There was a time, let’s call it the early ’90s, when it seemed like all you needed was a guitar and a Seattle Zip Code and your band could get signed, your tunes could get on the radio, your records could sell in the millions, and you could tour the world and elsewhere. Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple.
Northwest bands of that era—Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains—had a lot more going for them than latitude and longitude. They all had charismatic frontmen, humongous and memorable guitar riffs and tones, and solid tunes that created the soundtrack for a generation— a generation suffering from fatigue induced by the excesses of the ’80s, both cultural and musical.
There never really was a “Seattle Sound” per se. All the bands mentioned had a unique approach and sounded nothing like one another. In fact, in stark contrast to the homogeneity of “corporate rock” or “L.A. metal,” the members—and particularly the guitarists—of the Seattle bands obstinately insisted on using unconventional or out-of- fashion gear and bucking every trend that had emerged from the prior decade. What they did share, however, was an honesty and an angst-ridden urgency that absolutely struck the rawest of nerves for music fans worldwide. And what they almost all shared was an utter disdain for the metal and classic rock from the dinosaur days of yore. The sole outlier in this “rock is dead” condemnation was Alice in Chains. AIC, and their guitarist Jerry Cantrell, had as much in common with Black Sabbath and Rocks-era Aerosmith as they did with anything remotely “grunge.” They cranked out gloomy, sludgy riffs that reeked of humbucker- through-Bogner bombast. Cantrell not only took solos, but he bathed them in delay. He openly embraced his love of Van Halen, even as AIC was headlining Lollapalooza.
Cantrell performing at Aaron’s Amphitheater in Atlanta, Georgia, on September 28, 2010, armed with his Kahler-equipped 1984 G&L “No War” Rampage.
Nothing that Cantrell and his band-mates did, however, seemed reactionary. On the contrary, it all seemed pretty damn sincere and natural—like how they seamlessly blended hard rock riffage with vocal harmonies inspired by Cantrell’s early fascination with Gregorian chant. Then there was their widespread use of acoustic guitars, not just on ballads but also in the context of super-heavy tunes. And when Cantrell and the AIC boys took things one step further by doing entire acoustic tours and albums, they were initially met with not-so-subtle pushback from the masses. “I remember playing acoustically for this benefit in L.A.,” says Cantrell. “People were throwing cans at us and cups of ice. They wanted the rock and metal. We tried to say, ‘Yeah, well … this is us too.’ I remember getting booed off the stage for the acoustic guitars the first time we did that [laughs].” The band would have the last laugh as acoustic albums like Sap and Jar of Flies and tunes like “No Excuses” ruled the charts and airwaves.
With the success came tragedy, including bandmember deaths and a multi-year hiatus. Fast forwarding to the present day finds the band in fighting shape, with singer/guitarist William DuVall and super producer Nick Rasculenicz joining Cantrell for the creation of The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here [EMI]. It’s an album brimming with everything AIC fans crave and a great example of Cantrell’s vision of a band that is capable of bringing “a nice major key change to a minor key thing. You get both beautiful and ugly, and I like that.”
Talk about your approach to tone, on this record and throughout your career.
I probably started out much more simple, with less gear and a simpler approach, number one just because I didn’t have enough money to buy any more guitars or amps. I had a couple of guitars and a couple of amps and that was it, so that’s what I used on the first few records. With every new record, more equipment became available and I became more open to using what was right for the song. On the last record and this one I probably used more combinations of amps and guitars than I ever have. I think we used a Laney Klipp, an Orange, Hiwatts, Soldanos, Bogners, Friedmans, Marshalls, AC30s— a ton of stuff. We had them all lined up to be able to flip them on automatically and then choose different combinations. I’ve got a lot of great people working with me to help with that. I have an ear for what I think is going to work and then our producer Nick, our engineer Paul Fig, and my guitar techs Tim Dawson and Dave Lapham all have ideas and suggestions, and we work together as a team. There was a lot of experimentation. Luckily, we had the time to do that and it helped to work with likeminded people. I don’t think a sludgy riff like on the opener, “Hollow,” is going to sound good with a Fender Twin and a Strat [laughs]. You need a humbucker and you need a dark, thick sound, and you need a nice metallic crunch that’s tight. We were all pretty much in agreement.
How do you keep your tones so distinct with all the gain and the layering?
There are different ways. Sometimes we might put a guitar track up the middle that’s a little bit edgier and high gain and place tones that are a little bit cleaner on the outside to hold the definition. I think a key element to keeping the parts clear and not mushy is being able to double yourself exactly, and I’ve always been really good at that. I’ve always been able to play to myself very tightly.
The song “Pretty Done” has a ton of guitars in it.
Yeah. One track is just straight barre chords sliding up. And then there’s a single- note kind of bendy thing, which always sounds like a hillbilly twanging on a mouth harp to me. In fact, the working title of this song was “Hillbilly High Rise.” The harmonized lines that come in between the verses are your classic Thin Lizzy/Iron Maiden/ Judas Priest two-guitar harmony thing. I’m doing the two lines on the record and William will be playing one of those live.
