During the first wave of thrash metal in the 1980s, there was no question that San Francisco was one of the talent hotbeds. Besides stalwarts like Testament and Exodus, bands like Vio-Lence and Death Angel also helped solidify the region's reputation as the place for record company A&R scouts to mine for new signings.
Out of the acts that found big success in the Bay Area thrash scene, you would be hard-pressed to find a finer band than Forbidden. Their "Forbidden Evil" and "Twisted Into Form" helped defined an era of tech-metal through their lethal combination of forward-thinking arrangements and anthemic songwriting.
Fronted by a dynamic vocalist named Russ Anderson, Forbidden's musical output was the perfect balance of technicality and catchy vocal and guitar phrasing. Lead guitarist Craig Locicero might have been in his late teens to early 20s during this era of the band, but his dazzling fretwork found a player that clearly understood how to weave a flashy solo and still make it memorable. On the first album he was joined by guitarist Glen Alvelais, while the second record welcomed future Nevermore axeman Tim Calvert into the band. Each guitarist proved to be a worthy addition to Forbidden, but it was Locicero who remained the creative anchor for the combo.
Forbidden went on to release 2 more albums (1994's Distortion' and 1997's Green') before disbanding in the late 90s. While they were away, a younger generation of thrash enthusiasts discovered the group and before anyone knew it, there was a huge demand for the band to reform. They've spent the past couple of years touring and working on new material and now it's culminated with "Omega Wave," Forbidden's brand new album. Ultimate-Guitar's Carlos Ramirez caught up with Locicero and his partner-in-crime, shred-master Steve Smyth, and talked about their individual influences, their take on the current thrash scene, and their new album.
UG: Let's start at the beginning. Who were your first guitar heroes?
Craig Locicero: I grew up in the late 70s and my parents had pretty standard musical tastes, so that's what I was first exposed to. I became the black sheep in my family when I started getting into heavy metal. But they liked the stuff of that period. I'm talking artists like The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel. So the first guitarists that I got into were George Harrison, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney. I say all three of them since you didn't always know who was playing on what.
From there I got into Kiss and Black Sabbath. Judas Priest was also huge for me. I was really into Glenn Tipton's playing style. He had a huge impact on me when I was a kid. It wasn't till more recently that I started really appreciating K.K. Downing. If you see them these days, K.K.'s on fire!
Steve Smyth: My very first guitar heroes were Angus Young and Joe Perry. I heard Back in Black' one day at a friend's house; he was learning guitar, and trying to learn the song by ear. He was getting frustrated, so he passed the guitar on to me and said You figure it out! So I gave it my best shot, and started finding each one of the root notes of the chords, and eventually figured out the 5ths in each chord after that. I was hooked! My friend was pretty impressed, and threw on Dream On by Aerosmith; I tried to figure that out, and could only get a few notes, but the song hooked me, and I eventually got lessons and learned more and more, till I learned every AC/DC song and Aerosmith song I could.
From there, I heard Sabbath with Ozzy, then with Dio, Ozzy solo, Dio solo, Priest, Maiden,Van Halen, and more, and just kept learning and growing. My heroes list grew to include Randy Rhoads, Akira Takasaki, Yngwie Malmsteen, Paul Gilbert, Marty Friedman, Jason Becker, and the rest of the Shrapnel Records scene. I got into jazz, blues, classical guitar and other styles, went through music and theory classes in high school and then put 2 year of college behind me. Throughout this time, my interests and inspirations grew. BB King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Michael Hedges, Paco De Lucia, the list goes on, and the bar is always set high!
How about the almighty riff?
Locicero: Hank Shermann from Mercyful Fate was one of my main inspirations when it came to riffing. He had such an original style and he doesn't get the credit he deserves.
I'm sure as you got older you opened up your listening habits.
Locicero: I definitely did. Jerry Cantrell was a player that I got heavily into in the 90s. He's still one of my favorite guitarists. Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead is also a monster player! Words cannot express how talented that guy is. He has such a range of styles and moods, but if he ever wants to let a part explode, he'll do it effortlessly. I can't forget David Gilmour! I have a slow left hand, so I love his style. That said my right hand is second-to-none!
