GREATNESS CAN OFTEN BE MEASURED IN CONSISTENCY, and Slayer has not only been the most consistent metal band for nearly 30 years, it has been the most consistent and uncompromised musical act around. In Slayer’s world, you don’t sell boatloads of albums and play all over the world to a frothing and rabid fanbase by mixing in the occasional ballad or writing a concept album. You do it by giving your fans the most unadulterated brand of thrash ever, with demonic, well-executed, original-sounding riffs that are played with an almost hilarious tightness and speed. Kerry King and his fellow guitarist Jeff Hanneman formed Slayer in 1981 and have never, ever veered off course in their mission to deliver some of the most brutal guitar work in recorded history. World Painted Blood [American] is Slayer’s 11th studio album, and it continues the legend that albums such as Reign in Blood, South of Heaven, and Seasons in the Abyss cultivated. King spoke to GP while on an unfortunate hiatus. Slayer bassist/vocalist Tom Araya’s emergency back surgery required the group to cancel all of their remaining tour dates. But by the time you read this, King and Co. will be back on the road giving millions of diehard metalheads exactly what they want—and more.
How much layering and thickening do you and Jeff do to your guitar tracks in the studio?
The most layering we ever did was probably on South of Heaven—two rhythm guitar tracks, per guy, on every tune. Honestly, we didn’t feel it made a huge difference, so we didn’t do it again. It wasn’t any heavier. I guess if you don’t have a very heavy sound to start with, I can see why you’d want to double- and triple-track, but we’re cranking some heaviness out of our rigs from the start.
Do you and Jeff ever work on fitting your tones together?
We’ve never really done that. In the studio I let the engineer mess with the fine-tuning. I’m not the guy who knows how this certain guitar is going to sit with the drums or bass or whatever. I don’t have any patience in the studio. I relinquish. I bring my tone, which I’ve worked on tediously for years. After we get the performance, it’s all up to [World Painted Blood producer] Greg Fidelman or whoever is producing it.
Do you ever experiment with tones in the studio?
Not really. I’ve never been a big experimenter. I’m a big believer in, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ Also, when we’re in the studio, we’re busy getting work done, so whenever I think I want to experiment with a new sound or pedal, my head is too deep in tracking the tunes and getting them down right. There’s just so much going on, I never get around to it. We like to work fast in the studio and find the best, and easiest way to get to the finish line. In fact, over the years, since I always overdubbed my rhythm guitar first, as long as I was up and running and had the track really tight with the drums, I may as well play the other rhythm part too instead of waiting for Jeff to get it down perfect. In that case, I’ll just track it through his rig. We’ve worked like that on most of our albums.
Do you think your tone has evolved or changed much?
No. I think it’s just easier to get a heavy tone now. In the early days I wouldn’t say it was difficult, but there were a lot more components involved. Now with all of the genius electricians out there, you can get almost everything out of the amp.
World Painted Blood was mostly written in the studio, which is a big departure for you guys. What differences do you hear with the guitars specifically from working that way?
Believe it or not, I think writing that way made the tunes and riffs more diverse. I don’t usually pay attention to that because riffs for previous records were typically written over a long time span—a couple of years in some cases—and you don’t necessarily catch any similarities. Whereas coming up with an album’s worth of material in the studio, we went out of our way to make each riff and groove different.
You’re able to recreate some of your craziest, most chaotic solos live. How?
When I work them out, I just write them down in tab without any time signature or anything—just enough so I know where I’m supposed to be on the neck. Believe me, after I write it, track it, and then don’t play it for eight months before we hit the road, there is a very good chance I won’t remember it.
You and Jeff are definitely practitioners of some twisted and angular chromatic soloing. Was that something you heard someone do when you were younger?
I’m sure I got it from someone, but chromatic scales are pretty common in metal. Slayer tunes aren’t typical chord progressions— they’re chromatic and weird, too. I just try to find a scale or group of notes that fits the groove and the progression. Sometimes nothing fits. That’s why I reach for the whammy bar and go for the divebomb— make it sound like you’re killing the instrument!
Was there anyone who inspired your speedpicking rhythm technique?
