Rodrigo y Gabriela interview: Border Crossing

Fusing metal with flamenco-derived acoustic guitar work, Rodrigo y Gabriela have found a road to success through two very different musical worlds.

If you’ve already heard of Rodrigo y Gabriela, chances are that you know two things about them: one, they’re a Mexican male-female all-instrumental acoustic guitar duo, and two, they cover Led Zeppelin and Metallica songs.

On the basis of this information alone, you might be inclined to write them off as a novelty act. That would be a major mistake, for a number of reasons. First, their takes on Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and Metallica’s “Orion” are dazzling examples of the art of reinterpretation. Second, they write their own material, too, which is just as engaging and as virtuosically played. Third, this isn’t some goofy attention-getting shtick; Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero may play nylon-string guitars, but they’ve been serious metal fans practically all their lives.

“I’ve got every Testament album in my iPod,” Rodrigo says, “and everything by Megadeth, Metallica and Overkill. That old metal stuff is still what I love listening to the most. Nu-metal seems forced to me.”

“My aunt was a Black Sabbath fan,” Gabriela recalls, “so I knew that music early on when I was starting to take guitar lessons. Then I discovered Metallica when I was 15, and when I heard them, I instantly said to myself, ‘This is what I want to play.’ ”

You probably wouldn’t expect an acoustic act to have metal in its blood, but then Rodrigo and Gabriela are making a career out of not meeting others’ expectations. Back in the Nineties, they were both members of a Mexico City thrash band called Tierra Acida, which nearly got signed to a major record label but fell apart before they could seal the deal. Instead of forming a new band, the two guitarists decided to completely reinvent themselves, trading their electric axes for acoustic ones and taking instrumental duo jobs in various seaside restaurants and hotel lounges. Eventually they left Mexico and moved to Europe, scraping out a living as street musicians in Dublin, Copenhagen and Barcelona. It was in those cities, over many grueling months of practice and performance, that Sanchez and Quintero forged a style all their own.

And what a style it is, mixing the harmonic sophistication of jazz with the aggressiveness of metal and a technical flash derived from flamenco. Rodrigo handles most of the high-speed finger-knotting lead parts, while Gabriela holds down the rhythm with a furious right-hand attack that sometimes makes her sound, and look, more like a percussionist than a guitarist. “Gabriela always loved the right-hand flamenco rhythms,” Rodrigo says, “but she never got them completely right, so she created her own thing, and she started really slapping the body of the guitar around.”

This eye- and ear-catching approach to the instrument attracted the attention of singer/songwriter Damien Rice, who invited the duo to be his opening act for a series of shows in Ireland. That turned out to be all the exposure Rodrigo y Gabriela needed; the gigs kept getting bigger and the labels came calling. Their latest studio disc, titled simply Rodrigo y Gabriela (ATO), is one of the most acclaimed guitar albums in recent memory, raising their profile even higher. In the fall of 2007, Sanchez and Quintero embarked on their first American tour as headliners. Shortly before their appearance at the Riviera Theater in Chicago, Guitar World caught up with them to find out how they put together such a multicultural chops fest.

GUITAR WORLD Let’s go back to the first band you both played in, Tierra Acida. Rodrigo, were you a guitarist in that group as well?

RODRIGO SANCHEZ Actually, I was the singer, but I already knew how to play guitar. I started playing very young. I never took any lessons—my family is very musical, and my older brother, who was the bassist in the band, taught me a lot. I picked the rest up from records. There was another guitarist in the band, but he left and Gabriela joined in ’93.

GABRIELA QUINTERO They didn’t want a girl in the band at first, but they needed a guitar player and I could play. And once I started to play with them, it was good, because they didn’t talk at all—it was pure practicing. My previous bands had been all girls, and everyone was just blah blah blah all the time. [laughs] It was demanding music, because I had to do a lot of solos and I had to be very precise with my plectrum technique to get all those downstroke metal riffs. But I loved that. I loved to practice.

RODRIGO Being a thrash metal band in Mexico City in the early Nineties was totally weird and underground and never going to go anywhere, but by ’97, the Latin rock thing was growing, and at last we got an offer for a record deal. We did a recording then that was the best-quality recording we made, but once that happened, both my brother and the drummer left the band. We hired two new guys, but it just wasn’t the same. So we broke up the band in ’98, and that’s when we switched from metal to what we do now—whatever you want to call that.

GW To an outsider, that style change seems pretty extreme. Did it feel that way to you at the time?

RODRIGO Yeah, it did, but neither of us cared anymore about getting a record deal or anything like that. Gabriela and I shared the same ideas, and we just wanted to get some more life experience. So we started playing and listening to a lot of different kinds of music, and that really opened up our ears. Having two acoustic guitars in our hands all the time was very different, too. When we’d had the band, we always used to have acoustic guitars at home, but that was just to jam around. After we decided not to use the electric instruments anymore, we had to develop different ways to play. All the Latin rhythms that came out of that change came out naturally. We never played Latin rhythms when we were in Mexico. Never, ever.

GW And you didn’t just stop using your electric guitars; you actually got rid of them, right?

RODRIGO That’s true. When we decided to leave Mexico City, we sold all the gear we had—Kramer guitars, Marshall amps, everything—and then we bought two cheap acoustic guitars and off we went.

GABRIELA It was done out of desperation. We needed the money to leave town.

RODRIGO At that point, I was making background music for a television channel, and Gabriela was giving guitar lessons. We were both disappointed about what we were doing. So we were like, “We’ve got to get out of here and do something different.” Our plan was to go to the beach at [Mexican seaside resort] Ixtapa and play in hotels. We did that for about eight months. We already knew we eventually wanted to go to Europe, but we didn’t know where.

