Deftones frontman Chino Moreno prefers simple gear (usually a Gibson SG, but he’s shown here with his Knaggs Keya T2 tobacco burst). He started playing guitar live during the White Pony tour. “I had to figure it out,” Moreno says about balancing his singing and guitar duties. “Slowly but surely, I did.” Photo by Ken Settle
Left Brain, Right BrainDeftones’ frontman Chino Moreno discusses his double duties as vocalist and rhythm guitarist.
You first started playing guitar on White Pony?
Yes sir, around 2000 is when I officially started playing onstage in front of people.
What inspired you to start playing guitar with the band?
I think the catalyst was that Stephen had moved from Sacramento to Los Angeles. We had a studio in Sacramento for a few years at that point. We always rehearsed and wrote our records there—and he wasn’t there. We started writing songs after the Around the Fur record cycle and Stephen wasn’t really around so I started picking up the guitar and jamming. He’d come down and we’d do little sessions and we wrote some of the record there—although a lot of the White Pony record was written in the studio. I forgot the guitar I used—I think I had an SG. I might have had one of Stephen’s old Jacksons that he gave me.
How has your playing changed and developed since that time?
I hope it’s gotten a little bit better. Honestly, I just really like to play. You can put out emotions through the guitar without having to speak words or having to talk about something specific. Being a singer and the lyricist of a band, sometimes the difficult part is trying to communicate what it is I’m trying to say—but a lot of times I don’t know what I’m trying to say. The guitar has always been a way to express emotion without really understanding what you’re doing or trying to do.
Nowadays—especially with this new record, where I play guitar pretty much on every song—I’ve switched to the opposite of that. I love writing the songs and love playing them, but now I’m almost restrained a little bit because I have to pay attention to what I’m doing on guitar [laughs]. I really have to use two sides of my brain, coming from a singer’s standpoint and a guitar standpoint.
So you’ll be playing a lot more guitar onstage this tour?
I believe so. Honestly, when we write setlists, the most important thing for me is spacing out the songs that I play on guitar and the songs that I don’t play on guitar, because live I really like to just sing. I do like to play guitar, but I know that I’m a way better singer than guitar player. I kind of put myself in this corner and Stephen is pretty adamant: “You play this on the record. You’re playing it live.” And he’s always been that way. When I first started playing on the White Pony tour, I was sort of scared. I was like, “Should we hire somebody to play this stuff?” And he said, “No. You played on the record, you’re going to play it live.” He was like a coach in a way. “You’re going to do it. You can do it.” And I had to figure it out. Slowly but surely, I did.
You aren’t what I consider a classic two-guitar band—you’re not like Iron Maiden, for example. How do you divide up the duties?
We don’t, really. We don’t really communicate that well as far as what we’re going to do or should do. And I honestly think that’s a good thing. What ends up happening is that we fill up the space. If it’s a song Stephen’s starting out, I fill up the space that he’s not. And I feel like he does the same thing, vice versa—and with Sergio [Vega, the current bassist], too. What’s crazy is that on this new record, Sergio played a Bass VI on maybe 70 percent of the record. So frequency-wise there was more of a feeling like, “What area do we take up?” For instance, with Stephen, our sounds in general are really different because of what guitars we play. We both play distortion and clean, but what makes our sound so different is Stephen plays the 8-string guitar, with way heavier-gauged low strings that, to be completely honest, aren’t my favorite—that’s not really what I listen to in my off time. He loves that kind of stuff.
Do you mean extreme metal bands?
Yeah, I mean guitars with that low tuning and that tone. To me, my problem with that is the bottom strings—whatever they are, I don’t even know what it’s tuned to—you can play that same top string like seven frets apart and it all kind of sounds the same. So when I hear him play on that low string, I try to juxtapose that with something higher. I think Vega does the same thing. We all play around each other and it fits together, but we’re not canceling each other out—because honestly that could happen so easily.
For one example, if Vega played on a 5-string bass, which is something we’ve never done… When a lot of those bands of the ’90s were coming out and people were starting with 7-string guitars, as soon as you put a 5-string bass on that thing it sounded like every other band that was out at the time. I begged Chi [Cheng, Deftones’ original bassist], “Please never play a 5-string bass.” Even though it sounds good with the 7-string guitar, having that frequency going all the time takes away from the dynamics. I think the main thing we try to do is keep it dynamic. The way to do that, if Stephen is going to play those 8-string guitars, is for Sergio and myself to fill up those other frequencies.
Stephen has that Fractal digital rig. Have you experimented with that?
No. It’s over my head. It’s awesome. You can do so much with that thing. But for me everything makes so much more sense if I know how to work my own gear. I can easily look down at my delay pedal and turn the little knob and know where I want it. And the same thing with my chorus pedal and the front of my amp. It’s just way more comfortable for me to know what I’m doing. I think it’s neat that he can do all that stuff, but I’m sort of a minimalist when it comes to gear.
What do you use in the studio?
I pretty much just use the live rig. I bring my little pedalboard, my Rivera head and cabinet, and put a mic in front of it.
How much is tracked live and how much is overdubbed?
We pretty much overdub everything. We go in there and play together as a band—but we’re doing that for the drum track, which is pretty typical I guess. After that we redo all the bass first, then I do my guitars, and then Stephen does his guitars. I then put the vocals over that and there you go.
Any standout guitar moments on the album?
I don’t know, to me it’s one of those things where there are a lot of happy accidents—it’s those little things, nuances, which are pretty rad. We haven’t gone into rehearsals for the new record yet, so I still have a little nerves going in, hoping I can pull it off. I didn’t write my vocals until after the full songs were written and recorded, so now I have to go through the two sides of my brain type of thing. Usually it works out. Like now, if I just had to play the songs, I know I can just play them. And if I had to just sing them, I know I can sing them. It’s getting in that head space where I’m doing both at the same time. It will be a challenge, but it should be good though.