Barry Ward sends this revealing early feature on Procol Harum's longest-serving guitarist; please write in if you know the exact date of the article, about which Barry says, 'the mag was in my parents' attic for all those years and I threw the rest away a long time ago. Reading into the article itself it's pre Elkie Brooks, and mention of Mxr flanger makes me reckon it was '77. Geoff may disagree.'
“I always wanted to be a drummer, but guitars were cheaper!” Geoff Whitehorn, one time guitar player for If and Maggie Bell, and now the man who took on the awesome task of filling Paul Kossoff’s shoes and succeeded, is not the most difficult musician in the world to talk to. I had already discovered that in the early hours of the morning over an Indian meal in Birmingham, when I had originally suggested a ‘Player of the Month’ feature for him, and it happened to come together just a few days later.
“It was always the guitar player posing out the front and it looked better” – so 12 year-old Geoff persuaded the obligatory favourite aunt to buy him an £8 Rosetti acoustic. “I got in with a couple of kids at school who had guitars and used to cart sheet music about, and I used to borrow the sheet music and try and suss out the chords to the Shadows’ music. We put together a band – it was one of those bands that didn’t have a bass player or a drummer – you know? It was like three rhythm guitar players in one room and whoever had the best guitar used to play the lead lines! It’s the same story for everyone, I’m sure.
Eventually you go through your usual procession of local bands upgrading your guitars – I eventually progressed to a Rosetti Airstream 2 with two p/u’s and a tremolo arm, and then I had to buy an amplifier – obviously 'cos they’re not much good without them. Then I started improving the gear – all sorts of horrible Watkins amps and things – and then a Framus Fretjet or something which was as big as me!”
Shortly afterwards the Bluesbreakers album arrived on the scene; now of course it’s an album to which most British guitarists will point when asked for their roots, influences, styles and just about anything else. “I remember these guys coming round my house and saying ‘listen to this’, and they put on this Bluesbreakers album with Eric on it. I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t heard anything like it in me life. All I knew was the Hank Marvin tunes and the odd John Lee Hooker lick – and I just could not believe this. So I started working my way through it, note for note, but I just couldn’t get that sound.
Eventually I joined a band and was using a Selmer amp – and there was no way you could get Eric’s sound out of that. Really, I didn’t even know how you made the sound. I didn’t know if it was distortion or anything – nobody knew about distortion then because everyone had a dead clean sound.
Well, one day I was playing through this Selmer and getting a horrible sound and it blew up. There just happened to be this Vox AC15 lying around and whoever had been using it before had been using it flat out, full volume: so I plugged into it and all of a sudden there it was – magic, straight away. Since then my sound has never changed really – the Les Paul sound, it’s my favourite really. I’ve never been into effects.” (Pause here to take breath and fill up the glass again.)
“Anyway,” Geoff continued before I had time to slip in a comment, let alone a question, “at this time I was ripping off Clapton all over the place, and got into Paul Butterfield tunes; I got back into Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, and B B King, but that seemed dated then because for my money Clapton did it better – at least it appeared so to me as a 17 year-old kid.”
After this Geoff got into the inevitable procession of local bands playing anywhere and anytime they could – colleges, pubs, dances, weddings, the lot, always getting told to turn the volume down and play an old standard. Most of the bands had a repertoire of blues and heavy stuff, and a second collection of soul numbers which were mandatory to keep the gigs coming – Midnight Hour and Knock on Wood. “l carried on listening to Beck, Peter Green, Clapton all through this shit though – never did like Hendrix – cardinal sin to admit it I suppose.”
Geoff played semi-pro all the way through school and eventually turned down a university place, because he reckoned the band he had going for him at the time was the best thing since sliced bread, and figured they could break on into the big time. They got a residency in the East End, and then a guy approached him for session work.
“l can read a chord chart alright, but my actual dot reading is pretty pitiful – if someone wants me to read dots I have to take it away and learn it before the session. It would be far quicker if they played it on the day. I learn far quicker by ear, and I reckon most guitarists do. I’m certain you can’t write down these ex-tempo blues licks. You can get close to it, but not exactly.”
