Paul Kossoff: The Forgotten Virtuoso Of British Blues
The British Blues scene has produced some of the world’s finest guitarists. Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck have changed the face of music through their playing. In doing so they have inspired the next generation of blues guitarists and blues lovers.
They are part of a very exclusive club. As a result of excess or tragedy, only a few guitarists from the golden era of the 1960s and 1970s are around to tell the tale. Many of those who have passed away – like Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan – are remembered and celebrated through their music. Sadly, others have faded into obscurity.
One such man who has been left behind is Paul Kossoff – the lead guitarist for Free.
Free formed in 1968 and disbanded only 3 years later. They were one of the seminal blues-rock bands of the 1960s and 1970s, but by their own admission, are perhaps best remembered as ‘the band who recorded that song used in a chewing gum advert.’ All Right Now (the song featured in said chewing gum advert) is probably one of the most recognisable rock songs of all time. Beyond that, I am always amazed to discover how few people are acquainted with the rest of Free’s discography. Especially given that their music has stood the test of time. As Luke Morley – the guitarist for Thunder, so perfectly puts it:
They have an incredible musical economy, which is very unusual in rock ‘n’ roll. Most rock bands want to play loud all the time, and to achieve that kind of economy and space is amazing. They’re an exceptional group of musicians.
At the heart of Free’s unique approach is Kossoff’s exceptional guitar playing.
Paul Kossoff – ‘The Little Lion Cub’
Born in North London in 1950, Paul Kossoff learnt the guitar when he was only 8 years old, having gone to see Tommy Steele play at the London Palladium with his father. By the time he was a teenager, the British blues scene had exploded and he had become entranced by players like Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix.
Kossoff – nicknamed ‘The little lion cub’ by bassist Andy Fraser – was only 18 years old when he joined Free. He wasn’t even 20 by the time Fire and Water was released and the band had achieved widespread commercial success.
Even at this tender age, he was recognised for the quality of his playing. When Kossoff was just 19 and Free were touring with Blind Faith in 1969, Eric Clapton – one of his idols – approached him in the dressing room and asked ‘how the hell’ he achieved such a sound through his vibrato.
Kossoff’s playing captivated guitarists like Clapton because his approach differed from those of his contemporaries. As Alexis Korner – the ‘Founder of British Blues’ – remarked, Paul Kossoff wasn’t interested in playing as many notes as possible. He knew ‘how to use silence’.
The Sound of Silence
Trying to imitate Kossoff’s playing is very challenging – both mentally and physically. His vibrato is so powerful and muscular and executed at such a pace, that attempting to emulate it is taxing. I can sustain it for a few songs but I quickly start to lose momentum. If there is one element of Kossoff’s playing that distinguishes him as one of the greats of the British Blues scene, it is this. After all, when Eric Clapton is asking you for tips on how to play, you know you’re doing something right…
Mentally, trying to emulate Kossoff’s playing is even more difficult. Effective guitar soloing is as much about the notes you don’t play, as those that you do. To create impactful solos you have to ‘leave space’ between the notes. If you don’t, it’s too much for the ear to handle and as a listener you become overwhelmed. Less is often more.
What’s more, when you play a flurry of notes in quick succession, it becomes more difficult to put emotion into each note. That’s the kiss of death if you’re trying to play the blues. If you can’t make people feel something through your playing, then you should pack up your bags and go home.
This is exacerbated by the structural limitations of the blues. As blues players we generally aren’t utilising exotic scales; we’re sticking to a relatively straightforward set of notes and shapes. If you look at legendary blues men like Freddie King, in some instances they stick to only a handful of notes when soloing (the song Going Down is a good example of this). It’s not the number of notes these guitarists play; it’s their tone and phrasing that makes their soloing impactful.
Paul Kossoff – A Master of Blues-Rock Phrasing
Long story short, to improve as blues guitar players we need to focus on the quality of every note, not how many we can cram into a solo. Most of us are aware of this on some level, but it’s easier said than done. Leaving space in your playing requires confidence, which we don’t have when we’re starting out.
