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Biffy Clyro's Simon Neil: "Playing the guitar was one of the only ways I could express myself"

Simon Neil formed Biffy Clyro with brothers and Ben and James Johnston over 25 years ago, just after trio had become teenagers. Now the childhood friends are a full-blown arena band and one of the greatest British rock success stories of the last 20 years. But while the venues have got progressively bigger since their first local shows in Kilmarnock, Simon's love for the guitar is the same as it was in the beginning.

"Seeing someone in front of a Marshall was sort of like, that’s who I want to be," he recalls. And he's still a Marshall player today, at home and onstage. The iconic amp company sat down with Simon to talk tone, guitar inspirations and his hopes for 2021. 

Biffy Clyro and Marshall

(Image credit: Marshall)

What are you playing through today?

“I'm playing through the Studio Vintage 20-watt. Now I’ve fallen in love with this amp immediately, I’m hoping I can talk the Mrs into getting one of these for the living room. It’s a fantastic bit of kit! ­

“Apart from the fact it looks absolutely delicious, it’s got everything you’d need for something in the house. You can get it pretty driven if you want to, for 20-watts it breaks up pretty quick so you can get the distortion on it. It’s handling these pedals really, really well today.

“It just feels… dramatic. Sometimes you get an amp for the house and it does just feel like a practice amp, but when you’re standing there playing this feels as though you could be playing a show, which for a player like me helps a lot.

“It’s given me wonderful control over everything. With a Strat I’m managing to get everything I want from it. I’m getting it as dark as I want it as well as bright and attacking when I need that too. Especially with this distortion pedal, basically the bottom line is I’m going to be leaving here today with one of these.”

MARSHALL STUDIO VINTAGE RANGE

Biffy Clyro and Marshall

(Image credit: Marshall)

The The Studio Vintage is available as a 20W head or combo, along with a single or double speaker cabinet.

The SV20 brings the classic tone of the 1959SLP straight to your home. It's arguably the most famous amp of all time and has been perfectly reinvented by Marshall for today’s guitarist.

Uniting the original all-valve sound with the choice to switch between 20W and 5W at the touch of a button, it's all packed into the definitive rock rig.

Have you been happy with it tone-wise?

“Tone-wise, it’s fab. I’ve tried loads of guitars and some of them can be kinda hard to control, especially this single-coil Strat. So to find an amp that can make it soft and warm or hard and brittle, whatever I need, is everything I need from an amp really. It absolutely ticks all the boxes.”

How similar would you say it is to your live rig?

"I think that you can get the sound very, very close to my live rig. Obviously if I had my live rig and I cranked that one up, it’s going to destroy your house and well… you just wouldn’t have that! I’m really not hearing much difference in the tone at all, even having it at really low volume. 

"I had it at almost zero and it still feels like it’s got that something to it. The tone really sticks no matter how loud you have it. The ‘high treble’ really can just take you somewhere else and that ‘loudness 2’ is where that drive comes from. It feels like you can achieve anything with this amp and it’s unbelievable with such a small setup."

How has Marshall helped your band in general?

Most people that pick up a guitar aspire to play through a Marshall from the moment they start - I did at least! Seeing all these people up on stage playing Marshalls just makes you think, ‘that’s what I want, I want to be playing a Marshall’. We, as a band, have been lucky enough to have been working with you guys for probably about 15 years now, if not longer!

“Whether it’s in the studio or live, a Marshall is always the first thing I get in my set up. It’s not a Biffy song, it’s not me playing if I don’t have a Marshall in the rig. I have pretty much the same set up from the first record and it’s the basis of everything I play, and the Marshall is where my sound starts and ends and I think Ben and James would agree. On so many levels, standing in front of that Marshall is just iconic not only as a fan of music but also as a player, it just gives me everything I need."

Biffy Clyro and Marshall

(Image credit: Marshall)

How did you get started with the band? How did Biffy Clyro come together?

“We were just school friends, this is our high school band! We started playing together when we were like 13/14 and have been friends from when we were seven so we just kept playing and writing songs together after school.

“Obviously when we were doing this, social media wasn’t really a thing at all which gave us the chance to kind of just develop in the shadows. Which I think was really an important factor for us, because we really did start from the bottom, I guess you’d say… no knowledge and no experience.

“We didn’t even know anyone who played music so everything I related to came from MTV or music magazines, all that sort of stuff, that’s the things that really stuck with me so, again, seeing someone in front of a Marshall was sort of like, that’s who I want to be!

“We are still very much that same teenage band that we have always been, but I really couldn’t imagine my life without being in this band, I know the boys feel the same way as well. I’ve always felt music is the gift that really keeps on giving, even when life can get tough it’s like music can bring you joy, whether it’s your own or someone else’s.

Who are/were your biggest influences playing guitar?

"Well there’s two big influences for me. The first being Slash. Growing up I was always seeing videos of Guns N’ Roses from the other side of the world like they’re some sort of rock and roll wizards! I always knew that I’d never be as good or as technical as him, but I was still influenced by how he played. My second influence was Kurt Cobain, who played with such emotion and intensity and wasn’t too worried about technique, which was so opposite to Slash.

“I can’t say that I’m in the middle of Kurt Cobain and Slash, but they are the two styles of playing that I really, really fell in love with at a young age and they still are my biggest influences. There’s been some terrific guitar players and bands that also had an influence on me but those two really are the foundation of me finding my style. A combination of chaos and punk from Kurt Cobain and the soulful side of what Slash plays."

Biffy Clyro and Marshall

(Image credit: Marshall)

What made you pick up a guitar and start learning in the first place?

