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Peter Frampton Q&A: On Reconnecting with the Guitar on His New ‘Frampton Forgets the Words’ Album
Pandemic lockdown or not, Peter Frampton is as busy as ever these days.
His new album, Frampton Forgets the Words, out April 23rd, is a fantastic instrumental collection including new renditions of songs by some of the legendary guitarist’s contemporaries and friends, like David Bowie and George Harrison, as well as some unexpected delights in covers of songs by Roxy Music, Radiohead and Lenny Kravitz. It comes on the heels of a farewell tour owing to Frampton’s diagnosis of Inclusion Body Myositis (IBM) in 2019, which he discussed with Rock Cellar in a wide-ranging interview that year, and, of course, after becoming a best-selling author with the release of his memoir, Do You Feel Like I Do?
Perhaps most remarkably, this month marks the 45th anniversary of Frampton Comes Alive, his eight times platinum-selling live album, hitting No. 1 on the charts, a position it ended up claiming for a remarkable ten weeks.
Frampton, an always open and affable — and often hilarious — interview subject, was in great spirits when we caught up with him via phone at his Nashville home. Here he discusses his creative process on Frampton Forgets the Words, his beloved guitar collection, the state of his IBM and much more.
Rock Cellar: This is Rock Cellar’s third interview with you in as many years, and we’ve talked in the past about how you were starting to stockpile things, depending on how things were progressing with your IBM — and the dexterity in your hands — but your playing on the new album is both as fiery and as delicate and nuanced as ever. Do you want to talk about how your IBM is progressing?
Peter Frampton: Oh, no problem. I think let’s be as transparent as possible, so people understand where things are at. It’s just being realistic, I think.
Rock Cellar: Well, and you’ve raised a lot of money for Johns Hopkins, and awareness for what wasn’t previously a well-known disease, and I think that’s really important as well.
Peter Frampton: Yeah, I think that’s my job now, you know? Well, another job.
Rock Cellar: I was going to say: You’re still Peter Frampton. But yes, okay.
Peter Frampton: Right. But I enjoy doing these little videos for various different Myositis things. Obviously, we can’t do much more right now. I had planned, originally, to go to the conferences in person, but of course, they’re all virtual now. So I’m doing that, and enjoying trying to keep people … optimistic. I have a natural acceptance of stuff, whether it be for me or someone from my family, or even a friend. But mainly for myself, if it’s a big thing I’m facing, I research it, I find out what the deal could be. So I know everything about this thing now. And so the only thing I don’t know is how to make a drug for it in order to cure it.
That’s why, obviously, we did the Finale tour, and why we started the Peter Frampton Myositis Research Fund at Johns Hopkins, as you said.
Rock Cellar: The last time I talked to you — before you were a bestselling author, by the way — you said there were peaks and valleys, and that last time you were in a valley. Have things rebounded? Do you want to talk about that part of it, and how it’s affected your playing, and your stability and balance?
Peter Frampton: Yes, well, it’s a progressive disease. It’s very, very slowly [progressing] with me, but yes, it has moved on, and I’ve had to change the way I play a little bit. So, for instance, I’ve gone down from nines to eights [gauge guitar strings], which is what I used to use in the Humble Pie days.
Rock Cellar: Right. I remember you told me, because Eric (Clapton) used eights, you used eights, right?
Peter Frampton: Yes, he said he used eights — these Picato eights — made in Wales. So I used those, and then it was only somebody — a tech — later on, who said, “You use eights? Why don’t you try nines?” And I thought, “Well, okay.” And it sounded a little fuller. But now I’ve gone back and I prefer the sound. It’s more me now, again, you know?
Rock Cellar: Eights, that’s super light, especially on a Les Paul. How low do you have your action set? We’re in the weeds now with this guitar talk.
Peter Frampton: It is pretty low. But Tony Iommi uses eights. I mean, that’s the riffmeister himself, with those heavy chords, and you’d never know they were eights. So it doesn’t matter. It’s how you play it, anyway.
Rock Cellar: Jeff Beck, who by the way hates to be interviewed, and doesn’t like to talk gear, told me, “Look. I can tell a reporter all the details of my rig, but no one who reads it is going to sound like me. It’s just not going to happen.” And that’s an important point. He wasn’t bitter, mind you, he was just saying, as an important lesson to learn for a young guitarist, “Don’t try to be Jeff Beck. Find your own tools for the trade and create your own sound.” But I am curious, have the eights helped, given your condition, to regain some of whatever touch you had lost? Because again, you sound amazing on the new record.
Peter Frampton: Yes, definitely. And thanks. But then, on the other hand, on my acoustics, I just got an old Gibson — a small-bodied one, like Robert Johnson — an L-1, and it’s got twelves on it. I usually use elevens on an acoustic, but I’m loving it, because it’s a shorter scale, or at least seems it.
