Don Airey, Master of Heavy Metal Keyboards

October 2, 2013
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Most rock fans are familiar with the baroque, synth-meets-pipe-organ intro to Ozzy Osbourne’s classic song “Mr. Crowley,” but few know the master keyboard craftsman behind the magic. Throughout a career spanning over four decades, Don Airey has all but owned the very idea of keyboards in hard rock and heavy metal, gracing acts such as Ozzy, Rainbow, Deep Purple, Gary Moore, Whitesnake, and Judas Priest. Most recently, Don can be heard on the reformed Deep Purple’s latest, Now What ?!, released this past may, which also features guitarist Steve Morse of pioneering fusion rockers the Dregs. Here is my full interview with Don, which was excerpted in the November 2013 issue for his induction into the Keyboard Hall of Fame. Visit him online and keep on top of current projects and tour dates at donairey.com.


How did the re-formed Deep Purple come together?

The band got back together again after a hiatus of eight years, in 1984. Ritchie Blackmore then left in 1993 and that’s when Steve Morse joined. I stepped in on a summer tour in 2001 for Jon Lord when he was ill. Jon then quit in 2002, which was when I joined. I got the job through Roger Glover, with whom I’d worked in Rainbow in the early ‘80s and of course I knew the manager, Bruce Payne, very well. I’d worked with Ian Paice in Gary Moore’s Band. I didn’t really know Ian Gillan or Steve, but it didn’t take very long.


What was it like to step into the shoes of Jon Lord? 

It was very difficult to follow Jon into Deep Purple. He was an iconic figure, and it was his band—he’d formed it back in 1968 so it was a difficult situation to say the least. When Jon left and I joined, back in 2002, the band and crew were in a state of shock so I just got on the best I could. The big secret was not trying consciously to be like Jon, but just being myself and realizing the circumstance that I had put myself in—which was into a top-notch band. You don’t have much time to think, “Am I doing alright?” I met Jon occasionally. He was quite something—rock’s answer to Oscar Wilde.

  • CLICK HERE for photos and descriptions of Don Airey's and Jon Lord's gear from vintage issues of Keyboard.

How much do you get to stretch out and solo with Deep Purple?

A lot! There’s a keyboard solo in nearly every tune. There’s a Hammond solo before “Lazy” where the band loves me to stretch out because Jon used to, so it’s part of the tradition. There’s also a separate keyboard solo where I don’t play Hammond—I just play synthesizers and a Kurzweil piano. So you’re always busy—there’s not time to think. One of the most difficult things for me is changing settings, as the show moves on so quickly that you really have got to be on your toes! My keyboard tech is my son, Mike. He’s been working with the band for the last seven years. He handles sound checks if I can’t make it, and is not above sneaking on to the keyboard riser and tweaking the next sound on the Kurzweil, which makes it a little easier for me if I’ve got my hands full during the show.


What particular challenges face the hard rock or metal keyboardist?

The main challenge is a guitarist with his 100-watt amp and two 4 x 12 cabinets pointing straight at you! But seriously, keyboard players as a breed tend to be educated—we can read and write music, do arranging, play rock and jazz and classical, and talk of diminished minors, plagal cadences, and so on. Whereas many rock musicians left school early due to their rebellious natures. That doesn’t stop them from being amazing musicians. Quite the opposite—they often have a facility to get straight to the heart of the musical matter that’s denied to someone like myself, who can faff around forever, seeing all sides of the equation. That’s not always the best way when you’re dealing with something as fundamental as hard rock. 


Metal and hard rock are very guitar-driven, of course. What do you see as the role of keyboards in these genres?

Having a keyboard player in a heavy rock band is quite a rarity, especially if you’re really part of the main fabric of the band instead of just the icing on the cake. I’ve always seen my job as being the pivot point between the bass and the guitar. The job is to provide a cushion of sound—Jon Lord referred to it as a “halo.” You have to support the guitar player as best as you can and make him feel comfortable. I’ve never really thought about it too deeply to be honest, because I’m too busy doing it. Obviously guitar players and singers in particular have dominated rock ‘n’ roll, and in heavy rock over the last 40 years, very few keyboard players of any note have emerged. But we’re still hanging in there. The main thing when I was in a band like Ozzy Osbourne’s, was to keep out of the way to a certain extent, but to come up with telling intros and good bridge sections. You’ve got to come up with good sounds as well and it can be a bit of a gimmick sometimes, but that’s what it’s all about. Another part of the job is recording intro tapes for the live shows. I’ve lost count of the number of those I’ve produced.