I was a big Van Halen fan, particularly for the first three albums, where he really played guitar. His playing isn’t representative of what we do, but he was fast at what he did, and I loved it. After Eddie, it was Randy Rhoads who incorporated speed into his rhythm style. It’s hard to say, though. Motorhead played pretty fast and so did Metallica, especially when Dave Mustaine was in the band.
How long does it take you to get your chops up to full-speed and with enough stamina to nail an entire show?
It’s like going to the gym. If you’ve had a long layoff, you don’t go in and start lifting 100 lbs. You start with 30 and work your way up. If I had to play a gig tonight, I wouldn’t be able to play our stuff up to speed, but give me a week and I’d be right there. I’m not like Dimebag. That guy was gifted. He could get onstage and just rule without ever practicing, whereas I have to work at it. But if I ever worked at it, sh*t, I’d be f***ing great! I’m not the biggest practice guy.
Is there anything currently that bums you out about metal guitar.
What bothers me is that you’re frowned upon if you give 7-strings a chance. A lot of people pigeonhole them as strictly a nu-metal thing that popped up and went away. I didn’t even pick one up until 2000, but to me, the 7-string is a means to get better and come up with riffs you may have never thought of. It’s like adding another drum to a drum set.
Is there a guitarist that you dig that would surprise people?
Probably not. My iPod is all metal. Seriously. A new player I like is Alexi Laiho from Children of Bodom. He and the keyboard player, Janne Wirman, play exceptionally well together—like a modern-day Jon Lord/ Ritchie Blackmore combination.
You mentioned Dimebag. Did he ever impart any guitar wisdom to you?
When we were making Seasons in the Abyss, we were on the phone and I was telling him that I almost had all of my solos worked out and ready to track. He told me, “Kerry, just make sure you don’t stop doing what you do. Just rip that guitar up.” He was essentially telling me to not plan everything out and leave some room for myself to just go for it and see what comes out. So that’s what I do, and I’ll take the good stuff. I mean, if you like what you do, you have to at least try that.
“Live, Kerry runs three prototypes of his Marshall JCM800 2203KK signature heads into six Marshall Mode 4 MF400B straight cabs loaded with 75-watt Celestions,” details King’s longtime tech, Armand Crump. King’s signature Marshall uses four mammoth KT88 power tubes instead of the stock JCM800 6550s for maximum ball rattling. “I split the heads with a Radial Engineering JX44,” continues Crump. “At sound check, Kerry will come in and pick one head to be the one that gets miked, and then he’ll blend the other two heads around that one, depending on what type of stage we’re playing on. If it’s concrete, he’ll mix in more lows, whereas with a wood stage he usually backs them off. The band hates playing on carpeted stages, but when they do, I find we have to dial back the midrange.
“We take ten of Kerry’s B.C. Rich V and Warlock signature models out with us. They’re all strung with Dunlop strings and loaded with EMG 81s in the bridge and 85s in the neck and an onboard EMG PA2 Preamp/Booster that he’ll kick on for +15dB. Some of his guitars also have Fernandes Sustainers. He uses them in conjunction with the boost for the feedback on tunes like ‘Dead Skin Mask,’ when he’s on a festival stage and far away from his cabinets. Kerry is also a diehard about Kahler tremolos. They’re pretty much all he has ever used.
“The pedals onstage are a Dunlop Kerry King Q Zone, and two controllers for two rackmount wahs—Dunlop CryBaby and modified ZW-45 Zakk Wylde Signature wahs. It seems like he uses the Q Zone on tougher-to-play solos and parts, like the low-string tapping section of ‘War Ensemble,’ where he wants the notched sound, but he doesn’t want to bother working the wah and finding the sweet spot. For clean tones, on ‘Spill the Blood’ or ‘Seasons in the Abyss,’ Kerry steps on a Radial Tonebone Switchbone, which send his signal into an MXR M-134 Stereo Chorus into a D.I. to the house. When we toured with Damageplan, Dimebag couldn’t believe the clean tone Kerry was getting—it totally blew him away. I was like, ‘It’s a chorus pedal into the board!’”
— DARRIN FOX