Synyster Gates: 'When We Started Writing, We All Liked the Dueling Guitars'

artist: avenged sevenfold date: 05/14/2014 category: interviews
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Synyster Gates: 'When We Started Writing, We All Liked the Dueling Guitars'
Avenged Sevenfold guitarist Synyster Gates held the "Ultimate Master Class Fly Away" recently at the Guitar Center in Hollywood, CA. Teaming up with Guitar Center, Schecter Guitars and Ernie Ball, Gates held a contest whereby would-be participants could download backing tracks from Avenged Sevenfold and then makes videos of themselves accompanying these tracks. Gates listened to all the submissions, chose 10 winners and flew these lucky guitarists to Hollywood to attend the master class. A charming and knowledgeable tutor, Gates walked the attendees - each of whom won a Signature Synyster Gates Schecter - through various scales, arpeggios, picking techniques and dazzled those gathered with some brutal electric guitar playing on his Signature Schecter as well as careening through some gypsy jazz on an acoustic instrument. We caught up with the guitarist following the seminar and talked to him about playing guitar, playing in Avenged Sevenfold and where he finds inspiration.

UG: Why did you want to conduct a Master Class?

SG: Pretty much I just want to be the vessel for those kids. I sort of had a loosely-based curriculum I was going for but I really just wanted to answer their questions and fill in their gaps.

Can you see that guitar players are getting better at a younger age because of all the tools available like the Internet?

Yeah, I just watched an 18-year old girl on YouTube. Yeah, it's just unbelievable. I remember when I was studying a lot of Holdsworth a couple years ago, one of the guys that deciphered all that stuff said, "Yeah, it was mindblowing. You couldn't really slow it down on record and even if you could how was he getting all those spaces?" So it wasn't until they got to see him live in person and even then he was going so fast they were just, "OK, I know he's playing it but that's about it. I don't know how the f--k he's doing it." Which I think is good because that's gonna breed the next evolution and more creativity.

The other side of that comment is now everybody has the same blueprint and every guitar player tends to sound the same.

Yeah, absolutely. I find myself getting a little bit samey too when I'm looking at the stuff because what you're finding now is everybody is incorporating five basic techniques. My constant battle where it is at the present, I'm really working on a nice, unique hybrid of that kind of stuff. I think that's gonna bring something a little bit new.

Do you think other guitar players are out there actively pursuing new styles to incorporate into their playing?

Well, it comes down to choice of notes. There's no way to get away from tapping but it's just all about the notes. It's not about using the same patterns or the same symmetrical ideas other people are doing. You have to really listen to the exact notes and each individual note and break it down. Every note has a purpose so don't waste a note. It's not about the gymnastics of it.

It's not about sweeps and speed - it's about the notes you play?

If I had to boil it down to one thing? It would definitely have to be note choice. Because if I said creativity, I mean there's a lot of oddly and unbelievably creative people but they just play the notes that aren't my style. Slash can do the same thing every single time and it sounds like a different vibe. It's the same guitar, same tone, same amp and that guy is nothing short of inspiring every single time he picks up his guitar to write anything.

That being said, sweep arpeggios and that sort of thing are a big part of what you and most other metal players do.

I like to really explore different types of things and take odd and weird jazz fusion type things and different elements from different types of music and really integrate it into Avenged Sevenfold. It'll always sound like a metal band - it'll always come through that filter. It doesn't mean you can go do a polka song and it's not gonna sound like a polka song.

Where do you find some of those outside influences?

I'm digging some jazz stuff and a lot of classical though I play very little if no classical. I play a lot of jazz. I lean towards the great jazz and fusion guys like Frank Gambale who is insane with the pick. It's economy picking as opposed to alternate picking [alternate up-and-down strokes for every successive note]. You do these three-note per strings things with economy picking and you get a really fluid, natural, awesome flurry. It's changed my whole world.

How long did it take you to incorporate economy picking into your playing?

When I started really using it, I think it was about two years. I actually renovated my whole entire style when I was 19 years old. It was the most unfamiliar and foreign thing I had ever gone through. I think economy picking should be the number one way of picking.

Who else do you listen to for new guitar ideas?

Allan Holdsworth who is the legato master. Those guys are full of arpeggios and unbelievable melodic ideas. Chopin for instance goes through these nocturnes and he has these beautiful scales. You end up making your own scales. My dad calls it creating your own weather.

