Rutan used a ’91 Ibanez Universe and a ’91 Gibson Explorer to track Hate Eternal’s new album. Morbid Angel’s Trey Azagthoth gave the Universe to Rutan for his birthday in 1993, and it’s still one of Rutan’s go-to guitars.
Photo by Alex Morgan

I saw on your Facebook feed that you recently got a new JCM800 and, after a long search, it was only the second one that actually got your stamp of approval. What are you looking for in an 800?
I’ve had seven or eight of them over my whole career. I’ve had 50-watters, different years. I’ve had modded 800s. But I have this one 800—it’s a ’97 reissue from Guitar Center, and they made 200 of them from original parts, from the factory in England. And it’s the one I’ve had for 15 years. I love it to death. It just might be a coincidence that it came from that year, but I compare everything to that amp. So when Scooter told me there was another one of those models online…. Well, it’s taken me 15 years to actually find another one for sale, so I bought it immediately. It does sound different from my baby at home, but now I can leave my baby at home, untarnished.

This 800 I found on Reverb—what I wanted to do was have an effects loop in there. Scooter put in a loop made by Metropoulos. I didn’t want to tarnish my original amp. I love it the way it is, and it’s been my studio mainstay for so many records—Hate Eternal and other records. Actually, I think we used that 800 for solos on the last Cannibal Corpse record. So this one, I wasn’t married to yet. We got [the loop] in and it didn’t really change the sound. It sounds awesome.

Was the mod invasive?
Uh, invasive enough in the sense they had to drill holes into the back. It’s not really going back to normal. It’s in—once you do it, you’re done! I was keeping my fingers crossed.

Do you run your Boss RV-3 through that effects loop?
I do, yeah. I’ve had tons of rack gear and rack effects, but one day I just said, “You know what, I think I’m going to go back to the basics and just use some pedals.” I got my Morley wah, I got my EQ and reverb, and the effects loop is so good in the Marshall. I used to have an EQ boost. I have my Maxon, my noise suppressor, my tuner, my Radial splitter into my 800 and Dual Rec, two different Marshall cabinets, one with Greenbacks and one with 75-watt Celestions.On the record, I used an 800 with a JMP for rhythm, an 800 for solos, and the Boogie and a Fender Twin reverb for extracurricular stuff, I like to call it—some cleaner and more atmospheric things.

“I do play extremely hard and my action is so high that techs call it ‘Mount Everest.’”

It’s interesting that you prefer passive pickups to active ones.
Part of it is because of the dynamics of passive pickups. This leads to the same reason I love Marshalls. I love to be able to push it and back off it. I’ve gone through an array of different pickups. Right now I’m actually using Gibson Dirty Fingers in the bridge.

You were previously using Seymour Duncan Customs in the bridge?
I was, but I tracked the new album with my Ibanez Universe and my ’91 Gibson Explorer from the Morbid days. It just sounds ridiculous, with the mahogany body. It’s really one of my favorite guitars, rhythm-wise. The Gibson Dirty Fingers sound amazing there. For solos, I’ve been using the Bill Lawrence L-500s for a long, long time now. Dimebag used those back in the day, and his solo tone was legendary.

It sounds like you’re tuned down to G# on songs like “For Whom We Have Lost.” Is that the Ibanez Universe?
Yeah. That guitar has a real neat history. It was Trey [Azagthoth] from Morbid Angel’s guitar. He wrote Covenant with it, and he gave it to me for my birthday in ’93. He could see I’d bought a couple of Universes, and I needed one for touring. I wrote some songs for Domination on it, so I’ve toured with it for two records. It’s an original white Universe, and I think they only made 800, so it’s special.

For years, I’ve wanted to implement that tuning, but nothing came naturally to me. I don’t force anything, but for this record I just started messing with it. I was playing with it for, like, two months, but nothing was coming so I was thinking, “Maybe it’s not in the cards.” Then one day I was writing, and the next thing I knew, I wrote three songs with it: “For Whom We Have Lost,” “Nothingness of Being,” and “Upon Desolate Sands.” They added such a neat texture to the album, and live those songs have gone over so well.

