Anthrax’s founding guitarist Scott Ian relies on four guitars in the studio: his Jackson signature Custom Shop King V, his Jackson signature T-1000 soloist, a 1981 Gibson Flying V, and a Jackson Randy Rhoads model. Photo by Atlas Icons / Chris Schwegler
Hate thrash metal? Blame Anthrax.
Anthrax was built on outrageous tempos, extreme heaviness, and too much testosterone. Founded in 1981, they were the second band Jon Zazula signed to his new label, the influential Megaforce Records (Metallica was the first), and in 1984 released their debut, Fistful of Metal.
They went on to record seminal albums like Spreading the Disease and Among the Living, collaborate with rap legends Public Enemy, build an enormous and loyal fan base, and redefine heavy metal. Thirty-five years, endless tours, millions in sales, six Grammy nominations, and a number of band members later, Anthrax is still making serious noise.
Anthrax’s core is guitarist Scott Ian. The Keith Richards of thrash, Ian plays rhythm guitar. His playing is rooted in heavy downstrokes, hypersonic alternate picking, Iron Maiden-style gallops, and super-tight unison ricochets with drummer Charlie Benante. Ian writes a lot of classic-sounding riffs, too, though he is matter-of-fact about the process. “I hear something in my head, pick up a guitar, and dick around with it until I think it sounds cool,” he says. “I record it into my phone and forget about it until it is time for the band to make a record. That’s my process.”
In 2013, Anthrax recruited Shadows Fall guitarist Jon Donais to replace shred master Rob Caggiano. Donais is a prodigious talent who provides stellar lead lines, an arsenal of extended techniques, and melodic finesse to complement Ian’s lead-footed chunk. Donais is younger than the rest of the band, which explains his affinity for ’80s metal. “It was so exciting to me back then, because it was on MTV,” he says. “Everybody was playing arenas, they were selling millions and millions of records, and it was just over the top. Everything was over the top. I thought it was awesome.” But don’t hold that against him—his bandmates don’t. “It was different times for them,” he adds. “I like it all.”
Anthrax’s newest release, For All Kings, is their follow up to 2011’s Worship Music, which featured the Grammy-nominated song “I’m Alive.” The new album is their first to feature Donais on lead guitar. It’s also their most thrash-centric release since pioneering the genre back in the ’80s. The album was recorded with an array of metal-friendly gear including Ian’s new Jackson Custom Shop King V, his signature Randall heads, and Donais’ Legator signature reverse headstock Ninja 300-Pro. “I have a bunch of guitars in the studio with me so I can play around with them,” Ian says. “But it always comes down to using my top four guitars on a record.”
PG caught up with Ian and Donais on tour in Europe to discuss their new album, the recipe for a great guitar solo, how to develop thrash-metal rhythm guitar chops, their new signature gear, and Donais’ fear of floating tremolos.
How does it feel having Jon in the band? Do you have good chemistry? Scott Ian: It feels great. It’s been three years already. I think he’s passed the audition.
Does Jon only play leads on the album or does he play rhythm parts as well? Ian: Just solos, harmony parts, melody parts, and whatnot. I am playing all the rhythms.
What do you think constitutes a great guitar solo? Ian: Something that I’ll remember. Something that’s as hooky as a chorus of a song—that’s all I care about. I’ve never been into the shredding scene. I’d rather hear Billy Gibbons play one note for two minutes than listen to a guitar-shredding album.
Meaning you want melody and sing-ability? Ian: Yeah. I want melody. I want feeling. I want soul. I want attitude. All my favorite guitar players—they all have that. It’s not about how many notes you’re playing. I think that’s what so many people have gotten wrong for so many years. And I get it. Some people love that—the technical aspect and the technical ability of super, super intense shredding and fast, crazy guitar playing. But I will never be able to play like Paul Gilbert. I understand that, but it’s not something I aspire to. I know he’s an insane guitar player, but that world never interested me. I like songwriting and I like solos that are a little tiny mini-song inside of a song. Look, AC/DC is my favorite band in the world, so I’m not going to be listening to super technical guitar players.
Jon Donais: I think “Mr. Crowley” is the national anthem of guitar solos. My favorite style of playing is melodic shred. You remember the solo and then there’s a quick burst of flashy stuff going on. The best guitar solos are if you can get somebody who doesn’t play guitar to air guitar to your solos. I think that’s doing a good job.
For the old Anthrax tunes, are you expected to play the solos recorded by Dan Spitz (who was in the band from 1983-1995) or do you come up with your own stuff? Donais: They just want it close. If it’s something really memorable, I don’t mess with it at all, but if it’s something shreddy, then I throw in my own style where I can. But I don’t go too off on anything. If you weren’t a guitar player, you wouldn’t think, “Oh my God, this isn’t the solo.” They are memorable solos, so I only start doing that when it’s something fast I can get away with.
For the new album, did you compose your own solos and have the freedom to do what you wanted? Donais: I demoed them out and got them until the guys were all happy with them. When they gave me the A-OK, that’s when I went in with it.
Do you play the same solos live every night? Donais: Yup. All my solos, I write them before. I’ve always done that. I don’t just go in and improvise. I always have it all mapped out and ready to go that way. My favorite solos are always ones you can remember. I like the guys who can shred, but it’s memorable and melodic—it’s not just a whole bunch of noodling. I like that too, but my favorite solos aren’t that.
How about rhythm playing? When did you first start using mostly downstrokes? Ian:It’s a style of playing that just worked in the context of the music we were writing. That’s all guitar has ever really been for me: It’s a tool to play in a band with other people and it’s a tool to write songs with. Anthrax developed from when we started in 1981 and the music we were playing—the songwriting, the ideas, the sounds we heard in our heads, the ideas we had for riffs, that down-picking style and the fast alternating-picking style—that was the way we played. So my guitar playing just developed out of the songs we were writing. I had no style of any type of guitar playing before I was in Anthrax, because I was only playing cover songs. I wasn’t writing my own songs until I was in Anthrax. The guitar playing developed around the type of music we were writing.
Did you spend time practicing those techniques? Ian: When I would be sitting and watching TV, I would pick with my right hand—just play and strengthen my hand to build up stamina and stuff like that. But once we started touring, we were touring so much I didn’t really need to sit around and practice. Even before we started touring—I’m talking back in ’82-’83, leading up to Fistful of Metal—we rehearsed seven nights a week. We were jamming every day, trying to get tighter and tighter and tighter. I was in the rehearsal room jamming and playing whatever songs we had back then over and over and over again, four or five hours a night. There’s nothing worse for me than sitting in a room by myself playing guitar. To me that’s the most boring thing in the world.
So you didn’t sit with a metronome and chunk along? Ian: No. Never. And there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just that it wouldn’t have worked for me. I would have been bored and then guitar playing wouldn’t have been fun anymore.
Donais:I had all these different exercises that I practiced to a metronome. I used to make sure I would do certain exercises and nothing else. I would do 10 minutes and then move on to something else. Then I would come back and try to bump it up a notch or two.
How important do you think it is for players to work with a metronome? Donais: I think it’s very crucial. If you try to do stuff without the metronome, you can develop bad habits. The metronome helps you become a cleaner, more efficient player. Another thing, too, is it can be encouraging. When you see somebody play at top speed you might be like, “Oh my god, I’m going to give up. There is no way I’ll ever do that.” But if you have the metronome, then you can slowly increase it. I used to write down the number that I was at—the number I left off at—so I saw myself getting progressively faster. It was encouraging. It let me know I wasn’t wasting my time. I saw the BPMs bumping up and I knew I was getting somewhere. It encouraged me to just keep at it, until I could get to speed.