Stephan Forte's Enigmatic Rock Opera

The word “opera” comes from Latin and means “work.”
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The word “opera” comes from Latin and means “work.” French shredder Stéphan Forté has created a stunning display of instrumental guitar work on his current record, Enigma Opera Black [Zeta Nemesis]. The songs range from brooding and dirge-like to high-octane burners, and they’re all tied together by Forté’s dazzling technique. Complex rhythm parts, orchestrated harmonized lines, and astounding extended solo passages that border on the impossible populate each of the tunes. What sets Forté apart, however, would be his intriguing bends—both with fingers and whammy bar—which lend an organic, visceral vibe to his lines and elevate them way beyond any mere tech-fest. Forté spoke to GP—in impeccable English—from his native France, but an impending relocation to the states means that a lot more people will be seeing and hearing this guitariste fantastique.

What’s the key to making instrumental guitar music stand out from the crowd these days?

I think maybe what makes my music a bit different—if you say so—is that I’m just doing what comes naturally to me and not thinking about trends. I play metal, but I’m not listening to a lot of metal when I’m at home. I’m listening to Portishead and Depeche Mode and a lot of classical music from different periods. So maybe the fact is that I’m hearing a lot of different influences and that’s influencing my own style.

Talk about your compositional process.

The first thing I decide on is the tempo. Once I have that set, I’ll play some riffs over the metronome or a basic drum part, or I might play a bit of piano to find the harmony and melody. I don’t really try to write the whole song structure. It’s more part by part, but complete parts. For instance, if I’m doing the intro, I’ll do the full intro with the complete arrangement: drums, bass, piano, orchestrations, and even rhythm and lead guitars. Once I’m done with the intro, I might move into the bridge and then the verse, etc. So it’s not necessarily the traditional way of writing.

What was your philosophy for guitar tones on this record?

Over the years, my sound has changed. For example, when you start out playing metal, you use a lot of distortion everywhere and you tend to cut out the mids. But with more experience on the stage and in the studio, I use less gain and I try to get more of the tone from my hands. Maybe that’s the biggest difference: I’m trying to rely more on my physical ability rather than the tone itself, and I get something different—something more coherent, I think. I generally record everything totally dry, and then we re-amp afterwards to find the right sound.

Your rhythm lines sound distorted but clear.

If you solo the rhythm guitar, it’s a crunch tone with the gain around 4, and then I’m doubling the guitars, or even quadrupling them for some parts. Another thing that makes it sound heavy is the fact that the bass is distorted. The bass signal is split—one side totally clean, the other fully distorted—and we can blend the two sides together. That, with the kick drum, makes it really heavy. If I play with too much distortion, it becomes messy. My live rig has two Mesa/Boogie Mark IVs, one for the rhythm and one for lead, and they are both boosted by pedals for some of the drive. The lead one is boosted with a MXR GT-OD and the rhythm one with an Ibanez TS9. I’m not running a lot of gain on the amps, but I’m hitting them with the pedals. The gain on the pedals is low, but they help me get more bottom and more sustain.

You’ve mentioned Jason Becker and you’ve talked about Yngwie. Who are some other players who inform your music?

Marty Friedman is one of my biggest influences because of his bending and exotic note choices. I would say that he and Jason are both big influences. Shawn Lane is also someone I really admire. I had the chance to meet him before he passed. I really like Michael Lee Firkins. His whammy bar work influenced me a lot.

A lot of your songs have really long, extended fast passages. “Zeta Nemesis” is a good example. How did you build up that kind of stamina and endurance?

By practicing. I practice a lot. Some of the best advice I’ve received lately was from Guthrie Govan. We played together for a Jason Becker festival in Europe, and I asked him if we could jam so he could tell me what I could improve in my playing. He kindly accepted and we played together and he said, “You think it’s your right hand, but it’s actually your left hand that is weak.” He said everyone should be able to play everything with only the left hand, and he proved to me that he could play most of his songs with only his left hand, which is amazing. So I practiced this and developed my strength and now I’m able to play longer runs without getting too exhausted. But of course I need to warm up and play every day.

You teach a lot of master classes. What do some of the young players get wrong in your opinion? What kind of advice do you give them most often?

I’m always talking about the metronome. If you don’t have solid rhythm, I don’t think you can do anything. You don’t need to have great technique to express yourself, and I think the best example was Kurt Cobain. Kurt Cobain was obviously not a shredder, but what he did, he did really well and his rhythm was really tight. Three-note-per-string runs and sweeping are all great, but rhythm is the most important thing. Then comes the bending. I think too many people can play lightning fast, clean, and accurate, but as soon as they hit the string to do a bend it sounds out of tune. To me, that’s really awful. So I would say bending in tune is another thing that is really lacking. I tell them to work on rhythm with a metronome, concentrate on bending with really good intonation, and then just listen to as many different kinds of music as possible. That’s my best advice.