The man turned out to be part of a sort of back-line session band at the Marquee. John Richardson, now the Rubettes’ drummer, was a member, and Pete Arnnussen who helped him eventually into If.
“l played a whole load of sessions – mostly pop stuff for Peter Noone and others of that ilk, but it was a great experience – and a whole different discipline. Before I started doing sessions I thought I was the king, the bees’ knees. And then I realised what an absolute rubbish rhythm guitar player I was. I didn’t have a clue about what it took to play it. There weren’t really rhythm guitar players then – not like the rhythmic funk thing.”
Geoff then auditioned with If in a Kings Road basement – that was his first pro band and two weeks later he found himself in the States. Geoff has been accused, if that’s the right word, of moving If’s jazz base further and further away from their original roots and into blues-rock.
“As much as anything it was me and Cliff Davis who’s playing with Ted Nugent now. I didn’t know anything about jazz really, and they asked me to play these things. Well, I could play them but I didn’t understand them really. It was a matter of applying my technique and taste – the blues thing – to the stuff that If were playing. Everybody does it now, playing blues in a jazz outfit – and anyway, they quite liked it. They were guys out of the old jazz school and they didn’t know what rock’n’roll was all about. I learned a lot from Morrisey, who’s the best British horn player ever – he just knew so much more music than I did.”
Geoff stayed with If for 15 months and managed to do six American tours in that time! It was possible to make a living in America doing college gigs, and then Morrisey got fed up compromising between jazz and rock styles and decided to blow it out.
The next move was to Maggie Bell’s band with whom he toured Europe and supported Bad Company in the States in '75 playing Madison Square. After that he recorded an album in New York with, among others, Maggie Bell, Steve Gadd, John Paul Jones, Bonzo, Rick Morrota of Steely Dan, Felix Cabaleri [sic] producing. Sadly Swansong sat on the record and nothing happened to it.
Following that apparently disastrous decision, although obviously we’re unsure of all the hassles that might have surrounded it, Geoff had brief spells with Widowmaker and Andy Fraser, and then found himself doing sessions with Colin Allen, ex-Stone the Crows and Mayall drummer. Mick Taylor was rumoured to be putting a band together with Colin, Stevie Thompson and Ronnie Leahy the Crows' old rhythm section, while at the same time being heavily tipped to slot into Crawler. Colin Allen just happened to ask if Geoff was interested in the gig and then put the word in with the band’s old management; Mick put the word into the band, and there it was. How did he feel about taking over from Paul Kossoff?
“It never really bothered me. I thought Koss was amazing with Free, but I’m not over-convinced about the way he used to play with Crawler. But there’s been no problems on any gigs at all – there’s always going to be one idiot who’s going to shout out ‘Kossoff’ but they usually shut up after a couple of tunes. Anyway, it’s a completely different band and has nothing to do with Kossoff – other than that the other four guys used to play with him once!
There’s no comparison in our styles anyway, and it’s not as if I’m trying to do his job. I had to last year as we were still playing the old material, and I was expecting all sorts of stick from the punters, but luckily there never was a problem.”
So, that brings the life-story up to date. To get an idea of Geoff’s playing ability the Crawler album is the place to go for it. “l must regard Clapton as a primary influence – I’m not old enough to remember the way that James Burton and people like that played. I thought the Shadows were marvellous and Hank was great but it was really very hard to do; but when somebody like Clapton comes along completely out of the blue and just floors you with stuff that you’ve never heard before. He’s obviously the man.
Apart from that there’s Beck, and Peter Green was absolutely magic. There’s a case for saying Green said it all at the time – like Koss did. He was the guvnor at his own particular style – same with Peter Green. Those four guys if you like – they all came from the same place, and they were four totally individual players.
“I’m much more a product of British blues than the genuine article if you like, but that’s just the period that I grew up in. I did eventually get to hear all the old American blues players by buying old second hand records in the States. I though [sic ]the pseudo–heavy American stuff that was coming out then was absolutely dire compared to British groups because the guitar players were awful! They hadn’t got the sound, they hadn’t got the vibrato – just none of it. It was like a cheap session man attempt at British blues.”
