Five Finger Death Punch’s Zoltan Bathory - my top 5 tips for guitarists: "Turn the gain all the way down so you have to hear every f**k-up"

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(Image: © Sergione Infuso/Corbis via Getty Images)

The sun is shining, like it does most days in Las Vegas, when MusicRadar connects with Five Finger Death Punch's Zoltan Bathory to get the lowdown on this month’s seventh album And Justice For None - and, of course, the guitarist's top 5 tips for fellow players.

The album's title came while the band were discussing their legal battles with Hollywood label Prospect Park, which drew to a close last year, and its music inspired by the drama of the last few years – from the demons within the band to the state of the world around them.

There is, however, one track that draws from far elsewhere, reinterpreting an early hit by… country blues star Kenny Wayne Shepherd?!

There are influences on this album that I never thought would work!

“There are influences on this album that I never thought would work!” laughs Bathory. “Like our cover of Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s Blue On Black. It has a southern rock kinda vibe, which is a totally different music style for us. I wasn’t sure if it would work, but we made it work. When I listen to the album now, I don’t feel it sticks out any more whatsoever.”

The founding axeman feels it should be a band’s duty to evolve, expanding their noise to its limits while remaining loyal enough to their roots. He explains in order to stay true to themselves, the music needs to evolve…

“Obviously, we have a specific sound. Like if you buy an Iron Maiden record, it sounds like Maiden. If you buy a Judas Priest record, it sounds like Priest. That’s just who they are.

“It’s the same with Five Finger Death Punch: the sound you hear is what happens when these individuals are playing music together. We don’t want to alienate our fans, but I’d say this album feels a little more diverse in general.  

“That’s always the challenge – it’s our seventh album – so we want to keep our meat and potatoes Death Punch but also venture away far enough away from it for people to understand we are doing something different. That comes through experimentation and change in both tone and what we actually play. I feel like we accomplished that this time round.”

This time round, little changed in the way of the guitar player’s rig. His collaboration with Diamond Amps came to fruition in 2014, where the Fury head was unveiled at the Winter NAMM. Having used BC Rich and Dean in years prior, he also switched to Diamond’s all-new DBZ guitar range around the same time.

The axeman expresses a sense of relief in there being not much beyond that – the guitar and amp cover all his needs for the sound he’s in search of, which means there’s a lot less to worry about…

“I’m a purist and a brute,” he shrugs. “I like going straight into the frickin’ tube head… I’m really methodical. I try to approach my rig with a practical mind. It starts with the instrument; you have to have a guitar that sounds great before you’ve even plugged it in.

Watch me playing and you’ll see my pinky is always on or around the volume knob. I might move it a hundred times in one song

“Then I choose the head that has the percussive punch and frequencies I’m looking for when tuned to B standard – I need amps that can carry that without blowing. If a transformer is too small, it will just die with all the low frequencies, so I have massive transformers in my amp. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel; I’m trying to perfect the wheel…

“I might put a little noise gate in front to catch the bullshit and that’s pretty much it,” he reveals. “I use 13-66 gauge strings which are custom-made by Dunlop. I use passive pickups because I prefer the dynamics. A passive pickup with massive strings that create a lot of movement has a lot of options. I can control my sound with the power of my picking. If I pick lightly, it almost sounds acoustic or like a clean guitar. Then when I hit hard, it will scream… without even changing channels.”

Along with picking dynamics, Bathory feels there’s a lost art to using the volume control - an asset built onto virtually every electric guitar ever made that remains often overlooked…

“I’m always riding my volume – in any song I will be moving it as I go,” he continues. “Some parts need juice in order to ring out nice and long, then if I play something percussive, I will roll down my volume so you can hear every frickin’ note. Watch me playing and you’ll see my pinky is always on or around the volume knob. I might move it a hundred times in one song. That’s how I control my sound.”

Here, the Hungarian-born guitarist gives us his five tips for musical wisdom…

1. Look in the mirror

“Here are some of the things that every guitarist should but probably doesn’t want to hear! We all need to look in the mirror and face the reality. Realise your own function in the band: if you are a young Yngwie Malmsteen in-the-making, you will know it. Do you want to be a guitar teacher/musical inspiration people look up to? Or do you want to be more of a songwriter? I think it’s important for musicians to realise this and truly understand the difference.  

Technique doesn’t necessarily make masterful songwriters, because their function in this world is a bit different

“Guys like Vinnie Moore and Malmsteen inspire the crap out of me - I look at them and think, ‘Even if I played 10 hours a day for the rest of my life, I would never catch up with those guys!’ I see them as the music teacher figures; they inspire us to be better or faster. Technique doesn’t necessarily make masterful songwriters, because their function in this world is a bit different. So think about what you want to be… the influential shredder or someone with a different goal.

“I grew up in Europe, where I feel classical music forms the backbone of all music. It almost becomes a part of you - even if you absolutely loathe it and don’t listen to it, I think it still affects you.

“Look at the difference between European and American hard-rock or metal bands: I think it’s obvious which ones come from where due to their sound. In Europe, the classical history informs certain ideas in relation to the melodies and harmonies. Most American music has is blues and rhythm-based, more about the groove of the song than the melody or harmony. With this band, I wanted to marry the two together and that’s exactly what we do.”

2. Acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses

“Do not try to cover the mistakes with gain or delay. It’s like getting your pilot’s licence; you shouldn’t cheat because that’s how you will end up killing yourself. Don’t turn off your metronome because you find it hard and don’t dial in more gain because you can’t hold all the notes… because if you do that, you are going to suck.  

“In fact, I’d recommend making it as difficult as it fuckin’ can be! Turn the gain all the way down so you have to hear every fuck-up. Be the best you honestly can be. If you choose to be the inspirational guitar god, you will inspire through technique - that means you have no choice but to sit there with a drum machine or metronome and play all the hours in the day. You won’t have a girlfriend or boyfriend because you are learning every scale there is to learn. The other choice of being a writer is not worse or better - you still have to learn your instrument.

“I did the guitar solos originally and then we got Jason Hook, who is one of my favourite guitarists. Now he does more of the leads, almost all of them, actually. It’s important to look at your abilities and everyone else’s abilities to see what makes the most sense.

“One time I tracked this guitar solo that I was really proud of because it was so blazing. Then Jason came into the studio the next day with his own ideas – we have an understanding where we can do that – he did his leads. Despite being so proud of my solo, I decided his fit the song better and that’s what we went with.  

“It doesn’t matter how fuckin’ great I felt about my solo – it should be about the song. Likewise, I might track riffs that he wrote because I will play them differently and it might sound heavier. That’s where musical intelligence and humbleness becomes important. You are nothing without your band. You need that fuckin’ band and you need to be able to co-exist. In this band, we 100% understand each other’s strengths.”

3. Understand the science of music

“Back in the day, composers used to convey complex emotions that told a story without vocals. Pick Four Seasons by Vivaldi – if I played you those pieces, I am 100% sure you will be able to pick up which one is Winter and which one is Spring. You just know! How the fuck did that happen?

“Same goes for Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake or Wagner’s Ride Of The Valkyries… listening to those pieces, you can almost see things in your head. The music creates pictures, almost like writing a movie in your head through music. That’s how you communicate.

You need the music to convey everything without any vocal melodies or lyrics. It should be a soundtrack in itself

“There’s a science to it. You need the music to convey everything without any vocal melodies or lyrics. It should be a soundtrack in itself, with all the emotions and ideas through the notes and feel. That’s just beginning to scratch the surface. There are physical and psychological actualities you can create on your audience. A lot of musicians don’t understand this – maybe it’s not their fault, maybe nobody showed them…

“Take a simple riff and put a 4/4 beat over the top. Listening back to it, you may feel it has this uplifting, military vibe that makes you think, ‘Yeah, let’s go!’ Then make it lazy, so the snare comes in a bit late and that will bring a feeling of relaxation. Or push the drums or guitars ahead of the beat, and that will give you anxiety. Those are physiological things that actually happen to your body by listening to music. Manipulating them can make people relaxed, pumped up or give them pure anxiety!

“If I told you to write the soundtrack to a horror movie, you have to know where to go. Or if I say write something happy, you will need the major scales and the same goes for sadness with minor scales.”

4. Look to the gods

“Hopefully we’ve established there’s a lot more to songwriting than just riffs. It’s about tricking the mind into feelings, with complex imagery communicated through sound. I study composers – my favourites are guys like Hans Zimmer or Ennio Morricone, who are the gods of film score.

“If you watch a film with the wrong kind of score, you will know it. Studying those guys helps you understand what sounds convey what emotions. How do they create those feelings? Understand that and you will be able to write songs that make people feel.

“You can take it further, looking at body mechanics. Listen to your favourite metal albums and you'll find there are certain speeds that make you headbang. If I choose the BPM and speed of the music, I will be either encouraging your body to move or restricting it. If a song is too slow, you can’t move to it, so that will convey a different emotion to rocking out. Other songs can be perfect for how your body naturally wants to respond.  

“So write something while you are stood up, jump around while you play it and ask yourself: does it make me fuckin’ move? That’s what I do; it’s the only way I know it will make people respond the way I want. It’s not as simple as a few riffs strung together. That’s the art of songwriting, embracing your function and starting to understand the science behind it.”

5. Don’t be too smart for your own good

“Musicians often think, ‘Oh Jesus Christ, that’s too simple and I can’t afford to do that!’ You have no reason to be scared of a four-chord chorus. If you noodle through that chorus, look at what happens – you won’t leave space for the vocalist, locking them into a place where they can only stick to what you’re doing.

You have to be a team player and understand it’s not always your time to f**kin’ shine. There will be a time, but for now you might just need to shut up

“If you are crazy enough to go for a chromatic scale, then you are really fucking with the vocalist… who will have nowhere to go thanks to you, other than scream over it and hope it sounds okay.

“You have to be a team player and understand it’s not always your time to fuckin’ shine. There will be a time, but for now you might just need to shut up. Understand whose moment it is and leave space. If that means you only play three or four chords, accept and understand that. Because no-one is listening to you; they are listening to the vocalist. You will fuck up your band trying to be the smart guy - sometimes you just need to let the song be a song.  

“The more notes and the more shit you throw in there, the more you take away from the vocals. Even a good vocalist will struggle and get fenced in by too many ideas. The Beatles figured this out early on - in fact, I’d say almost every song that became huge and touched people’s hearts was very simple to play. And four chords might not be simple, actually… what is the rhythm, how are those notes played? There are many different aspects to even the easiest-sounding ideas.”

And Justice For None is out on 18 May via the Eleven Seven Label Group.