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Guitar WorldLong after even the most celebrated guitarists of this age have been forgotten, their picking hands turned to putrid dust, Nigel Tufnel will be hailed for his manifold contributions to rock and roll. Tufnel's brilliant two-decade plus stint as lead guitarist with England's now-legendary Spinal Tap has earned him an eternal place in the pantheon of rock guitar legends. His pioneering use of such techniques as "hair popping," his virtuosic facial contortions, and his gut-wrenching solos on anthems like (Tonight I'm Gonna) Rock You Tonight have delighted millions and caused thousands of guitarists to set themselves ablaze.
Nigel was in rare form during our all-too-brief conversation, from which the following exclusive, private lesson was culled. Composed, candid and virtually overflowing with phlegm and keen insight, the personable guitarist demonstrated why, as repulsive pretenders come and go, he and Spinal Tap remain magnificent, if malodorous, fixtures in the world of hard rock.

GUITAR WORLD: There are reports that you've devised a Nigel Tufnel Theory of Music. What exactly is this theory?
NIGEL TUFNEL: This is an exclusive — it's not been published before. Here's the theory: People read music, and they read notes on what they call a staff. But if you can't read music, you can't play music that is written. Correct? You're with me on that? Good. Now, everyone knows how to count, don't they? Let me hear you count to five.
GW: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
TUFNEL: Good. Now, A is the first letter of the alphabet. Yes? So A would be...?
GW: 1?
TUFNEL: Yes! So on a chart, instead of writing A in music terms-we're playing in the key of A-you go: I for A, 2 for B, 1 for A and 3 for C. See? [Fig. 1] That's so much simpler.
GW: What happens in the case of a chord like G13?
TUFNEL: Okay. This is my other theory:
If you're playing that type of music, you shouldn't be doing it.
GW: Shouldn't be doing the Nigel Tufnel Theory of Music?
TUFNEL: No — you shouldn't be playing
music! Because what good are people who do that jazzy sort of stuff? It's all too low-volume. Have you noticed that? What are they trying to hide? What have they got to be embarrassed about? If you're a good player, you play loud so people can hear it-that's why we plug these things in. If you play an electric guitar — I don't care if it's a Gibson 175 or a Charlie Christian — turn the fuckin' thing up!
To those people who do that 13th stuff I say, "By the time you count to 13, who cares? The song's over anyway. So let's play some serious rock and roll." It's all very impressive, I suppose, for some musicologists who play jazz and all that — let them have their way. But they must be afraid of something if they're not playing loud.
GW: Getting back to the Nigel Tufnel Theory of Music: where does a B flat fit in?
TUFNEL: I've invented a little symbol to deal with that. You know how it is in music notation-the flat one looks like a little B [b] and the sharp one looks like crosses with a little square in the middle [#]. Well, my system replaces those with different-sized circles. The basis for this is Stonehenge, which is designed around a circular theme. You'd know this if you were ever in a helicopter or plane looking down on Stonehenge. You haven't? [Shakes head with contemptuous wonderment.] Let me show you how this all relates on a piece of Figure 2paper: Here's my music chart [Fig. 2]. We'll make it a trite, pornographic ditty and call it Wolf's Song. Now, the chords would be A-A-B-A-Ab.
GW: What if it was A#?
TUFNEL: Aha! Put the circle up here [Fig. 3]. It's easy to read-flats are lower and sharps are higher. Now, the other thing I'm doing is taking unpleasant folk songs and turning them into things that people can appreciate. For instance, if an exhausted thing like Skip To My Lou is done loudly Figure 3enough, it's no longer the strict property of social workers specializing in geriatric care. Because old folks will say, "Oh Cor, turn it down! It's too fuckin' loud!" I say, play it loud and it's for everyone — except the old folks.
GW: What new technical tricks have you got up your greasy sleeve these days?
TUFNEL: On the new record, I do some scatting while I play guitar. It's live — I don't know any other way of doing it — and I don't use a talk tube like the old boys do. It's hard to describe the maneuver, but let's say you're playing in C [plays Fig. 4]. People think, "What's that noise? Who's doing that?" But it's an illusion — an aural illusion, a sort of parlor trick. It's my voice, you see. It's really just my voice with the guitar.
GW: Do you practice this technique?
TUFNEL: No, there's nothing to practice — it's all improv. You can't practice it; you just wake up and do it.
GW: What about intonation and rhythmic synchronization?
TUFNEL: Well, I suppose you could practice it, but I don't. It just developed naturally — sort of like a rash. If you wake up in the morning and you feel, "Oh hell, this is itching!" You lower your trousers, you look down and you say, "Oh hell, it's a rash, isn't it?!" You don't practice a rash, you just let it evolve and grow and spread. This is really very much like that.
GW: Could you demonstrate the most important elements of the idea?
TUFNEL: Sure. First, we'll show hand, then mouth, then both together. For example, this would be the first note [Photo A] and this would be my mouth's first note [Photo B]. Together they are.. .[Photo C]. See? This is the hand and mouth position for the third note [Photos D and E]. Next, the combination [Photo F]. The tough one, of course, is the high E. The kids probably shouldn't try to do this one without some sort of warmup. I recommend a bowl of hot porridge or a tankard of steaming Ovaltine.


