Mettavolution marks a significant step forward in acoustic instrumental duo Rodrigo y Gabriela’s catalog. Their adventurous experimentation on it includes the use of electric guitar and effects, and a stunning interpretation of the Pink Floyd epic “Echoes,” but it also reflects a reconnection to their hardscrabble, street-playing roots. The sound is edgy and bristling with energy, just like it was near the turn of the millennium, when Rodrigo y Gabriela ditched their old thrasher electric guitars for acoustics, left Mexico City to busk on the streets of Dublin, Ireland, and eventually became an international sensation.
“It’s always good to reconnect with the essence of what inspired you in the beginning,” percussive rhythm guitar guru Gabriela Quintero says.
“We’d gotten comfortable and were taking things for granted,” linear lick maestro Rodrigo Sanchez adds. “We now understand that it’s all about giving. We created the word mettavolution to describe evolution through compassion by combining metta, a Sanskrit word for compassion, with evolution.”
The new album’s six original songs mostly feature a relatively straightforward melodic and rhythmic sensibility underscored by a thumping pulse. That’s epitomized on the title track as well as on “Terracentric,” “Krotana Days” and “Witness Tree.” And while creating acoustic versions of classic songs has become a trend — YouTube-breaking examples range from Andy McKee’s version of Toto’s “Africa” to Mike Dawes’ interpretation of Metallica’s “One” — Rodrigo y Gabriela up the ante with their singular take on “Echoes.” On it, they honor the original’s myriad nuances and movements while maintaining their signature sonic identity. Mettavolution is fleshed out with Sanchez’s electric forays and Quintero’s pounding percussion, as well as bass, synth effects and additional percussion provided by producer D. Sardy, whose credits include A Perfect Circle, Hank Williams III and Oasis.
Did you approach songwriting differently for Mettavolution?
Rodrigo Sanchez: Absolutely. We changed how we wrote melodies. Mettavolution started with melodies, as is traditionally our way, but this was the first time we actually wrote words to go along with them. Then we essentially covered ourselves by creating instrumental versions of those songs. The resulting melodies are more simple and vocal-like. We didn’t pay too much attention to the lyrics, just enough for them to serve as placeholders for the melodies we created and hopefully convey the essence of the album theme in the guitar playing, even after the lyrics were removed.
Gabriela Quintero: We also worked more closely with one another than ever before. There was more trust and a better give and take, whereas we used to argue much more. The workflow was so much better, and I feel that my work is represented more on this album than on any of the others.
Did you reconsider your personal approach to the acoustic guitar for this album?
Rodrigo: Yes, I wanted to change something that would facilitate writing slower melodies, so I switched from using the small Dunlop Jazz III picks to using a bigger version of the same thing, in order to purposely slow myself down. It also worked better for playing the funky electric guitar parts that I added to most of the songs.
Gabriela: On this album, my right-hand approach is much simpler and in the service of the songs, rather than being flashy. At some point during my career, I forgot how to play a very simple rhythm. I got that back on this album. “Echoes” is a good example. Some of the other stuff is very simple, and playing very simple stuff with lots of emotion feels good.
Is the thumping backbeat that underscores much of Mettavolution the result of a conscious rhythmic vision?
Gabriela: I experimented with many different rhythms, but for whatever reason, the songs on this album kept bringing me back to that thumping kick-drum style. It just fit.
Can you explain how you thump the acoustic to get your “kick” tone?
Gabriela: I hit the strings with the heel of my hand down close to the bridge, right where most metal guitar players do their palm muting, because that’s where I can get the most low end. You can do it anywhere for various tones, and if you do it up near the neck it sounds more like a snare drum.
Rodrigo: We experimented with the EQ on Gabriela’s guitar a lot, to try and enhance the subsonic booming quality of the kick drum sounds she incorporates into her playing.
How you do fit it into your overall rhythm strategy?
Gabriela: It depends on the rhythm. For doing the kick drum only, I’ll use my entire palm. The way it is on the album, that’s the whole hand. For rhythms with lots of percussive hits, I keep my wrist very loose, using it for thrust behind the percussive work I do with my fingers. You can combine those elements in many different ways to play different rhythm parts on the guitar. Onstage, I have to find a way to incorporate the kick drum in with other percussive hits and the harmonic content. That works okay in a live situation, but it’s a different challenge in the studio, because although the sound of the strings is there, it can be weak. Sometimes I have to use overdubs. I’ll play all the guitar parts spot-on, and then play all the rhythmic parts like a drummer. On this album, we actually added a track of me pounding on a bass drum case with my fist.
Rodrigo: We wanted an acoustic sound, but not an obvious drum sound.
Gabriela: We developed this album by experimenting wildly in our own studio for a long time, and we eventually spent a week at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles, where we played together like we were doing a live gig, in a room with different microphones placed all around us while we sat in two chairs. Finally, we went to Hillside Manor and added the other elements with David Sardy producing.
