On your Gibsons, do you stick with the stock humbuckers or do you guys drop in something else?

BH: It’s the same deal as with effects man, I don’t like getting too complicated or messing with something that works. I can’t even tell you what pickups I play… whatever happens to be in the guitar when I plug it in. I’m just technology-challenged.

BK: I’ve been dropping the Seymour Duncan Distortion pickups (SH-6) in my guitars for years, but I recently tried out some of the new EMG X Series pickups (85/60) in my white Explorer and it shreds with some killer-crunching tones. I’ve been so used to the Seymour Duncans and know what to expect from those Distortion pickups, but then again, I’m always experimenting with things.

Brent Hinds and his First Act 12-string
Photo: Andrew Stuart - FutureGrandpa.com
First Act guitars seem to get a bad rap because they are in Wal-Mart, but a lot of players don’t realize they produce custom, high-end guitars. Bill you’ve been seen using a 9-string model with custom Mastodon and Blood Mountain logo inlays and Brent you have two First Acts, what do both personally think of them?

BK: Its a great guitar. I actually use it quite a bit in the studio, particularly on the title track “Crack the Skye,” but I haven’t mastered all of our songs on it live yet. I might bring it out on this tour and bang on it for a few tracks. I’ve yet to see how road-worthy it is, so the Crack the Skye tour might be the perfect testing arena.

BH: I love ‘em man. They are probably some of the best guitars I own. And I’m not a guy that says that and keeps them in a closet. If you come to one of our shows, more than likely, you’ll catch me rocking out with a First Act. I mean, the guys at the Gibson Custom shop are the ones building those for the custom orders, so you really can’t go wrong there with their quality and attention to detail. However, I will admit, on both my 12-string First Act guitars and others owned by friends have had the neck pickup fall out. So I don’t know what that’s all about, but we just tape it in there and it sounds killer. Who knows, maybe the tape gives it some enhanced tone.

Brent, you’ve been known to play banjo, its even featured a few times on Crack the Skye, how has that helped your guitar playing hybrid-picking abilities?

BH: My family is deeply rooted in country and bluegrass, so I first learned how to play the banjo, then my dad bought me my first guitar and I studied music too [Alabama School of Fine Arts]. So I mean, since I learned the banjo first and studied music, there’s going to be an indirect influence on my guitar playing with banjo-type fingerings, but its nothing I specifically set out to do. I guess my dad knew what he was doing by giving me the banjo first.

Anymore, I don’t really even practice the guitar; I play the guitar. When I’m not jamming or touring with Mastodon, I’m playing with a lot of other bands that are completely different from each other. I’ll play guitar pretty much for any style of music; I just love it.

Brent, tell me about your other bands and what styles of music they play.

BH: Let’s see, Fiend Without A Face [also features Mastodon’s drummer Brann Dailor] is fun because it’s a combination of old surf-rock, psychobilly and bluegrass, which are all types of music I love. So, why not jam them all at once? Another band I play guitar for is The Blood Vessels, which has more of a classic rock vibe, kind of like Thin Lizzy with similar arrangements, guitar parts and lyrics. Then there’s this other band called the West End Motel, which is an acoustic country band. It’s just me on guitar and singing and another guy [Tom Cheshire] who is just singing. The music is in the vein of broken-hearted country songs like Hank Williams, Buck Owens and Gram Parsons. Another country-esque band is the Blue Eyed Devils which I play acoustic and electric guitar and we also feature a guy on a steel pedal guitar and banjo, a stand-up bassist, mandolin player, drummer and two lead singers [a woman and man]. And when I do have a free night or weekend, I’ll always just pop in local studios or gigs and just jam. I guess I’m just the local musician-dude that anyone will call up because they know I’ll play if I got the time. I just truly enjoy playing; it’s what gets me up in the morning.

Well it seems you might not “practice” much, but you definitely play a lot.

BH: For me, I get so much more out of just playing all types of live music with people than sitting down and playing by myself. That’s how I get better. I don’t say I’m just going to play metal or rock. For instance, a few of our riffs on the new album are chicken-pickin’ [see “Divinations” intro] or surf-style rock. However, that’s not to say sometimes I don’t sit up until all hours seeing how fast I can go or noodle on some solo bouncing around in my head. But for the most part, I just play with whoever, whenever.

Guitarists, like most inventors, tend to come up with ideas during inopportune times, what do you guys do to retain any riff ideas?

BK: I just play guitar as much as I can and anytime I think of something that sounds cool I’ll either record it onto my Pro Tools rig or even hum a lick into my phone and revisit it later. I just try to build up a collection of riffs and ideas and then go through it later. It’s funny, a lot of times, the stuff I thought was hot or cool at the time, when revisited, sounds like shit, but it often creates new, better ideas for riffs. So, I tend to even keep the bad ideas because if nothing else, they’ll turn into good ones eventually… or so I think! But what I think it comes down to is that we just have a lot of music in us, its just sifting through the “riff-pile” and finding what is “Mastodon.”

BH: Well, since I’m always playing somewhere, with someone, hopefully I catch the idea while its still hot and play it. Also, I keep a guitar at my bedside so when I can’t sleep or wake up with a killer idea I can play it out right there in bed. I don’t really ever record or write anything down in a book. I figure if I can’t remember the riff, it’s probably not worth remembering or good enough to play.

