WHEN EVALUATING MUSIC, THE CONCEPT OF REALITY CAN BE QUITE DIFFERENT for a guitarist than for a member of the public at large. Take the Helmet example, for instance. When the band appeared on the scene in 1991, with its independently released EP, Strap It On, it was pigeonholed as the East Coast’s answer to Seattle’s grunge movement. That info bite certainly worked for the record companies, MTV, and the public. But, for many guitarists, something else was going on. Founder and guitarist Page Hamilton’s chugging, precise rhythms, surprising time signatures, free-flowing, dissonant leads, and uncommon (for the time) tunings pointed to deeper stuff—even as some elements indeed paralleled grunge styles. But it’s the differences—informed by the cagey guitarist’s jazz training—that made Hamilton a guitar hero to scores of metalheads and indie rockers, and established Helmet as one of only a handful of survivors from the ’90s grunge era.
It wasn’t an unbroken run, however. Citing irreconcilable musical differences, Hamilton disbanded Helmet in 1998, and embarked on a diverse and interesting career as a session musician. He performed on numerous film scores (including working with composer Elliot Goldenthal on Titus, director Julie Taymor’s surreal adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus), produced Gavin Rossdale’s post-Bush project (Institute’s Distort Yourself), toured with David Bowie (filling in on some European press dates for an absent Reeves Gabrels, who was working on a solo album), and formed his own solo project, Gandhi. He also received a Master’s Degree in Jazz Guitar from The Manhattan School of Music.
After a five-year break, Hamilton cranked up Helmet again for 2004’s Size Matters, and, this year, the band started a new chapter by napping the headliner spot on the main stage of Vans Warped Tour, and releasing Monochrome [Warcon].
You’ve cited Monochrome producer Wharton Tiers—who also worked on Strap It On and Meantime—as a major influence on your playing. How so?
Before I started working with Wharton, I was playing open-tuned guitars, and when I played a rock solo, it just sounded like a blues scale. I’d also do things like incorporating feedback into a pentatonic scale, and I’d think it was lame. But Wharton would tell me to go for it. He’d praise the energy of a lead when, technically, I thought it was a flop. Eventually, he got me to just slam into the amp—kind of like guitar wrestling.
Musically, who made a significant impression on you when you were a kid?
My very early influences were Led Zeppelin, Ted Nugent, and Aerosmith. I also remember seeing Cheap Trick on Don Kirchner’s Rock Concert when I was 11, and I went out to buy their record the next day. Later on, it was George Benson and Grant Green, and when I discovered Miles Davis,
I started saving my money for four-buck bargain-bin jazz records. I’m more into modal music with a horizontal flow. I’m really not a hot licks kind of guy. When I play a solo, I make a mental note not to ever play a scale. I might start off with, say, a Phrygian scale, but then I’ll weave in and out of it. When I got turned on to Mike Stern, I realized anything is possible in a rock style.
Your solos often have these long, soaring lines followed by flurries of notes. How deliberate and thought out is that?
Well, I can be very withdrawn, and then get really hyper—which may be why my solos can suddenly erupt into those weird, manic clusters. Most of what I do comes from a purely emotional palate, but, sometimes, something I’ve been messing around with for years will suddenly come out. When I was working on the soundtrack for The Good Thief in 2001, Bono was in doing vocals, and he said my playing is a blend of comedy and pain. I always thought that was a very funny and astute description. It really stuck with me.
Other than drawing on emotions, are there any techniques you use for keeping your playing fresh?
Dropped-D tuning freed me up from any guitar trickery I may have been habitually relying on. Of course, the more you mess around, the more anything becomes second-nature, so I’ll often use a different set of effects or settings each time I play. Doing things like that will throw me a curve ball, and make me play differently every time.
How do you get your sound?
I’m trying to keep that process simpler these days, so I’ve been using the same rig in the studio that I use live—two VHT Ultra-Lead half-stacks loaded with Eminence speakers, and a Harry Kolbe preamp. My effects include a DigiTech Whammy, a Tech 21 XXL, a Prescription Electronics Outbox, an Ibanez TS9 with an 808 mod, a Boss NF-1 Noise Gate, an MXR Blue Box, an Analog Man CompROSSor, a’74 Vox wah, a Roland volume pedal, a Korg SDD-2000 digital delay, and a VHT Valvulator. My big, special secret right now is the Boss RV-5 Digital Reverb set to its Modulation setting.
I’m still using custom ESP Horizon guitars with the Floyd Rose systems, because my new signature ESP models with DiMarzio Airzone pickups haven’t had the chance to settle in with the dropped-D tuning. I’ve been using D’Adarrio strings forever—a .010-.052 set. I use thick, Clayton 1.52mm picks, because I have a nerve-damaged thumb from a run in with a beer glass, and I need that thickness in order to feel them.
Are there any young acts out there that have really caught your attention?
The Dillinger Escape Plan has got me super excited. I did some production work with them, and it’s unapologetically cock rock. They don’t give a damn about being stars. It’s great.