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Best of 2022: Becoming a great musician often requires you to be a sponge; that doesn't mean you roll around cleaning the kitchen floor, instead you're always open to ideas and influence. You never stop learning.
"A lot of your favourite players, that's what they would do," notes Myles Kennedy, who is decades into his career and has seen the advantages first hand. "I feel like good players generally want to do that; for example, Mark [Tremonti] has always been super open to learn the things. He's always got some guy that he's learning from on YouTube, or he's discovered new players he's super excited about. Slash is the same way.
"Even if I was playing some little lick, Slash would come up and go, 'Hey, man, what's, what's that? That's cool'. But the funny thing about Slash is, he would pick up a lick that I've been working on for years and I'd hear him play it later that night in the set, perfectly. He just picks it up very quickly."
Away from his work with Slash and The Conspirators, the need to "stay open" as a player has helped Myles move between blues and folk in his solo work to the metallic riffs he's brought to the table for Alter Bridge's new album Pawns & Kings. He's also inspired the band as a vocalist; this record finds him and bandmate Mark Tremonti stepping up their harmonic dynamics; with the soaring anthem Stay a showcase of how far they've come.
Myles agrees. "I love that. And I feel like it's just a good palate cleanser, because so much of the records so intense and aggressive, and then that song is like this nice respite," he explains. "Mark has really evolved into a wonderful vocalist. And it was something that I was aware of even when we were working together back in the One Day Remains days. He was showing me what [melody line] he heard for a vocal, and I remember thinking to myself, why isn't this guy singing more? He's got a great sounding instrument.
"And so what he's done through the years and years of establishing Tremonti and touring. and now with the Frank Sinatra thing, is now he's figuring out how to utilise and refine that talent. And it's really been fun to watch that evolve.
"So you take a song like Stay where he has this vocal approach, and then I weave in and out of that as well. And we harmonise – we have a certain thing we do. Because of the fact that he's a baritone with this depth to his voice, and I'm a tenor, fortunately those two things work together, and they blend together in a certain way that is, I guess, uniquely us, and that helps define the band."
Another key factor that defines Alter Bridge is they've been a two-guitar band since their second album Blackbird 15 years ago. While Myles and Mark's previous bands Mayfield Four and Creed, respectively, saw them at the sole guitarists, Blackbird represented a shift in songwriting and sound. Alter Bridge hasn't been afraid to explore since, with the eight-minute Fable Of The Silent Son from the new album representing a bold journey through musical movements and atmosphere. But for the hugely underrated skill of being a singer / guitarist it also throws down new challenges…
You don't make things easy for yourself as a guitar player, so how do you balance what you can do as a guitar player and not compromising your vocal when it comes to performing some Alter Bridge songs live?
"Well, I'll tell you, the beauty of it is that I know I've got Mark. Silver Tongue is a perfect example. Because when it gets to the verse; I wrote that little rif and then I put a vocal on, after the fact. Then I sat back in my studio and I was like, well that's gonna be challenging to sing and play at the same time. Because the vocal is high enough and powerful enough, I'm gonna have to be focused on the vocal. And if I'm worried about executing that little riff perfectly every time it's going to get in the way.
"Then that light bulb goes off; 'Ah, Mark's gonna play that really well'. So that really does help. But then there are parts where you've all got to be playing for the dynamic. So I'm always aware, especially on the choruses. of making sure that it's a simple enough progression so I can really hone in on the vocal. and make sure that's paramount."
You work quite fast in the studio and in the writing stages together, are there parts you have to change live on reflection so you can deliver them onstage?
"Yes, there have been things along the way. And there are songs on this record where it remains to be seen. And I'm interested to see how Pawns & Kings goes with singing and playing that at the same time. I think it'll be alright, for the most part. But there are going to be a few little sections here and there where I might have to be more aware of the vocal for for a few measures, and maybe adapt the guitar part accordingly.
"But once again, it keeps going back to having this brilliant guitar player standing to my left, and knowing that he can essentially pick up the slack. And if it was just a three-piece that would be different. But as a four-piece with two guitar players, I feel like we're going to be alright, no matter what."
