OHM's Chris Poland on His Record Circus of Sound

November 20, 2009

“IT’S A CLICHÉ BUT IT’S TRUE,” SAYS OHM guitarist Chris Poland. “If you keep doing what you love, eventually people will notice.” But it’s not as if no one ever noticed before. Scores of metalheads thrilled to Poland’s groundbreaking work on the first two Megadeth records. When he went off on his own with Return to Metalopolis and Damn the Machine, he had an equally rabid following. Now with his shred fusion trio OHM, Poland is putting his massive tone, deep vibrato, and molten legato runs back in people’s faces on the band’s new album, Circus of Sound [Shrapnel].

Your phrasing on the opening tune, “Fun House,” is really liquid, especially with all the whammy bar work. How did you get that sound?
It didn’t really sound like that until we went in to record it. I had just gotten those Eminence Man O War speakers, and those speakers, a Roger Mayer fuzz, and a cranked Marshall power amp made that sound. It was that tone that made me play that way.

Your first fast legato run has a great reckless abandon to it. Did you know where you were going to end up?
No—I never know that. I just go for it. I know the run you’re talking about. It was the first take, and the recording machine, a Tascam DA-38, was a hair late punching in. You can hear it because the very first note is a little cut off. It worked out though, so we left it.

You tracked to Tascam DA-38s?
Yeah, we had three 38s and one DA-78. It’s not that I prefer this gear but, with my budget, I wanted the cheapest format out there that people had made records on. They’re used as doorstops now. I got them for $200 apiece. I’m going to go with a computer- based setup in the future, though, because you just can’t edit on the Tascams the same way. We could have saved a lot of time by copying and pasting, although there’s a certain magic to getting a take from beginning to end.

How did you create the melody tone to “System of a Clown”?
That was the fuzz that’s built into the Snarling Dogs wah. It’s not a wah I would normally use, but in the studio my wah didn’t work, so I tried my engineer Peter Sardelich’s wah and that was it. When I put a fuzz on, it’s like a throwback. It makes me feel more like Clapton or Leslie West, so I might go for more traditional feel or vibe. For the most part I don’t use any effect for distortion. I just use my Bogner Fish preamp tone.

Is it a challenge to give each song a distinctive sonic signature when you’re playing instrumental music?
Sometimes, yeah. That’s where Ralph Patlan, who mixed the record, came in. He’d make EQ tweaks and maybe put a little bit of a wobble on my track and that gave each tone more of an identity. He put this oldschool ’70s doubler on my melody guitar in “You Don’t Know.” I don’t even know what it’s called but REO Speedwagon and a bunch of other bands used to use it on their vocals. He did the same kind of doubling on “Leap of Faith.” That gave it a 3-dimensional vibe that it didn’t have before. I was surprised by a lot of the guitar tones on the record. Ralph’s a great engineer. He knows what he’s doing, he knows what he’s going for, and he’s fast. He was mixing three songs a day.

Some of these songs have a lot of guitar layers. Are there any that are tough to pull off live as a result?
Not really. We pull them off live because we wrote them that way. When I’m in the studio, I like to put some ear candy here and there to keep the listener interested. During the song “Pan’s Plan,” there was something empty about the chorus, even though it’s big and bombastic. So, I took my old Roland SRV 2000 reverb, cranked the feedback control, and just played a note on the left and a harmony note on the right, with the reverb feeding back on itself. It kind of sounds like a tension headache or bees in the background. But I would never worry about doing that live because live is different. I mean, Led Zeppelin had to do “Stairway to Heaven” live and it was no problem.

You have a good-sized rack of gear. If you had to pick three pieces that you consider indispensable, what would they be?
I’d have to pick four: the MosValve power amp, the Bogner Fish preamp, the Roland SRV2000 reverb, and my Eminence speakers. If that’s all I had, I could still do a show. The core of everything I do is in those four things. The way the preamp and power amp interact and the way they hit the speakers is key. And there’s something about the architecture of the Roland reverb—the way it reacts to the guitar is really important to my sound.

You have several different types of vibrato: a classical vibrato, a side-to-side vibrato on either a bent or a fretted note, and then the whammy bar. Talk a little about how you developed those techniques.
A huge part of my vibrato came from Eric Clapton and especially Leslie West. Every day as a kid I played “Theme for an Imaginary Western” and “Mississippi Queen.” That’s where my vibrato started to take shape. I’m lucky because a lot of guys don’t have a vibrato. When you play guitar and don’t have a vibrato, you’re in trouble.

A lot of players have a hard time stretching legato runs across all the strings, but for you it’s no problem. Can you offer any advice to help guitarists get better at that?
I think the reason I ever got good at that was because I was totally into Led Zeppelin 1 and the “Good Times, Bad Times” solo is the perfect example of going from the top of the neck to the bottom. That was one of my favorite runs and tones and I tried to emulate that. As I got older and started listening to Jeff Beck and Mahavishnu and Jan Hammer, that got me into extended legato runs. But I’ll tell you, if my guitar didn’t sound the way it does, I couldn’t do it. Once the tone is right, you’re free to really do those techniques. If you were to plug into my rig you’d see what I mean. It’s 100 times easier to play those runs than through a Marshall half-stack.

People still talk about your Megadeth work when your name comes up.
That’s very surprising to me. I never realized when I was in the band that I was going to play on a couple of records that actually meant so much to so many people.

What were the best parts of your time in that band?
It was really challenging musically. Gar [Samuelson, drummer] and I had just come out of a fusion band with a horn section, doing Mahavishnu-type stuff. When I auditioned for Megadeth I thought wow—this stuff is by no means easy. It was physically challenging and mentally challenging. The music was new and fresh and it was fun.

What was it like to be reunited in the studio for The System Has Failed?
I swear—it felt exactly like it did on the first record. It was fun working with Dave again. We didn’t even discuss how we were going to do anything. We just did it the way we always did. There was a certain amount of closure in the fact that he even asked me. I’m glad I did it.

You’ve worked really hard over the years on your tone and your chops, but when do you feel like you’re truly playing at the highest level?
It’s when I know that the song means something to me on stage, not when I play a great solo or something. It’s how much I’m feeling the tune I’m playing. It’s something I read that Joe Satriani said. Before he starts a song, he asks himself, “What does this mean to me?” I’ve started to do that. Sometimes it works great and sometimes it’s just something you say to yourself as you try to get through the song. But when it works, it can be really beautiful. That’s when I’m fulfilled.

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