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Mark Morton's top 5 tips for guitarists: “It’s not about playing as fast as you can, but assessing what kind of pulse you want a riff to have”

(Image credit: Travis Shinn)

“I feel just grateful and really thankful to have had the opportunity,” says Lamb Of God guitarist Mark Morton, on collaborating with Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington.

As fate would have it, the recordings for his debut solo album’s opening track, Cross Off, would be Bennington’s last - his untimely passing coming only months after the sessions.

“What’s great is that we did actually work together,” continues Morton. “We wrote that song together and got the music in place. I had a few lyrics lying around, but Chester came in and brought a lot of creative input. He had a bunch of ideas about the verses and the bridge and what he wanted to do. It was very collaborative; he had a lot of input and was very excited...”

Looking back now, it’s only natural for the guitarist to feel a mixture of emotions - amid all the sadness surrounding such a tragic loss, there’s also a debt of gratitude. The creative venture spawned a lead single that would see the voice of a legend rise to the top of the rock charts from beyond the grave.

For those that never got to meet the late singer, Morton’s memories are a testament to a man who, despite reaching the highest echelons of stardom, kept his feet firmly on the ground...

“Mainly he was super-humble,” says Morton. “No attitude at all walking through that door. He came in very much as another writer for this track, staying really engaged and fun to work with.

You can hear how much Chester loved the song in that performance. I feel lucky to have had the chance, because only a few months later he was gone...

“When it was all written, he got in the booth and I sat behind the board watching him record that incredible performance. It’s just so plugged-in and exciting - I think you can hear how much he loved the song in that performance. I feel lucky to have had the chance, because only a few months later he was gone...”

As for the other nine tracks on Anesthetic, the personnel list is quite staggering indeed. Mark Lanegan lends his signature croon to Axis, Myles Kennedy’s sky-scraping soprano gets heard on Save Defiance, along with appearances from members of Alice In Chains, Testament, Papa Roach, Korn, Megadeth, Stone Sour, Trivium, Arch Enemy and Buckcherry...

“What a joy it was to do Axis with Mark Lanegan,” says Morton. “He really is one of my favourite singers ever, from Screaming Trees to Queens Of The Stone Age and his solo stuff. It was kinda odd for me to reach out because we had no connection, I didn’t know him and had never worked with him - I was just a fan. There was an original version of the song that was very different...

“I sent it to him, and to my surprise, he liked it enough to say he would work on it with me. When he sent his vocals back, I liked what he did so much that I wiped the whole track and rewrote the song around his vocals. The rhythm section on that song is Mike Inez from Alice In Chains and Steve Gorman from The Black Crowes. It’s a very unique song!”

As for Morton’s own contributions, many of the tracks were born haphazardly noodling around at home with no intention of making a solo album. It was only when the guitarist realised all these ideas were piling up, and not quite appropriate for Lamb Of God’s metallic charge, that it could be time to see what he could achieve under his own guise...

“My main acoustic is my Guild D-55,” continues Morton. “I strum that all the time and I wrote a lot of this stuff on that. There was a 10th anniversary Jackson Dominion we did a while back; that’s one of my favourites, too – something I’ll play commonly around the house.

“I also have my '75 Les Paul Goldtop; that’s probably the one guitar I’d keep if I ever got forced to only have one. That thing is just a part of me… It originally came with the mini-humbuckers, but somebody who had it before me routed it out for PAFs, so I have some proper Gibsons replacements in there. That guitar is beat to hell, it’s gone green and has all kinds of dings and chunks missing. There’s an American flag sticker behind the bridge, it’s all fucked up and weighs 30 pounds. It’s nothing anybody would really want… except for me. But that’s what makes it mine, right?!”

Here, Lamb Of God’s stage-left axeman offers his five tips to metal majesty...

1. Think about the pulse

“I guess one of the things I look for first and foremost when writing is some kind of groove. It’s not about playing as fast as you can, but assessing what kind of pulse you want this riff to have. I tend to like ones that make your head bob or bring this visceral reaction. Give it groove and swagger so that it has personality.  

There’s no real secret to making it technical; just think about what kind of characteristics you want it to have... some can be brutish and some can be delicate

“There’s no real secret to making it technical; just think about what kind of characteristics you want it to have... some can be brutish and some can be delicate. It all comes down to the response you naturally get from it.

“I think it was the era when I started learning guitar… you had Testament with The New Order, Practice What You Preach and Souls Of Black, then Metallica around Ride The Lightning, Puppets or ...And Justice For All. All these bands in their original heyday, exploring a lot of triplets!