Can we print that (laughing)?
Locicero: Yes, my picking hand is amazing (laughing).
"I eventually got lessons and learned more and more, till I learned every AC/DC song and Aerosmith song I could."
Locicero: When I was a kid, I was definitely a practice nerd. But I will say this I stopped learning how to play other people's songs pretty early on. That was the best thing I could have done for myself. There are guitarists that can play any cover you ask them to. I'm not that guy at all. I just discovered my own way of playing and it suited me. Steve Smyth (his counterpart in Forbidden) is another story. He can play any song you ask him. It's an amazing thing.
Smyth: I was hooked on the shred scene thing as a teenager, so I tried to get at least 6-8 hours a day in whenever I could. I would break it up, and do some scale practice for an hour or two, then arpeggios, picking techniques, and especially legato technique as well. I loved the sound that Akira Takasaki could get from his various approaches his use of legato, similar to what Eddie Van Halen was doing, but in a different way. I focused on this stuff in small blocks of time, then moved on to songs, chords (my teacher always told me I should learn 5 forms for every chord if I could, so I always made that a part of my focus). I was always trying to figure out stuff by ear. Not necessarily writing it down all the time, but always trying to figure out stuff by ear.
Eventually, I studied classical guitar for a few years, and devoted more of my time to that, but still kept up on the other stuff I practiced. I was big on technique as well, and had a few books I would go through daily, for years: Guitar Technic' (Roger Filiberto) and Slur Ornament and Reach Development Exercises' (Aaron Shearer) which was a classical guitar technique book, but I figured this should apply to electric as well, so tried it and stuck with it. My teacher turned me on to a book called Artful Arpeggios' (Don Mock), and studied out of that for a while, and got into jazz standards and jazz theory, but for a time my main focus was to learn classical guitar. I was very influenced by Randy Rhoads, and once I discovered he had a classical guitar background, I wanted to do that as well.
So Craig, it sounds like you didn't develop your playing methods in a conventional way.
Locicero: Yeah, I just concentrated on the songwriting side of things. Whatever guitar styles I picked up along the way have been on my own terms. I don't know sh*t about theory, but it hasn't stopped me. When I first play with people who have a more educated musical background, they'll tell me stuff like, You can't do that. It doesn't make musical sense. I always say, Really? Watch me.
What was your first guitar set up?
Locicero: It was an Ibanez Blazer (laughter). My mom finally relented and got me a guitar when I was 14 years old. My first amplifier was a Fender Harvard combo (laughter). It had one tiny speaker that couldn't handle the distortion I was pushing through it. I remember practicing dive bombs on that thing (laughter). About a year later, I was playing in Forbidden Evil (the band's first name). So things went fast.
Smyth: Wow, take me back! My very first set up was actually my mom's; she had kept it secret from us, but I found out that she played one day by opening up a closet at home, just after hanging at my friends house learning how to play Back in Black, and found a 1957 Danelectro Les Paul copy and a '57 Fender Champ amp. Now you couldn't do metal with that stuff at all, so eventually, I got a Peavey Backstage 20, and hooked up the Danelectro to that. I had some gain, and could rock out! But to be honest, I started out on acoustic and then moved back on to electric. I think it's a good experience to start out on acoustic. You have to make everything happen on your own and you don't have an amp and pickups helping you. That background has made my playing that much stronger today, as I still split my time between the two every chance I get. I even prefer to write on acoustic as well at times. Eventually, once I saved some money, I got a BC Rich Mockingbird NJ series, and I was hooked on BC from there on out. I've been playing them practically ever since.
How competitive were all the young Bay Area thrash guitarists with each other back then?
Locicero: It's still competitive! But I could give a flying f*ck. When you write something memorable, that is what moves me. That's what I care about. Steve (Smyth) is more from the guitar god school of thought. I'm more of the best supporting actor type of player.
