Royal Salute: Johnny Christ & Avenged Sevenfold on "Hail to the King"
By Brian Fox
Wed, 4 Dec 2013
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"So, who are your influences?'' It's a question that reads so platitudinous in music magazines that it feels hackneyed no matter how cleverly disguised. Fortunately, one needn't even ask Johnny Christ of Avenged Sevenfold. A quick spin through the ten tracks of Hail to the King, his band's sixth album, leaves little to the imagination. The album plays like a joyride through the hard rock airwaves circa ’'91, as reverberations of Duff McKagan and Rex Brown rattle the chassis and reflections of Cliff Burton flicker like flares in the rearview.

The band as taken lumps for wearing its influences on its tattooed sleeves, with Machine Head frontman Robb Flynn going so far as to satirically congratulate the band on its successful “covers album.” Haters will hate, but there’s a whole lot to love about Hail to the King, which marks a new stage for a band that got its start as a Southern California metalcore outfit and has grown into one of the biggest hard rock acts on the planet. For his part, Christ parades his influences loudly and proudly, taking as much pride in shaping his own tone as he does in meticulously crafting “just-right” bass lines in the molds of his heroes.

There are a few moments on the new album when the bass really jumps out, but that’s clearly not your highest priority. Many of your peers would agree that’s the measure of a proper bass player.

Thank you for saying so. Especially when you’re talking heavy metal and hard rock, that’s where the bass needs to be—locking down with the groove most of the time. There are moments to show you can play—or, more importantly, to accentuate a part of a song.

Whether it’s bass or any other instrument, I want to orchestrate parts so you could hear the song a million times without But stepping all over the vibe of a song just to say, “I’m still here” is just not my M.O. these days.

In the AX7 setting, how do you go about dialing in your sound?

At first, I was going about it wrong, looking for lots of low end—more felt than heard. When we started working with [producer] Mike Elizondo on Nightmare, I played a lot of Rickenbackers and P-Basses. Those basses have a lot of low midrange, and that really helps hold it down—the bass blends well with the kick drum, and at the same time it adds a really cool texture to the guitars. So, upper bass and lower midrange frequencies have become really important for me. In this kind of setting, the guitars are going to sound the way they sound. But take the bass out and they’re not going to sound right. I’m basically looking for the best way to maximize the impact of the guitars.

How has your playing technique changed over time?

When I started with Avenged Sevenfold, some of my favorite bass sounds came from Duff McKagan. He played with a pick, so I started doing the same. On our earlier records, there was a progressive element in our songs, and the pick gave my tone the slice and presence I wanted. I also grew up listening to [fingerstyle players] Steve Harris and Robert Trujillo. Being on tour and seeing those guys actually play made me think, Okay, I’m kind of cheating here. So I started to develop that side of my playing. Now I play either with a pick or with my fingers, depending on the sound I want. On this record, “Heretic” is a song that seemed to want a dirtier type of bass tone, so I used a pick on that. I’ve played with a pick since I was 12 years old, so it’s been an accomplishment in itself to start turning myself into a fingerstyle player. Overall, I feel like playing with my fingers gives me more control over notes.

Whether it’s with my fingers or a pick, I like to attack the bass as hard as I can. I’ve always loved the percussive sound of the strings on a bass guitar, when it sounds like something slamming against a metal wall. That’ something I’ve always gone for. Over the years, I’ve tried different ways to get there. It’s like anyone else: “I really like that sound. How do I get there? How do I get there?” Just now on this record, I’ve become extremely happy with the tones I’ve been seeking for a long time.

For years you played Ernie Ball Music Man StingRay Basses, but now you have a new signature Schecter bass. How did that come about?

I played StingRays for years—they’re awesome basses, and the company was great to me. I just wanted to change things up and develop my own signature bass. We talked about doing something together, but they wanted to stay true to what they were doing. More power to them—the brand has been around a long time, and it’s obviously working for them.

