When you imagine the modern metal player, what qualities come to mind?
The truth is, being artistic and intelligent don't often inhabit the same body. You don't have to be one to be the other. You think of people like Pete Townshend
and Brian May
and you have extraordinary intellects residing right next door to an insanely high level of talent. But a lot of guitar players aren't able to express themselves in such grand fashion.
Nevermore guitarist Jeff Loomis
is not one of them. A resident of Wisconsin and a still-thick accent, Loomis
is a soft-spoken and careful speaker who measures out his words to express exactly what he is thinking. If he can't think of what he's trying to say, he won't fumble around for minutes tossing out non-sequitirs and bad grammar. He knows how to get inside of a question in order to dig beneath the exposed surface.
In a recent conversation, the guitar player held verbal court in talking about his first solo album titled Zero Order Phase
(he never did explain what the title meant). Though there was some initial confusion regarding the start time for our little tete a tete (I thought he was calling me; he thought I was calling him), we finally got underway about 30 minutes and began the discussion. I didn't know what type of musician was sitting on the other end of this telephone call so I decided to test the waters early.
UG: I've been listening to Zero Order Phase and stealing all your licks, Jeff.
Obviously, I was joking. But for all those guitar players listening to the CD and wanting to steal your licks, what is it they'd need to steal from you in order to sound like you? In other words, what would a guitarist have to be able to play technique-wise to sound like you? What is the essence of Jeff Loomis? Does that make any sense at all?
(Slightly less uncontrolled laughter) Yeah, but it's kind of hard to really answer a question like that because a lot of my playing just comes from simple improve playing. You know what I mean? Where I can really capture the essence and the fire and the magic and all that from just coming up with something right off the top of my head. And I think that I'm really able to capture a lot more energy that way. Not saying that the whole record is really an improve record but I mean, it's a lot of what I do really. You know what I mean?
I write the rhythms and all the drums first and then if I have a problem coming up with a main melody or something like that, I just kind of go for it. And that's a lot of what happened actually on this record.
So, umm, I don't know, I just tend to play like that. It would be hard for me to answer a question like that because sometimes I'm still in puzzle-mode myself when it comes to my guitar playing. I just kind of go for it sometimes.
I understand that completely. It's a very strange thing that a guitar player is sometimes the least qualified to talk about his own playing. Let's look at this a different way. A recent issue of Guitar World was dedicated to the 50 Fastest Guitar Players. I'm sure that you saw that.
(Brief chuckle) I saw that, yeah!
They chose Born from the This Godless Endeavor CD as your signature tune and in describing your technique they mentioned sweep arpeggios, atonal tapping, whammy pedal effects, and tremolo picking. In order for someone to sound like Jeff Loomis, would he have to understand and be able to execute these guitar maneuvers? If a player didn't know how to perform a flawless sweep arpeggio at some ungodly tempo, could he ever imitate you? Looking at this description from the inside out - meaning from your viewpoint - do these different techniques define you?
It's definitely part of my playing, that's for sure. I utilize all that stuff quite a few times on the new record, of course. Umm, I don't know. It's just one of those things where I would say they're fairly accurate. You know what I'm saying? I think that I really wanted to try to capture more of, really, more of an emotional side of my guitar playing on this record. Rather than just playing fast all the time.
I mean if you listen to like Nevermore songs, I'm constantly playing at high speeds and stuff like that and I think that can kind of get boring in a sense. Really right now what I'm trying to do is just concentrate on, not woodshedding so much in the bedroom, but just trying to write more of a good song. You know what I mean? How often do the guitar players sit in their and just work on technique? That can get kind of boring. It's really important for me right now to focus mainly on writing a good piece of music that people can enjoy; rather than, How fast can I play? or whatever.
All those things that they said in the magazine are really true and I try to utilize that to a point where it's not overbearing to the listener. So I just try to maybe capture little elements of using those techniques in my playing. That's the best way I can really describe it to you.
Then there is a difference writing for your solo record versus a Nevermore project? You do need to become a different player?
I think so, yeah. I wanted it to definitely be different-sounding; of course there's gonna be parts where people are gonna be like, Hey, you know that's very reminiscent of Nevermore.
