The night before he spoke with Guitar Player, Dan Donegan was out late at a concert. Specifically, he went to see the Eagles at Chicago’s United Center. He’s the first to admit this is not where you would expect to find the guitarist for one of modern metal’s most successful bands.
But as becomes clear in speaking with Donegan, things are not always what you would expect in the world of Disturbed. “The core of our influences is definitely bands like Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Metallica and Pantera,” Donegan acknowledges. “But we’ve always had a love for good songwriting and great melodies. So we try to learn from any genre and any artist about what makes a great song.”
For proof that Disturbed can turn 180 degrees away from the metal grunt of their previous tunes like 2000’s “Down with the Sickness” and 2008’s “Indestructible,” look no further than the group’s elegiac, strings-adorned take on Simon & Garfunkel’s folk-rock classic “The Sound of Silence.” The cover — which they pulled off with surprising sincerity — proved to be one of the biggest songs of their already pretty big career, topping the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart, racking up more than a million-and-a-half digital downloads and even inspiring words of praise from Paul Simon himself. After catching a Disturbed performance of the cover on Conan, Simon sent lead singer David Draiman an email that read, in part, “First time I’d seen you do it live. Nice. Thanks.”
“The Sound of Silence” was included on Disturbed’s 2015 album, Immortalized, which, coming after a four-year hiatus, signaled a rebirth of sorts for the band. But the record’s success, and in particular the Simon & Garfunkel cover, also revitalized their musical adventurousness, as demonstrated by their new and seventh studio album, Evolution (Reprise). Pointing to the album’s title, Donegan explains, “Everything we’ve learned throughout the years, it’s just been a whole evolution of us continuing down new paths, but without divorcing ourselves from the core of what this band is. We’re always going to try to throw a couple curveballs and surprise fans with something that they haven’t heard from us before.”
Evolution features plenty of Disturbed’s trademark groove-metal anthems, including the lead track and first single, “Are You Ready,” the stomping “No More” and the doomy “Savior of Nothing.” But there are things we haven’t heard from the band before, in particular on the album’s second half which features more laidback, acoustic-guitar-dominated fare, like the unusually tender ballad “Hold On to Memories,” and the mandolin-inflected “Watch You Burn,” which Donegan describes as “kind of a cross between Led Zeppelin and Peter Gabriel, with a ‘Solsbury Hill’ kind of a vibe in the steady kick drum.” Donegan’s primary electric setup on Evolution was his Schecter Ultra Dan Donegan signature guitar played through a Kemper Profiler. For the acoustic material he mostly played a Taylor 914ce.
In fact, classic rock music had a larger than usual presence in the band’s musical universe prior to writing and recording Evolution. Says Donegan, “During our last touring cycle we were digging back a little bit more into albums by artists like the Eagles and Toto and Crosby, Stills & Nash, looking back to the days when artists were just artists and they wrote the songs they wanted to write. They didn’t concern themselves with trying to use a certain formula or fit into a certain format, unlike a lot of new bands today. And you know, I don’t find anything exciting about a band that just keeps rehashing the same sound over and over. So I’m always pushing myself to come up with fresh ideas.”
For Donegan, that musical open-mindedness stretches back to his childhood, where, as a young self-taught guitarist growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, he says, “I was inspired by any genre of music, really. I gravitated more toward metal bands, but I was trying to absorb as much as I could, from anywhere I could.” In fact, Donegan recalls that he learned his first guitar chord from watching a John Fogerty video on VH-1. “There was a close-up of his hand on the fretboard, and he was playing a barre chord. So I just copied what he was doing.”
Unorthodox, to be sure, but Donegan’s entire guitar evolution has proved to be a matter of figuring things out on his own. “I’ve tried to pick up something from everybody, whether it was Jimmy Page and Tony Iommi and Eddie Van Halen, or learning Judas Priest or Mötley Crüe songs that I would see on MTV,” he says. “And then I went from the ’80s shredders into the ’90s grunge bands, and all the great players there, like Jerry Cantrell. I’ve taken something from all of them and then tried to bring a little of it into my own style. And when you’re a self-taught player, like I am, it’s a lengthy process to get it all in. But then my interpretation of these different styles is what helped me to develop my own style.”
