Anthrax’s Scott Ian: “My first Jackson was just game-changing for me. I never looked back. It just felt like, ‘This is the one; the sword out of the stone’”

Scott Ian
(Image credit: Roy Rochlin/Getty Images)

GUITAR SHOWCASE 2022: Scott Ian and Jackson go way back. For some 40 years now, the guitarist and driving force behind thrash metal kingpins Anthrax has enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with the high-performance electric guitar brand, a love affair that blossomed ever since he first set eyes on a Rhoads in a NYC guitar store.

That was a gear epiphany like no other. Life just got a little less complicated; he had found the right guitar for the job. In his mind, there was no question that this was the ne plus ultra of what a metal guitar should look, feel and sound like. 

But in Ian, Jackson would also find an ally. A player who over the years would assume an ambassadorial role for the company, resolutely championing its designs. Jackson would later spec up a number of Custom Shop creations, and would collaborate with Ian on a series of signature models over the years, including the angular King V and the classically styled doublecut JJ that Ian toted in anger during the '90s.

As MusicRadar sits down with him in California, a conversation timed around the reveal that Jackson was bringing the brand back home for its first US production line run, Ian reveals that it wasn’t always such a close relationship. 

Indeed, there was a sliding doors moment when Jackson – perhaps over-enamoured by the box-office potential of the shredders – passed Ian over for endorsement. That stung.

That is all water under the bridge now. And here, as Anthrax celebrate their 40th Anniversary and Jackson its SoCal homecoming with the American Series SL3 Soloist, Ian recounts his story with Jackson, the guitars that provided the muscle for some of metal’s gnarliest riffs, and supplied one of the undisputed heavyweights of rhythm guitar with a tone that could punch through concrete, and also how the torch has now been passed to his son. 

You have a really long history with Jackson? Was it 1982 when you got to start the custom shop?

“They said, ‘Bring me old man Ian!’ [Laughs] ‘I was playing Jackson when they didn’t even have pickups in it!’ Yeah, I ordered a Rhoads. I saw one hanging on the wall in Sam ash, New York City. I fell in love with, just everything about it. It was like, I suppose if you worked a trade and found the right hammer.

“I picked up the guitar, and I was like, ‘This is the guitar I need.’ Because Anthrax was already a band at the time. Very early stages, maybe like a year old. But it just felt like, ‘This is the one; the sword out of the stone.’ It was that moment. It clearly was. Man, that guitar has been with me since then, 40 years.”

And that was a lot of money back then.

“Yeah, I had been working, working working. I worked as a messenger in the city, and I didn’t spend much. I lived at my mom’s. So yeah, I saved up, and I want to say it had to be like $2,500 or something. At the time it was everything I had but totally worth it.”

Did did that guitar feature quite heavily in recordings, early recordings?

“It is on every anthrax album. I got my money’s worth! [Laughs]”

You did!

“It is certainly on the first five, and the S.O.D. record. I would say it’s on 80 per cent of those records. And then, I kind of retired that guitar, late 80s, early 90s. I stopped taking it on the road. Andnow I only bring it when we are in the studio, and I've used it on every record – at least for like one rhythm track, or overdubs with the whammy, or something. 

“I used it a lot on the Mr Bungle album because I really wanted that 1985 exact tone. I used that guitar, my same Marshall amp from back then. It was the exact setup. It sounds exactly the same. It’s great.”

When did you get your first Soloist?

“Yeah. Well, I had probably bought a Soloist around ’84-ish, somewhere around then. Because I'm pretty sure I had one. I played one on the Fistful Of Metal record. And then what happened was, around ’85,’86, the band starts to happen, we signed a major label deal, and we wanted to get a Jackson endorsement because Danny [Spitz], the lead guitar player, also played Jacksons. And they came back to our manager and said, ‘Well, we’ll endorse Danny for sure. But we don't know why we would endorse Scott. He is the rhythm guitar player.’”

Jackson came back to our manager and said, ‘Well, we’ll endorse Danny for sure. But we don't know why we would endorse Scott. He is the rhythm guitar player’

Oh, no! 

I was so fucking mad, and sad at the same time. It’s like, ‘Really? Like, what the fuck, right?’ And we needed a guitar endorsement because even though the band was happening, we still didn’t have any money, and I needed guitars. ESP offered me a deal at the time. And a friend of mine worked for ESP and they offered me a deal. So ESP was, like, building me guitars and I liked them, but I ended up just I just always wanted to be a Jackson. It felt like, ‘Well that’s the girl I like.’ 

“And then lucky for me, a good friend of mine, who was working at a guitar shop in New York, started working at Jackson around ’88, and he said, ‘Hey, man, I want to rectify the mistakes that were made. 

“We would love to have you. Let me build you some guitars.’ So they built me a couple of soloists, one of which was the one with the NY, fretless from the 14th fret up, and of course I was I didn’t even try and like be coy about it. I was like, ‘Yes! Yeah, yeah! Yeah, I’m coming to Jackson, of course.’”