Alice in Chains (left to right)—Drummer Sean Kinney, bassist Mike Inez, Cantrell, and vocalist/guitarist William DuVall.
How did you create the cleaner, ethereal- sounding guitars that answer the harmonized lines?
We probably used an AC30 with tremolo, and we might have put a Fractal Audio Axe-Fx track on top of that. There are two different tones doing those notes so they really pop and get a weird note-shifting sound, like a shifting bell tone. I messed around with a couple of things with the Fractal for noisy elements, and that’s one of them. I like those little parts. They’re the little extra icing on the cake that takes the song to a different place.
Still on that tune, “Pretty Done,” your guitar solo has some very interesting, nonpentatonic note choices. What can you say about your note choices in that solo and in general?
I don’t know enough to be able to tell you what scale I’m playing or what notes I’m hitting, I just kind of do it. A lot of my solos end up being like vocal or horn lines. In general, I’m just looking to catch some energy with something that’s pretty simple, that kind of sings like a vocal, and is to the point. I’ve never been known for doing long-winded solos.
When you bend strings in your solos, you really take your time getting up to the note. It’s almost like you’re not even going to get there but finally you do.
I think it’s just how I play. I’ve always been a little behind. I remember playing this record for my friend Chris DeGarmo, a great guitar player from Queensryche, and he joked about how I’m always about to miss the beat. Our drummer Sean has to wait for two minutes to hit the snare because I play so slow [laughs]. Sean and I have been working together for so long and we have a sound and a way that we play: He plays to me and I play to him. He’s pretty much all I listen to in my mix and I’m the thing that he listens to so we’re really interconnected and we always have been. We don’t play standing up straight and we don’t play leaning forward. We play leaning back and that’s been our thing from the get-go.
You incorporate string bends in your rhythm lines too, not just in your lead playing. You can create some almost disturbing lines by bending notes on the low strings. What is your approach and where do you think that influence comes from?
I’m a big Iommi fan and he always did that—a lot of dark, cool rhythm bending. He’s always been a really important guitar player for me as far as somebody that I wanted to emulate when I was younger and somebody that I still admire today. So, I think that had something to do with it. I guess the first time I ever stumbled onto something like that was on “It Ain’t Like That,” which has that backwards strummed E chord with a bend of the G on the E string at the third fret. I did that as a joke at rehearsal. I was kind of being a smartass and I just made this god awful sound with a bend and the guys said, “That’s cool! Do that again!” I did, and we made a song out of it.
The “Check My Brain” riff is even more twisted.
Yeah, I’m bending the E string at the first fret and hitting a few different pitches. It’s got that seasick, drunk elephant thing to it. It’s a torturous sound. It definitely draws up an emotion, and maybe not the nicest emotion. Maybe it makes you feel a little ill and that’s good. I like stuff that’s unsettling. It’s dark and weird and kind of makes you feel f***ed up, but somehow there’s a beautiful element to it. You get the ugliness and the beauty at the same time. I think that’s kind of been our shtick, if you will—being able to blend both of those things and make them work and sound seamless.
How did you get the cool, million-miles-away-sounding clean tones in the intro and outro of “Voices”?
That’s a very faint little picking pattern that’s actually not even going through the pickup. My buddy Tim Dawson, who has teched for me and helped me demo a bunch of songs for the last two records, has a Gibson doubleneck—the Jimmy Page one with a 6-string and a 12-string. What I did was turn the pickups on only on the 6-string side, but I picked on the 12-string side. You just get this ambient sound that’s picked up through the other neck’s pickup. I thought it was really cool when we demoed it, so we brought that guitar in and replicated it for the record.
What was the songwriting process like for this record?
I spent a lot of time on my own before I even got with the guys, and they did the same. Everybody tries to gather up what they can bring to the table for the band. Then, when you do get together, things will start to happen spontaneously by just being in a room together. You throw all that down and then you start weeding through it. Far more ideas get thrown to the side than get used. You’re only going to pick about 11 or 12 tunes to put on your record, and you may have 30 or 40 ideas between the four of you in various forms of completion. Some parts that you never get to may be killer, but nothing else goes with them. I’ve had riffs like that lay around for years before somebody else came up with something that worked with them in a song.
What’s an example of a riff that you had for a long time before you were able to find a home for it?
“Hollow” from this record. I came up with it on the last gig of the Blackdiamondskye tour. It was the very last show of our tour, in the dressing room. I was sick and came up with that opening riff and it took me a while to find something to couple with it. I guess the point is you save what you think works and you don’t just throw it with something that doesn’t work. The great thing about making music is just because a riff or an idea doesn’t get used doesn’t mean it’s a bad riff or idea. You just put it on the shelf and it’s still there to be drawn on later. You go with what works for the moment and what works now may not work later. That’s a huge thing about recording— timing. And part of timing is not demoing your stuff too much and milking the magic out of it. We’re pretty conscious of that. We try to get our ideas to a place where most of the lyric and melody lines are fleshed out, the chords work, and it seems to basically work as a piece of music. We put it down as a demo and that’s it—we leave it alone. If you have something that you feel pretty strongly about, it’s good not to keep beating it up. You’ve got to capture the magic and the moment of it and put it down.
