Gary Moore: Virtuoso guitarist who had his biggest hits with Phil Lynott and Thin Lizzy

A versatile virtuoso guitarist with a clean sound and a distinctive, sustained tone, Gary Moore would grimace and unleash torrents of fluid notes from his trademark Gibson Les Paul, and drew ecstatic responses from audiences across Europe throughout the last three decades. However, as he willingly admitted, he often had a tendency "to play a song four minutes after it's finished."

His playing improved immeasurably at the tail-end of the 1980s, when he abandoned the heavy rock he had made his name with as a solo artist, a hired gun, and as an on-off member of the legendary Irish band Thin Lizzy, and rediscovered the blues that had inspired him in the first place. He also heeded the advice given to him by the blues guitarist Albert King when they were recording "Oh Pretty Woman" for the 1990 album Still Got The Blues, and began to play every other lick. "It was the best thing anyone has ever said to me," Moore said. "It's the simplest thing in the world, and when you think about it, it's absolutely right. A lot of guitar players, in every genre, are afraid to leave space. They're afraid to leave a hole, afraid they'll fall down it or something. When you get into the habit of leaving a space, you become a much better player for it. If you've got an expressive style, and can express your emotions through your guitar, and you've got a great tone, it creates a lot of tension for the audience. It's all down to the feel thing. If you've got a feel for the blues, that's a big part of it. But you've got to leave that space."

Moore scored his biggest hits with the Thin Lizzy frontman Phil Lynott, a lifelong friend, who sang and co-wrote the sublime ballad "Parisienne Walkways" in 1979, and duetted with him on "Out In The Fields", a song inspired by the Troubles in Northern Ireland, in 1985, the year before he died following a heroin overdose. As a member of Thin Lizzy, Moore contributed a Carlos Santana-like guitar solo to the studio version of "Still In Love With You" on the Nightlife album in 1974, and recorded Black Rose (A Rock Legend), a No 2 album in 1979.

As well as playing blistering guitar leads in tandem with Scott Gorham, the band's American-born guitarist, on the hit singles "Waiting For An Alibi" and "Do Anything You Want To", Moore co-wrote the popular track "Sarah" with Lynott – and played all the guitar parts – and collaborated with him on the album's closer and title track which drew on the traditional Irish melodies "Shenandoah", "Danny Boy" and "The Mason's Apron".

Moore was a guitar freak, happy to discuss the minutiae of amplification and the pros and cons of various makes and manufacturers in great detail. He played in a variety of styles and settings throughout his career, joining Jon Hiseman's jazz-fusion group Colosseum II in the mid-'70s, serving as a sideman extraordinaire to Greg Lake in the early '80s, or as an Eric Clapton supersub alongside the bassist and vocalist Jack Bruce and the drummer Ginger Baker in the not-quite-Cream trio BBM in the early '90s. Yet, his best work was undoubtedly made with Lynott or in the electric blues idiom he explored with gusto on the Afterhours, Blues Alive and Blues For Greeny albums in the '90s.

He was one of five children born to a Belfast-based promoter and a housewife in 1952. "My father was responsible for me starting in music. He's always stood behind me," said Moore, who made his singing debut as a six-year-old with a showband at an event organised by his father. Though left-handed, when he picked up an old acoustic guitar in 1960, he began playing it right-handed and never looked back, especially after acquiring a better model from another showband and forming his first group, the Beat Boys. He absorbed and imitated the style and musicianship of Hank Marvin of The Shadows, Beatle George Harrison – who became a friend in later life, leading to Moore contributing lead guitar to "She's My Baby" on the Traveling Wilburys Vol 3 album – and the John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and Yardbirds guitar academies that produced Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor and Jeff Beck.

Moore also went back to the triumvirate of the blues Kings, Albert, BB and Freddie, and players like Otis Rush for inspiration, and practiced constantly. In the late 1960s he left Belfast for Dublin and fell in with Lynott when he joined Skid Row, his first professional band. "Phil was a tall, skinny, cool black guy," Moore said. "There weren't a lot of black guys in Dublin then, and Phil stood out like a sore thumb." The two shared a bedsit, even after Lynott was edged out of the group, who became a blues-rock power trio and recorded two albums with Moore.

Lynott went on to form Thin Lizzy with drummer Brian Downey and guitarist Eric Bell, and called on Moore when Bell left at the end of 1973. Moore only lasted a few months but returned for a brief stint in early 1977, and a longer spell between August 1978 and July 1979, and also guested with the band during their farewell tour in 1983.

The guitarist made several unsuccessful attempts to break the drink-and-drugs spiral his friend had fallen into. "When Phil got into his 30s, he'd gone downhill," Moore said about Lynott, who died in January 1986. "At that point, I wasn't into any of that shit at all. I was just trying to make music. But he never wanted me to be into what he was into. I'm sure he warned me about it. Around the time of "Out In The Fields", I knew he was in trouble. I'd go round to his house at lunchtime when he'd just got out of bed and come down with a glass of whiskey in one hand and a spliff in the other. You could tell he wasn't very happy. But he couldn't admit he had a problem. As far as Phil was concerned, he could handle anything. But that shit catches up on everyone. It doesn't matter who you are, it'll get you in the end. Phil read the Jimi Hendrix version of "How To Be A Rock Star", and that wasn't a good thing for him in the end because he kind of bought into all that and he was a kind of live fast/die young guy. I was no angel, but I didn't get into the harder drugs Phil got into."

By then, Moore was eight albums into a solo career that had seen him rise from supporting Van Halen in the US in 1980 to being able to call on the likes of Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice to make Corridors Of Power and Victims Of the Future a couple of years later, to selling out theatres in the UK and Europe on the back of the Top Ten successes of Wild Frontier and After The War. He was signed to Virgin, who had turned him into a guitar hero, albeit a slightly reluctant one.

"I was sick of the whole thing," he told me. "Whenever I was in the dressing room on my own, I'd start playing blues to myself. One night, Bob Daisley, the bass player, came in and said, 'You know, Gary, you should make a blues album next. It might be the biggest thing you ever did.' I laughed. He laughed, too. But I did, and he was right, and it was. Still Got The Blues sold 3m in just a few months."

Even if Moore occasionally relapsed into clichés, he mostly indulged his blues muse, recording with BB King and Albert Collins and presenting an award-winning series, Blues Power, for the digital station Planet Rock in 2007, as well as touring with his hero Peter Green. The guitarists had first met in the late 1960s when Skid Row supported Fleetwood Mac at Dublin's National Stadium, and Moore later bought Green's 1959 Gibson Les Paul guitar, which he used for many years. In 2002, he bought an Edwardian house in Brighton, venturing out on tour every year. When I saw him at the Montreux Jazz Festival last July, he played a jaw-dropping 10-minute version of "Parisienne Walkways" with a touch more melancholy than on the original.

Paying tribute, Eric Bell said: "He had incredible enthusiasm for music, great energy, very dedicated musician. He was a good laugh as well; a lot of people said he was kind of grumpy but I never saw him that way ... His enthusiasm for the instrument was remarkable. He had a feel for it. It can sort of get that way, it's just you and the guitar against the world really; that was what it was like in the early days for myself and Gary and he won through."

Robert William Gary Moore, guitarist, singer and songwriter: born Belfast 4 April 1952; married (marriage dissolved, two sons); one daughter with partner Jo; died Estepona, Spain 6 February 2011.

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