It's a very diverse record, number one; it doesn't sound the same the whole way through. Which is something else that I really wanted to try to make sure that I made happen. There's elements of classical and jazz things here and there and rock, of course, and heavy metal. I just wanted to kind of make it a very well-rounded record if you will.
When you prepared for Zero Order Phase, I'd imagine a lot of things maybe ran through your head. This was your first solo record and so you had to deal with that. Secondly, you had an audience of fans who knew you as the guitarist for Nevermore, this very heavy guitar-focused band. Thirdly, you've been mentioned in polls and lists as a player to be reckoned with. You had a rep. So, all of that was out there. Did you think when you began the record, I want to make a CD that blows away every guitar player who hears it? Was that in the back of your head somewhere?
|"I wanted to capture more of an emotional side of my guitar playing on this record."|
No. The thing that you said about me trying to blow away everybody, that's not what I wanted to do at all! Number one, I don't think I even could; I don't think I even come close to the technique or the songwriting style of say, for instance, Jason Becker or Marty Friedman. But I do think, however, I found this to almost be a challenge for me personally because number one, I don't think instrumental music is really that popular. I think it used to be in the late 80s and early 90s. I wanted to make myself happy. It was definitely a challenge. It's very difficult, I think, to keep the listener excited with instrumental music so I almost thought of my guitar as a vocalist or something like that. Where I kind of keep the listener excited during this whole process. It definitely was a challenge to see if I could do something like this.
Also, I'm a very big instrumental music fan. So, I mean, it's something I've wanted to do for a very, very long time. It's just that I never had the opportunity to do it because Nevermore has always been so busy. So, yeah, now that we had the down time, I basically got a bunch of musicians together and that's how it rolls, I guess.
I think it's going to show a different side of Jeff Loomis. And I think that any Nevermore fan will probably get into it I would hope.
In terms of showing a different side of you, how does the kickoff track do that? Shouting Fire at a Funeral is a very fast song with your kind of trademark harmony guitar pieces in there. You talked earlier about putting down rhythm guitars and drums first and then filling in with the solo sections. Is that what happened here?
Shouting Fire at a Funeral initially was supposed to be a Nevermore song believe it or not. Which is the only song on the record that was supposed to be; everything else you hear on the record is a brand new fresh thing that I just pretty much wrote within the last say, six, seven, or eight months. Umm, Shouting Fire at a Funeral is definitely one of those songs where I'm talking about me using my guitar as almost a vocal instrument. Because number one, it definitely goes into the chorus almost immediately within the first minute-and-a-half of the song. So, I was almost thinking of, What would be catchy here? Rather than playing something fast over something like this, I need to do something slow and catchy with a catchy melody. So, that's kind of what I did. I really laid back on the whole thing. The only parts where I'm really playing fast there is the solo itself in the middle of the song.
Yeah, normally what I do is, I'm pretty simple when it comes to songwriting. I sit down and treat it as a day job, you know? Like 9 to 5. I wake up in the morning and what I try to do is come up with 20 or 30 riffs throughout the entire day and hopefully by the end of the day, I can put these riffs together like the pieces of a puzzle. And turn it into a song or something like this. That's what I do and if I'm lucky enough (nervous chuckle), I can come up with some pretty damned good music, you know? It's just really a time-consuming process for me and sometimes, like any other musician, I run into the initial writer's block thing which really sucks. My advice for that is to walk away from your instrument and just come back rather than trying harder 'cause it just doesn't work, I don't think.
There will be riffs that are sub-standard? Some guitarists use every piece they come up with and that's not always a good thing.
Exactly and usually you can figure that out within the first five minutes if it's gonna work or not. Usually when a situation like that occurs, I walk away and I just come back and start fresh again.
The harmonized guitars on Shouting Fire at a Funeral are a big part of that song. And they're a pretty major piece of what you do overall.
Definitely growing up with a dad that had a huge musical collection, a huge vinyl collection, I grew up with a lot of 70s music. Especially a band that's one of my favorites is Queen. Brian May. So growing up listening to A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, News of the World, Jazz, records like that with all the incredible guitar work that he did was definitely a huge influence on my playing. So, yeah, I would definitely say Brian May is where the harmony thing comes into play.
