It’s hard to picture many modern guitar partnerships that operate with same fluidity as Alter Bridge pair Mark Tremonti and Myles Kennedy. Seated next to each other in the cafeteria of a London hotel on a late summer morning, they both point out how – despite penning a lot of their latest tracks separately – it’s never been more difficult to pin down exactly who wrote what.
The question even baffled producer Michael ‘Elvis’ Baskette, the man who’s been behind the desk on no less than five of their six studio albums, including the latest, Walk The Sky. “He thought Tear Us Apart was definitely a Myles track while In The Deep had to be mine,” grins Mark. “I guess the more you write and work with somebody, the more you adopt and assimilate what they do into what you do. Together you become more comfortable with what works for the band...”
“We’ll start dressing like each other next,” jokes singer/guitarist Myles. “I’ll have earrings on for the next tour. I’m not sure if I could pull off the haircut though, I have an odd-shaped head! Honestly, our ideas have kinda morphed into the same beast – it’s never been harder to tell the difference.” Quizzed further on the songwriting and lead playing that’s seen them become one of most passionately admired bands of their ilk, here’s what the Alter Bridge six-stringers had to say...
1. Try using loops for songwriting
Mark: “On this record, I experimented with new things to pull off different emotions. There’s a lot of great drum loops on YouTube. I’d start off by writing a riff, figuring out the BPM and then literally search for loops at that tempo. There’s so many, from really basic ones to metal drum sounds. There are loops for rappers that have different rhythmic approaches to what I do in rock. Anything that felt different I would use to pull new things out of and dive into new sounds.
"I found these synthwave loops that I fell in love with. It all made me a lot more open- minded, not doing just the rock thing and taking what I can from outside influences. Even with something like dubstep, you can find beats that will help you think differently. You can get rid of it when you actually record the song, but things like that can push you in a certain direction.”
Myles: "In The Deep is a song that came from a loop I found on Logic. I just found it and started messing around, then it all blossomed from there. Same goes for Indoctrination, which came from a loop that had an almost funky interplay between the rhythm and guitar parts. That’s the reason that song felt like a bit of a tongue-twister when it all got put together!”
2. Experiment with alternate tunings
Mark: “I’d have retired already if it were not for the use of altered tunings. Seriously, I would have run into a creative wall long ago. I learned from this slide book I bought as a kid, which had lists of all these different tunings.
"Eventually I started to notice certain voicings felt like they were lacking this open string or extra note wasn’t there, so I started to switch tunings. All of a sudden that would throw me in another direction. I’m quite un-theoretical about it all – it’s more about where my fingers can reach and what sounds the coolest and richest.
"And then for soloing, your scale fragments are completely gone. It forces you to come up with shapes or ideas that are completely different. That’s probably terrifying for most people, but for me it’s an open-ticket to not doing the same damn thing over and over again.
"These tunings have been around for years and the people who discovered them probably will have stumbled through them in the same way at first. A lot of it just comes from hours and hours of writing, eventually finding your own thing.
"It sounds even bigger when we’re both using different tunings, and we do that a lot. It adds this whole extra wall of frequencies that you wouldn’t normally get with two guitars in standard.”
Myles: “It creates a very lively and broad sound from the unusual chord voicings. Using different tunings is a big part of the writing process for me. Nick Drake was one of the greatest for that. I love Pink Moon and all of that stuff. His music was so dark yet so awesome.”
3. Try to surprise yourself
Myles: “Unpredictability is incredibly important. Wouldn’t You Rather has me trying to mimic quarter tones to create this whole different vibe droning away on the D-string and getting real modal on the G. Those sounds can be quite dissonant for those of us who grew up only knowing 12 notes. When you hear those micro tones being used in Eastern music, they can twist your ear. Luckily it can work in a rock context...”
Mark: “It’s almost a bit Orient Express! Some of these ideas felt like the best we’d written in a long time. As it turns out, Myles told me he’d been watching Stranger Things and was inspired those original synth sounds. The early ones had the coolest tones, I think the more they developed them the less I liked them.
"Listen to the soundtrack to The Warriors or any John Carpenter movie... that’s the vibe we wanted to add to this record. Even just one note or chord can really throw you, like in the chorus of Indoctrination. All it takes is one little ear-twister to keep people on their toes. None of us want to keep writing the same thing, it gets boring and redundant.
"On the song Native Son I had this idea I showed to Myles, who already had a lot of the song worked out but no bridge, and together we flipped the time signature round. You’re bobbing your head to the song and then suddenly it all warps. There are a lot of those types of surprises on this album.”
4. Change your picking style
Mark: “There’s no one method for me, my picking approach seems to incorporate a bit from all of them. There was this Brad Paisley lick I learned where I noticed I was playing with a circular motion like Steve Vai, though I’d never thought of doing it that way specifically... it just happened! However, when I pick on one single string, I tend to go from the elbow. I find that’s the fastest way to pick, for me at least.”
