Billy Duffy, the guitarist and founding member of legendary rock band The Cult, discussed his guitar preferences and how it all related to their image and sound. Mainly known for his use of the Gretsch White Falcon guitar, Billy is also a Gibson Les Paul guy. However, as he explained in a recent interview on the “Appetite for Disruption” podcast, Gretsch means more to him and The Cult.
This came up when he was asked to explain the importance of his guitars to the band’s visual identity, with him explaining that it’s actually “two images” that he and The Cult are known for (transcript via Ultimate Guitar):
“Well, that’s funny because that’s two images. The iconic poses of me with a Les Paul. The Falcon is a different thing.”
What’s more, as Billy explains, the band never had a particular visual aspect that’s so memorable, giving other bands and artists as examples.
“For example, you’d say Motörhead, you think of that one logo. Or the Ramones — you think of that one iconic logo. The Cult — we never really settled on one. And I think, possibly, that’s been a bit of a detriment.”
However, as Duffy added, he doesn’t regret it. That’s just how they did their thing back in the day.
“But that’s our story,” he added. “That’s me looking back, thinking about it. At the time, you just move forward. So that looks good. Let’s go down that road artistically. Looking back, there are bands where it’s almost like a rubber stamp.”
Now, going into more details about his guitars and how they made an impact on The Cult’s visual identity, Billy also pointed out that there’s more to it than just the looks. Ultimately, these instruments helped him change the sound and The Cult’s creative direction. He explained:
“Two things — the white guitar, the Gretsch, was initially gotten to be in a band before The Cult, and it became kind of iconic. It’s bit of a like a Cadillac guitar. It makes a big statement. It’s a big presence.”
Going over to the musical side of things, Billy then added:
“But it also has a sound, and it challenges you in the way that you can play it because you can’t play it like a Les Paul. It’s like a big car you can’t drive, [that] you wouldn’t drive around a racetrack, you know what I mean? It’s not a sports car.”
“So it made me write in a different way. And that was part of The Cult sound initially, the way that it forced me to perform. And that was what I was looking for after punk.”
Adding that “it’s not just about the look of the guitar,” Billy also pointed out that the band was trying to solidify their musical style. And that was a challenge back in the early 1980s when they were just starting out. Punk, in its initial form, was kind of losing its momentum and there were also plenty of other new movements within the genre. And, in this case, his Gretsch guitars proved to be an advantage.
“You got to understand,” Duffy pointed out, “the Gretsch sounded different. And we were all after the [Sex] Pistols and The Clash and The Damned and [Siouxsie and] the Banshees.”
“We were all looking in the early ’80s for our own signature sound. And you got, like the Edge and John McGeoch and The Psychedelic Furs guys and Will [Sergeant] from Echo & the Bunnymen and a billion great guitar players.”
“We were all reaching for something and trying to find our own identity,” he added, explaining that “you’re not going out-Steve-Jones Steve Jones.”
Looking at the bigger picture, both the sound and the image work together. And, according to Billy, his Gretsch White Falcon was helping the band in both departments.
“So there’s the look, but it’s not about the look as much as it’s about the sound. The balance between that… The image is important if you’ve got something to back it up. But you can’t just be all image. Eventually, you’ll get found out, you have to have substance with it.”
But although he’s known for the Gretsch guitar, it’s well-known that Billy is holding a Gibson Les Paul Custom on the cover of The Cult’s “Sonic Temple” record.
“The ‘Sonic Temple’ thing,” he recalled, adding that “we realized that that period in time was a very strong rock period for the world culture. Rock was big and back. Punk was over, rock was back.”
And with this in mind, a pretty-looking Les Paul would fit the classic rock image that they were aiming for:
“We just were looking for an image, and actually, we talked about the pictures of The Who with Pete Townshend and holding up the guitar in the air and images of him jumping up with the Les Paul… The guitar he held in the air, funnily enough, was an SG but it was that iconic imagery that just said ‘rock.'”
So they pretty much did the same thing. In this process, the band’s vocalist and co-founder Ian Astbury was also making decisions. Billy continued:
“And Ian decided and we both agreed with the guy who designed the sleeve that the guitar is the most iconic element of rock music. We played around with some images of the lead singer with a microphone and the spotlight and like ‘The Free Story’ sleeve or Queen’s first album. And that focused on the lead singer, the iconic mic, and the spotlight and that kind of thing.”