Where does Nita Strauss find the time? They don’t call her Hurricane Nita for nothing. She is a six-string force of nature, a blur of motion. There are the tours. The guitar clinics. The fitness challenges. And then there’s the album, too, her latest, The Call Of The Void, is both a tour de force of metal guitar and of her convening power.
This is a record on which she put the call out to some of the most high-profile vocalists in rock and metal, and made an album that split the difference between instrumental compositions and vocal tracks – her electric guitar virtuosity is the throughline.
Whose voices do we have on the record? Well, there’s Anders Fridén of In Flames joining her on opening track, The Golden Trail, Alissa White-Gulz on The Wolf You Feed, Alice Cooper drops by, Lzzy Hale, Dorothy, Lilith Czar…
As Strauss admits, the more the songs came, the more the album was going to work out this way. There might have been pressure to have the full album with vocals after her David Draiman collaboration, Dead Inside, hit number one. But then she would have missed on the chance to work with one of her long-standing heroes, Marty Friedman, who joins her on the bravura instrumental Surfacing.
Strauss is officially back on the Alice Cooper roster after last year hitting the road with pop superstar Demi Lovato – an experience that reminded Strauss of how powerful it was to see Jennifer Batten blaze a trail and take rock guitar mainstream as Michael Jackson’s guitarist in the ‘80s and ‘90s. But right now she’s got enough on her plate.
Checking in from the San Antonio, Texas, leg of her Summer Storm tour, she’s tells MusicRadar that she likes it that way. Chaos is the life she has chosen…
Nita, you’ve got so many things going on all at once. How do you compartmentalise all of these projects?
“A lot of things happening at once is kind of my specialty, between the record release, my engagement, I have a fitness contest going on, a tour – I’m in the middle of a tour. As artists, you kind of thrive on chaos. I opted for the chaotic as my second home.”
But then you’ve got to make a record and that must have been a logistical nightmare.
“It was a challenge logistically but compartmentalising is tough when you are doing something creative because you have to give all of yourself to everything that you are doing.
“I think, if anything, I need to get a bit better at compartmentalising, and setting aside separate times for personal life, and work life, and touring, and recording, fan stuff I do on Patreon. Everything else. I think once things calm down I am going to divide my time more evenly between the things but right now I am trying to do it with everything I have, just white-knuckling it somehow.”
Did you plan this record as a vocal record? How did it all start out?
“Actually, it was pretty well planned out from the beginning. We knew we were going to have some guests on it. Maybe we didn’t know we were going to have so many. Maybe I thought we were initially going to start with a few. But then the wish list grew, and the amount of songs we wrote grew, and it just sort of worked out pretty early on that the plan was going to be a half-and-half split between instrumental and those sung with the guests.
“I think that that’s probably a format that I will continue with going forward, even though the vocal songs have a level of success that the instrumental songs could never have – they bring me to a whole new audience that might not have been exposed to what I do as a solo artists. The instrumental is where my heart is, so I think I will always keep doing that as well.”
When you get success with a vocal track, like that David Draiman number one, it places a certain expectation on you to do more.
“Definitely. Definitely so.”
When you are working with these difference vocalists, does it change your playing style at all? Do you find yourself tailoring your approach to their different qualities?
“You want to always make whoever you are working with feel like they are being heard and ‘catered to’ might not necessarily be the right word but, for example, writing a song for someone like Alice Cooper, I am not going to write him something in a very high key, or a very low register, or something too fast where he would have to say syllables very, very fast. You want to be conscious of, ‘This is what Alice does, what works the best for him?’ And then craft it around his unique vocal style.”
Then if you’ve got something like Digital Bullets with Chris Motionless you can go more kinetic. Is that one of the tunes you went down to drop C for?
“Yeah, nice and low, yeah, very heavy, and Chris was another one; you can do a lot with his voice because he is so versatile. He can sing. He can scream. He can put a lot of emotion in his voice. We were able to do a lot with that song because he is such a talented vocalist.”
What were the sessions like? Did you get much face-to-face recording done in the studio?
“Unfortunately not. It was mostly file sharing, just because everyone is spread out across the globe now. I was on the road. I was able to be there for David Draiman recording the vocals for Dead Inside, which was very special. I was also able to be there for Lilith Czar when she did the song called Monster. It was really great.