Neil Kernon, who produced your record and a lot of the Nevermore records, also worked with Queen. Back in the day, Neil had worked with everyone from Jeff Beck to Yes. When Nevermore started working with him, did you feel he'd be able to a good job working with a band as heavy as yours? Did you feel that he'd be able to translate those record-making skills into a band that was different than anyone with whom he'd previously worked?
Yeah, you definitely hit the nail right on the head with that one. Neil is a very at-the-moment producer; he's very good at knowing what's in at the time musically. I've always wanted to work with Neil again ever since he worked with us and Nevermore in the mid- to the late-90s. I think that he's just one of these kind of guys that just gets the best out of you as a producer. He just knows how to really capture a performance and the essence of one's playing. And we happen to be really good friends, too, so he really, really gave me direction and said, Hey, you know this part right here? Let me cue up on that part a little bit and bring some more emotion into it, bring some more essence and love into that. He just really made me feel more relaxed and comfortable.
And it really wasn't a studio album either; we did the drums in a professional studio but we recorded the whole record right at my home. It was a very, very relaxed atmosphere and just a blast. It was a little difficult at times because it was just me and him working together; it wasn't like four other bandmembers that could come in. So, sometimes it got a little tense but we still got the record finished and it was a lot of fun. And I'd definitely work with him again, that's for sure.
What kind of recording rig do you have at the house?
We did the whole record on Pro Tools and basically the gear I that I used for this record was very simple. I used my signature Schecter guitar. I did use a couple of Martins for the acoustic work. I also did an interesting thing that a lot of country players do: It's called a high-strung guitar. Yeah, where you're taking like the top end of the 12-string strings and just using it as a 6-string kind of thing. But it kind of gives sit like a jangly 12-string sound so I used that a lot for the clean bits for electric clean. It gives this weird chimey, piano kind of effect; it's really cool if you double that and layer it a little bit, it just gives it this beautiful, beautiful clean tone.
For amps, I used an Engl. I'm endorsed by Engl actually; the best amp I've ever played through is called the Special Edition head. I used that for amplification for the record.
Is the combination of the Schecter and the Engl the perfect pair for you? That is, looking at the way you pick and your specific tonality, these two pieces are what works best for you?
Yes and no, really. If I was to go on Eddie Van Halen's rig and played through it, I probably wouldn't sound like him. The most distinctive thing in a player is the way they play; it's what comes out of their hands. The way they pick a string or the way they mute a string or something; these are all little things and nuances that will make a guitar player sound the way he or she does. I spent a lot of time refining my tone and my sound and stuff. I would definitely say that these two pieces of gear will give you my sound but who's to say that you're gonna sound like me.
Engl is very sharp and distinctive sounding and it's got an incredible amount of gain which I really like for lead and soloes and stuff; for rhythms, of course. So the chunk factor there and the heavily distorted sound is something that is definitely part of my style.
Also I use EMG pickups as well, so that could be a part of it as well.
You think the EMGs do play a big part in your sound?
I think so, yeah, definitely, a whole part of my thing that I do that we call guitar playing.
You talked about recording digitally on this album; has the advent of Pro Tools and being able to track a solo an infinite number of times been an influence on you?
|"It's a very diverse record, it doesn't sound the same the whole way through."|
I think so a little bit; it definitely gives you a lot more options. But I guess I could say I was lucky enough to work with both analog tape and Pro Tools. There's definitely benefits to both sides there. Everybody knows that using tape and analog or whatever is gonna give you a much different tone, a much warmer tone. I guess it's just all the things and all the possibilities that you can do with Pro Tools nowadays. It blows my mind.
I think sometimes it doesn't make the musician work as hard though. Yeah, we can fix that right up there! So that can kinda take away from the magic a little bit.
I really tried to focus a lot on making the rhythms on this record exceptionally tight and heavy and we were really able to do that with Pro Tools; really just make it a driving force. We didn't screw around too much with, OK, we've got that rhythm, let's just cut and paste that. We did it like humans would normally do it; we recorded every part like it should be.
The only thing that was really done was there were some samples on the kicks and snares. Other than that, it was recorded just like you normally would on tape.
Talking about your rhythm parts, the main rhythm on Devil Theory has this truly jackhammer feel to it. And a great dark tonality. Do you need to psyche yourself up before attempting a track like that? The speed is one thing but the evenness of attack can't be an easy thing to master. What goes through your head?