’91 Gibson Explorer with Gibson Dirty Fingers in bridge and Bill Lawrence L-500 in neck slot (C# tuning)
’91 Ibanez UV7PWH Universe with Gibson Dirty Fingers and Bill Lawrence L-500 (G# tuning)
Early 2000s B.C. Rich USA Custom Ironbird (C# tuning)

Marshall JCM800 ’97 reissue
Marshall JCM800 ’97 reissue modded with Metropoulos Zero Loss FX loop kit
Marshall ’79 JMP
Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier
Fender Twin Reverb
Marshall Classic Straight 4x12 (Celestion Greenbacks)
Marshall 1960 Straight 4x12 Cabinet (75-watt Celestions)

Maxon OD808
Maxon ST-9 Pro+ Super Tube distortion
Maxon OD-9 Pro+ Overdrive
Morley Steve Vai Bad Horsie wah
Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor
Boss TU-2 Tuner
Radial splitter
Boss RV-3 Digital Reverb/Delay

Strings and Picks
D’Addario NYXL (.011–.056 and .011–.068)
Jazz III Black Tortex 1.35 mm

Do you get into a different headspace when you’re producing?
When I’m producing, I’m really narrow-minded. When I’m working on an album I’m not thinking about creativity, as a musician. My life stops at that point and I’m focused on the band I’m producing. You know, bands like Cannibal Corpse are very prepared. I'll throw out ideas and melodies but that doesn’t mean it always passes.

If someone doesn’t go for an idea that you really believe in, do you fight for it or just move on?
I'll fight for it. But by the same token, my whole focus on producing, really, is trying to bring out the authenticity of the band and the sound of the band. I really focus on trying to get the best performance I can, and that’s because I come from an older time. I grew up recording analog, and now we’re in a digital/analog world. So I’m always focused on trying to capture the most authentic tones and the best performances that I can get, and I push them to get that. But at the end of the day, I work for the band, first and foremost, and I want to make them happy. People ask sometimes, “Do you have a sound?” And I say, “My sound is bringing out the sound of the band.” I’ve been fortunate enough to work with everyone from Cannibal Corpse to Agnostic Front to Madball to Mountain Goats. So I’ve had variants of different styles of music. They’re all very unique, so I focus on bringing out their uniqueness.

You’ve spoken often about having a troubled childhood, yet you’ve been called the “nicest guy in death metal.” Does music help you deal with negative emotions?
My childhood was very challenging. I faced a lot of adversity to get where I’m at. Music really saved me in so many ways, because, before music, I was in trouble in every which way—whether it was with school, or altercations, or legal troubles, even, as a juvenile. When you grow up with an aggressive nature because of surroundings in your family and things … music gave me a way to express that. When I first started playing guitar, I just loved heavy aggressive music. Take all of this and put it into that. And it’s made me much happier. It’s been therapeutic, and not just with anger or rage, but sadness and grief. Like, “For Whom We Have Lost” was written about two massively important people in my life that passed away last year.

“For Whom We Have Lost” has no vocals. Did you feel that the music alone could express your sentiment better than words in that case?
It was all heart, all soul. The interesting thing about that song is the main solo passage that goes from beginning to the end, and even the solo in the middle of the song, was all done in one evening of grieving. It was my way of expressing that grief, and the solo is one take. I kept it and I didn’t even try to redo it. I first recorded it at home a few nights after one of these losses. The rest of the song came around another significant loss in my family. So it came at two different times and merged into one song, and has a lot of deep meaning to me.

It’s a powerful way to end the album.
It is. For me, music has always been the one way I could express myself when I didn’t know how. I wasn’t given the tools in my youth to express myself. Music also has helped me in my everyday life to become a healthier, more positive person by expressing all this negativity in my music. I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and a couple of years ago I had my first Guitar World feature, and it was so special. Just like to be in Premier Guitar. For me, it’s one of the most amazing accolades I could ever get as some kid that was 15 jamming to Black Sabbath.

I have pretty lofty goals. People would tell me, “You’re kidding yourself. Get a real job, you’re living a pipe dream.” But I never doubted myself. I just focused on the task at hand, and that was because of personal need to have something to grasp onto, to focus on, to get me out of the mire that I felt like I was totally submerged in. To be able to sing and play guitar in my own band, to record my own record, and this tour—touring with Cannibal Corpse, who I’ve produced four albums with, and to play with Hate Eternal, with our new record out…. This is one of the best times in my whole life. I’ve got a lot to smile about.

Captured live at the Senate in Columbia, South Carolina, on November 2, 2018, here’s the first show of Hate Eternal’s tour in support of Upon Desolate Sands. This full-length concert shows Erik Rutan in top form, armed with his trusty, red B.C. Rich Ironbird.