For the last album and tour cycle of your solo band it became more electric, but you were the only guitarist. What was it like to jump back into that world in comparison?
"That's interesting about the solo thing, because I did learn from that, especially on that last tour. When you go into studio, and you have all these grand ideas about, 'Oh, I'm gonna put this slide part here and I'm gonna have a lap steel here', and then you go to tour it and you're a three-piece. You're bullheaded, and you want to keep it a three-piece because you just want to see if you can do it. And you're standing in front of tens of thousands of people at a festival [laughs].
"It was definitely very eye-opening as far as, there are things you do in the studio that you have to be cognate of if you're gonna go out as a three-piece. And I feel like we managed to do it, we made it work, just by changing the arrangements. But when we were having to relearn the songs, I remember just kind of cursing myself constantly going, 'Gosh, why didn't you think about that?! You can't hire four other guitar players!'"
Apart from that experience, do you usually anticipate every song on a record might have to be played live or do you allow yourself the chance to really go to town with the studio recording without that pressure?
"Yeah, there are always those songs… especially when you have been doing it a long time. You have to come to terms with the fact that there are many other songs in your catalogue that people are going to want to hear instead of this obscure album track that, though you love it because it's fresh and new, maybe somebody else would rather hear something else.
"To a degree that gives you kind of the hall pass in the studio environment to go, okay, well, we're probably not going to play this live anyway so we're going to do this, this and this. But that can bite you in the butt because then the record comes out and suddenly the song you thought was just going to be an album track ends up being the first single. That's exactly what happened with In Stride. I thought that was just an album track, I had no idea was gonna be the first single. No idea."
This might feel second nature to you now, but what are the steps you take when learning to play and sing a challenging guitar part?
"As I was alluding to earlier, the chorus is very important. And generally the nice thing is with choruses is a lot of times it's just a sequence of chords. And so that's all you have to worry about.
"Occasionally you have a song where your chorus will be sung over a riff. And when that is happening, I might try it a few times to see if I can sing and play at the same time and once in a while surprise myself. But often what I'll do then is I will try it in the rehearsal context and come up with a part that will complement what's going to happen within the realm of the other guys that are holding down the fort with the riff. I'll add some kind of fairy dust part to make to ensure that I can still sing it and play at the same time.
"So it really it really depends on the track and it depends on the rhythm. A big part of it is rhythm; if the rhythms are close enough, and the melody is accenting rhythmically, it will usually be fine. But if they're in a totally different place, then it's like rubbing your belly and patting your head.
"That's the thing that amazes me; I watch a guy like like James Hetfield and it's amazing how he can come up with those very rhythmic riffs and then sing over the top the way he does. I find that very inspiring.
"I find that occasionally, there will be something that will stump me, but with enough time, if I just put in the time and keep practising and doing it over and over and over, I'll generally be able to land on my feet."
And how will you be doing that when you're running through parts at home – with an unplugged electric or plugged in?
"I'll be here [in my home studio] and I'll plug into an amp. I'll stand up and I might even take a microphone just to kind of recreate the way it's going to be on stage. I'll just start running the tunes at a reasonable level volume-wise.
"It's all repetition, and that's something that I've learned from playing with Slash, because he will rehearse for a tour or for a record many weeks prior, and that that has been a real inspiring thing for me. And I've now taken that same philosophy and work ethic into my own world. And it's really been beneficial. It's always the idea of repetition, and doing it so you don't have to think about it anymore. By the time you get on stage you don't have to think about a thing; that all needs to be automatic, because you're you're standing in front of people and you've got adrenaline and that's when things go wrong – if it's not a motor skill at that point."
Something people might overlook about singers who play an instrument on stage is you're having to monitor two instruments at once, and that can present challenges. Is there anything specific about the way you approach that with your monitoring?
"That's a great question – somehow you're getting in my head here! Because to me that's really, really, really important. And some people don't think about it, because you've got to carve out the right frequencies between both instruments so that you can hear the details when you need to hear them.
"With the guitar, I generally keep my guitar panned to the to the right side, set about three o'clock, and then whoever I'm playing with, like with Mark, I'll pan it to the left. But I'll bring the volume down. So it's not totally balanced. I need to know he's there but – and this is I'm really showing my vulnerability here with my ears after years of beating them up – this what happens naturally with my ears when I hear the vocals. even though it's panned in the middle, I hear it just to the left.