It sounds like you really listen to a lot of different types of music.

I stress definitely listening to a lot of different styles of music. For me it was a guy like John 5 who is an unbelievable musician. He was listening to a lot of country and developed that style and technique. My dad plays a lot of country and so I thought, "These guys are doing that. I'm gonna do that too."

You got into country?

I didn't fall in love with the actual techniques and playing that and it discouraged me a little bit. Then I found gypsy jazz or re-found it because I used to love listening to it but it seemed like a very unattainable art form. It's an old '30s style form of jazz. They had the Big Bands and the guitar really wasn't out in the forefront; it was more of a rhythm instrument. These guys like Django Reinhardt developed this rhythm style called the pump and they played to emulate the Big Bands. I found that to be so intriguing and especially once I got into the scale types such as the minor 9th and the harmonic minor. I found the techniques, scales, the nuances and the details of it to be very useful.

Your writing has always been so unique - can you talk about your approach to harmonic progressions?

I really like to use different really cool chord progressions and put it together with a simpler melody or something more bluesy. If there's a lot going on underneath, you can do a lot less and it says a lot more. If you're only staying on one chord, it's great to throw everything at it. It's great to throw all the weird scales, weird bends and weird nuances at it. You can do anything. You can play chromatic because it's minimalist underneath.

Can you describe your approach to soloing?

On this last record it kind of changed for me. I kinda jammed a little bit more because I wanted more feel. I was listening to a few different players like Eddie and some blues guys. A lot of Robben Ford and Allan Holdsworth and I would sit and jam to the track. Because I usually write the majority of solos in the studio. There are a few songs like "Hail to the King" that came from writing. That whole section was built around the idea for a solo. But for the most part it all gets written in the studio because I like to let the amp and the surroundings and the really good tones you get out of a studio inspire me. Unless you've got a really strong idea that says, "F--k all that" and then you let that type of thing inspire you.

Do you enlist outside opinions about your solos?

It's definitely the best way to go. We do that with every facet of Avenged Sevenfold - everybody is with everything. I have the final say of what happens in a solo. If Matt doesn't want to sing a certain way, he won't sing a certain way. Everybody pretty much has final say but we're all great friends and it's good to collaborate with people that you trust because if you don't trust them you're not going to listen to them. Or you're gonna be really bummed. So trust the people you're working with and make sure they trust you. Then you'll never have a point where you look at something and go, "Damn, I should have done this. I should have done that." I don't have a moment like that in my mind though I'm sure there is something I could find. But literally if I thought very hard, I could count them on one hand. I'm very thankful to have great collaborators - they bring out the best.

Do you play much blues with Avenged?

It's very important to have a really thorough understanding of the blues scales and it doesn't really matter what genre you're in.

It's not an easy thing to bring in new elements to your playing after you've played in a certain style for so many years.

I've learned all I can learn! No, you never stop learning. You really don't and that's the cool thing about if it's frustrating and encouraging every day when you learn one thing. The older you get, it's more of the catch-22 because once you become friends with the fact you're only gonna learn something one piece at a time. There are very few things that just are. There's nothing that's the key to the universe. At this point, I think it really resonates with me and I've come to peace with that. So I just search for one cool thing that inspires me. I try to have one cool thing inspire me every single day and I try to learn it, understand it and apply it for all sorts of different applications.

You do practice?

As of recent, I really got into practicing a bunch of new stuff. It's kinda getting your head out of your own a-s with touring and all that kind of stuff and having a moment to breathe away from Avenged Sevenfold. Sitting at home for a little bit going, "Oh, my god. I play guitar" and it's not just about this or that and all Avenged Sevenfold all the time.

Any practice tips?

I found jam tracks are essential to finding tempo, feel, exploration and spontaneity. It really gets your mind going and sharpens the wit. It's all about applying new things and it's cool because it's in the confines and comfort of your own home. You can practice this stuff and it doesn't matter who's watching because you can f--k up all over the place and you're good. Then it's good to write solos based on all that kinda stuff and really explore the creative side of taking time and honing something in very instantly.

How do you work on tempo?

