INTERVIEW: Alter Bridge’s Mark Tremonti

FortressMark Tremonti lives multiple lives. On the one hand, he’s guitarist for multi-platinum hitmakers Creed, and he helped to keep the guitar visible in the charts during the late 90s and early naughties when the instrument was in a bit of a holding pattern post-grunge and pre-Guitar Hero. On the other hand, he’s guitarist for [geo-out country=”Australia” note=””]Alter Bridge,[/geo-out][geo-in country=”Australia” note=””]Alter Bridge,[/geo-in] a harder-edged rock band which features Tremonti’s Creed bandmates Brian Marshall and Scott Phillips plus vocalist Myles Kennedy. You’d think that with three quarters of the Creed line-up being shared between both bands there would be a lot of crossover, yet Alter Bridge is the band that those of us who heard Creed and thought “Hmm… talented band, not digging the material.” Much more than Creed, Alter Bridge is where you’ll hear Tremonti really pushing the envelope with thrash-influenced rhythms, shred-influenced solos and very dark, complex atmospheres. Seemingly buoyed by the positive reception to his solo album, All I Was, the guitarist has loaded Alter Bridge’s new album Fortress [Roadrunner] with aggressive rhythms, blistering lead chops and some of the greatest heavy guitar tones of the last two decades or so.

I’ve been checking out the new album and man, this one is heavy.

Yeah! It’s the fun one!

Where did that come from? I mean, there are thrash elements here, for cryin’ out loud.

Well when we got together to put the initial ideas together, me and Myles kept in mind that we had to play these songs every night and we wanted to make the album entertaining to perform, so we made ’em all high-energy songs. And once we got about two thirds done with the record we realised that if we didn’t put some dynamics in the record, no matter how heavy you make it it’s not going to make it’s not going to be as good as a record. That’s when we switched gears.

One thing I really love is how it starts – it’s one of those intros like the early Metallica stuff where it’s a subdued intro but you know you’re about to get your ass kicked. 

Haha, those are my favourite times.

So you actually had a plan, rather than just all these heavy riffs coming together? 

Me and Myles get together and we play each other all of our favourite ideas and we piece our ideas together to get a broad outline of what the record’s going to look like, and then we get together with Brian and Scott and piece together a closer arrangement. Once we had about 14 or 15 songs we went into pre-production and that’s when we take our arrangements and challenge them as much as we can. We tore them apart many, many times to get them where they are now. We didn’t want people to be able to guess where the song was going. We wanted to catch them by surprise.

I wanted to ask you about the arrangements because there’s some really intricate stuff here, and each time you listen you’ll hear different details. 

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A lot of it, especially in “Cry Of Achilles” or “Fortress” where we really threw everything we had at it, we’d just sit there throwing ideas back and forth: let’s change a time signature here, change a key here, completely change the vibe of the song here and try to get back on our feet in the next section. And a lot of the time it gets frustrating because sometimes you think you’re onto something good but you can’t get out of it and then you have to start over again. But we just didn’t want to rest on our laurels and think that our arrangements were fine. We wanted to put every effort into it, and we spent about three times longer on preproduction for this record than we ever spent on a record before. We go into the studio with a good picture of what we want, and then when we got to the preproduction that’s when we made what we wanted a little better.

Some of the solos on this album are insane. How did you approach those? I know that for Metallica’s Black album, Kirk Hammett picked a few guitarists whose tone he liked as a starting point.

I try to live in my own little bubble. In the year leading up to a record I’ll try and learn as much as I can, and then when it comes time to put together my ideas for the album I don’t want to sound like anybody else. I’ll have assimilated licks from other people along the way but I don’t wanna play four licks from one other guitar player on my stuff. So I try to stay in my own mind, my own little bubble, and just kind of melodically sing the solos as much as possible and not just be pure technique: try and tell a story with it and take a melodic approach to it.

I really like the solo in the title track because it follows an unusual chord progression. The first time you hear it it’s like “Wow, I wouldn’t have thought to go there,” and the next time you hear it it’s like “That’s the perfect note.”

Yeah, well the whole chord tone soloing thing… the challenge with that song is it’s in an open D5 tuning, so you don’t have your pentatonic scales to know your way around. You have to completely reinvent the guitar when you’re writing those solos. And to me I welcome it because if you write too many solos with your standard tunings you might start repeating yourself. When you tune it all different and try to land on your feet it’s a whole different ballgame. It gives you some unique qualities to your solo.

Another thing I thought was very cool was the bluesy, bendy solo on “Bleed It Dry.” What’s going on there?

