What sort of amps do you prefer?

Onstage, I use a pair of Vox AC30s for clean stuff, and for dirty stuff I play some Splawn amps—a Nitro and a Quick Rod through Splawn 4x12 cabs loaded with Eminence Greenback-type speakers. I love Splawn amps. They’re made at this small shop in North Carolina and have a great hot-rodded Marshall type of sound. In the studio, I use an amp I built myself. It’s basically a Marshall and an AC30 all in one. It sounds like a huge stack, but it’s only 30 watts.

Photo by Joseph Guay

Can you tell us a little more about the homemade amp—it sounds intriguing.

I’ve actually built four of them now. Basically, each one is a two-input amp with one side being pretty much a top-boost Vox AC30, and the other side being sort of a hot-rodded Marshall with some preamp gain. The hot-rodded side has a tube-buffered effects loop and a Master Volume. Both channels feed into an AC30-style power section with a few tweaks here and there, but basically it’s a four- EL84, cathode-biased power section with no negative feedback. It’s a 30-watt combo, but most of the time I run it through a 4x12 Splawn cab. Component-wise, I’ve used anything and everything, but I tend to go with carbon comp–type resistors on certain parts of the circuit and metal-film everywhere else. I’ve used SoZo coupling caps for the most part, but I’ve used Orange Drops, too. As for tubes, I think the JJ brand sounds best overall for what my amps do.

Did you build everything from scratch?

I did, except I had a guy weld the chassis together for me. I wanted the chassis to be unique, so I couldn’t use off-the-shelf parts. I basically took my drawing to a local sheet-metal shop and had it made, and then I drilled all the holes myself and had it powder-coated. I’m into woodworking, so the cabinet part was easy and fun for me. I drilled and punched all the turret-board stuff myself. And, of course, I wired it up myself.

How do you get such consistently killer dirty tones?

I find that when I use a distortion pedal, it tends to thin out the sound. I’m really just looking for more sustain, so I’ll usually step on a compressor before I step on a distortion. To get a gritty sound, I like to set my amps pretty loud and filthy, and then back off my guitar’s Volume control to get something a little cleaner. But occasionally—for instance, on a song like “Fuzzy”—I do use a Z.Vex fuzz pedal. To be honest, I can’t remember which one, but it’s a pretty cool pedal. It can get crazy if you want it to, but I set it up to be very ballsy and smooth at the same time.

There are so many great guitar moments on the record, but the multilayered parts on “Yours to Reap” really stand out. How did you record that?

Everything was done with regular guitars tuned a half-step down. Some of them were lowered to dropped C# tuning. I used the P-90 MJ guitar for every part except the solo, on which I played my trusty black MJ. The main part that opens up the song and becomes the sort of fake keyboard-pad sound is this: four tracks of guitars, each played with an EBow going through a Whammy pedal set to drop two octaves when I step on it, through some delay and then through my homemade amp. The main little riff that comes in eventually is done with my Option 5 Destination Rotation pedal through some delay and then through my amp with a fairly clean sound and the bass rolled off a fair bit to make it a little lo-fi—so that everything around it sounds bigger. After the vocal finishes, a little string-quartet thing comes in and that’s done with four guitars, each played with an EBow going through a Whammy pedal. The solo was just the guitar through the homemade amp with a little delay.

Describe your general approach to writing.

It’s nothing mind-blowing. It almost always starts with me tinkering around on whatever guitar I have at hand, coming up with a new riff or chord progression, and singing along with a melody. Later, as I’m lying in bed or driving in my car, I might find myself humming a familiar tune, only to realize it’s one I recently composed. If it sticks like that, the song is generally a keeper. As for lyrics, I’m not trying to blow anyone’s mind—I’m just trying to articulate exactly how I feel. That can be tough, because so many of my lyrics are intensely personal.

How does your classical training factor into your music these days?

I often find myself using hybrid picking even when I don’t have to, and I think that’s a technique leftover from playing classical guitar. Also, I still play classical in order to keep my chops up. I have a handful of pieces that I first learned years ago— things like Bach’s “Bourrée in E minor” and “Ave Maria”—that I’m still chipping away at. Talk about music for music’s sake! “Ave Maria” is a great one—the chords are ridiculous. It really expands your playing to work through such beautiful chords— the sort that you wouldn’t normally think to play.