Nylon-string sensations Rodrigo y Gabriela were out of gas in a dead-end Mexican metal scene until they ditched their band and relocated to Ireland for four years of intense street training. Now they’re global stars racking up millions of views on YouTube and making late-night talk show appearances with their signature Yamaha guitars. I’ll never forget the first time I heard Rodrigo y Gabriela. I was listening to NPR’s World Café segment, and I was immediately enamored with their unique approach to nylon-string guitar. I pulled the car over to the shoulder of the road and sat there for the next 30 minutes, listening to them explain their craft and rip through original instrumental compositions and an incredible rendition of the Metallica classic “Orion.” I was late for work, but it didn’t matter. It’s not often that you hear a musical group that grabs you and won’t let go the instant you hear them.

If they’re new to you, what you need to know is that Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero have made a name for themselves by melding traditional world music with the dynamics and aggression of heavy metal. To make up for the lack of drums and bass, Quintero has developed an exceptional method of hand percussion that relies on striking both fretted strings and carefully chosen parts of the guitar with an attack that can be downright vicious. She’s basically a one-woman rhythm section. Sanchez, on the other hand, plays ’80s-shred-style riffs and leads mixed with a heavy dose of South American and Middle Eastern fl avors.

The duo originally met in Mexico City. Both played in a thrash metal band called Tierra Acida, but their frustration with the narrow range of music being followed in the area led them to pack up and head for Europe. They eventually settled near Dublin, Ireland, where they spent countless hours busking on the street. Naturally, their electric instruments weren’t really suited to the task, so they adopted the simple setup of two acoustic guitars. Over time, Sanchez and Quintero’s distinctive sound came together as a natural result of struggling to make the guitars communicate the dynamics of their eclectic backgrounds.

Since then, Rodrigo y Gabriela’s popularity has exploded. They’ve made appearances on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, and at press time their version of “Stairway to Heaven” had nearly six million views on YouTube. Their latest album,11:11, serves up 11 jaw-dropping tunes, including “Atman,” which features a guest appearance by Alex Skolnick (Testament, Trans-Siberian Orchestra)—who was a major influence on Quintero and Sanchez’s music. We recently caught up with the duo during a tour run that was so hectic that we only had limited time to spend with Quintero (who’s one of the nicest people we’ve ever interviewed, we might add). Here they discuss with us their inimitable songwriting, their new signature Yamaha acoustic guitars, and the intricacies of their playing styles and techniques.

Gabriela Quintero and Rodrigo Sanchez onstage with their signature Yamaha NCX and NTX nylon-strings. Photo by Vince Kmeron

A lot of people confuse your music with flamenco. What do you say when they make that assumption?

Sanchez:I can understand why some people confuse our music with flamenco. I mean, they see nylon string guitars and they just automatically make the assumption. What we do is a mix of rhythms that we have put together in a very organic way, something that we didn’t really plan originally. While we were playing on the streets of Europe, we started to compose music that was more naturally suited to the instruments we had. Yet we felt like we couldn’t just forget all of the years we spent playing metal. So we adopted rhythms from that style of music into what we have now, and I don’t think that even I could tell you what it would be called [laughs].

Quintero:Most of the music we draw from is just music we love to hear. Lately, we’ve been listening to a lot of reggae, classical, and jazz, with a lot of rock from the ’60s. We’ve also been listening to a lot of metal, which we genuinely love. So when we listen to those forms of music, we like to adapt those rhythms to make our own music more diverse. I think, in the end, what we really play is rock music—because we aren’t jazz or classical musicians, but we try to take those influences and add them to our own music.

What prompted you to move to Ireland?

Sanchez:Our heavy metal band, Tierra Acida, didn’t succeed and we figured our chances of getting a record deal were over. We were tired of chasing after one, and the only thing that we knew for sure was that we just wanted to play music. It didn’t matter if we were playing background music or bar music. So we moved to Europe. To make the move easier and lighten the load, we decided to sell all of our electric instruments and travel with two cheap acoustic guitars. We were much younger, and we did that for about four years before we came back to Mexico. It was great! We made a good living, and then our music started developing more naturally. I suppose sometimes you need to detach yourself from chasing a goal that you’d die for. Then you can focus on and enjoy what really made you want it in the first place.

Do you think stripping down your rig challenged you to write better material than you had before?

Sanchez:Well, a lot of the riffs that we play could actually be played with distorted electric guitar. What happens, though, is that a lot of people don’t notice that—because not very many people really understand heavy metal. The metalheads definitely get it, and a lot of our crowd comes from that world. It’s great that when we combine that style with ours, it works out really well.

What are some of the challenges of making sure key aspects of that metal feel translate to two acoustic guitars?

Sanchez:The structure of the pieces is already kind of based in a standard rock form, so the standard layout of the intro, bridge, melody, and solo weren’t things we really changed up that much. It might be hidden to some people, but for others that might be why it’s so appealing to them. They’re instrumentals, but the melody takes the place of where the vocals would normally be. Gabriela also had to develop her rhythm style on her own, because she didn’t have any formal training. She didn’t have the chance to learn from somebody with flamenco experience or study with someone who knew South American rhythms that are centuries old. Since we didn’t go to any sort of music school, she just came up with her style on her own, out of the need to keep the feel that we were still in a full band. She felt the need to take care of the drums and bass, while I covered the guitar and vocal parts. It just took off naturally at that point. There was never a moment where we said, “Okay, let’s play this metal thing here and translate it into Celtic or whatever.” The whole sound just came out of necessity, because of the style of music that we knew how to play—and loved playing. It was kind of accidental, actually.

What’s one of the biggest misconceptions of your style of music?

Sanchez:The biggest is definitely the flamenco thing. Another one could be that we play traditional Mexican style, which it isn’t either. It’s far from it. We kind of understand now that people will think or believe what they want to about our music, but it’s important to clarify, just in case people go to our concerts and expect to hear flamenco or Mexican music. We don’t want them to get the wrong idea, you know?

11:11 is more experimental than some of your past records. The core Rod and Gab sound is still there, but you’ve also added stuff like the wah pedal and that riff in “Logos”—which sounds a little like the outro on Pantera’s “Floods” or the riff to Metallica’s “One.”

Sanchez:You know, at the time I thought we were going a little too far from what the first album was like. But I kind of regret that we didn’t experiment just a little more. For the live shows, though, we’ll use more effects, such as wah and even some distortion. It makes sense when you know the people who go to our live shows, as opposed to those who just listen to the album. With11:11, the whole approach was totally different than the ones before it. We were excited that we were going to work with producer John Leckie [John Lennon, Radiohead, Pink Floyd], and we did some demos with him when he arrived. The demos ended up sounding exactly like the first album, and we didn’t want to do that. We also knew that we were going to work with Colin Richardson mixing, but we wanted to do it our own way too. We wanted to go back to the way that we recorded our metal band in the ’90s, doing things like doubling our guitars and using other older techniques. There was a more clinical approach to the recording, which is what we were after. I think if we had more time, we would have added more parts. During the live show, we add additional parts and textures, though. So in retrospect, I guess I’m glad we didn’t add them in the studio, because that saves some of the tricks for the next album.