Smyth: Given that my background was a bit more diversified, and I came into the band thing a little later than Craig. I opened for a few of these bands with my own band, which was more progressive melodic metal, and yes, I would say they were very competitive. Man they were straight up dicks just kidding (laughter). But yes, I can understand that everybody wants to be the first to do something, and sometimes someone gets there first, but they're not necessarily better at it than you are.
Machine Head's Robb Flynn was in Forbidden during the early days. How would you describe his playing back then?
Locicero: Flynn was a full-on shredder. He was an awesome lead guitarist even back then. I remember being a sophomore in high school and he was senior, but he could already play Uli Jon Roth's Earthquake note for note. That was incredible! Later on he joined Vio-Lence and he changed his style a bit. And in Machine Head, he's concentrating more on the songwriting and feel of the song. But back in the early days, the guy was a shredder!
Glen Alvelais, Robb's replacement in the band, was also a great shred guy.
Locicero: Yeah, we initially got Glen because we wanted try and get someone that could top him in that category (laughter). But yeah, Glen came from that Eddie Van Halen and Warren DeMartini (Ratt) kind of thing. He didn't even know about thrash till he joined Forbidden. He got on the job training (laughter).
How tough was it walking away from Forbidden in the late 90s?
Locicero: It was actually really easy. I was fed up with the music business at that point. We had just released the Green' album and it was different. We were playing this angry, caveman-like type of metal. A lot of our fans didn't get the album. We had a tour booked with Grip Inc. and our label at the time wouldn't give us the support for it. So it got cancelled. Next thing you know, the label tells us we'll be touring with Manowar. That was enough for me, and I quit. They wanted to fit a square peg into a circle, and I didn't want to deal with it anymore.
"Everything you hear on Omega Wave' was written exclusively for the album. I love the way everything sounds too."
Locicero: The thing is, people come up to me now and tell me how much they love that record. I remember a couple of the guys from Slipknot talking to me about it. I just think that the album came out a few years too early.
Craig, I know you also play in a band called Spiralarms. Did you miss the neoclassical playing style you became known for?
Locicero: Not too much actually. After Forbidden first broke up, I played in a band called Manmade God which was very different. I got to expand on my playing style. Gene Hoglan (Dark Angel, Dethlok) once said I wrote some of my best riffs for that band. I liked saying that the stuff I played in that band was like finger painting with sh*t (laughter). It was a lot of fun playing in that band. We got signed by Rick Rubin to American Recordings, but the album we released got caught up in a bunch of label nonsense.
So what got you back into a thrash metal mentality?
Locicero: It was a documentary called Get Thrashed' that came out a few years ago. I remember watching it and getting that feeling I had when I first got into metal. There was a part on the DVD where people were talking about Forbidden and it had an effect on me. It got me back in that mindset. I think that fire is missing in a lot of the thrash bands that are playing today.
Funny you bring that up, because I was going to ask you about your thoughts on the current thrash revival.
Locicero: The main thing that stands out to me is the lack of aggression when these newer bands play. There's no fire in their playing. It's all too precise for me. When thrash first came out, we played with the anger of punk and mixed it with metal. That might be an age thing, but it worked perfectly for the sound. I hear these new thrash bands and they are too worried about getting every note down perfectly. I wish they would get tougher about the actual playing and also dirty up the recordings.
Smyth: Having toured with Testament for nearly 5 years during some of the roughest points in their career, I think this resurgence is a great thing for every band that has decided to come back and make a go of it. I'm really glad to see it, as the last time I was a kid, in some cases opening for some of these bands, so I didn't really see it from the perspective I see it from now. Thrash metal is a viable style of music, has awesome riffs, solid musicianship, and some classic songs in its vocabulary now. I'm personally glad the guys in Forbidden decided to come back; I had a lot of fun sitting in with them for 3 songs at Thrash of the Titans event, and had always hoped I would hear they were coming back, then they did! Then I got the call to come join, and I was even happier (laughter)! I don't like to think of things in cycles; that's something labels and to a certain extent journalists pay attention to, and create as well, and I think it's bullsh*tin most cases. If you like something, you stick with it, right? You don't get out of it because Bobby or Susie says it ain't cool anymore, do you?
