, on all the Flash albums, Banks exclusively played a Gibson ES-335. From his home in London, he spoke with us about Flash’s legacy, current goings-on and why he holds such affection for the Gibson hollow-body.

When you formed Flash, did you have in mind doing something stylistically that was radically different from Yes?

Looking back it would be very easy to say I had a grand plan, but I really didn’t. What I really had was a list of things I wanted to avoid. Even though I was just 22 or 23 when Flash got together, I had been a professional musician since the age of 17. I wanted to put together a true band. I had never had a band of my own before, but I didn’t want Flash to be my band. I wanted it to be a cooperative thing. And that’s basically how it was. I wanted to do something that was very involved, and original, and musical, and entertaining. I wanted to do things that a three-piece band ? with a guitar, bass, drums and a singer ? had never done before. We tried using a keyboard player, but that didn’t really work.

How did not having a keyboardist affect your guitar-playing?

Well, for me, it was a challenge. I wanted to try to fill the spaces. And I think maybe one of the faults with Flash was that I probably tried to fill too many spaces. It’s kind of a strange analogy, but when I first heard the Police ? who also used a guitar, bass and drums format ? I noticed they left spaces in the music, which created a kind of tension. Flash was of course doing a different type of music, but still, I remember thinking, “Damn, we should have done that.”

You played an ES-335 exclusively in Flash. How did the 335 become your go-to guitar?

After leaving Yes I began playing an SG, which Pete Townshend had recommended to me. That guitar was great, but it was also a solid-body, and I had been used to playing a hollow-body [a Rickenbacker]. Just before forming Flash, I did some sessions with a guy called Derek Lawrence, who subsequently produced the first Flash album. Lawrence had worked a lot with Ritchie Blackmore, who in those days played a 335. He kept telling me how great that guitar sounded, so I picked one up. After that, I never considered using any guitar other than the 335. It was like wearing the same suit every day, but a suit that was always clean, neat and pressed ? and always reliable. I knew what that guitar could do, and I never fiddled around with that.

Had you noticed any other guitar players who were playing 335s?

I had seen Alvin Lee, from Ten Years After, playing one at Woodstock. It wasn’t the first time I had ever seen an ES-335, but I do remember thinking, “Hmmm, that’s an interesting guitar.” I noticed that it sounded very good at high volume.

There’s a positive energy in Flash’s music, and in fact nearly all the songs were written in major keys. Is that something you deliberately set out to do?

It wasn’t discussed, but I do think that became a direction for us. A lot of bands at the time were blues-based. Cream is an obvious example, but there were many of them. Flash formed in 1971, and at the time I was feeling negative toward anything that smacked of anywhere near the Mississippi Delta. I found the white blues to be a bit saccharine flavored. I think that positive feel came from avoiding those sorts of minor keys.

Why did Flash split up?

Things got a little crazy. On our final tour, I wasn’t exactly objective about a lot of things going on around me. Now, I realize I was having a nervous breakdown. A lot of stupid things happened, things that I regret. We sort of flew apart for all the wrong reasons — matters of ego, and frustration, and lack of time with regards to rehearsing. Some of those are mistakes all bands can make, and some were mistakes that were of that time. You get a little bit of fame, a bit of kudos, and you start believing it’s all true. It causes you to lose momentum in your playing.

What’s the status of your recent project, Harmony in Diversity?

It’s an improvising situation. There’ve been a variety of incarnations of the group, but it’s always been guitar, bass and drums ... The whole idea behind it is, we have no idea what we’re going to play. We don’t discuss it and there are no rehearsals. There’s a Harmony In Diversity album that came out about two years ago, titled Trying. Lately the group has been [inactive], but I’m still very keen on it. It will definitely resurrect itself.

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