Well, yeah (little titter), I mean it's just one of those things where you do definitely need to warm up to it. I'm getting older as a player (Loomis will be 37 on his next birthday); I'm not 20 years old like I used to be where I could just pick up a guitar and just play something. Now I spend the time and warm up and make sure the blood is flowing through the fingers. It's just highly recommended that everybody does that.
It's like all these younger kids and stuff I used to teach guitar and they wanted to play fast all the time at first. And it just doesn't work that way; you have to think of it in the opposite matter of you need to work up to speed and practice with a metronome and all that good stuff. Once you get up to that potential, you're free to do what you want. But it does take time and it does take woodshedding in the bedroom or wherever you practice. So, it's just one of those things, I guess. And it's just a part of my style right now; that's just the way I do things. And I guess it's the sound that I like to my ears, you know?
You brought some of your friends along to perform on these tracks. Jato Unit features Ron Jarzombek soloing with you.
I first initially met Ron in 2005 for the Gigantour; we were on tour with Megadeth. He came out to see us perform and I've been a fan of his for a long time. He used to be in a band called Watchtower back in the late 80s and he's a phenomenal guitar player. And I had just asked him a few years ago if I ever did a solo project if he'd be interested in being on it and being part of it. And he said, Of course. And, yeah, these are just musicians that I really look up to there were part of it. I think I'm very fortunate to have worked with these guys.
And everybody knows, the readers should know, that Pat O'Brien, used to be in Nevermore in the 90s but now he's in Cannibal Corpse. But I've always looked up to his playing as well so I asked him and he said, Hell, yeah, I'd love to be a part of it!
One of the coolest things on this record is Michael Manring (Ben Harper); this guy is a phenomenal, phenomenal jazz bass player. I'm not really friends with Michael. I've never met him personally but Neil Kernon is a friend of his. And he's like, God, you know, this section here on Cashmere Shiv would be perfect for Michael. So he called him up and he listened to the tune 'cause he obviously doesn't live in Seattle where I live. So we sent it to him via email. And I swear to God like the next day we had this track of him exploding on this part and we just looked at each other and almost started crying. We couldn't believe it; it sounded so amazing. I was really, really fortunate for him to be able to play on my record.
The copy of Zero Order Phase that was sent to me was without any inserts or any liner copy. And when that section in Cashmere Shiv came up, it made you want to know who this astonishing musician was. The phrasing and the tone was wonderful.
I know; it was so accurate and just every note you can hear. It's amazing that people can play bass like that. Uncomprehendible to me sometimes (much laughter).
That track also had Neil Kernon and Pat O'Brien on it?
Neil plays on that as well; he kind of goes off the Michael Manring motif using a fretless guitar. It almost sounds like a bass; it's a Warmoth neck or something like that.
You brought up Pat O'Brien just a second ago as someone who was on the album but was also the second guitar player in Nevermore back in the 90s. You actually played with several different guitarists including Steve Smyth and Tim Calvert. The big question is, Did you like working with an auxiliary guitarist?
Well, it's always cool for me to work with somebody else just because you have somebody to throw your ideas off of and also working with somebody on the same musical level as you is great. I call it the Nevermore Curse. We've never had like good luck keeping a second guitar player which really sucks because we're back down to being a four-piece again right now. And it's for simple reasons really: Steve Smyth had medical issues so he had to leave the band. And then Tim Calvert he had interest in aviation so he's flying planes now for a living. Pat O'Brien really did enjoy being in Nevermore but his interests lie deeply in death metal. So, when he got the opportunity to join Cannibal Corpse obviously he didn't turn it down. Who else? Chris Broderick is now in Megadeth (lots of laughing)!
The list goes on and on, man. We're like the Spinal Tap of missing the exploding drummers.
So it sounds like you really would like to play with another guitarist?
I would. We've done albums before - Enemies of Reality and Dead Heart in a Dead World - I composed myself as just one guitar player. I think what we're gonna do now is just focus on staying as a four-piece when we write our new record which we're working on right now. And then when we decide to tour again, we'll just find a touring guitar player rather than trying to hire somebody on. We just don't want to go through that whole pain and hassle again. We'll just find a great player and have him come out on the road with us.