Rock Cellar: It is a shorter scale, so the tension is better. And those guitars are really suited to twelves. There’s something about the smaller-body guitars that would be suited to twelves as opposed to elevens.
Peter Frampton: Yes. They bend more anyway.
Rock Cellar: Rather than talk guitars all day, I want to talk about what you used on the new album. Is much of it the Phenix? Because it’s referred to in the press release, but it doesn’t sound like the Les Paul all the time.
Peter Frampton: No, the words that ran away with the spoon. But, of course, they use that as a promotional tool.
Rock Cellar: Because it’s the Phenix.
Peter Frampton: And it is on there. “Reckoner,” it’s the solo. It’s probably on every track at some point, but I would say the main guitar that I used on most of the record was my 1959 335.
Rock Cellar: Not a bad guitar either.
Peter Frampton: No.
Rock Cellar: We’ll come back to the guitars, in the context of the album, but I wanted to ask: When I was preparing, I noticed that your last instrumental album, Fingerprints, is out of print.
Peter Frampton: Yes. What’s happening is three or four albums are coming back to me. So we’re in the process of re-registering them, and then they’ll be back up on all the streaming sites.
Rock Cellar: Okay. Good. Artists complain about their streaming royalties, but you’ll do okay with the streaming revenue — or better — now that you own them.
Peter Frampton: Yes. Things are getting better, slowly but surely.
Rock Cellar: I stumbled on a track that I didn’t know about last year, a version of Humble Pie’s “Four Day Creep,” with Rob Arthur. What was that from?
Peter Frampton: It was going to be for a tribute album. Molly Marriott, Steve’s daughter, was, through her label, going to do a tribute album to her dad, and obviously, she asked me. We recorded the track at a soundcheck on the road but didn’t sing, so we could come back into the studio and then put the vocals on. So it was basically a one-off thing that we’d held for Molly, but that album didn’t happen, so we decided to put it out.
Rock Cellar: Back to Frampton Forgets the Words: What I love about these songs, is how you’ve reinvented them. “Dreamland” is one that jumps to mind, but they’re all such a beautiful renditions of these songs. Talk to me a little bit about how you chose them. You say in the press release that these are your favorite songs, but it had to be hard to whittle down your choices.
Peter Frampton: The thing is, when you’re doing an instrumental cover of a well-known song, you don’t have lyrics for the second verse to make it as interesting as the first verse. Therefore, I used what I’d learnt from The Shadows, and my dear pal Hank Marvin, how to approach an instrumental. Even when we were doing Fingerprints, in fact, and we wrote “My Cup of Tea” together, when we were recording it, for the third verse, Hank said, because I was going to play it the same was as I played it before, “Why don’t we do this little trill there and change it up?” And I did it, and I thought, that’s it!
It’s the little changes that perk the interest. Keeps the interest level. Because you don’t have a lead singer — on TV, mind you — splaying his legs and waggling his hips, you know?
Rock Cellar: Which you are well known for, by the way.
Peter Frampton: Oh, well. [Laughter.] So, I did my instrumental apprenticeship early on with The Shadows, and I’ve never forgotten it. And working with Hank and The Shadows again on Fingerprints was a dream come true. It’s songs where the melody is right for me to mess with, I think, that I can take it somewhere without taking it out of the ballpark, that work best. So, that’s it, basically. It’s down to the fact that my way of looking at stuff is completely different from the other band members.
Because we all made lists, everybody did, of favorite songs. And some of the songs that others might have been raving about, or might have been on two or three of their lists, just wouldn’t work for me. They would be great if we could do a vocal on it, but this is Frampton Forgets the Words, so, we had to focus on doing an instrumental. So, a lot of thought goes into that. I’ll give you an example: Gordon Kennedy wrote “Maybe” with Alison Krauss. When he sent me that version of Alison’s, well, it’s still one of my all-time favorites. I mean, she’s wonderful, and the band and everything, oh, my god. So when I heard that track, it just was one of those ones, like “Avalon,” that just stuck with me.
Rock Cellar: And did you think, I can’t wait to get my hands on the song? Did you think, I know what to do with this? Or was it just something you wanted to attempt and sort of find your way around as a fun, creative exercise?
Peter Frampton: For that one, I would get very nervous about every one of them and doing a tribute rather than a version, if you know what I mean. So, Gordon Kennedy came, I told him, I said, “I’m going to do ‘Maybe’ as an instrumental.” He said, “How do you do ‘Maybe’ as an instrumental?” Right? And then he played on it — on the track with me — but I hadn’t done the lead part. That was one of the few ones that I didn’t play the lead live. And so, another day I put the lead on, and I sent it to him, and his email back was, “That’s how you do ‘Maybe’ as an instrumental.” And it was such a lovely compliment from the guy who wrote it.
