Looking at them now, it may be hard to imagine the them as children, but Thomson— along with co-guitarist Jim Root, or Number Four—have worked intensely for more than a decade to become key ingredients in the menacing recipe of the disturbing nine-layer cake that is Slipknot. With all nine members wearing spooky, homemade masks, bearing pseudonyms numbered Zero through Eight, and performing grotesquely theatrical stage shows with two percussionists and a DJ, the effect can be repulsive, but simultaneously intriguing.
“People ask, ‘What kind of metal are you?’ says Thomson. “You have to listen and decide for yourself. Do other bands sound like us? I don’t think so.”
The Grammy Award winning band’s fourth full-length release, All Hope Is Gone [Roadrunner], debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart in August 2008.
How do you see each other as guitarists?
Root: We don’t spend time thinking about our roles, and I think that’s part of the reason it works. But, I have a tendency to come up with most of the counter melodies.
Thomson: Jim does more texture stuff by far, and I’m much more direct. Our approach to guitar is radically different— everything down to the way he holds his pick—so, sonically, we cover a lot of ground. I do lots of arpeggios, and if you hear a little octave thing, that’s usually him. If I do a run, I pick out every note aggressively, while Jim does more legato stuff. I have more of a precise classical approach, and Jim has more of a rock feel. I’m sure if we sat down and actually thought about it, there would be a million differences. But you can decide for yourself. Listen to “Psychosocial”—my lead is first, and Jim’s is second.
You each record just one guitar track, and yet you get such a huge sound. Any tricks there?
Root: You can layer 20 guitars if you want, but it doesn’t necessarily add any depth to the guitar sound. The biggest sound you can get are two guitars that aren’t perfectly lined up, and panned hard right and hard left. Sometimes, we might have a third track for leads that start in the middle and pan to the left or right for additional size, but the main chunk of the guitar tracks is produced by one guitar on each side.
Thomson: We never double track. You’ll always hear our individual pick attacks. When you start layering, you lose nuance, and layers actually soften up the attack. You’re also going to have phasing issues at a certain point. Our guitars are more responsive— a little more honest, I guess—because they are not all squashed and compressed.
Jim, can you detail your Fender signature model Telecaster?
Root: I basically wanted the Custom Shop Flathead model with a mahogany body and bigger frets. I didn’t tweak much, other than the aesthetics. There’s an EMG-81 in the bridge, an EMG-60 in the neck, and one Volume knob. I’m “less is more” with guitars. You can’t really reinvent the wheel, but you can change the wheel so that sit runs down the road better for you.
You’ve used a variety of amps to record, but what are you touring with now?
Root: I’m using the Orange Rockerverb 100. It’s really versatile—which is great, because, for the type of music we play, if you’re not careful, you can sound kind of generic. I can roll my volume back on the Dirty channel to get a dirty rock tone, and then click to the Clean channel for a crisp, clear jazz or blues tone. Then, I can click back to the Dirty channel, and roll the volume all they way up to get a chunk that’s kind of like a hot-rodded Marshall. For effects, I really like my Dunlop Rotovibe and Dunlop Jimi Hendrix Octavio.
I also notice you use two different picks. Do they have different applications?
Root: Because I can never make up my mind, I go back and forth. I was mainly using Dunlop Jazz 3s, and I got the Dunlop Tortex wedges basically as “throw out” picks. But I started using them live, and I found they were great for when I needed to dig in harder, and I’m not trying to articulate details as much. If I’m having a bad night, I’ll switch picks, and then, all of a sudden, I’m having a good night.
Mick, you’ve not only got a signature Ibanez guitar, but a signature Rivera amp, as well.
Thomson: My Ibanez MTM1 has a mahogany body, and a fixed bridge, and they come stock with a rosewood fretboard— although, on my personal guitars, I use ebony. Now that Ibanez got Seymour Duncan onboard with the Blackout pickups, I could just grab a MTM1 off the rack and take it onstage. I’d have to adjust the action to my own preference, of course. When I play at home, the distance between my low-E string and the first fret is the thickness of a sheet of paper. I pick pretty hard anyway, but with the adrenaline onstage, I hit even harder, so I’ll raise the action a bit for live shows. My rhythm tone is always straight into my Rivera KR-7 120-watt head with Rivera 4x12 cabinets. I use a Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor to keep me from feeding back. If I use an effect, I want it to sound disgusting. On the intro for “Disasterpiece,” I used an Electro- Harmonix Bassballs. On the intro to “Prosthetics,” it’s just me tapping a couple of notes into a Moogerfooger Ring Modulator. There’s never any one thing that I always go to, because you can get to the point where you’re oversaturated with effects. Yeah, there are a million pedals—so what? You’ve got to do something interesting, or get out of my way.
The leads have expanded gradually over the last few records.
Root: The only reason we have so many leads on this album is because there were song parts that we didn’t want to cut out, and there had to be something there.
Thomson: I like to compose my leads. I don’t like to just blindly noodle. I want them to go somewhere and resolve, so that each solo is its own composition within a composition.
Mick, as a former guitar teacher, you must be pretty strict about technique.
Thomson: It’s important for leads. There’s no way on earth I could do some of those sweeps without proper technique. It would be physically impossible. You need to work on keeping your thumb on the back of the neck, and playing with your fingertips. Do not wrap your thumb around the neck— which, admittedly, I sometimes do. Setup is critical, as well, and few guitarists really know how to adjust an action. I learned through trial and error, and I had a more than a few “uh oh” moments. A lot of people don’t even know what kind of setup they like, because they’ve only played their guitar as it was when they bought it.
What about stylistic influences?
Thomson: I never once stayed in my bedroom all day playing speed metal. Most of my favorite guitar players were blues oriented, such as Jimi Hendrix and Johnny Winter, but I played everything from jazz to classic. It’s like cross training, and it makes you stronger in your chosen style. I’ve always said that if you have a bunch of friends, you’re probably not going to be a very good guitar player. The serious ones lock themselves away in a room and devote all their spare time to practicing, listening, and playing.
You’re both tuned about as low as you can go. How does tuning down influence your songwriting and approach?
Thomson: For most everything, we turn to C# [every string down three half steps], and then drop the E string another whole step down to B. For some songs on All Hope Is Gone, we tuned to B [every string down a fourth], and dropped the E string to A. When I’m playing in B, my riffs tend to be more rhythm oriented, and, as the sound is fatter and sludgier, I tend to write slower things. If I tune back up to C#, my approach is more technical, and it lends itself to leads.
How do those tunings affect your string gauges?
I experimented with different combinations of gauges until the tension was consistent, and none of the strings were louder than another. Every guitar is different, but a .011 is always a good to start for me, and I normally go up to .059. My strings are D’Addario, and Jim uses Dunlop.
Is there anything else you learned from down tuning?
Thomson: Just that every guitar player should own a bass! For one thing, it’s great to try playing with the drummer as a part of the rhythm section, because you may come up with some cool stuff that wouldn’t have materialized if you were playing guitar. I also like to run scales on bass, and then play guitar. It strengthens your hands, and it’s a great warm up before shows. It’s like running with ankle weights, and then taking them off.