Unless you’re a hardcore fan and you’ve followed Mark Zavon in bands like JRZ System, 40 Cycle Hum and as the guitarist in Stephen Pearcy’s backing band, you’re probably not too acquainted with what he does.
But after you hear his brain-rattling guitar playing on Kill Devil Hill, the band’s first self-titled album, his is a name you won’t soon forget. Made up of ex-Pantera bassist Rex Brown, former Black Sabbath/Dio drummer Vinny Appice, singer Dewey Bragg and Zavon, the quartet mixes big riffs on a song like "War Machine" and then brings it down to a haunting half-time dirge on a track like "Gates Of Hell."
Zavon is a furiously inventive player who conjures elements of everyone from Dimebag
to Jimmy Page
without ever watering down what he brings to the music. He is so low key that you can feel him blushing over the phone when you make a positive comment about one of his solos. But when he picks up his Gibson SG-1
the modesty vanishes and what you hear is a guitarist with a whole lot to say and all the chops in the world to say it.
In a cruel twist of fate, Mark Zavon almost lost the ability to play the guitar. And we start our conversation there.
UG: We’re going to start with a non-music question: You were an aviation major?
Mark Zavon: Yeah absolutely. I went to school at the University of Nebraska and I started as a music major. I got so into it I was taking classical guitar but I also played in their jazz band and I got really into it and was practicing too much and spending a lot of time and I wound up getting tendonitis so bad that I couldn’t play. I probably didn’t pick up the guitar for eight months or something like that and I needed to change my major because without being able to play guitar I couldn’t really pursue classical guitar as a major anymore.
That must have been a bad day.
Yeah, it kinda sucked. I’d always wanted to be a pilot and I never really had the opportunity and they had a good aviation department there. So I switched my major to aviation and basically that’s how I finished my degree. And yeah, now I have a commercial pilot’s license and instrument rating and not that I’m doing anything with it but [laughs] I wish I were because it’s a lot of fun and I love flying.
Musicians must be attracted to flying because Bruce Dickinson and Steve Morse are both pilots.
Yeah, I went to a Steve Morse Band show in Omaha where I used to live and a buddy of mine who was the promoter of the show came up to me afterwards because my bands had always played the same club. He’s like, “Hey man can you give these guys a ride to the airport. It’s part of our deal.” And I had a van and I’m like, “Sure, yeah, I’ll give ‘em a ride.” So they piled in the back of my van and I took ‘em to the airport and literally helped Steve and his bag load their bags into the nose of the plane and they took off. It was an awesome experience. He’s a really great guy; a really nice guy.
Ever carry any baggage for Iron Maiden?
I saw Flight 666, which was an awesome documentary; that was really cool and the first time it’s ever been done. Loading up a full touring rig in a jet like that? That’s really something.
When you experienced that tendonitis that could have been a life-changing moment for you.
Oh shit, it was my whole world. I thought it might be over. I went to see different doctors and some of the guys said, “Well you might have to face the facts that it might not come back.” And then other people would say, “Well if you just stay off of it it will come back.” So I pretty much had to put it down and it was hard because I had basically built my whole life around the guitar at that point. I mean I was playing in this funk/rock/fusion like instrumental band and I was playing in the jazz band there. The guys in the jazz band had a Chicago and Steely Dan cover band they played in on the weekends and I was playing in that plus all the classical stuff. It was just a lot and to have all of it just come to a screeching halt was kind of devastating. So I was glad that aviation really filled the hole and I was able to point myself at that and it helped me to not go crazy. Just mentally it was more of a challenge than the physical part.
One of the early bands you played in was False Witness?
[laughter] Uh yeah. That was the first touring band I ever played in. It was a cover band and it must have been ’86 or ’87 or somewhere in there. We were together like three years and toured the Midwest over to Denver and through the Dakotas; Minneapolis we did a lot and Chicago down to Kansas City. Kind of a Midwestern circuit band.
What kind of music were you playing?
It was like whatever was popular at the time; we did some Ozzy and whatever ‘80s tunes were popular at the time. The guy who was in charge of the band, his girlfriend who became his wife her grandfather invented vice grips. So they had some money and that’s kind of what kept the band going. He used to fly out to the shows and we’d pick him up and it was an interesting situation. But it was a lot of fun and there was another guitar player in the band and it was the only time I played with another guitar player. He’s still a good friend of mine and in fact that guy is the guy that designed the logo for Kill Devil Hill.
Were you still looking for your identity as a guitarist in False Witness?
