With apologizes to Willie Dixon for hijacking—and adapting—his lyric, the phrase, “The men don’t know, but the little boys and girls understand” pretty much sums up the era of new metal in the ’90s. While youngsters lapped up the intensity and increasingly dirge-like guitar sounds of bands such as Korn and Limp Bizkit, many, ahem, more “mature” players couldn’t abide the preponderance of one-finger riffery, throat-shredding Cookie Monster vocals, and the deconstruction of conventional song structures. The conceptual battleline evoked Malcolm McLaren’s ’70s punk call-to-arms t-shirt—“You’re gonna wake up one morning and KNOW which side of the bed you’ve been lying on”—because you were either in or out. And just as punk music survived its seedy, frightening birth to foster breezy radio hits and fashion movements, the new metal bands of the ’90s changed the sound and groove of hard rock for years to come.
Happily, the brilliant aspect of music movements is that, guided by visionary artists, they are always evolving. (I’m thinking more about American blues to ’60s Brit blues rock, rather than Big Mama Thornton to Petula Clark to Janis Joplin to Paris Hilton.)
In 1999, guitarists Zacky Vengeance and Synyster Gates—along with bassist Johnny Christ, drummer “The Reverend,” and vocalist M. Shadows—formed Avenged Sevenfold in Huntington Beach, California. Originally locked into a faithful amalgam of influences such as Pantera, the two guitar players soon realized that copying their heroes was going nowhere—as well as that the metalcore genre they were dumped into was limiting and artistically depressing. So they expanded their knowledge of music, radically improved their chops, studied guitar music farther back than the ’90s, and embraced soloing, jazz-like melodic figures, almost prog-rock-like song arrangements, and the glories of an absolutely shredding dual-guitar attack. The result, which can be heard on City of Evil [Warner Bros.], is a celebration of guitar playing that welcomes anyone—from 16 years old to 66—who adores heavy music with technique and intensity. Surrender.
Avenged Sevenfold’s music is quite a hybrid. There are elements of ’90s metal—such as screamo vocals, chunky and tight rhythmic stabs, and low-tuned riffs—but there are also beautiful melodies, demonically fast guitar solos, and epic song arrangements. What the hell is going on here?
Gates: We’ve been playing together for so long that we finally became fearless about applying our diverse influences to our songwriting. For City of Evil, this resulted in dueling solos and lots more guitar work. The album is pretty shred-o-matic, and there are some ridiculous notes flying by in there.
Vengeance: We’ve always loved melodic stuff, but, when we started out we were listening to more aggressive, angry music like Pantera, and, at the time, we thought the screaming was cool. It’s like the first time you hear a guitarist lay down a totally shredding solo—“Wow! I want to do that.” But by the time you’ve heard ten guys soloing for an hour apiece, it gets boring. We got to the point where we got sick of the screaming, and we didn’t want to contribute to that noise pollution any more. Then we realized that all of our favorite bands didn’t scream. So we asked ourselves what we loved, and some of those things were dueling solos, counterpoint lines, and textures. From there, we studied everything about the bands that did it right—from Maiden to Megadeth to Metallica, Boston, Mr. Bungle, and Queen. We also decided to gain some insights into our influences’ influences, so we listened to Black Sabbath because they inspired Pantera, and Pantera inspired us.
Gates: We also listened to Danny Elfman and lots of film soundtracks to expand our compositional and arrangement chops. Then, there’s the whole Steely Dan influence. That band revolutionized music for me. They had these weird, ridiculous structures that, for some reason, made sense. The songs sound completely different—very eclectic and very unusual—but every song still sounds like Steely Dan. Structurally, we try to fit a lot of our songs into that mold. We typically follow a conventional verse-chorus format, but we might write a chorus with two different parts, or a bridge with four different parts.
Vengeance: We’re not just some brutal metal band. We’re really into arrangement, production, and lots of layered parts. We can’t just do a blues jam in A for seven hours and develop song ideas.
Which raises the question of whether you come up with a bunch of parts and then edit them into song structures, or record the songs exactly as they were written?
Gates: About half the songs on City of Evil were crafted using Pro Tools, and the other half were recorded as written. It’s hard to get everybody committed to jamming out songs together, because when you play Avenged Sevenfold music, your fingers are going to be sore and your drummer is going to have leg spasms. So a lot of the ideas were recorded into Pro Tools without everyone in the band present.
Stylistically, how do you approach your guitar parts?
Vengeance: I’m more riff oriented and simple—the person I most model myself after is James Hetfield—and Syn loves complicated players like Marty Friedman. But, in much the same way that I love Metallica’s Hetfield/Hammett combination, I think Syn and I strike a cool balance between simplicity and intricacy.
Gates: It comes from “inspirado,” as Jack Black would say. There are a million different factors at play that determine how we write parts. It’s all about what we’re listening to, and how we’re feeling at the time we sit down to compose or record. I mean, despite what he just said, Zack is just as capable of coming in with a real fast, crazy riff as I am.