That’s probably my favourite solo on the record. That solo, I wanted to make it really expressive melodically, and really sing it in my head before playing it, and I used my fingers on a lot of it which made the tone a lot different to what I’ve done in the past. I think that’s the main difference in the tone: using mainly my fingers on the first half of the solo.

A lot of players don’t even think to do that and it makes such a difference. 

Oh yeah, that’s a classy sound when you use your fingers on lead stuff.

So what gear did you use this time ’round? 

I used the Cornford RK100, a Bogner Uberschall and a Mesa Boogie Rectifier for the rhythm stuff. And I brought in all kinds of amps. I brought in my Dumble, which is my favourite amp ever. I brought in a Bludotone Bludo-Drive. I brought in …jeez… a few others. I can’t even remember what else I brought in! My Diesel Hagen… I recorded the solos with pretty much a digital signal going through the monitors to hear myself back, so we could reamp when we mixed it down, because I wanted Elvis [producer Michael “Elvis” Baskette] to have all those amps and use them per each song: which one filled the frequencies for each moment. So to be honest I’m not sure! “Bleed It Dry” would have been perfect for the Dumble but maybe it’s half Dumble, half Cornford when it gets to the heavier part.

Mark Tremonti Signature PRS

And what about guitars? I’m guessing there are a lot of PRS guitars there?

I used two guitars on the whole record. On all the rhythm stuff I used one fixed-bridge signature model of mine, and for all the leads I used the newer signature model that’s got the floating whammy bar on it.

“Father Than The Sun” has those great whammy bar flutters…

Yeah, flutters are always fun. I did the flutters in that song and “Peace Is Broken.” If you have a bar on there and you’re doing a solo, it’s hard to not want to do at least a couple of flutters. It’s always a cool little effect. I remember the first time I ever heard that and I was like “What in the world is that?”

A player like Steve Vai says he has work his ass off for every note, that guitar doesn’t come naturally to him. Marty Friedman says the music basically tumbles out and he has to put a guitar in front of it. Where does that sit for you? Where do you feel you stand on that kind of scale? 

I guess it all depends on what part of my playing it comes from. As far as songwriting I feel like I started so young that that flows out of me. I feel very confident about that part of me. And then as far as the speed metal stuff goes I feel very confident with that. That’s easy for me to do. When it comes to the bluesier, jazzier stuff, if you sat me down with B.B. King to do a little 12-bar stuff I’d probably die. I’d probably drop dead. Young kids, when they hear Satriani or Vai throw all these crazy techniques at ya, they probably think that’s the most nerve-wracking stuff to play. But I think the slow blues is where it all hangs out and that’s where it’s so important to hit the right notes and to have the right vibrato and bending and phrasing. That’s some of the hardest stuff.

Are you using many pedals on the album?

No, you know, I made a pact with myself that I wasn’t going to use a wah pedal on any of my leads for this record, because that had kinda become a crutch for me. And if there was ever a really fast, hard line I’d always put on the wah to kind of help me with it, and I didn’t want to have that kind of help. I wanted to just be able to make sure every note is true and clear. So I didn’t do the wah on any lead stuff. I did use it on a little bit of rhythm stuff. Myles and Elvis, when they go in …I usually track first on the rhythm stuff, then Myles and Elvis will go in to do Myles’ parts, and him and Elvis will sit there and go through every pedal in the world. It always turns out great. And recently I’ve been getting online over these last few weeks to find some new pedals for inspiration, and I’ve found some really cool stuff. I ordered some pedals last night that I can’t wait to show up, and I’ve got another one that I’m really excited about but it takes eight weeks to get. I ordered the Subdecay Spring Theory Reverb, which sounds great. It’s got this huge, gigantic sounding reverb. It’s not something you’d put a bunch of gain over, but for something clean. I also bought this Creation Audio Labs Holy Fire overdrive/distortion pedal that sounds really unique. And then a pedal called the Carrier by Hexe that I’m really interested in getting. It’s a wild pedal but it’s kinda hard to get your hands on.

Alter Bridge will be at Soundwave 2014. Fortress is out on October 8 in the USA and September 30 in the rest of the world. 

FEBRUARY/MARCH 2014

SATURDAY 22 FEBRUARY – BRISBANE, RNA SHOWGROUNDS

SUNDAY 23 FEBRUARY – SYDNEY, OLYMPIC PARK

FRIDAY 28 FEBRUARY – MELBOURNE, FLEMINGTON RACECOURSE

SATURDAY 1 MARCH – ADELAIDE, BONYTHON PARK

MONDAY 3 MARCH – PERTH, CLAREMONT SHOWGROUNDS