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Altered states

Published on 02-01-2005
Published at Guitarist Magazine (View Original Article)

"Kurt Cobain may have ruined the guitar solo but we're going to do our best to bring it back!"

Mark Tremonti's last band, the multi-platinum Creed, split in a wave of acrimony last year. But together with new vocalist Myles Kennedy, his new harder-rocking outfit Alter Bridge are already going from strength to strength...

-- by Will Simpson

Mark Tremonti cups his hands and smiles: "It was a living hell towards the end. It got pretty bad, far worse than anyone could imagine..."

He's talking about the final days of his previous band, Creed, stadium-filling post-grunge behemoths who sold a whopping 30 million albums and whose final two long-players both went to number one on the US Billboard charts. And yet despite their huge success, Creed - unlike Tremonti today - were not happy bunnies. Even for the nu-metal years front man Scott Stapp took 'anguished' and 'angst ridden' to new levels of absurdity. As it transpired, the rest of the band weren't exactly enamored with him anyway. Most groups, when they split, hide behind vague explanations of 'musical differences' and 'wanting to explore new directions.' Not Creed. It was, the plain-talking Tremonti explains, very personal.

"None of us saw eye to eye with Scott during the last couple of years," he tells us. "We hardly ever spoke. We rode on different buses. It was an uncomfortable couple of years."

Things came to a head with one notorious incident in December 2002 when Stapp messed up very publicly. At a show in Chicago, the singer spent most of the set rolling around on stage, incoherent and unable to perform. As they do in the US, disgruntled fans even went so far as to sue the band. "I don't know what he messed up on but I do know that my entire family were at that show," recalls Tremonti, "and he embarrassed me completely, in front of my family and the world. And that had been the third time he had done that in a month."

After drawn-out media speculation, Creed were officially put to bed in June 2004. By this stage, the canny Tremonti already had his new project up and running. The guitarist elected to stick with drummer Scott Phillips and recruited original Creed bassist Brian Marshall. The line-up was completed by front man Myles Kennedy, a long-haired chap whose previous band, Mayfield Four, had impressed Tremonti when supporting Creed in 1998. "It's difficult to find a singer who can sing technically well but who is also very believable," Tremonti notes. The fact that Kennedy also plays guitar was an added bonus.

Although Tremonti's new project was first mooted as a 'solo' album, the quartet soon named themselves Alter Bridge, after a landmark in the guitarist's hometown of Detroit. The foursome decided to mark Myles' arrival not with a night on the town, but by going for a bracing bungee jump together.

"Well, we were thinking about some sort of initiation rite, and we figured that the best was to do it would be to take on the world's biggest freefall in Florida - a 30-story drop. Myles wet his pants," claims Tremonti.

"No, that's not true," insists Kennedy, "but it was terrifying. I hate heights. I haven't done anything like that before. My stomach basically went up into my mouth. It was horrible."

"Yeah, we gotta do that every year," grins a mischievous Tremonti.

Judging by the pair's guffawing it's obvious that Alter Bridge are an altogether more relaxed outfit that Creed ever were. Musically too, the guitarist seems more satisfied. "I just wanted to push as far as I could in every sense - in guitar playing, writing, whatever. It was hard towards the end of Creed. I would write something and it would be hard to get that idea across. I'd have to tug and pull to get the idea finalized. Scott was somebody who would dig into something just so he could say he had a part in it, instead of just being able to see a good idea for what it is and being able to let it rest."

Certainly Alter Bridge's debut album, One Day Remains, is a blessed relief after the doomy grunge of Creed. Instantly more accessible and, hell, even enjoyable, it's also markedly influenced by the classic rock of the seventies and eighties. There is even a scattering of ballsy solos, something you sense the guitarist has been itching to try for a good while.

"Oh yeah, definitely. In Creed whenever I tried to solo, Scott would have to make fun of me for being too eighties. It would always piss me off because the more flashy I got on the guitar, the more he would downplay it. But those days are over with. Before you know it, I'll be doing the eight-finger tapping."

"Kurt Cobain may have killed the guitar solo but we're going to do our best to bring it back," nods Kennedy.

"It's fun," Tremonti smiles. "People love to see you do it. But you have to do it in the right way and make it interesting. Don't make it like a humming bird all the time; slow it down sometimes, make it dynamic, keep it melodic."