"Through years and years of playing with amps, crushing my right ear when I didn't use in-ears, my higher end isn't quite as strong on my on my right ear as it is on my left. So I hear a lot of those the details and a lot of the kind of breathy parts of my vocals just just to the left. It's not drastic, but just to the left.
"So it's like my ears naturally help with where I'm going to hear my vocal, which is kind of natural panning [laughs]. So that's the way I set it up when I talk with my monitor engineer, I make sure that that's all there. And I make sure that from a frequency standpoint with my guitars, I don't want it to rip my head off. I don't want it to rip my head off and be too bright. I just want to make sure I can hear the midrange and then create a space so that I my vocals sit nicely and I can hear pitch. That's paramount."
How can each show differ in terms of dialling that in?
"The beauty with technology and with in-ear monitors is once we get that right, which usually can take a it can take a little bit of time at the beginning of a tour until it's finally right, but once you get it, they leave it set that way and they have their trusty card with with all the data on it and then nothing moves.
"The only thing that might change night to night is maybe the reverb needs to be accentuated if it's a real dry room, but if it's an ambient room, then we bring the reverb down because then that will affect my pitch. If it's super washed out, that's when I start having a hard time hearing my pitch. And it's very important that there's a little bit of ambience so that you feel free – you don't feel like self conscious like you're singing in a totally dry room. It's like when you sing in the shower, you want a little bit of that as it helps you feel kind of relaxed and feel free and inspires you."
It's important you mention in-ear monitors because I think there's a preconception from some musicians that they're a 'pro' thing. They're not for those of us playing bars, but that's really not the case and there's huge advantages for all musicians. Do you wish you'd been able to switch to using them earlier?
"Yeah, if I if I could go back in a time machine 30-odd years to when I was doing all those club gigs, and if in-ears existed at that point, absolutely.
"I don't know how people can perform without them because it really is such a game changer. And not only does it protect your ears but it'll help you perform better. Mark is a good example; hearing his vocals now that he uses in-ears versus when he was just using wedges. He can hear his pitch much better now he doesn't have to push as hard. It's just a total total game-changer so I would highly recommend it.
"You don't have to be playing the enormodome to use in-ears. If you're playing just a small club you should absolutely be using ears because you will not only hear yourself better, you're gonna save your hearing. Unless you crank them up too loud. Be careful of that because you can actually do more damage if you're not careful and you want to get lost in the moment and get the adrenaline rush of cranking it up to 10. That's very bad. Uncle Myles says no!"
Is there anything you miss now you're using in-ears – hearing the crowd and the physical guitar cab?
"Absolutely – I miss that moving air thing. And as a guitar player, and I'm sure you've talked to many guitar players about this, there's something about having that [in-ear] driver going right into your ear drum. It exposes things in a certain way.
"It will help you play more precise but when it comes to lead playing, myself included, if I'm, playing a long solo sometimes I will actually unplug my in-ears from my belt pack. I've still got hearing protection because I've got the in-ears in, but I'm feeling it. I'll go and stand near my amp and play the solo near the amp. I don't feel as self conscious because I'm not hearing every little detail of pick attack. Then when the solo is done I'll plug it back in."
You've been using Diezel Herbert amps since the Blackbird days, are they still holding up?
"I'm still using the tried and true Diezels. ls. I think the only change is, and I started that on the last record Walk The Sky, I started using the VH4s. And sometimes I use them on the record in conjunction with the Herbert. So it's about 60%. VH4 and 40% Herbert. And so in this realm, I'll probably just use the VH4 because Mark's sound is so thick I don't think I'm gonna need the bottom end of the Herbert. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. It's my philosophy."
How have they held up with valve replacements and the wear and tear of the road?
"In the 15 years, I've been using those Diezels I don't know if one has ever gone down. They're built like a tank. It's absolutely incredible."
- Pawns & Kings is out now on Napalm Records. Alter Bridge tour the UK and Europe in November and December with Halestorm and Mammoth WVH. More info at alterbridge.com