Dear Guitar Hero: Adam Jones of Tool Talks Tone, Gear, Videos, the Band's Anonymity, Time Between Albums and More
FROM THE GW ARCHIVE: His progressive metal group is one of the most artistically innovative and critically acclaimed acts in music today. But what Guitar World readers really want to know is…
Are you a self-taught guitarist? What did you do in your formative years as a player to reach the level you are at today? — Dominick Ruggeri, Saranac, NY
I’m a self-taught guitarist, but I have a classical music background. I started playing violin very young with a Suzuki program [a method of teaching music through a nurturing environment]. I had this really awesome teacher that taught me to read treble and bass clef. Then when I got to high school I played standup bass in the orchestra.
As long as I can remember, growing up we had a guitar around our house, and I was always plucking on it. My dad and brother both play, and my brother would show me how to bite the pick [play pinch harmonics] like Billy Gibbons. Also, when I was younger I was in a band with Tom Morello. When I first met Tom, he sucked. [laughs] He was such a bad guitar player. I wasn’t that good, but I do remember showing him stuff. He got so good so quick. Then it turned around to where he was showing me stuff. Now he can bury me. [laughs] He’s awesome.
You have a very distinctive tone. What are the main components of your sound? — Blas
I think it’s all about knowing what you want. It’s about picking up a guitar and saying, “This is the guitar I’m going to play. I’m not gonna use just any guitar; I’m playing this guitar. And these are the strings and the specific pickup I’m going to use.” I use a multi-amp setup because I don’t believe there’s one amp that has the perfect sound.
I think it’s about chemistry. It’s like ingredients in a cake. If there’s no icing, it’s gonna seem dry. So I’ve always played with two or three amps: one for high end, one that’s good with midrange and one that kicks in with the low; or I use one that’s got that good solid-state Metallica crunch and one that’s got that warm Marshall tube sound.
Right now, for my live setup I’m using two Diezel heads and an old vintage Marshall bass amp that’s been hot rodded. The good thing about the solid-state stuff is if you know what you like, you can go to any store and buy exactly that. But with the tube stuff, you gotta find the amp and hold onto it. I’ve never heard two Marshalls that sound the same, especially with the vintage stuff. I also have a solidstate speaker that I use just for the Talk Box. As you can tell, there’s a lot of experimenting that goes on.
I hear a definite shift between Opiate and Undertow’s straightforward, grungy/thrash metal and Lateralus and 10,000 Days’ more experimental, progressive and exotic metal. What specific experiences have helped shape Tool’s current sound? — Simon Northall
When we released Opiate, we had already written a lot of the songs on Undertow. We talked about how we wanted to represent ourselves and we thought we would get more attention if we put the harder songs out first. But what happened was the opposite: Opiate didn’t do nearly as well as Undertow. When Undertow came out and “Sober” hit, it was such a huge thing for us. But ultimately, I’m glad we waited and did it the way we did.
I think from album to album it’s all about playing from the heart. It’s not about worrying—like saying that “Sober” was really big, so on our next album we should write another song like “Sober.” We didn’t worry about that. We just got together in a room and explored new paths and tried different things. With Tool it’s always a weird and experimental process.
Why does it take Tool so long to put out records? — Thomas Bjorn
We do a record, we tour on it for a couple years, and then we take time off. Usually about a year later, one of us calls the others and says, “Hey, we should get together and start writing.” So we get together and start writing and rehearsing. It usually works out that it’s four or five years between records. I’m sure the record company would like us to put out a record a year, but… [laughs] We follow our own schedule.
In the time between records, I always have lots of stuff going on. I shoot photography, make little sculptures, play video games…[laughs] I’ll sit in front of the TV with my guitar, watch two movies back to back and play guitar the whole time. I definitely don’t have any strict practice schedule. I just make sure I have “me” time each day to do something creative.
Your work on songs such as “Stinkfist” and “Lateralus” features complex, difficult rhythm patterns. Were their specific exercises you practiced to play them with such precision? — Stephen Metas
Everyone in the group has a math rock or prog-rock influence, and we find it very exciting to challenge ourselves. But I have to say that drumming has been a very big influence on me. When I wrote the main riff in “Aenima,” Dan went, “Oh, that’s three on four. Do you know three on four?” And I was like, “No.” Then he showed me this thing called Pass the Goddamn Butter, which I’ve talked about in Guitar World before. It’s this polyrhythmic thing when one hand is playing in three and one hand is playing four.
My nephew is also a drummer, and he just showed me this great thing where you’re playing triplets with one hand and the other hand is playing straight. I’m also trying to work on some Warr guitar and I recently got a couple lessons from [ex–King Crimson guitarist] Trey Gunn. He showed me some finger exercises, because my right hand sucks for fingering. I just don’t have the dexterity. So I’ve been practicing a technique he calls “the Claw.”
You’ve cultivated your anonymity throughout your career with Tool. Has this ever worked to your disadvantage? — Glenn Kingston
Now those are some 10-dollar words. [laughs] I think I know what you mean, though. From day one we went with a record label called Zoo. They weren’t as big and the offer wasn’t as good as other major record companies were offering, but we went with Zoo because they seemed really visionary in their support of artists. I mean, come on, they had Green Jello, and they’re completely nuts! Plus, Zoo’s operation was all under one roof, so there was no, “Hey, what’s going on with marketing? Let’s call them in New York or in Canada or wherever.” You didn’t have to chase anybody around.
As far as anonymity, from the start we wanted to push the music. That idea came from our influences, like Pink Floyd’s The Wall. You bought that record and you never saw the band on there. All the propaganda from the continuous story contained in its artwork had such a heavy impact on us. When you don’t know what the band looks like, it puts the emphasis on thinking and taking the music and message more seriously.
We butted heads with Zoo a little when they said, “You have to be in your video.” So we ended up actually appearing in our first video, “Hush.” For that video, we had a budget of five grand, which is nothing. [laughs] We did this political message thing because at the time the whole Jello Biafra and Tipper Gore shit was rising. [In 1986, following up on a complaint registered by the Gore-led Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), the Los Angeles district attorney’s office brought Biafra, then lead singer for the Dead Kennedys, to trial over an allegedly obscene poster distributed with the group’s album Frankenchrist.] We’re not a very political band, but we had to figure out something to do in only one day. [laughs]