Last month we asked our Facebook, Twitter and Google+ communities to post questions for Alice In Chains’ Jerry Cantrell. We chose the 11 best questions about his writing process, gear, playing style and other fun stuff, and sent them to Jerry, who recently answered them…
Eric B. asks… I’ve always been a fan of your tasteful and well-phrased leads. Do you write them out before you record them, or just hit “Record” and go for it a few times?
I’ve never been an off-the-cuff solo guy. I’ve always approached solos as a part of the song, so just as I write other parts of a song to make sense with each other, I generally like to work solos out before I record them. Sometimes I make stuff up on the fly, but mostly I like to work them out. A solo is a special part of a song, it’s kind of a vocal line and a unique performance, so it’s gotta say something, it’s gotta sing, and it doesn’t have to be too long either, not for what we do.
Doug W. asks… I noticed that you’ve got the Talk Box back in the mix after going a while without using one. How did you decide to start using it again?
On most of my records, there’s at least one song that I use a Talk Box on. But it’s something can easily be over used—there are few signature Talk Box guys who can use it as much as they want, the obvious one being Peter Frampton, Joe Walsh is another, and one of my favorite guitar players—and I think that’s why I put it away. I just don’t use it throughout a whole show, and I had been replicating that sound, especially on “Man In A Box,” with a Cry Baby. But it’s a good thing to have in there, it sounds killer and it’s fun to play.
Dominic M. asks… How did you find your signature tone? Did it just come to you, or did it take a lot of time experimenting with gear?
I remember reading stories about this in old magazines, but I figured out for myself pretty quickly that it doesn’t really matter what gear you’re playing on—you’re gonna sound how you sound. Gear can color it—I mean a Les Paul sounds like a Les Paul and a Strat sounds like a Strat, so there’s two different tones there, and you can alter some of your tones by your gear—but mostly your tone is in your hands and that’s just the way it is.
I remember hearing stories of Van Halen opening for Ted Nugent, and Nugent going out to watch Eddie, saying, “What is this guy playing through?!” Then he went and plugged into Eddie’s stuff, and he sounded like Ted Nugent. I have first hand knowledge of that: When we toured with Van Halen, sometimes I’d be late getting to sound check and Ed would be on stage playing with my band, plugged into my stuff, and he sounded like Eddie Van Halen. And when I played through his stuff, I sounded like me. So gear can only get you so far with tone and sound adjustment, but basically at some point, you are who you are, and that is literally in your flesh. You know, it’s not the car, it’s the driver.
Tim H. asks… Which do you prefer to play: rhythm or lead guitar? Does one dictate the other in terms of writing new material?
I’ve always approached guitar playing from a rhythm guitar standpoint. I grew up being heavily influenced by guitar tandems, and one guy was generally more of the rhythm player. Malcom Young to Angus Young, Rudolf Schenker to Michael Schenker, Smith and Murray in Maiden, Tipton and Downing in Priest… So I always start with the rhythm, and the music always starts with the rhythm, because if you don’t have the rhythm, and you don’t have the riff or the groove, you’ve got nothing to solo over. Soloing is important, but for me, rhythm is always first and foremost.
Shane C. asks… When you write a song, does the music come first, or is it the lyrics? Or a little of both?
Ninety five percent of the time it’s the music first. It’s about the riffs and the body of the sound that generally produces a vocal melody, and lyrics come last. You get the riffs first, you put the riffs together and you get the body of a song, which inspires a melody, and you sing nonsense lyrics to get the melodies right, and when you’ve got a good melody, then you decide what you want to write about. There are exceptions, like when you get a melody line and a lyrical phrase first, but usually it’s the music first and then the lyrics.
Quentin N. asks… After almost 25 years through AIC and solo projects, what do you do to stay original, innovative and keep your signature guitar style without being repetitive?
Half the battle is finding your own unique sound, or your music fingerprint, that people will recognize. But really, it’s just how you naturally sound, so I don’t have to think about holding on to that because I sound how I sound. That’s good, and that’s where you wanna be—you want to naturally sound like you. As for the variety of the writing material in the different areas of the band, I think it’s pretty apparent by all the records that we’ve done. I’ve been in a really great band that’s been able to move in a lot of variant voicings and incorporate a lot of elements from different kinds of music in making our own, from acoustic to the heavy stuff, and everything in between.
But you have to trust in the fact that you’re going to sound how you sound, and the way you keep fresh and moving forward is sort of forgetting about what you did the in past. But I don’t really need to think about that, and I’ve been really fortunate in that aspect, not only with myself but with my band. I trust that we’re going to be okay, and that we’re doing something good. In my opinion, we haven’t done anything crappy yet, which is cool—it’s the best thing I could ask for. Also, we’ve had a long career, we’ve made a lot of records, and every record is different from every other one before it. Keeping fresh just means making another record and writing new songs. Keeping your signature sound? That’s just who you are.
