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Polyphia: "We make rap music through guitars"

(Image credit: Travis Poston)

Formed in Dallas, Texas, eight years ago by teenage guitarists Timothy Henson and Scott LePage, Polyphia have become one of the most exciting names in the world of progressive instrumental music.

Originally rooted in heavier metal, their more recent recordings - including this year’s third full-length New Levels New Devils - have drawn inspiration far beyond the conventional planes of guitar noise, from the subdivided hi-hats and subterranean low-end of trap music to the more hard-hitting punch of modern hip-hop and rap.

Completed by bassist Clay Gober and drummer Clay Aeschliman, the quartet are now leading the charge for instrumental crossover, a scene that was spurred by the arrival of artists like Animal As Leaders, Scale The Summit and Chimp Spanner not long after the turn of the millennium. Their futuristic, kitchen-sink mentality is in ways very much indicative of the modern music fan, to whom genres and boundaries don’t quite exist like they used to.

Here, the two guitarists tell MusicRadar about the gear used on their recordings, their approach to phrasing and their biggest breakthroughs on their chosen instrument...

How did this project come about and what made you want to splice all these different sounds?

Timothy Henson: “I was 16 and wanted to be in a band, so went on MySpace and found our original drummer, who was really sick. I hit him up because he had his Berklee [College Of Music] audition tracks on his music page - one was a death metal track at 230bpm. In fact, that’s what it was titled: 230bpm death metal!

“I don’t know how well it’s actually crossing over… but we’re kinda just doing whatever the fuck we want. There’s shit on our albums that’s probably pretty out there, haha!”

We just make music based off what we think is cool and the sounds we like. We like rap and hip-hop, hard-ass beats

Scott LePage

Scott LePage: “We just make music based off what we think is cool and the sounds we like. We like rap and hip-hop, hard-ass beats and shit!”

Does it feel like today’s listeners are less tribal than previous generations – almost as if they are more like ‘playlisters’ as opposed ‘lifers’?  

Timothy: “There are a lot more genres now. People just do wacky shit with music and that probably makes the kids more open-minded these days. But the funny thing is none of us can rap. The only thing we can do is play guitar, so the music we make is rap music through guitars - it’s almost like a mixture of the two.”

Who are your biggest guitar influences?

Scott: “I’d say it’s a mixture of Guthrie Govan, Rick Graham, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, Nick Johnston… pretty much any guitarist who is way, way better than we are, which is most people, haha! We’re always watching videos together and being like, ‘Look at this guy!’

“Guthrie Govan, for example, is fucked. There is nothing he can’t do. He doesn’t need to practice the shit out of anything; he can do it all in five seconds. I guess all he does is play guitar, so he can pick shit up really quick.”

Timothy: “Though I don’t listen to them anywhere as much nowadays, when I was 16 I remember putting on the debut Animals As Leaders album every day on the bus to school. I feel like they opened up all that instrumental shit. Before them, I don’t think instrumental bands were taken as seriously. These days, there are these instrumental tours that sell the fuck out at fairly large venues. I hope we get to be part of the next wave of that.”

Your music incorporates a mix of tapping, sweeping and hybrid picking. What are the secrets to the Polyphia guitar approach?

Timothy: “Yeah, we do a lot of hybrid picking! Pretty much every chance I get, where it makes sense, that’s what I will go for. We also try to do a lot of chording like that RnB style of guitar… I guess it’s Hendrixy in a way, because he used to do the leads and rhythms all in one go. He’d do doublestops within lead lines and outline all these embellished chords.

“We also use a fair amount of harmonics, kinda spelling out our chords differently and in a higher register. There’s also a fair amount of up and down raking… I wouldn’t say that I sweep, really; it’s more like a rake.”

Sweeps are overrated! I like slides, hammer-ons and pull-offs on the pentatonic scale

Scott LePage

Scott: “Sweeps are overrated! I like slides, hammer-ons and pull-offs on the pentatonic scale. That’s my rig these days! I just glide up and down that shit - basically, pentatonics and chords is where it’s at.”

What have been your biggest breakthroughs in technical development and how did you discover them?

Scott: “Proper technique is important - even simple things like holding the guitar right. I’m sure I still do it wrong! Your body will tell you when you are forcing it go in ways it’s not supposed to go.

“People confuse getting sore with hurting. If you go to the gym, and you hurt after, that’s probably a bad thing. If you play guitar for an hour and your wrist hurts, that’s fucking terrible; it’s not supposed to hurt, bro! But if its a little sore, that’s fine because you are building up muscles and stamina.

Timothy: “It’s more about what is comfortable. At this point, I’m going for longevity... I really don’t want fucking carpal tunnel and shit.

“As for the hybrid picking, there’s a really good technique we adopted from some Rick Graham thing. It’s hybrid picking octaves and using slides, so you could start on the seventh fret of the G string and the 10th fret of the E string as your higher octave, then back to the seventh fret on the G before sliding up to the ninth and doing the same kind of thing using the 12th fret of the E as your new higher octave. And then basically sticking to that idea and going up and up, or down if you want, from there. It’s a good lick to help you break out of the usual phrases.”

(Image credit: Travis Poston)

Despite all the technique, you still sound more like a writing-led band than a bunch of musicians using their instruments for sheer competitive sport...

