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Jon Lord, Interviews
The Highway Star


There many have been pretenders and contenders, but on DEEP PURPLE’ s 20th anniversary, Jon Lord is still the king of hard-rock keyboards.
Jon Lord is the most influential keyboard player in the land of heavy, no-nonsense rock ‘n’ roll. Period. True, he hasn’t had much competition in the 20 years since the release of Deep Purple’s debut album, but you can bet every journeyman MIDI metal head brave enough to go one-on-one with a Marshall-mad guitarist can thank the Lord for paving the way. With his highly amplified Hammond organ as his trademark, Lord has created vocabulary of licks and tricks that have become the blueprint for heavy keyboard players the world over. However, because of spotlight-gobbling guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, many underestimate Lord’s influence. But that’s okay. Lord humbly realizes that it’s his duty to complement the band and is perfectly comfortable with that role. Nobody’s Perfect, Deep Purple’s third! official live album, celebrates the band’s 20th birthday and is an appropriate bookmark of Purple’s most popular songs, including the seminal “Hush,” “Highway Star,” “Space Trucking’,” “Woman from Tokyo,” “Perfect Strangers” and, of course, the obligatory “Smoke On The Water.” Talking to Jon Lord is like talking to history. He’s been through it all-from the British Invasion and jamming with Hendrix to surviving every trend and transitory fashion statement that pop music could offer. In fact, he and drummer Ian Paice are the only members who’ve been with Purple since the beginning. We are pleased to report, in this exclusive interview, that for all the battles fought, Jon Lord is down-to-earth, very funny and truly a gentleman.20 ago. 

A lot has happened to the Keyboard world since the first Deep Purple album came out 

That’s for sure. The keyboard explosion is probably the single largest revolution in the rock’n roll business. Therefore, the electronic keyboard is the most daunting musical instrument. I’m glad I am not starting right now, because it would be really hard to decide what to play. Should you go analog, digital, or play, God forbid, a Hammond organ. It’s difficult choice, regardless.

What do you think of the new digi! tal keyboards? They’re a long way from the Hammond sound.

I have a DX7, which is a fabulous machine. It does everything I ask of it very quickly. It’s a perfect MIDI operator; it operates my Emulator 2, which makes everything easier on stage. Digital synthesis is obviously a massive step forward. I’ve been talking to musicians of all generations during past several months. I was talking to Dave Edmonds, a lovely ol’ chap. He said he’s desperate for a synthesizer that’s warm-sounding. I couldn’t help him, because I haven’t found one myself [laughs]. You’ll learn from this interview that I’m not a technocrat. I’m not even sure of the names of things, except the notes from C to C and through the octaves. When people ask me how many watts I’m running, I just say, “a whole bunch.”

Let’s get something straight before we go on. You’re often credited as playing a Hammond B-3, but you really play a C-3.

Yes, that’s correct, I play a C-3. The B-3s are sturdier, they candle more abuse on stage and can be carted around more easily. I kinda stuck with the C-3 because It was the one that I first started playing.

Why carry a c-3 around when you can almost the same sound on a synth or with a sampler?

There’s nothing duplicate the feel of the thing. You can’t synthesize the feel of something. You can get the sound exactly right. But it’s not the real thing. I can’t play a keyboard that’s no longer than my arm in front of 20,000 people. When we played the California Jam in 1974, there were more than 300,000 people in the audience. I was behind my Hammond, and I was cool.

Looking back, what was it about the Hammond that appealed to you?

There’s certain warm attack and a “living” quality that doesn’t exist on other organ. I think it’s due to the fact that the tones are mechanically generated. You can buy a little Korg, and it sounds incredibly like a Hammond, but you can’t play it like a Hammond. It’s not a beast under your fingers. It’s just a dinky little thing that goes, “Hi, I’m sounding like a Hammond.” Just imagine me-I’m a big guy, over six feet tall and more than 200 pounds-standing behind one of those little things and shaking it back and forth. It would not look right. The Hammons is a classic instrument. If you want that sounds, there’s really no other way to get it. It’s difficult to explain, but it’s like a piano-you gotta play it. The Hammond is having a bit of a comeback, but I’m surprised that even more people aren’t playing it. It’s an adaptable and very versatile instrument. I can play “Highway Star” and then crank it down and play in a jazz trio. It’s a fabulous instrument. I apologize to it every night for kicking it around.