Sure; absolutely. I think maybe you spend your whole life looking for that. I think I’m maybe still kinda looking. It was a lot of fun and I learned what not to do like when you’re out on tour don’t eat that half-eaten hamburger that you found on the table in the morning. You know what I mean? Just little lessons like that and how not to drink too much or how much can you drink and still play the set. But we had a lot of fun and it was definitely a good formative experience for me. I still talk to those guys and I went to high school with the drummer who was also in the three-piece funk/rock/fusion band JRZ System that I played in. In fact we did a reunion show just about a month ago out in Omaha and was a good friend of mine as well.
In 1990 you were highlighted in Guitar Player’s Spotlight column. Was that a defining moment for you?
Yeah, it kinda was. I was teaching guitar at this place in Omaha called Russo’s Music and in the basement down there were these tiny little teaching rooms. Michael Lee Firkins was down there teaching and a good friend of mine, Storm Rhode who’s an amazing guitar player as well was teaching there. So we were all down there working together and Mike had got his thing going on with Shrapnel and Mike Varney and I had also sent a demo and of course wound up in the Spotlight column there.
When did Scream Parade happen?
Mike Varney called me up and asked me if I wanted to join a band from Minneapolis called Scream Parade. So I said, “Sure, I’ll go check it out.” I drove up there and I auditioned for the band and they hired me and we moved out to the San Francisco area and recorded a record for Mike but it was never released.
It would have been interesting to hear.
Yeah, I’ve got some. I could send you some of that stuff. It was really good for the time around ’91 and ’92. We were trying to fit into what was selling but of course that was the end of the era with ‘80s metal or whatever. I remember I had a job and this ’72 sky blue Pinto I was driving around that Varney loaned me money for. So I’m driving around and I hear the beginning of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the radio and it comes in with the drums—chakoom chakoom—and I was like, “This is rippin’, man. This is awesome.” I had no idea it was the flannel takeover.
Were you a fan of those Shrapnel plays like Tony MacAlpine and Paul Gilbert?
Absolutely yeah, I loved all of that stuff. I remember going to see Paul Gilbert at a clinic and just getting my head blown clean off. He was and still is such an amazing and outstanding guitar player. But back then he was just on fire with the shredding and nowadays he’s got all this sense of melody. All of those dudes were such great players that it was overwhelming. I still go back; just yesterday I was on YouTube listening to Jason Becker and Cacophony and some of that stuff. I still go back and listen to all that stuff ‘cause it’s just amazing work.
You talked about your own tendonitis and certainly you know that Jason Becker went through a devastating disease with ALS.
Yeah, it’s nothing compared to what he went through. They didn’t give him that much time [to live] or whatever and yet he’s hung on and made music and just defied all the odds. It’s overwhelming how inspiring that is. That’s serious inner strength and you have to hand it to that guy.
Did you consider yourself or want to be a shredder in the vein of the other Shrapnel musicians?
At the time when I was a lot younger, yeah, I aspired to that. I’d sit and practice scales and try and see if I could keep up. Once I started getting into it a little bit, I don’t know if I ever thought I was gonna knock anybody off the top of the mountain or anything. You know what I mean? ‘Cause I was always drawn more to writing songs so that’s kinda where my heart’s always been. Even in the False Witness days we played original stuff as much as we could although it was frowned upon by club owners. You could only do like three originals and they’d be like, “Hey wait and minute” and try and shut you down.
You understood early on that the song is the most important and the guitar playing is only there to support it?
That was what I was drawn to more than anything else. Because shredding is great and it’s really impressive to a guitar player but to my sister—who knows nothing about guitar—it’s not very impressive. She’ll listen for about 10 or 15 seconds and then she’s looking around the room. But a really good song will hold anybody’s attention for the entire length of the song and that was what kinda drew me in. I was like, “Well what is it about these songs?” and I started analyzing everything. “Why are these songs so popular? What makes these so much better than songs that haven’t stood the test of time?” So I got really into that and even now I find that probably to be the biggest challenge about music are the arrangement and writing aspects; the lyrical and melodic aspects of songwriting. Yeah, that’s some of my favorite stuff.
You mentioned earlier you were in a Steely Dan cover band. Did they influence your songwriting at all?
Yeah, in college especially I was into that stuff big time. That’s really challenging stuff to play as well. I transcribed a Larry Carlton solo one time for a jazz improvisation class I had and it was a challenge and I learned a lot from it.
Larry Carlton is an amazing guitar player.
