Lethal Metal: Anthrax’s Scott Ian and Jon Donais
The 6-string teammates talk soloing strategies, building explosive rhythm chops, signature gear, and the back-to-thrash game plan for the band’s latest, For All Kings.
Hate thrash metal? Blame Anthrax.
Anthrax was built on outrageous tempos, extreme heaviness, and too much testosterone. Founded in 1981, they were the second band Jon Zazula signed to his new label, the influential Megaforce Records (Metallica was the first), and in 1984 released their debut, Fistful of Metal.
They went on to record seminal albums like Spreading the Disease and Among the Living, collaborate with rap legends Public Enemy, build an enormous and loyal fan base, and redefine heavy metal. Thirty-five years, endless tours, millions in sales, six Grammy nominations, and a number of band members later, Anthrax is still making serious noise.
Anthrax’s core is guitarist Scott Ian. The Keith Richards of thrash, Ian plays rhythm guitar. His playing is rooted in heavy downstrokes, hypersonic alternate picking, Iron Maiden-style gallops, and super-tight unison ricochets with drummer Charlie Benante. Ian writes a lot of classic-sounding riffs, too, though he is matter-of-fact about the process. “I hear something in my head, pick up a guitar, and dick around with it until I think it sounds cool,” he says. “I record it into my phone and forget about it until it is time for the band to make a record. That’s my process.”
In 2013, Anthrax recruited Shadows Fall guitarist Jon Donais to replace shred master Rob Caggiano. Donais is a prodigious talent who provides stellar lead lines, an arsenal of extended techniques, and melodic finesse to complement Ian’s lead-footed chunk. Donais is younger than the rest of the band, which explains his affinity for ’80s metal. “It was so exciting to me back then, because it was on MTV,” he says. “Everybody was playing arenas, they were selling millions and millions of records, and it was just over the top. Everything was over the top. I thought it was awesome.” But don’t hold that against him—his bandmates don’t. “It was different times for them,” he adds. “I like it all.”
Anthrax’s newest release, For All Kings, is their follow up to 2011’s Worship Music, which featured the Grammy-nominated song “I’m Alive.” The new album is their first to feature Donais on lead guitar. It’s also their most thrash-centric release since pioneering the genre back in the ’80s. The album was recorded with an array of metal-friendly gear including Ian’s new Jackson Custom Shop King V, his signature Randall heads, and Donais’ Legator signature reverse headstock Ninja 300-Pro. “I have a bunch of guitars in the studio with me so I can play around with them,” Ian says. “But it always comes down to using my top four guitars on a record.”
PG caught up with Ian and Donais on tour in Europe to discuss their new album, the recipe for a great guitar solo, how to develop thrash-metal rhythm guitar chops, their new signature gear, and Donais’ fear of floating tremolos.
How does it feel having Jon in the band? Do you have good chemistry?Scott Ian: It feels great. It’s been three years already. I think he’s passed the audition.
Does Jon only play leads on the album or does he play rhythm parts as well?Ian: Just solos, harmony parts, melody parts, and whatnot. I am playing all the rhythms.
What do you think constitutes a great guitar solo?Ian: Something that I’ll remember. Something that’s as hooky as a chorus of a song—that’s all I care about. I’ve never been into the shredding scene. I’d rather hear Billy Gibbons play one note for two minutes than listen to a guitar-shredding album.
Meaning you want melody and sing-ability?Ian: Yeah. I want melody. I want feeling. I want soul. I want attitude. All my favorite guitar players—they all have that. It’s not about how many notes you’re playing. I think that’s what so many people have gotten wrong for so many years. And I get it. Some people love that—the technical aspect and the technical ability of super, super intense shredding and fast, crazy guitar playing. But I will never be able to play like Paul Gilbert. I understand that, but it’s not something I aspire to. I know he’s an insane guitar player, but that world never interested me. I like songwriting and I like solos that are a little tiny mini-song inside of a song. Look, AC/DC is my favorite band in the world, so I’m not going to be listening to super technical guitar players.
Jon Donais: I think “Mr. Crowley” is the national anthem of guitar solos. My favorite style of playing is melodic shred. You remember the solo and then there’s a quick burst of flashy stuff going on. The best guitar solos are if you can get somebody who doesn’t play guitar to air guitar to your solos. I think that’s doing a good job.
For the old Anthrax tunes, are you expected to play the solos recorded by Dan Spitz (who was in the band from 1983-1995) or do you come up with your own stuff?Donais: They just want it close. If it’s something really memorable, I don’t mess with it at all, but if it’s something shreddy, then I throw in my own style where I can. But I don’t go too off on anything. If you weren’t a guitar player, you wouldn’t think, “Oh my God, this isn’t the solo.” They are memorable solos, so I only start doing that when it’s something fast I can get away with.
For the new album, did you compose your own solos and have the freedom to do what you wanted?Donais: I demoed them out and got them until the guys were all happy with them. When they gave me the A-OK, that’s when I went in with it.
