Aaron Lewis has been called a heavy metal singer but he is not. Staind, the band he fronts, has been described as nu metal and post-grunge but neither of these adjectives work either. Lewis is simply an emotive and passionate singer certainly reminiscent of Eddie Vedder but still highly original in the way he interprets and presents the songs he collaborates on with guitarist Mike Mushok and the compositions he writes by himself. And the group is simply a modern rock band built around Lewis' plaintive vocals and simple yet dramatic arrangements of electric guitars, bass, and drums.
The singer was recently honored with his own Signature Gibson guitar the Southern Jumbo. Here, he talks about the guitar, his amazing collection of instruments, and the acoustic/electric sides of Staind.
UG: Your acoustic guitar playing and those acoustic-oriented songs are a huge part of Staind's sound. Songs like Tangled Up in You from The Illusion of Progress album and It's Been Awhile from the Break the Cycle record are touchstones for the band.
Aaron Lewis: Well, you know I gotta interject on that. It's what I've always done. Any song that I've brought to the table over the years has been written on acoustic guitar. But I don't know that Mike [Mushok; lead guitar] has ever brought an acoustic-based song to the table. So, what you've seen over the years that is acoustic-based are songs that I have written sitting alone somewhere with my acoustic guitar and had the song and then said, OK, guys, do your thing and embellish because my skills only take me so far. I have the ability to accompany myself; I'm good at what it is that I do but I'm certainly not gonna wow anybody with my guitar playing skills.
There really are two sides to Staind: Your acoustic side and that electric stuff.
Well, here's the deal: The electric side of things is Staind; the Tangled Up in You side of Staind is me and then bringing it to Staind. Well, Tangled Up in You, Staind didn't play anything on that record, I mean on that song.
That's all you?
It's either me or the guy [John Pirruccello] that came into Johnny K's studio in Chicago and played pedal steel or the one guy [Rick Barnes] that came in with a Telcaster and an old Fender amp and a glass slide and did that stuff. But other than that it was me. But that's now the way it's always been. Like It's Been Awhile is a song that I wrote, that I brought to the table that Staind embellished. But the heavier stuff, that's all stuff that Staind writes together as whole. I guess that's what I was trying to say. We don't necessarily separate the two out, I guess.
You do play acoustic live.
With the band? I've got an electric in my hand for the entire night aside from the songs that [require an acoustic.] In the band situation, I actually use a Les Paul acoustic. They made them for one year from 2001 until 2002 and they didn't make very many of them and they were kind of marketed the wrong way. They were marketed as an acoustic guitar with so much more. And the focus was kind of taken away from - how killer with a band situation going with all of the volume and noise on stage how killer of just a straight up acoustic guitar this guitar is. Every single band I've ever been on tour with has been like, What is that guitar you're playing during the acoustic songs? And it's the Les Paul acoustic.
Now when I go out on my solo shows and it's a sit-down situation, I don't use that guitar at all. I feel foolish sitting down with a Les Paul on my knee. So, you know that's when my vast assortment of Gibson acoustics come out.
When you do these acoustic tours, do they challenge you in a way that touring with Staind doesn't?
It's back to what we were talking about earlier where the songs in Staind's repertoire over the years have been acoustic-based. I was doing the acoustic thing and being the guy in the corner that was the human jukebox from 9:30 at night until a quarter of two in the morning in the local bars before Staind had even gotten to second base. I was doing this long before Staind was even a thought; we hadn't even met yet.
Why did you ultimately want to be part of a band and not pursue a career as a solo performer?
Umm, insecurities, I guess. At that time, I needed to express myself that way. If you go back and listen to the first records of Staind, they're not exactly what this last record from Staind did. So at that time, I don't know that writing songs acoustically could have gotten it out for me in the way the band songs did.
You've been a longtime player of Les Pauls and you talk about the Les Paul acoustic. What was it about Gibson instruments that captured your ear so much that you've now got your own Signature Southern Jumbo guitar?
OK, here's how it all came about: Throughout my whole life I played hand-me-downs and traded guitars and everything else. And when we got our first record deal, it was the guitar that was on the Outside video. When we got our first record deal, I went and with the $3,500 check just go home and feel good and spend a little bit of money I went and I bought that Gibson guitar. And it's one of the Artist series; I think it might be the EL36 or something like that. I might be totally blinking on that one; I can't remember. So that was the first thing that I bought with the very first check that I got from getting a record deal. And for a while because they were giving them to me, I went with a different company and the guitars just don't sound as good as the Gibson guitars do.
At that point I started buying old guitars and started playing my Gibsons again. You know, I never owned an electric guitar until 14 Shades of Grey. And now I play [an electric] for the entire set.
What types of electric guitars do you own?
Those guitars that I have that I'm playing on stage, I have a 1958 ES355 that there's only 10 of in existence. 1958 is the first year that they made the 335 body and they made 10 of these guitars from October til the end of the year. I have one of them and I play it on stage every night. I have a '57 Goldtop that I play on stage every night; I have a '65 SG that I play on stage every night.
Do you have other vintage guitars besides Gibsons?
I've got other guitars too; there's the quintessential old guitars that everybody needs to have one of. So I have a '58 Fender Strat; I've got a '57 Danelectro U2; a '62 slapboard Jazzmaster. You know, each one of those guys if you plug it into the exact same amp with the exact same setting will sound completely different.
"Any song that I've brought to the table over the years has been written on acoustic guitar."
When you designed the new Signature Southern Jumbo Aaron Lewis guitar, what types of specs did you want it to have?
