The last few years have certainly kept Opeth’s lead electric guitar wizard Fredrik Åkesson busy.
Alongside touring commitments for the Swedish progressive metal titans’ Sorceress cycle, he’s been recording his parts for latest release In Cauda Venenum: a head-twisting masterpiece that will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the band’s finest.
But it doesn’t end there, beyond the otherworldly progressive rock perfected in his main group, Åkesson has been collaborating with Saxon singer Biff Byford – who releases his debut solo album next year – while also finding the time to team up with Olsson Amps for their all-new, higher-gain Little Hill 20 head.
Naturally, being one of the most tastefully technical gunslingers in rock has made him an incredibly valuable asset to have on board for any guitar-related project…
“I met John Olsson through this local store called Deluxe Music, who have this annual barbecue thing,” says Åkesson, on his involvement with the Stockholm-based hand-wired amp builder.
The Little Hill earned its title through both its low wattage and the guitarist’s ‘Kulle’ nickname, which means ‘Hill’ in their native tongue. It’s easily the closest thing you’ll find to a Fredrik Åkesson signature amp…
“We got talking and it turned out he was only a five-minute walk away from where I lived. He asked me to come down and try out some stuff. He mainly had boutique clean amps that were more like Fender Twins, but also kinda different.
“A lot of Swedish session players, like Georg ‘Jojje’ Wadenius who used to play with Aretha Franklin, use them. They’re very beautiful bluesy combo-style amps, not so high gain but very pedal-friendly...”
What did you hope to achieve with the Little Hill 20?
“He was interested in doing something with more distortion and I said, ‘Let’s go for it!’ His workshop is downstairs so I went in and started riffing on this smaller 20-watt head he’d made called the Studio 20.
“I was sat there riffing away asking for more gain and mids, or something like the Eddie Van Halen brown sound with nice separation if you strike a six-string chord. You want to always sound clear, even in more distorted situations – that’s probably where it’s most important.
“You need to cut through, so I’m more into the vintage approach than the scooped metal sounds. I like thinking of a Plexi that goes to… not 11, because that’s too Spinal Tap, but how about 16? It took about two years to get to the final prototype and now that model is fully available.”
Are there any recordings we can hear of you playing one?
“I used that amp on Biff Byford’s upcoming solo album [School Of Hard Knocks]. Some of the leads were done from home using that with a Torpedo Live speaker simulator and some imported IRs. It’s a great two-channel studio amp and perfect for club gigs. Those 20 watts deliver high volume, so you could even play bigger gigs with it.
“The clean tone is great – I didn’t have to do anything for that. John is the master of cleans. I mainly use clean for fingerpicked parts, and the Little Hill has a natural compression that’s really nice; you don’t need a pedal in front.
“We worked a lot on the effects loop because I really wanted it to be totally transparent. With a lot of amps, you put something in the loop and a part of the sound disappears… this weird crispiness leaves and you’re there wondering where it went! He managed to fix that and design one that didn’t suck any tone.”
Then John built you the 100-watt version that we hear on In Cauda Venenum...
“We’d actually been working on other models too, but yes – right before we went into the studio, he asked if I wanted a 100-watt head with that same gain structure. He didn’t have time to compare it or dial anything in, he literally just assembled something out of some EL34s and whatever transformers he had lying around. It had a clean channel with the crunch mode and then a high-gain switch for the distorted channels.
“We did a shoot-out for our rhythm guitars and it won the marathon. I had this gut feeling it would, actually. I tried it at the rehearsals – we actually rehearsed for this album, which we haven’t done since Watershed, and I could feel the chords pumping out and cutting through the bass and drums. So all of the rhythm guitars were pretty much that amp.
“There was also a Marshall Plexi in there and a Friedman BE100 that we used for leads, and then for cabinets we had two old Marshalls from the 60s – one with V30s and another with Greenback 25s. Since we were using the same Olsson head for our heavy rhythms, using different cabinets was a nice way of altering the two guitar sounds a little bit.”
And yet, the track Charlatan is notable for its heaviness despite its lack of guitars...
“Yeah, that one had no guitars at all! It’s me and Mikael [Åkerfeldt] playing bass, well Martin [Mendez] was playing the classic bass, and we were on tenor bass with extreme high-gain, panned left and right. So Martin’s sound was the foundation for it, right in the middle.
“We chose not to use guitars because Mikael didn’t want it to sound like a nu-metal track! Some people haven’t realized it’s all bass yet; they probably think we’re using eight-strings now. There was so much distortion I think ended up blowing the tubes!”
The Garroter, on the other hand, couldn’t be more different when it comes to your tones...
“That’s the jazzy oddball track on the album. It needed something different, which ended up being an old 335 through an old Gibson/Maestro amp from the '50s.