Bill, while Brent takes a lot of the leads, your rhythm playing often carries the force of the song. What do you attribute that to?

BK: I’ve always played rhythm a lot in previous bands. I played in a lot of three-piece bands where I had to play the solos and leads, but at the same time carry the bulk of the song. When I was a kid I played along with albums and just used it as a modern-day Pro Tools or other computer software by following the drums and bass. Obviously, back then, I was unable to do any of the solos, so I just focused on locking in on the rhythm.

I’m just trying to keep up, especially playing with Brann since he’s all over the place sometimes—he doesn’t even play the beat. He just goes off and plays the same exact notes as I am and on top of it, he’s playing a million miles a second at certain points so it forces you to be on your game. I’ve been playing for so long, so hopefully it shows a little.

Brent, how does Bill’s solid rhythm playing help your own guitar playing, especially the solos and overall development of the guitar parts in Mastodon’s songs?

Bill Kelliher's Gear Box

1982 Gibson Les Paul Custom – silverburst
1980 Gibson Explorer – tobacco/black sunburst
Gibson Explorer – white
Yamaha Custom SGB3000
Yamaha Custom SBG1000
First Act custom 9-string silverburst DC Lola
Amps & Cabs
Laney VHR-100 head
100-watt Marshall Kerry King JCM800 (2203KK)
100-watt Marshall JCM800 reissue – single channel
Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier
Mills Acoustics Afterburner 412B cabinets – Celestion Vintage 30 speakers
Marshall 4x12 cabinets
Effects & Accessories
Ibanez Tube King Overdrive
Boss RT-20 Rotary Sound Processor
MXR M-135 Smart Noise Gate
Digitech JamMan Looper
Boss TU-2 Tuner
D’Addario strings – EJ11 (12-53), EJ16 (12-53), EXL116 (11-52), EXL145 (12-54)

Brent Hinds' Gear Box
1979 Gibson Flying V – silverburst
Gibson SG – heritage cherry with Maestro bridge
Gibson Explorer – white
Gibson Les Paul Gold Top reissue
Gibson Les Paul Standard
Martin D-15 acoustic
First Act custom Offset Horns Double Cutaway w/Bigsby
First Act custom 12-string
Amps & Cabs
Marshall 100-watt JMP2203 head
Marshall 100-watt JMP Mark II Lead Series head
Marshall 4x12 75 watt cabinets
1972 Silverface Fender Twin Reverb
Fender 2x15 Silverface cabinet
Effects & Accessories
Monster Effects Mastortion
Ibanez Tubescreamer TS-9
Boss DD-6 Digital Delay
Boss GE-7 Equalizer
Boss TU-2 Tuner
Enema FX Mingebox
Voodoo Lab Pedal Power
D’Addario strings
Planet Waves cables
BH: I guess that’s kind of how I got dubbed the lead guitarist, which I think is because I can play the solos and Bill usually wants it that way. It makes my playing better because Bill focuses all his energy and efforts on writing solid, driving rhythm parts that push the song. So I’ll have to learn those parts, which is pretty difficult for me and then I’ll just come up with some really crazy noodley parts and sometimes he’ll have to learn those for the harmonizing parts. I think it works well because we both do a lot of what is comfortable for us on the guitar, but at the same time we push each other out of our comfort zones by almost forcing the other guy to try something we’re not completely familiar doing. Whether it’s me doing the doubling of Bill’s rhythms or him layering on my noodling, we push each other to get better at the things foreign to us.

Bill, seeing Mastodon as kind of a chameleon band, how does the variety of styles and genres the band has fit into affect your set lists or adjust the way you guys perform?

BK: If we’re doing a tour with Slayer, we’re definitely not going to play a 20-minute song like “Hearts Alive” because we know the crowd wants to hear fast and heavy. So, we’ll hit the “fast-and-heavy-Mastodon switch” and give them what they want. But if we’re on tour with a band like Isis or Clutch, with a following that is more accessible to something more than the fast and hard shit, we’ll play around with the set and do some experimenting with songs and arrangements. [laughs] If nothing else, in a setting like that, we can just play three 20-minute songs and be done! Playing with bands like Isis or Neurosis, you have a little more freedom to do something off the cuff or alternative, but when you’re with Slayer and their legions of fans you want to come out swinging; you don’t want to give the kids any reason to boo or throw shit at you. I’ve seen it happen to really good, talented bands when faced by the Slayer army.

With your upcoming summer European tour opening for Metallica, how do you guys feel when people suggest this pairing as a kind of passing of the torch from the band that forged the heavy metal genre in the ‘80s, to you guys, who have helped reinvigorated it?

BK: It’s quite an honor. It’s pretty fucking cool because when I was a kid first putting on a guitar I wanted to emulate them. I had the jean jacket with patches, ripped jeans and I tried learning all their famous licks. It’s rewarding to have people lump us with an act like Metallica and their lineage of classic albums. I guess all this hard work on practicing guitar for hours and hours finally paid off when you put it like that.

BH: Shit man, that’s cool with me… [laughs] because we all listened to those albums when we were growing up, so to have our name and albums thrown in with those guys, come on, who isn’t going to like that?! It’s not something we set out to achieve by saying “Crack the Skye has to our Master of Puppets,” but we definitely wanted to make a statement of the roads we’ve traveled, the ups and downs and who we are as a band today. And we think we achieve that with this album.

Photos: Andrew Stuart - www.FutureGrandpa.com