Timothy: “The most important thing is to have a good sense of melody and rhythm. And then you can apply whatever techniques you want within that thing…

I hear a lot of simple melodies in my head that are objectively good... Then I spice them up by playing the melodies and changing techniques for each chord

Timothy Henson

“I hear a lot of simple melodies in my head that are objectively good. They feel simple, catchy and keep coming back to me. Then I spice them up by playing the melodies and changing techniques for each chord - whether it be bends, slides, harmonics, rake sweeping or whatever to change the phrasing slightly.”

Scott: “Exactly. It still comes down to that simple melody which has to be good. Everything else is secondary! We focus less on technique and all that bullshit and more on writing, especially these days. We used to sit there and learn all these crazy licks from Rick Graham’s Instagram page. We’ve developed our own sound enough to be comfortable writing across multiple genres.”

Timothy: “YouTube has plenty of lessons on technique, but there’s nothing really on writing. So I made two videos on my Instagram on how to make a riff with a simple melody. I start with a simple bassline, then I add a simple top line. I do it on a keyboard because I’d rather the guitar doesn’t decide what I’m going to do - I’ll figure all that out later. I want to get closer to the shit I hear in my head and not knowing how to play keyboard is actually really helpful for that.

“Once you have your top line and bassline, you play it all on a guitar in one go to make an interesting riff. That’s an approach I think people should try out because it will produce better music at the end of the day.”

As for leads, are there any go-to scales for playing over this kind of music?

Scott: “We mainly stick with modal stuff, but we do fuck with harmonic minor a bit -  which is still technically modal, in its own way. I remember when I first learned that scale and thought to myself, ‘Dude, this is like Necrophagist… I’m gonna fuckin’ learn how to play this shit so fast!’ And I did, but now I can’t because that was like 10 years ago. It’s a really fun one to learn and experiment with.”

Timothy: “Learning the modes was pretty crazy. I didn’t know how to navigate the fretboard like that, understanding every fret, until Scott showed me. It was pretty eye-opening; you start understanding keys and looking at the guitar neck in a much easier way... you start seeing shapes!

At first, it was all about the various RG models, but as soon as Ibanez came out with the AZs, we were like, ‘Holy shit!’

Scott LePage

“Writing with harmonic minor is really interesting. Mostly, when you hear that scale on guitar, it ends up being really metal or classical-sounding. We didn’t want our usage of it to sound metal, even if it's used by the biggest and best metal bands in the world. We probably went more down the classical side of it; when you play that scale on an acoustic it’s very classical and baroque-sounding.”

You both use Ibanez guitars. What is it about that brand that fits so well with your sound?

Timothy: “We signed up with them because they pay us a ton of money, haha!”

Scott: “Na, they’re just sick guitars, dude! We fuck with the new AZ models mostly, because they’re incredibly versatile - you can go from shredding really hard to more beautiful chordal stuff. I wrote some metal riffs for our new album using them on a clean tone, so it’s not technically metal but still feels like metal.

At first, it was all about the various RG models, but as soon as they came out with the AZs, we were like, ‘Holy shit!’ We also really like the Talman series because they’re single coil. They sound like Strats but play much easier… they’re brilliant guitars.”

You definitely seem like a digital-embracing band... so is it Axe-Fx or Kemper that we’re hearing?

Scott: “We use Axe-FX. I would love to have every single amp in the world, but I don’t have enough money or space in my room in my parent’s house for that. But it is a bit like having every single amp model in the world in a computer. I’ve never physically touched a Kemper in my life, much less played one or even really heard anyone play one. I feel like they’re quite rare compared to the Axe-Fx. I wish the Axe-FX was a bit more basic; it can be hard to work with at times…”

What advice can you offer for anyone out there that wants to mix guitars with more electronic sounds like trap music?

Timothy: “It helps to start with a guitar riff and then make beats around it. I’d say it’s harder to write riffs around the beats and do it the other way round. But one thing that helps is using Ableton, which both of us use because it’s very streamlined for creating electronic music. It’s pretty easy to get to grips with for beginners.

We listen to hip-hop and trap, but we only really play guitar, so combining the two has to come naturally

Timothy Henson

“Splice is great - it has every sample you could ever want, from kick drums, snare drums to 808s. This sounds obvious, but it helps to listen to a lot of the music you are trying to make. We listen to hip-hop and trap, but we only really play guitar, so combining the two has to come naturally and that will only happen if you have a good understanding of other music of that kind.”

If you could get a guitar lesson from anyone alive right now, who would you choose?

Timothy: “We’d probably choose Guthrie Govan. He could show us pretty much anything… or maybe Mateus Asato, because that might be more applicable to what we’re trying to do. He’s more related to our style… We both like the same stuff so our answers will probably be the same on something like this!”

Scott: “Mateus is the chord master. He can shred, but more importantly, he’s got a great sense of melody within those chords, which is cool. We’d learn a lot from hearing about his approach to it all.

“I tend to respect people that make me feel the notes that they are playing, rather than playing a shitload of them and everyone going, ‘Wow, that’s cool.’”

New Levels New Devils is out now via Equal Vision Records and Rude Records.