Was the JRZ System your first serious attempt at playing original music?
"I pretty much had to put it down and it was hard because I had basically built my whole life around the guitar at that point."
Yeah absolutely, you’re totally right. It was about ’94 I think we got together and we had known each other. Like I said the drummer Todd Roberson and I had gone to high school together and we played in False Witness and then the bass player had played in some rival bands around town and we knew him pretty well. His name was Troy Johnson and he had some demos I played on and I had some demos he played on. He played on the demo I sent to Varney to get into the Spotlight column and so we all kinda knew each other from the scene. Omaha is kind of a small town with regard to the music scene at least so we had known each other and it was Troy’s suggestion to do an instrumental band. And at the time Vai and Satriani were going on and getting airplay so it seemed like a pretty viable thing.
Realizing that Steve Vai and Joe Satriani were getting noticed with guitar instrumental music provided the impetus for the JRZ System to pursue that?
We weren’t really going for that straight rock thing as much as a kind of weird funk rock. Kind of a three-ring circus vibe where instead of just having a guitar with a rhythm section, it was kinda like a shredding drummer and a shredding bass player and we’d take turns in the spotlight. So yeah, it was interesting and a challenge and a lot of fun. We got a pretty good following going in the Midwest and it was over 10 years doing that thing. We used to play the Tommy Bolin tribute concerts up in Sioux City all the time and we played every year for like seven years in a row. I’m a big fan of Tommy Bolin.
One of the great guitar players of all time.
Yeah, he was way ahead of his time and there was so much more he could have done. Anyway his brother Johnny is a good friend of ours and in fact I just saw him when we did those JRZ System reunion shows about a month ago. He came out and saw us up in Sioux City and he saw us there. He’s a great guy and what a great legacy. Tommy was from Sioux City, Iowa and it’s crazy because it’s only like an hour-and-a-half away from Omaha so it was like, “Wow, lightning can strike anywhere.” He replaced Joe Walsh in the James Gang and Deep Purple and it’s crazy his career. Even now Motley Crue covered “Teaser” and people still love that stuff. I ran into Glenn Hughes when we played the DimeBash recently over at the Key Club and I talked to him a little bit. I got to ask him a couple questions about Tommy and stuff and it was really cool. He’s a great guy as well and an amazing singer. Oh my god. He got up onstage and just ripped it. It was amazing.
Tommy Bolin would have been as huge as anybody.
Yeah, and he was right in position too. Opening for Jeff Beck? That was the perfect spot for him. He coulda been saved too if those folks woulda just called the ambulance. I don’t know. Those drugs, man, it’s tough. You gotta be careful.
What attracted you to Tommy Bolin’s playing and where did that kind of funk rock thing you did in the JRZ System come from?
Boy, that’s a good question. I’m not even sure that I know. It just felt really natural but I don’t know why. That’s a good question. I have not thought about that. I don’t know if I can put my finger on it. Sorry, man. A lot of funk came from Troy in JRZ. Whenever we were driving places we’d listen to Tommy’s stuff and it soaks in. No matter what you listen to it soaks in whether you realize it or not. So we were getting a little bit of that and Troy is a really funky bass player and he’s got a lot of slappin’, poppin’ and tappin’ going on and it’s all really funky and that rubbed off on me as well. I think it was just my environment at the time that really kinda pushed me in that direction. I’m glad; I love that stuff still. Playing that stuff with JRZ in the reunion show recently was just like putting on an old pair of jeans. It was like, “Ahh, this feels good.” It was killer.
You covered “Stratus” from Billy Cobham’s Spectrum album that had Tommy Bolin on it. That was an important album in the development of fusion music.
Oh yeah. Vinny and I were coming back from Vegas recently and Vinny put that record in and I’m like, “Aw, that’s cool” ‘cause I didn’t know he was into Cobham that much but yeah, he was all into it. Yeah, it’s a great record. We also did “Snoopy’s Search” and “Red Baron.” I love it.
You even managed to emulate Tommy Bolin’s Strat sounds on those covers JRZ System did.
Thanks, man. He had a tone. I always wanted to get an Echoplex. I had one in the studio one time when we were recording but I never actually owned one. The stuff he used to do with a tape echo was just amazing. It was like, “Wow, how can he even make that sound happen?” I’m not a great slide player by any stretch but I’d sit there with a slide and that Echoplex in the studio and I’d be like, “ Oh man, how do you get that?” He was ahead of his time for sure.
