Ask Mark Tremonti for his solution to writer’s block and the 41-year-old metaller can only shrug: “I don’t run into that too often.”
True enough. From his 90s breakout with Florida post-grungers Creed, through the anvil-heavy anthemics of Alter Bridge, onto the solo career that began with 2012’s All I Was, the guitarist has driven nine studio albums with his hard, hooky, virtuoso fretwork.
Even now, in 2015, the creative wellspring remains a torrent, with Tremonti releasing his second solo set, Cauterize, and readying a third, Dust.
“Every album has pushed me,” says the guitarist, as he prepares to share his wisdom. “If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse…”
Singing helps my slinging
“It’s funny, but when you’re singing in a band, it’s almost like all the worries about playing the guitar go away.
“I used to obsess about every little part of an Alter Bridge show, and sometimes when you obsess too much, when that part comes up, it throws you off, because you’ve prepared too much, instead of just letting it happen.
“When you’re singing, you just kinda let it flow. It’s actually made it easier. I’m much more relaxed playing guitar for this band. But, y’know, you have to make sure you can play and sing certain parts at the same time. That’s why we do one-take live demos and make sure we’re not doing anything that can’t be reproduced live.”
Don't stick on standard
“Early on, I started messing with alternate tunings when I’d hear a chord in my head, or I’d fingerpick something but one open string sounded bad.
“A lot of people are afraid of alternate tunings, because they’ve worked so hard on memorising scales in standard. Once you change that canvas, everybody thinks it’s too much work. But for me, it’s a godsend.
“If I didn’t have all these tunings, my songwriting would have dried up years ago. On the new album, Radical Change is C# standard. Cauterize is half-step-down drop D. Arm Yourself is A# standard.
“Open D5 is my favourite. It’s next to impossible to make anything sound bad in that tuning. I purposely play something that would sound godawful in standard tuning, and all of a sudden, I’ll come up with something cool and unique.” Solos are stories
“The most difficult thing on this album was to not be repetitive when doing 18 guitar solos. That was a monumental task. Y’know, a solo has gotta tell a story. It’s gotta have emotion. It’s gotta really target those chord changes underneath. If you took away the song and just listened to the solo, it should be a little song unto itself.
“I think Dark Trip and Providence are probably my two favourites on the first record, and both are storytelling, string-bending, emotional solos.”
“I used to learn as much as I possibly could. I’d learn this solo, that solo, something from this or that instructional DVD. But you find that over the years, you forget 98 per cent of what you learned.
“Then I kinda had this enlightening moment where instead of learning 10 techniques, I focused on one individual thing and got everything I could out of it.
“For example, when I really dug into my legato, I spent maybe eight months just focusing on that. Now it’s something in my style that is always at my disposal and will never fail me.”
Look after yourself
“The thing that worries me is when I play too much and the back of my wrist starts to hurt. As soon as I feel any kind of uncomfortable sensation, I’ll stop. But if I’m off tour, sometimes I’ll be like, ‘Ah, I’m gonna keep going for a bit.’ Then I’ll screw myself for three days and I can’t play. My wife wants to go on a skiing trip and I keep telling her, ‘Ah, I dunno.’ I see everybody breaking their arms skiing…”
Learn from the best
“I was deeply influenced by all the speed-metal from the 80s, bands like Forbidden and Testament. Riff-wise, Slayer is one of the main bands I get influence from.
“Even Metallica: my fingerpicking style sorta sounds like The Call Of Ktulu. So it was them, and all the folks from instructional videos, like Vinnie Moore, Paul Gilbert…
“The core of my style is probably a mixture between the down-picking stuff I grew up with - the speed-metal rhythm stuff and the palm-muting - and then the fingerstyle I developed early on. I’d say it’s also the alternate tunings - hopefully, that’s something unique to my style.”
The web is your friend
“The internet blows my mind. Every time I get an itch to learn something new, I’ll fish around on YouTube and find everything you’d ever want to know. I used to buy instructional videos. I had hundreds. It didn’t matter if it was country, blues, metal, jazz.
“Do kids in 2015 have the patience to practise as hard as I did? Some of them. It’s been a long time since we saw a new guy come out and really blow the world away, but there’s a ton of great players who are just too good for their own good.”
Choose your cameos wisely
“Joe Bonamassa came through town and texted me, saying, ‘Hey man, why don’t you sit in with me?’ But that’s absolutely what I don’t want to do: to play a slow-blues, with a blues master, in front of his crowd.
“It goes back to ’99. Creed went to Buddy Guy’s bar in Chicago, and he gets up unannounced and sings Happy Birthday to his assistant. Then he goes, ‘Okay, everybody, I want to invite my friend Mark Tremonti up here.’ Back then, I was a metal player and didn’t do the blues soloing thing too well, so I was terrified.
“I got up there, and we were doing a slow blues in the key of F, and I was playing as simple as I possibly could, just to survive. From that moment, it was like, ‘I never want to be in that position again. I always want to be over-prepared.’”
Live isn’t about perfection
“When I’m in the studio laying down solos, I’m always seated, to make it as precise as possible. But when I’m playing live, I try and just flow with it, have a bit more energy and maybe sting notes harder or change the feel a little bit. If I miss a note onstage because I’m having a good time, and running around, then so be it. In the studio, it’s gotta be perfect. Live, I try to have fun.”
Pass it on
“It was my brother who really pushed me to release my instructional DVDs. I said ‘no’ for a few years, because I didn’t want to ever record one and then a few years later go, ‘Man, you should have waited until you were better.’
“Finally, I agreed, and now we’ve done two. Another thing he always said was that we should do clinics. I was always terrified of that, because I’ve seen a few, and I never wanted to be in front of 50 people, talking and playing guitar without a band backing me up.
“So I did it on my terms, where we had 10 people in a room, another amp sat next to me for volunteers, and they get tabs and a DVD of what we cover. I want to be able to play guitar with everybody, not just say, ‘Here, look at me shred.’”
It’s about practice, not theory
“I’d be at a loss without knowing the five pentatonic shapes. A lot of people just know one position, with a couple of notes in the second box, but I find it very important to know the pentatonics all the way across the neck, and three-note-per-string diatonic shapes. But I don’t use a whole lot of theory.
“A lot of times, I’ll sit down with players who are big theory guys. Michael Angelo Batio is a friend and he’s like, ‘Man, if you tabbed out your stuff, the theory is crazy - it’s all these alternate tunings, crazy chord voicings, strange scales.’ I like that. But I never think of theory when I’m writing.”
You can't have too many amps
“I don’t have a huge guitar collection. At home, I probably only have - jeez - 15. I’m more of an amp hoarder.
“My pride and joy depends on what day, but I have a Dumble Overdrive Special and a Trainwreck Express: those are the two biggest collector pieces.
“Another of my favourites is a ’56 Deluxe and a ’60 Bassman that were modded by Dumble. I also have a Van Weelden Twinkleland - an amazing sounding amp that did all the cleans on the new album. I could go on for days…”
The sky’s the limit
“I’m always practising, and trying out new techniques, and over the years I’ve definitely improved. I’ve learnt more, worked harder, and never lost the drive or gumption to be the best player I can be.
“I’m not gonna be satisfied till someone that I really look up to is like, ‘Here, come and sit in with me.’ I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like I can tackle anything, but that’s my definite goal. Every one of my albums has pushed me. If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse…”
Cauterize is available now on Fret 12 Records. See Mark’s website Fret12 for tuition videos and more info.