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Northlane: "There’s definitely a place for alternate picking, but it’s better to try and down-pick everything you can"

(Image credit: Neal Walters)

Since forming only a decade ago, Sydney tech-metal quintet Northlane have become one of the Australian metal scene’s fastest-rising powerhouses. On home soil they’ve topped the album charts, with a solid track record for landing in the top five, and their popularity further afield has seen them climb up festival billings with natural and relative ease.

A few hours ahead of one of their biggest European headliners to date - a sold-out show at Electric Brixton - guitarists Jon Deiley and Josh Smith are giving Guitar World the lowdown on their ultimate Kemper hack. It’s something that seems incredibly obvious, though for one reason or another isn’t yet common practice among most users of the ever-thriving profiling unit...

We’ve been using Kempers pretty much since they first came out. I’ve still got the original white toaster versions before they were being made with power amps

Josh Smith

“The profiles you use do matter, but what I’ve found to be equally as important for high-gain metal tones is boosting with an analogue pedal in front,” says Smith, citing it provides the kind of warmth needed to bring Kemper profiles to life and take them to the next level.

Though both guitarists swear by this method for their live shows, each has his own preferred box for that pre-profile boost…

“I use a J. Rockett Archer, which is a bit like a Klon,” continues Smith. “That’s the primary boost I used on our last two albums. We’re also developing a pedal at the moment that’s based on that Klon style, but modernized - a lot of Tube Screamer-type pedals cut the bottom and step on the mids. 

"Our one will retain the full body of the sound and still increase the muscle, mids and all the good stuff you get when you boost an amp. Honestly, Kempers take pedals better than any other digital gear I’ve tried… that’s our main secret.”

I like the guitarists who don’t show off or try to set the house on fire; instead they service the music more than anything

Josh Smith

“The difference is like night and day,” agrees Deiley. “The notes have so much more body to them. It’s pretty crucial for a band like us. I’ve been using the Seymour Duncan 805 for so long, I can’t remember what I was using before. It’s such a solid overdrive, and I use it the same way most people do, like a Tube Screamer boost rather than drive.”

Who were your key influences when starting this band?

Deiley: “Tom Searle from Architects [North Lane is a track on 2007 album Ruin]. When I was a teenager listening to them, I noticed he did a lot of two-hand tapping stuff. He might not have been the first person to do that, but he did it in a really new and cool way within the metal world.

"I’ve incorporated a lot of that, but I’ve kinda inverted it. Tom was doing it on the thinner, higher strings while I do it up on the heavier going between the open, the 12th and 24th fret to tap out rhythms that you wouldn’t be able to do the normal way. I owe a lot to Tom. I don’t know if another metal band would have given me enough inspiration to start messing around with stuff like that myself.”

Smith: “For me it’s the two guys from Karnivool. I love Stephen Carpenter from Deftones, too, he has so much presence in that band despite usually being the only guitar player.

"I like the guitarists who don’t show off or try to set the house on fire, instead they service the music more than anything - it’s not about satisfying their own egos. I’m not a massive fan of shreddy stuff, and though I love a lot of '80s glam-metal and Van Halen, a lot of those players still served the song.”

You started using Kemper Profilers a lot earlier than most bands...

Smith: “We’ve been using them pretty much since they first came out. I’ve still got the original white toaster versions before they were being made with power amps. 

"I’m using those right now with a Matrix 1000-watt sold-state power amp, plus we have two powered racks we brought out in case one of them goes down… which hasn’t ever happened. But you can never be too safe!”

Jon, what made you want to go for a Telecaster body on your ESP signatures?

Deiley: “When we first started recording, I was using an LTD Viper that was brought into the studio last minute to fix these parts that other guitars weren’t doing well. It was the first time a baritone came into the picture and we found having those extra two inches or whatever definitely helps with the lower tuned stuff. 

"You kinda need that if you’re tuning as low as us. I’m a big fan of classic bodies, like Telecasters. My newest signature is a Jaguar shape, in black. I like the amount of wood that’s there, a big slab of mahogany that’s heavy and rings out forever. That’s a key ingredient for this kind of music.”

What else do you look for when it comes to the Northlane guitar sound?

Smith: “I’ve got a collection of Jacksons, some I keep here in Europe and some back home in Australia. On this tour, I have a Custom Shop San Dimas, which looks a bit like a Strat, as well as a Custom Shop B7 and a modified B7 too.

"They’re all 27-inch baritone seven-strings with Evertune bridges and our signature Bareknuckle Impulse pickups. They’re all pretty simple but sound great. In this band we don’t really care how fancy our guitars are - all that matters is if it intonates and sounds good. If it ticks those boxes, then it’s right for us.

Our live rigs are quite compact now - we’ve really cut back. We were spending too much on freight and excess baggage for the international touring

Josh Smith

"We don’t really give a rat’s ass about however many A-grades the top is or anything like that. It’s function over form. There are also some interesting ones that are currently being built.”

How have your live rigs changed over the years?

Smith: “Our live rigs are quite compact now. I have three pedals in front of the Kemper and that’s it. There’s an El Capistan, the Strymon delay which John uses as well, and an RJM PBC/6X to switch. That’s it, we’ve really cut back.

"A couple of years ago we built fly rigs that were really small, we were spending too much on freight and excess baggage for the international touring. Eventually we became dissatisfied with those fly rigs so decided to go for a happy medium, something quite compact that didn’t really compromise on anything.