I almost always play to a click. I really find that is an essential thing for time. If you're just watching TV and going through scales and stuff like that, it's always great to have a metronome going. Always practice with an intent. Sometimes you're gonna have the TV on and you're gonna zone on and that's perfect to put the click on. Your mind will be blown at how hard it is to play half as f--kin' slow as you can play but play it in time. It's brutal. If you can't play it slow, you'll never be able to play it fast. Try to listen to what you're doing so you can get rid of bad habits. Stay very keen and aware of the wanted and unwanted nuances of your playing.

What is your warmup routine before a show?

I practice what I play. If I'm having trouble with an entire song, I'll work on the entire song. A song like "This Means War" is a simple little riff but I practice it until I can play it perfectly tight. Once they become part of your repertoire and you develop a certain amount of comfort, then I practice the solos. I'll run through every solo and sometimes twice.

Before a show you'll run through solos twice before you go out each night?

Yep. Onstage when you're moving around and stuff and not so much at home but you start playing things different. Things take on their own evolution and become different and unintended things. Sometimes good and sometimes bad and that's why a live song after three years of performing it, people will hear completely different things. The melody is sometimes completely abandoned unless the band tries to correct that. The same with solos. So it's good to recalibrate your playing and go through everything and learn exactly what's going on with that.

You'll go back and relearn the original solos on your songs?

There's great programs for that and I use a program to relearn my old solos. It's called Amazing Slow Downer and it doesn't change the pitch unless you want it to. It takes it down bpm [beats per minute] wise. It's definitely cheating but it's definitely awesome and I think everybody should do it. It's something I use for transcribing different artists as well as my songs.

Are you running scales and things you know when developing solos or are you working by ear?

Ear all the time because that's how all that sh-t was invented. That came from somebody's ears - "Oh, that sounds good to me." Having said that when you know a scale and have a broad understanding of those kinds of things, it's very easy to facilitate. You don't wonder so much, which seems like it can be a bad thing but it takes practice to not stay compliant to what you know and let it facilitate rather than hinder you.

Where did your music theory come from?

I learned my theory from a very eclectic group of people. My father helped me learn a lot of cool songs. He helped me learn "Black Dog" to his dismay. He wasn't happy when his nine-year old song who had been playing guitar for six months wanted to play "Black Dog" by Zeppelin. He was like "Really? You sure you don't want to start off with a Beatles song or something like that?" I said, "No way." He helped me learn "Stairway to Heaven" and the first 10 songs I ever learned. My cousin helped me with the Greek mode, which is just the major scale. M.I. [Musician's Institute] definitely helped me with listening to music and understanding what arpeggios do. Basically writing licks and the importance of listening to your ear. All the while you're learning these kinds of things like the theoretical stuff but mainly they're pushing you to write a lick that sounds better.

Are there certain songs you like playing live more than others?

I like all of 'em but I don't like playing "Beast and the Harlot" because there's just a lot of singing in that one and I feel confined to a microphone. It's fun singing a little bit. But I like to run around, grab a drink and go hang out. F--k with Johnny.

In a way, do you need to get away from Avenged to focus more on being a guitar player?

Yeah, I started playing a lot and it gave me a Renaissance to my passion for guitar. I just started taking a look at all these guys and a bunch of different, crazy sh-t. It's amazing all the dudes out there right now that are just absolutely phenomenal and all these progressive things that are mindblowing. So for the last few years I've been kinda taking a stab at those and trying to make it my own.

Does that extend to the reality of playing the Schecter Signature guitar and using that as a tool to explore these new ideas?

Yeah, it's an amazing guitar. I wish I could say I thought of it. I became aware of it when my dad and I had been getting really into pedals. Really mixing and matching tones and different things and my guitar with the pickups and the Sustainiac, the wood, the frets, the whammy bar and everything, it really is a very overall generally great instrument to put in front of any amp and behind any effects or distortion pedals. It'll let you know exactly what that thing is used for or good for. So it breeds creativity basically.

Have you been using Schecter with Avenged since the beginning?

The first record I played on in its entirety was the second record ["Waking the Fallen"] and I played Schecter but it wasn't my model. I used a different amalgamation of guitars to fit different things. So I kinda knew I wanted something very broad coming from the attempt to be a studio musician. I definitely really wanted something that could fit loosely in any sort of context.

What is it about the Sustainiac pickup you dig?

It was just fun at first. I had this guitar tech with me in the studio - Walter Wright - and he was a pedal junkie. He built his own stuff back when a lot of people weren't using that kind of thing. It was very similar to my setup. It just becomes part of your playing and I do it a lot with the quintessential Dimebag dive-bomb. Then I started using it more melodically and applied it to more musical forms.