JRZ System dissolved and became Stephen Pearcy’s backup band?
Yeah, it was weird. At the time I was seeing this girl who was friends with Robbie Crane who was playing bass in Ratt and they were looking for a guitar player. They were doing festivals with Poison that year and I went and auditioned and I guess it came down to two guys and Kerri Kelly wound up getting the gig and I didn’t. I was bummed about that ‘cause I’ve been a Ratt fan and they were my favorite band in high school. Warren DeMartini is one of my favorite guitar players as well.
Very good guitar player.
Amazing. I remember his solo on the Invasion Of Your Privacy tour that spotlight solo he did? Oh my lord, he would just kill people with that. He was on fire. So I auditioned and came in second on that deal and I was like, “Aw man, there’s nothing happening.” Then Pearcy got out of it and decided to do a solo project and was putting a band together and called me up. So I went down and met him at Mexicali in Studio City and we had lunch and he said, “What do you think? Do you want to do this?” And I was like, “Yeah. Cool.” He says, “Do you know any drummers and bass players?” I’m like, “As a matter of fact, I’ve kind of been playing with these guys for a long time.” So I called ‘em up and they were into it and basically we did two-and-a-half or three years solid with him. Those guys kept playing with him for a while afterward and even now I think Troy does some fly-outs with him here and there when Mike Duda is not in the band.
Was that a good experience working with Stephen Pearcy?
Yeah, we did a couple of solo records. Stephen is great. That guy is one of a kind, man; a total rockstar. It’s really cool to get to work with a guy like that especially after growing up and hearing his voice and putting the needle back on all of those songs over and over.
40 Cycle Hum was another band you played with before Kill Devil Hill?
There was never a line of demarcation where the band broke up necessarily but it kind of fell apart. It’s too bad because I thought it was a pretty good band.
“Seven Stitches” and some of those other songs were really good.
Thank you. I thought so too. We put our heart and soul into that newer record, Entertaining Misery, and then some things happened and we were separated for a year or so because of some issues that arose. So it wound up kind of losing all of its steam and people kind of scattered. You can’t fault somebody and everybody’s gotta do their own thing and if it’s not gonna happen then it’s not gonna happen. We put a lot into it and it wasn’t easy. I remember driving over an hour to rehearse with that band, which is two hours round trip. It’s hard to make that happen coming out of your pocket when you’re not making a lot of money. After doing that for a long period of time and nothing happening because there were a few deals that kinda fell through, it was kind of disappointing so we all just kinda moved on and did some other projects. I don’t think any of us really knew whether it would come back together or not.
Do you ever see the other members of 40 Cycle Hum?
I still talk to those guys and I saw Francis Ruiz, the drummer, not too long ago. He’s out touring with Ted Nugent or Symphony X or somebody. I ran into Brandon Mitchell, the singer, at a party not too long ago. Yeah, they’re great guys, man, and I thought that music was good but sometimes it just takes more than having good music. It’s really weird—the music business is tough. You gotta have good the good music and you gotta be ready to go at the drop of a hat but you also have to have luck and be in the right place at the right time and all the stars kind of need to line up. And if they don’t it doesn’t matter how good you are.
Moving forward, you first played with Vinny Appice in World War III?
No, Vinny was out of the band when I joined. But the connection with Vinny although I’d kind of run into him at the grocery store before was the drummer at the time for World War III. Jamie Harris knows Vinny because he works at Aquarian Drumheads and Vinny had asked Jamie if he knew any guitar players. And Jamie told him, “Yeah, I know a guy. This guy Mark is really good and he’s playing with Mandy Lion right now.” So he gave Vinny my number and as luck would have it I ran into Vinny before he had a chance to call me backstage at a show here in L.A. And I said, “Hey, man, I heard you’re looking for a guitar player.” And he said, “Yeah, yeah, give me a call. Here’s my number.” We started getting together the next week and started writing stuff that wound up going on the Kill Devil Hill disc.
It really feels like Kill Devil Hill has all the pieces to finally put you on the map as a player.
