Paul Waggoner’s new signature Ibanez has a swamp ash body with Mojotone pickups that he co-designed. “Mojotone did a good job of dialing in the perfect balance,” he says. Photo by Stephen Odom.

Progressive metal—progressive rock’s redheaded stepchild—embraces virtuosity and overindulgence in all their unfettered glory. Think 10-minute songs, ambitious themes, linear soundscapes, tough-to-execute unison phrases, odd meters, and racks of high-tech gear.

At the genre’s outlier edge, if you will, crafting intricate album-length compositions and challenging listeners with each release, is the North Carolina quintet Between the Buried and Me. Guitarist Paul Waggoner and singer/keyboardist Tommy Rogers founded the band in 2000. They recorded two albums with various musicians before settling into their current lineup (Dustie Waring on guitar, Dan Briggs on bass, and Blake Richardson on drums) with the release of their third album, Alaska, in 2005.

BTBAM is unquestionably prog, but their metal roots run deep. Front and center is the twin guitar assault of Waggoner and Waring. Both guitarists boast serious skill, killer tone, and keen melodic sensibilities. They use high-end guitars, too—Waggoner plays his signature Ibanez PWM100 and Waring uses his signature PRS model—and run them through Fractal Axe-Fx units, Mesa/Boogie Stereo 2:Fifty amps, and Port City cabs.

The band’s just-released seventh full-length album, Coma Ecliptic, is heavy and thematic, and it has more keyboard than previous records. “That's a new thing for us,” Waggoner says, “and as a guitar player you have to make room for that.” It’s also a tough pill for a metal 6-stringer to swallow. “It’s kind of a sting to the ego,” he admits. “Sometimes it’s been about bringing the guitars back a notch and playing less—you know, that whole ‘less is more’ thing. But it always seems to have a positive effect.”

Be it more keyboards or cowbell, BTBAM is ultimately a guitar band. Waggoner shared his thoughts on developing technique, his new signature guitar, and why—despite his Fractal Axe-Fx—he’ll never stop using stompboxes.

What did you listen to growing up?
I became a teenager in the early ’90s when the Seattle/grunge/alternative thing was happening. I fell in love with that sound and that style of guitar playing. I would learn Pearl Jam songs, Nirvana songs, Alice in Chains, all that stuff—Smashing Pumpkins was big for me. From there I got into heavier music and obviously metal and stuff like that. I also got into jazz fusion players like Pat Metheny and Allan Holdsworth.

“There are times where we’re alternating between measures of 5/4 and 7/4 and 5/8—that can all happen within the confines of one riff.”

Were you learning Metheny and Holdsworth songs note-for-note like you would with rock songs?
I didn’t necessarily study their music note-for-note—it was more that I loved their playing styles. It became apparent to me that I also wanted to develop a style unto my own, using those guys as inspiration.

How did they inspire you?
In the case of Pat Metheny, I just thought he wrote really good songs. I loved the structure of his music and the perspective of creating these very linear soundscapes, as opposed to just verse/chorus/verse/chorus-type songs. I loved their approach to melody and also their tones. Holdsworth has that very distinctive tone—it’s very horn-like—and I appreciated that as well.

It’s rare to find guitarists who play with proper technique. How did you develop yours?
In my formative years as a player, I took lessons for about a year and learned the value of playing properly. It wasn’t so much playing for speed that was important—rather, it was being able to hear the notes and hear some clarity in the playing. There has to be some control to your playing, especially with the type of music we play, which is sometimes very technical and rigidly structured. It has to be played well, otherwise it won’t sound very good. But I’ve also recently learned that there’s value to being what I call a “feel player”—just feeling the music and not hyper-focusing on the technique aspect. I think a little bit of both is important. But my specialty, I suppose, is the technique. Playing for clarity, cleanly and in time [laughs].

Did you spend a lot of time practicing with a metronome? Is that important for younger players to do?
I definitely did in the early days. I did the whole thing: start slow, increase the speed, back it off some more. The metronome was a huge part of my practice regiment. It is important. I recommend it for kids, especially when you get into more advanced techniques. Kids these days want to do sweep picking and economy picking and techniques that allow them to play faster, but if you can’t play in time and with clarity, it’s kind of pointless.

Do you do different exercises to keep your fingers limber?
I have my own little routine I came up with over the years, which involves string-skipping exercises. I do a mixture of legato exercises as well as alternate picking exercises. All those things for me now are just to get me loosened up. The hope is that I’ve been playing long enough now that most everything is motor memory. But you do have to loosen up your muscles, especially as you get older and they don’t work as well as they used to.

Do you practice with or without an amp?
Usually if I’m just doing my little warm-ups, I do it without an amp. You can really tell if you’re playing well without an amp because there’s nothing there to mask poor technique. When you’re playing through an amp, especially with distortion on, there’s a lot more margin for error. I force myself to play without an amp just so I can focus on the nuances—you know, pick attack and stuff like that. You can hear if a note buzzes and say, “Oh man, I’m not hitting that as cleanly as I should.”