Maiden’s mighty axemen: Adrian Smith, Dave Murray, and Janick Gers. “For some reason, the way we play makes the actual tones of each guitar completely different,” says Murray. “You can hear Janick’s tone, Adrian’s tone, and my tone, and you know who’s who.” Photo by John McMurtrie

Asking Iron Maiden guitarists Adrian Smith, Dave Murray, and Janick Gers to describe the differences in their playing styles creates something of a Rashomon effect, with each axeman offering a unique and sometimes contrarian view: “I think you can tell us apart very easily,” says Smith. “Dave and Janick’s styles are similar to each other, but they’re different from mine. They both have a strong Ritchie Blackmore influence. Dave plays more legato, whereas I do more muted stuff.”

“Personally, I like to try to be melodic but with a little fire and energy,” says Murray. “I think Janick’s the same actually—great melodies and spirit. Adrian is very methodical. He tends to work out some of his stuff, but he always sounds very spontaneous.”

Gers, for his part, sees Murray as the most melodic of the Maiden axe team. “Dave is very smooth—very rock ’n’ roll but with a beautiful tone,” he notes. As for Smith, Gers says, “He’s very rhythmic. Even when he’s soloing, you hear a certain kind of rhythm that’s different from what Dave and I do.” And for a self-assessment, he lets out a good-natured laugh and says, “I’m more of a ragged kind of player, rough around the edges but with a bit of a gymnastic edge.”

A fair amount of Maiden purists scoffed when the band expanded to the three-guitarist team of Murray, Smith, and Gers in 1999, fearing that the classic twin-axe interplay that all but defined the New Wave of British Heavy Metal sound in the early ’80s would be lost in an interminable sea of noodling one-upmanship. (Gers had replaced Smith after he left the group in 1990; when Smith returned to the fold, Gers stayed on.) But on a series of bracing releases—2000’s Brave New World, 2003’s Dance of Death, A Matter of Life and Death from 2006 and The Final Frontier from 2010—the trio pooled their individual strengths to form a potent metal guitar orchestra.

“I imagine you’d probably get three guitarists in other bands and it just wouldn’t work,” Murray says. “There’d be a lot of overindulgence and the songs would get lost. Somehow, we sidestep all of that. I think it’s like a bit of magic.” Smith agrees: “For the most part, our songs are quite long and maybe a bit indulgent anyway. There’s plenty of space for us to do our own thing and express ourselves without our egos getting in the way.”

Indulgence seems to be the very idea behind the recently released The Book of Souls: It’s the band’s first double record (clocking in at an ADD-busting 92 minutes), and all but four of its 11 tracks are nearly six minutes long—three, in fact, break the 10-minute barrier, with the album closer, singer Bruce Dickinson’s majestic “Empire of the Clouds,” about the 1930 R101 airship crash, ranking as the group’s longest cut ever at just over 18 minutes.

The elongated arrangements give the guitar team ample room to shine, but what’s remarkable about their performances—take the Thin Lizzy-sounding “Speed of Light” or the spitfire disc-opener “If Eternity Should Fail”—is the way they never seem to repeat a lick. There are no half-gestures or rote moves, and at times the fretwork even comes close to transcending the album’s material—no small feat considering this could be the band’s strongest set of songs in over a decade.

Premier Guitar sat down with Smith, Murray, and Gers to talk about the guitars and gear they used on the new album, how the blues figures into their playing lexicon, what it’s like to tackle an 18-minute bear of a song, and what steps they take to stay out of each other’s tonal space.

You’re all accomplished players, but do you spend any time at home woodshedding, working on your chops?
I definitely practice, especially before an album or a tour. I can’t do what some people do—you hear about Yngwie Malmsteen practicing for eight hours a day. That’s a long time to do just one thing. When I get time, I try to learn some new things and stay fresh. One thing I like to do is work new techniques into old material. Sometimes [bassist] Steve [Harris] will say to me, “Why are you changing that? What you had before is great, it’s melodic—it’s what people want to hear.” But you know, you have to try sometimes, especially with stuff you’ve played so much.

Murray: I think it’s like any profession. If you were an athlete, you’d exercise and warm up, and I think it’s the same with guitarists. If you just played guitar from tour to tour, it’d take a long time to catch up. But I like playing just for the fun of it—it doesn’t feel like work to me. When I’m at home, if I’m watching a movie or something, I’ll have a guitar on my lap, something with really heavy strings that’s hard to play, like an acoustic. That’s a good way of keeping my fingers limber.

