Peter Frampton is a meticulous artist when it comes to tone. This unique approach to the sound of guitar earned him huge success in a career lasting more than 50 years.
Some musicians are known for their mind-bending virtuosity; feats of shredding is something that goes hand-in-hand with the electric guitar in particular. English guitarist Peter Frampton can safely lay claim to being a virtuoso too, but in ways you might not necessarily expect.
Born in 1950, he was well placed to dive into the pop explosion of the ’60s, the epicentre of which was his home country. He got himself into bands at a tender age before exploding in the ’70s, aided by his trusty Les Paul. It wasn’t just the songs that turned on the world to Peter Frampton though, it was his approach to building sound that set him apart from his contemporaries.
The new sound
Being born in the ’50s meant that some of your earliest exposure to music was also an introduction to a brand new technology: the electric guitar. It had been around in various forms since the ’30s, but it’s more apt to consider them electrified acoustic guitars. Pickups had been invented as a workaround for guitars to compete in the mix with the roaring horn sections of big bands.
But when Les Paul and Leo Fender came up with solid-bodied designs, a new era of music dawned with it. The Shadows and Buddy Holly lit up the world in the early period of rock ‘n’ roll and Peter Frampton was only too eager to absorb this new universe of sound.
Fame came in waves to the young Frampton. Playing in high school bands, sharing bills with David Bowie (they would later tour together), he became a teenage star in The Herd and later Humble Pie. The latter project enjoyed some degree of success at home, as well as in the States.
Touring in America also gave the talented young guitarist entrée to the studio world. Frampton booked session work with Harry Nilsson and Jerry Lee Lewis among others. Eventually, he came into contact with legendary Nashville slide player, Pete Drake, as they were both performing on George Harrison‘s All Things Must Pass. He was known for his innovative use of the talk box and for Frampton, it was a match made in heaven.
A new voice
The talk box, like the electric guitar, had been around in various experimental incarnations before Peter Frampton got his hands on one. Like a synthesizer, it combines a sound with a modulation source. In Frampton’s case, the sound source was the guitar and the modulator, his mouth.
The signal path begins with the guitar, goes into the talk box, where a speaker then feeds the sound into a plastic tube. The sound travels up the tube (where the opposite end is placed inside the player’s mouth). The player can then shape the sound of the guitar with their mouth, or speak words, using the guitar as their voice.
Leaning heavily into this sound, Frampton embarked on a solo career in the early ’70s. The early releases garnered enough recognition for him to continue touring, the fruits of which was the 1976 double live album, Frampton Comes Alive! This album showcased the freewheeling, expanded solos that were a highlight of his repertoire and featured heavy use of his favourite effect. The record was astonishingly successful, selling more than 8 million copies in the U.S. alone.
This, of course, isn’t the only weapon in Peter Frampton’s tonal arsenal. Over the years, he’s continued to hone his rig, developing a switching system to control a plethora of ambient effects like reverbs, delays, modulation effects and interestingly, the Leslie speaker. This rotating speaker is usually paired up with a Hammond B3 organ and produces a heavy vibrato.
This mixture of Leslie speaker, Marshall amps and effects has gone a long way to creating Frampton’s epic sound in arenas across the globe. His most prized possession, however, must be his 1954 Gibson Les Paul ‘Black Beauty’. Dubbed the ‘Phenix’ guitar, it was gifted to him while he was on tour. The guitar was immortalised on Frampton Comes Alive! and was his main axe up until disaster struck.
While touring South America in 1980, his gear was loaded into a cargo plane that was set to travel from Venezuela to Panama. The plane crashed, tragically killing the flight crew. Frampton thought the guitar went up in flames. Well, it did, but it still survived. Missing in action for more than 30 years, the ‘Phenix’ was remarkably returned to Frampton and once again became his weapon of choice.
Peter Frampton has been diagnosed with inclusion body myositis, an inflammatory muscle disease which has limited his movement. Therefore, the future of touring for Frampton looks uncertain. He continues to make music in his Nashville abode, Studio Phenix, so it’s clear that the man himself is not thinking about a legacy—but with a remarkable career, founded on forging a strikingly original direction in guitar tone, it’s one that’s impossible to ignore.