Kurt Ballou’s Craftsman guitar is one of his newest prototypes for his company, GodCity Instruments. It has Planet Waves tuners, a Graph Tech bridge, and a newly designed dB humbucker from Lollar.
What it is about Matt Pike’s playing with Sleep and High on Fire that inspires you?
He’s simultaneously super tight and super loose. He’s got this very flowing, wobbly vibe about his vibrato and the way he works the guitar. He’ll use the whole length of the guitar’s neck rather than come up with efficient ways to play things, so he’ll come up with things that look more badass. He’ll do big chord jumps on the same string rather than skip to the next string, and it gives his playing a different, kind of more sliding, sound. So between that, and his vibrato, I really got into Matt’s style.
A lot of the time when a band is tracking guitars in my studio, I have a guitar in my hand. I use it as a communicative tool, but I’m also in the process of learning their riffs: partially out of boredom, partially to educate myself about their songs, and partially to try and pick up a bit of a new style. I think doing that while recording Matt has been very helpful for me.
The mountain of amplifiers you’ve amassed at GodCity is pretty famous at this point. Could you tell us what you used primarily to track guitars on the new Converge record? I noticed you had vintage-style Marshalls onstage again recently.
For the Marshall stuff I’m using live, one of them is actually a new 50-watt plexi reissue: the 1987X, which I really like. I was running an oversized cab that used to be an 8x10 that I converted to a 4x12 in 2002, and I’ve had that along for quite a few tours. The other amp is a mid-’70s JMP 2204 that I’ve had for around 20 years, but I recently put it in a small head shell so it looks better next to that 50-watt Plexi. That JMP was serviced recently by Scot DeBockler of S&K Pedals, and he put some military spec 6CA7 power tubes in it, which brought that amp to a whole new level. It ended up being the primary guitar sound on the new album, and it’s an amp that’s appeared on all of our records. I’ve had a lot of trouble restraining myself with how many amps I record with in the past. I’ll try different setups and before I know it, I’m tracking a million guitar tracks. That gets hard to mix down, and while more tracks can sound bigger, it typically sounds less focused. So I’ve been trying to have the discipline to go for a sound that feels more emotionally intense by having more nuance, and a simpler, less-layered sound usually has more character.
It’s mostly that JMP and an Ampeg V4 in one side, and the JMP and a small combo amp by a company called Sparrows Sons on the other. Those three amps were the main amps that I used on the record, and it’s mostly just two rhythm guitars with occasional overdubs.
I imagine you must have been boosting the V4 with a pedal to get it to sound so mean?
Yeah, so I mostly used three dirt pedals on the record. In most cases, it’s really the sound of the amp, but I like to use a dirt pedal as a bit of an EQ and a boost, regardless of which pedal I’m using. What I used most on this record is a prototype of a GCI pedal called the Riff Child, which is basically a hybrid of a Boss OS-2 and a ZVEX Super Hard On. For the sludgier-sounding songs, I used a GCI pedal called an SBD. It’s based on the Vox Super Beatle Distortion circuit, which is really Vox’s take on a Fuzz Face. Mine has extra EQ controls that I’ve added to the circuit. I really like that pedal for heavy but harmonically rich riffing. It’s a little more smeared sounding than a boost or overdrive, but still pretty articulate. If I needed something between those two, I use a prototype of the Brutalist.
There are some more traditional, even shreddy, guitar solos on this record, like on “Broken by Light.” That athletic lead playing has come out more in recent years and I’m curious if it’s something you had to get comfortable including in Converge’s sound?
Converge has never been strictly a hardcore band, so I’ve never exactly been afraid of solos. When we write the music, we generally don’t hear the vocals until Jake records them, so there’s a lot of guesswork in terms of the arrangements of the songs when we write them. Once vocals get added, there can be holes that need to be filled with something and vocals aren’t always the answer. In the case of “Broken by Light,” the two solos in that song were not intended to be there from the start, but with the way Jake phrased his vocals, it felt like they needed to be added in those spots.