Were you actually doing studio work before joining the band?

Sadly I was not. I was attempting to. My father was a studio musician and he's played with - he's right over there somewhere [points to his father standing in the corner] - Zappa and all sorts of f--king different people. So that's what I wanted to be. I didn't want to write music and I didn't want to be an artist - I just wanted to f--kin' play with Michael Jackson or something. I studied all sorts of different styles of music, which brought me to M.I. Studying jazz and fusion. Having that background, I really wanted a diverse guitar.

How did you got from a would-be session player to the dark side of Avenged Sevenfold?

Bad friends, man. Bad friends. Guilty by association. I listened to a lot of Danny Elfman so the Pinkly Smooth thing was definitely Jimmy's brain child but I gravitated towards it right away and felt really comfortable writing for it and arranging it. It was just so much fun. We were just psycho kids getting into too much trouble and this kinda got us behind a guitar, a pad of paper and a piano and just really exhausting all of our passions together with two best friends. It was really, really cool. I kind of always had an anchor in that and I couldn't help myself from writing songs once in a while. But mainly I wanted to play scales and arpeggios and sh-t like that until Jimmy opened up the floodgates of my writing and my passion for writing.

Did you know from the outset that Avenged Sevenfold was going to be a two-guitar driven band?

Yeah, it was definitely a guitar-driven band. When Matt [M. Shadows] writes a song he's writing on guitar and when Jimmy [the Rev] was alive, he was writing for Avenged on guitar mainly. We borrowed some elements from our old band Pinkly Smooth in songs like "Fiction" and "A Little Piece of Heaven" and that's very much Jimmy on the piano doing his thing. But songs like "Brompton cocktail" or "Afterlife" are very much Jimmy sitting down on the guitar. Everybody comes from that punk rock band and everybody's had a guitar in their hands at a certain point leading the band or their own entities. So yeah, it made sense - I knew it was gonna be guitar-oriented.

Specifically did you know the band was going to be based on twin guitars?

Not at the very first. When we all started writing, we all liked the dueling guitars and everything had to be harmonized and layers and layers. I mean if you listen to "City of Evil," it's just f--kin' layers and layers of harmonies at all f--kin' times. Whether it's vocals or guitar or just strings, everything was filled to the brim with harmonies. So we kinda smoothed that out and filtered that out and kinda saying more by doing less type of an approach that we've applied over the years.

You've learned how to use harmony more effectively?

But yeah, we liked it whether it was Queen doing it or Mr. Bungle. Matt was a big Bad Religion fan and NOFX and stuff like that and it was all harmony based. Our favorite punk rock song is "Linoleum" by NOFX and that's pure harmony and the coolest chord changes. So that type of sh-t was completely awe inspiring and monumental in the development of Avenged.

Did you look at what Iron Maiden and Judas Priest were doing?

Yeah, but we really didn't know about that. We're kinda starting to get more into Priest at this point but certainly Iron Maiden and that was Matt's thing. It's kind of ironic because we do this whole dual thing but mine came from Boston and Queen kind of stuff or punk rock emulating vocalists. Matt's was very much Iron Maiden and especially when we started getting more melodic metal as opposed to punk or hardcore.

Did you go back even further to two-guitar bands like Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones with Brian Jones and Keith Richards?

Yeah, absolutely. Brian Jones was an absolute genius and I was huge into that. Syd Barrett with Pink Floyd and all those guys. We listened to a lot of stuff and even if we weren't into certain bands. The Rolling Stones came after for me - I was a Beatles guy and all of us were pretty much along the lines of Beatles guys than we were the Stones or Elvis or whatever that kind of sh-t was.

The Beatles were the first two-guitar band.

Then if we didn't know it, we learned it and studied it because we thought it would be best to know of it and hopefully love it if it was possible. The older you get, the less your head is up your own a-s and you become less elitist and you're into everything and you can listen to whatever. Which is how music should be listened to. If you listen to it with disdain and it's not your cup of tea, then go somewhere else and listen to something else. But try it 'cause you can find something that p-ssed you off your whole life and then when you come to embrace it and love it, it's life changing. Don't deny yourself that type of stuff.

You think about the personalities of the Beatles' guitar players John Lennon and George Harrison. John was animated and George was reserved. You're kind of reserved and confident onstage.