“But the rest of it was done over file sharing. People did it in their own studio, the studio they were most comfortable with, and sent the files over. There were no re-dos. No, ‘I don’t like this. Can you change this? Or re-do that?’ Actually, I think the only person I think I had to have re-sing was Alice and it was just because one word was wrong, and literally that was it. ‘Hey, can you pop into the studio and say this word, one time?’ And that was it
“Everybody gave me their best delivery, crushed it from the very beginning. I am very, very grateful for that.”
People are getting more and more comfortable recording remotely like this, and there is also a sense that – especially if you are guesting on an album – that the pressure is off. You have a bit more space to track your part.
“I think so, although I think if I had my way I would always prefer to work face-to-face with people. I do a lot of session guitar work as well, and most if it is done via file-sharing because I am always on the road, and the few times I have gotten to be there in the room with my client, the people who have hired me for the gig, it comes out so much better
“You are able to bounce ideas off each other and say, ‘Hey, can you try it more like this? Can you try it more like that?’ Whereas, when you are doing it remotely, and it is just you, it is really just, ‘Here’s my vision of what you sent me.’ And that is it.”
You tracked a lot of this using digital gear, guitar VST plugins?
“I did. Me personally, I am extremely satisfied with digital. If I didn’t think it sounded as good I would have redone it through real amps. I have all the capability there at the studio.
“I have all the capability there at my home studio. But I just think that you can do so much digitally. I don’t think it would have made the record sound any better if I had reamped later through an analogue machine.”
No one can tell.
“No! You really can’t. When we first switched to the Kempers, on the Alice Cooper tour, we all had our Marshall stacks for years. And just in terms of weight, and ease of portability, management strongly suggested that we switched over to the modelling amps.
“Before we did that, we actually profiled one of the guy’s Marshalls, and we walked out to the front, and we all listened as one of our guitar techs plugged in to them and didn’t tell us which was which, and it was indiscernible. No one could tell the difference.
“So you are hearing that very classic Marshall sound from all of us – especially on the Alice Cooper tour. You are getting that classic Marshall sound; it is just coming from a different avenue.”
We need to be given the Pepsi Challenge first. And we have to be strict with ourselves. We can be guilty of ignoring the ear. And those Alice tones are as old-school as your tone gets; if it gets that right, it can do anything.
“Absolutely, you’re right. And if it didn’t sound right, we wouldn’t use it. And they wouldn’t ask us to. Alice’s manager definitely wouldn’t ask us to do anything that we weren’t happy with. It is only because it sounds so good that we are able to utilise these new tools.”
You have this amazing lead tone where it just kind of melts into harmonic overtones, like feedback but not quite. Joe Satriani gets his tone to that point to, where it’s just kind of liquid. How do you get it there?
“Yeah, I’ve followed Satriani around from amp to amp for years. I used to use a Peavey JSX, and then my last Marshall was the JVM, the Satriani model that he used. And that’s the one I profiled, that I used those sounds live. Yeah, I love how Satriani does that. No one does that better than him. And he has been a big influence on me as well.”
So the actual Marshall profile you have in the Kemper is the JVM?
“The JVM410H, yes.”
We don’t want you to spill all your secrets, but how do you set the EQ for that? And how important is volume?
“To be honest with you, it has been so long since I touched it that I don’t remember the EQ pattern! [Laughs] And in terms of volume, it’s not like a real amp where you really have to push it to break up, like I have a Bogner Uberschall at home and to get that thing to break up like you want it to you have to push it, and the thing I enjoy about the digital vibe, the digital age that we live in, is that we can get these tones without, like, having to destroy your eardrums in the process! [Laughs]”
Yeah, there is that. There is a romantic side to high volume but it can be unmanageable.
“There is. But that’s the exciting thing about Marshall, they brought out a really cool modelling amp of their own called the Code, which is what I use for a lot of guitar clinics. I use that as a practice amp. And that is a really cool way [to get Marshall tones]. They profiled all of the Marshall amps, all of the JCMs, the 800, the 900, the 2000, the Bluesbreakers, the JTMs, anything that you can imagine they have taken that profiling technology and profiled it in the Code combo amp – and in the 100-watt head as well.