When Donegan was first cutting his teeth on guitar, it was the 1980s, and so he found himself immersed in the pyrotechnic, shred-heavy style of the day. “When I was first playing in bands, at that time guys like Steve Vai were killing it. And Steve Vai was godlike to me,” he says. “Another huge inspiration was [Dokken’s] George Lynch. I just thought that, as much as he was a shredder and did all these wild finger-tapping things, he was also so tasteful and melodic. So in my own playing I was trying to do some whammy-bar stuff and arpeggios and sweeps. It was a fun time to really push yourself, even if I didn’t really scratch the surface of what guys like that were doing.”
It’s worth noting that Donegan is being perhaps just a bit humble here, as a quick YouTube search will bring up numerous videos of him from this era, mostly performing with metal band Vandal. His playing is great, even if the getups are sometimes questionable.
He laughs. “I have no shame in any of that! A lot of guitar players from my generation, they want to deny it or ignore it, or rip up the pictures and burn stuff. I embrace it all because it shaped me into the player I am today. Because you go through phases when you’re a kid trying to find your way, and that was the time and that was the scene. It was guys like Lynch and Warren DeMartini from Ratt, and all these great players. And then it started to transition into a little bit of the heavier glam side of things with bands like Skid Row, which I liked too.”
By the time Donegan co-founded Disturbed (or, as they were called at the time, Brawl) in the mid ’90s, he was undergoing a transition in his playing, adopting a more aggressive riffing and solo style “closer to Pantera,” he says. But when singer David Draiman entered the group, things shifted again.
“David came in, and for the first time we had a guy who sang with real melody,” Donegan says. “And it was different for David, too, because he had never done something stylistically like us. So it was new marriage, with him coming from more of a punk rock background and us coming from more of a heavy-metal background, and then fusing the two and trying to figure out, ‘Well, what’s the sound of this gonna be?’ And so a lot of the songs off [Disturbed’s 2000 debut album] The Sickness — whether it was ‘Stupify’ or ‘The Game’ or ‘Down with the Sickness’ — it was just us trying to become songwriters together.”
Clearly, Donegan and Draiman proved a good songwriting team. The Sickness went on to sell more than five million copies in the U.S. alone, and Disturbed’s next five albums each hit number one on the Billboard 200 chart. But even as the band’s music has always been guitar-based, Donegan’s playing, in particular on their earlier albums, functioned primarily in support of the song as a rhythm, rather than lead, instrument. It wasn’t until Disturbed’s third album, 2005’s Ten Thousand Fists, that he began to introduce guitar solos into their music, a decision, he says, was made collectively as a band.
“The guys always encouraged me to play solos, because I was doing solos before we had David in the band,” Donegan says. “But on those early albums I was into writing bigger riffs and bigger bridges in order to give David the space he needed for the vocals. Then, by the time Ten Thousand Fists came around, the rest of the band started to push me to bring solos back into it.”
That said, Donegan is also quick to stress that he’s still always playing to the needs of the song first and foremost. “There are some guys that just want to show their ability to shred,” he says. “But I’m a different type of player. I have the ability to do some of that stuff, but I’m not trying to showcase myself. I’m trying to showcase the song.”
If done right, though, a solo may showcase both. “I’ll never forget the first time we played South America, in 2011,” Donegan recalls. “We had a power issue at the show, and my amp went out right when I started the guitar solo to ‘Inside the Fire.’ And in that moment the crowd took over the solo. I had chills up my spine hearing them sing my guitar solo back to me. It was like, Wow, this is a piece of work that stuck with them, where they were able to sing the melody of those guitar notes.
“And I just love that. That’s what I look for.” Donegan laughs. “I’m getting chills just thinking about it now!
“But what it comes down to is that I just want to present the music in the best way possible,” he continues, bringing the conversation back around to Evolution. “For example, on the song ‘Hold On to Memories,’ which is pretty different for us stylistically, I did a solo on acoustic guitar, which is not something I initially had any intention of doing. But David pushed hard for it while we were in the studio figuring out the arrangement, and I’m glad he did, because it ended up being one of my favorite solos that I’ve done. So it’s really just about finding whatever blend or balance feels right for the song in that moment and being open to inspiration.”
For Donegan, it’s that openness that has kept him feeling energized and enthusiastic about his instrument years after first teaching himself how to play. “To this day, I still have a guitar right next to my bed,” he says, “because you never know when inspiration will hit. If I wake up and I have an idea in my head, I can just reach over and grab my guitar, because it’s five feet from me. I’m always pushing myself and continuing to grow as a player. Because even now, I’ve still got a long way to go.”