Disturbed's Dan Donegan Talks Favorite Riffs, Fantasy Collaborations and New Album, 'Evolution'

(Image credit: Travis Shinn)

This self-taught guitarist used to bang nails and pour concrete for his father’s construction company in his native Illinois. Now he tours the world — and sells a ton of records — with his longtime band, Disturbed, who’ve just released a bold new album, Evolution. But what Guitar World readers really want to know is...

When writing a new song, how many different riffs or rhythms does it take before you say, “Hey, this is the one for the song”? —Zak Kalas

It has to come naturally. If I just sit down and make a schedule for it, I’m forcing it and it’s not real. There are times where I’ll just pick up the guitar and start playing and, for whatever mood I’m feeling that day, record some ideas and save them for later. I may even demo an idea to paint the picture a little more clearly, but I try to not get too attached and will wait until we can all get together to work on the idea. The real magic happens when we can improvise in the moment together.

How does Disturbed’s new album, Evolution, relate to some of the band’s previous work? —Kyle Bennett

It definitely branches out in quite a few new areas. When some people hear the name Disturbed, they may lump us into a category or have some preconceived notion of who we are. There’s a lot of flavors to this band and for this album, we really wanted to push ourselves down new roads and widen the definition of what Disturbed is. But we weren’t going to divorce ourselves from things that are signature Disturbed, like heavy riffs and syncopation. We just wanted to push the boundaries and show a good blend and balance of an emotional record as well.

Which songs from Evolution were the hardest to demo, record and play live? —Rachel Cornell

From a technical standpoint, I wouldn’t say anything was difficult to perform, more so than it was difficult for us on a personal level because of the topics, lyrics and meanings behind the songs. We really touched on some personal issues. You have to have passion and a personal connection if you want a song to connect with someone else. I think fans will find they can relate to a lot of these topics.

The first single, “Are You Ready,” was the fastest Disturbed song to reach No. 1 on rock radio. Can you tell me how the song came about? —Gavin Bring

Musically, I had the skeleton of the song back in 2004. I remember it had that early Disturbed sound and a really cool groove. At the time, we’d been writing for the Ten Thousand Fists album and already had enough material. So, I back-burnered the idea and put it in the vault. As I was going through ideas for this album I realized I’d forgotten about that idea and revisited it. I have a way of sneaking in ideas I really like that we never finish out. I’ll always find another time to use them. This one just happened to take 14 years [laughs].

What can you tell us about the track “A Reason to Fight?” —Les Fairoaks

That’s probably the most personal one for all of us. We’ve all had people in our lives that have battled some form of addiction. Whether it’s alcohol or drugs, or even those who may be fighting depression. It’s a dark subject but we always try to incorporate some positivity by saying to those who are fighting demons that there’s hope and there are people who care about them. It may be an everyday battle but we’re telling them don’t give up that fight.

How do you usually record guitars? Do you record quad-tracks or double-tracks? —Oleg Okorokov

It really all depends on what it feels like the song needs. A lot times, if it’s a straight-up, aggressive and syncopated track, I’ll have a heavier-tone rhythm going and then add melodic overdubs as ear candy to fatten it up. I also like to have certain tracks sit low in the mix that you may not catch the first few times around. It’s not always necessary to hear them as much as you feel that there’s something there. Then maybe you’ll take a closer listen to pick out those little underlying melodies that are complementary to everything else that’s going on.

How do you deal with touring and being away from your family for so long? —Isabelle Donaldson

This life is everything I’ve ever dreamed of and every sacrifice you can imagine. That’s not complaining. It’s just the reality. This is one of those things where you dream of playing on big stages all around the world and enjoying all the luxuries you get as a “rock star,” but you don’t realize that you miss out on things like weddings, birthdays and graduations. When my kids were babies, I was fortunate to be able to bring them out on the road as much as I could. It’s all about finding the balance of keeping your sanity from being on the road while still having a normal family life.

What string gauges do you use? —Ryan

There are a few different tunings, so it all depends. Some of the earlier Disturbed songs from The Sickness and Believe albums are Drop C# tunings, and then there a few of the more recent songs from Immortalized and few others where I’m Drop B and would use a .012 to a .056. I’m kind of all over the board depending on the song and how David [Draiman] sounds within the track.

