On the eve of his new tour with longtime pal and fellow guitar extraordinaire Steve Miller, Peter Frampton spoke with Epiphone about growing up in Bromley, Kent, playing Buddy Holly songs during lunch with classmate David Bowie at Bromley Technical High School where Frampton's father was head of the Art Department, the amazing story of his legendary "Phoenix" Les Paul, and buying his beloved Epiphone Texan.
Peter Frampton was born in 1950 and like most young Englishman was mad for the sounds of skiffle and American rock 'n' roll at an early age. He took first to his grandmother's banjolele before moving to guitar, and throughout his teens played in various bands including The Preachers, who were briefly managed and produced by Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman. In 1968, 18-year old Frampton joined Humble Pie, the new group led by former Small Faces guitarist Steve Marriott, which helped to not only solidify Frampton's growing reputation as a superlative player but also introduced him to future lifelong friends who the top stars of the London rock scene including Ringo Starr and a young Steve Miller along with his producer, Glyn Johns whose credits include The Eagles, The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and The Who.
Most music fans are very familiar with Frampton Comes Alive (1976), the phenomenally successful live album recorded at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco that catapulted Frampton into superstardom. But for all its beautiful hit singles—which still sound as fresh today as they did 40 years ago—fans would do well to revisit Frampton's work with an ear to not only his inspired guitar playing but to the energy that comes through his work. Mr. Frampton has never lost his enthusiasm for his chosen trade. And like the best of his generation, he still approaches making an album as a kind of exercise in writing the great English novel. He is an inspired craftsman and his fervor seems undiminished. He is also a warm and funny conversationalist and still finds wonder in old stories he has told many times, including the "Believe It Or Not"-worthy tale of his trademark Les Paul—The Phoenix—which was thought to have been lost in a plane crash and was returned to him 30 years later. Frampton and Epiphone have good news coming soon but for now, this conversation focused on Frampton's new tour and the never-ending odyssey of refining one's personal touch on guitar.
Thank you for speaking with Epiphone.com, Peter. I understand that you tried out a new Signature model recently.
That's right! I played the prototype on a British TV show the day before yesterday and it sounded incredible. I'm so thrilled and honored.
What are your memories of buying your Epiphone Texan?
When I was about to have our first recording session for Humble Pie around the end of 1968, I loved Steve Marriott's, guitar which was an Epiphone Frontier and so I asked Dave, the guitar tech—though he was the 'everything tech.' You only had one back then (laughs). I asked if he could go and find me one like that because I loved it. He came back to the studio and said 'I couldn't get one of those but I got this Texan.' And I played it and I just loved it. And if we fast-forward to the first time I talked to Dave Berryman, I showed it to him and said can you date this for me? He said sure and said it was a '64 and it was 3 month's apart from Paul McCartney's! So it's the same year. His was a blonde one and mine is a sunburst, a very nice sunburst. And so I didn't know that until probably 10 or 15 years ago. He did "Yesterday" on his and I wrote "Baby I Love Your Way" on mine.
Not bad at all. That seems fair!
I think so, don't you? I wrote all the others on that guitar, too. 'Cause in those days, you had one acoustic and one electric. It wasn't like today. And well, I didn't have the money! If I wanted another electric or acoustic, that one had to go—if you wanted to go one-up on yourself. You had to part-exchange, as we called it. It was a magnificent choice. It's on all the Humble Pie stuff. If I'm playing acoustic, that's the guitar. And on all my solo stuff up until 1980.
What memories do you have of shopping for guitars in London when you turned professional in the late 60s?
I'll go back further if you don't mind to the first time that I went to Selmer Shop at Charing Cross Road. Now it was a huge musical shop—sold everything, the big Daddy of all the shops. My grandmother, once I had started to play the banjolele—the banjo shaped ukulele that she had given me, all I wanted to do back then was a get a Stratocaster... unfortunately (laughs). That was because of Buddy Holly and Hank Marvin.
Do you remember what Buddy Holly songs you played with David Bowie when you were kids?
Probably "Maybe Baby," "Peggy Sue." Those two I remember. "Ting-A-Ling." I mean all of them. I was not familiar with Buddy like David Bowie and our friend George Underwood. My Dad was the head of the art department so they both studied under my Dad. And George was the one that did the Ziggy Stardust cover and also gave Dave the two-different colored eyes. Because he gave him a punch.
My father taught him how to box, too because my father was a boxer during the war. As well as being head of the art department, he thought he'd start a boxing club! So George went to the class but David didn't. I believe David took George's girlfriend out one weekend. I remember the Monday afternoon when my Dad got back to the school and said—you'll never believe what just happened today. I've just been to the hospital with (David) Jones and he almost lost his eye. Underwood gave him a right hook and it's all terrible."
