September 2, 2023

When Bernie Marsden passed away in August at the age of 72, one thing very quickly became clear: no one had a bad word to say about him. It’s not that he was the flashest, slickest guitarist on the planet, or even that he had the best blues licks or emotional communication, or that he wrote the best songs or had the greatest singing voice. He didn’t have any of these things. But he had a universal presence.

Photo by Fabio Gianardi

When I first came to this glorious business of music journalism in 2014, Bernie was my first assignment. I couldn’t believe my luck, that when I came out of nowhere and applied to write for the venerable Rock Society magazine; they asked me to submit a sample of my writing, then took a look at it and said, seems all right, we’ve got Bernie Marsden coming up, d’you fancy a go at it? I was like, what, the Bernie Marsden, ex of Whitesnake, co-writer of such classic rock hits as Fool For Your Loving and Here I Go Again? And so it was, that a couple of weeks later, I found myself on the phone, conversing with Bernie at his home in Buckinghamshire. And what a pleasure it was; it was like chatting to your granddad. He described himself as a guy who “plays the guitar and sings a bit.”

He had something of a dilemma, because he had so many anecdotes of so many musicians, and yet he seemed apologetic, almost embarrassed, to be able to drop those famous names into conversation as if it was nothing. His first professional position had been a brief stint with UFO just before Michael Schenker’s tenure, after which he had been drafted in on guitar duties with the Deep Purple splinter group Paice Ashton Lord. David Coverdale, also from Deep Purple, was forming his own band at the same time, originally with Micky Moody on guitar, whom Coverdale knew from his pre-Purple days. They recorded an EP and an album with just Micky, but when Coverdale re-jigged his band for the next EP, Bernie was drafted in alongside Micky to create a twin guitar attack, during the transition period from David Coverdale, to David Coverdale’s Whitesnake, to simply Whitesnake. Bernie was only with the band for four years, but that was the time when Whitesnake created its signature sound, and Bernie is still considered a member of the classic line-up.

I think it’s true to say that, although Bernie had been in multiple bands before Whitesnake, and had played with pretty much everyone since, bringing out over 20 solo albums and guesting on well over 100 more, most rock fans know his name purely from those four years with the ‘Snake. I asked him if he was cool with that, and his voice took on a degree of shocked surprise that I should even ask such a thing. “Absolutely!” he exclaimed. “Without Whitesnake, I wouldn’t be talking to you now! When you join a band, or go professional when you’re 21, what do you want to do? You want to be a rock star! How many people make it? People who are better than me, more talented, better guitar players, better songwriters who I’ve known over the years, never got a break.”

First solo album – the appropriately-named And About Time Too, 1979

I bet more than a few musicians reading this page will identify with that sentiment. But it was typical of the man, and his humility, that he viewed those four years as a lottery win that effectively made his career for the rest of his life. As a direct consequence, he has shared stages, magazine pages and vinyl space with some of the world’s top players. Just as a sample, Jack Bruce played on Bernie’s debut solo album in 1979 (left), and Bernie guested on Jack’s Silver Rails; he has backed Ringo Starr, played in Elkie Brooks’ band, and in 2014 he played a gig with the Allman Brothers band in New York. That was as exciting for Marsden as playing his first opening night as a headliner at the Marquee in 1973. “To be up there playing alongside Warren and Derek,” he enthused, “and in front of Butch Trucks and Jaimoe – you can imagine how many times I have played those tracks in my career with different bands, but now I can say I’ve played them with the actual guys!” Also, look out for his guest appearances on albums by Jon Lord, Cozy Powell and Don Airey, and his multiple post-Whitesnake collaborations with Micky Moody.

For all that, the first time I actually saw Bernie on stage was when he appeared out of the wings for the encore at a Joe Bonamassa gig in Brighton. The next time was guesting with Warren Haynes and Gov’t Mule. I wonder how many high-flying rock bands have not had Bernie guest with them at some point? But for all his experience, and the respect he gained as an elder statesman of the British rock scene, he spoke about those various musicians with a mixture of deep gratitude and one might almost say, reverence. This awe for the people he has played with, and humble bemusement at where the journey has taken him, are the overriding impressions from a conversation with Marsden about his career. He recounts a conversation he has had with some great stellar musician, or an anecdote about some huge star he has collaborated with, then apologises in case it sounds as if he’s name-dropping. But it seemed to me that it was his jovial good nature as much as his undoubted playing ability that took him to those places with those people.

Bernie (right) jamming with Gov’t Mule, 2017 (photo by Graeme Stroud)

When we spoke in 2014, he had just released his solo album Shine, on which he was reunited with Coverdale for the first time since Whitesnake. It was recorded at Abbey Road, and also featured guest spots from Deep Purple and Whitesnake drummer Ian Paice, Welsh singer Cherry Lee Mewis,  guitar hero Joe Bonamassa, keyboard wizard Don Airey, and harmonica from Mark Feltham of Nine Below Zero, in addition to a top-notch core band. He signed off that day on a typically self-deprecating note: “It’s magical, and I appreciate it, and I never belittle it. And then someone will say, ‘Whoa, I’ve been listening to you since you did Lovehunter, man.’ Without the Whitesnake thing – well, you just can’t take away what has been given to me through that. And please make sure you get enough thankyous across for all the guys that got involved on this album, because I couldn’t be more delighted. And if you’re not recording this, well… you can remember that, can’t you?”

I don’t know, maybe Bernie Marsden was just a guy who played the guitar and sang a bit. But he played the guitar a lot, and we loved him for it. Thanks Bernie.

Bernard John Marsden, guitarist, songwriter and singer, was born on 7 May 1951 and died on 24 August 2023