Sacristy shows another side of you. It's based on a piano and acoustic guitars are actually playing the rhythm parts. We were talking before about speed and all of that, but picking up a Martin and doing some clean picking parts and finding some cool chord voicings isn't the easiest thing in the world. Are you comfortable on an acoustic?
Very much so; I tend to write a lot of stuff on acoustic actually. I don't know what it is; I guess it's just the sound of it. Also, a lot of guitar players I've talked to in the past like to play an acoustic before they plan an electric because the strings are slightly more taut and slightly higher and it's a great way to warm up before you go on to an electric.
So, I have a couple of acoustic guitars lying around the house here. I really like to mess around, too, with alternate tunings which is a lot of fun; not that I used any on this record. Just being able to manipulate quickly like that and being able to come up with different things is a lot of fun for me. It's just easy for me to pick up an acoustic and chord around some stuff and I'll come up with a lot of parts like that. Yeah, a lot of writing is done on my acoustics.
Departure is another one of the acoustic tracks.
Right; that was one that was very mellow, put the headphones on kind of thing that I wanted to end the whole debauchery of the record with. It's just like, it needs something slow for everybody to come down on. You know what I'm saying? After a roller coaster ride, it's nice to relax and listen to something cool.
We've talked about all the different things you wanted to say with your first solo album: You wanted to show a different side than the Nevermore guitarist; you wanted to play more melodically; you didn't want to try and blow away the entire guitar playing planet. Did you succeed?
I think so; I really think I did. It took a lot of time, in fact it took a little more time than we anticipated. And I think there was a reason for that: We wanted to make it right and we wanted to make it sound like something that I haven't done before. I think I accomplished my goal. There's my stuff like this in the future for me as well. I don't know if it will necessarily sound like Zero Order Phase or something. But I think my career with instrumental music is something that I still want to pursue after this; it's not just a one-time deal for me.
I don't know, we'll see what happens; the record isn't out yet (at the time of this interview the CD had not yet been released) but I do know a lot of people have heard it and I've got a lot of positive feedback. So, we'll see where this one takes me first.
When you think about your contemporaries, do you think they will hold the sway that your heroes have? In other words, will these guitarists have that thing - whatever that thing is - to create that lasting impression on listeners? You think about your heroes, people like Brian May and Eddie and Yngwie, and how important they still are today. And the other part of this question has to do with technique: players today have ten times more ability than players from back in the day. But you know, that the songs you still listen to and those records aren't just about technique. It's about that intangible. Do players today have that quality to allow them to make a lasting impact?
|"I just tend to play like that."|
That's a really good question, man; that's an awesome question. I think so. It's like clothes - everything comes around and goes around. It comes back, you know what I mean? There's a repeating process almost even in music or something like that of how things are popular and unpopular. If you remember a few years ago, the guitar solo wasn't that popular. You hear bands all the time, Oh, we don't need to put the guitar solo in there! And that's fine; everyone has their own personal preference of what they can do musically and stuff. But I grew up in an era where I was listening to Iron Maiden - Adrian Smith and Dave Murray and having the twin solo attack thing and it was just a part of music. And I think that it's definitely coming back again, you know what I mean?
It's one of those things, oh, God, how can I explain myself? It's what the person likes to hear and if they like to hear it, then it's out there for them. It's a very hard question but there are a lot of players now that I think are really great.
I'm not really familiar with the Dragonforce guys or anything like that but I know Alexi (Laiho, Children of Bodom) is a very, very awesome player. I really think Alexi is great. I have heard a few Dragonforce songs before so I do know who Herman Li and Sam Totman are; I do know who those guys are and I know they're talented. I really look up to players like Marten (Hagstrom) and Fredrik (Thordendal) from Meshuggah; they're great players and they're doing something different; they're being innovative about their music. These guys aren't copying another metal band; these guys are doing something that's incredibly different sounding with off-time rhythms and 8-string guitars and all that stuff.
Who else am I in too? All the players from back in the day like Tony MacAlpine, Jason Becker, Marty Friedman; I'm a huge fan of those guys as well. Chris Broderick, the guy who used to be in Nevermore that's now in Megadeth. One of my good friends; I really look up to his playing too. I mean this guy is doing some amazing stuff on guitar as well.