A


B


C


D


E


F


G


H

GW: How do you incorporate harmonics into your playing?
TUFNEL: I'll demonstrate: Begin by barring across here
[Fig. 5 and Photo G]. What you've got is sort of a minor chord [note: D minor — the tonic chord in "the saddest of all keys]. There are easier ways of playing this, no doubt, but that's not the point. The point is that these [2nd and 3rd fingers: see Photo H] set up a sympathetic vibration.
GW: That's very subtle. The fingers actually vibrate?
TUFNEL: [Nods, smiles condescendingly] The fingers vibrate. Where do you think the sound goes? It doesn't go into a hole and disappear and shout, "Help me, doctor, I'm alone." It emanates from the guitar. So, it goes out here [from the chord] and there's an imperceptible vibration between these two fingers [2nd and 3rd] as it happens. The lower you go down the neck, the more slowly they vibrate. As you go higher [Photo I], they vibrate quite rapidly. And funnily enough, it's an overtone — always an overtone.

I

J

K

GW: Any other new developments on the fingerboard front?
TUFNEL: I've got another wonderful trick I do. Let me draw your attention to the screws on the pickup. [Photo J]. You'll notice that these are Phillips screws, but the middle one [Photo K] is a regular screw — a straight screw. Most people have two straight screws made of titanium and a Phillips made of magnesium. Now, if you flip them — as I do — there's a whole different interaction between the pickups, even with single-coils. But these humbucker pickups in particular reverberate in a very different way. It's all about reverberation — that's what all this is about. They must be switched for reverberation. That's for people who are into rewiring their guitars.
GW: Do you modify your guitar in any other way?
TUFNEL: Here's another thing. Most people think that once you're off the frets, you go, "Lordy! I can't go any further than the F!" Wrong. Of course you can go further than the F — if you want it bad enough. And I do, sometimes. But as you go diving down to the nut, it's very easy to hurt your finger. As you can see, I've got festering wounds — see the pus? — here from diving onto the nut one too many times. So I've designed a great, patent-pending device — which has yet to be installed on this guitar — called a Nut Cozy. It's a little knit thing, made of wool, that fits over the nut. I've also designed a Tone Cozy, a similar thing that fits over a control knob. It droops a little bit. Next, of course, will be a Volume Cozy. I've got a little cottage industry going, producing them, and readers will be able to send away for them soon. My Nut Cozy is great, because if you bash your finger down here [Photo L] it's soft.
GW: Have you ever discovered any valuable techniques by pure chance?
TUFNEL: Sure. A lot of the younger kids tend to play their guitars hung way down on their knees. They play real low because they think it looks sexy or something — God knows what they're doing. Anyway, that sort of thing is impractical for the older player, or the old at heart; there's too much weight on your back. So what I do is, I use a short strap and have the guitar sitting higher. Now this was the accident: One night I was playing up here [Photo M], and my hair, by mistake, got on the strings [Photo N]. And what I discovered, by accident, is that this contact triggered an organic overtone. You see, if something like metal touches the string, it's not organic. But if it's part of your body, it's totally organic, and it sets off a very beautiful resonance. All the great players are aware of these things.
GW: Does "hair touching" actually produce a distinctive tone?
TUFNEL: Yeah. You'll hear a lot of hair popping in my solo on Christmas With The Devil. You'll also hear a lick in that solo based on chromatism [chromaticism]. It's beyond anything musical. If you play a scale, it's just a scale — it doesn't link people together. Chromatism does — because it's from chromosomes!
GW: What is your view of the of the guitar's role in music?
TUFNEL: Well, every instrument has its own personality. For example, I love the piano for the depth of its feeling. But the piano is not really an instrument — it's really taking an orchestra, shrinking the people and putting them in a box. The guitar is actually an opera singer with a long neck. If you're not making it sing, you might as well go home.
GW: I'm going home.

Interview by Wolf Marshall, the dean of rock music educators.
He describes his encounter with Tufnel as the "high point of Nigel's career."

from Guitar World, April 1992. © 1992 Guitar World. Posted with permission.

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