From your mouth to God’s ears. Let’s hope you’re right. I swear I’ve got all my eggs in this basket, man. It’s an honor to get to play with Rex and Vinny because I grew up listening to both of those guys. I remember going to see the Holy Diver tour with Dokken opening up and just watching those guys rip it up. If somebody told me back then, ”Oh, you’re gonna be in a band with that drummer,” I would have laughed them right out the door. I woulda said, “There’s no way I can believe that.” So the good fortune involved of just getting these together much less me involved myself, yeah, I think the stars have kind of lined up a little bit. And then Dewey is a fantastic singer. I mean he’s not known yet but this guy has pipes and he’s an amazing frontman and an amazing craftsman when it comes to melody. People really don’t know what he’s capable of yet because although I really like what we’ve done with this record, that’s just scratching the surface to me ‘cause I know he’s capable of even more than that. As much as Vinny and Rex are a force to be reckoned with, I mean hell, it’s like Godzilla walking down your street when those guys get together. But Dewey’s got something to add to the mix that we’re just getting into now. I’m really, really excited about it.
In a recent interview Vinny actually talked about you and said how you were still kind of unknown but that would change when the Kill Devil Hill album came out.
"A really good song will hold anybody's attention for the entire length of the song and that was what kinda drew me in."
That’s really cool.
“War Machine” was one of the first songs to come together?
It is. It was interesting when we started doing these because Vinny couldn’t even pick up a pair of sticks. He had just had shoulder surgery and right before he had the surgery he recorded some drum tracks that would be used for downloading purposes. For x amount of money you could have Vinny’s drums on your demos and they were marketing it kind of as such. He had recorded the drums and now he was in a sling and he couldn’t even do anything drum-wise for five months or something like that. It was a long time so we started writing these tracks and that’s right when I started coming over. He gave me the drum tracks and I remember him giving them to me and me taking them back to my little home studio and I started just writing songs to these tracks. I’ve written songs to drums before. You know when you get in the jam room everybody writes together and sometimes the drummer’s got something, sometimes the bass player and sometimes the guitar and you work from there. When he did these he made them structured in such a way that the whole drum track was a song front to back.
The skeleton of the song was there and you added the meat?
Vinny’s a pro and it was a structured, finished tune. So all I had to do was fill in the blanks. I’d sit there and I’d listen and I’d go, “Is that a chorus? Is that a verse?” So I started trying to make sense of where his head was when he did the drums and then started just putting guitar on ‘em. I think six of the songs that are on the record came together that way. On five or six of ‘em he gave me the drums and the song was basically written and demo’d before he ever had a chance to play it. When he played the drums for ‘em, he had no idea what the song would be. And in fact the truth is we had seven songs completely recorded and demo’d before we ever got in a room and jammed together.
I know it was the weirdest situation. Dewey was in at that point and on some of ‘em he did a scat melody. Like I’d have him do a scat melody and then I’d bring that home and start chipping away at that and going, “What’s the hook on this song? How are the lyrics gonna work?” Then he and I would work together on some of ‘em and whatever it took. Yeah, we were trackin’ some of ‘em over at Vinny’s place and some of ‘em at my place and then eventually mostly over at my place after a while. We basically just worked from those drum tracks and after about five or six months and we got in a room and finally started playing together, it was phenomenal.
That’s when the real magic started to happen?
Then it really started to come to life. Vinny started to come over to my house and got a drumset set up downstairs. I started recording about the other half of the record and those were done with him playing live drums at my house and just kinda throwing the demos together that way. And that was a different way to record so I mean it was interesting to have the input with the drums and then not have the input for the drums. Whatever way we could write these things we were putting ‘em together and it was cool. At that point we were almost on a streak where things were coming out and we were all really inspired and excited about it. When everybody’s kind of pointed in the same musical direction and everybody’s got that excitement going, sometimes you can do some really good stuff and it felt like we were.
Did you have the riff for “War Machine” in your back pocket or did it come out when you heard Vinny’s drum tracks?
My phone is full of riffs and I always do that but “War Machine” was one that just organically happened. I got inspired by what Vinny was doing. “Time & Time Again” is another one. Like I was at Vinny’s house and we had just got done working on—it might have been—“War Machine” or another song and he goes, “What about this one?” And he played the drums for “Time & Time Again” and I hadn’t ever heard ‘em and it was the very first time I ever heard ‘em. On the very first time I heard the drums, he pressed record and I played the riff on “Time & Time Again.”
The muse was with you.