I don't feel like I exude that confidence. I have no clue. I look back on different performances and more intimate one-on-one types of things and think I look like a f--kin' wreck. I'm moving all over the place and playing like sh-t.

What are your thoughts about the upcoming Mayhem Festival?

It's gonna be really exciting I think. I love all the bands. Korn is great friends of ours and to be on tour with friends, that's usually our number one. We've been very blessed to meet a lot of great and successful bands we can actually go tour with. On the other side of it, they have to sell tickets so it's fortunate when you have great friends that can sell tickets as well so then you get to f--kin' hang out with 'em every day. I mean I grew up listening to Korn; they were one of my favorite bands. Just moreso for the bass playing, vocals and - I mean they're extremely innovative guitar-wise and I don't want to go off on a tangent - the drums. I'm just a huge, huge fan. So friends and fans makes for a great time.

Do you cater a set depending on whether it's a festival show or a concert performance?

This may sound sarcastic and I don't mean it like that at all but we're just probably gonna play different songs and just try and switch it up. It's as basic as that. We definitely have other things we can't really divulge as far as the set. So we're definitely gonna put on a bigger, better show so to speak and hopefully a little bit longer. I know we get complaints about that [when fans want] longer, better, bigger.

You're headlining one of the three days of the Download Festival.

Yeah. What I want to say is it's gonna be awesome. It's gonna be f--king awesome. From our standpoint? F--k, dude, it's the coolest thing ever. We haven't headlined a festival I don't think. Well, a big overseas festival. I mean we've done [other festivals]. It's definitely the biggest festival and the biggest show we are going to headline. To have it be overseas in such a place and have it be a legendary and historical sort of thing because they had AC/DC headlining. The last time I was there and saw it they had System of a Down and those two f--kin' bands couldn't be more instrumental in either how I view music today or days of yesteryear. It's legendary. Way too cool.

The idea of headlining a festival like Download where your heroes have performed doesn't leave you blasé in any way?

Certainly not blasé. We realize we have a lot of work to do when we go to certain places - I won't say numbers because I'll sound like a f--kin' idiot - it's just not as big as other places. You'll be like, "OK, this is kind of a little lopsided but let's work our asses off to get to where we know is good and like the feel of. We like the bigger shows and we can do what we always grew up watching. Huge, gigantic shows and tons of fire and bands playing everybody's favorite songs and bands playing more songs for kids." You can do so much more when a show is bigger. It's not about money or being the biggest f--king band in the world - it's not about that. It's about the type of show you can put on when you're headlining. Something like Download is nothing short of a dream come true.

That is so cool.

Definitely.

On the other side of that, do you ever go back and play the small clubs where you first started?

Yeah, we do stuff like that once in a while for album releases and stuff. This last one was at the Palladium. Our good friend Jeremy Popoff from Lit owns the Slidebar in Anaheim and we did a couple of things over there and that was a lot of fun. You just have a couple hundred kids - actually that place sounds alright because they invested a lot of money - or not a lot of kids and they're handing out these shots so you just get obliterated and play your songs absolutely horrifyingly bad. But it's fun because the kids are there, they're drunk with you and it's more about the hang and "Oh, my gosh. There's 200 people here, there's 100 people here and I'm drinking with the band." That's sh-t's really, really fun. So yeah, we don't have anything booked up or in the works right now but that sh-t's definitely fun.

Do you have much of a chance to swap guitar licks with the other bands at these festivals?

Yeah, definitely. I find that drummers are the coolest people in the world. I play a little bit of drums so I kind of definitely do a lot more jamming with drummers and stuff like that. But Jim Root is a great friend of mine and we've sat together and played a lot of stuff together.

Jim Root is an amazing guitar player.

He showed me some pretty incredible stuff and I hope I've reciprocated in even a small level. But a great guy so you find great guitar players. Jake from Black Veil Brides and tons of different people Vinnie Paul. So there's definitely jammin' out and there's a lot of fun to be had. As fun as the jam sessions are, talking to like-minded people who have done it and hearing their experiences, it's just cool. It's just like that elite club and it really is that idea of what people think - an elite club. And it's so fun talking to fascinating people and some of 'em - not all of 'em and not most of 'em but some of 'em - sometimes are equally fascinated by you. It's too cool.

Interview by Steven Rosen
Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2014
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