Clutch interview (Monster Riffs Week)

Question: how much power goes into a truly classic riff? Answer: 50,000 Unstoppable Watts

© Denny Mack ./Retna Ltd./Corbis

"I love that song, it's one of my favourite Clutch songs ever," says Tim Sult, guitarist with American hard rock band Clutch, of the No 24 riff in TG's reader-voted 50 Greatest Modern Riffs poll. The poll popularity of '50,000 Unstoppable Watts' is testament to the discernment of TG readers and Tim's masterful, finely honed riff-craft. Let's find out some more…

Strange cousins and spacegrass

TG:How did you come up with the chorus riff to '50,000 Unstoppable Watts'?

"Honestly, it was really simple. I just started playing it. There was absolutely no thought process whatsoever. The pre-chorus was actually a part that I'd worked on for a long time. Then our bass player Dan [Maines] threw in that tail riff at the end of the pre-chorus and that brought everything together. As far as the chorus riff goes, it was 100 per cent spur of the moment while we were jamming in our drummer JP's [Jean Paul Gaster] basement and the rest of the song fell into place from there. All the parts flow, like a good rock song is supposed to."

TG: What are your top three Clutch riffs?

"That's a hard one. I know people like 'Spacegrass', which is a classic riff that our bass player came up with a long time ago, but I've heard that song so many times I could never say that's my favourite. So from the point of view of a fan, I'd say 'Spacegrass' and 'Big News I' are very memorable riffs because those songs are more sparse and repetitive than our recent material. The riffs are beaten into your head."

TG: Any riffs off your new album, 'Strange Cousins From The West'?

"There are some good riffs in 'Minotaur' on the new album. It's not set in the normal verse, chorus, verse, chorus, solo arrangement, which is a breath of fresh air. 'Freakonomics' is another cool, catchy song from the new album, more in the vein of our older material. An old one that's fun to play is 'I Have The Body Of John Wilkes Booth'. I wrote a lot of those riffs back when I lived with my parents. I was probably trying to write something that sounds like Led Zeppelin. Those are my three favourites on this tour."

Clutch live at bonnaroo

© Denny Mack ./Retna Ltd./Corbis

All hail The Allman Brothers Band

TG: You often play high up the neck. What's the benefit of that?

"On '50,000 Watts' it's easier to get the low E in there. There is a lot of low E in that riff and it makes the whole thing easier to play. Plus it sounds heavier."

TG: Do you ever tune down?

"We're mostly in E but we have quite a few songs in drop D. Neil plays in blues tunings for some of the songs, which I have never really gotten into. There is one song on the new album, 'Let A Poor Man Be', where I tune my E to D and then my A to G, which is the first time I've ever used that tuning for a Clutch song. I needed an open G string for the riff itself to sound good so I decided it would be easier to tune down."

TG: Do you find it easy to write riffs?

"A lot of times, I get my best ideas out when our drummer is playing along with me. It's good to have something powerful behind the whole process instead of sitting in my room with a Boss drum machine. That's not very heavy."

TG: What are some of your favourite riffs by other bands?

"I like a lot of The Allman Brothers [Band] instrumental stuff, like 'In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed'. I know it's not very riffy, but there are great guitar lines. The influence of the Allman Brothers and their instrumental jams has slowly crept into my playing [*]. Of course, Sabbath probably have the best riffs ever as far as I'm concerned."

* Check out TG208, on sale 29 Oct, for the first instalment of our three-part guitar tab of The Allman Brothers Band's 'Jessica'.

Jamming doesn't always come easily

TG: How has your playing developed since the first Clutch album?

"I think it has gotten more rock oriented as opposed to the early days when we were just trying to be as heavy as we could possibly be. We have more experience jamming. When we first started touring, we never really got on stage and started making stuff up. That's just something we started doing because we got bored with our songs. That's probably the biggest difference in Clutch – we actually know how to jam now, where in the beginning, for the first few years, it was a complete disaster. You have to make up something that sounds like a song on the spot. It took a lot of time to be able to do that. Now there is a lot more telepathic energy where we know what is going to happen, which comes with touring experience."

TG: What gear did you use on '50,000 Unstoppable Watts' in the studio?

"It was a 70s Gibson Les Paul Custom, a 100-watt Marshall Super Lead Reissue and an Orange Tiny Terror going through Marshall Cabinets. That was the first time I've stuck with basically the same gear for every song. I wanted to play one guitar for the whole album because I've never done that before. I don't know if it turned out good or bad, but it was definitely consistent. I already got rid of that guitar. Now I'm actually playing a guitar that is just like the first Gibson I ever owned: a 70s SG Special with mini-humbucker pickups. They're like a cross between a P90 and a regular Humbucker. For me, it's easier to play an SG than a Les Paul. I've got little sausage fingers so I've got to play little baby guitars."

TG: Are you happy Clutch did so well in the Monster Riffs poll (No 24)?

"I'm ecstatic about that. They don't sound like monster riffs to me when we're working on them. It's really the vocals that are the icing on the cake. They really help to make the riffs sound heavier in a lot of the songs. I'm probably too close to the band. When I listen to our music it's like looking at myself in the mirror. 'Why am I doing this? I don't need to be doing this.' I'm glad you think we have monster riffs. That's awesome!"


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