Do you remember your first Hammond?

Yes, I sure do. It was a few years before the first Purple album. I got my hands on an L-100, which looks like an upright piano. It’s simple Hammond, but it’s still got the “click” sound. I got my first C-3 on February 12,1968- I’m much better at remembering dates than describing technical stuff- during the time of Deep Purple’s first rehearsals. It didn’t have Leslie speakers; it had a big reverb cabinet. Great things, but they don’t travel.

Do you still have that Hammond?

No, it died in 1973. Then I bought the one I have now from Christine McVie. In the early seventies we were touring constantly, and Fleetwood Mac played with us constantly, and Fleetwood Mac played with us many times. They did about four tours with us. Christine needed money and, at the end of one tour, she decided to sell it. It had two Leslies, it was in perfect condition, and it was about 16 years old then. I can’t remember exactly what I paid her for it. I know it wasn’t much, probably about $15,000. of course, they were still being made in those days. I’ve had that one ever since.

What modifications have been to it? 

Not much, actually. One thing that was done- do you remember a piano company called RMI?- I had one of their units built into my Hammond by amazing man, Mike Phillips. He used to go on tour with us and he could mend everything. The way a Hammond triggers a sound is exactly the same way as a RMI piano works. Mike put the guts of a RMI into the bottom of the C-3 and then hooked it into the keyboards. This modification enables me to bend harpsichord and loop sounds with organ sounds. It creates some nice effects and enables me to get the Jon Lord-y sound. My Hammond has a ring modulator from the old Gibson Maestro company. I bought six of them as soon as they stopped of them. I’m only on the second one-I still have four brand-new ones left in their original packages. The ring modulator operates as the central volume for the whole organ. There’s volume, pitch and modulation controls on it. If I really want to crank it, the ring modulator gives me the overdrive sound.

Being that you carry only one Hammons on tour; what would you use as a backup if something were to go wrong with it?

Prayer [laughs]. I just trust it. It’s kinda over the top to take two Hammonds on tour.

You’re notorious for rocking the Hammond back and forth on stage. 

I don’t know how I discovered it. Because of the bulk of the thing, it looks like it’s gonna tip over. But there’s a balance point. Just under the keyboard, there’s a natural groove. Funnily enough, I arrive at throwing the Hammond around before Purple. One day I went to see a band called the Nice and saw Keith Emerson doing, and he was also playing some classical licks in his music. We were both separate and we never even met until about the time he joined ELP. We arrive at the use of classical licks and abusing our instruments quite independently. It must’ve been something in the water in England at the time

You’re probably more associated with the Hammond than any other keyboardist in a rock band.

That’s probably because I haven’t diversified from it much. Keith very much embraced the early Moog stuff and, in fact, helped Robert Moog with some ideas for the Polymoog quite early on. I used an early synth or two, but it was mainly for some quick effects and for fattening out some of the bass sounds.

What’s your favourite new piece of gear?

The Emulator. I used to love old Minimoogs. I’ve still got three of them at home. In fact, I have one of the last 25 that were made. It has a little commemorative plaque on it. I have number 01. Robert Moog has the last one. I used to love those things because I understood them I don’t understand digital synthesis as easily as I understood analog. The Polymoog was an advanced instrument for the time. Unfortunately, they’d spend too much time developing it. By the time it came out, it was yesterday’s news.

You must be proud to have been with Purple from the very beginning.

Absolutely. We had some great years in the early seventies. Then Ian [Gillan] and Roger [Glover] left, and I didn’t enjoy the period with David [Coverdale] and Glenn [Hughes] and, rest his soul, Tommy Bolin. To me, it wasn’t Deep Purple. And then,11 years after Ian and Roger leave, we get back together and we’re having more fun than ever. Deep Purple is a damn good band and we’ve made a niche in rock’ n roll history. Maybe not a huge one, but enough to be very proud of.

What’s your favourite Purple album?

