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Five Finger Death Punch

April 17, 2012
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“I arrived in the United States with one guitar, a bag of clothes, and no idea how to speak English,” says Hungarian-born Zoltan Bathory. “After starting about 35 bands, I finally threw everything I love about heavy metal into Five Finger Death Punch. I wanted plenty of ’80s-influenced solos, Bay-Area-style and technical German thrash elements, and old-school songwriting with dynamics and real choruses.”

It took Bathory three attempts to lock down a complementary guitarslinger for his explosive, bottom-heavy riffing. First was Caleb Bingham, who currently plays with Zonaria. Next came former W.A.S.P. guitarist Darrell Roberts, who joined just as FFDP finished its 2007 debut The Way of the Fist. Bathory eventually found the perfect foil in Canadian-born Jason Hook, whose résumé included work with Vince Neil and Alice Cooper. He joined in time to record 2009’s War Is the Answer, and has handled most of the lead duties since then.

It’s not obvious whether the band’s latest release, American Capitalist [Prospect Park], is a boisterous pro free-market statement or a lampoon, but one thing is certain: the guitar playing is inspired. Bathory’s rapid rhythms rage from the guitar’s sonic depths in clearly defined bursts, while Hooks’ carefully wrought solos are integral parts of each ironclad arrangement. Like a heavy metal SEAL Team 6, Five Finger Death Punch is eager to fight for its right to rock on the road to its ultimate mission: saving guitar- driven music from the post-everything, anti-rock-star malaise.

What was it like growing up playing guitar in your home countries?

Bathory: It took extreme determination just to get a guitar, because communism was still raging in Hungary when I was growing up. The average adult might have made $100 per month. Imagine how it felt to discover big rock bands such as Iron Maiden—I was so impressed. I decided to be a guitar player, but decent instruments were not available. At age 13, I acquired a beat-up, secondhand guitar. I removed the basically unplayable bolt-on neck and replaced it with one I made from a coffee table. I painted it military green because we lived on an army base. Eventually, I acquired a playable guitar, and once communism started collapsing I came to America.

Hook: I thought Toronto was the worst place for an aspiring guitar player [laughs]! My neighbor turned me on to Kiss when I was seven years old, and I immediately started taking guitar, piano, drum, and violin lessons all at the same time. I’m not sure if it’s due to my early training on violin, but slow, smooth vibrato has always appealed to me more than the rigid stuff. Eddie Van Halen was probably my biggest influence, but my main goal was always to write music and be original.

What’s the crux of the Five Finger Death Punch guitar sound?

Bathory: Playing in the baritone range, which is from B to B rather than E to E. I fell in love with the baritone’s massive sound as soon as I first heard it about a dozen years ago, and I made the switch. All the scales and chords translate. I used to play a true baritone guitar, which has a longer scale length so that the string tension is not too high. Now I play guitars that have regular scale lengths with strings like ship-towing cables—Dunlop Heavy Cores gauged .013-.066—to get the right tension.

Are you referring to your signature B.C. Rich?

Bathory: Yes. My signature model actually comes set up as a regular guitar, but you can put heavy strings on it like I do, drop the tuning down to B, and it will take it. I also wanted a larger headstock because I read that a big headstock equals more sustain, and I find that to be true. I generally go with maple wood because its bright sound provides a nice balance to deep tones. Standard players might prefer the warmth of mahogany.

What’s your weapon of choice, Jason?

Hook: I play Gibson Explorers.

What’s routed into the front of the guitar you have in the video for “Over and Under It?”

Hook: I take the pickguard off before I paint my guitars with my own striped design. On an Explorer, the channel to the pickup selector switch at the end of the bottom horn is exposed, so I put plastic piping around the wires to keep them isolated.

It looks like an Eddie Van Halen job.

Hook: I always liked the idea of a guy who really digs in on his instrument and alters it to suit his needs, and Eddie was the king of that. I take a drill press with a sanding drum and gouge out about an inch of wood right at the top of the neck where it meets the body so that I can play comfortably all the way up to the 22nd fret. I also make a contour under my right arm so the edge doesn’t feel so hard. It’s more comfortable when it’s beveled.

