Angel Vivaldi Decodes the Brain with "Synapse"

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It’s always a thrill to see our Guitar Player’s Guitar Superstar finalists go on to enjoy successful careers as musicians. Not only does that success validate our gut feelings that these players were “guitarists to watch,” it’s also a tribute to the artists themselves, and the ongoing ambition, development, craft, and technique they’ve applied to win over so many fans.

Angel Vivaldi took the stage in our 2010 competition—performing in front of judges George Lynch, Elliot Easton, Reeves Gabrels, and Gary Hoey—and although he didn’t take the crown (acoustic guitarist Don Alder won the honor), he certainly didn’t let that discourage him. Since then, Vivaldi’s YouTube videos have racked up hundreds of thousands—and, occasionally, multi-millions—of views. His latest album, Synapse [Angel Vivaldi], is a heady concept, where each song evokes a specific brain chemical or neurotransmitter. Guest guitarists include Nita Strauss and Gus G, and, for the videos, Vivaldi even repainted his studio for each song, in order to portray just the right color palette for the mood he was trying to create. Much like the neural networks he visualized with music for Synapse, Vivaldi is definitely a multi-faceted creator who stretches his artistry beyond mere riffing.

What was the main gear you used to record Synapse?

I’m definitely an advocate of “tone is in the fingers,” and I think the gear we use simply helps us perform better. Obviously, I gravitate more towards legato playing, so my gear is chosen to help me achieve that smooth, silky, and fluid sound when I’m doing leads—although I feel I’m a much better rhythm guitarist and songwriter than I am a lead guitarist. I used two guitars on the album—the first prototype of my Charvel signature model, and my old Ibanez RG CT7. Both were strung with Dunlop Super Brights, .009-.052. I love Mesa/Boogie amps, and all of my solos were done with a JP-2C. A Bogner Ecstasy was the main amp for the rhythm guitars.

Why did you cast the amps specifically for lead and rhythm?

The JP-2C has a particular midrange quality that cuts through a mix without sounding nasally or snarly, whereas the Bogner has this fat, saturated sound, but with enough articulation for a sharp attack.

The guitar sounds are pretty organic…

The only effects I used are reverb and delay, but there was a lot of finagling to get the right reverbs and delays. For example, I didn’t want the size of the reverb, or the length of the decay, to prevent someone from deciphering what’s happening melodically. About 60 percent of the effects were added using a Fractal Audio Axe-Fx in post-production, and I’d say 40 percent were printed while I was playing, so that I could tailor the reverb and/or delay to my parts. The effects were probably the overwhelming problem with the record. I wanted to make sure they wouldn’t hinder clarity or articulation.

Given the different moods on the album, did you ever have to adapt your guitar tone to your technique, say, changing a setup depending on whether you were playing legato lines or rapid picked passages?

I usually don’t compensate for technique—my guitar sound in the studio remains pretty consistent—but I did once. There’s a muted-legato technique that had to be EQ’ed a particular way. It was sounding woofy, and it wasn’t cutting through. Fortunately, the JP-2C has a lot of EQ options. The tone I ended up with was quite bizarre by itself, but it worked beautifully in the track.

How do you carve out an individual identity as an instrumental guitarist—especially in the shred camp, where there are so many players doing so much amazingly technical music?

Yeah. Even in niche markets, I see extreme overlap. I call it “YouTube metal.” There are these very young, incredibly talented guitarists, but they all sound the same. That’s fine—it’s par for the course—but I’m more interested to hear the music they’ll write when they’re older, and have found their voice.

To that end, I think the most important thing—and what’s going to give an artist longevity—is being yourself, because no one can do that better than you can. I think the more you imitate your influences or popular bands, the more you hurt your chances to make a name for yourself. Fads die, kids. What’s popular today will not be popular in a few years. Once you have your sound, it’s a matter of cultivating it, and knowing thyself. I feel that if you love life, and have different life experiences, they work their way into your art somehow.

Some players never get very far away from their influences, and they’re almost like clones of, say, Yngwie Malmsteen. How can a player develop beyond his or her influences to manifest their own approach to phrasing and composition?

It’s a never-ending struggle. My guys growing up were Yngwie Malmsteen, Eric Johnson, and Alex Skolnick. I never sat down to learn their material, because it was way ahead of my ability, but I listened, and I absorbed the blueprints of how they approach composition. That said, one of the last covers I learned for a video production was a Metallica song and a Kirk Hammett solo. It got to the point where I was bored replicating the licks, and I thought, “What if I change this part? I’ll try this and I’ll add that.” Eventually, the licks evolved into something that weren’t Kirk’s, but something different, although they were absolutely inspired by him. So going forward from there, it was like, “Ah, this is my voice.” You know, in my case, it’s almost like Yngwie, Eric, Alex, and all those guys taught me a language. I heard all the words, but then I took those words and started writing my own sentences, so to speak.

That’s where I think some guitar players fall down. They’ve got awesome technique, but they blur into everybody else, because their music is similar to everyone else. How do you derive your melodies, and how do edit them to ensure they are unique and true to yourself?

I’d say 20 percent of the melodies I write come from listening to a song in the car—just driving and hearing melodies in my head. The bulk of them come from improvisation, and just working things out until I can say, “That’s the lick!” This is why it takes me years to finish writing a song. I am very much a perfectionist. I want a melody to get to a point where it’s irrefutable. I don’t settle. Every note has to have a purpose.

On that thought, how did you tailor your performances to the concept of Synapse, where you were musically representing different neural chemicals?

The big picture is the concept, and if I’m writing an album about neurotransmitters, I want to be effective and authentic with each one. “Adrenaline” was therefore pretty brisk, while “Adenosine”—which is a sleep molecule—was very open and very ambient, lullaby-like, with a lot of reverb and delay. I wanted “Dopamine” to kind of have that tonality of pleasure seeking, which, for me, is represented by tremendous amounts of melody, harmony, and layers of synth stuff. But, at the same time, there are always little sections in each song that go in and out of the main theme. You see, with neurotransmitters, they’re responsible for more than just one thing. So “Serotonin” is definitely an upbeat, positive, dance-party kind of song, but there are some shred bits in there, as well.