Myles: “Picking styles can be a bit strange going from player to player. Eddie Van Halen hangs his arm over the guitar and flicks his wrist... I don’t know how he controls it but it sounds amazing.”
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5. Use non-diatonic notes in your leads
Myles: “In Alter Bridge adding in the ninth is a big one for me, but some of my projects before that had more of a jazz background, so that’s when I became interested in passing tones and all that stuff. I got into it through listening to Miles Davis and John Coltrane. I used to wonder what the hell they were doing and why it sounded so cool, taking it so far outside and then bringing it back in.
"It’s all about those passing tones, which aren’t diatonic a lot of the time. Once I had that in my bag of tricks, I was hellbent on integrating it into the rock realm. I thought, ‘Let’s give it a try!’ I’ll experiment with diminished scales and even the whole tone scale, for that matter.
"If I’m in a hotel room and not writing, I’m literally sitting there playing the blues. In a 1/4/5 progression, there are places you can work in those outside scales. If you want to get fancy, you can throw in harmonic or melodic minor. You change the mood of any dominant chord by using these different scales, suddenly it will sound like a dominant flat nine with an augmented fifth or whatever. You can get away with so much in that world.”
6. Use five note groupings instead of four
Mark: “I’ve really gotten into doing that Eric Johnson thing. On the solo for the title track I do this descending pentatonic pattern in fives, which I’ve never really done before. Throughout my career, I’ve mainly been a three notes-per- string, alternate picking kinda guy. I’m trying to break out of that mould, looking into the best pickers in the world to see what they’re doing.
"Guys like Yngwie who might end on an upstroke with a little pull-off that you’d never notice – pick, pick, pull-off – where you don’t really hear the slurs because of how fast it all sounds. I’ve spent a lot of time with a metronome trying to dive into that. Eric tends to stick to his favourite spots in the pentatonic scale, you start recognising his patterns and ways of introducing these little flurries. He has licks to set up his licks, which really pay off.
"So I’ve sat down, ascending and descending through the most gruesome shapes just to see if there are any dark little tunnels back here that might be usable in improvisation. I always try to remember the ending spots if I need my parachute to get out of something when I feel like it’s falling apart!
"This style of picking feels like I’m starting over when I first sit down, but an hour in it feels great. Hopefully a couple of years down the road, that will change... just like any technique. I felt the same about fast legato and now I can do it comfortably whenever I want.”
7. Don't fear the bass frequencies
Mark: “In The Deep and Indoctrination are the two lowest tuned songs on the album. I guess Come To Life was our lowest tuning prior to this.”
Myles: “After finding that In The Deep loop I mentioned, the problem came when I got to the chorus. That’s when I decided to mimic the kind of gallop thing that Mark usually does...”
Mark: “He gets away with it, but when I do it everyone looks at me like I’m crazy ha ha! I’ve been trying for years and everyone’s always like, ‘What are you doing there, Mr. Horse Gallops?!’ That’s it, challenge accepted, for the next record I’m bringing all my down-tuned gallops to the table.”
Myles: “It’s a weird kind of gallop! Trying it on the fifth string wasn’t heavy enough, so I took my Telecaster and dropped the sixth string down to the same note one octave lower, so you have two A-strings essentially. That’s another where we’re actually tuned different to each other, Mark plays in standard. The interesting thing about that intro and outro lead I play was that it was originally going to be the vocal hook for the chorus, but I ended up playing it on guitar after finding a new chorus idea.”
8. Warming up matters
Mark: “Nothing gets you warmed up quicker than improvisation. I find backing tracks help me stay loose. What you should not do is sit down with the metronome and keep ripping through the same technical lick. Instead, focus on your bending, vibrato and the rest of your phrasing.
"Start out in a box and then look for ways to stretch your pinky out to get those wider intervals, which can sound more exotic. Once I’ve done all that, that’s when I might look at the setlist and think about the trouble spots.
"I remember once I was sitting with Michael Angelo Batio before a show, it was early in the tour and I was doing all of my solos to make sure I had them down. He was pretty shocked and said it had never occurred to him to play his solos to warm up. Now he does it whenever he plays. It’s always worth brushing up on the harder licks... a lot of people don’t though!”
Myles: “I like the spider...”
Mark: “Dude, not the spider ha ha! I’ve never done much with it and I hate practising things I don’t use. Have you ever actually used it?”
Myles: “I actually have ha ha! The spider ended up on The Last Hero... I’m sure there’s a solo there with a little bit of spider. There’s another that I like that picks its way through seventh arpeggios, from Gmajor7 to Aminor7 to Bminor7 and so on. It helps connect the neck. I enjoy playing sevenths a lot, they’re probably more from my jazz years but I still enjoy throwing them into rock.”
Alter Bridge's Walk The Sky is out now on Napalm Records. The band tour UK arenas in December – see Alterbridge.com for more info