When people think of Deep Purple they think of Hammond organ. How much do you get to play piano or synth?

I play a bit of piano, strings, and the odd choir sounds, but mainly it’s Hammond. Except in my [spotlight feature] keyboard solo I play the synthesizers - piano, church organ, orchestral brass sounds, then get on the Moog Voyager and stretch out a bit on that, and then move on to various sound effects; helicopters, Spitfires, and Stukas start winging their way around the auditorium, accompanied by machine gun fire, church bells, and sirens all ending in a massive explosion. Tastefully done of course. Synths are a big thing with me but with Purple I only get to use them en masse in the keyboard solo.


What’s it like to play with Steve Morse, given his fusion background with the Dregs?

I’ve played with a lot of great guitarists over the years and Steve is one of them. He’s a great person to work with. Our relationship has been a little feisty here and there, but looking back, overall, very productive. He’s full of ideas all of the time so I have lots of different sounds ready. He learns things very quickly and he’s got an amazing technique. We get along pretty good musically. He kind of leads the charge onstage, which is good. There’s nothing better for a keyboard player than to get in the guitarist’s slipstream. That’s what I like to do. Steve also makes a lot of the fact that he’s an American in an English band as well [laughs]. He was quite put out when I joined because I just immediately started talking about soccer with the other guys because we’re all big fans!


Do you improvise much when it comes to soloing in Deep Purple?

I improvise a lot. Are you kidding, with Steve Morse around? [Laughs.] Though having said that, I do play Jon’s solo from “Highway Star” note for note simply because English Heritage slapped a preservation order on it. Seriously, how could you improve on it?


What’s the most challenging Deep Purple song to play? The most fun?

“Almost Human” has a run that’s pretty tricky. “Highway Star” is challenging, especially since Jon overdubbed left and right hand parts of the solo separately. “Fireball” is a very strange piece, there’s not much to it but gosh it’s difficult. The rhythm keyboard part is challenging, and there are two organ solos to cope with. Ian Paice was saying the other night how difficult he finds the drum part sometimes. “Hush” is good fun to play, we all have a ball on that one, segued into “Black Night”—ditto!


Let’s talk about road gear. 

I use a real Hammond A100, customized by John Harburay out of Connecticut. My favorite Hammonds have always been A100s over the years; they seem to have something of a purer tone than a B-3. Live, the Hammond goes into two hot-rodded 122 Leslies and a Hughes and Kettner Puretone 100-watt amp driving a 4 x 12 cabinet. I use two effects on the organ: a Vermona spring reverb and a Moogerfooger ring modulator.

I also just acquired a Kurzweil PC3K8—beautiful action and fantastic piano sounds! It also has improved MIDI facilities, which drive a Kurzweil K2661, on through to a rack containing a Roland Fantom, Korg TR-4, and an old Emulator, which we’re about to replace with a digital Mellotron. There’s a two-tier stand at right angles to the Hammond. The PC3K8 goes on the bottom and a Moog Voyager goes on top.

All the synths are routed through a Soundcraft 16-channel digital mixer with inbuilt Lexicon effects, which we use extensively—especially the reverb on the piano sounds and delay on the Moog Voyager. The Voyager is fed through a TC flanger and delay unit. I’ve also added sequencing capability, via an ancient Technodon Cyclosaurus 16-note machine driving an Analogue Solutions monophonic synth. I’ve just started using a Roland sampler to trigger some of the sound effects from the Now What?! album.


What’s customized on your Hammond and Leslies?

The Hammond is chopped. It’s stripped down to its basic components and then rebuilt to about two thirds of the original size and weight. It’s clever how John Harburay does it, and we’ve never had any problems with any of the instruments we’ve purchased from him. They’re built to such a high standard.

Sometimes we go half way to the moon each year in terms of distance traveled so the instruments have to be tough. The Leslies are built into reinforced cases and have quite a bit more power than a stock Leslie: 80 watts instead of 40. The Hammond itself has outputs for two Leslies and two 1/4” jack outputs. When I’m recording my solo albums I use the same system with an additional feed to a Marshall JCM-900 amp and cabinet. It’s powerful. I don’t think I’d ever use a digital Hammond. I’ve tried them and, as wonderful as some of them are, they just don’t do it for me. They don’t sing up in the top end. There’s only one way to go for me and that’s the real thing.


