FORGET PLAYING BY THE RULES. CHILDREN OF BODOM GUITARIST/SINGER/SONGWRITER and fan-crowned king of melodeath metal Alexi Laiho has made a career by doing things his way—be it prominently featuring synthesizers in an otherwise guitar-dominated genre, tackling decidedly non-metal covers, or just daring to shred fearlessly during an era when even metal heavyweights like Metallica were declaring that guitar solos were dated. Over the course of 14 years and eight studio albums, he and his Finnish cohorts (guitarist Roope Latvala, bassist Henkka Seppälä, keyboardist Janne Wirman, and drummer Jaska Raatikainen) have earned a huge worldwide cult following, headlined major festivals, and become a frequent topic of discussion in metal- and guitar-related online chat forums. In their home country, Children of Bodom (COB) is one of the best-selling mainstream bands of all time, having had three of their records debut at #1 on the Finnish charts.
And while the self-proclaimed “Wild Child” persona of Laiho’s youth appears to be giving way to an ever-evolving musical maturity, the band’s latest release, Halo of Blood [Nuclear Blast], still retains and expands upon the signature elements of their sound, namely New Wave of British Heavy Metal-style minor riffs, harmonized melodic lines, double-bass-drum-powered sixteenth-notes at breakneck tempos, and lyrical themes that even Edgar Allen Poe might find macabre.
The last time we spoke was in 2006. In what ways do you think your playing has evolved since then?
My overall musicality has improved significantly. I’ve pretty much had all of my techniques down for quite a while, but now I pay more attention to playing a solo or a riff that will serve the song as opposed to just showing off. Of course, there’s always going to be an element of showing off, this being a metal band and all, but essentially I’m much more conscious of every note I play and how it relates to the song. Actually, there’s a song on our new album called “All Twisted” that features my favorite riff that I’ve ever come up with.
What solo on Halo of Blood do you think is most indicative of your melodic approach, and was it something you worked out in advance?
I really like the break on “Scream for Silence,” which is very melodic and musical. I normally don’t like to work solos out beforehand. I usually just play over a loop of the background tracks 20 times or so, recording every take, and then, I’ll listen back and pick out stuff I like and assemble a solo from those ideas. Then, I’ll go back and re-record it in one take. To me, that’s a good way of keeping it spontaneous and fresh sounding while still getting the best melodic ideas.
Did you use your usual rig—ESP Alexi Laiho Signature guitars with Floyd Rose tremolo systems and single EMG pickups into Lee Jackson preamps—to record Halo of Blood?
I’m still using the ESPs, but for this record I decided to roll with a Marshall JVM410H as a preamp. It’s got that same ’80s midrange-y vibe that I love, but the overall sound is just bigger. For cabs, I’m still using Marshalls. That’s essentially my live rig, too. I did use an ESP Strat for the clean sound on “Dead Man’s Hand on You.” That track was kind of a crazy departure because I don’t think we’ve had a clean-sounding guitar on our records since our first album.
Do you use any other effects?
Occasionally I’ll use a chorus pedal or a wah, but that’s it. Way back in the day I had this MIDI controller, but I got rid of it because I just never really used it. I’m the kind of player that likes to just dial in one good sound and go with it. Whatever effects I need come from my playing.
Do you play in dropped tunings most of the time?
Yes. Pretty much everything is in D standard tuning which is just regular guitar tuning down one whole step (D, G, C, F, A, D low to high), or dropped-C tuning which is just D-standard tuning with the lowest string down an additional whole-step (C, G, C, F, A, D low to high). I use DR strings, usually gauged .011-.050.
Is string-skipping still a prominent part of your style?
Yes. I do it so much now I don’t even think about it. It used to be just about playing arpeggios that way, but now, if I’m playing a melodic line on the first string, I might drop in a note or two from the third string just because I like the timbre of the note played on the thicker string. [More on Laiho’s string-skipping approach may be found in the May 2006 issue of GP.]
Do you ever use two-handed tapping?
Absolutely. For example, there’s a whole section at the beginning of the solo on “Waste of Skin,” the opening track on the new record, that’s pretty much all tapping.
You write most of COB’s material, but after watching the The Making of Halo of Blood DVD, I get the sense that the arrangements are largely a group effort.
I usually write the riffs at home and take them into rehearsal, where we assemble them together. The others might suggest key or tempo changes or whatever. I find that it is good for the music to have everybody’s point of view on it.
Are the harmonized melody lines in your songs generally played in tandem with second guitarist Roope Latvala or keyboardist Janne Wirman? It’s hard to tell sometimes.
Sometimes it’s Roope and me, but most of the time I play in harmony with the keyboard. I find it gives it a unique sound as opposed to twin guitar harmonies. It also allows us to have the rhythm guitar underneath the harmonies, which is a good thing.
One of the more interesting tracks on Halo of Blood is your cover of Roxette’s “Sleeping in My Car.”
We’ve always done quirky covers before, like Eddie Murphy’s “Party All the Time” and “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition. When it comes to covers, I actually find it a lot more fun and challenging if we pick a pop song and dress it up all metal.
You’ve worked with producer Mikko Karmila on your last several records. What do you like about his approach?
I’m not sure of the technical details of what he’s doing, but his secret seems to be in getting the right mix for us. There’s a lot going on in our music. The two guitars, bass, keyboard, and double-bass drum kit take up a lot of sonic space. His mixes are really clean in that you can hear everything, and he captures that bright-midrange guitar sound that we have.
Are there any plans to revive your side projects, the punk-metal Kylahullut or female-fronted metal band Sinergy?
No. Right now every second of my life goes to Children of Bodom. I might do another side project in the future, but as far as those two bands go I think everything is pretty much wrapped up.
A few years back, you injured your shoulder on tour. Has that affected your playing?
At the time I could still play, but it hurt like hell and I could barely move. Still, I decided to go on with the tour as best I could. When I wasn’t on stage my left arm was in a sling, but I kept in shape by practicing picking on open strings with my right hand, and after about six weeks I was pretty much back to normal.
Do you have a specific warm-up routine?
I like to play for at least an hour before a show—sometimes even longer if I’m bored and there’s nothing else to do. One little sixteenth- note picking pattern I fall into a lot is playing the 18th, 17th, and16th frets on the E string, then the 16th and 18th frets on the B string, then the 17th and 15th frets on the E string, then, finally, the 16th fret on the B. One of my favorite riffs of all time, and something I always seem to play when I pick up a guitar, is Zakk Wylde’s opening bit to Ozzy Osbourne’s “Miracle Man.”
Do you ever play music that is outside the metal genre just for your own enjoyment?
When I went to music school in Finland, I had to play a lot of jazz. Right now, I like to play blues and funk too—not that I’m any good at it, but it’s just fun to do. Also sometimes I’ll play a Bach piece as a finger exercise.
What non-metal guitarist do you think has influenced you the most?
Definitely Mark Knopfler. When I was four years old, I heard Dire Straits and thought they were the coolest band ever. That’s what totally made me want to play guitar.