On most musical matters, Lamb of God co-guitarists Mark Morton and Willie Adler couldn’t be more different from one another. Morton is an avowed blues-rock aficionado who counts the likes of Jimmy Page, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Billy Gibbons and Jimi Hendrix as his biggest influences. Adler, on the other hand, is a hardcore metal guy who never met a Dimebag Darrell riff he didn’t embrace. Morton analyzes and dissects the modes and scales of his melodic, blues-tinged leads, while Adler “plays from the gut,” impulsively throwing in atonal noise and dissonant chords of his own invention.
Nevertheless, the two guitarists have peacefully co-existed in Lamb of God since 1994, when the band formed under the name Burn the Priest. The blend of their unique styles and approaches has helped to turn the Richmond, Virginia–based outfit into one of the most powerful (and biggest-selling) forces in the New Wave of American Heavy Metal movement. “Mark and I have always had something of a deep-seated rivalry, or I guess you could call it a friendly competition,” Adler says. “But our bond is the success of this band, and we work together toward that goal.”
When it comes to metal tone, the two axmen have very different approaches to their craft. Yet they agree that tone is as personal and individual as a fingerprint.
“I think it has everything to do with the guitarist,” Morton says. “Tone is all in a player’s hands — the way they pick, how they fret the strings, their articulation. I know for a fact that Willie and I can play the same guitar plugged into the same amp and we’re going to sound totally different. Our tones are unique because it’s all about us. It’s not our gear.”
Adler agrees. “You can write out my parts and have a guy sit down and play them, but he’s never going to sound like me,” he says. “Only I can sound like me, and only Mark can sound like Mark. That’s the way it should be. What’s good for one guy might be totally unacceptable for another player. And it might have to do with what kind of music they’re playing, too. Some tones might sound cool for surf music, but they’d sound horrible in a metal band.”
Do you feel that metal guitar players are so focused on achieving an overpowering sound on record that they sometimes lose the actual tone of the guitar itself?
Mark Morton: Totally. That’s why I’m so adamant about using passive pickups, and I’ll give a plug here to my signature pickup, the DiMarzio Dominion. I’ve played some great active pickups, but they just don’t do the same job as passive ones. Actually, that’s the problem: They do exactly the same job all the time, meaning you can put them on a skateboard and it’ll sound like a Les Paul with the same pickup. To me, you’re not playing a guitar anymore; you’re playing a pickup.
Willie Adler: Bad tone on a record is almost a cumulative thing, which we used to be guilty of. It’s this notion of “Let’s just add as many tracks as we can to make it huge.” In our minds, more guitars makes things heavier, but in reality you lose elements of the actual guitar. It becomes this big wall of saturation. And when you have a bunch of guitars with scooped-out mids, it’s just bad. It doesn’t even sound like guitars anymore.
With that in mind, do you think that a unique metal tone is sometimes harder to achieve than, say, a blues or a country tone?
Morton: Maybe. I’ve always considered myself a very happily misplaced blues player. I’m a blues guitarist in a metal band, but I think that’s what helps contribute to our sound. My approach to tone doesn’t change whether I’m playing with a blues band or Lamb of God. I usually use the same amp, a Mesa/Boogie Mark IV, though sometimes I use the Mark V. But my playing might change a bit. I’ll use a different sort of attack with my right hand; I might squash or crunch the strings, or I might play a little lighter. Again, it’s about how I play and not as much about the amp.
Adler: That’s hard for me to say, because I’ve only had a metal tone. It can be pretty hard to get a good metal tone, but I don’t know if it’s more difficult than dialing up a decent sound for country or blues or what not. To me, authenticity is the key. If you sound pure, then you’ve got something going. If you can go out onstage and be stoked about your sound, the chances are good that you’re doing something right.
You guys recently went back to your Burn the Priest moniker to record an album of punk and hardcore covers. Did you find yourselves altering your guitar tones in any way from what you do in Lamb of God?
Adler: I don’t know if we consciously changed our sound or guitar tones. We always try and find the best tones that we can for what we’re doing, and that usually comes back to the same things that we put on pretty much every record. These songs were pretty different from what we normally play, so our style of playing might have changed. Did we dial up different sounds, though? I don’t think so.
Morton: I would say that every time we do a project, we start with our live tones. Willie and I incorporate our sounds because they complement each other: His sound has a little more gain, and I’ve got a cleaner tone. I probably strike the strings harder — I’m a little more ham-fisted, so I kind of beat the guitar like a club. Willie is more delicate; he’s got a softer attack. You put those two different approaches together and you get a nice blend.