What can you say about the role of acoustic guitars with Alice in Chains?
Acoustics have always been a huge part of this band, and this record is chock full of them. I always love acoustics behind electrics— especially where you don’t expect to hear them in super-heavy songs—just to accent picking lines or to get some nice strummy chords behind thick power chords, or shimmering on top of them. We’ve done specific acoustic tours and acoustic records. The acoustic guitar and the proper use of the acoustic baritone, which we used a lot on this record, like on “Voices,” is really important to our sound.
The guitar that you’re most closely associated with is your G&L Rampage. What has made it such a go-to guitar for you over the years?
Eddie Van Halen probably has a lot to do with why I play a Strat-style guitar— that whole single volume knob, single humbucker, and a whammy thing. Being a Van Halen fan and being into a whole generation that was influenced by him—George Lynch, Warren DiMartini, all those dudes—they all played that Van Halen Strat-y tremolo kind of guitar, and that’s what appealed to me as well. The G&L is a guitar that I stumbled upon while I was working in a music store in Dallas in ’85 or so. I remember the first time I played that guitar, and it just felt right to me—the hard rock maple neck with just a little finish, so your hand moves across it really well, and the wide ebony fingerboard, the Kahler. It had a Seymour Duncan JB for all those early records, but it’s had a Rock City pickup for the last couple of years.
Of all the guys that you just mentioned, you’re the only one that uses a Kahler whammy. Talk about that system.
It’s not a Floyd Rose, which is a big, beefy, bulletproof tank of a tremolo system. The Kahler is a little squirrellier, but it works for me. It’s something that’s always felt right. Any time I play a Floyd, it feels too stiff. The strings are too stiff. Also, I’m super heavy with my right hand, clamping down and muting at the bridge. I guess you can make the Floyd more stable for palm muting, but the ones I’ve played, when you put any pressure on them, it moves the bridge. The Kahler doesn’t do that. It just felt instantly right to me.
Your trademark effect is the wah pedal. Describe your signature Cry Baby, and what you like about that pedal.
It’s definitely the effect I use the most. I guess I don’t actually use a whole lot of stuff. I use way more effects on record than I do live. Since I’ve had to become more of a lead singer, I’m more concerned with hitting my mark vocally than trying to turn a bunch of things on or off. But the Cry Baby is always out there and that’s always in my control. I’ve been a big fan of that pedal from the get-go. I remember in some of my first conversations with Kirk Hammett we talked huge about Cry Baby and how much we dug it. Dunlop made a really nice one for me that’s just a little bit more on the dark end, a little throatier. It’s something I still dig, for sure. It adds a more vocal quality to the guitar and makes it talk.
You’ve always been an unapologetic hard- rock fan, even back when it was very chic to diss hard rock and metal. Who were some of the important guitar players that informed your own style?
The first guitarist I ever really identified with is not necessarily anybody you would consider to be a great player, Ace Frehley. But I loved a lot of the stuff that he did and the vibe of it. I wanted to play guitar just because I was a Kiss fan. And I’ve always been a huge fan of Angus Young. AC/DC is probably my favorite rock and roll band of all time. Obviously Eddie Van Halen and Tony Iommi. I like KK Downing and Glenn Tipton and the Schenker brothers—the Scorpions, UFO. I would also put David Gilmour, Jimmy Page, Joe Perry, and Brad Whitford on the list of guys that I wanted to emulate.
What about from a songwriting standpoint?
I would definitely name all those guys for songwriting, but there were a lot of guys that hit me as songwriters before I even wanted to play guitar, like the Beatles, Elton John, Fleetwood Mac. The concept of crafting a song that is timeless was really big for me when I was a kid. I got it before I even knew what it was. Being able to encapsulate an idea or an emotion and make it so that when somebody listens to it, no matter what their age or what the language is, they feel it—I wanted to do that early on. As I became a fan of heavy guitar, I gravitated towards bands that were able to take that same idea and turn up the volume to 11 to add all of that power and edge to it. That really appealed to me. To have the combination of riffs, performance, song, and power all together, I always was a fan of that. If you can make all of those elements work, then you’ve got something really special. I guess that’s what I tried to be as a writer and a guitar player. I tried to be the guy that would appeal to me. That’s still what I want to do.
Did you ever think back then that you’d still be making records and touring after all this time?
Sure. It’s the kind of thing you envision doing. At least you hope that you can. And after doing it for a lot of years and knowing what it takes and the changes that come with living the life, you just appreciate it. But those changes include losing some of your really dear friends—people who are a part of what you do and are a part of your life. We’ve gone through all of that stuff. We know firsthand how fragile it is and how special it is. It’s as magical as it was when you were a kid. That’s pretty cool. It’s still something that you’re excited about. It’s still a worthwhile endeavor. It’s something that gives you and a lot of other people pleasure, and it’s something that you’ve become good at. It’s funny—it’s the thing you did to not have a job, and now it’s become your life’s work [laughs]. That’s pretty f***ing great.