When I played the P-Basses and Rickenbackers on Nightmare, I felt like that was getting closer to the tone I want to get. I wanted the percussive low end of a StingRay humbucker blended with the classic P-Bass clunk and Rickenbacker growl. For six months, Schecter and I went through six or seven different pickup combinations before finally trying an EMG 81 guitar pickup in the neck position. When we tried it, we knew we had what I was looking for. With a blend knob to roll from one pickup to the next, the bass has a really broad sound, from pianistic clarity to distorted growl. Right up the middle gets the sound I generally want. After 60 years of the electric bass, so much of it is all the same; it’s cool to be pushing some boundaries and trying new things.

The body and headstock style strikes me as a nod to the Rickenbacker aesthetic.

I went to a design company and said, “I want something that looks metal, but classic metal.” I didn’t want it to look cheesy. I definitely took some inspiration from the Rickenbacker headstock, because you look at that bass and you know it’s an amazing piece of equipment. Just like with our band’s music, I wear my inspiration on my sleeve.

In a recent interview, [AX7 vocalist]M. Shadows characterized the new album as “an Avenged Sevenfold album from the early ’90s and late ’80s.” Do you feel that way from a bass perspective?

Yeah, absolutely. Late-’80s, and early-’90s metal— early Metallica, Pantera—is what I grew up with. I would even go further back than that, to Iron Maiden. Listening to Steve Harris in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it’s inspiring to hear a heavy metal band that has all the great guitar work, but also incorporates this amazing bass playing. That’s something that I’ve always wanted to do. When a song calls for it, I’m ready to do it. Once again, Rex Brown and Duff McKagan are big influences on me. Cliff Burton is probably the biggest. That was a whole new direction of bass playing at the time. Sonically, that era of music had a lot going on; if you tune in, you can hear what every single instrument is doing, but when you sit back, it’s just all so heavy and molded perfectly together.

How did you write your bass parts on Hail to the King?

This time around, we were writing every day for nine months straight, and there wasn’t a whole lot of time for me to work specifically on my bass lines; I was more focused working on the songs. About a month before we started pre-production was when I started messing around with bass lines. But the whole time I was thinking in my head, I’m going to write out a few stylistic choices, but at the end of the day I want to get into the studio with a clear head on each song and really feel the vibe of how it’s being laid down—how the drums are coming together with the guitar, and how everything is just getting pieced together. Then I’d hone in what needed to happen on bass.

Do you find mid-tempo songs like “Crimson Day” particularly challenging?

When I was demoing that song out, I was playing somewhat busy stuff. I thought it could be cool if it had a ’90s rock ballad kind of feel, and that maybe I could get away with doing some classic Duff-style lines, like what he’d do “November Rain” or “Don’t Cry.” When the song started to really come together, I was playing lines I had messing around with, and before anyone else even said anything, I realize it wasn’t going to work for that song. So I just dropped back, listened to the kick and snare, and tried to just be present in the sonic range and not so much ‘that’s the bass doing that’—just keep it on line. As the song builds through the bridge, I felt like there was some open space, so I played some runs to give it a bit of an angelic kind of feel.

“Heretic” stands out for its gnarly tone.

There, we went heavy on the EMG 81 pickup. It just needed to sound seedy and dirty. It was a combination of four things: playing with a pick, really clanking into it, turning toward the neck pickup, turning up the distortion channel. Each was a subtle change in and of itself, but all of them together really brought out the sonic value of what we were going for.

When you’re playing with a pick, where are you connecting with the strings?

I go pretty much between the backside of the humbucker and the front side of the bridge. I’m not keeping my hand in one place at all times—I like to feel it out.

Where’s your go-to fingerstyle spot?

I typically go right over the humbucker. I rest my thumb on the top left corner of the humbucker and let the fingers fall where they are after that.

What rigs did you record with?

We had a DI for everything, but we also used my Gallien-Krueger 2001 RB head into an Ampeg 4x10 cab they had at the studio. We did a kind of blind taste test with combinations of cabinets, and that one was consistently good.

What’s your live rig?

