Nightmare Be Damned

“After producing the last Avenged Sevenfold album ourselves, we wanted to make a fresh-sounding record, which meant we’d have to do things a little differently, so we asked to meet with some producers,” says Zacky Vengeance.
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“After producing the last Avenged Sevenfold album ourselves, we wanted to make a fresh-sounding record, which meant we’d have to do things a little differently, so we asked to meet with some producers,” says Zacky Vengeance. “The entire music world thinks that there are only a handful of people who produce big rock albums, and we were presented with the usual names. But we went with Mike Elizondo, because although he is associated with pop, country, and hip-hop artists, he grew up listening to bands like Megadeth and Metallica, and he understands how to produce music that is adventurous but still appeals to a broad spectrum of people. He told us he was a huge fan, and personally, I found it really exciting that he had never worked on a big rock album before.” Synyster Gates concurs: “We wanted to go back to the more adventurous approach to songwriting that we’d taken on City of Evil, and Mike was of the same mindset. He said, ‘I want you guys to make a better City of Evil— a darker City of Evil.’”

The result was Nightmare [Warner Bros.], an album Avenged Sevenfold began working on in 2009, but which was temporarily abandoned after the tragic death of drummer James “the Rev” Sullivan on December 28th of that year. Sullivan had already made numerous writing contributions before his death, and the two guitarists, vocalist M. Shadows, and bassist Johnny Christ completed the record in his honor, with Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy occupying the drum throne.

Opening with a brief bell-like keyboard pattern and washes of Mellotron, Nightmare quickly transitions into a ferocious onslaught of distorted guitars and hard rock vocals accented with keening harmonized melodic lines and concisely executed solos. From there, stylistic shifts include weighty power ballads, frantic speed-metal scorchers, an R&B-infused outing, and even prog-metal rockers with symphonic flourishes. “We wanted to make an adventurous, fun, and wild record,” says Vengeance. “And I believe with Mike’s help we accomplished that.”

What was your creative process when writing and recording the material on the new album?

Vengeance: Often we’ll come up with riffs and other ideas while on the road. Then when we return we’ll take all of the ideas we’ve gathered and combine them with new ideas to begin the arranging process and work them into songs. We write much more than we put on the albums because we want to make sure that what we do put on there is top notch. We move in whatever directions we’re inspired to and a lot of stuff doesn’t work out—but even the ideas that we throw away at one point might be perfect for something else that we do in the future. You never know.

Gates: And sometimes we’ll just improvise or sit down with acoustics to write—the process changes from song to song. I also try to work with different instruments, like the piano, but even if it is with guitar, I’ll often use some effect to try to inspire a different emotion. A new sound or texture will make me play differently.

Do you feel like your roles as “lead” and “rhythm” guitarists have evolved and become less distinct over the years?

Do you feel like your roles as “lead” and “rhythm” guitarists have evolved and become less distinct over the years?

Vengeance: I do feel that my playing has stepped up a notch over the years, and I’m very proud of that. I’ve never really minded the whole rhythm versus lead guitarist because our fans have always recognized the lead-like qualities in much of my guitar playing. I love playing rhythm and I’ve never really cared about showing off my abilities. I just wanted to make great music and sometimes that calls for a wild guitar part or some fast dual melodies. Syn has shown me a lot of things that have improved my playing, and when he writes for us both he will never hold back because he knows that I will be able to play the parts. We want to write the best music without simplifying anything. And that also goes for the vocals. The hardest part of playing in Avenged Sevenfold is being able to sing background harmonies while playing intricate guitar parts at the same time.

How do you go about harmonizing melody lines?

Gates: Zack or I, or even Matt or one of the other guys, will come up with a melodic line, and then I’ll usually be the one to work out the harmonization, because I’ve had a little musical training and can kind of expedite the process. It’s all about going over and under. A lot of bands think of harmony as something that goes on top of the melody, and if it lands on a fourth or fifth or gets a little dissonant they’ll just leave it there. But I always try for thirds, and sometimes I’ll go under and hit the sixth, which is the relative third.

When you’re both playing chords, do you use inversions and alternate voicings to make the parts more interesting?