What were your workhorse guitars?
Rodrigo: We used the same Yamaha nylon-strings that we’ve been using for years. They were custom-built for us, and were used as the basis for the NCX2000R [Gabriela] and NTX1200R [Rodrigo] models. We will have new Yamaha signature models coming soon that feature upgraded electronics. They still won’t be as crazy as our customized versions, because not many players require so many piezo pickups to amplify their sound.
Gabriela: My guitar has nine different piezo pickups placed all around the inside to catch the sound everywhere I tap on the guitar.
What’s the electric guitar story on Mettavolution?
Rodrigo: David Sardy is a gear freak, and he had a bunch of guitars and amps at the studio that I wound up playing. I did most of it with a ’64 Fender Jaguar. Having slower melodies in the songs left space for more creativity.
Can you share some insights on the title track that opens the new record?
Rodrigo: I wanted to change things up and go for a brighter sound, so I went with a kind of funky tone on the acoustic guitar, and then I added some funky chords on electric guitar, as well as the surfy-sounding electric that we referred to as the “Tarantino guitar” [after director Quentin Tarantino, who famously used Dick Dale’s surf-rock hit “Misirlou” in his 1994 film, Pulp Fiction].
Gabriela: The melodies and harmonies on that song are quite simplistic, so I tried to find unique chord voicings to make them sound different. I don’t use many fancy rasgueo techniques [flamenco-influenced flourishes] because the rhythm is much more straightforward. And David encouraged us to vocalize that melody line at the end, which Rodrigo originally played on guitar. That’s the new element on the title track.
What’s new on “Terracentric”?
Gabriela: That has a drum-and-bass element in the rhythm that’s a new development in my technique, and on that track I’m actually playing the riff as well. It was hard to master putting the elements of drum, bass and the riff together, but it sounds great on the album, along with Rodrigo’s melody, for a total of four elements happening between us. The bridge is so simplistic that it sounds like beginner’s guitar, but I like playing in that minimalist way.
Rodrigo: That song was written on electric guitar, but it wound up going back to being acoustic for the basic track, and then I added the wild-sounding melody parts, playing slide on a gypsy-style guitar through a Leslie speaker cabinet.
How about “Krotona Days”?
Gabriela: That’s a tricky tune because it’s got that heavy kick thump and it’s very fast, so I have to be very precise with my technique. It originally had an introduction that was like a ballad, and we’ll play it that way live.
Rodrigo: I wanted to mix our acoustic sound with the funky electric sound John Frusciante came up with in the Red Hot Chili Peppers, so I added electric parts using a Fender Jaguar. I used a different electric guitar for the solo, but I can’t remember which one.
What’s the guitar story behind your cover of Pink Floyd’s “Echoes”?
Gabriela: I’ve been a big Pink Floyd fan since I was a kid. I loved The Wall, and eventually got into their other albums, including Meddle, which features “Echoes.” It was a challenge to find our own arrangement on two acoustic guitars. I decided not to play crazy rhythms for most of it. The piece deserved to be played with more normal chords and melodies, using emotion and expression. For the bridge section, we made weird noises acoustically.
Rodrigo: I wasn’t exposed to Pink Floyd when I was a kid, but someone gave me a ticket to see the Pulse tour in Mexico City, and the show changed my life. I think it was around 2011 when I mentioned to Gab that we should consider playing “Echoes” for fun in the live show. We finally did it last year at the Hollywood Bowl. Everybody loved it, and it matched well with the overall theme of this album. We based our version on the original, as well as some elements that David Gilmour has been doing with his solo band more recently.
What’s your current stage rig?
Rodrigo: We’ve both been using Fractal Audio Axe-Fx II Preamp/FX Processors for about three years.
Gabriela: I didn’t even realize we had them! All I bring is a Dunlop Cry Baby wah and a Boss Super Octave pedal. Sometimes I use them, and sometimes I don’t.
Rodrigo: I used the Fractals to come up with sounds while we were making demos for Mettavolution in our own studio. It’s a challenge, because while most of the presets sound amazing with an electric guitar, you have to customize them for a nylon-string acoustic. I’ve put in many hours figuring out what to do. We just taped “Mettavolution” for an episode of Jimmy Kimmell Live!, marking the first time we’ve done a production using only the Fractals. The acoustic tones sound amazing — not like electric guitars at all.
Can you share any insights into the art of the guitar duo and how you keep it going?
Gabriela: We share similar interests, such as meditation and staying healthy, and we have a good friendship. We bring a pair of travel-sized Yamaha guitars wherever we go, and we like to jam in airports. After all these years together, we’ve found a way to focus on making people happy by giving 100 percent to the music.
Rodrigo: You have to work on yourself in order to have good relationships with others. We know our roles, and we realize that when we stick to them, everything goes better. We show each other much more respect these days. We worked our asses off to earn this place where we can share our music with people, inspire them and perhaps even help heal them. We are very happy to do that and thankful for the opportunity.