When I first started improvising and soloing, I was so nervous about hitting the wrong note that I’d go straight onto the next one. I still remember playing along with a backing track during my early guitar lessons and my teacher stopping me every time I started to get a bit frantic. We stopped the backing track a lot. This remains one element of my playing with which I still struggle. Fighting against the insecure beginner within me is a daily battle.
It is one of the main reasons I’m so impressed by Paul Kossoff. Putting his beautiful tone and exceptional vibrato to the side, he is a master of leaving space in his soloing. He can still play at speed (just listen to the solos on The Hunter for an example of his faster playing) but more often than not, his approach is one of quality, rather than quantity. His solos are at times so sparse that trying to imitate them (for me at least) is psychologically difficult. I really have to resist the urge to play more notes. Kossoff will hit a bend and just let it hang there – using his aggressive vibrato to sustain the note.
Paul Kossoff’s Best Moments
In some ways, Paul Kossoff’s solos in are not that imaginative, nor are they as technically challenging to play as those of his peers – Hendrix, Clapton and Page. He also utilises a lot of repetition in his playing and his musical palette is not that diverse. All of that pales in significance though, to how his playing makes you feel. Kossoff’s soaring bends and frenetic vibrato continue to resonate with listeners almost fifty years after Free disbanded. Here are my top five songs where you can hear him at his best:
The release of Fire and Water in 1970 was the pinnacle of Free’s commercial success. If there is one song that embodies the sound of the band, it would be Fire and Water. This version – recorded live at the BBC is perhaps my favourite Free song. The sound has a depth and quality that is absent from the studio version. Kossoff here is at his best – the tone, phrasing and emotion of his solos are sublime.
This song is arguably more notable for Andy Fraser’s brilliant bass solo than it is for Paul Kossoff’s guitar work. Yet when Kossoff does feature, his playing is brilliant. The short guitar solo exhibits his spare style of soloing in all of its glory, and the ensuing bass solo from Fraser showcases the awesome level of musicianship in the band.
Eric Clapton once expressed his desire to ‘knock an audience cold with one note’. Kossoff gets as close as it comes to that in Catch a Train. The first soaring bend in the introduction hits me every I hear it. Kossoff punctuates the rest of the song beautifully with short licks and phrases that support Rodgers’ vocals. He also throws in a killer guitar solo for good measure.
Free played a cover of The Hunter as the finale of their early gigs. It proved so popular that they wrote All Right Now with the aim of replacing it as their closing song. The quality of Kossoff’s vibrato showcases his masterful control of the instrument. The solos also highlight a rare moment where both he and the band really let loose.
Free reunited in 1972 in an effort to save Paul Kossoff from his growing drug addictions. By this point, he was in such bad shape that moments before they played the Royal Albert Hall, drummer Simon Kirke had to teach him the chords for All Right Now. ‘Heartbreaker’ was to be Free’s final studio album. The title track showcases Rodgers’ stunning vocals and features a beautiful guitar solo from Kossoff. This is made more poignant by the circumstances in which it was recorded and Kossoff’s untimely death just a few years later.
Free at Last
Tragically, Free’s reunion was not able to save Paul Kossoff from his growing addictions. His continued inability to perform led to cancelled tours both in the Europe and US. When he did manage to hold it together, he was a shadow of his former self. Increasingly frustrated by the chaos of the tour, Andy Fraser left. Free disbanded again, which sent Kossoff into a deeper decline. Only a few years later, after numerous health complications, he passed away on a flight to New York with his newly formed band ‘The Back Street Crawlers’. He was 25 years old.
Like his hero Jimi Hendrix, Paul Kossoff shone brightly but burned out quickly. Unlike Hendrix, he has largely faded into obscurity. Yet his playing went on to have a profound impact. Brian May and Joe Bonamassa are two of the most notable guitarists who have cited Kossoff as an influence.
Bonamassa in particular has spoken on numerous occasions about Paul Kossoff and has also played live with Paul Rodgers, covering songs like Fire and Water. Ultimately I think that Bonamassa summed it up best when Gibson released a custom shop replica of Kossoff’s 1959 Les Paul, in 2012:
Paul Kossoff is one of the greatest underrated guitar players. He is not a household name, but he should be.
Amen to that, Joe.