“Stefan Boman, who runs Park Studios, owns a lot of vintage gear. He also had this Chandler compressor that was from Abbey Road, an old expensive thing. It all made for a weird sound that really suited the short jazzy phrases I play after the choruses, where I’m using chromatic and dominant ideas.”
There’s always been a jazz side to Opeth’s music, but never quite like that...
“I don’t really know how to play a lot of that stuff, but I can figure out phrases. Whenever we have longer breaks, I try to understand different styles and hopefully raise my level a bit. Even if you play hard rock, trying to find inspiration from beyond is always a good thing.
“I still have my old metal heroes but it’s fun to listen to someone like Django Reinhardt, for instance, and absorb something from that. That track has some inspiration from him as well as some old Swedish folk tones, a lot of melodic minor kind of stuff. That scale has so much hidden within it – the altered scale is its seventh degree, then there’s also lydian dominant and more.”
There’s also a jazz mentality to your leads on Dignity, in that you play through seemingly unrelated non-diatonic chords...
“I had been saying to Mikael it would be great to do a solo that was phrased specifically to each chord, which gives you a new palette of melodic options to help your leads sound more interesting.
“I love playing over a dominant blues just at home, and while it probably doesn’t have that much in common with Dignity, you can target specific notes related to each chord even in blues. By learning triads and seventh arpeggios, you can find so much more beyond the regular pentatonic.
“If you know where to find the seventh degree of whatever parent major scale you are in, you can use all your half-diminished arpeggios there. Then there’s the full diminished approach, which you can mix with melodic minor and on that track I even played some augmented lines near the end.
“One guy who is the master of all this is Frank Marino from Mahogany Rush. I just got his newest live DVD, when he plays I’m A King Bee he does some jazzy stuff in the breaks. It’s so tasteful and fluid, he’s a great guitarist to listen to if you want to unlock that kind of thinking.
“I used a 1983 Korina Flying V for those solos, a black string-through guitar that I bought from a music fair. It’s basically a ‘58 reissue, which I believe was the first Flying V – that one that Albert King used! It also has that rubber bit on the edge so it doesn’t slip on your knee when you’re sat down.”
Did you have to chart it all out the old-fashioned way?
“Yes, I wrote down all the chords for that, because there are quite a few! It goes from F# minor to B# minor then C major to A suspended then A minor, down to G# major and C minor before ending on F# major. So it flips between major and minor voicings within the same chord, jumping all over the place. That can be difficult to improvise over!
“I came up with a lot of it on the fly for the demo. I had to relearn it all back home and then pimp it up a bit more, connecting the changes better. I find it’s better to stay in a neutral position where you can play through the different chords rather than starting a new scale elsewhere on the neck every time there’s a switch… it sounds more natural.”
Is it true you and Mikael used a Fender Mustang to record your parts for Heart In Hand?
“Yeah! That guitar probably looked more like it would be on the weak side, but not at all. We tried some humbucker guitars to begin with, but they weren’t cutting through enough.
“Martin was playing a Hofner bass, he’d gone totally vintage despite it being one of the more metal tracks on the record. That guitar managed to cut through his low-end and the overall rhythmic structure.
“We experimented a lot with different instruments on this album. We brought around 18 electric guitars in, and Stefan had a lot of vintage axes like ‘58 Strats, the Mustang, Gibson 12-strings and a bunch of other weird vintage things.
“It can be quite time-consuming to go through all the options in the studio. Luckily we’d done a lot of rehearsal before, because we were able to spend more time A/B testing tones. I don’t know if that guitar would have worked on the other tracks as well, but it really did the trick on Heart In Hand.
“The intro almost reminds me a bit of a James Bond kind of thing! The rhythms are quite tricky on that song; they alter between the intro and the verses. Some of those little tags at the end of the riff can be quite tricky.
“Mikael is really good at fooling the listener into thinking we’re in odd-time, when it’s actually very straight. The drums might create some sort of illusion but most of the time it’s 4/4. I might be wrong though, haha…”
As for other highlights, Universal Truth has some truly epic moments, and your solo on Lovelorn Crime showcases your more bluesy side...
“I love that big riff in Universal Truth - it has this Ritchie Blackmore Rainbow vibe to it. I actually did all my solos in one go, and they were done in about seven or eight hours.
“It seems like a lot of people like that Lovelorn Crime solo; I’ve been getting some nice feedback on it. Mikael told me to play the solo I would be remembered for, and I did it in one or two takes.
“I was trying to do something very emotional, more like Gary Moore or David Gilmour. I have a huge amount of respect for those gentlemen.
“It all starts around the D minor shape on the fifth fret and even borrows bits from the vocal melody at points. It’s very different to other solos like Continuum, where I play a bit more crazy, with all the big bends, anger and energy.
“I was probably thinking more along the lines of Uli Jon Roth and Frank Marino there, though I never think about someone specifically when I write or record. It always has to sound like me, I guess...”
In Cauda Venenum is out now via Nuclear Blast.