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June 2009: After several years of exile in the rock wilderness, ambitious players with in-your-face attitude and chops for days have returned to the spotlight. Legendary 6-string pyro-technician George Lynch helped define the guitar hero in the '80s with his jawdropping playing in Dokken and Lynch Mob, inspiring future shredders around the world. At the forefront of the new generation is Alexi Laiho, frontman/guitarist for Finnish metal powerhouse Children of Bodom. With his death-defying, edge-of-your-seat style, Laiho is proudly carrying the torch, and providing a fresh dose of inspiration for a whole new crop of players.
These two giants of guitar have more in common than just fast fingers – both have signature models from ESP. Let's face it, when you play technically demanding music like George and Alexi do, it helps to have a guitar that's built for performance, that actually makes it easier to pull off the mind-bending licks you work so hard to achieve. We sat down with George and Alexi in a room full of ESP guitars, and the two immediately started talking like old friends. The conversation was full of laughs, insights and mutual admiration, with both George and Alexi weighing in on a wide range of topics.
ON BEING A GUITAR HERO
Alexi Laiho: Well, I never consider myself as a guitar hero. I always just wanted to play the guitar, you know. I love making music. That's pretty much the end of it. I have heroes. I have idols that I would look up to and try to be like them. And right now it's pretty rad that there are kids running around looking up to me, so it's pretty crazy.
George Lynch: I don't think any of us ever intend to be "guitar heroes", and it's hard for us to understand how people view us that way. And I'm sure Alexi feels the same way. It's hard to understand that people would view us that way, personally for myself. But I know how it feels. I have my heroes and fortunately I got to meet Jeff Beck. I did the Eric Clapton Crossroads thing and he was backstage. I thought, I may never get this chance again in my life. And I was like a little kid, I didn't know what to say. I didn't want to be "that guy." And I was seriously almost in tears to meet this guy.
George Lynch: My list of heroes is too long to list. I'm a product of the '60s, so I grew up with the big four: Clapton, Page, Hendrix, Beck – and the Beatles. And then everybody else that came along effected me; Eddie and Yngwie, Michael Schenker and Billy Gibbons, Al DiMeola, Joe Satriani. I'm a student of all these guys. For instance, one of the new guys that I really like is Mattias Eklundh from Freak Kitchen. Unbelievable. Just like Alexi and that class of players, which I can never touch technically, but I still try.
Alexi Laiho: I don't know, guitar heroes for me, I've got so many of them. I'll try to cut it short. Pretty much anybody who's been involved with Ozzy Osbourne, like Randy Rhoads, Jake E. Lee, Zakk Wylde, Steve Vai, definitely. Paul Gilbert, he's a badass. And Slash, I just love his playing.
STANDING OUT AS A PLAYER
Alexi Laiho: Yeah, it's true, nowadays everybody's technically so good. There are so many fast and really technically accurate guitar players out there, but it's not about that. If you put it that way, then it would sound like we're talking about sports here, and we're not. It's like a lot of people forget about the actual music, right? They just want to be as fast as possible and just technically accurate. And I'm saying that, all right, yeah, you've got to have the techniques down and then once you get them down, you can play a solo that serves the actual song. And that's something that a lot of guitar players just seem to forget about.
George Lynch: Having a voice is important, too. Having a unique style, I think is something. I don't know if you can acquire that consciously and go, OK, I'm going to acquire my own sound and style. I mean you've got your different techniques that set you apart, which you probably borrowed from somebody else. We're all building on the shoulders of our predecessors, so my stuff is all a mix of Hendrix and Beck and a little Yngwie and a little Eddie and all that. I just kind of put it all together in my own way and I'm sure we all do that. None of us just thought of something in the middle of the night and we're geniuses – unless you're Hendrix or some kind of anomaly like that. Most of us are just taking what we've learned and kind of re-synthesizing it into and saying it in our own way.
George Lynch: I've had the Seymour Duncan Screamin' Demon pickup for about 15 years now. The name sort of implies kind of a really hot pickup, but this really isn't. It's a little hotter than a PAF. It really works well in heavier guitars, I've found. My ESP Tiger guitar is extremely heavy and it sounds good in that. I also have another pickup that's custom shop only called a Super V, which is very Seth Lover-ish.
Alexi Laiho: My signature pickup that's coming out from EMG, it's like the one that I used to play before I was with ESP. They have this weird kind of setup going on, which is like a passive Humbucker with a gain boost built ' inside the guitar. So that means that if you crank up the gain, you would get four times as much output. My ESP signature model only has one pickup in there 'cause I just came to the conclusion that I don't need the other ones. I really don't. I like the mean treble sound. I play metal and that's what you need. One thing that I always hated about the neck pickup, some players can really actually use it right, but there are a lot of dudes out there who would like, when they try to play fast, they just put on a crapload of echo, switch on the neck pickup and just do a bunch of...
George Lynch: Hey, wait a minute. I do that! (Laughter) Making fun of me, dude.
Alexi Laiho: No, you don't. C'mon.
George Lynch: Geez. You hurt my feelings. I'm going to go home and take out all my neck pickups. (Laughter) I'm going to go now.
Alexi Laiho: I'm not going to talk anymore. (Laughter)
George Lynch: It's a more fluid sound, so you can do things like sweep and do faster runs with the single-coil neck pickup, like Yngwie. And then when you want to brighten it up and make it a little more in your face, then you just switch to the bridge pickup. I just have to tell you a little story about something I designed for ESP that you might be interested in. We came up with this guitar – I had this brilliant idea – with a motorized pickup on rails that would move from bridge position to the neck position while you're playing. I came up with it and they're like, "Yes, yes. Okay, that's brilliant. We're going to make that." We made it. And so I got it on stage and I was going to play it, but they have a little DC motor in it and the motor ends up going through your Marshalls and everything. And the motor was louder than the guitar. So I'm sitting there and – it was really slow, so I'd be playing and it would be going, "ERRNNN..." By the time it got to the neck the solo was over. (Laughter.)
George Lynch: All my life, my playing life, it's always been my tone that dictates how well I'm going to play and how creative I get. So my whole life it's just been about tone questing. I've found the less gain, the better. I've just learned to play with less gain, and the more I've done that, the more I've realized that you hear the fingers and the dynamics and the wood and everything that you want to hear. All those inflections and tonalities and dynamics and when you listen to Beck and all these guys, you really hear expression in the playing. And I guess that's just a matter of maybe becoming a more mature player. I mean I still like heavy music, obviously, and I still do that and probably still play with too much gain at times, but you sacrifice certain things when you do that. It becomes so compressed and sort of one dimensional.