Titan tonal technician Kurt Ballou and sledgehammering bassist Nate Newton detail the chiseling tools they use to carve their colossal sound.
Kurt Ballou takes tone very seriously. He’s been on the leading edge of aggressive guitar sounds since 1990, and Converge’s fourth album, 2001’s Jane Doe, is still seen as a game-changing release, with its ferocious performances and masterful production. His sonic temple, God City Studio, is the destination for artists looking to make their rawest, heaviest, brutalist work. Ballou has even developed a gear brand (God City Instruments) that includes guitars, pedals, and pickups, all in the pursuit of turning ideas into art.
During our conversation before Converge’s sold-out performance at Nashville’s Basement East on May 22nd, Ballou dove into his Line 6 Helix spice rack and shared how 30 plus years as a guitarist and in-demand producer have informed his guitar-design philosophy. Plus, he detailed why his goal is to get to a place where “gear doesn’t matter.” And then, longtime bassist Nate Newton joined the fun by showing off his “Riffblaster” setup and how a special P-Bass helps him honor a dear friend.
Brought to you by D’Addario String Finder.
For this headlining Converge run, Kurt took to the road with a pair of his own God City Instruments shred sticks. This one is the Constructivist model that has a body shape Kurt has been employing for over a decade. This current iteration has an ash body, roasted maple neck (with bolt-on assembly and C profile), ebony fretboard with cream binding, a Graph Tech nut, and comes loaded with a set of GCI’s Soap Jammers that are stacked alnico 5 humbuckers (10k bridge output/7k neck output). Ballou describes the Soap Jammers as “being high-output humbuckers that have the midrange push of a P-90 that still chugga chuggas like a humbucker.” He’s been using D’Addario strings for over 20 years and has been loyal to the NYXLs since they came out. He currently prefers the Medium Top/Extra Heavy Bottom set (.011–.056) and bludgeons them with D’Addario Duragrip Yellow (light/medium) picks.
Rock 'n' Roll Machine
Here is Kurt’s single-pickup GCI Craftsman that has a chambered mahogany body paired with a wenge top, a maple neck with set-neck construction, wenge fretboard with cream binding, Graph Tech nut and PM-8593 bridge, and it screams—thanks to the high-output GCI Slug Jammer humbucker that has a ceramic magnet and 13k resistance.
Ballou adds that “It’s a beautiful guitar that I just love to play. This is my favorite—just a basic rock ’n’ roll machine, and I use it the most for writing and recording Converge stuff.”
A Floor Smorgasbord
Converge would love to tour with stacks of gear, but they also live in the real world. They understand the compromise a modern hardcore band must make to pull off shows to their high standard, while also staying in the black, so for a few years Kurt has turned to the Line 6 Helix. He says it gives him a consistent, reliable sound each night that can be stored as a carry-on. Another perk is that his setup is in a stereo configuration, and the Helix’s direct-out function allows him to run front-of-house a stereo signal without having to worry about miking cabs (and possible phasing issues) that inevitably happen when mics and cabs get bumped and moved during Converge’s chaotic performances.
For these “Converge Classic”** headlining shows, Ballou operates the Helix in stompbox mode with a “Kvrt Preset V6.” Some of the pieces of the puzzle include a Centaur-style distortion, two separate noise gates, a Tycoctavia Fuzz, a Dual Pitch setting, Ping Pong (turning on stereo delay and reverb at the same time), and a Searchlights reverb patch. All of these are engaged and omitted by Ballou as if they were pedals on a standard board. He does use a phase looper for the song “Eye of the Quarrel” that allows him to play both guitar parts featured on it. His amps are based on modelings chasing a Diezel (Das Benzin Mega) and PRS Archon.
Worth noting that Ballou's grievances on the Helix were addressed by Ben Adrian of Line 6. Here's what he had to say: The gripes Kurt had with the unit can be resolved by issuing an update a while back, the tuner got a "Trails on/off" control, which allows delay, reverb, and looper audio to pass when the tuner is engaged. Also, with an update, "Command Center" was implemented a while back.This allows almost any function to be assigned to any switch in stomp mode. This includes all the controls for the looper.