"Sometimes it’s fun to let the sound take you somewhere. You spend a morning messing around with effects and you’ll probably get an idea for a song out of it." —Adrian Smith

Gers: I don’t consider playing practice—I’m just playing. I’ve got guitars all over the house. They’re all tuned differently, so wherever I’m walking I can just pick one up—standard tuning or whatever—and I’ll just play it acoustically. But you know, as far as practicing goes, I think you’ve got to experience life. You’ve got to experience everything in life, all the emotions, and put them into your guitar playing. If you sit in your room practicing all day, that certainly won’t happen.

So how do you go about channeling your emotions into your guitar?
You conjure up images and feelings. For the song “The Book of Souls,” for example, I thought back to being in Mexico and seeing the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon, just outside of Mexico City. All my songs and ideas will come from what I see or experience… a movie or some spiritual idea or whatever, somewhere I’ve been.

Do you ever come up with guitar parts you think are great, but they’re not quite “Iron Maiden” and don’t make the cut?
Absolutely. It’s happened a few times. Obviously, the band has an identity and a sound, so sometimes it’s “Yeah, that’s great, but it’s not right.” I’ve got a few things that never quite made it because they weren’t Maiden. I sit at home and put on a drum loop, and I’ll get an idea and stick it on my iPhone. Sometimes the idea fits, sometimes not. With Maiden, the quality of music is at such a high level that you have to reach high all the time. Anything below par isn’t really going to make it.

Gers: I think whatever we do sounds like us. Sometimes you’ll bring stuff in that doesn’t quite fit as well as something else, so you’ll go on to another idea. I don’t think I’ve ever brought something in that people said wasn’t Iron Maiden. Perhaps if it was totally blues it might not be Iron Maiden, but you could probably change it and it would work. What I love about Maiden is that there’s no restrictions. On this album, there’s so many different facets of music. I think “Empire of the Clouds” is almost like a Broadway musical. And you’ve got “The Red and the Black,” which has lots of classical connotations and Celtic riffs. “The Book of Souls” has an almost Eastern vibe to it.

Speaking of blues, it’s been said that the NWOBHM bands did away with blues structures. Do you agree with that notion? And if so, how do you fit bluesy guitar parts within arrangements and rhythms that aren’t bluesy?
Actually, my influences are very blues-rock—Pat Travers, Johnny Winter. I found it easy to pick up on what they were doing, whereas someone like Ritchie Blackmore, whom I love—you try to play “Highway Star” when you’re a kid, and it’s impossible. So you start off with the Stones, the Beatles, and then you go up to Johnny Winter.

Murray: I love the blues—Albert King, Albert Collins, Buddy Guy, B.B. King. With the sort of rhythmic things we do, you’d think it would be an impossible task to blend a little blues in, but you can do it. At times you kind of thrash around, but if you try to play nice melodic notes, you can cross over. If you listen to some of our stuff, obviously there’s heavy rock and metal, but there’s also classical melodies, jazz, blues—it all fits.

You’ve worked with producer Kevin Shirley before. He likes to get things in the can quickly.
Yeah, I love that about him, actually. I think he’s fantastic.
Smith: See, I’ve got mixed feelings. I give Kevin grief every once in a while because of that, working so fast. I’ve got a couple of amps in the studio, and I’ll be messing around and he’ll be like, “Come on. Let’s do it.” I want to see what the amps sound like—I want to be inspired. Kevin is very “plug in and I’ll record you.” There’s no smoke and mirrors. Quite often I’ll play a solo, and he’ll say, “That’s great. It sounds like you.” Then I’ll say, “I don’t want to sound like me. I want to sound better than me!” We clash a little bit, but I love him. He’s a strong personality.

Back in the day, you’d spend months overdubbing and layering. Is there pressure now to get the parts right the first time?
No, in fact it’s quite the opposite. I’ll tell you, I actually love working with Kevin, and I love how fast he works, all the Pro Tools and technology he uses. Back in the day, when you used reel-to-reel, everything took so long—it killed a lot of spontaneity. Now everything’s quick and almost on the fly. When we go in and record a track, we’re all playing together, Bruce is singing, and just like that we’ve got the foundation done. After that, when we go in to do the overdubs, I’ll go into the control room and sit next to Kevin, and we go through each of the songs bit by bit, changing things, playing solos or fixing chords. Kevin is fantastic: “This needs a punch-up. This bit, look at that.” And if you mess up, we can move something around and make it work. I’ll do three or four solos, and then Kevin will go, "Yeah, I’ve got enough.” So I’ll get a cup of tea, come back, and he’ll play me what he’s put together. Then I’ll go home and learn it for the next tour.

Smith: We’ve got three guitarists, so it’s hard for everybody to do all that tinkering. If Dave is sitting there doing a solo in 20 minutes, I’m not going to spend five hours working something out. You just can’t do that. Normally the first couple of takes are the best. If there’s anything I’m really unhappy with, I’ll fix it. Maybe I’d have spent more time redoing things in the past, but not now.