Do you play the same solos live every night?Donais: Yup. All my solos, I write them before. I’ve always done that. I don’t just go in and improvise. I always have it all mapped out and ready to go that way. My favorite solos are always ones you can remember. I like the guys who can shred, but it’s memorable and melodic—it’s not just a whole bunch of noodling. I like that too, but my favorite solos aren’t that.
How about rhythm playing? When did you first start using mostly downstrokes?Ian:It’s a style of playing that just worked in the context of the music we were writing. That’s all guitar has ever really been for me: It’s a tool to play in a band with other people and it’s a tool to write songs with. Anthrax developed from when we started in 1981 and the music we were playing—the songwriting, the ideas, the sounds we heard in our heads, the ideas we had for riffs, that down-picking style and the fast alternating-picking style—that was the way we played. So my guitar playing just developed out of the songs we were writing. I had no style of any type of guitar playing before I was in Anthrax, because I was only playing cover songs. I wasn’t writing my own songs until I was in Anthrax. The guitar playing developed around the type of music we were writing.
Did you spend time practicing those techniques?Ian: When I would be sitting and watching TV, I would pick with my right hand—just play and strengthen my hand to build up stamina and stuff like that. But once we started touring, we were touring so much I didn’t really need to sit around and practice. Even before we started touring—I’m talking back in ’82-’83, leading up to Fistful of Metal—we rehearsed seven nights a week. We were jamming every day, trying to get tighter and tighter and tighter. I was in the rehearsal room jamming and playing whatever songs we had back then over and over and over again, four or five hours a night. There’s nothing worse for me than sitting in a room by myself playing guitar. To me that’s the most boring thing in the world.
So you didn’t sit with a metronome and chunk along?Ian: No. Never. And there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just that it wouldn’t have worked for me. I would have been bored and then guitar playing wouldn’t have been fun anymore.
Donais:I had all these different exercises that I practiced to a metronome. I used to make sure I would do certain exercises and nothing else. I would do 10 minutes and then move on to something else. Then I would come back and try to bump it up a notch or two.
How important do you think it is for players to work with a metronome?Donais: I think it’s very crucial. If you try to do stuff without the metronome, you can develop bad habits. The metronome helps you become a cleaner, more efficient player. Another thing, too, is it can be encouraging. When you see somebody play at top speed you might be like, “Oh my god, I’m going to give up. There is no way I’ll ever do that.” But if you have the metronome, then you can slowly increase it. I used to write down the number that I was at—the number I left off at—so I saw myself getting progressively faster. It was encouraging. It let me know I wasn’t wasting my time. I saw the BPMs bumping up and I knew I was getting somewhere. It encouraged me to just keep at it, until I could get to speed.
Anthrax's current guitar team is founding rhythm guitarist Scott Ian (left) and new lead guitarist Jon Donais (right). Photo by Jimmy Hubbard
I read somewhere that you still take lessons and watch instructional videos.Donais: I haven’t taken a lesson in a while, but I’m still always watching things on the internet and learning. When I was learning the techniques, Paul Gilbert was my favorite one to watch. I had all his DVDs—well, it was VHS back then [laughs]. But now, you can learn so much going on YouTube. It’s just crazy; it’s a never-ending thing of learning. You can never conquer the guitar. There is always something out there you can learn. That is what’s great about it.
What are your building blocks for solos? In addition to modes, have you experimented with other scales like diminished, augmented, whole tone, and others?Donais: I’ve done some diminished stuff, but I don’t do too many exotic things. The main modes, pentatonic, and blues stuff is more what I do. Most of my favorite players are guys like Zakk Wylde, Dime [Dimebag Darrell Abbott], Eddie [Van Halen].
How do you get your tones when recording? Do you just bring your live rig into the studio or do you have a different approach?Ian: For the last two albums, that’s pretty much what I’ve done. I used my signature Randall heads in combination with one of my old Marshall JCM800s with my TC Electronic Booster/Distortion pedal from back in the ’80s in front of it. Between my two Randalls and that old Marshall, we’re able to get a really killer combination of frequencies. It covers it all for me. That and miking up a bunch of cabinets, finding the sweet spots, and getting a blend of those three heads.
Donais: I’m not into a lot of gear or anything. I like a simple rig. I go in the front of the speaker like I would live and once I like it, I go with it. It doesn’t take long at all.
Do you stand in the room with the amps?Donais: I do both. First I’ll dial it in—in front of the cabinet—and then I’ll go into the control room and usually just EQ it a little bit.
Ian: I’m in the room with the amps for hours. With my head practically in the speakers, listening to every single speaker in the room, listening to every single speaker miked, every single speaker with a different mic on it—really just narrowing it down, going through every possible combination until we felt like we’ve heard everything. Obviously making notes along the way to go back to what we felt was the best combination at the end.