Made in Japan. I remember that period well, and the band was at the height of its powers. That double album was the epitome of what we stood for in those days. It wasn’t meant to be released outside of Japan. The Japanese said, “Will you please make a live album.” We said, “We don’t make live albums; we don’t believe in them.” They said, “Please, Please make a live album.” We finally said okay, but we said we wanted the right to the tapes because we didn’t want the album to be released outside of Japan. That album only cost about $3,000 to make. It sounded pretty good, so we said to Warner Bros., “Do you want this?” They said, “No live albums don’t happen.” They wound up putting it out anyway and it went platinum in about two weeks.

Deep purple’s comeback album in 1984,Perfect Strangers, was another platinum-selling album. The one right after it, The House of Blue Light, wasn’t nearly as successful. 

The House Of Blue Light was a weird album and hard to put together. Perfect Strangers pretty much wrote itself. It was so glorious, because it was great to be back together after being apart for so many years. We had grins from ear to ear. Then we did the Perfect Stranger tour and we were second in ticket sales to Bruce Springsteen. Then the management and record company said, “It’s time to do the next album, guys.” We made the massive mistake of trying to make our music current. We discovered that people didn’t want us to that. They wanted us to do what we do best. We’re Deep Purple-loud, proud, pure and simple.

Of all the Purple albums, which were you most involved in the songwriting? 

Fireball, I think. It’s difficult to write convincing hard-rock material at home on a piano. I defy anyone to come up with the licks to “Into The Fire” or “Smoke On The Water” on a grand piano. In that respect, Ritchie [Blackmore] is invaluable, always has been and always will be. He is the spark that lights Deep Purple. I can’t compete with him on that level. He sketches the bold strokes and I do the colouring in. But that’s my job as keyboardist-there’s no other instrument that can add colours like the keyboard can.

Is Blackmore as difficult to work with as people say he is?

Ritchie’s like a terrier or pit-bull-He gets hold of something and won’t let go. He has a vision of what he wants, and he’ll fight and fight until what he wants. He’s rarely wrong, and if he is wrong, he’ll admit with utmost graciousness. Until he’s proven wrong, he won’t budge. I love him the way he is. Ritchie doesn’t play the guitar the standard way; he has odd way of looking at things. Different chord shapes that most guitarists mat not be able to come up with, or maybe wouldn’t even want to come up with [laughs]. Because he’s such an individual type of player, I have to be on my toes.

What was it like when Ritchie left the band and Tommy Bolin took his spot? 

I didn’t know what hit me. I was talked into it. Tommy was a sweet man, and I was so hurt when he died. When Ritchie left, I thought it was the end of Deep Purple. Then David Coverdale came up to me and said, “Please keep the band together.” David played me the album that Tommy did with Billy Cobham, Spectrum. We liked his playing on it and invited Tommy to audition.

Speaking of Coverdale, you did about six Whitesnake albums with him. You didn’t get much songwriting credit, though.

Whitesnake was a guitar-based band, and there were two guitarists in it. It’s hard enough to deal with one. David talked me into joining the band. He was calling me for six months, and then, in August of ‘78’ I finally said yes. I felt, right from the start, as a backing musician. I was content in that role for a while, because I was still bruised from Deep Purple break up. One reason that I succumbed to David’s offer was that, by joining Whitesnake, it gave me something to do. I went from playing huge auditoriums with Purple to half-empty clubs with Whitesnake. It was a real shock to the rock’ n roll system, but a very salutary thing for the ego. I was showed exactly what it was like when I first started out, and how transitory it all is. Once we were playing some half- assed club in Germany with about 20 people in it. This guy came up to me after the show and said, “You look like Jon Lord from Deep Purple.” I said, “I am Jon Lord.” He said, “Yeah, sure,” and walked away. I stuck with Whitesnake and we started playing unusually different British music, we were fighting against punk revolution.

What’s your opinion of the punk revolution? 

The punk movement had to happen, and thank God it did. The music business was rescued by those young people who said, “ I can’t play yet, but I’m gonna go out and learn in public.”

Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin ruled the hard-rock world back in the early seventies. Was there any rivalry between the two bands?