“I played violin for about six years before I played guitar, so I think I had some sort of comfort with stringed instruments. Honestly, when I first started playing guitar, I thought there’s frets with a guitar! Violin doesn’t tell you where to put your fingers! This is going to be easy! Of course, it wasn’t… it was a whole can of worms.

“Again though first picking up a guitar was because of seeing Slash and I always wanted to write my own songs and that move from violin to guitar just felt so important. I never really wanted to take lessons to learn the technical side, I did just want to kind of feel my way through it and because I tried to transfer my violin knowledge it did make my playing slightly odd.I only really figured that out when I’d play with other people and they’d ask me, what are you doing there?

"Playing the guitar was one of the only ways that I really felt I could express myself as a person really, to be honest. I think writing songs has always helped me to communicate in ways that I maybe struggle in with regular life."

Biffy Clyro and Marshall

(Image credit: Marshall)

What inspires you when you’re playing or when you’re writing?

“Lots of things inspire me, music and movies will inspire me to pick up my guitar but ultimately it’s all about feel and emotion. I try to keep my brain out of it as much as possible when I’m sitting writing a song. You should almost get lost when you’re writing a song, it’s about feeling rather than thought. 

"Usually if I think I’ve written something beautiful sometimes it’ll feel like it’s accidentally happened because at the time I’m too into the moment to realise. That’s the way to do it you’ve always got to have your antenna out for when the ideas zap, I think that’s a Keith Richards quote? You’re never too sure when you’re going to stumble into something brilliant. I always have a general guide and I call it the goosebump test and I think that’s pretty self-explanatory!”

Biffy Clyro and Marshall

(Image credit: Marshall)

What are your career highlights so far? Any real stand-out moments?

“Yeah! I think I’ve talked to you guys about this before, I think it was 2007 when we were playing with Linkin Park, I was asked who the one person was who’d I really want to play with and, of course, it was Slash. Then a few years later at the MTV awards I was asked to play Crazy Train for Ozzy with Slash in the band!

“There are very few things in life where you realise in the moment just how special it is, usually it’s in reflection you’ll sit and think, ‘wow that was mental’, but almost every moment of that I was very aware that I was playing guitar with my lifetime hero, and not only that but the person who made me want to play guitar and made me want to make music. 

"I was very aware that I was now stood on stage with him playing guitar and we were having this private communication through music and it was one of the few moments in my life where I kind of zoned out and felt the weight of what was going on, my legs almost buckled!

“Another big one for me was when we headlined Reading and Leeds festival for the first time. I set my guitar on fire – it was one of those preposterous moments, setting your guitar alight in front of 80,000 people… I felt like a demi-god for a moment! It was wonderful, it’s one of the moments that will live with me forever, just holding that guitar above my head with the feedback going mental! Just preposterous in a good way!”

Biffy Clyro and Marshall

(Image credit: Marshall)

What advice would you give to any young bands or guitarists starting up?

“If you’re picking up a guitar for the first time or playing with friends, just play stuff that turns you on. Don’t worry about what other people are playing, don’t worry about being the best. Use it as a way to express how you feel, that’s how I got into it and I’m slowly getting more technical and more professional over the years.

“When you’re starting up a band make sure you’re in a band with people that you like. You cannot do anything about what other people are going to like, or dislike, about your band or your music. So just be honest with yourself, make music that you dig, that your friends dig and don’t make things complicated.

“The one thing about this horrific period that we’re in is things have simplified for a lot of us, and it’s made us realise how much we need this and how much we love playing and making music together. The joy is in those simple moments, make sure you’re having fun with your friends and don’t put yourself under any pressure.

“Explore! Explore what the guitar does! There’s so much great stuff online these days to learn from, for any genre of music you can find a path. If you want to learn more of the details and the theory you can do that too, but personally I’m always a fan of getting all your mates together and making a racket and making a vibe, making sure you’re all smiling and life will be good!”

Biffy Clyro and Marshall

(Image credit: Gone Fishing Effects)

What have you got coming up in terms of Biffy Clyro?

“We had a quiet 2020. We realised a new record, A Celebration of Endings, in August and it’s been strange to not take it straight out on the road. It’s such an integral part of the process, I do still feel slightly estranged from the album because I haven’t been singing the songs night after night! So yeah, that’s been a weird one!

“We’re just working on other music at the moment and a few other projects, just keeping the juices flowing, waiting to get the green light to go out and play some shows. We’re hoping to go on tour in April with a tour called the Fingers Crossed tour if… well enough said!

“In the meantime, my wonderful guitar tech Churd [Richard Pratt], who has been with me for at least 15 years we’ve been talking about building a pedal for the last five or six years, maybe even longer and finally this year we’ve had time to do it! So Churd, like a total trooper, has hand built this pedal and we’re going to make a limited-edition number!

“Every one will be hand built, every one will be personalised to you because I’ll be signing them all. It’s got a distortion on one side and a fuzz on the other, it’s called the Boom Blast pedal, I’ve been using it today with my playing, it’s been sort of my first few days playing with the real beast! It really does feel terrific, it’s one of the reasons I’m so impressed with hearing what this amp can handle, the first thing I said to Churd about this pedal was that I wanted it to be the loudest pedal on the market! So the fact that this is handling this no problem is incredible!

“Ultimately, we just want to get out and play live, like everyone else! I want to go and see my favourite bands, I want to go and play shows and I hope we all get a chance to go and do it soon!”

To see more Marshall Artist Spotlight videos visit the Marshall Amplification YouTube channel. For more information on the Marshall Studio Vintage range visit Marshall.com