Did you put a lot of pressure on yourself with Omega Wave' since it was a comeback album?
Locicero: I don't think the public's expectation level was high. There were a lot of people that watched the footage of us at the Graspop festival in 1998 where Russ was struggling in some parts. The guy had just sung eleven shows in a row and it wasn't fair to judge him. So there was some doubt out there about Forbidden, and if we could come back strong. I didn't let it get to me. I knew we would create a great record.
Smyth: I see this not only as a comeback album for Forbidden, but also a comeback album in my career as well. I love metal very much, it's been a part of my life for so long, and through the various bands I have been in, I've been afforded many great opportunities and experiences, stuff that not a lot of people get to experience either. So I feel lucky and grateful as well! I fought and beat chronic kidney disease to be able to come back and do this. I was lucky to receive a transplant, and be here at all, talking to you. I could have died, or I could have been unlucky, and stayed on the dialysis chair for the rest of my life. I worked my ass off to give what I could for this record, and probably stepped over my bounds in some cases, I was so excited to make this happen, and to help Forbidden create something that would be long lasting, and above all, heavy as hell! I stressed out in the studio.
I wanted to get every take the right way from the first try, which doesn't always happen. We were really limited on budget and time as well, so I fought every step of the way to get things done my way, and work within the framework of the band, yet try and stretch into territories you wouldn't expect Forbidden to go. At least I hope I did (laughter). I'm looking forward to hearing what the fans have to say when we hit the road and start playing this material live as well.
Let's talk about the new album. How much of the material was written exclusively for it?
Locicero: Everything you hear on Omega Wave' was written exclusively for the album. I love the way everything sounds too. All these years later, we've figured out how everything should sound. We worked with the benefit of hindsight. I especially like how we didn't kill the energy of the songs by making everything sound so precise. For example, we didn't mute everything in between the riffing. The imperfections help give the record a better feel. That goes back to what I was saying about the new thrash bands.
What kind of guitar rig did you use on the album?
Locicero: For all my rhythm tracks, I used a Les Paul Standard. It has such a meaty sound! It's got girth (laughter). I'm also big into the mid-range side of my guitar sound and the Les Paul handles that nicely. In terms of solos, I used a few different Dean Guitars. I used a Stratocaster, a Michael Schenker model, and a Michael Ammot flying V. I'm actually good friends with Ammot, so it's nice to support him. His model has these incredible pickups that I got hooked on.
I used this amazing preamp made by Langner. Everyone in the Bay Area metal scene has used them, but we were the first. They make them custom, so they aren't that great to bring on tour, but I love the sound they get. I also used a 5150 head from the mid-90s and a great Dual Rectifier. Oh, wait for my solos, I used a Vetta II from Line 6. I know how to get a killer sound from that thing.
Smyth: For amps I used the EVH 5150 III head, along with a combination of my old Mesa Boogie Triple Rectifier head, and my Randall MTS head set up with the XL module. We used 2 Marshall JCM 800 cabs (4 ohm parallel) and my Mesa Boogie cab, all close mic'd. When we solo'd up each track, the EVH won the tone game, and l made sure we kept that up front at all times in the mix of my rhythm tracks.
I used my old Dunlop Crybaby Wah for solo work, particularly for Dragging My Casket, and I think in a few other areas as well, but not much in the way of effects; those were added in later, as and what I wanted on there.
For guitars, I mainly stuck between my new Signature Series BC Rich Bich, which is a 6 string hard tail guitar, solid maple from the body to the headstock, and mahogany sides, AAA maple top, EMG 81-85 classic set up in there. I also occasionally used my BC Rich Warlock that I've had for years now, and my red BC Rich Bitch from the custom shop. I had that guitar made in 1998, was the first to put the widow headstock on the Bitch body. I love that guitar! I love it so much, when BC Rich offered to make me a signature model, they asked me what I wanted and I told them I wanted this guitar. This guitar, along with a 7 string version of this guitar, will see release at Winter NAMM 2011!
"The Green' album came out a few years too early."