For Burn the Priest, we were doing more of an old-school thing, playing these hardcore and punk covers. I’m using the whammy bar, which I don’t normally do with Lamb of God. The songs called for that.
Mark, you play Jacksons, and Willie, you’re an ESP man. Did the two of you ever sit down and talk about your choices of brands and instruments and how they work together?
Morton: We’ve never had that discussion. We just found the instruments we were comfortable with, but we didn’t A/B them. I know I keep saying this, but the way we sound together really has more to do with our playing techniques, not the guitars or gear we use.
Adler: It was never verbally stated like, “Yo, dude, you have to play that guitar — I’m playing this one.” We’ve always kind of gravitated toward opposite ends of things. I think it was kind of understood that I’m not going to play Jacksons, and he’s definitely not going to play ESPs. Not that either one is bad for the other dude, or whatever. We just do our own thing.
Morton: We try not to sound like each other. If I hear Willie getting a certain sound, I might dial up something that goes somewhere else. We want our sounds to sit on top of each other. They shouldn’t be a big mush of the same sound.
What role do effect pedals play in your tone?
Morton: I use them to shape the tone, but very little. I’ve always thought that good tone — the tone that I get from the instrument — is the starting point. It’s the guitar and the amp. Anything else that comes into the picture should add a flavor, but it shouldn’t be the cornerstone of the sound.
Live, when I do a solo, I use an overdrive, an MXR GT-OD, and that gives me a little bit of sustain so that the lead pops out more than when I’m playing rhythm. I use a phaser and a wah, but that’s about it. Nothing really colors my sound too much. I do use a Sennheiser wireless system, and I’ve noticed that it compresses the signal slightly, but it does so in a way that’s pleasing to the ear. I can really tell the difference on nights when the wireless goes out and I have to use a cable instead. The response of the guitar is noticeably different.
Adler: I’ve fallen in love with the new Triple Crown series from Mesa/Boogie, and I supplement that with their five-band EQ pedal and another Mesa pedal, the Grid Slammer. The Triple Crowns still have the Mesa crunch and saturation, but when paired with those pedals the tone has a bit more fire to it. It’s just something that excites me and makes me want to play. I also use the Fortin Grind pedal for a little more grit.
How does your bassist, John Campbell, affect your guitar tones? Do you ever make adjustments for the way his sound fits into the mix?
Morton: It depends on the context. In the studio, you just build everything together. You want the guitars, bass, the kick drum and the vocal to each inhabit their own independent spaces. John plays very technical parts sometimes, and I think the way he approaches his lines naturally stands out, so he’s not bashing up against the guitars. Also, you try to EQ the bass so that it doesn’t get lost, but that’s more of a mix thing.
Adler: John plays bass like a guitar player, so maybe he has a tone that’s different from other bassists. Now, because Mark and I have such different styles and tones, when you put us all together it makes everything sound pretty unique. We don’t consciously adjust our tones to work off of him or to compensate for something that’s lacking. It all falls together pretty naturally.
How hard is it to achieve a good live tone? Are there some nights when nothing seems to work right?
Adler: Some nights? Try a lot of ’em! [laughs]
Morton: Man, that’s such a hard deal, live gigs. I mean, I feel like I have a handle on it, but in these touring situations — the way we just throw our gear in a truck and go out to the mountains in Colorado and to Arizona, and there’s temperature changes and dust and what not — we’re sometimes at the mercy of things we can’t control.
Adler: There are nights when I can’t get my sound at all, but that’s just typical of using tube amps. Sometimes they’re gonna sound awesome; other times you’re like, “What is going on with this thing?” And you can have all the settings exactly the same as the night when everything was amazing.
Morton: The wind’s blowing, and it can be moist or dry, hot or cold…
Adler: And then there’s the stage construction. Is it made of concrete or wood? Does it have a vinyl plastic covering on it? There are so many factors that go into how your tone is going to be heard onstage.
Morton: A lot of places use different power generators, and that affects how our amps run. Our techs have to stay on top of this stuff like crazy. All of these conditions change the way our sound comes off the stage and hits the audience. And it affects our onstage sound, too. The sound just goes whipping around with the wind. It’s a constantly changing, moving thing. Some nights, the sound is good and we’re stoked. Other nights, it’s “Can I get a break up here, or what?”
And the crowd has no idea.
Morton: No idea. They just want us to rock, and that’s what we do.
Adler: I could be standing up there completely miserable, but I can’t show the audience that. They don’t want to know that I’m having a hard time. They want me to make it look easy. And let me tell you, a lot of hard work goes into making it look easy.