As strange as it may seem for a world-class band, Alter Bridge completed its fifth studio album, The Last Hero [Caroline/Napalm], almost as a vanity project. When they started tracking with producer Michael “Elvis” Baskette in 2015, they had no management, no record company, and no budget, so they sold guitars provided by PRS along with other memorabilia to finance the album. Happily, The Last Hero emerged in late 2016, because there are tons of heavy, strange, beautiful, and atmospheric guitar parts all over the record. Before heading out to tour behind the new album in 2017, guitarist Mark Tremonti and guitarist/vocalist Myles Kennedy discussed how they approached their collaborative guitar parts, developed their tones, and messed with convention.
I was really impressed with all the emotional shifts during the intro solo to “Show Me a Leader.”
Tremonti: The solo before the song really starts is Myles’. I take over for the later solo section.
Kennedy: Well, thank you. I’m glad you liked that. If I remember correctly, I was on tour with Slash, and I was basically being held prisoner in my hotel room with a nasty cold. I thought, “Well, I’m going to take this time to be productive,” and that was where the genesis of that idea came from. A lot of times, you have a guitar in your hands and you never really know where you’re going to end up. You just try and tap into something, and, fortunately, on that day, I landed on the concept for the intro solos.
Looking for a hero—(from left) Alter Bridge’s Brian Marshall, Myles Kennedy, and Mark Tremonti.
You know, the solos are so seamless on this record that you guys almost sound like twin brothers. It’s hard to tell you apart at times.
Tremonti: I think we sound more similar on this record because it’s the first time Myles put all his solos together before he tracked them. Usually, he’ll improvise everything—and he’s a great improviser—but for The Last Hero, he spent the time to get them all composed, so we might have influenced each other as we went back and forth working out our parts.
Where do your solo ideas come from?
Tremonti: I’ll sit and play the track 100 times, and as I start getting better parts together, I’ll have my little place markers of licks that fit the section. I like to follow the chord changes when I can, but I also want the solo to be fun, exciting, and full of energy. I think the toughest thing for me is to come up with the very beginning of the solo. Once I get that, I kind of go on autopilot. I’ll just fall into whatever happens next. Sometimes it will be mediocre, and sometimes I’ll hit the mark, but I’ll keep on moving, going over lick after lick after lick until the solo takes shape. I like to make every solo tell a little story, and to be as unique as I can make it.
Kennedy: Initially, I try to come up with the basic concept, and not spend too much time on it. I’ll tuck it away, and when it’s time to start extracting ideas for a record, I can listen to everything with a fresh perspective—it’s like listening to it for the first time. Then, I weed out the ideas that don’t resonate.
Mark has said that you excel at coming up with ambient and sweetening parts on top of what typically are very heavy tracks. How do you visualize those parts?
Kennedy: A lot of times, it’s a feel thing—just something I’ll hear in my head. For example, when Mark came up with the riff to “Crows on a Wire,” it was such a signature Tremonti sound that I wanted to design something that would add harmonic movement and give it a whole new flavor. Most of the time, though, I try not to overthink it. I guess after all these years of writing songs and parts, I really just want to stay in the moment, and kind of let my brain do what it does without trying to hyper-analyze things and get too theoretical, because then it sounds contrived. It’s really a matter of following your instincts and seeing what happens.
How did you craft the sounds for The Last Hero?
Tremonti: I’ve been working on a signature amplifier with Paul Reed Smith, and this is the album it made its debut on. That amp is probably 80 percent of all the tones we used for the record. The funny thing is, I was trying to do an entry-level amp. I told Paul I wanted to keep it under $700, and make it the best amp kids ever played. It’s going to be a great little amp for the price. I want folks to unbox this thing and just be blown away.
Can you tell us a little more about it?
Tremonti: When PRS sent me the Archon years ago, I was blown away. So I got together with the guy who voiced it, and we must have gone back and forth about 15 times tweaking the sounds. You see, I’m an amp fanatic. I spend all the money I make on tour on amplifiers. It’s my thing. So I went through all of my amps, and I swear this little amp had one of the best clean sounds of any of the amps I have. My favorite clean sound is a Fender Twin open-back 2x12 combo. I like a lot of headroom. I like the sound to be bright, not harsh, but real present, because I tend to not use a pick as much when I’m using clean tones. This new amp has all of that, and in its own way.
What about the overdrive sounds?
Tremonti: I’ve always liked the mixture of a Mesa/Boogie Rectifier and a Bogner Uberschall. I like a good high gain thing for live. When I’m at home, I tend to play through boutique amps that bring out a different player in me, but for my signature amp, I had to hone in on what I do in Alter Bridge. So the amp’s overdrive sound is like a Mesa/Boogie with its bright, sharp attack, and then the Bogner warms it up a bit. There’s a real precise attack, but it’s not harsh on your ears.
What was your go-to amp, Myles?
Kennedy: My Diezel Herbert was on 90 percent of the record. I know that amp works in conjunction with Mark’s sound. He doesn’t leave many sonic holes—his sound covers such a wide spectrum—and that amp fits in really nice with his sound. It took a long time to find the right combination, because the trick was not to sound so different to where it stuck out. I wanted something that blended nicely with his sound, but at the same time didn’t walk all over it. The Diezel has a very interesting top end, which I think is the real hook for that amp—especially considering what Mark is doing.
What about guitars?
Tremonti: Paul Reed Smith was nice enough to give us about 14 guitars, and we tracked each song with a separate guitar. Then, we sold those guitars. We didn’t have a record label or management when we started this project, so selling those guitars was how we paid for the album. My brother Dan came up with the idea. We felt the fan-funding thing sometimes leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths, but here we had something where both parties were happy. We got to pay for our record, and the fans got guitars that had real significance to the album.
Kennedy: I used my tried and true PRS guitars that I’ve played for the better part of a decade—the SC245 and McCarty. I used a new McCarty—the one where they changed the scale length—for “Show Me a Leader” and a few other leads. It had a great cut to it.
Did you try any new tunings or other ideas for the album?
Tremonti: Yes. I spoke to Myles before we got together to write, and I said I wanted to step it up and do something different. For example, 7-strings have never been my thing, but I had one collecting dust in my closet, so I took it out and tried to write a song on it. That turned out to be “Show Me a Leader.” I used DADGAD for the first time on record for “Twilight.” Then, on “This Side of Fate,” I tuned to a B on the low-E string, and F#, C#, F#, B, and D. It’s real unique. I love finding these tunings where you throw out everything you’ve ever learned and start over. I love the foundation being completely uprooted. I don’t want to sound like everybody else. I want my parts to sound like capturing lightning in a bottle. I think when you’re not playing it safe, and you dive into weird, left-hand shapes that would sound terrible in standard tuning, you sometimes fall on that magic. You might sit there for five hours before you find it, but, for me, that’s the most exciting way to write.
Kennedy: I’ve always been a fan of open tunings, because they take you out of your comfort zone and force you to look at the neck in a completely different way. And, on top of that, it allows the strings to drone in a certain way. I think that’s really the best part of using open tunings—the drone and how it affects the melodies. Actually, as we were developing guitar parts, I often didn’t want to know which tuning Mark was using. I think not knowing which tunings we were in makes it even more interesting, because what happens is you have different strings droning from different players, and it really creates these crazy harmonic voicings. They can go wrong if you’re not careful, but we’ve managed to make it work, and I think it helps us create and define our sound.