“Bands like Exodus and Sacred Reich felt really groove-oriented, also sneaking triplets into their progressions. It was kinda acrobatic, but that’s what made it fun to play or listen to. When you lock in on that stuff, you realise that’s what makes thrash metal thrash. Wanting to emulate those bands early on helped me find my sound.”

2. Don’t just listen to metal

“Listening to music outside of metal is actually what’s helpful. When I write for Lamb Of God, I have nothing to gain from listening to metal of the same ilk as the band I’m in.

I won’t ride around listening to Pantera, Slayer or Meshuggah albums to get ideas, because then I’ll just wind up writing stuff that sounds like them

“I won’t ride around listening to Pantera, Slayer or Meshuggah albums to get ideas, because then I’ll just wind up writing stuff that sounds like them. I love bands like QOTSA or early Muse to get songwriting ideas. Those other styles can find their way into whatever I’m doing in that metal context.

“I also listen to a lot of hip-hop, which like Lamb Of God, comes down to the groove. I remember being a teenager, the things I loved about Slayer’s South Of Heaven were same things I loved about N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton: they both had heavy grooves and confronting, aggressive, sometimes frightening, subject matters. Slayer was the scariest thing until N.W.A came out, because they made us all go, ‘Wow - this is actually real!’

“So that’s why it mainly comes down to pulse for me. Hip-hop is more about energy and groove and vocal cadences. But there are guys in my band that would disagree; Chris Adler would probably say he doesn’t like rap music… we all listen to different things. What I like about rap is how quickly it evolved in terms of production, styles and trends - updating itself maybe more than any genre. That’s pretty inspiring!”

(Image credit: Daniel Knighton/Getty Images)

3. Have fun instead of sticking to a metronome

“I never had the metronome. That’s why my tips probably don’t count... I’m not really a technical player. I’m more into the emotional and visceral reaction; I’ve never been disciplined with practice. I’ve always just played guitar. I would burn up cassette tapes just from all the fast-forwarding and rewinding to learn songs...

“But I’ve never been one to sit there, learn a lick, put on the metronome and speed it up slowly. God bless people that can do that, but I started playing guitar for fun… and that’s just not fun to me. That’s why I’m not a shred-fast guy. When it comes to playing the solo, I will play some blues shit!”

4. Simple can be more expressive

“Dimebag was always a big influence in that regard. And [Def Leppard/ex-Dio guitarist] Vivian Campbell, too - he’s a blues guy with a very metal history. Zakk Wylde is another - for me, him and Dime were always the ultimate bluesy shredders.

“Over the years, I have written some [technical] stuff, like the song Grace, which has this very worked-out solo, which I mapped out and planned with harmonies, with some sweep picking because everyone used to say I couldn’t. I thought, ‘Fuck y’all, I’m gonna sweep now!’

“Then there’s songs like Ghost Walking; that has a pretty shreddy solo. Sometimes I feel the duty to serve the metal and play some shred-tastic leads, I guess! But more often that not, I just tend to take passes and play what I feel, things that come naturally. I have more fun doing that. Playing music should be expressive. I’m not saying rippin’ shredders like Yngwie or whoever aren’t expressive; for me, it’s the kind of language I speak when I’m holding my guitar.”

5. Cleaner guitars sound heavier

“I have learned over the years that less gain and cleaner tends to feel heavier sonically. Even the Black Album, a really heavy album for its time, doesn’t have super-distorted guitar tones. I have learned through experience that dialling the gain back for cleaner tones, especially if you double up guitars in the studio, seems to have more mass and a broader spectrum.

If you can’t play your lead without a certain pedal or setting or whatever, you should probably practise it a bit more

“If you rely on any piece of gear to execute your part, you probably aren’t playing it well. If you can’t play your lead without a certain pedal or setting or whatever, you should probably practise it a bit more. We all need gain and sustain to a certain degree, I get it, but sometimes people get a little too caught up in all that stuff. It’s important to remember the sound is mainly in your hands and in your guitar.

“I feel like each amp has its own attitude and personality. You could put five Mesa/Boogie Mark Vs in front of me and they’ll all sound like a Mark V, but there will be different idiosyncrasies to how each sounds. You need to dial your amp to the room.

“A lot of times I will try to get the amp to respond how I would like through basic EQ stuff. Learn to dial your amp in for each part when recording, in a way that compliments that specific part. Make it respond right and keep as much clarity as you can. Look, it’s real basic stuff, man... make shit sound cool and stop turning the knobs all the way up, haha!”

Anesthetic is out now via WPP Records/Spinefarm.