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May 2009: On an ordinary night, this quiet guitar-lined space would be the acoustic room at Guitar Center Fountain Valley, deep in the heart of Southern California's fabled Orange County. But tonight this is ‘Bat Country', and the room indisputably belongs to two dark-haired, tattooed guitar slingers known to their legions of adoring fans as Synyster Gates and Zacky Vengeance, the fiery twin-guitar team that fuels the OC's own Avenged Sevenfold.
Although their roots are in Orange County's metalcore scene, A7X (as they're known) have grown far beyond the genre's boundaries. Their adventurous and melodic sound has made them instantly recognizable, and earned them a fiercely loyal fanbase that only seems to grow, even as the band's music becomes harder and harder to categorize. We sat down with Syn and Zacky to talk about songwriting, gear, and their incredible twin-guitar chemistry.
You guys are a ridiculously tight two-guitar team. How do you write parts, both rhythm and lead, to make them lock together?
SYN: Well, we each write our own thing and bring it to the table. I kind of fancy myself as being good at figuring out harmonies that aren't just layered and stacked on top. So I have that job, taking care of the arrangement of the harmonies. Whoever brings that kind of stuff to the table, if he has an interesting harmonic approach then we'll do it that way.
ZACKY: Yeah. You bring something to the table and if someone can expand on it or make it better, or sometimes it's just good as it is and just go for it. It just works. And then it gets tight by playing it live. The first month of touring – no, the first week – it's a little rough, you know… a little more raw than what you get later in the touring cycle. It's like clockwork at this point.
SYN: (laughs) Never see us for the first year.
The whole first year?
SYN: The whole first year, yeah.
ZACKY: (laughs) It's disastrous.
Syn, you studied jazz for a while. How does that impact your playing?
SYN: I think melodically it allowed me to express myself a little bit easier and express what the rest of the band is trying to do at different times. And approach music in a more – I don't know…
ZACKY: Funky fresh…
SYN: Funky fresh jam sort of way, you know? You just have a lot more notes to choose from, a lot more chord changes. I listen to a lot of [our] stuff and if I think there's a good idea and it could maybe go a little crazier here, I'll just run it by them. "Oh, that's kind of cool," or "No, that's dog s#*t. Let's never do that."
You're brutally honest with each other?
SYN: Absolutely, yeah. Gotta be.
Who are your favorite songwriters?
ZACKY: Oh, man, it's all across the board. We all listen to everything. I mean obviously bands like the Beatles and Rolling Stones. You can't go wrong with their approach to songwriting 'cause they're just fearless. They just do what they want. And people are trying to analyze it, but in reality there was no rhyme or reason. They were just writing what they thought was good. And I love that. I love Elvis Costello and Billy Joel, you know, singer/songwriters. I think that's great. And then you get people like Pantera and Dimebag, but they already wrote all the riffs so we can't write them. They've already written every good riff ever.
SYN: We have to do something else now.
ZACKY: So we have to look to crazy bands like Mike Patton bands, Mr. Bungle or Faith No More.
How have you managed to keep the fan base expanding while, at the same time, refusing to be limited or genre pigeonholed?
SYN: I personally am just a huge fan of my own band and – not to sound like "that guy", but just being honest – if I were to find music that my band had written when I was 16 years old, I would be very, very excited. I think what we do is good. It's quality. We definitely put our heart and soul into it. And then the other factor is complete 110% luck. We lucked out that it crossed over and did well, but we're not sacrificing anything in the meantime. We're just doing our thing. And we've been fortunate that so far it's worked out and the kids are appreciating that we still stay strong to what we believe in.
ZACKY: Yeah, I think it's genuinely sincere. You know we come from a punk rock background, heavy metal, hardcore, pop, rock, classical, jazz… I don't even know how you classify stuff like The Residents… just weirdo music, you know? And we genuinely love all that kind of music and we incorporate all of it, so you can't just say we're a metal band, 'cause metalheads would say, "Well, have you ever heard 'A Little Piece of Heaven'? f#*! those guys." Or punk rockers will be like, "Dude, that sounds like Metallica or something." And you can't make everyone happy, but all the people that aren't satisfied with just one style of music, those people gravitate to us.
You've both been Schecter players for years. How did that relationship start?
SYN: Well, we were playing them before they would even give us a deal. We actually tried to get a deal from these guys and they said no. All the stuff that I was doing on the record was Schecter. So I just tried and tried and tried and finally got a deal.
Walk us through your Schecter custom models.
SYN: I love this guy (holding his guitar) because it's got 24 frets, but that's not all. It's got a Floyd Rose, but that's not all. It's got the pimp stripes, but that's not all. Seymour Duncan pickups – the Invaders. I think these are absolutely rad. These are very, very high gain. I'm a picker by nature. I really suck at legato and this kind of fools everybody, these pickups. They really, really help with that kind of stuff. This guitar is a solid piece of wood that just feels good. I love the way it plays and I love the way it looks.
ZACKY: All right. So my guitar's flashy because I like to be flashy sometimes. That's just Zacky V. It's just the truth. This guy's good at guitar (points at Syn), so I gotta get more attention by being flashy, like, "Hey, look at me over here." This thing's been great to me. It's light. Playing live, when you stand up on stage for an hour and a half, it's important to have a light guitar. It's fun to run around. This thing stays in tune wonderfully and that's a huge concern for anybody that's playing live on stage. Plus, it's got Seymour Duncan JBs in both pickup positions. The sound is incredible. I think mine sounds better than his for rhythm live.
What kind of amps are you using?
SYN: Marshall. Loving Marshall.
ZACKY: For our entire career we tried everything besides Marshall. Dead serious. I don't know what was wrong with us. You see every classic band or the majority of the classic bands with walls of Marshall amps. One of the most classic amp manufacturers ever. And I don't know if we were anti- or just young and dumb or whatever, but we were like, "Okay we're going to try and get our own unique sound.” And as we got older we'd play in other countries and they'd say, "We can't get the amps you want, but we have Marshalls." And we'd be like, "Okay, that's cool." And then we were like, "This is awesome. Why haven't we been playing these?"
What about effects?
SYN: I just run the BOSS blue compressor... the CS-3. It beefs it up a little bit but it doesn't sound synthetic. It sounds really nice, very natural.
ZACKY: I keep it really simple. I use a few Line 6 pedals… some BOSS pedals too.
Who are your favorite guitar players and why?
SYN: Zacky V, because he's my favorite.
ZACKY: I was going to say Synyster Gates because he's my favorite, but...
Ok, other than each other?
SYN: I like the best players. I like Dimebag Darryl, Slash and John Petrucci. Because they're the best. There's nobody better. Steve Vai can do some stuff. (laughs) Steve Vai – throw that guy in there because there's really nobody better than him, technically.
ZACKY: I like Tony Iommi. I like big riffs. I like the fact that they're not played perfectly but they have so much personality. I love that. I mean obviously I like Dimebag, Slash. I think what John Petrucci does is incredible. You listen to it and it's just like, "Whoah." I love people who just have fun playing, like punk rock guitarists. I love Tim Armstrong from Rancid. Being a fellow lefty and just watching him on stage, he's magic. If you had to sit there and listen to him play, I'm sure it's probably not the best playing but his style is just so awesome to watch. It inspired me and I think that's more important than just a bunch of dudes that I've seen before who play everything perfectly.