How do you deal with tunings and play complementary parts?

Bathory: Jason’s strings are lighter, but he’s tuned similarly. On some songs he drops his tuning to match mine, and on others he plays 7-string guitar, so it’s standard tuning on the top six strings with the seventh tuned to low B. His picking is similar enough to mine that he can hang with my rhythm patterns, which are unusual. When you play baritone, your sense of rhythm becomes different because you have to hit the strings so hard.

Do you use a special pick?

Bathory: Yes. I use the Dunlop H10 Speedpick. The tip is twisted backwards, or up and away from the guitar if you are in a playing position. Slinging your guitar down low looks cool, but your picking will start to get messy, or your wrist will take a hit. That’s because your picking angle is now skewed towards the top of the guitar. The twisted pick allows you to sling your guitar low and still hit the strings at a 90-degree angle.

What are the other gear items essential to getting your tone?

Bathory: The Diamond Nitrox head has monster transformers that can handle aggressive rhythms in the lower range. I also use a Nitrox 4x12 cabinet with two higher-wattage and two lower-wattage speakers in an “X” pattern. I don’t use too much gain because thick strings produce a strong signal, and I use passive pickups because I like the dynamics. If I play hard, the signal will overdrive my amp into a creamy tone and the notes will ring out. When I play a fast rhythm pattern, I use a lighter touch so that each note is pronounced. “The Way of the Fist” is a good example of the two dynamics. I barely use any gain in the studio because I usually triple or quadruple the same part, and with too much gain that leads to chaos. If you roll back the gain and play the same pattern four times, it sounds beefy as hell.

Hook: The TC Electronic G-Major 2’s intelligent harmonizer allows me to recreate the harmonies I play in the studio onstage. You can program, say, a B Aeolian scale, and the intervals will change to match the key rather than staying consistent. Sometimes, I’ll use it to figure out harmonies when I’m tracking a solo. I will play a line and send the harmony to a different track, then listen to that track to learn the harmony.

So you generally compose your solos?

Hook: Yes. Painstakingly. It can be a grind, but I’d rather play something well crafted that’s an anticipated part of the song each night on tour as opposed to a wank. I take a copy of the Pro Tools session to my home studio, put the solo section on loop record, and track every idea that flows from my fingers. The goal is to get my brain out of the equation, and my heart and gut into it.

How did the solo for the single “Over and Under It” happen?

Hook: I was thinking specifically about Van Halen’s solo on “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love.” I remember hearing that he caught a lot of flak from his band over that solo because it’s so simple and melodic. I took a similar approach, and I got the exact same reaction [laughs]. They were used to solos with distinctly different ideas for the beginning, middle, and end. This was deliberately different. They eventually warmed up to it, though, and told me not to change a thing.

In the “Over and Under It” video with all the girls at the pool party, it seems that you are simultaneously glorifying and mocking the ’80s metal scene, and perhaps American capitalism altogether.

Bathory: Not really. I don’t mock ’80s metal because that’s what I grew up on. Yngwie Malmsteen is still my favorite guitar player. The video is more a mockery of hiphop videos—but there’s also a message. In the ’80s, rock stars were rock stars. That disappeared in the ’90s, with the whole Seattle scene. Rappers took over the chicks and the cars, and I’m saying, “That’s ours—give it back!”

We purposely left the lyrics somewhere in the middle so people could form their own opinions. My viewpoint is more pro-capitalism. I’m happy when Metallica, Disturbed, or Slipknot achieve commercial success, unlike a lot of metalheads who immediately cry, “sell out” as soon as a band has a gold record. I worked my ass of to get where I am today. That’s what capitalism means to me. It’s a system that respects your abilities. Communism tries to equalize people, but people are not equal. Some people sit around and bitch about capitalism, but as a guy out of communist Hungary, I’m telling you, “Get off your ass and go do something!”

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