Do you do that song-by-song, section-by-section?Ian: Hell no. We spend a day or two just getting the tone and then that’s basically the rhythm tone for the record. On this last album I mainly used two different guitars: my new white Jackson—the white V without the Floyd—and my old Gibson ’81 black V. Those were the two main guitars for all the main rhythms. I used the white Jackson on stuff that was more up tempo and fast, because it has a little bit more of a mid edge. I used the Gibson on everything else for the main rhythms. I used some of my other Jacksons—my old Randy Rhoads and some of my newer ones—for overdubbing stuff and harmonies and alternate rhythm parts, just to get a different sound so all the frequencies wouldn’t start canceling each other out. If I’m overdubbing a chordal part, then sometimes maybe we’ll tweak one of the amps, brighten it up a little bit to give a little bit more top to it, or something to make it shine a little bit more, but we keep it real simple.
How much of your tone is the amp and how much is your fingers?Ian: Well, I have a specific tone. It’s not going to sound like my tone if I’m playing a Telecaster through a Fender Deluxe Reverb. It might sound like my inflections—my inflections in my playing or things like that—but it certainly isn’t going to sound like my tone. If you want my tone, then you need a specific type of amp that has a specific type of gain structure. Of course, with your picking hand, it’s a certain style of playing—being very in control, with the palm muting, and extremely, extremely tight and minimal. My goal is always a minimal amount of movement and picking.
Back in the ’80s, in interviews for guitar magazines, I said my style was “fascist guitar playing”—because there’s no room for improvisation, there’s no room for anything. When you’re playing at speeds like that, it is what it is. It’s mathematical. There’s X amount of notes that you can fit into a measure and you’ve got to hit all those notes perfectly, and that’s it. There’s no room for anything else. Granted, the songwriting style has changed over the years. We’re not playing exactly how we used to play in 1987. But still, on the new record I’m playing exactly the same—especially on the thrashy stuff like “Zero Tolerance,” “Evil Twin,” or “For All Kings.”
I also dig in real hard. A lot of guys play lighter than me and there’s a time that I play lighter too, but in general, I’m digging in. If it’s not something that’s blazing fast, then I play way too heavy with my right hand.
"Caught in a Mosh," from Anthrax’s third album, Among the Living, is a classic from their Dan Spitz era, performed here in 2013 by current lead guitarist Jon Donais. While Donais’ solo, at 3:50, hews to Spitz’s original, this performance puts the spotlight on Scott Ian’s rhythm playing, showcasing the juggernaut changes of his left hand and providing a close-up look at his gorgeous signature model Jackson V in action before a rabid crowd.
Do you use heavy strings as well?Ian: I was using really heavy strings for years. Up until last year I was using .012–.060. I got really tired of my hands feeling like chopped meat after shows; it would just tear my hands apart. They’re great because I can beat the shit out of them and they barely move—they’re like bridge cables—but it was destroying my hands. I was having pain constantly. Going into the studio this time around I experimented with lighter strings, .010–.052. I did it for tone purposes and the .010s sounded better than the heavier strings. There was a better tone, there was more of an edge, and I was like, “Fuck those heavy strings. I’m done with that shit. I’m not tearing my hands up anymore.” I just have to be careful when I’m hitting big power chords and open chords because if I hit them too hard then I’m banging strings out of tune.
What effects do you use for your lead tones?Donais: For my leads I use delay, compressor, and reverb. I really like that big room sound.
What does the compressor do?Donais: It just helps even everything out—especially with the legato playing. I think it makes it more creamy sounding. It gives it a little bit more bite, too.
Do you use noise gates as well?Donais: Right now I have a [Rocktron] Hush Super C rackmount.
Does it ever kill notes when you’re soloing?Donais: No, because the compressor makes up for that. It gives me more distortion so it doesn’t die out. If I were to play just on my rhythm channel, it would. But once the lead channel goes on with the reverb, compressor, and delay, nothing gets cut out.
Scott, a number of readers asked about your new white Jackson Custom Shop King V. Will it be coming to market?Ian: As far as timeframe goes, that’s still something that’s TBA—we’re figuring all that out—but it’s going to be my next signature model. There will be a full-on USA version. There’ll be a mid-price of it as well. It’s coming, I would assume, either late 2016 or early 2017-ish.
Jon, what guitar are you using these days?Donais: Right now I’m with a company out of Burbank called Legator. I love those guitars. I’ve been playing them for almost three years. They’re so easy to play. They sound awesome. I like the shape of them—they’re real thin. It’s light but it still sounds monstrous. I love everything about them.
Do you have a whammy bar on them?Donais: No, that was never a part of my style. I figured if I don’t really use it, why should I have it? Plus, I really got annoyed with changing strings on those things. I have 10 guitars with floating tremolos and they all have one broken string. I just give up. I’m like, “I don’t want to spend 20 minutes changing strings.”
Jon, what’s it like joining a band with such a great history?Donais: It’s just a dream come true. I still look out to the left of me when I’m playing onstage and to see these guys—it’s crazy. I listened to them and they were a huge influence on my playing. All I can say is it is amazing. I get along with them great. I have a fun time. I love playing their music and I can’t complain about anything.