The whole intro riff and the whole section going up to the pre-chorus, I just kind of spat it out right there. I don’t know, I was kind of surprised too. I was kinda surprised too and I was like, “That kinda works. What do you think?” He was like, “Yeah, that sounds great” and we worked from there. The way Vinny plays is he plays with such conviction that it’s just really inspiring. Some drummers play faster or they do a lot more or they do double-bass and stuff and that’s all really cool. But Vinny’s focus or I should say his forte is just the conviction. He hits so hard and with so much conviction that it will fucking annihilate you. It’s almost intimidating. I remember feeling when I was playing that that when he turned to me he was like [in stern voice] “What do you think about this one?” And he pressed record and I was like, “Oh, my God. I better play something good right now.” I got lucky I think. I don’t know but it just happened to come out. I think it’s because Vinny plays so musically. Because you can play any instrument and be technically proficient at it without necessarily being really musical on it. He’s just a really musical drummer and it’s really artistic what he does.
That’s where the great division comes—guitarists who can really play but don’t understand the songwriting aspects of what they’re doing.
Just speaking for myself, writing a great song where you can get done at the end and say, “Wow, I think that’s good and I’m happy with it,” that’s the hardest thing for me. I can sit and practice a riff or get a lick going that’s pretty cool and get done with that in 15 minutes. But it’ll be hours, days, weeks or months [before I finish a song.] Sometimes you’ll keep a bunch of riffs in your filing cabinet so to speak and maybe pull ‘em out whenever. I’ve got a bunch of songs like that that are half-done or like I never got totally inspired to finish. But then new stuff comes up and you’re inspired and sometimes when inspiration hits you can write a song in five minutes. But other times it can take you five or ten years to finish something that you started. It’s just weird—inspiration is kind of a crazy thing.
“Gates of Hell” had that great eerie sounding intro and acoustic guitars. Where did that side of your songwriting come from?
I wanted to have some different kind of textures and dynamics within the song because the fun part for us sometimes is to just get in there and slam it. Everything all the way up and crank it up to 10 and just rock. But a record that just does that and goes all the way through with everybody playing on 10, it kinda doesn’t have as much dynamic range to me. Zeppelin is a good example. If you listen to Zeppelin there are sometimes songs that are on 10 but then it comes down to an acoustic thing and there will be a different kind of texture and tone but it’s still really cool and then they’ll come back to cranking it up and stuff. I always found that really interesting and I thought that made a really good record. So we were kinda shooting to have some good dynamics.
Do you enjoy acoustic guitar?
I like playing acoustic. We wound up having to do a bonus track just because of some logistics or whatever with the record company and we did a version of “Gates of Hell.” I told the guys, “Let’s do a stripped down acoustic version—just acoustic, voice and real sparse effects like you’re sitting in a room and that’s the honest thing.” And everybody was like, “Yeah, that’s cool.” So I recorded the acoustic track and gave it to Dewey and Rex and they were like, “Oh, let’s put on some strings” and it started turning into this whole thing. It wound up turning out really good too and I think it’s a bonus track on iTunes. It’s like this weird apocalyptic-sounding fucking crazy thing. It’s really cool but it’s funny how it started out as this acoustic thing. Like “Let’s do it completely stripped down” and it turned into this crazy ghost haunting your ass.
Your solo on “Gates of Hell” had this very strange and eerie sound to it. When you do a solo are you thinking about how you can enhance the lyrical content of the song?
Yeah absolutely. I close my eyes and try and get into the emotion of the song and especially with that one. That one and “Up in Flames” really have emotional aspects that I can kind of attach to or relate with. Some of that I have to give to Jay Ruston.
How important was Jay Ruston to the sound of the album.
He did an amazing job on the mix and he made that thing sound really haunting. I had quadrupled that one and it’s the first time I’ve ever done that with a solo. I didn’t know what he was gonna do with it and I was curious to hear what it would be like and he just nailed it. That guy is really talented and he saved our bacon with this thing and made that record sound amazing. What happened was we hit a roadblock in the studio and had to go on tour and it wasn’t done. We thought it would be finished and we were like, “We’ve got to get this done. What are we gonna do?” ‘Cause we’d lost our mixer at the time and we needed somebody so we were kinda shopping around trying to figure out how we were gonna get the thing done and we’re on a deadline and there was pressure and Jay kinda came to the rescue. When we were on tour the guy that owned the bus company whose bus we were renting also is a partner with Jay in this studio venture in Studio City or North Hollywood. So we got in touch with Jay and he was mixing Adrenaline Mob’s record at the time or was about to and just trying to fit in with the timing there and he wound up doing both of those records.
Jay Ruston also mixed the new Adler album.
I heard that song and it’s really good isn’t it?
It didn’t sound like they were trying to sound like Guns or trying to sound like anything but themselves.
It’s the same way if Kill Devil Hill sounded anything like Black Sabbath or Pantera those would have been tough hills to climb.
