Steve DiGiorgio: Back to Basics with Testament

March 17, 2017

According to Steve DiGiorgio, recording Testament’s latest metal masterstroke, Brotherhood of the Snake, was a quick studio session, but it wasn’t the easiest. “There was some suffering,” he reveals. “I don’t mean that in too profound of a way—some of the guys wanted to work on it and live with it, but there just wasn’t any time. Some people are used to taking their time and trying unlimited ideas, and they were a little out of their element. It caused a lot of tension.”

Along with the addition of DiGiorgio—who re-joined in 2013—that tension translates into Testament’s most muscular-sounding effort in years. Ripping heads off straight out of the gate on the opening title track, and following through with tunes like “The Pale King” and “Seven Seals,” Testament’s no-holds-barred brand of classic, old-school thrash runs rampant throughout Brotherhood of the Snake. And DiGiorgio is clearly in his element: His fierce, fluid playing and gutsy tone tie together the bombastic elements of the band’s virtuosic lineup (Alex Skolnick and Eric Peterson on guitars, Gene Hoglan on drums, and lead singer Chuck Billy) in a supremely tight and unified way. It is the result of DiGiorgio’s conscious effort to set aside his own personal sound in favor of what he dubs the “Testament bass sound.”

DiGiorgio’s fretless skill set has been influencing players ever since his Sadus demos started getting passed around in the late ’80s amongst burgeoning yet soon-to-be famous bassists like Cannibal Corpse’s Alex Webster. Steve helped define the death metal genre with the landmark Death albums Human [1991, Combat] and Individual Thought Patterns [1993, Combat] as well as Control Denied’s The Fragile Art of Existence [1999, Nuclear Blast], and he has remained extreme metal’s go-to fretless bassist ever since. But on Brotherhood of the Snake, DiGiorgio set about on a different task. Wielding little more than a stock Rickenbacker 4001, he challenged himself with assimilating into the Testament sound with a more nuanced, straight-ahead approach that favors groove over glissando.

DiGiorgio first played with Testament in 1998 (replacing original bassist Greg Christian), and remained with the band until 2004. During that time, he recorded The Gathering, a pivotal Testament album. Snake may prove to be another milestone in Testament’s decades-long career—but for DiGiorgio, the album simply marks a significant shift in his own philosophy, which is all about going back to basics.

You’ve been a session player for decades. Was it challenging to cut a record in such a short time frame?

I was in my element. I didn’t mind that we didn’t have a ton of time to try a lot of stuff. Showing up and learning somebody’s material, recording it and getting a great take, adding your own flavor to make it sound interesting, and doing it all in a convincing way to make it sound like you’ve known it for years, is a trait of a session guy. This record was a familiar process for me. And a band like Testament has a formula. They’ve been doing this for 27 years, so it’s not really time for a band like this to experiment and try new things. You have to be loyal to the fan base that put you where you are.

Were any of the songs particularly challenging?

Not technically. There’s nothing over the top on the album that’s challenging physically to play. My challenge was in getting the proper tone and finding that pocket that I describe as the Testament bass sound.

What is the Testament bass sound?

When we recorded The Gathering in 1998, we didn’t really know each other well, and I showed up with my fretless Carvin 5-string and just played the way I play. We got through the session, and the band was happy. But this time I decided, like any good session player should, to assimilate to the project—that old chameleon type of thing where you change your color to match your surroundings. I decided my challenge was going to be, “How can I fit in even better?” I wanted to play that Testament bass role.

So, how did you go about figuring that out?

I got out all of my bass guitars in my little studio, plugged in one right after another, and played the same riff on each bass with all these separate tracks going down in a line. Then I listened back to how each one reacted within a song. I decided on this 1978 Rickenbacker 4001—completely stock. There’s not one modification on this bass. It’s a totally passive, regular fretted 4-string, an old-school bass. But its tone had the right amount of pop and enough meat in the middle to fill in.

Did you adapt your playing as well, or was it just about the bass?

I had a little help from the engineer, but I did work on the touch of the strings. I’m a heavy hitter, and my problem, a lot of the time, is spiking out the sound wave when I’m recording. In the old days, when you could crush a needle it was no big deal, but nowadays [recording digitally], to get a nice, solid wave, I had to learn to calm down my attack when recording. We nicknamed it “self-compressing.”

Being a studio guy, that sounds like something you would have figured out a long time ago.

Maybe it’s a “duh” moment for some people, but I’ve played more in extreme or technical music, and sometimes you don’t have time to think about such things because you’re up against challenging riffs and polyrhythms. The technique is just about getting it done. Whereas with Testament, there are long passages of riffs that aren’t so difficult to play in a technical sense, but they are difficult to play convincingly, and that’s what I mean by playing the Testament bass role—having the right attack, the right tone, and the pocket.

