DAVID GILMOUR’S “HI-STRUNG” ACOUSTIC, USED TO WRITE AND RECORD COMFORTABLY NUMB
Purchased from Ovation Instruments, Inc., New Hartford, Connecticut, in October 1976, this Custom Legend has become one of David Gilmour’s longest serving instruments, carried on every Pink Floyd and solo tour since 1977 and famously used to write and record the original demo that became Comfortably Numb.
The guitar was one of a group of Ovation acoustics purchased in 1976 in advance of Pink Floyd’s upcoming tour in support of their 1977 album Animals. At this time, both David Gilmour and Roger Waters relied on Ovations for touring due to their built-in electronics and sturdiness. In a 1978 interview with Circus magazine, Gilmour joked: They’re robust… and my daughter can kick them around. Gilmour refers to this Ovation as being “hi-strung,” having invented his own variation of “Nashville” or high-strung tuning on this guitar in late 1977. The instrument is set up with all unwound strings in the following gauges, .10, .12, .09, .11, .16, .10., and was tuned in a regular tuning, but with the 3rd, 4th and 5th strings up an octave and the 6th string up two octaves, resulting in an ethereal crystalline sound.
Gilmour told us: I had some friends working in Abbey Road on an album with Bruce Welch (the rhythm guitar player in The Shadows) producing them, and they had put down a couple of acoustic tracks that he said he wanted to double-track with a hi-strung to thicken the sound of the acoustics. They told me that it was a guitar tuned higher with different strings on it, but they didn’t know how it was tuned. Anyway, I decided to work on my own version of it, so I put these different gauge strings onto one of these Ovations. I started playing with that, strumming away and realizing that you couldn’t really go wrong, cause if you left a finger off, all sorts of lazy options would turn up that would still sing because it’s the bass notes that sort of hold their place and don’t allow you to muck about with them very much. An open D chord on my version of a hi-strung… just makes a lovely sound. It’s sort of one of those lucky accidents where someone has told you something, you’ve done it wrong (because I found out later it wasn’t remotely what the normal high-strung tuning was) but it worked for me.
Prior to being set up as a hi-strung guitar, Roger Waters used this Ovation Custom Legend as a regular six-string acoustic during the recording of Pink Floyd’s 1977 album Animals at the band’s Britannia Row studio in North London between October and December 1976. Recorded towards the end of the Animals sessions, Waters strummed the acoustic ballad Pigs On The Wing on the Custom Legend, later deciding to split the track in two to bookend the album. Waters also laid down the acoustic track for Dogs on the Ovation. One of only two six-string Ovations carried on the subsequent In The Flesh Tour from 23rd January to 6th July 1977, this particular guitar was used by Roger Waters for performances of Welcome to the Machine, Pigs On The Wing and Dogs, as seen in photographs by Waring Abbott and Ian Dickson, among others.
Now set up as a hi-strung, the guitar can be definitively placed in the January 1978 recording sessions for Gilmour’s eponymous debut solo album at Super Bear Studios in the South of France, although there are no records as to whether it was used on any of the tracks. What we do know is that late on in the sessions, Gilmour came up with a chord sequence and rough melody while strumming on the hi-strung Ovation that would, with the collaboration of Roger Waters, evolve into the Pink Floyd masterpiece Comfortably Numb. In a 1984 interview for US radio show The Source, Gilmour told host Charlie Kendall: I actually wrote the chord sequence for it while I was in Super Bear doing my first solo album, right at the end. I didn't intend to actually record it then for that solo thing. It was one of the things I'd just put down one day and stored away with my other demos. When Pink Floyd returned to Super Bear in April 1979 to begin recording their narrative concept album The Wall, the instrumental demo was presented to the rest of the band at the suggestion of co-producer Bob Ezrin, who encouraged Waters to come up with a set of lyrics for the music. Ezrin has since applauded the marriage of Waters’ lyrics and Gilmour’s melodies on the song, admitting that every time he hears it he gets goosebumps. Gilmour re-enlisted the hi-strung Ovation, on which he had composed the initial music, to record his acoustic guitar parts on the track, before coming in with his landmark solos on the Black Strat. Gilmour also played the arpeggios on Hey You on the hi-strung Ovation, both mic’ed and plugged into an Alembic F-2B preamp into a Yamaha RA200 rotary speaker to create the wonderful whirling sound heard on the album. Gilmour explained that the arpeggio would be impossible to do on a normal guitar, but is just a natural five strings one way, five strings the other way on a hi-strung.
Second guitarists Snowy White and Andy Roberts played the hi-strung for Comfortably Numb and Hey You during the subsequent live shows in support of the album from February 1980 to June 1981. The guitar has since been used by Gilmour’s second guitarists for every live tour performance of Comfortably Numb and Hey You to date, namely by Mick Ralphs on Gilmour’s 1984 About Face Tour, by Tim Renwick throughout Pink Floyd’s epic A Momentary Lapse of Reason Tour from 1987 to 1989, and again on their 1994 The Division Bell Tour, and by Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera on Gilmour’s more recent solo tours in support of the albums On An Island (2006) and Rattle That Lock (2014), replaced by Chester Kamen for the final two legs of the latter.
Gilmour performed Comfortably Numb on the hi-strung himself during his ‘unplugged’ style solo show at London’s Royal Festival Hall on 21st June 2001 as part of the South Bank Centre’s annual artist-curated Meltdown Festival, switching between the acoustic and his Gretsch Black Duo Jet for the solos. The eclectic showcase included solo acoustic versions of old favorites Shine On You Crazy Diamond and Wish You Were Here, as well as the rarely heard Fat Old Sun from Atom Heart Mother, Syd Barrett’s Terrapin, the aria Je Crois Entendre Encore, from Georges Bizet’s opera The Pearl Fishers, and an encore of Hushabye Mountain, from the 1970 film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Gilmour reprised the performance for three dates at the same venue on 16-18th January and two shows at the Palais de Congrès in Paris on 23-24th January 2002. The 2001 and 2002 shows at the Royal Festival Hall were recorded for the live concert DVD David Gilmour in Concert, released in October 2002.
Gilmour had recorded material on the hi-strung Ovation during the 1993 Division Bell sessions that would be revisited and reworked in 2014 for the last Pink Floyd album The Endless River. The hi-strung can be heard on the track Louder Than Words, striking lingering chords in answer to the Black Strat’s arpeggios. The only track on the album with lyrics, Louder Than Words closed the album. Released in November 2014 as a tribute to keyboardist Richard Wright, who had passed away in 2008, the predominantly instrumental album debuted at number one in the UK, France, Germany, Portugal, Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium, New Zealand, and Canada. Despite attempting hi-strung tuning on other guitars, Gilmour told us that it had only really worked on an Ovation. It’s never not been strung like that since, he explained, it’s remained hi-strung for its whole career.