Anthrax's Joe Belladonna [left] and Scott Ian perform at Donington Park, 1988

Anthrax's Joe Belladonna [left] and Scott Ian perform at Donington Park, 1988. Not Ian's guitar at the time, an ESP, made for him in the years before Jackson endorsed him. (Image credit: Paul Bergen/Redferns)

What strengths about Jackson do you think define the brand? You’ve played them for years.

“It just goes back to what I said about the right tool for the job. I started playing guitar in 1972. My first electric guitar was a Fender Tele Deluxe. I loved that guitar, but I wanted a Stratocaster, and we couldn’t afford the Strat so I got a used Fender Tele Deluxe, and I wish I still had it. But all through the ‘70s I was constantly trading up my gear, trying to get the guitar that I felt would help me play. 

“And it was always a lot like, once I started, I traded in the Tele, and I saved some money and I got the first Strat probably around ’76 and ’77. But then, the Tele at least had two humbuckers in it, not like the Strat with three single-coils in it. I’m like, ‘Well, shit, this doesn’t sound right. And even with the fuzz box, it sounds thin. This doesn’t sound right now what am I going to do?’ 

“And I bring it to the shop. ‘What do I do?’ They’re like, ‘Well, we could route it out, put a humbucker in it. That was going to cost a lot of money to do. Nobody was doing that shit back then, and I didn’t have money, so routing out. I was like, ‘What do I do? Blah blah blah’. 

“So anyway, they weren’t making Strats with humbuckers, at least as far as I knew. I couldn’t afford a Les Paul. I didn’t really liked the way Les Pauls looked. I didn’t think they were, like hard enough or something. I couldn't afford a Flying V. I couldn’t afford Gibson, basically which is what I am trying to say.

“When Charvel and Jacksons first came out, and they were on my radar; they were putting up guitars that looked like this [holds Jackson] with a humbucker in it. And I’m like, ‘What the fuck? Like guitars built for the music I’m playing and I want to make! These guitars are built for that.’ And yeah, that was it. I had a Charvel San Dimas Strat shape, and Charvel’s Star body before I even ordered my first Jackson. And I mean, fuck, it was just game-changing for me. I never looked back.”

Scott Ian and Flavor Flave

(Image credit: Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

As your relationship with the company has become so close, do you advise on models, do you give give input on models that aren’t your signature guitars? Like, do you have any input on this new series?

“No. I don't have any actual input, other than the fact that, I have been been at Jackson for a long time. And I like to think I’m just in some small, tiny way a part of the success of the brand, because I’ve been playing them for so long, and the fact that I’ve had two different signature models since 2010. I had my Soloist signature model and the King V signature model, and they sell, they’re great guitars. 

I like to think I’m just in some small, tiny way a part of the success of the brand, because I’ve been playing them for so long

“Jackson’s got an amazing stable of guys playing their guitars. The fact that Fender has so much confidence in the brand. The fact that this is happening, the first full on American production series in a 40-year-old brand. That this has happening now, it’s amazing. Most brands would be put out to pasture. The brand is bigger than ever. It is nice to feel like I am part of the whole thing.”

It’s really cool you use the mid price models on stage, and they deliver the goods.

“Yeah, I recorded song for the new Jasta record, Jamey Jasta from Hatebreed, two days ago, and I use my red mid-price the studio, and it fucking crushes. I didn’t even change the pickup. It’s stock. Sounds great.”

Have you pickup preferences changed in recent times? 

“Duncans, baby? Yeah, they keep trying to get me to change. They send me everything, and they have a lot of killer sounding pickups out there, but there is always something I go back to with the JB. We are actually working on a new signature [pickup]. They actually moved my Duncan El Diablo into the production line now, so it’s going to be a regular pickup and not just a custom order, but they wanted to do something new with me.

When I got my Rhoads and it had a JB in it, it just crushed the way the Charvels sounded through my Marshall amp

“I said, ‘Just wind a JB and put a name on it! And just tell people it’s different.’ [Laughs] Because what am I going to do, and right now we are trying to figure out what that is. ‘Is it something that I’m not getting from my amp that we can compensate for with the pickup?’ I’m like, ‘I don't know, this is too much for me to think about.’ I just know what works. Just send me shit and I will try it. 

“I’m excited that they want to do something, of course, but yeah, the JB. Those initial Charvels had DiMarzios in them, and they sounded good, but when I got my Rhoads, and it had a JB in it, it crushed, it just crushed the way the Charvels sounded through my Marshall amp. And yeah, I never went back after that.”

Do you ever use the neck pickup in the studio?

“Maybe if I’m playing a harmony, a harmony solo, maybe… It just depends on what the part is.”

What do you think makes a great metal rhythm tone? 

