Brent Hinds, Kelliher’s 6-string teammate, provide much of the band’s flash, while Kelliher is the riff monger. At the April 22 Palladium show, Hinds dug into a Gibson SG, among other guitars. Photo by Debi Del Grande
How do you set your amp so you’ve got a massive amount of gain, yet have the clarity needed for those arpeggiated figures you play?
With the Friedman, you’ve got to be really articulate because it picks up every fuckin’ mistake. I’ve kind of got the perfect balance with the Friedman amps and with my pickups, where I don’t have to have too much gain. When I was a kid, I used to use a Chandler Tube Driver, one of the original ones—I still love that sound—and a Peavey Butcher head. I would crank it up, and I would only put the overdrive on a little bit, and I’d have so much feedback that I’d always be turning the gain down. I used to always scoop my mids, and then I learned that if you turn your mids up, you can actually hear your guitar. The presence of it is there.
Nowadays with my rig, I don’t have any feedback at all, which is awesome. With the Friedman heads, you just turn them on and they sound amazing already. I wanted a clean sound that was more reminiscent of what I grew up playing, like the Peavey Butcher head or Peavey VTM or Marshall JCM 800, which I graduated to when I could afford one in my 20s. It’s that sound of always having a distortion box, and when you turn it off, you’re on the gain stage but it’s at like 4 or 5. Kind of like an AC/DC sound. I call it clean, but they’re like, “That’s not clean at all.” It’s like a “Ride the Lightning” sound, when they’re playing the clean stuff. Like an electric guitar in a clean setting, but with a little bit of sustain.
So you’re not after a pristine clean?
I have to have a little bit of sustain and a little bit of grit. It’s got to be there. I had a really nice Orange, but when you clicked on the clean it was so fuckin’ glassy, like a country and western sounding, Beach Boys thing. It was really bright, and even with the volume turned all the way down it would cut right through my brain. That’s how the HBE clean was, and I was like, “No, no, no—it sounds like two totally different amps.” I want it to sound like the same amp, so you’re not getting this giant jump in sound that’s not real. I want it to sound natural.
Are you also using an Axe-Fx?
Yeah, I’m using the Axe-Fx in conjunction with my Butterslax. I can’t say enough good things about it. It took me a long time to jump ship to actually using it live, but I’m convinced now. There’s a big learning curve with that stuff, but I was like, “This is what I do for a living. I might as well start studying it and figuring out how to use it, because it’s so versatile.”
Since you mentioned the word “studying,” it’s interesting that you also give lessons while you’re on the road. What are the most common misconceptions people have about playing your guitar parts?
What I tell people is, “If it seems too hard to play, you’re probably playing it wrong.” Some guy was playing “Hearts Alive,” which has got a lot of chords—crazy chords, like really weird chords—that are plucked on each string. This kid was playing it real staccato, and going from here to here to here [moves fretting hand from a lower register to a higher one and back]. I was like, “No, dude. Everything is right here.” [Indicates that the riff is all played in one area of the fretboard.] You just keep your hand in the same place. If you watch most guitar players who are playing pretty complex stuff, nobody is playing like this [moves hand abruptly through different registers], unless you’re Michael Angelo. [Laughs.]
People probably also miss a lot of nuances when they try to cop your stuff.
Yeah. There are ghost notes. A lot of people don’t pick that up when they’re learning our stuff. See, I never took any lessons, but nowadays I can just watch a video. There are probably kids out there who have only been playing for a year that can shred the hell out of the guitar. I’m more focused on writing stuff that’s a little different. There’s only so much you can do. That’s why we use different tunings, and I’m always putting my fingers in a weird configuration to make up new chords.
Your use of dissonance sounds very organic. Is it based on theory or intuition?
It’s more intuition. Does this feel natural, like it should go to this note? But you know, I’m always experimenting with dissonant notes. I love the sound of two notes a half-step away that are trying to find each other—that kind of wobble. On nearly every single riff I write, at least in the past couple of years, I almost always throw those notes in there. Like when you have an open string, you can tell the difference on a record between an open string and a fretted note. I try to stay away from playing a fingered note that could be an open string.
Is it hard to physically control the open strings from ringing out too much or getting noisy?
I’ve got all kinds of tricks to muting them. With this hand, too [lifts left hand], sometimes I can intuitively mute. Like my fingers know how to cut it off when it needs to be cut off. There are songs like “Scorpion Breath,” on the new album, where I hit the high string and I have to arc my hand so I can keep playing the low notes under it. I’ll have the B string still ringing while I play the low notes, and I let it ring as long as possible until the next time I hit it.
In that specific case, what do you do about the G and E strings, which are also potentially ringing because your left hand isn’t muting them?
You have to hit that B string precisely. When I was doing it for the record, I hit it every time without having to dub in just that note. Every time, I played it exactly the way I heard it. That song, the B string is tuned to A, and you’re hitting the octave of the low A. So when you hit the low string, it always bounces a little bit, because I don’t use super heavy-gauge strings, usually .010–.052s or .054s. I never have any problems with fretting out or tuning, and I hit pretty hard.
It’s not surprising that you hit that B string right on every time. You’re known for being really obsessive about playing everything precisely.
Oh yeah. I’m always trying to become a better guitar player and the first rule is to not be sloppy. [Laughs.]
Do you and Brent discuss the actual fine details of your parts down to, say, slides and hammer-ons and pull-offs, to guarantee complete synchronicity?
It depends on if you’re asking me to learn his part or him to learn my part. [Laughs.] When I learn his part, I sit there and take notes, and take videos. Normally we don’t play the exact same thing, but when he writes something, I try to mimic it as closely as possible.
Does he take the same approach with your parts?
[Laughs.] He kind of just does what he does. I try to tell him sometimes, “That part is not right,” or whatever, but sometimes I’m like, “That’s just the way he is.”
Does that drive you crazy?
[Laughs.] Yes, it does drive me crazy. I love the guy and he’s an awesome guitar player, but sometimes I have to change to what he’s doing, even if I wrote the part. It’s like, “Whatever, I’ll just change that note.” You make it work somehow.
Mastodon rips through “Show Yourself,” the first single from the band’s new Emperor of Sand, on Jimmy Kimmel Live! On stage left, note Bill Kelliher and his brand-new signature axe, the ESP Sparrowhawk.