Justin V. asks… Where do you draw inspiration for the quality of your writing? The imagery is amazingly fantastic, and your work always inspires me to pick up a guitar and a pen.
When I first started playing, I was inspired by everybody that I ever enjoyed listening to, and some of them weren’t even guitar players. But you know, you start off emulating your heroes, for me it was learning AC/DC songs, UFO, Black Sabbath, Van Halen—those were a small portion of many bands that influenced me to start—but also had a lot of friends who played in cover bands, and I learned early on that it was not the move I wanted to be making. I wanted to be writing my own stuff, like all those great players and bands were. So not only was I inspired to learn how to play guitar, but I was also inspired to learn how to write songs like those bands were writing for themselves. I knew that was the ticket, rather than playing everybody else’s stuff three sets a night in a top 40 cover band.
But ultimately, you find inspiration where ever you find it. It’s not some big artsy-fartsy, flowery, ethereal thing for me, it’s more of a gut-level thing, and it happens when it happens. I’ve been able to train myself over the years to know at least initially if an idea is good enough to follow, and also to learn to record any idea—because my perspective on it may change over time—and then do what it takes to make that idea happen. You need to sit there with your guitar and hit record and keep doing it and doing it until it happens.
Justin P. asks… What does Jerry the “regular guy” do for fun?
It was poker for a while, and I still love the game—it’s a nice activity for not thinking about anything other than what you’re doing—and I used to fish quite a bit, which I haven’t done lately as much as I should, because I love getting outside. A big part of being a musician is spending time in really confined spaces with a lot of other people, so it’s really good to get out of that environment and get outside. You know, you’re in a studio, in a hotel room, in a van, plane, or a dressing room, a venue—all enclosed spaces—so anything that can get you outside is a good thing. So yeah, I love fishing, especially deep sea fishing. Golf is another great activity. I’m totally shitty at it but I love to play, and it’s more about getting outside and doing something that I can focus on, and it’s a little healthy, and fun and competitive, and I love that too.
Rodney B. asks… If you were on a deserted island with one 120 volt plug, what one guitar and amp would you wish you had?
Hmmm…so I have power and a plug? I’d trade the guitar and the amp for a very large refrigerator full of food.
Mike N. asks… What’s a guilty pleasure fans might not expect from you—a musical taste, piece of gear, hobby, etc.?
I don’t know if it’s necessarily a guilty pleasure, but I’ve always been a fan of learning, and I’ve been curious about and interested in who we are and where we are. I’ve always liked learning about science—geology, astronomy, all that stuff. I’m not a super egghead, but I like to watch the Discovery Channel and the Science Channel, and I read National Geographic and Scientific American magazines. I’m interested in the bigger picture of what’s out there, and the amazing amount of knowledge that’s been gathered over the last several hundred years about the reality of the planet we live on and the system it’s a part of. I’m interested in the cycle of life, and all things related to the truth of existence.
Gustavo F. asks… What’s the weirdest/funniest thing that’s happened to you on stage?
That guy in the wheelchair on stage the other night…that was weird, and I remember there being a raccoon on stage on the last tour. There are so many nutty things that happen out here. It’s like a circus or a pirate ship, and when you constantly come into contact with other pirate bands, you get a bunch of us together, and shit just happens. A lot of pranks get pulled on stage, it’s kind of a tradition to fuck with each other at the end of the tour, especially the opening bands. I remember the Van Halen guys got us like four times in one set, back in ’91, at the end of that tour. When we came out on stage, they had taken a bunch of three-foot strips of duct tape and put them all over the stage face-up, so we walked out and within the couple seconds we were all dragging around huge wads of duct tape on stage. They sent out some strippers, not very attractive ones, who stayed out there for a whole song. Then they sent out one of their techs, I think he was a guy named Zeke, in a Little Bo Peep outfit with some live sheep. And at the very end of our set, we were playing “Man In The Box,” and their crew came out and started dismantling our entire set around us—they left Sean with a kick and snare, left me with one cab, they just unplugged Mike Starr. And that was all in one set! I don’t think anyone has ever topped that commitment to fucking with the opening act.
On the flip side of that, there’s a photo, which I think some people have seen, but I don’t think is necessarily public knowledge… So Van Halen used to do this signature walk across the stage, and at the time they had these skimpy panties that they would sell to the chicks in the audience. Really skimpy panties. So we took some of these panties and put them on—of course they weren’t big enough keep our junk in, so we had to turn them around with the butt parts in front to keep our stuff together—and put on some combat boots, and we made ourselves up as strippers and did that Van Halen signature walk across the stage behind them, and they didn’t know it was happening, except for Alex. There’s a great photo of it, taken right as Eddie turns around and realizes what’s going on, and he’s totally losing it. He’s one of those guys who never fucks up. I’ve seen him play in so many different states, and he’s always on, but hearing him miss a couple notes while getting a laugh out of us was great.