Gates: Yeah, definitely. For the metal stuff it’s difficult because you’re mostly using power chords, but with dropped-D you can get some really cool inversions. We used to do a lot of stuff in D minor, and the 5th would be in the root with the D on top, so kind of like an Fmaj6 just with those two notes, but implying D minor. But when playing big chords on acoustic or piano I love having things like the 3rd in the bass just to provide more movement.

You mostly play in dropped-D. Do you also play in standard or other tunings on some pieces?

Gates: We use standard tuning on some pieces, standard dropped down a whole step, C# , and others—it just depends on the song and the voicings. For example, if we’ve got really cool voicings playing in G—like open chord voicings—but the song needs to be in F, then we just drop the whole thing down a step.

You both have signature Schecter guitars. What were your primary considerations when designing them?

Vengeance: For me the most important thing was the appearance, but I also wanted a guitar that was light and comfortable enough that I could move around onstage easily while still getting an awesome tone. It had to kick ass in a live setting, because then it would also kick ass in the studio. There’s something so magical about the power of a live concert, and there’s no better way to capture that in the studio than using the same guitar that you use live. I also wanted it to have Seymour Duncan JBs in both positions.

Gates: Number one, it had to play good, which with Schecter wasn’t a problem. I played Schecters years before they endorsed me. I also wanted it to have Duncan Invaders, which are really high output, and I wanted a 24-fret neck that played really nice, and a great whammy bar that didn’t break strings, and they nailed it.

Synyster, how much of your vibrato is finger vibrato and how much is done with the Floyd Rose?

Gates: I only use the Floyd for harmonic screams, dive-bombs, and that sort of stuff. Everything else is finger vibrato.

Are you both still using the Ernie Ball .010- .052 Skinny Top Heavy Bottom strings?

Vengeance: Yeah. I don’t think I’ve ever played a show in my life without those. I can’t go wrong with them. Even when we detune to C# they maintain the tuning and sound-wise they fit us perfectly.

What about picks?

Gates: I use really thick Dunlops, gauged 2.0mm I think.

Vengeance: I use thinner, .72mm, Dunlops. I’ve been trying to get Syn to use a lighter pick and he’s been trying to get me to use a heavier one. I think the heavier pick works better for sweeps and stuff like that and a lighter pick keeps fast picking and muting from sounding too mushy.

What amps did you use on the album?

Vengeance: In the studio we work with a lot of different blends. We’ve always been huge fans of Bogners, and we have a particular Uberschall that is like no other amp in the world, including other Uberschalls. It’s magical, and gets a great overdrive sound that we use on everything. Then we blend that with Marshall JCM800s when we want to make it a little more rockin’, or with a Diezel when we need it to be heavier and punchier.

Gates: I also have a custom-made Bogner called the Gold Finger, which is pretty cool. We use Marshalls live.

Do you adjust the controls on the amps for different songs?

Vengeance: We dial in our heavy Avenged Sevenfold straightforward punk-rock-metalesque sound for rhythm and use it for all of the songs to give the whole album a uniform quality. And then on top of that we use different blends to bring out differences in tonalities in the individual songs. On this album there are so many different styles that we experimented with a lot of things. For example, we used vintage guitars and a Marshall JCM800 on a lot of the softer songs.

Are there any pedals that you use regularly?

Gates: I use two Boss CS-2 Compression Sustainers into a Marshall when playing live. I use one set low for rhythm parts, just to drive the amp and beef the sound up a bit, and the other one set a little higher for solos to fatten the sound and add sensitivity and sustain when I’m playing legato. I combine those with a Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor, which eliminates feedback and cuts out right away—but the sound is so beefed up by the compressors that I don’t ever lose signal. I also use delay, but I’m not picky about which one.

Vengeance: I always just rely on the amps. What a lot of people don’t realize is that getting a heavy sound isn’t always a matter of gain. Sometimes, when you cut back on the gain, the individual track won’t sound super heavy alone, but when you add it to the mix it sounds huge.

Did you layer rhythm parts to get a bigger sound?

Vengeance: Some people think that the more tracks you layer the heavier it sounds, but I don’t think that’s necessary. You can get a great sound with only one rhythm track on the left side and another on the right— which is basically how it would be in a live scenario. If you layer a lot of tracks it takes away a lot of the style of playing. There are little nuances and different textures that need to be heard. If you’re just burying them with a wall of sound, you might as well play keyboards or something!