Did you record direct or through an amp?

We had two direct signals. We kept one completely plain for any opportunity to re-amp, and one was dirty with a Darkglass B7K to give it that grind. I also have this little EBS MultiComp that I love to record with. It doesn’t change your sound; it’s like a medium-level loudness button that brings out the good sounds without really changing anything. It’s a nice subtle addition. The recording engineer also ran it through a Kemper [profiling amp] so that we could mess with the EQ for a room sound. Overall, I got a nice, passive bass sound with a controlled attack, but it took a while to get there. It was back to basics.

Do you employ two- or three-finger plucking-hand technique?

I would say I’m a three-finger player. I only know because of my calluses! But really, it’s like a four-barrel carburetor; if I don’t need the other fingers, I don’t use them. I just use one, and when I need to shift a gear, I’ll use two, and so on. I’m not a slap player, but I also use the side of my thumb to punch out accents while the other fingers are going. I’m bad at analyzing my technique. Sometimes it’s better if you just let nature take its course. Just play and let it come out. I’m a “Get it done by any means possible” kind of guy.

Testament seems like it’s on tour constantly. Are you traveling with backline or profiling amps?

I have rigs on both continents, but Carlos, my bass tech, knows the Kemper inside out and he’s profiled my EBS amps. We went to South America and it felt like I had my EBS amp with me. We use in-ear monitors and don’t rely on the cabinets or wedges, so if my bass tone sounds like me in my ears, I’m set to play, and I’ll just leave it to the front-of-house guy to let everyone hear it the way they’re supposed to.

You were heavily influenced by Jethro Tull’s Dave Pegg. That seems a bit unconventional.

It’s funny because if you look at his entire body of work, someone might be like, “I don’t get it.” The music is cool and you can tell he’s proficient, but his playing with Tull on A and Broadsword and the Beast is amazing. Maybe it was the period, or the songs they had written, but that’s the only time he’s ever really stood out. The sound of his fretless on those albums brought me into that world.

Most people cite Jaco when it comes to fretless.

How can you not appreciate his work? But I’m a latecomer to Jaco—I didn’t start there. Dave Pegg was my main fretless influence in a context that you wouldn’t really expect to hear it. When you hear Gary Willis or Percy Jones, their playing is 20 times better than Pegg’s on those Tull albums—it’s killer, but it belongs there. With Pegg, it was unexpected, and that’s what drew me in.

Playing fretless in metal bands gives you a distinct flavor.

That’s usually where I lean with anything. Early on I realized it’s pointless to try to be the best at anything, because there’s no such thing. But you can always be different in some way. You can always have some small identifying factor that makes you “you.” I’m always looking for something to keep me a little different from the regular flow of everyone else.

Who are some of your other influences?

The list of players who influenced me, created me—the building blocks that I could stack together—is huge: Geddy Lee, Chris Squire, Geezer Butler, Steve Harris. I’m not exclusively channeling early-’80s Jethro Tull. I listened to Stanley Clarke a lot, right before my friends turned me on to metal. I’d listen to Return To Forever, take off my headphones, pick up my bass, and start playing Sadus riffs to thrash beats. You have to be a sponge and soak up all the drops of these different players. When you squeeze it, “you” come out.

You mostly play an unlined fretless bass. Has that helped you develop your intonation?

Obviously when you’re working on your intonation, your ear is developing automatically. I don’t wrap around and look at the front of the fingerboard too much. I rely on the side markers visually.

I guess you rely on the ear for intonation, and sight to check yourself?

Yes, but the one thing that applies overall is muscle memory. When you do something so many times, the stuff just ends up in the right place. Now, it’s not always going to be perfect. If I play a whole song without looking at my left hand, I will hit wrong notes. If I play a whole song without being able to hear what I’m playing, I will hit a lot of wrong notes. So, obviously, you need those senses, but you don’t have to strain the ear or keep your eyes locked on your hands if the muscle memory is there. It’s the oldest, most boring cliché, but it always goes back to practice, practice, practice. When you do something so many times, you just get better at it, and you can’t replace experience with anything else.

INFO

LISTEN

Testament, Brotherhood of the Snake [2016, Nuclear Blast]

EQUIP

Basses Fretless Ibanez BTB Custom 5-string, Rickenbacker 4001
Amps EBS Fafner II heads, EBS NeoLine & ClassicLine cabinets
Strings Dunlop Super Bright (.045–.130)
Effects Darkglass B7K Microtubes Analog Bass Preamp, EBS MultiComp Bass Compressor

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