Fleetwood Mac strongman Lindsey Buckingham is an acoustic wizard--and a rock and roll giant.
Lindsey Buckingham was stunned. The voice blaring out of his car radio belonged to the legendary Los Angeles deejay, B. Mitchell Reed: "That was the new Fleetwood Mac single, 'Go Your Own Way.' [pause] Well, I don't know about that one, folks."
It was just over 20 years ago, and Buckingham had just completed a season in hell finishing an album called Rumours. Since joining Fleetwood Mac two years earlier with his partner and girlfriend Stevie Nicks, the guitarist had been on a musical and emotional roller coaster ride. Their first effort with bassist John McVie and drummer Mick Fleetwood, the band's original rhythm section, and McVie's keyboardist/songwriter wife, Christine, had been a stunning success. Fleetwood Mac (Reprise, 1975) had pulled the band out of their early Seventies doldrums, selling an impressive 5 million copies based on the pop smarts of hits such as "Over My Head," "Rhiannon," "Landslide" and "World Turning." But over the past 12 months everything seemed to come apart at the seams. The McVies had divorced, Buckingham and Nicks were in the midst of an acrimonious breakup, and even Fleetwood was splitting from his wife. Drugs, animosity and grief became part of the fuel that the band members poured into their sophomore album. It had been a traumatic and at times transcendent experience. But was it any good?
The passions and pathos that gave birth to Rumours would eventually result in 25 million people sharing the raw emotions of what would become one of the top three selling albums in rock history. But that was still in the future as Buckingham pulled out of the Capitol records parking lot and onto the L.A. freeway. He'd just finished mastering the album, but the first single, a searing rocker called "Go Your Own Way," had already been released to radio. And now, ominously, L.A.'s most influential deejay didn't "know about that one." What the hell was wrong? Lindsey picks up the story.
"I raced back to Capitol and called the radio station. I was a little feistier then than I am now," he chuckles. "So they put me on the air, and I said, 'B, hey man, what are you talking about? What do you mean you don't know?' And he says, 'Man, I can't find the beat!' "
Suddenly, Buckingham knew what he meant: "It was the acoustic guitar part," he laughs. "I'd added it at the eleventh hour; up until a few days before we mixed it there was no acoustic. The song was good, but something was missing. As soon as I came up with that acoustic part, the whole song came to life for me because it acted as a foil for the vocals and a rhythmic counterpoint. So when it comes in, you don't have a reference point for where the 'one' is, or where the beat is at all. It's only after the first chorus comes in that you can realize where you are-and that's what that deejay was confused about."
Needless to say, Reed and the rest of the world caught on fast. After a successful, if tumultuous, world tour, Buckingham convinced his bandmates to follow his avant garde, subversive pop instincts even further on Tusk, which proved a critical favorite but a relative commercial flop. He would stay with the band on and off for another 10 years, until 1987's Tango in the Night. But he was increasingly at odds with the commercial instincts of his bandmates, who ironically needed him for his superb arranging, producing and guitar playing skills.
Ten years later, Buckingham has reunited-at least for the moment-with his bandmates for one the most commercially and critically triumphant comebacks in music history. The semi-unplugged The Dance album and tour feature new live renditions of their best work, plus a number of new compositions.
Rarely has a band's personal relations impacted their work as dramatically as in the case of Fleetwood Mac, past and present. Yet Buckingham's exquisite playing on The Dance underscores a fact his admirers, including everyone from R.E.M.'s Peter Buck to Alice in Chains' Jerry Cantrell, have always known: He's one of the most unique and innovative guitarists in rock. Not only does he utilize the acoustic guitar creatively on searing rockers like the aforementioned "Go Your Own Way" and the technical tour de force "Big Love," he actually plays electric guitar as if it were an acoustic. He weaves gorgeous matrixes of sound on songs such as "The Chain" and "Rhiannon" with his distinctive, hybrid fingerpicking style. "I started playing acoustic as a young teenager years before I got an electric," explains Buckingham, "and I still often think that way when I compose and play." But how did that exotic blend of Travis picking and clawhammer banjo strumming develop? Lindsey sat down with Guitar World Acoustic to discuss the playing that gave voice to the passion-both then and now.
GUITAR WORLD ACOUSTIC: You tend to even fingerpick your electric as though it were an acoustic. Joni Mitchell has told me that she plays like that because the guitar then becomes a whole orchestra of sounds. Is that why you developed your unique style?
LINDSEY BUCKINGHAM: That's true. Because the thumb can act as a surrogate bass, I can have two different rhythms going on simultaneously, and two different melodies. And the percussiveness of the fingerpicking implies drums. But my fingerpicking on the electric is a direct outgrowth of my formative period of playing the acoustic as a young teenager. When I first joined the band, they tried to get me to start using a pick. And I said, "No, I don't think so." This is what I do. I started out doing a basic Travis thing, but I don't know what it is now. John Stewart once told me that I was "frailing" the guitar, which is a banjo technique.
GWA: You actually use a banjo on the live version of "You Make Loving Fun," on The Dance. Is that a recent skill, or something you subliminally picked up growing up during the Sixties folk boom?