I’ve been using the G-K 2001 RB forever. For me, it has the best distortion channel out there. I’ll run through the 2001 RB’s distortion channel, I’ll send another signal to a clean Gallien-Krueger head, and I’ll send them each to an 8x10 cab. My stage volume is a little obnoxious. [Laughs.] For my clean channel, I just started playing G-K’s Fusion 550 head, a solid-state amp with a tube preamp. I thought it was going to sound warm and awesome, and it did. I’ve also been playing through the new Gallien-Krueger Neo 810 cabinets, which are unbelievable. I’m super happy with my live rig now.

Do you have a string preference?

Six months before we went into the studio, Ernie Ball sent me a pack of their Cobalt strings to try out. I wasn’t looking to change, but when I tried them, they had a metallic sheen that was very cool. So I’ve switched to playing Cobalts.

Is there anything else in your signal chain?

There’s nothing constant, but there are moments on some songs where I’ll bring a chorus pedal in. Right now I’m using the H2O chorus pedal, and occasionally a Dunlop Crybaby Bass Wah. Our style is straightforward heavy metal and heavy rock, so I don’t get too into bass effects. But every once in a while, it’s cool to through in a chorus. It’s also another ode to Duff.

When we last spoke, the band had just begun playing with drummer Arin Ilejay. I wonder if you could tell me about your evolution as a rhythm section since then.

He really lays into the pocket perfectly. We’ve evolved together—on parts of the new record, for instance, I really understand where he’s going to go with his hit patterns and lock in with that. But overall, it hasn’t been too much of a transition. He plays the songs the way they’re supposed to be played, and it makes my job a lot easier to lock in with him.

Between Arin, Mike Portnoy, and Jimmy “the Rev” Sullivan, the band has had some heavy hitters behind the kit. How have each of them differed from your perspective in terms of how a groove sits.

The Rev basically taught me how to fit in the pocket. He was my mentor; he taught me a lot, and I learned just jamming with him. We became right in sync with each other over the years. I still very much play that style that Jimmy taught me to play.

With working with Mike was great. When we went in to do Nightmare, he listened very closely to the demos that Jimmy had already recorded and stayed very true to them, but he had a slightly different feel. Jimmy listened to a lot of funk and jazz, and he was able to lay back a little bit more. Mike was a little more metal and progressive, but he definitely had all the chops to make it happen.

Arin grew up playing in church, so he has a lot of that gospel feel. We’ve taught him about the style that we’re going for as a band, and he’s picked it up in stride—he’s killing it. Every drummer has a slightly different feel, but Arin lays into the groove and sits just a hair behind the beat. It’s really allows us to lock in, especially on these new songs. When we’re playing live and have adrenaline going, it can be hard to lay back on a song that might require it. But we’ve been doing this for so long, it doesn’t take long for all of us to come together.

In many ways, yes. When I joined the band, I was the new kid, and I didn’t fully understand the songwriting aspect to playing bass—I just wanted to get in there and throw bass lick riffs around whether or not they made sense for the song. Now, I have a better understanding of the songwriting process, and I understand how too work as a band. I’ve definitely evolved to where I orchestrate my bass lines rather than throw down a bunch of riffs. As with other things, when you practice your craft as often as you can, it eventually starts to get better. I’m still proud of the work I’ve done in the past, but I feel that I’m maturing with each album, honing in and synching into the groove. I love playing, so I’m always trying to do things a little bit better.

INFO

LISTEN

Avenged Sevenfold (on Warner Bros., except where noted), Hail to the King, [2013]; Nightmare [2010]; Avenged Sevenfold [2007]; City of Evil [2005]; Waking the Fallen [Hopeless, 2003]; Sounding the Seventh Trumpet [Hopeless, 2001]

EQUIP

Basses Schecter Guitar Research Johnny Christ Signature Bass
Rig Gallien-Krueger 2001RB and Fusion 550 heads, Gallien-Krueger Neo 810 cabinets
Strings Ernie Ball Cobalt Hybrid Slinkys
Effects Visual Sound H20 Chorus & Echo, Dunlop Cry Baby 105Q Bass Wah

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