What guitar riff or solo do you wish you had come up with? —Tim Jacobi

There are so many great solos, and I try to take as much as I can from all genres of music, but “Comfortably Numb” is one of those solos that has so much feel and emotion to it.

Are there any artists you’d want to collaborate with, either in rock or outside of the genre? —Erik H.

I’ve always been a huge fan of Lindsey Buckingham. He has such an unorthodox way of playing, with no pick. I’ll never forget seeing him perform the song “Big Love” live with Fleetwood Mac. He came out and played it by himself and it sounded like an army of guitars. It was so massive. I’d love to just sit in a room with him and watch what he does.

Was there a moment in your life when you realized music would be your calling? —Ashley Kemp

Growing up, I was shy and quiet and remember being scared to death the first time I stepped onstage with my band. But the second I got off stage there was such an adrenaline rush. I felt like a different person and wanted more. It’s an alter ego that continues to this day. Whenever I hit the stage, I can become this person without any fear.

Which member of Disturbed are you closest to and why? —Carolyn Naas

As a band, our bond has grown even more over the years now that we're all dads and can relate to things other than the music. Mike [Wengren] has been my longest friend. I’m the godfather to both of his kids and have known him since 1992. I knew him when we were both in different local bands rehearsing just a few doors down from each other. There’s a long history between us. We only live a few hours apart and a lot of times we’ll get together for dinner in downtown Chicago.

Top five Disturbed riffs? —Marcus Andersen

Even though it’s an earlier track, I’ve always liked “Stupify.” It was one of the first songs we wrote together and has always been special. Out of the more current ones, the riff from “Immortalized” is one of my favorites. On Evolution, I’d say “The Best Ones Lie,” which is probably the heaviest track on this album. Those would be my top three. The others I’d probably give you a different answer every day. They’re all way too personal.

Will you guys still release that acoustic EP you were planning on getting out? —Igor Veselinovic

We originally didn’t know if we were going to release a separate EP of that or not. As we started to write for this album, we started with the acoustic tracks. Once we had five or six really strong ideas we went back to plugging in to get some signature Disturbed riffs going. As things started to develop we decided to incorporate it all into one body of work instead of putting it out as a second EP. That’s when we came up with the concept of Evolution being the name of the album.

How do you guys write powerful music with meaning? I need help writing songs. —Brian Hightower

Take in as much as you can from all types of players and genres of music. Trust your gut and go with what sounds good to you. My biggest pet peeve are the guys who are too much into theory and stick to rule books. Technically, they may be better shredders, but when you don’t have any rules you play what you feel; to me, I enjoy those types of players more than the by-the-book guys.

Growing up in the Chicago area, did you listen to WVVX 103.1 FM in the late Eighties? Would you be willing to share any fun memories of the station and any influences it had on your early musical career? —Doug Gross

I didn’t dive too much into radio as a kid. I had an older brother and sister and was influenced by some of the stuff they’d listen to, but I became more influenced by the things my parents didn’t want me to listen to [laughs]. I remember going to my neighbor’s house across the street after his parents had gone to work. His dad had the early Black Sabbath and Dio albums and it was my first taste of heavy metal. I knew my parents wouldn’t like it at all, but that only made me want to listen to it even more.

Of all the highlights of your career, is there a moment that stands out to you as most memorable? —Stan Wilburkes

There’s one when we played the biggest festival in Germany for 100,000 people. We were sharing the stage with Metallica and a lot of other great bands throughout the day. I just remember stepping onstage and not being able to see where the crowd ended. It just went on forever. Because there was a delay in the sound, you’d see people pumping their fists in a wave. It was a sight to see.

What’s the strangest thing that’s been thrown on stage at one of your shows? —Ashley Sheedera

I can think of two off the top of my head. One time years ago somebody threw their prosthetic leg up on stage for us to sign. It was shocking and something I didn’t expect. Another time I remember very clearly. We were playing in Kansas City and someone threw a wrapped-up piece of tin foil with a bag in it. Occasionally, you’ll see someone throw up a note or a joint, but when we opened the tin foil after the show there was a bag of ashes from someone who had been cremated along with a note. The note was from a guy who said that the ashes were part of his friend who had passed away. He told us his buddy was a huge Disturbed fan and wanted part of his ashes to be onstage with us. It sent chills up our spines.