Rock Cellar: I understand wanting to do “Loving the Alien,” because it’s a song you have a direct connection to, because you knew David. But did you feel another level of tension or anxiety going in recording it, precisely because of that connection?
Peter Frampton: Oh, yes. Definitely. Not so much with “Alien,” because that was my party piece, my feature, on the Glass Spider tour. At the end, I would walk down and almost get down to the audience, and went on for days, playing. David gave me that wonderful gift there, as well as being on the stage at all. So that was a definite.
I knew I wanted to do a Bowie song, anyway. Just like I knew I wanted to do a George Harrison song. And “Isn’t It a Pity” was one I walked in on when I arrived at Abbey Road for the All Things Must Pass sessions. I don’t believe that I’m playing on that one, but it’s hard to know. It’s a long time ago. And I overdubbed on so many tracks! So I don’t think I’m on “Isn’t It a Pity,” but it’s just one of those ones that grabs me every time I hear it.
Rock Cellar: It’s an amazing song. I will tell you that you have told me that you did not play on that a couple of other times.
Peter Frampton: Good, good, good.
Rock Cellar: So, you’re at least consistent. [Laughter.] But I wanted to ask you, have you ever heard Gerry Leonard’s version — the version he did with David on the Reality tour — of “Loving the Alien?” Because he reinvented it, around a loop …
Peter Frampton: We used that idea, yeah. It’s the combination version of both that version and David’s original version. I loved what Gerry did. Rob, my keyboard player, said, “Oh man, you’d better check this version out,” because we were listening to all the different versions. And when I heard that I said, “Oh, I’m going to take that bit.” I love the loop. It’s wonderful.
Rock Cellar: Going back to what you said about trying to keep it interesting, is that harder with a riffed-based song like “Are You Gonna Go My Way?” I mean, that riff drives the song, so then how do you find your way to keep that interesting?
Peter Frampton: Well, I think with that one, we just wanted to do an out-and-out rocker, and that’s always been a favorite. Why not do it? But I used more effects on the guitars on that track, I think, to separate the parts. The chorus has the whammy an octave up — and probably has the octave down as well somewhere in there – and it was a great one to be able to use some added effects. There’s hardly any effects on the record apart from a Klon, the Archer, or the Origin Effects distortion pedal. Or a Leslie. Everyone asks, “What chorus pedal did you use?” I tell them, “None. I’ve got Leslies in my studio.” That’s my thing.
The opening to “Avalon,” we changed up, too. We added a little intro and a middle section to it to spice it up, and the rhythm that I play on that is a ’59 Telecaster, not with the maple neck, with Brazilian rosewood. That’s just only through a Leslie.
Rock Cellar: I was going to say, that clearly wasn’t one of your Les Pauls on that track. So the Tele, and I hear the 335, and the Phenix.
Peter Frampton: Yes, the 335, and my Phenix. But also, on “If You Want Me to Stay,” the Telly is playing lead. And then I used a 1957 TV two-pickup Les Paul, with P-90s, which is very, very nice. And then as far as acoustics it’s my Martin D-45, my Epiphone Texan, and I’ve got a Martin Terz — T-E-R-Z — which is a baby like the one Sting plays. I do it in a kind of high-strung fashion, and it’s the other part of the twelve-string. That’s on “Isn’t It a Pity.” It’s not a twelve string. It’s a couple of Terz’s. No, I didn’t say turds. I said Terz. [Laughter.]
Rock Cellar: It sounds as though you did this album largely live, with very few overdubs. What was your setup generally speaking?
Peter Frampton: Basically, it was a combination — or separate — of two amps: There’s a 1964 AC-15 and there’s a (Fender) Deluxe Reverb ’65 that I had just these hellacious speakers rigged with. Well, the AC-15 has Bulldogs, of course. So, those were the two amps, either together or separately, depending on the sound I was going for. And as I’ve said, the Origin Effects distortion pedal, the Archer is the one that he [J. Rockett] makes upgraded ones — I heard that he said that Jeff had bought three — and I said, “Well, I’ll do two. How about two?” And Jeff’s got rid of his Klon, apparently. But I still love both. But the new Archer, this upgraded Archer, is the same. It’s unbelievable.
Rock Cellar: Finally, you’re very active on Twitter, and outspoken, too. So isn’t it nice to have a president who isn’t a crazy person?
Peter Frampton: Oh, makes a huge difference! I don’t look at my phone until after I’ve had my coffee now. Because like everyone, I would, before Biden, reach for my phone as soon as I woke up. I’d go straight to news to see what the hell the asshole had done that day.
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