Bernie Marsden is part of the rock aristocracy. In a 40-year career he’s played guitar for a host of important outfits, including Wild Turkey, Babe Ruth and of course Whitesnake. He even turned down the offer to join Paul McCartney’s supergroup Wings. With stats like these, Bernie Marsden is an undisputed all-time great. We met up to have a chat about the new Roland G5 guitar synth, being a rock guitarist and why you should always read your contract.
Bernie, you’ve been in a lot of bands. When were you happiest on stage?
I think we did a Whitesnake gig a week after Donington one year. It was at the Edinburgh Playhouse and that was a magical evening. Tony Ashton was there that night. During Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City, him and Billy Connolly swept the back of the stage. We played fantastic that night. We knew we’d played a great gig at Donington and we were all on a musical high. It wasn’t a giant show but it was a great gig.
You’re a massive collector of vinyl – and you used to have a shop didn’t you?
I did have a shop until three years ago. It was called Vinyl Richie’s and it had a big picture of Lionel Richie in the middle of the shop. Most people didn’t get it. I’m a vinyl addict. I collect blues: pre-and post-war. I have an extensive collection and a whole bunch locked away – about 20,000, which never see the light of day.
What’s your one desert island disc?
One record… that’s tough… Revolver by the Beatles.
What do you like about that record?
I don’t think it did it for me at the time. But I think Revolver was the Beatles at their creative change. Not necessarily their peak but they went into the studio and they were using studio wizardry. I’ve heard the demos too and they’re amazing. There’s a wonderful demo of I’m only Sleeping played on a harpsichord.
When did your history with Roland start?
In the ‘80s people would come to gigs and say “would you like to try this?” No one was ever pushy. Usually a mate would call and say “check these out – they’re great mate.” I had the Roland Synth Guitar, the G-200. The guitar itself was fabulous. I still have that. They were passed to me in Japan. I used one on my second solo album – Look At Me Now.
So you’ve really seen the evolution of the guitar?
I don’t think any of us ever thought we’d see a guitar that could tune to D at the turn of a switch.
Back to your tunes, how did the album Saints and Sinners change your life?
Here I Go Again was on that album and that record subsequently changed the way I reacted to the business. It was re-recorded in 1987 and went to number one in America. It sold a lot. It still sells a lot today and it’s still in movies and TV programmes. It’s just been signed off for X-Factor in America. It was in Rock of Ages and The Fighter with Christian Bale. Even though that was my last Whitesnake album it was a pivotal record for me.
Speaking of Rock of Ages, you met Tom Cruise recently…
Yes, I played on the balcony of Leicester Square Odeon for the Rock of Ages Premier. Tom was very interested as he grew up with Here I Go Again at number one. I told him I thought he nailed the part and he was really nice. He went out of his way to make sure my kids got autographs. As he was leaving, he was in a big… blanket of security guards (we’re not sure if this is the collective term for security guards, but it should be Ed). He saw me, left the guards and came over to shake my hand. He didn’t have to do that. He was a really nice guy.
Before you joined Whitesnake – you had the chance to join Wings. How did that happen?
I was in a band with John Lord, Ian Paice and Tony Ashton. We made an album called Malice in Wonderland. The leader of our horn section was Howie Casey, who was also the leader of Paul’s [McCartney] horn section.
We were making our second album and a friend of mine Jimmy McCulloch was the guitarist in Wings. He left the band and Howie Casey recommended me. Months went by and they called me into the office once a week, but during that time I ran into David Coverdale who was in London put a band together.
He said he was auditioning drummers and asked me to come down and bring a guitar. When he heard me playing, David said he had no idea I played like that and he would love me to be in this band.
I had to call Paul McCartney’s office and thank them for the opportunity but told them “I’m forming a band with the guy from Deep Purple.” I turned down the opportunity. I was 25 and a big McCartney fan. But I think it worked OK. Whitesnake was a good move. Subsequently I’ve managed to play with George, and Ringo. It’d be great to jam with Paul sometime.
Over the years people have praised the Coverdale/Marsden songwriting team. What was it like writing in Whitesnake? How did it work?