Locicero: Steve is an educated player. I'm more of a feel guy. I look for the emotion in something when I'm writing songs. I listen to the lyrics and try to come up with something that matches the way they make me feel. I try and paint a picture with what I play. So you can say I'm more of the visual guitarist in Forbidden. Steve is so schooled and can play anything. Tim Calvert was another great guitarist that Forbidden played with, but Steve plays all the technical stuff so violently. We complement each other well.
What does Craig bring to the table that you don't?
Smyth: I don't know if I can look at it that way. I've played with a lot of different guitar players, Eric Peterson and Jeff Loomis among them, and I have found I think every guitar player is unique in what they play and do not play, what their strong points are, what they go to normally, and what they might try to take chances on. I respect Craig's ability to riff write, and his ability to find some solid melodic slow phrases. He's also a solid arranger for Forbidden, as he should be. He's been there since the beginning (laughter)!
I would like to think that I bring a little bit different mode of thinking to this band; I like to think outside of the norm, as do they, but I also like the traditional sounding stuff a lot as well. So I'm more apt to come up with stuff that has some hooks to it, yet can also come in from left field. Craig drew some cool riffs out of me when we were just jamming, and I was just noodling around; all of a sudden he's like, Dude! What was that? Play that again! And pretty soon we had another riff, such as the intro to Swine, bits of Overthrow, as examples. I think we're making a good team, but it's still the early days. It's going to take another album to truly develop this teamwork even further, so I look forward to seeing what we can do in the future.
Did you improvise your solos this time out?
Locicero: For Forbidden, I plot out my solos more than I do with Spiralarms. It just works out better. I'm really happy with the solos on Omega Wave.' I think it's more important to play a solo that is memorable than playing a million notes in a few bars. That's what people connect with.
Smyth: I usually go in with a theme or a melody in my head, so to be honest, a lot of this stuff was not very worked out at all. I had ideas about where I wanted to go directly over chord changes or progression changes, but I kept my ears and mind open in the studio on this album. That developed a lot of the stuff I did, right on the spot. It took a bit longer to do, but I think things become fresher when you take that approach; if you bottle up everything you do, and demo it that way, you get demo-itis, you know? I've done that somewhat on records I've done in the past, where it's multiple takes in, and I'm still trying to get the vibe I had on the demo back into the album version. I think it's much better to be free with it, keep a framework/theme/melody, and develop from there. This is something I've always strived to do, with every band I've been in, from the first album I did with Vicious Rumors through to Omega Wave' with Forbidden.
We have a lot of younger readers, which albums would you recommend they check out? I'm talking essential guitar albums.
Locicero: That's a good question. A band that changed the way I looked at guitar playing was Radiohead. I would say anything on The Bends' and OK Computer' would be a great place to start. Jonny Greenwood does some amazing stuff on those records. Another guitarist I should bring up is Elliot Easton of The Cars. My first concert was seeing them in Las Vegas. He's one of my all-time favorite guitarists.
Smyth: Every album I have ever donejust kidding (laughter)! I would say definitely check out Dissolution' from Loudness, because it's one of the best albums I have ever listened to! Akira and the rest of the band are on fire, and there's chops a plenty to check out on there. Everyone should also check out the first 2 Ozzy Osbourne albums the originals and not the false versions. Randy Rhoads still holds the key to a lot of inspiration for me, and I think for the next generation as well. I would also recommend Yngwie Malmsteen's Rising Force' and Marching Out' albums, just purely for some of the improvisation sections between him and his keyboard player Jens Johansson. That's just rock and metal off the top of my head. I find inspiration from a lot of older music, but also keep an ear out for what's happening lately as well.
My recommendation is don't limit yourself to listening to one style of music only. Branch out and find out what else is out there that you like. Try to recognize that music is a language, and every player in every style expresses music differently, and even if they play the same arpeggios or some crazy fast lick, there's a voice there, expressing it. Try to capture that feeling of your own voice, and try to find your own form of expression through your own voice. I think I've found countless hours of enjoyment striving and reaching for that. You might too, so try it!
Interview by Carlos Ramirez Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2010