You touched on a really significant element: being different. That ties into the question earlier about what made those classic guys so extraordinary. When you first heard Van Halen's debut or Yngwie's early records or Jeff Beck's Blow By Blow, you knew instantly who these guitarists were. It was different and that's what struck you as a listener. Now, would it be hard for someone who wasn't a hardcore fan of a band to differentiate between guitar player X and guitar player Y? If there's a criticism that can be leveled against the current crop of players, that might be it. Maybe another way to put this is Can technique overshadow character?
Oh, definitely, yeah! And I totally agree with exactly what you're saying. That's something that I've been working on for years and I still don't know if I've accomplished, you know? You know, talking about identity in a person's guitar playing. I would hope so. A lot of people tell me that when they hear me play, they go, Oh, hey, that's a Loomis riff so that makes me happy. That kind of makes me feel like I'm on the right track of doing something to make myself identifiable as a guitar player. I don't know, it takes a lot of time, a lot of work I don't know, a lot of these players just have it. Like when Eddie came out and the first Yngwie record, the Rising Force record. When I heard Far Beyond the Sun, I shit my pants when I first heard that! And it's such a rarity nowadays; it's kinda sad. I rarely hear something nowadays that I really go, God, that's just amazing. I think the last time I did that was when I heard Frank Gambale's new record; I was like, Wow, this is really cool. He's so good and such an amazing musician. Now he's got that Nouveau (new) Tuning that he's trade marking.
One of these days, there's going to be a kid that comes out of nowhere and blows everybody's minds with something new and interesting. I don't know if it's gonna be me or anybody like that anytime soon but somebody's gonna do something different and it's gonna freak people out. And then the people will follow that for a while and then it will turn into something new again.
Simply the fact that you're thinking in this fashion is an important statement. Looking to improve your songwriting and actively seeking out something different is definitely the first step in becoming a style leader as it were. Like you, I want to be blown away by something new.
Yeah, I hear you. It's definitely one of those things I look at musically. I definitely look to the future, Now, what's this about? Where is it going? The whole technicality thing, how fast can you play something? I mean, that's just boring to me now really. I just want to write good music and I want something that sounds good. I don't want to be playing at 1,000 miles per hour the whole time. So, yeah, it's something that I focused on on this record and yeah, I hope that people agree with me on that.
You've talked about influences and players you listened to, but coming from Seattle and that whole grunge movement never entered your conversation here. Was that whole flannel rock thing anything to you?
Umm, yeah, I mean, that was a very interesting point in my career because I had just moved out to Seattle in '91; I'm originally from Wisconsin. I ended up joining a band called Sanctuary which is of course Warrel Dane's and Jim Sheppard's band before Nevermore. And that broke up and then we formed Nevermore so during our demoing phase of our very first record is when the grunge explosion happened. So it was really kind of difficult for us to keep our heads above water with all this grunge music going on. It was insane but we still ended up playing every week at different clubs and we still had fans coming out. So I don't think that whole metal thing ever really left Seattle during the whole grunge era.
As far as being influenced by that kind of music? I really did get into like Alice In Chains and stuff; awesome songwriting. Definitely hearing Nirvana for the first time was pretty cool and new but they just overplayed it on the radio; I can't even listen to that song (Smells Like Teen Spirit) anymore without getting annoyed (laughs). Soundgarden did some cool stuff. I wouldn't say influenced but I enjoyed listening to some of the bands for sure.
And you mentioned that Nevermore is also working on a new record?
We are at the moment, yes; I've got about half of the record written. I would predict we would probably be in the studio sometime in the early fall with a late summer release.
Can you talk in any kinds of generalities about what it might sound like?
I don't know; it's definitely going on the same kind of vibe as our last record, This Godless Endeavor where it's very obviously heavy. But with every one of our records, it always seems like we do the steppingstone thing where the songwriting gets better. So, it's just kinda be in the same realms of heaviness but with better songwriting structures and all that. We also have a live Nevermore DVD coming out called The Year of the Voyager and it's about a 2 hour concert that was shot in Germany so the fans should be very interested in that. Also, I'm hoping to do some clinics overseas and possibly in the States too and hopefully we'll be coming out with an instructional DVD sometime soon. Little things I'm working on.
Will Neil Kernon produce again?
I don't know yet; we're actually talking to him about that but we still don't know.
In the meantime, hold the guitar banner high, OK?
OK, man, thanks.
Interview by Steven Rosen