(**Converge did an album with Chelsea Wolfe in 2021 called Bloodmoon: I. That included the standard four-piece Converge lineup but then added Wolfe, Stephen Brodsky, and Ben Chisholm. They toured as a seven-piece band, then Ballou had his Helix in snapshot mode that had several changes and settings moved automatically by the unit. The band now jokingly refers to their regular quartet as “Converge Classic.”)
Rather than employ the Helix’s IR technology, Ballou runs out of the Helix to a pair of Quilter Overdrive 202 heads.
Those Quilters then power a couple of Bad Cat 4x12s filled with Celestion Vintage 30s, giving Kurt all the stage volume he can handle.
Meet Mr. Riffblaster
Nate Newton has been the Converge bassist since 1998, and has always stayed true to the Fender Precision bass. He was gifted this green P from Fender, and modded it by adding in his signature Lace Riffblaster that the company says utilizes “the power of ceramic magnets to create the perfect balance of extreme power and articulation.” He uses Ernie Ball Regular Slinky Bass strings and green D’Addario Duralin Precision picks (medium).
In the Stream of Caleb Scofield
Newton’s other main gig since 2018 has been filling the void of Cave In bassist Caleb Scofield who tragically passed away five years ago. To honor their fallen brother, Cave In has kept Scofield’s P in their gear collection for Newton to use on Cave In recordings and tours. He has it with him on the Converge tour because once their run ended, he met the Cave In crew out in Colorado for their tour behind 2022’s Heavy Pendulum. Newton put in a set of his Lace Riffblaster pickups and noted during the Rundown that “it’s the best-sounding P-Bass” he’s ever played, and, for what it means to play this bass in Scofield’s spot: “It’s a weird thing, especially playing the older songs and using this bass. In a twisted way, it kind of feels like hanging out with Caleb. It feels like he’s there with us, and it’s an honor to play this bass in that band. I cherish it.”
Slim and Husky
For years Newton has plugged into this Orange AD200B Mk3 that pumps out 200 watts, thanks to four KT88 power tubes. It runs into an old Ampeg 8x10 cabinet. A Quilter Bass Block 802 rides as a backup for Converge, but takes the spotlight when he plays with Cave In.
Nate Newton's Pedalboard
The condensed stompbox station still shifts tectonic plates, in large part because of the Nunez Tetra-Fet Drive always being on with Converge. It takes the AD200 from a rumbler to molten-lava erupter. Both the Dunlop CBM105Q Cry Baby Bass Mini Wah and DOD Rubberneck Analog Delay are rarely used with Converge, but both get plenty of usage for Cave In sets. The Shift-Line A+ CabZone Bass sends the signal to front-of-house and offers 10 power amp emulations for additional shaping. The TC Electronic PolyTune keeps his Ps in check, and everything rides tight and tidy on a Pedaltrain Nano+ platform.
Shop Converge's Rig
- Quilter Labs Overdrive 202 200-watt Head
- Line 6 Helix Guitar Multi-effects Floor Processor
- Fender American Professional II Precision Bass V
- Orange AD200B MK 3 200-watt Bass Head
- DOD Rubberneck Analog Delay Pedal with Tap Tempo
- Dunlop CBM105Q Cry Baby Mini Bass Wah Pedal
- TC Electronic PolyTune 3 Polyphonic LED Guitar Tuner Pedal with Buffer
- Learn how to build up the foundation of heavy metal rhythm guitar.
- Develop a deeper understanding of drop-D tuning.
- Create grinding riffs in the style of King’s X, Judas Priest, and more.
What’s a Pedal Tone?
A pedal tone or pedal point is static note—usually in the bass register—against which higher notes and/or chords are sounded. Ex. 1 is reminiscent of a rhythm guitar lick favored by early metal pioneers like Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Randy Rhoads, or Glenn Tipton and K.K Downing of Judas Priest. It features two-note dyads (also called double-stops) articulated against a pedal tone on the open 5th string in a jagged syncopated rhythm. Palm mute the open string and articulate the chord stabs with a short aggressive picking-hand motion.