BUCKINGHAM: Yeah, I owned a banjo when I was 12; it later was stolen. That was '62-and the Beatles hadn't come along, Elvis wasn't making great records and folk music was the fresh thing. I'm one of the few people who admit they were a big Kingston Trio fan. [laughs] I got semi-proficient and got some chops that did carry over into things like "World Turning," which is directly attributable to my having played the banjo.
GWA: Everything you've done from "The Chain" to "Big Love" has that guitar/banjo hybrid sound. How do you blend them when you create a part?
BUCKINGHAM: Well, Travis picking on the guitar is technically a three-finger pick, though you tend to use your fourth finger sometimes. It's based on alternating the bass notes with your thumb between the root and the fifth usually, and your other fingers play off that. On a banjo, you don't really have a bass note. Your reference point is more the high 5th string, which is a drone, and you don't fret that. And banjo picking tends to be organized in triplets, and so that's the main combination of elements you're hearing in my approach.
GWA: John McVie and Mick Fleetwood constitute one of the most unusual rhythm sections in rock history. Was it difficult for you to musically mesh with them?
BUCKINGHAM: To be honest, I was pretty ambivalent about joining them in the first place. I was the new kid on the block, and I didn't see the potential, I have to say. I thought John's playing was too busy, and when we rehearsed I wasn't used to Mick's Charlie Watts sensibility-playing way behind the beat. I did think that John was stepping all over my guitar parts, which to some degree he was. But I eventually realized there's a certain tension created by threatening to step all over each other all the time, but never quite getting there. I think that's really more the case, and it was just a process of me learning to appreciate it. In fact, Mick and I have this kind of implied musical joined-at-the-hip kind of thing on stage that was there from the beginning. We both have a very male spirit, which kept the whole thing from turning into Abba.
GWA: This reunion, with its massive tour and the release of The Dance, started during the recording of your solo album. Yet, for more than a decade, you said that you no longer felt creatively and personally comfortable with the band. Why go back now? Were you dragged back in? Or looking for some kind of closure?
BUCKINGHAM: No, I didn't have to be dragged back in kicking and screaming....... but there was an element of that to it. [laughs] What happened was I saw Mick, and he had totally turned his life around. And he came to play drums on my project. When we needed a bass player, one guy didn't work out so we thought of John, and it worked really well. Further down the line I was looking for help on vocal choices, and so we asked Christine down. Suddenly there were the four of us in the control room discussing music, and it felt odd, but good. I think a small light bulb went on over at the record company, and I have to say Mick was lobbying for it behind the scenes-which made me feel I was stabbed in the back with a very small knife. [laughs] But I have to cut him some slack, because Fleetwood Mac has been his whole life, really. If you had asked me a year ago if I'd be doing this, I'd think you were nuts. I got into this partly to grease the machinery that would help the solo album when it came out . But I've been pleasantly surprised there's been an added bonus, which is that we're all having a really good time. So I'm not going to discount anything in the future, including possibly doing a group studio album.
GWA: Is there any sense of discomfort or compromise in going back and doing the old tunes?
BUCKINGHAM: There is an aspect of a time warp for me in doing this. And I don't think anyone else feels that. But some nights I'll be playing "Rhiannon" and wondering, "What year is this?" So in this context I do sometimes feel this is a nostalgia feast as opposed to what I would be doing with my own music now. All this falls under the "petty needs" category. But I think "Big Love" and "Go Insane" get as close to the approach that I'm interested doing now, which is to get maybe one or two guitars to do the work of a whole track-or to do more experimental fingerpicking things, which you'll hear on my solo album.
GWA: Tusk was a gutsy, almost alternative follow-up to Rumours that wasn't a blockbuster. Was that the first indication that you might have to leave for musical rather than personal reasons?
BUCKINGHAM: Well, it wasn't a blowout, by any means. Once I started showing the band the stuff I was coming up with, they were really into it. The record company, on the other hand, went, "Oh fuck!" [laughs] The backlash came more in the form of, "We're not going to follow that process again." I was disappointed that the priorities seemed to be about selling records, and not about musical growth. And the new music that was coming along, like the Pretenders, the Police and especially the Clash. I would have much rather been in the Clash than Fleetwood Mac at that point. But it helped me define what my priorities were at the juncture. I wasn't buying the premise that if it works, let's run it into the ground. Maybe that goes against our ideas of what capitalism's all about, but I think the only way you have a long-term career is by being true to what you believe is right, to your true intentions.
GWA: How much did drugs contribute to the dissolution that finally led to the split after Tango in '87?
BUCKINGHAM: As far as being creative, it kept getting worse and worse as did the way the individuals in the band conducted their lives. Drugs affect everything, because your priority becomes to do drugs. It was tough in the end. Stevie, you really couldn't talk to her, you couldn't make eye contact. It was hard to recognize someone I had known and lived with a few years before, and there were a lot of hurtful things going on.
GWA: And you have to share your deepest emotions with everyone through music.
BUCKINGHAM: Right, exactly! We were working on such a fundamental level with each other, giving over the most vulnerable parts of ourselves to people we've been so close to before. Really, getting through the whole 12 years was like an exercise in denial for me. Cut to 1997 and I'm in my garage working on my next solo album, and suddenly all these things come to the surface and I'm able to look at them in a more adult way. And you realize that everyone did the best they could. So finally all the baggage is gone.