Daron Malakian: 21st Century Schizoid Man
For many of the heavy rhythm parts on the album, Malakian doubled one of his humbucker-equipped guitars (the 1962 SG or any of the Flying Vs) with a single-coil pickup guitar. His P-90-equipped 1964 Gibson SG Special was often chosen for the task, and it’s a guitar that is especially close to his heart. “The P-90s really filled up a lot of sonic real estate. The humbucker gives you a very pointed attack, and the P-90s are much more wild and open. So both of them together did something really cool.”
While Malakian’s distorted tone is formidable, his many-and-varied clean tones are among the most interesting on the disc. He has a gift for placing small, delicate sounds amid roaring chunk-metal mixes and somehow ensuring that the tiny sound claims the listener’s attention. Mezmerize/Hypnotize is particularly rich in multitracked, harmonized, Greek bouzouki-like timbres, many of which were achieved on a Fender Jazzmaster through a Divided by 13 model FTR-37 amp. “My uncle lived in Greece for a long time,” Malakian recalls. “He came to America when I was seven or eight years old and he brought a lot of Greek music with him. Maybe that’s where I get those harmonized solo bouzouki things I do on guitar.”
For these passages, Malakian facilitates his bouzouki-style double-picking technique with large triangular-shaped picks. “I used smaller picks in System’s early days, but when we started playing live, the fingers of my picking hand would get all bloody. My whole guitar would be covered in blood. At first it was like, ‘That’s so cool!’ but after a few shows you get over it. So I made myself get used to a bigger pick. Those big triangular picks are just bass picks. Or they used to be bass picks until bass players stopped using them.”
Malakian started out with the “tortoiseshell” Fender triangular picks but has since moved on to the Dunlop’s Tortex version of the same plectrum. He even sharpens the edges for extra “cut.” “I’m waiting for them to make me some already sharpened,” he notes.
The distinctive clean guitar intro to the song “Hypnotized” was created on a red Sixties Hagstrom through a small Watkins (W.E.M.) Dominator also of swinging-Sixties vintage. “I tried two or three different guitars for that part to see which one would cut,” he says. “The Hagstrom had just the right tone. And the Watkins gives a very punchy sound. It’s cool for arpeggiated parts or even little solo stuff. I also used the tremolo channel on the Watkins for the tremolo sections in some songs.”
The drone behind the “Hypnotized” intro riff was generated by means of a technique Malakian has used on every System album thus far. “I have a double-neck Gibson SG. And I play the bottom [12-string] neck but leave the top pickups open and also mic the strings, as if it were an acoustic guitar. So you get the resonance from there, which adds this mystical type of thing to the cleaner guitars. Also, for some of those drone parts we unmuted the strings of the acoustic guitars hanging on the wall to get even more drones.”
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