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You’ve used acoustic guitars more than a lot of other heavy bands throughout your career, including on “Voices” and “Scalpel” from the new album. How important are acoustics to the Alice in Chains sound?
That has always been a really important thing for this band. We took a chance early on by putting out an acoustic EP [1992’s Sap] when we’d only had one record out and people only knew us from that. By taking that risk early on, it opened us up to be able to be more diverse and to get people okay with the idea that we weren’t going to be just a metal or hard-rock band—that we were going to go in a lot of different places musically. On the last two records, we’ve had elements of the acoustic sound so that you get both phases of the band. It really isn’t a separate thing—it’s all us.
Jerry Cantrell, the late Layne Staley, and the rest of Alice in Chains bring the heavy with nothing but acoustics in this hour-plus MTV Unplugged set from 1996.
How did you create the atmospheric sounds in the intro and outro to “Voices”?
I was using a Gibson EDS-1275 with 6-string and 12-string necks on it, and I stumbled upon that sound when we were demoing the song at my house. My guitar tech and friend Jim Dawson brought his doubleneck over, and I played it on the 6-string side but with the pickups on on the 12-string side. That chimey stuff was feeding across into the other neck’s pickups. When it came time to record it, Jim brought that guitar around and we did it the exact same way.
You’ve always favored your “Blue Dress” and “No War” G&L Rampages. How vital are those two guitars to your tone, and what do they mean to you from a personal standpoint?
[The Rampage] is the guitar that felt right to me first. I had a handful of shitty guitars before that, but when I got a G&L Rampage in my hands I was home—and I’ve never really left. I’m also a very big fan of Gibson guitars, and the Les Paul has been a big part of my tone, as well. Those are the two guitars that I play the most. I guess that happens for everybody—at some point you find your guitar and it’s what you become identified with. It’s not that you don’t play other things, it just becomes your thing. Jimi Hendrix played a Stratocaster, Angus Young plays an SG—you find your guitar and that’s just what it is. But anytime—anytime I pick up a guitar that I haven’t played or a different kind of guitar, it never fails that it gives me a new idea or I stumble upon something different. It’s been happening for 30 years, and it’s tried and true and totally tested. If I pick up something new, I’ll play something that I haven’t played before and it’s going to give me something.
Cantrell's famed "Blue Dress" G&L Rampage
You probably use a wah more than any other effect. What’s your approach to it, and what makes your signature Dunlop model unique?
The Cry Baby wah-wah has been a go-to pedal for all guitar players from its inception. It’s just a way to make the guitar talk a little bit more—it makes it speak. It’s something I’ve always been a fan of and have used from the get-go. I started off playing the Jimi Hendrix version of the Dunlop Cry Baby, and a few years ago the guys at Dunlop decided to design one for me. My tone has a little bit more darkness to it, and I’ll play the Cry Baby not even rocking it back and forth in a full sweep. I use half or three-quarter sweeps. So Dunlop took all those elements and put them into that pedal. It has a darker, throatier tone to it that I’m really happy with—not only to have my own pedal and for it to be the one I use the most, but also for a handful of my other friends to use it and really dig it. Nick Raskulinecz—who’s produced a couple of Rush records, too—told me Alex [Lifeson] used one in the studio when they were recording their last record, which made me really proud.
What’s next for you and Alice in Chains?
Well, it’s a very compartmentalized existence in my experience: For about a year, it was all about the record, and now it’s about going out and playing. Recording and writing go out the window, and it’s about trying to do the best show you can and trying to stay as healthy as you can to be able to play at a high and consistent level for people who are paying to come see you—people who haven’t seen you in years or maybe ever. So you try to make that special.