The Big Bang Theory

How Shinedown's Zach Myers learned the truth about huge tone and tiny amps.
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For years , Zach Myers was convinced that size matters. But at the age of 34, the Shinedown guitarist admits he’s maturing and now recognizes good things can come in small packages.

“I used to be one of those ‘the bigger the amp, the bigger the sound’ kind of guys,” he says with a laugh. “I was young and into flashy stuff. I started touring at 14, and I wanted lots of big amps. For the longest time, I was all about ‘more, bigger, more, bigger.’ And the funny thing is, it wasn’t making my sound any better.”

Slowly, though, Myers’ attitude changed. He recalls going to a Dallas Guitar Show and playing through a small combo amp at one of the booths. “I sounded like garbage,” he says, “so I just left.” But after leaving his jacket behind, he returned to fetch it and heard the most incredible guitar sounds emanating from the booth. “I was like, Who is this guy? And that’s when I saw it was Eric Johnson. Only he didn’t sound like garbage — he sounded like Eric Johnson. So I started to think, Maybe it isn’t so much the amp. Maybe it’s about the way you play.”

Myers also credits Jack White’s use of small combo amps in readjusting his attitude. “It’s kind of a cliché — the guy who plays one note and it sounds huge,” he admits. “But that’s what Jack White does. You hear him and you think he’s got all this firepower behind him, but he’s usually putting his guitar through something kind of tiny. When I heard him, that’s when I realized maybe I don’t need these big amps after all.”

Shinedown’s bruising latest album, Attention Attention (Atlantic) is a far cry from the group’s previous release, the electro-pop-oriented Threat to Survival. The new disc is dominated by Myers’ raucous and roiling guitars. The majority of the record’s guitar tone comes from his “secret weapon,” an early ’70s single-speaker Ampeg J-12 Jet, owned by engineer Doug McKean. “The Ampeg is all over the record,” he enthuses. “You use that amp with the overdrive turned up, or maybe you put one pedal in front, and it gives you this incredible round tone. It’s almost like having a Marshall all cranked up, but it’s got its own special characteristics. It was a small combo amp that thought it was a big stack. It worked great for my playing on the new stuff.”

The new album features some lively playing, but that can’t all be due to new amps. What else was going on with you?

Well, the bottom line is that we wanted to make a real guitar album again. On the last album, we knew we colored outside the lines a little bit. We stepped away from in-your-face guitars and solos. It was almost like we went for “the essence of guitars.” [laughs] And that was fine for that album. This time, we wanted to put the guitars on the frontline again, but we wanted to do it in some interesting ways. I was wondering, How can I make one note sound huge? It was a lot of fun to explore those possibilities. I would say this was the most enjoyable record we’ve ever made.

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How many amps did you use in the studio for it?

Probably seven or so. There’s a couple of Kemper Profilers on the record. The single “Devil,” that’s a dry Kemper tone. And I used two Marshall JCM 800s that belong to Eric Bass, our bassist, who produced the record. So it wasn’t just small combo amps. I also used a PRS Custom 50, a Diezel Herbert and a Fuchs Mantis. And, of course, I used that Ampeg 1x12 combo a ton. That was the main amp. I loved playing that one.

Onstage, you use a Fractal effects processor, right?

Yes, I do, the Fractal XL+, but I only use that live, not in the studio. I mean, I can’t knock the Fractal. It’s so convenient, and I can get anything out of it. If we’re on tour and we’ve got to do the Jimmy Fallon show or something, I can put my whole rig in a backpack, and off I go. I’m really not a rackmount nerd; I’m not good at programming and doing the multi-effects processor stuff. But the Fractal system is so easy to use, and it makes live gigs a joy because you never have to guess how you’re gonna sound. The only time I miss real amps in live performance is when I play solos. I use cabinets onstage, but I miss pushing the air out of them from a tube amp. Other than that, I can’t tell much difference.

What’s your process for choosing guitars in the studio? Do you instinctively know which guitar you want to use, or is it a process of elimination?

I fiddle a bit to find the right guitar-amp combination. Truthfully, I’ve been doing this for so long that I can kind of tell which guitar is going to work. I’ll tell my tech, Sparky, “Hey, man, I think I need this for a track,” and he’ll hand me whatever I need. I usually have a sense of what’ll work. But yeah, you try this guitar and that one. It’s a weeding-out process sometimes.

And is that the same way you go about choosing amps in the studio?

You know, it’s both. Sometimes you just know, “I need the Kemper here,” but other times you try things out. Eric knows his studio and how the amps all work. He would come in with an idea, and he’d go, “We should try the [JCM] 800.” But that might not sound right, so we’d go to the Diezel, or we’d go to the Fuchs. Or we’d go right back to that Ampeg. You mess around. It doesn’t take long: You play that first note, and you know if it isn’t happening. Or you’re like, “Ahh! That’s it. I knew that was the amp!”

The rhythm tracks on this album are like a massive wall of sound. Is that lot of overdubbed guitars, or is it a single guitar cranked?

It’s not a lot of overdubs. We approached things as if we were a two-guitar band. Eric actually did a lot of the rhythm stuff. He’d record his rhythm track with a Marshall turned really bright, and I’d record my rhythm track with a Diezel or a Fuchs, and I’d use more of a low-end sound. It was super cool, because we got that push-pull thing you do with actual two-guitar bands.

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Did you use different amps for the lead work, or did you stick with the same amps you used for the rhythms?

You obviously want the tones of riffs and solos to be different. Sometimes we’d change what rooms the amps were in, or we’d switch a mic or something like that. You want more of a gainy sound with riffs and solos, ’cause they’ve gotta stand out.

What about pedals?

Yeah, there were a few pedals. I had just discovered this BB9 Bottom Booster from Ibanez. You turn up the low end of that and it breaks up a little bit. I used that a little. I also used an MXR Sub Machine Octave Fuzz and a DigiTech Whammy that I left in the heel position, where it makes this cool octave sound. That was kind of it.

What were the guitars you used on this album?

There weren’t that many. I don’t bring every guitar I own into the studio. I used my ’68 ES-335, and I also played a ’58 and a ’59 Les Paul. Those were the main guitars. Eric has a ’72 Tele that I played a lot. I also used a PRS Modern Eagle and a couple of Strats. I bought Eric a ’74 Strat for his birthday, and I wound up playing it on some things. And, of course, I used some of my PRS signature models.

Word is that you own something like 200 guitars. Is that true?

Yep, it’s true. [laughs]

Where do you keep them all?

At home. We just bought a new place that’s big enough to house all of my guitars. I’ve got 17 on tour with me in the U.S., and then there’s 10 or 12 in Europe for my B rig. I have about 90 in my guitar room, and the rest are on my property in a storage unit.

Needless to say, you’ve got a lot of insurance.

I pay more for insurance than for anything else!

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