I was actually really, really detail-orientated and really had set on them recreating the guitar exactly; like the old stuff that they did. The hot hide glue; the hand-scalloped and hand-carved bracing [by] Ren Ferguson [master guitar luthier who] carved every single bracing. The mid-30s advanced jumbo X-bracing for the top of the guitar. It's hand-selected pieces of spruce and mahogany for the top, back, and sides. It's measuring everything so it's all the exact same tolerance. If the tops over the years have grown a little bit thicker, they would sand it back down. Every last detail tolerance-wise was recreated so that these guitars are exactly what would have come out of the shop in 1951.
What is the Aaron Lewis acoustic guitar sound on record? If you were describing the guitar sound on Tangled Up in You or All I Want what would you say?
It's even all the way across; there isn't too much bass; there isn't too much mids; there isn't too much treble. It's that perfectly compressed tone. I don't know how else to say it. They sound like a Gibson.
Had you listened to other musicians using Gibson guitars?
My dad always played a Yamaha nylon string and then he gave that to me. And then he played a Guild nylon string and I actually gave him the first steel string guitar he's ever owned because he's always played on a nylon string guitar. I've tried people's Taylors and I've tried people's Martins and I own a 1957 Martin D-28 with Brazilian back and sides. Pretty much all the guitars that I have at this point that I'm keeping and that will actually never get re-circulated again, are those quintessential guitars. A 50s Martin D-28 is like the workingman's Martin D-28; it sounds amazing and it's Crosby, Stills & Nash and it's a lot of stuff. And then there's the Gibson Dove that was Stairway to Heaven and then there's the Hummingbird and the J-200 and the J-45 which was the workingman's guitar on the Gibson side of things. And it has a completely different tone than the Martin D-28; they don't sound the same at all.
I personally prefer that perfectly compressed, even all the way across, boomy, well not boomy but jumps out of the guitar, tone that an old Gibson mahogany-backed guitar makes.
How would you describe the acoustic tones on It's Been Awhile?
Umm, oh God, I don't know. I'm trying to remember what the part was. That acoustic track you hear through the song is the original song along with my vocals [recorded in 2001.] That acoustic track and my vocal is the original song and then the things that were put over the top of it are what my bandmates [did.] My guitar player makes me look like I've never played the guitar before.
You're a very capable guitarist.
I've never tried to be the master of anything. I can sit down on pretty much any instrument as long as you don't have to blow through it and make music with it. I don't know what I'm doing but I can make music with it. Music that actually makes sense and moves through the proper chord progressions that you can write a hit song over. You know what I mean? I can't necessarily tell you what I'm playing at the time.
Certainly you're able to impart those ideas to guitarist Mike Mushok when you're showing him the songs.
You have no idea how over the years how over the years for lack of a better way of puttin' it dummied him up. It's been an ongoing thing to simplify the things that he does cause it's too much. He's amazing; he's like an Yngwie Malmsteen. Seriously, I'm not even tryin' to joke. He's like Yngwie Malmsteen is his guitar player, his guitar hero. He would sit in his room for three hours before he went to school; when he got home from school he'd sit in his room and play until it was dinnertime; right after dinner he'd sit and play in his room again until his parents made him go to bed. I mean that was what he did since he was five or six years old.
Me and him have been playing the same amount of time. He actually wanted to be a guitar great and I just want him to be able to strum chords underneath the singing.
Johnny K, the producer who did The Illusion of Progress album, also worked with Three Doors Down and Disturbed and a lot of guitar-driven bands. Did he come up with guitar sounds or anything like that?
Well, tonality-wise, all of the stuff that I did on the record was all through vintage stuff that pretty much made the tone that it made. I'm not a foot pedal guy; I'm not a processor guy. I have a pretty cool collection of old amps, too.
"The heavier stuff, that's all stuff that Staind writes together as whole."
Isn't your main rig a Marshall?
That's pretty much the one thing that I don't have the perfect piece of. Right now I play Genz Benz; they're kind of a boutique amp company and I'm one of two people who have a full endorsement with. Their stuff sounds really good. It's a perfect happy medium between the really thick, heavy, crunchy, chug chug chug chug chug [sound] and that bright, brittle, Marshall tone. I can get that perfect happy medium between the two.
What are some of your vintage pieces?
I've got a '64 Vox AC30 and '63 Super Reverb, Fender. You know, some pieces that when you take a specific guitar and put it through that specific amp, you get that specific tone.
What are the plans for the next Staind record?
Umm, we're gonna start workin' on it at the end of this year. Whatever is gonna happen here with this solo or this solo venture that I'm about to put out; I don't know if it's gonna be a record, I don't know if it's gonna be digital, I don't know what it's gonna be yet. But that will kind of dictate when Staind is gonna go back into the studio.
There is a solo record in the works?
There is something in the works; I'm still not completely sure as to what it is yet. It could be a live CD with a couple new songs backed onto the end of it; it could be a couple new songs just done virally and digitally but still get worked to the radio. I'm not completely sure how we're gonna do it yet.
There are all of these terms used to describe Staind and yet what I hear is just a band functioning at a really high level in terms of songs and performance. There is a real throwback to the emphasis on melody that was present in a lot of classic bands. I think just calling the band a very cool rock band is what really works.
I miss hearing that as a description. Everybody is always trying to put us into nu metal or just categories that we've never fit. Maybe on our very first record we fit these categories. But nu metal? I thought nu metal had to have a DJ and some kind of rap element mixed into the metal. But I don't see how we fall into that.
Interview by Steven Rosen
"If you go back and listen to the first records of Staind, they're not exactly what this last record from Staind did."
|Aaron Lewis' solo tour dates:
03/06 - Detroit, MI
03/11 - Mescalero, NM
03/12 - Amarillo, TX
03/13 - Dallas, TX
03/14 - San Antonio, TX
03/20 - Snoqualmie, WA
03/24 - Orlando, FL
03/25 - Atlanta, GA
03/27 - Biloxi, MS
Find more at staind.com/events|