Moving away from influences I asked about effects because despite his basic aversion to altering what is an excellent personal sound he does use some electronics for variation. “I’ve got a little pedal board which I made myself which has a small Hawk three band graphic equaliser on it which acts as a power booster as well, although I don’t really use it for that. I’ve got an MXR Phase 100 – I tried one of their flangers which has a superb sound but it was unbelievably noisy. It’s no good for someone like me – if you only play flat-out it’s great – but I play at all points between 10 and 1 on the guitar, and there’s just about as much hiss as there is note. Our sound man has all that sort of stuff out the front anyway, so if he wants to add to the sound he does. “I’ve got five guitars – an old 3 p/u Les Paul Custom with the middle p/u removed because it tended to get in the way. The back pick up’s been replaced by a di Marzio which I’ve souped up with bigger magnets in it. I’ve got a '57 Les Paul gold top and a '58 Custom. The gold top is a prototype of the '58–'60 Sunburst. It’s exactly the same guitar apart from the gold top, and they’re not a lot of them about.
”I’ve got a '62 Strat with a new maple neck on it with a Schechter pick up on it – which is quite considerably louder but sounds the same. It’s got this Telecaster maple neck on it which I prefer because it’s flatter than the Strat necks which are usually more rounded, and I prefer the Gibson-type feel it gives me. I’ve had it re-fretted with Gibson frets – plus a five position switch. You know the split positions you can get on a Strat by balancing it, well this has the five-preset positions so you don’t have to mess about trying to balance it. I’ve got it wired funnily as well. Position 1 is usually treble, 2 middle, and 3 bass, with the split positions. “I’ve got mine wired so in the first position you get the middle pick up; in the first split position you get one and two; in the middle position you get the treble pick up; in the next split position you get the bass and treble pick up which you can’t normally get on a Strat; and the last position gives the bass position. It just gives me more flexibility as the intermediate three positions give me two different sounds. And it’s got Schaller machine heads as well – it’s not really a Strat when you come to think of it…!
Strings are Gibson and quite meaty – 11, 14, 18, 28, 38 and 50, which he finds gives a really good chord sound, but makes him slow down and think about what he’s playing. “With the heavier strings I have to concentrate on the notes because it’s not possible to play that fast on it, especially with pull offs and so on. If I had a really fast right hand it probably wouldn’t make any difference, but I haven’t, so I’ve just got to think about the notes.” In the Whitehorn collection is also a '63 Telecaster which is due for similar treatment to that which the Strat has received, and a '58 dot-marker Gibson 335 as well.
“I’ve tried a few newer guitars – they’re nice, but I’ve not really got any use for them as they’re not as good as my old guitars. Things like the Ibanez Artist are excellent, but the p/u’s aren’t quite mellow enough for my liking. I’ve never had a chance to get one home and really set one up for my own style. I expect that I would modify my opinions if I had time to do that.”
On the other end of the Whitehorn Sound is a Marshall 4 x 12 with a 100 watt top fitted with master volume control. The cabinet was bought for £12 in 1970 with 4 Celestion G12H speakers inserted at the grand cost of another £20! “l bought Marshall tops – good reliable gear, and I’ve had no trouble with it at all. I’ve replaced the odd set of output valves, but I’ve never had a breakdown in over five years – can’t say fairer than that. For the studio I’ve got a little Hiwatt 2 x 12 50 watt combo.”
Crawler now takes all his time, and he has only praise (well, what else could there be?) for the other musicians. “Rabbit’s a complete inspiration to me because just knows so much about music. This is the only band I’ve ever played in where I can play a solo and know that the other guys are listening, so they’ll know when I’ve finished without me having to turn round and wave frantically – they know when I’ve finished because they’re listening. Rabbit could play organ solos that would frighten you but he’s not into the Emerson trip – he’s just into making music. He provides the whole backdrop for what we play; there’s a drummer, bass player, guitar and singer and Rabbit takes care of everything else – textures, feels, everything.”
Geoff’s convinced he’s arrived at where he has always aimed and states quite categorically that “l feel I’m in a position to safely turn down any offer from anybody, because I’m playing with the best. They may not technically be the best, but they play my sort of music.” Crawler is that sort of music, and Geoff Whitehorn, This is Your Player of the Month, well deserved, and to coin a phrase, ‘l thank you’.