That said, soloing isn’t something I practice. It’s not something I feel I’m very good at, and I’m pretty locked in the pentatonic box. It’s definitely not a forte of mine, but I do like to get wild. It’s a fun challenge for me.
Do you have any tricks for maintaining an objective ear while tracking your own guitar parts? Any advice on self-editing as both a producer and guitarist?
It’s hard. It’s something that comes with experience, but trusting my bandmates is a really important part of it. I see a lot of bands in my studio that don’t have a great deal of trust in their bandmates, and also they don’t yet know how to let go of the things they think are precious. My bandmates and I disagree about things, but we have the same goals in mind. I trust that even if we’re having a disagreement, we have the same end goal in mind and that it’s not about personal ego, which you have to let go of. I know in my early days of making music, it was the end of the world for me if a musical idea I had wasn’t going to be used, and I’d try and railroad the idea through. Now, having been through the process a lot of times, each little thing is not so precious to me.
The other important technique is knowing when to step back and take some time away from something. When we’re writing songs, we tend to demo every practice because we rehearse in my studio, so we can get decent recordings every time we practice. We can stew on that stuff, and a lot of ideas we thought were amazing at the time turn into things we realize are terrible after sitting on them a bit. You need to learn to fight your impatience. It’s really easy to get excited about finishing an idea and, in the haste to finish it, lose the plot. And the converse is also true: If you overthink an idea and feel like you’re shortchanging it, you can dwell for too long and ruin something cool. Being aware of that is huge. Time away from things and listening back to demos after that time away is a major thing for me. When you’re just listening back to something and not performing it, you’re listening to whether or not it sounds cool, not whether or not it feels cool to play. There are things to play on guitar that are really fun to play that aren’t necessarily good ideas musically, and that can be really distracting.
Are you still using your own tunings, and are you willing to divulge them yet?
Yes, I’m still using my own tunings. I still haven’t seen or heard anyone figure out my main tuning, though I’m sure someone has. I think I want to keep it a secret just because I encourage people to figure it out for themselves. I’m no longer concerned with people ripping us off because they know our tuning. I was at one point, but now I see it more as a challenge to guitar-playing fans of ours. One of the strings is G#. That’s the most I’ll give up.
What’s your advice for players seeking to find their own voice?
A lot of the things about my playing that people consider unique are really just my inability to emulate other sounds well. I’ve certainly tried to emulate things at times, and I do have a diverse musical background, but I’m just not particularly good at decoding things. So, a lot of my own failed, clumsy attempts at emulating my heroes luckily managed to materialize into some pretty cool ideas. This has more to do with my own perseverance and the strength of the people that I’ve been playing with than my own ability.
I think it’s super important to be able to recognize and capitalize on your own weaknesses, and whatever circumstances you’ve found yourself thrown into. I was recently reminded of someone that I recorded who only had two digits on one hand due to a birth defect, but he was this absolutely savage bass player because the two digits that he did have had to be doubly strong to make up for what he didn’t have. So, while he wasn’t great at things like palm muting, he had this incredible strength to his hand that made him a killer bass player with a very unique style. That’s an extreme example, but the point is, you have to take your life experience, your influences, your physical attributes, your economic condition—whether you can afford a bunch of gear or can’t—whatever your circumstances are, you need to get creative with what you’ve got. We see it with bedroom producers all the time now. It used to be that your only option was playing with a band and playing loud. Now you can do it by yourself in your room and use amp-modeling software and drum libraries, and because of those tools and people’s creative uses of those tools, entirely new styles of music are created. People are using what they have at their disposal and that can dramatically influence how you write music. It’s a matter of always changing the way you approach things. That’s how you keep it interesting and evolving. That’s the key for me, at least.
Watch Converge absolutely decimate Brooklyn’s Saint Vitus club in December 2017 in this hour-long performance.
Kurt Ballou demonstrates the S&K VHD pedal on his “demovids” YouTube channel. In this series, Ballou and Converge bassist Nate Newton let us watch while they explore new gear.