You’ll never get to the top.
“Up in Flames” was another beautiful example of how you blend acoustics and electrics. There’s so much air in the arrangement and all the guitars have their own spaces.
I spent a lot of time studying music and now I kinda have to sometimes put that aside. You know what I mean? And just kinda think what the song needs and think, “How does this feel? Am I getting in the way of the listener’s ability to enjoy this song? Is this too much? Does it need this part?” These are all questions that you ask when you’re writing something I suppose but it just felt natural. I had always loved and I’m a huge Randy Rhoads fan and I loved “Diary Of a Madman.” I get chills even to this day when I listen to that. He recorded that with a combination of steel, nylon and electric and I wanted to try that especially with the intro to “Up in Flames.” To see if I could get those textures to work together and kinda try my hand at it or whatever and that was finally my chance to do it. I’m glad it turned out because it was totally inspired by Randy along with a lot of the other stuff I do. I remember when I was younger my dad took me to a Beatlemania show and it was like the first concert I ever went to. So I was into the Beatles and the Who shortly right after that and then Blizzard of Ozz came out and that was pretty much all she wrote.
“Mysterious Ways” is an acoustic song that suggests elements of Led Zeppelin?
"I swear I’ve got all my eggs in this basket, man. It’s an honor to get to play with Rex and Vinny because I grew up listening to both of those guys."
Absolutely. “Mysterious Ways” is an open tuning song and all that stuff—any kind of open tuning stuff or slide stuff especially even though I’ve got a long way to with both of those aspects of my playing—I try to incorporate them both. The vibe that Jimmy Page was able to capture with those things, I still can’t stop listening to those records. After 10 or 20 years and you’re going through your iPod nowadays or whatever and you’re looking for something to listen to and you pick Zeppelin, there’s something good there and special. That always appealed to me so I’m always trying to explore different avenues with that stuff.
What kind of guitar and amp rig did you use on Kill Devil Hill?
For guitars on the record I was using SG-1s. There’s kind of a limited edition model they made in the ‘90s—it’s a single pickup, 24-fret SG. A buddy of mine had one and I played it and I thought, “Wow this thing is amazing. I didn’t even know they existed.” So I found one on eBay and bought it and I had a vintage JB pickup like a 1980 good old one that I put in there and just fell in love with that thing. I got rid of the tone knob and it had a coil tap switch and I got rid of that thing so that’s my primary. I wound up finding another one and got that for a song and that’s like my backup. So basically those two were the electrics I used and I had a Taylor 410 acoustic and Yamaha nylon string that I think was Dewey’s.
And your amp setup?
For amps I’ve got a Bogner Uberschall that I really love. I worked there for a little while building speaker cabinets for those guys. Reinhold, Jorg, and Charlie are really great guys. I was able to basically put aside half of my paycheck for rent and half of it for the head—they’re expensive—and so I was saving up for a long and finally what happened was great. Reinhold had gone to Africa and he was way overdue; he was supposed to be gone for a couple, few weeks and he was gone for over a month. The deal over there was the Uberschalls before they could pass had to go across his bench and so he had to approve him. Usually they trickle out because they’re built to order; you order one, they build it, they send it out and that’s the deal. Well since he had been gone like 10 of them got stacked up on his bench and my buddy Shaun who was working there at the time called me up and said, “Dude, you need to get down here right now. He just approved 10 of ‘em and they’re all sitting here ready to ship right now. If you want to pick one, you gotta come down right now.” I came down there and I got this old Jubilee head that I’ve had for years and I brought that thing and I sat there. I tell you what—seven of ‘em I was done with in five minutes and the other three it took me almost three hours to figure out which one of those was the best. But I did get to handpick it and I’ll be forever in their debt for the opportunity to do that because I love that head. It’s a great sounding head.
You could really hear the differences between those various Uberschall heads?
Yeah, it’s interesting. They were pretty subtle differences and especially at the end it’s hard to tell the difference with a tube circuit. Guitars are the same thing on different days with different wood. Even pieces of mahogany: some are light; some are heavy. There’s no way to really perfectly recreate the sound of a piece of equipment; no flawlessly but you can get damn close. In my experience even with exactly the same model, make and year can sound radically different. So it’s about what you hear and not what the numbers say or what so-and-so told you. Just because they have one that sounds great doesn’t necessarily mean yours is gonna sound the same.
The SG-1 must play a pretty big part in your guitar sound.