“I think it is really cool that the kings of the original O.G. amps are still moving into that digital world and saying, ‘Hey, if you wanna get all of that classic guitar sounds, you can get them direct from Marshall as well.’”
Your signature DiMarzios are passive. Have you been tempted by active pickups?
“For me, it is an easy choice for the passive pickup. I personally, as somebody who has used an active pickup in the past, I think that the internal preamp of the active pickup takes away a little bit of the personality of the player. You kind of lose a little bit of subtlety, of tone woods and everything.
“The great thing about an active pickup is that it can make any guitar sound incredible. You can put an EMG81/85 into a $99 Squier and it will sound like a million bucks, because the pickups are what’s making the sound that you’re hearing. But personally I like a lot of personality to come through.
“I chose the tone woods on my signature guitar very carefully, so I want it to come through how the African mahogany resonates with the maple top, and the ebony on the neck, and everything else, and I think you lose a bit of that when you switch to an active pickup.”
You mostly used the 2020 Jiva?
“Yeah, I mostly used the 2020 Jiva X, which was the black one, the one that was a bit of a pandemic casualty. It was limited edition for 2020, but no one could have predicted that the factory would have shut down in 2020, so there were not a lot of them made.
“I would say I used that for 85 per cent of the record. I did have another Ibanez Jiva with the EverTune. I used an Ibanez with an EverTune on it for probably the other 15 per cent of the record, just because it is really good with those low rhythms, making sure that everything stays perfectly in tune.
“And I used a seven-string as well, for a little bit of layering. On the Alice Song – we did that on the seven-string. There was a little bit of that as well.”
Did you use the EverTune for leads as well?
“No, not at all.”
Are we hearing much in the way of effects?
“Well, we did a direct signal path and then all the delays and everything were added later. That’s something I have done even when recording live through a real amp. You never want to introduce delays into the signal path as you’re tracking because you won’t have that flexibility to change them at the desk. In my experience, that’s always added on at the end.
“I will say, the only things I did use, like hardware-wise, I did use a wah pedal a couple of times, and I used a DigiTech Whammy on the song Monster, but everything else was added afterwards in the box.”
We have to ask you about working with Marty Friedman. What was that experience like? Didn’t you ask him to give you notes and feedback?
“Marty was so meticulous on the song that we did together. I have a tendency to be a bit slap-dash with stuff, like I take my time with it but I don’t go back and re-do and re-do and re-do it. If it’s good, I can move on from it. And Marty really took a lot of time with every detail.
“He gave me very extensive notes on my playing, and everyone else. With the other guests we had on the record, I said, ‘Here’s the song!’ And the sent back their bit. Marty was really like, ‘Hey, well you’re playing this note here, I think we should bend on that note there because it leads on better to what I’m playing on the next phrase. That sort of thing. It was really an honour, truly an honour, to get feedback from somebody I have looked up to my entire guitar playing career.”
It’s funny you mention learning from Friedman. Back in the day, we would learn from him on instructional DVDs. Now the tuition space is digitised, and players have so many more options for learning.
“I think so. I think that people definitely have a lot more tools than they ever had before. There is no excuse to not get better now. On YouTube, you have all these lesson courses – a million other things, a million ways to learn. So if you’re not learning by this point it is your own fault! [Laughs]
“There is no technology, there is no plugin that can take the place of putting the work in. You can have all the fancy gear and all the fancy apps, and all the YouTube lessons in the world, but at some point you’re just going to have to sit down and play guitar. And get better.”
Finally, before we let you go. Marty has weighed in on this before. But where do you stand on the term shred? To some players it is a dirty word.
“I don’t think so. No. I like it. Give me the shred term all day long. Yeah, I don’t see the value in belittling anybody’s vibe. Whether you are down-talking people that play more straightforward rock riffs or if you’re talking about someone playing over-the-top fast stuff, they’re art forms. Art is subjective. There is no sense in saying that.
“I know the debate you are talking about, about shred being a dirty word, but who cares? If someone wants to play fast, let them play fast. If someone wants to play slow and melodic, let them play slow and melodic. There is no wrong way to make art.”
- The Call Of The Void is out now via Sumerian.