We would all have ideas then we would put it together. Or sometimes you would come up with a finished idea. When we wrote Walking in the Shadow of the Blues I had most of that down and I gave David the hook. He ran away and wrote the words and we recorded it an hour later. It was all very productive between the three of us. Most of the stuff I wrote I would play the guitar stuff on – and Micky [Moody] was the same. We were quite competitive – we’d say “How many songs have you written for the next album?” and try and do one more.
Previously, when people asked if you’d do anything differently, you’ve said you would read your contracts properly. Do you still think that’s the case?
Yes. Now I’m a veteran, people say what should their children do and I say read their contracts. It’s not cynical. I didn’t do it – most of my contemporaries were the same. You never thought that you were going to be selling a million records but when it happened, you paid for it big time. If you do sign, it’s legally binding. I managed to get my copyrights back after a long court case in the ‘80s. It was very painful. But when David re-recorded the album, the tracks were mine.
What are your other tips for up-and-comers?
Play from your heart – enjoy yourself! How lucky am I? I’ve been doing this for 40 years. I get paid to go around the world and play the guitar. I enjoy doing it and it’s the only thing I can do. I can’t be a car mechanic.
You’ve played with amazing people. Who are your favourites?
B.B. King. I played with him in the dressing room at Hammersmith Odeon. People like John Lord – sadly no longer with us – make you realise how good you have to be. You also have to be a pretty decent person. Everyone I’ve played with has been.
B.B. King said you’re one of few white men who can play the blues the way they’re meant to be played?
I was very flattered about that. It was on a German radio interview. I was told about it years later.
You’re writing a book right now?
It’s a memoir. It’s pretty close – every day something nice happens.
It’s been interesting too – When you were in UFO there were some strange times?
I once drove a powerful Mercedes down the Autobahn in Germany before I had a licence because I thought it would be better to do that and risk prison than drive with the other guys and risk ending up on a German mortuary slab.
But UFO was a business really. I went from being a big fish in a small pond to joining a pro band and playing in Germany, where there were hundreds of people every night. We didn’t get along at the time, but we do now. We’re all old blokes now. When I look back it was a great experience but I didn’t like it at the time. It gave me my professional boots – for which I’ll always be thankful.
Well, we’re thankful you didn’t end up in the German mortuary. You played the Rory Gallagher memorial show. What did he have that made him so special?
He had a humbleness about him but Jimmy Hendrix thought he was the best. He was just fantastic. Live he was indescribable really. Lovely guy. I used to do my best to look like him, but before he passed away, after Whitesnake, he said “Do you know people stop me at the airport and ask ‘are you Bernie Marsden?’.”
What was it like to play Rory’s Strat at the memorial?
Very special. I was playing a Strat anyway because it was a Rory Gallagher Memorial night. Donal came out with it said “I think my brother would approve of the man using this” There wasn’t a dry eye in the house – certainly not on stage. The strings hadn’t been changed or anything and there was some serious mojo going on in that guitar. Joe Bonamassa has played it and he would tell you the same. He’s still here.
When Jimi Hendrix died at 27 was that a wake up call to slow down?
I was 19 and I wasn’t a pro then. It never occurred to me to though, because at 19 or 20, 27 feels quite old – nearly 30. The thing that did it for me was when Jimmy McCulloch passed away when I was a pro and Paul Kossoff [Free] had passed away. I was 25 and Paul was the same age as me. That had an effect. I thought we all like to party but surely it’s better to be around the play the guitar rather than the alternative.
You’ve seen a lot of evolution in technology. As we design these new products – do you think that’s a good thing for musicians coming up?
I’ve never been a guitarist associated with technology. I’ve just plugged in and played. So this is all new to me. There are people who will turn this [the Roland G5] into something magical. The great thing for the young guys is they exist already. They can go and get one. I think it’s great the way they’re being developed all the time. I still find it a bit magical.
Finally, we want to know what would you say to your 15-year-old self?
Find your own way, stick to your roots, be honest with yourself and work hard. There’s no difference between working hard at building a bridge, laying a road, playing the guitar or becoming a doctor. If you believe strongly enough and work hard enough you can make a living out of it – it’s not going to be easy though.