"The Kemper’s built-in delays have been updated quite a lot, there wasn’t much to be lost. It also meant less technical problems or things to worry about.”

Deiley: “We were using the Decimator for a long time but now we use the Fortin Zuul noise gate, and it just clamps down on high-gain signals even faster. It just has one knob. 

The El Capistan is my favourite delay pedal of all-time. It emulates all the warbling so well. We used the Strymon Timeline for a while too, but it’s like a C-grade version of the El Capistan which twists and modulates so perfectly.”

There’s not actually a huge amount of difference between our guitars and the synth basses on a lot of darker electronic music

Jon Deiley

Josh, your signature Bare Knuckle Impulse pickups came out in 2017. What attracted you to Bare Knuckle over other higher-output producers?

Smith: “We’d tried EMGs and active Seymour Duncans and a bunch of other things over the years, even before the band started. For the kind of music we’ve been making we tend to prefer a well-suited passive pickup instead of an active, just because of how it reacted in the range we play in. 

"I started using Bare Knuckles way, way back… pretty much since we formed. It was models like the Warpig and Painkiller, then the Black Hawk came out and eventually I did the Impulse set. John still uses a ceramic Black Hawk in his bridge, while I use an Impulse single-coil and humbucker.”

What did you learn from working with founder Tim Mills?

I knew it was frowned upon to tune so low but I didn’t care; I wanted to sound heavy

Jon Deiley

Smith: “Tim’s a great guy, we saw him the other day. We just go out for dinner and talk about everything but guitar… his kids, his dogs, all kinds of shit. 

"It is fun to pick his brain though when it comes to tone and playing - he has a wealth of experience and really knows how to guide you in the right direction for finding the tool for the job... but without telling you. 

"When I started working on the Impulse set, it felt like I’d been using ceramics for ages and it was him that suggested trying out alnico. He sent me some to blind-test and it turned out he was absolutely right. It was built the right way and sounded unreal for what we do.”

What have you learned about combining these guitar signals with more dance-orientated and electronic-based instrumentation?

Deiley: “It’s a complicated question… I could talk about it for hours. The balance is super important because it’s really easy to make it sound cheesy. 

"On our latest record Alien, I got to the point where I wanted to make something really gnarly on guitar. I knew it was frowned upon to tune so low but I didn’t care; I wanted to sound heavy. 

"There’s not actually a huge amount of difference between our guitars and the synth basses on a lot of darker electronic music. On the breakdown of 4D, I’m using pads to hit sub-bass sounds while Josh does the riff and it all sounds like one instrument.

"Techno and metal also have quite a lot of similarities - especially when it comes to polyrhythms. There’s a lot of that in techno and the audience tends not to know or case because the drums make it feel normal...”

A lot of bands famous for uncommon time signatures often say they’re only playing in 4/4...

Deiley: “Exactly. It’s the same with dance music - that kick goes on the entire time, so it doesn’t feel weird even if there’s a synth line in 3/4 or 6/8. 

"Those shorter loops against longer times create those polyrhythms. Once I figured that out, I would go from a synth to guitar and it would instantly sound like metal. Different times are fun to experiment with, but my rule is always can you nod your head to it? There’s a song called Jinn on the new album which is in 7/4, though if you nod your head through the entire phrase, it doesn’t feel like it.

"That’s the key to making odd-time signatures sound natural and fit into the core of the song. Genres are something we’ve created to understand music a little easier. We like to put things in boxes so that we know what we like and what we’re defined by. But everything is so fluid in music… and the same goes for actual life.”

When you were using larger pedalboards, what did you learn about routing and switching?

Running your pedalboard in series is a terrible idea and nobody should do it!

Josh Smith

Smith: “There’s no limit to how many pedals you can use if it’s built right. There was a really good book I read written by Yukihiro Hayashi - the guy who behind the Japanese company Free The Tone. It’s called the System Construction Manual.

"Anyone hoping to build a board needs to read that. He outlines the best way about doing it in a way that’s quiet and well-performing. I find relay switching is an absolute must, having some sort of brain controlling your board with true bypass loops.

"Running stuff in series is a terrible idea and nobody should do it! As long as it’s all wired up properly and not crammed, you should be fine.”

Are there any breakthrough exercises or methods that got your technique to where it is today?

Deiley: “I think recording yourself is incredibly important. I played guitar for six or seven years before I got Pro Tools with a proper click-track. It’s really important to hear your own progress; it might be the most important thing for any musician to be honest. 

"I never really got into scales or warm-up techniques, I’m completely self-taught. But eventually, when Northlane started Josh actually told me my left hand was decent but my right hand was a little sloppy. I didn’t think too much about it, but my right hand got so tight after a while that I can now play down-picked riffs which Josh needs to use alternate for! 

"If you down-pick, your riffs are going to sound so much bigger and stronger. Engineers will often ask you to play the big riffs that way to get a more consistent sound. There’s definitely a place for alternate picking, but I think it’s better to try and down-pick everything you can.”

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Amit has been writing for titles like Total GuitarMusicRadar and Guitar World for over a decade and counts Richie Kotzen, Guthrie Govan and Jeff Beck among his primary influences. He's interviewed everyone from Ozzy Osbourne and Lemmy to Slash and Jimmy Page, and once even traded solos with a member of Slayer on a track released internationally. As a session guitarist, he's played alongside members of Judas Priest and Uriah Heep in London ensemble Metalworks, as well as handling lead guitars for legends like Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols, The Faces) and Stu Hamm (Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, G3).