The Sound of James Bond

Multi award winning composer David Arnold has not only composed the music for blockbusters Stargate, Independence Day and Godzilla but he has scored five James Bond films as well writing the theme songs for two of them.

We asked David to share with us how just how he captured that famous James Bond sound.

Over to you David...

Photo portrait of David Arnold in a black shirt

There are plenty of cinema heroes who have a theme…Superman, Indiana Jones, The Man With No Name, Harry Potter to name but a few, but there are far fewer who have a sound.

There’s nothing quite as exciting as watching a movie, waiting for your personal favourite character to arrive on the big screen and hear them accompanied by the perfect theme and the perfect sound

For me, James Bond will always be the guy who got the best of both worlds.

An incredibly effective theme (written by Monty Norman) and the most breathtakingly exciting arrangement of that theme by John Barry.

As a film composer I’ve never been in any doubt as to why I got excited by the Bond movies a passion that has extended into adulthood. It was the music and the sound of the music that got to me, in particular, that dark and violent twanging guitar part.

David Arnold on stage playing in an orchestra

When I was around 8 years old I attended a children’s Christmas party in my hometown of Luton, Bedfordshire, arranged and provided by the Leagrave Branch of the British Legion. The party was attended by around 40 local kids. It happened in the Legion hall and had everything you’d want as an 8-year-old…Sandwiches, Drinks, Cakes and biscuits and most important…Trifle (still the greatest food ever created). 

There was a children’s entertainer…balloon animals, games, dancing and finally, when every last cake was eaten and every last balloon had been twisted into something you could take home if you could manage not to pop it (the balloons were generally a sword, flower, dog or Giraffe), it was time for the finale. A screening of an actual film.

These were the days before video, DVD or streaming. When you screened a film, you had to screen a film. Actual 16 mil film on reels that had to be hand threaded onto a projector and focused onto a portable screen with a single mono speaker sat forlornly yet courageously at the foot of the screen, determined to fill that room with at least 10 watts of pure mono cinematic noise.

Within the first ten minutes I’d heard the James Bond Theme, the song “You Only Live Twice”

and John Barry’s incredible score. Space ships, Ninjas, Villains Lair in a hollowed out Volcano, Sean Connery swagger, views of the world I’d never seen…

...I was sold.

Quite a few years later…I am scoring my own James Bond film, the first of 5.

The sound that had got me so excited is now my responsibility. I really wanted to find the right spirit of the music as well as the sound…and the guitar sound itself was the thing I was chasing more than anything else.

The original was played by legendary session guitar player Vic Flick on a Clifford Essex Paragon Guitar (a guitar I didn’t own through a Vox AC15 amp). So I tried a few guitars and amps, all with different pick up options but nothing was working.

I did a bit of research on the Paragon and found a guitar close to it design wise. The amp originally used wasn’t that big but it was in a room with the rest of the band…so the overall sound was a mixture of the guitar, amp and the whole band playing the theme at the same time all bleeding into each other’s microphones.

The effect was that the music leaps out of the speakers and every instrument had a space but always felt part of a whole.

I finally discovered the way to that sound, or at least my version of it. A Semi Acoustic guitar strung with the heaviest (thickest) guitar string I could buy. So thick you could barely bend them. On top of that…a really heavy stiff pick (or plectrum). Playing the guitar as hard as I could…really attacking those heavy strings with a heavy pick and having the guitar plugged straight into a valve amplifier with no pedals produced that elusive noise.

David Arnold playing a guitar

I’ve stuck with that set up ever since. In fact, that guitar is only ever used to play The James Bond theme as the strings are so heavy I can barely play anything else on it! Every time I play it I realise I’ve not really come that far from the 8-year-old who heard it first in a Luton Children’s Christmas Party.

My Flare Favourite...
My favourites are the E-Prototype earphones. I have problems with a lot of in-ear headphones and these are the only ones that stay in and when they are in...

...I can hear everything exactly the way I want to hear it. They are the best I’ve heard. 

Follow David on twitter here: @DavidGArnold