Judas Priest - Live in San Bernardino 1983/05/29 [US Festival '83] [50fps]
Riffin’ With the Devil
Western music is based on a division of the octave into 12 equal half-steps, and on guitar a half-step is simply one fret’s distance. One of the most sinister-sounding intervals is the tritone, which is named because you have three whole-steps between the notes. In fact, it has often been called “The Devil’s Interval.” Guitarists like Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi and Metallica’s James Hetfield have both used its jarring edge to great effect, often sounding a Bb5 power chord against an open 6th string pedal tone for maximum angst. Play through Ex. 2 to get a taste of the ominous-sounding tri-tone interval and remember to keep a slight palm-mute on the pedaled 6th string.
BLACK SABBATH - "Iron Man" (Official Video)
16th-Note Shred Secrets
As metal progressed into the new millennium, it branched off into various subgenres, many of which relied on a fusillade of rapid-fire 16th-note riffs played at breakneck tempos. Mastering the metric methods of bands like Slipknot, Gojira, and Lamb of God may seem daunting. The trick is to realize that there are only a finite number of ways to subdivide a beat and, once learned, these individual one-beat stems can be strung together in different combinations to create more complex patterns. Ex. 3 shows four common 16th-note rhythms. Play the first using a steady alternate picking-hand motion. For the second, third, and fourth patterns, continue the alternate picking-hand motion but “ghost” the missing stroke by simply not hitting the string. It’s imperative that your picking-hand never stops an alternating motion. This will help you navigate complex rhythms with both speed and accuracy. Once mastered, the four stem-rhythms can be connected together consecutively to create driving single-note riffs like the one in Ex. 4.
Flirtin’ With Invertin’
The root-fifth power chord voicing is the most common form of harmonic currency in the metal kingdom. One cool-sounding derivative of this formula is to switch the positions of (aka “invert”) the root and the fifth by playing the root above the fifth. This grip can be sounded by simply barring across any fret on the two lowest strings or—for a fuller sound—adding those same two notes up an octave by also barring the D and G strings two frets higher. Check out the C#5/G# power chord in Ex. 5. Once learned, this grip can be tied in with 16th-note rhythms and a pedaled low E string as shown in Ex. 6.
Drop to the Top
One lasting sonic innovation that became ubiquitous in metal was when King’s X started to crank out incredible drop-D riffs. To be fair, other guitarists had experimented with this before, but it was King’s X who first worked out a harmonic vocabulary around the one-finger root-fifth-octave power chords that are easily facilitated by the drop tuning like the F5 shown in Ex. 7.
Now power chords could be phrased with the same expression and fluidity as single notes. Ex. 8 ably demonstrates how a one-finger-barre voicing makes full-chord slides, hammer-ons, and pull-offs easy to facilitate.
By the mid ’90s, myriad variations of lowered tunings had become extremely commonplace in the metal universe. Beginning guitarists are sometimes flummoxed by these alterations, but the overwhelming majority of the time they are just detuned versions of both standard and drop-D tunings, meaning everything you play in them will be fingered the same way, it will just be at a lower pitch. Some of the most common lowered tunings in metal are standard down a half-step, aka “Eb” (Eb–Ab–Db–Gb–Bb–Eb), standard down a whole-step, also called “D standard” (D–G–C–F–A–D) and drop-D down a whole-step (C–G–C–F–A–D), which is sometimes referred to as drop-C. If you’re a little hesitant about retuning your guitar, keep in mind that you’ve already learned to tune it to standard.
Learning to switch back and forth to a different tuning will be just as easy (if not easier) than when you first learned to tune. Try retuning your guitar to these then revisit some of the previous examples using the exact same fingerings, and see how the lower register affects the sound.
Octivate Your Device
Another cool intervallic device commonly used in hard rock and metal riffs is the octave shape shown in Ex. 9. It is most easily fingered by removing the middle note of a root-fifth-octave barre chord. You’ll want to use your first finger to fret a note on the fifth string while curving it to make enough contact with the fourth string that it mutes that string completely.
Octaves are great for sliding melodically up and down the neck and—as demonstrated in Ex. 10—can be sounded in unison against pedal tones, or broken up into individual notes creating cool intervallic leaps. In the latter case remember to keep the octave hand shape constant.
Now that you’ve got a basic handle of some of the most common rhythm guitar techniques you can listen to how they are employed by the great artists of the genre and use this as a jumping off point for your own songs!
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