No, each band was different. Zeppelin cornered the sex-symbol angle, with Robert Plant being so damn good-looking, and they had more of a blues-based side than us. We were more of a heavy-rock band. Robert still calls us with his tongue firmly in his cheek, Deep Sabbath. Although there was no rivalry between us, we were a bit jealous of their initial success. If Purple would have stayed together, we might have achieved the same mid-seventies status that they did. They embraced the arena rock ’! n roll show with open arms, whereas we didn’t embrace it quite so completely. We were a touch weary of arenas because we had spent so much time in the 4,000 seaters, and we were ever so comfortable in those halls. That was the kind of hall in which Made In Japan was made.

What were some of the most memorable jam sessions that you’ve been part of?

I’ll never forget the time I jammed with Jimi Hendrix at Steve Paul’s Scene club. It must’ve been around 1970. Whenever we were in New York, we either went to Max’s Kansas city, a club on Bleecker Street called Nobody’s, or the Scene club. The Scene had most beautiful women who loved to go to bed with rock musicians. That was innocent days, when the most you could get was a dose. I had met Jimi several times in London, and I was good friends with his manager, Chas Chandler. I was at the Scene one night, and Jimi comes over to me and says, “You’re playing. There’s an organ on stage, man.” I don’t know what he was on, but I asked him if he had 30 dollars’ worth [laughs]. Jimi was a gentleman, and he was very soft-spoken. I told him I’d love to jam, and we did. Steve Stills was on bass, Buddy Miles on drums, Jimi on guitar, Dave Mason on sax, and me on organ. We played for about three hours and it was fantastic. We did it again the next two nights. After the first night, Steve Paul told us that if we’d come down the next night, the drinks would be on him. I was there at 7:30 in the evening. I specially remember trying to get solo in edge-wise. There’d be so much guitar , guitar ,guitar. Suddenly there’d be more guitar, guitar, guitar. That’s Jimi for you.

Are there any other jams that stand out?

There’s been so many. I played with Kinks several times. I even played the piano on “You Really Got Me.” I was paid five pounds for it. The guitar solo was played by Jimmy Page, but the Kinks have denied it.

Who are your biggest influences?

Jimmy Smith was like a god to me. There was also a British organist, Graham Bond; he taught me , hands on, most of what I know about the Hammond organ. I also used to listen to Mark Stein of Vanilla Fudge in the late sixties. He was a useful source of tricks on the Hammond. My other influences are more cerebral. There’s the influence of my piano teacher; I was with him from seven to 17. He made want to learn to love the keyboard. He said, “If you love it, you’ll want to do it properly.”

You’re often referred to as a classically trained keyboardist. How true is it?

I think it was in my early biographies and it kinda stuck with me. I don’t wear it like a badge, and it’s not a banner that I wave. It’s just the way I learned to play. I played classical music until I was 18.

What advice do you have for up-and-coming keyboard player?

The first thing they should do id practice, practice, practice, and then try acquiring a technique. I can’t stress! how important practicing is. It isn’t designed to be a sterile, self-serving thing. It won’t take away, it will help, your desire to jam, create, and let it all hangout. Practicing will only help the transition of your ideas from your mind to your fingers and onto the keyboard. It’s a glorious thing when you break through a barrier and can suddenly play with a fluency that you didn’t have the week before.

Especially when your style distinguishes you from everyone else.

Absolutely. My style has been molded by the musicians that I’ve been around. I’m lucky to have been playing with someone like Ritchie Blackmore all these years. I was also lucky to grow as a musician in the era I did, constantly surrounded by great musicians. What you hear goes toward what you are. Be a sponge and soak up everything you can.

Have you reached your goal?

No, no way. I’ll be dead before that happens. I’d like to be a better player than I am. ! I’ve had many wonderful times, and I’ve been rewarded beyond any expectations that I had as a younger man. I’m reasonably well known, I have a good life, and I’m playing with a good band. Here I am, 47 years old, and I’m still playing in a rock’ n roll band and being accepted. Lately, I’ve been banging my head against my piano at home. I want to learn more, and play the most difficult classical pieces. I’m trying to relearn the Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart and Liszt repertoires. Music is great. I can’t think of a world without it. 

From "Modern Keyboard" Jan '89 by Joe Lalaina. Transcribed by David Yea

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