Do you program custom sounds or do you use factory presets for the Deep Purple songs?

I do a lot of the programming on the Kurzweil PC3K8. I build up sounds using five or six channels of MIDI going to each of the different units. String sounds, for example, would be made up of six sounds layered across the keyboard—the same with church organ and choir sounds. You can have a lot of fun; it’s just trying to remember how you did it. I keep a little notebook and write down the basic architecture of each preset. You can hear quite a lot of it on the Now What?! album. There are a lot of synthesizers on the new record: church organ sounds, articulating choirs, weird electronics, demonic filters, all played on the fly. In the context of a rock band, with electronic keyboards what sounds great on headphones doesn’t always cut the mustard when the guitarist comes steaming in at a zillion watts. A lot of your hard work can just vanish. So I try to focus on getting sounds that will cut through and have an impact.


 Do you use the same gear in studio as you do live with Deep Purple?

We’ve got three rigs on the road leapfrogging their way around the planet. We took the B-rig into the studio in Nashville when we made the Now What?! album in July 2012. The B-rig hadn’t been used that much, it wasn’t quite broken in, and it sounded very fresh and I really enjoyed manipulating it for circumstances as they arose. 

When I record my solo stuff I’ve got another rig as well, which is pretty much the same Hammond-wise but utilizes a lot of my old gear that’s now too fragile to take out on the road: Fender Rhodes, Minimoog, Hohner Pianet, Clavioline, tape echoes, and such. I really miss a lot of my old synths—there’s just nothing like them anymore. Oh for a Yamaha CS-80 or a Memorymoog or an Oberheim OBXa, even. As great as the Moog Voyagers are, they don’t quite have the cutting edge of an old Minimoog or ARP Odyssey. Having said that I’ve just acquired a small Leipzig synth from Analogue Solutions and am getting some great results.


Some of your Hammonds have some history to them, right?

Most of mine come from the Hammondstore. John Harburay buys them from people’s homes where generally they’ll have sat unplayed for 40 years. The A100 had integral speakers and was made for home use. I don’t think I’ve had a Hammond that was made after 1967. Apart from the three from the Hammond store, I’ve got another A100 that has a bit of history to it. It belonged to Gary Wright from Spooky Tooth at one point, and then a prog rock band called Tobruk, and then the Choirboys from whom I bought it in 1992. Apart from those, I have an M102 that I’ve had for years and years and also an L100. All secondhand. When I joined Deep Purple, I inherited Jon Lord’s C-3, which had been on the road with the band since 1974. Jon had used it in Whitesnake and then taken it back to Deep Purple when they reformed. He bought it from Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac, and she’d acquired it brand new in 1965. Its career ended when it was pushed out of a cargo plane before the gantry went down in Russia. It had been on the road continuously for 43 years, which is quite a thought. As far as I know, it had never really broken down. Jon told me there was a gig in Calgary in the late 1990s where they plugged it into 220 volts instead of 110, and there was a bit of smoke but they got it working. Hammonds are extraordinary pieces of gear designed by a guy who was really a clockmaker. Incidentally, Jon’s C-3s and Leslies have been restored and I’m sure will end up on display somewhere appropriate.


Who are your main influences?

Classical is huge. In my teenage years I was crazy about Chopin, Schumann, and Liszt; these days Bach, Mozart, and Stravinsky hold sway. Favorite classical pianists are Kissin, Barenboim, Lang Lang, and in particular Maurizio Pollini. I’m also a devotee of a small group of jazz players such as Miles, Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, and Chet Baker, and keyboard-wise there are no greater gods here than Bill Evans and Jimmy Smith. Rock players like Keith Emerson when he was with the Nice pretty much said it all, as did Jon Lord’s early work on the first three Deep Purple albums. Jan Hammer’s playing with the Mahavishnu Orchestra also had a huge impact on me.


What advice would you give to new players who aspire to be like you?

First of all, be yourself. Find out who you are, not who I am. That’s a problem with the industry today, you know, like with all of these “reality” talent shows. People are striving to be someone else and that’s not what it’s about. Secondly, practice, practice, practice! I had a wonderful piano teacher in college named Ricard Bakst, who was Polish and a contemporary of Richter and Gilels at the Moscow Conservatoire. That’s what he would say at every lesson—keep at it. I still practice. This morning, I was playing Chopin’s “Etude No. 4” and after 40 years of doing it, I’m finally getting close! Another five years and I’ll be there! One of the consolations of age I am finding is how wonderful music sounds.

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