So anyway, my grandmother took me up to Selmer. And I remember all the Gibsons and all the Fenders were in these glass cases. You couldn't touch them. And I remember just steaming up the glass, you know? Because I was probably about 4 foot, heavy breathing, drooling through the glass. And I'll never forget that day. It would have been 1959, 1960 when she did that. That was before I got my first ever electric guitar. I remember a lot of Fenders but I don't remember as many Gibsons or Epiphones.
At one point did you decide that the Les Paul was the sound you were looking for?
That is a special story. I had been playing an SG, which I got back after all these years—a '62 SG—with the Mahogany block behind the bridge. And I was playing that on Town & Country, Humble Pie's second record. I was playing that on just about everything and live. We were on a tour in 1970 somewhere between New York and LA as we worked our way across. I had this 335. So I part-exchanged the SG and paid more cash for this 335. I only had the one guitar again! I was playing a soundcheck at the Fillmore West. I believe we were opening up for the Grateful Dead. And every time I turned up the guitar—we were so bloody loud—that all my solos were just one big feedback. And it was very demoralizing. So a new friend we had made in San Francisco the time before I think, Marc Mariana, came up to me after the first set (we did two shows a night there for three or four nights) and said: Peter I couldn't help notice that you were having a little trouble, I have a Les Paul that I just had refinished by Gibson. I just got it back, would you like to try it tomorrow? I said I was never a big fan of Les Pauls. I was more of an SG guy. But I said what the hell? That's wonderful, thank you so much.
So the following day, he comes to the hotel, we meet in the coffee shop. He brings the case out and opens it up and there is the 'Phoenix'—what would become the Phoenix. It's a 1954 Black Beauty that has been routed for three humbuckers. Once he did that, he sent it to Gibson to be refinished. And he just got it back so it looked brand new. It looked like a 1957 Custom. It was very light for a Les Paul—Mahogany. I tried it that night and I don't think my feet touched the ground the whole night. It was one of those spectacular moments where I realized this guitar is just incredible. So he let me play it for the three or four night stand at the Fillmore West and afterwards I gave it back to him and I said, look I know this is a silly question but do you think you'd ever think about selling it? He said, 'No'. I started to say, well, I knew it but thank you anyway. He said: 'I'm going to give it to you.'
So Marc Mariana! He's still one of my dearest friends as you can imagine. And I just was beside myself. When Gibson made their limited run I gave him the #1 because I figure he gave me the real #1. I've never been able to thank him enough. He has the royal box every time we play San Francisco!
You mentioned how difficult it was to hear yourself on stage in the late 60s and early 70s. Now that PA systems are much more sophisticated, does that give you the freedom to bring more instruments out on tour rather then stick to one or two?
For me, the sound has always been incredibly important so the sooner we got to improving the audio and the technology, I championed all of this because I always wanted it to sound as close to the record as possible. Plus, like the record but more—because it's live. As things did develop and I got the big rig and everything and the programmable switching and all that —MIDI control the effects and everything—I was able to do much more and change guitars. I probably carry about 12 guitars I think but probably end up using 3 or 4 during the show. My tech would probably say more (laughs). I go through phases—a lot of the Phoenix, my Les Paul Standard, and I have a 335—funny enough—that I just adore. Those are the probably three electrics that I play the most on stage and of course the Epiphone Texan. Then I also have a French Gypsy Jazz guitar called a Dupont. That's probably one of my favorite guitars of all time. Just because I can sound like Django even though I won't ever be able to play like him. I definitely sound like him! I played it to my brother for the first time over the weekend while I was in London and he just couldn't believe how authentic the thing sounds. If Django were alive today, I'm sure he'd be playing one.
What have you been listening to lately as inspiration for the tour with Steve Miller?
I generally don't change my listening habits. Obviously there are new guitarists who come up that I listen to. I was just talking to Robert Randolph this morning—obviously a pedal steel player. I listen to everybody. I still listen to Freddie King, B.B. King, Albert King. I had the immense honor of playing with B.B. King for a whole tour when he opened for us on our Guitar Circus tour a few years ago. Possibly one of the last tours he ever did. And I would sit with him. He'd always ask him to play "The Thrill Is Gone" with him. I mean it was just fantastic. As far as new players, I always have open ears to everyone that's playing out there.
Will you and Steve Miller be working together on the tour?
We do about 3 or 4—and sometimes more—numbers. He invites me up on his stage for his set. We do blues numbers. I'm going to sing a couple this year with him. The bands are molding into one. I think that's so much more fun for the audience. Steve and I have known each other since '71 or so. Met in London. Introduced by Glyn Johns, the engineer. We have such a great history as friends and musicians. It's a wonderful show and it's one of those tours that people come for both acts. That's why we're doing it again. I can't wait.