Yeah, it’s possible and I think it’s part of it. It’s all part of the picture and it’s weird how it everything has to kind of cooperate to make it work. Your gear has got to be good; the mics and the preamps in the studio have to be good. And primarily your hands and your head gotta be good. Because I’ve known guys like my buddy Mike Firkins who can pick up any guitar anywhere and make it sound amazing. Like a piece of crap with the strings three inches off the fingerboard, he can pick it up and make it sing. There are a lot of guys like that.
I think you would be capable of that as well.
Oh, well thank you.
But most of it does come from the hands.
Yeah, beauty is in the ear of the beholder so if you know what you’re going for you can point yourself at that. I guess I was kind of blessed to know what I wanted my stuff to sound like and I wasn’t shooting in the dark. I kinda knew what I wanted it to sound like and I was able to get pretty close to it so I feel pretty fortunate.
Can you describe the guitar tone you were looking for?
I like the tone that’s on the record but I didn’t quite get there. There were a few issues with the production aspect with a little bit of head butting going on about how the guitars were going to go. I didn’t have full control and that’s probably the best way to say it.
Sonically what did you think was missing?
It’s really hard to put into words. Like with the 40 Cycle Hum CD, I was able to really have my hands on it and work it the way I wanted to. And having done it that way that time, I had learned some really valuable lessons that I wanted to bring to the table with this project. I wasn’t able to necessarily do that and that was kind of a heartbreaker for me because I really felt like I had the potential to make the guitar tone go off a cliff and really do something. It’s good. I don’t want to sit here and say, “Well the guitar tones are not as good as they could have been.” It’s good and I love the way this record turned out. Jay made it sound amazing but maybe I’ll never be happy. I don’t know. I think I’ll always be chasing it just the same way you’re always chasing writing the best song or mastering a technique. Sometimes you just never really fully get there and maybe that’s the joy of it. Do you know what I mean? It’s the pursuit and not the kill—it’s the thrill of the chase.
When you think of ultimate guitar sounds do you think of Jimmy Page and Randy Rhoads?
They were killer both of ‘em. Warren DeMartini, I don’t wanna take nothing away from that guy. I grew up on his tone as well. I mean the tone at the beginning of “Lay It Down”? God, c’mon, that’s a really great guitar tone. Eddie Van Halen and Zakk and Dime; I really wound up gravitating towards Zakk and Dime especially in my later years. They’re amazing players both of ‘em with so much fire, determination and fuckin’ conviction. It’s inspiring. I remember the first time I heard “Miracle Man,” somebody had a No Rest For the Wicked tape. I was in that False Witness band and we put it in the tape deck and we had six- and eight-hour drives and I wouldn’t let anybody take that tape out. Everybody hated me and they were mad at me. They’d be like, “Take that fuckin’ tape out” and I’d be sitting in the front seat saying, “No” and physically keeping them away from the deck so I could keep listening to that thing. That was groundbreaking and I’d never heard anything like that up to that point. The same with Dime when I first started hearing that stuff. You asked about the solo to “Gates of Hell” and the emotion in it and I got a lot of that from listening to some of Dime’s work. For all his shredding ability, he played with such emotion that it’s overwhelming. You feel it on an emotional level and not just like listening to his technique but to listen to the spirit of the notes he’s playing. That was something that was really inspiring for me.
Do you ever talk to Rex Brown about the Pantera days?
Uhh, I don’t bring it up very much. I know it’s still kind of a sore spot for him and he misses him and he’s told me that on many occasions. But hanging out with Rex is awesome because he’s the coolest dude ever. He’ll sometimes kick into those stories and something will spark his memory and he’ll start telling stories about stuff they did together. And being a fly on the wall for that kind of stuff is just such a joy. I mean I can’t even tell you how great it is to listen to those stories after having been such a fan and watching all the home videos. It’s really something special. He’s working on his book right now and he had sent me some photos that he was gonna include in the book and I was just looking through ‘em. Pictures of him and Dime in Europe and hanging out and just screwing around. Some good times and it’s cool even if you weren’t there to be part of it in some way. It’s kind of a thrill.
Now that the album is done you’re out there touring with the Adrenaline Mob?
Yeah, it’s a couple weeks worth of dates and those guys are great. That guitar player [Mike Orlando] is a shredder and they’re really cool. I got to listen to some of their record and there’s some great playing on there. I think it’s going to be a great show and it’s a great pairing and it should be a lotta fun. I’m really looking forward to it.
Interview by Steven Rosen
Ultimate-Guitar.Com © 2012