To me distortion just softens it. It makes it mushy to my ear

“Yeah, for me, it is – and I can go by what other people have said about my tone – is how clean it is, and that you can hear when I’m playing a chord, all the notes, everything is ringing properly. It is not buried in distortion. It is not buried in fuzz. It is a very tight and clean [sound]. Of course, it is an edgy, distorted tone, but I find the cleaner I can make it, the harder it is – as far as hitting harder. 

“Because to me distortion just softens it. It makes it mushy to my ear. Obviously, I’m not playing with a Malcolm young tone; it’s not going to work in the context of the riffs we write. I guess it would sound like Dick Dale in a weird way.

“But of course, Malcolm’s tone was super fucking clean and punchy, and couldn’t be better in the context of a rock band. So, I’ve always tried to have mine be as clean as I possibly can, but keep that chunk and that edge, and that low-end punch, and all that. But it’s the cleanliness, to me, has always been my secret.”

What are your main recording guitars at the moment?

“I do the same thing every time we go into make a record, because it’s the only time I get to do this. Last time when we did For All Kings, I had at least six, maybe eight-and-a-half stacks set up, eight different heads. And we go through all different cabinets. And we go through, you know, every speaker, every microphone combination, and spend a couple of days. I’d bring 20 guitars to the studio, and we start narrowing down. I always know what amps it’s going to end up being, but it’s just fun.

“The last time around, you know, playing every guitar through every amp listening to everything, and I always think it’s gonna come down to the same ones. I’ve got my original Rhoads. I’ve got that original NY Soloist. I've got this korina, a solid Korina Jackson JJ made for me in the mid-‘90s. That sounds incredible. That one, my ’81 Gibson V, which has been a main rhythm guitar for me for years and years. I’m missing an obvious one…

“But the only new one in the mix the last time around, was the first King V they sent me after I had approved a prototype. It was the first production one they built me. It was in ivory white. 

“I plugged that one in and start playing, and I’m like, ‘Wow, that sounds pretty good. Let’s A/B it against the Gibson V. Because that’s generally the one I know. That’s generally going to be the one, that and my Rhoads. Back and forth back and forth… Let’s try it through the EVH. Let’s try it through the Marshall amps. The King V ended up being with best sounding guitar – it beat my old ones.

“It beat the ’82 roads. It beat the ’81 Gibson. There was something in the mids that just sounded better and had this edge to it, this anger in it that the other two [didn’t]. I couldn’t believe it. I wrote them. I said, ‘I don’t know how you guys did it. But it’s 2016, all these years later you made my best-sounding guitar. And now I retired that one. I took it on maybe the first year touring and I was like, ‘I gotta just leave this at home. It sounds too good.’ So that one stays in the gear locker. 

“Going into this next record, eventually, maybe end of the year or early next year, when we start again, I’ll do the whole fucking thing again. But I’ve got some really great new sounding ones. They just built me this korina Soloist, one pickup. Solid korina, it’s beautiful. It sounds incredible. But I haven’t heard that under the microscope yet.

“I have high hopes for that and a couple of these other King Vs I’ve gotten since that first one. I’ve got a red one that just sounds incredible, and the checkerboard one they made me for my homage to Rick Nielsen. That also sounds unbelievable through my live rig. I’ve got all these new guitars to plug in in the studio, to try and beat the white King!”

I love watching the videos of you and your son playing. I didn’t realise he played guitar as well and he has got a Jackson as well now.

“He’s a great guitar player. That one he’s playing in that video when we’re playing Slayer, I had that built when he was born, I think. Basically, I got two of them with his name on the inlays and thought. ‘I’ll play these, and eventually, if he’s into guitar, they’ll become his. 

“He loves it but his main guitar’s a Jim Root Stratocaster. It’s a black one he got for Christmas for years a few years back. He also just ordered a Custom Shop Rhoads, solid mahogany, one pickup. Like father like son! [Laughs]”

Revel has been sitting in his room figuring out Mastodon songs. He said to me, ‘You should learn some so we can jam on them.' I was like, ‘That’d take me a fuckin’ month!’

Did he did he start on drums then?

“Yeah, started on drums, and he if it is not one he’s doing the other. He has been sitting in his room figuring out Mastodon songs. Like, what? He said to me, ‘You should learn some so we can jam on them, like Motherlode.’ And I was like, ‘That’d take me a fuckin’ month!’ Two days later, him and his buddy are jamming. And I'm like, ‘It’s good to be 11.’”

  • The Jackson American Series Soloist SL3 is out now. More info at Jackson. Anthrax’s 40th Anniversary Tour picks up in the UK on 27 September at Birmingham’s O2 Academy. See Anthrax for full dates.
Rob Laing
Guitars Editor, MusicRadar

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before MusicRadar I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar in the UK. When I'm not rejigging pedalboards I'm usually thinking about rejigging pedalboards.