As he knows, at the end of the day technique should service the song rather than the other way round. "Occasionally, where there is a really strong riff, we'll build on top of that," says Myles, "but for the most pat Mark's thing is melodies and that is mine as well. We both have the same belief that you want to be able to walk away with the song stuck in your head."

"Sometimes those melodies will come straight away and then we'll build the more intricate guitar parts," says Tremonti. "Other times it works the opposite way, where I'll be sat fiddling around and I'll come up with a cool riff or finger picking pattern. Usually, I won't let it get too far before I start trying to come up with a melody over it, because then you've got this big awesome piece of music that can't fit anywhere. Most of the time the discarded bits end up as intros - like on (new single) Broken Wings or In Loving Memory."

"Generally, anything I have a tough time singing a melody over gets turned into intros or bridges. But great band shave been doing that for years. Bands like Tesla - the coolest bit of their entire set was the intro to Love Song. There were no vocals but whenever I heard it on the radio with the guitar part I was like, I wanna play that!"

Like many songwriters, Tremonti has a favorite guitar to grab when the creative mood strikes, in his case a PRS McCarty. "It's my 'mojo' guitar. If I hit a brick wall creatively, it usually speaks to me. There’s a lot of history sitting down with it. I feel very comfortable with it. It's one of those guitars that sounds just right when you're just trying to fiddle around. You know how guitars have different personalities? Well, that guitar has a songwriting personality. I would never use it on stage but I love using it to write on."

In the live arena- and Alter bridge's UK shows in December 2004 went down a storm - Tremonti still totes his own signature model PRS, currently at the center of an unusual legal wrangle. The guitar came into being when PRS asked Tremonti whether he wanted it to design a guitar for him. Of course, he said yes. Yet it's his Singlecut model to which Gibson has taken sever umbrage, claiming it breaks their copyright on the famed Les Paul design. Tremonti is exasperated at this, which has led to Gibson winning an injunction to halt production and distribution of the PRS Singlecut (including his signature models).

"It's being appealed this month (Dec '04) but it could drag on. It might not ever get sorted out."

Meanwhile, Kennedy also has a PRS McCarty. "It's got a Dragon 2 pickup; I've recently discovered that. It seems to blend much better with Mark's sound. I was using the McCarty pickup before and it's a little too vintage, a little too mid-range, so I switched to the Dragon and it works really well live. I really like the necks, the radius feels real nice... which is funny because I was a Les Paul user for years," he explains.

Tremonti's set-up hasn't changed much since his Creed days. "I've just added a Bogner Uberschall amp. I used to have Mesa/Boogie Triple and Dual Rectifier for my dirty sounds in the studio, just playing with different amps. When I'm in the studio experimenting it always sounds better to have two different types of dirties and mix them up for the mix. I thought, well I should do that live. So I added the Bogner because it sounds like a giant monster. Every time I think I've got the perfect guitar rig, I have to change because something new will come out like the (Fender) Tone King. For clean tones, I used to swear by (Fender) Twins; before that I used to swear by Matchless, and before that it was a Roalnd 2.x 12. Now I think that the Twin has a nice, high sweet-sounding crystal clarity and you have the Tone King, which is a little warmer but still clear and punchy. Together they are beautiful."

Occasionally, Tremonti also dials in a Diezal amp and an 1968 Marshall 'Plexi' head - "which I like to use on some of the more retro rock songs" - but his effects setup is simplicity itself: his signature Morley wah-wah straight into his amps and, for use with the Marshall 'Plexi' only, a recently acquired Klon Centaur overdrive pedal.

The main difference for Tremonti between then and now is, of course, the addition of a guitar partner in Kennedy. "It means I don't have to worry about filling any spots live. Back in Creed, whenever I did a guitar solo the bottom would drop out. I did try to teach Scott how to play," he pleads. "I would tune the guitar completely open so he could fret the whole thing with one finger but he couldn't get the rhythm right. We tried it for two nights and never tried it again."

"Now it's a whole lot easier because Myles is a lead guitar player himself. We do guitar wars! We shred on stage together and we do dual harmony leads. I think it just adds an added excitement to the set. When people hear Myles sing, they have no idea he can play guitar... then he pulls it on, and shreds on it. It makes it more fun. It shows that we're not just a typical band. We've got a singer who can shred."

"And we've got a drummer who can breakdance," adds Myles helpfully. Now that, Guitarist would love to see. But things are already good enough: Creed may still cast a long shadow but for now, under the Alter Bridge, Mark Tremonti is having fun and enjoying his music again.

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