What about tone? Do you consciously craft different sounds?
Gates: We don’t plan anything out. Our tones just happen to work together naturally. I like a thinner sound, and Zack likes a beefy chunk.
Your dual-harmony lines are pretty vicious. How do you compose them?
Vengeance: My mind doesn’t compute putting a harmony to a melody. Syn has a really good ear, and his note choices often surprise me—which is really cool.
Gates: I tend to play harmonies a third below or above the main melody. I don’t like high harmonies that hit fourths or fifths above the root. It always annoys me when people do that. I’m not saying it’s bad—just that those types of harmonies never appealed to me. I also like the melodies themselves to be kind of shocking. I love ridiculous notes—a lot of flat fives and flat nines—as long as they resolve nicely. Jerry Cantrell’s harmonies are a lot like ours—sporadic, weird, and obscure, and yet really thought out.
It sounds as if you’ve studied some music theory.
Gates: Oh, yeah. I’m pretty much self-taught, but I did go to MIT [in Los Angeles] for six months because I wanted to play jazz. Django Reinhardt was a huge influence on me, and I was also drawn to Joe Pass, Joe Diorio, and Frank Gambale.
You don’t actually do sweep picking, do you?
Gates: Absolutely! Frank Gambale taught me all that stuff. I couldn’t believe how he was hitting all these crazy things, so I got one of his books. It took me about half a year to learn sweep picking, but it has become one of my fortes.
Vengeance: I’m totally self-taught, so when Syn started writing this stuff that was out of my league, I asked him to teach me sweep picking. I said, “Hey, I want to play that crazy fast stuff, too!” I’m always up for a challenge, and I’m always looking to become a better guitarist.
Besides the obvious advantage of speed, how else does sweep picking inform your approach?
Gates: I find that it helps me with dynamics. I hit the strings pretty hard, but sweep picking allows for more crescendo-type things, and more dimensions, because it has a certain energy and motion to it. You can start off soft and build up to something that ends really hard and fast. With alternate picking, who knows what the hell we’re doing? You just kind of shake your hand, and whatever comes out comes out.
Vengeance: I find that, as well. But, unlike Syn, I’m a light picker.
Do you guys mess with the pickup selector and Volume and Tone controls on your guitars much?
Gates: Absolutely. During our dual harmonies, I’ll often switch pickups to add color or energy to certain parts of the line. I’ll work the Volume knob a bit when I’m using a clean sound, but I typically leave it full up for distorted sounds. I never touch the Tone control.
Vengeance: Well, the bridge pickup went pretty much unused for a while—until we realized how cool it sounds. Like Syn, I switch pickups a lot within phrases to punch up certain notes, or to create a kind of crescendo. I keep my Tone and Volume knobs all the way up.
Zack, as you’re the self-described “Hetfield guy,” where do you take your rhythm-guitar cues? Do you play off the hi-hat, the kick-snare pattern, or something else?
Vengeance: I’m totally a kick-snare guy. Our drummer is like a machine, and, after playing together for years, we’ve developed metronome-like tightness. Also, I keep my right hand real loose so I can hit those fast rhythmic accents.
Gates: There’s an important point here—which is that if you really want to get tight as a player, you have to play live with a drummer, a bassist, and another guitar player. Playing alone at home with a metronome or a drum machine is not going to teach you how to develop feel, or how to lock in with another human being. And it also helps to hear yourself on a recording, or watch yourself on video. When we first saw ourselves on video, it was like, “Are we really that bad?”
Vengeance: I think people sometimes take guitar playing too seriously, and they try to make it a science. They sit at home and practice and practice and practice. Now, it’s great to have chops. I worked real hard to get mine, and I’m still working hard on my technique. But, to me, the true path to getting better as a guitarist is to struggle to become a more creative guitarist. And you need to play with other humans to get there.
The past few months must have been extremely encouraging and successful—tons of airplay, strong record sales, a featured spot on Ozzfest 2006, and lots of buzz. As it’s kind of “your time,” how do you envision the band’s next creative step?
Vengeance: Our biggest fear is being lumped into one category. We first got labeled as a metalcore band, so we stopped screaming entirely. Now we’re bringing all these influences together to forge an Avenged Sevenfold style. We want to be different and musically challenging, while, at the same time, we don’t want to shoot over people’s heads so that they can’t drink beer and have fun. Successfully juggling those two elements is going to take a lot of thinking and constant work.
Gates: Being different is critical these days. How are you going to get people to notice you if you don’t separate from the pack? But it gets harder all the time to get there sanely. People are already playing as fast as they can, and even if someone could play faster, would anyone be able to tell the difference? How low can you tune down the guitar? Until you can’t discern its tonality anymore? Obviously, we believe that combining different stylistic elements is one way to develop a clear and distinct voice. This is why City of Evil is kind of a “f**k you” to everything that currently exists in modern metal. That album was about creating Avenged Sevenfold as a band that could not be categorized. And we’re not stopping there.