GW Eventually, you went to Ireland. How did you choose Ireland?

RODRIGO We met this girl who was Mexican but had lived in Ireland for a few years. She told us it was a cool place, full of friendly people and very musical. She said, “I’m sure that you’ll be able to play in the pubs.” And so we went there. We didn’t know anyone, and we couldn’t play in the pubs because it was all traditional Irish music. That’s when we started busking. It was tough at first, but it turned out to be a great experience.

GW And it eventually led to you busking through Europe. During all your travels, did you ever find yourself thinking you should just go back home?

RODRIGO No, that was the last thing we wanted to do. We didn’t go back home for five years. We met so many people while we were busking, and I’ll always remember that great feeling we’d have when we’d finally make enough money to get ourselves a beer or a coffee.

GW You’d know that you had really earned that money.

RODRIGO Exactly. Life was simple. Once you sign a record deal, things get better because you’re not playing on the streets anymore, but sometimes you miss that different kind of satisfaction in life that you had before.

GABRIELA The first time we played on the street in Ireland was on a Saturday morning. We played about 45 minutes, and we made enough money to keep going through the week. At that point, we didn’t want to do any cover versions; we’d done that already in Ixtapa. And people gave us more money when we played our own stuff. They actually stopped on the street to listen to us, which we weren’t used to at all.

GW As you said earlier, switching from electric to acoustic meant that you both had to change your playing styles. You must have put in a lot of long hours practicing.

RODRIGO Oh yes. That started when we were still in Mexico, playing in the hotels, because we had to come up with a lot of new material. We started to learn some bossa nova tunes, which for us was a new thing, but that wasn’t enough so we tried doing acoustic versions of the metal songs we knew. The customers didn’t really notice that we were playing fuckin’ Slayer. [laughs] And when we went to Europe, all we did was play guitar, whether we were out on the street or at home.

GABRIELA In Dublin, we’d busk on Saturday and Sunday, and for the rest of the week we’d stay in the house we were sharing with some other people and just play. We’d start at about eleven in the morning, take a break from two to three in the afternoon, and then play some more till about nine o’clock at night. I’d never played so much in my life, and it was just fantastic. That’s where I came up with the rhythm techniques I do now.

GW Which are quite impressive. I know that, strictly speaking, you don’t play flamenco music, but clearly the way you attack the strings with the separate fingers on your right hand owes something to that style.

GABRIELA It does relate to it. My mother was a music lover when I was young, and she played a lot of flamenco, which I loved. But unfortunately, I never got the opportunity to learn that style properly. It’s hard for me to explain what I actually do with the right hand, because whenever I try to figure it out, I have to slow it down. [laughs] But basically, with Rodrigo I became both the bassist and the drummer in the band.

GW As you kept working out this new sound, were there any other guitarists whose work inspired you?

RODRIGO We used to play a lot of music by [virtuoso world-music guitar duo] Strunz and Farah. Actually, we tried to play their music and couldn’t. They’re just amazing. I learned a lot from Jorge Strunz’s playing, especially the more exotic scales he uses. I also had a video by Al Di Meola that helped me with how to use the pick for acoustic playing, and another video by Paul Gilbert that gave me all the speed I have. I’d say those three players were the main influences on me.

GW Your mention of Di Meola makes perfect sense. I can hear a lot of him in your solos.

RODRIGO Hearing him was particularly important to me because he mutes the strings a lot with his right hand. I’d done the same thing when I played electric, and I didn’t want to lose that. So when I play now, I still palm mute, much like I would do if I were playing electric.

GW Tell me about the cover of Metallica’s “Orion,” on your latest album. Was that one of the metal covers you used to do back in Mexico at the hotel lounge?

RODRIGO No, we began playing that more recently, though we used to play “One,” in the old days. For this album, we really wanted to do a sincere tribute to Metallica, to show people how amazing this music is when you listen to it without distortion. Because it’s one of our favorite Metallica songs, we wanted to keep it pretty close to the original, unlike what we did with “Stairway to Heaven,” which is very different from the Led Zeppelin version. We heard from Metallica that they love our version, and that makes us feel great.

GW You play a cool slide part on that track. Did you use a special guitar for that?

RODRIGO No, that was my main guitar, a nylon-string built by [Belfast, Ireland, luthier] Frank Tate, who makes a lot of our guitars. We tried a few different kinds of guitars for that part, including an Ovation, but in the end we went with my usual guitar. I told [producer] John Leckie, “You’re going to have to bear with me on this, because we’ll need to record the melody line by line.” It took ages to record; I was totally obsessed with getting it right. But I love the way it sounds.

GW So the Frank Tate guitars are still your main stage and studio instruments?

RODRIGO Yeah, and he keeps building more of them for us. We’ve been given a few other guitars to try, but we’re not convinced by them. Frank understands perfectly where we come from. We do use some Yamahas for backup, and they’re good to travel with. The real difficulty for us is dealing with the electronics inside the guitars. At the beginning, it wasn’t that hard because the venues we played weren’t that big, but now that we’re playing festivals to tens of thousands of people, it can be a real nightmare to try and make two acoustic guitars sound like a fuckin’ rock band. Also, we hit the guitars a lot and the pickups suffer from that. Sometimes it seems like they break down every three days. So Rick Turner’s been working on a new pickup system for us. It’s not quite ready yet, but it’s getting there, and I think it’ll help a lot.

GW Do you use any effects?

RODRIGO We’ve only started doing that recently. Both Gabriela and I have Dunlop Cry Baby wah pedals, and I also use a DigiTech Whammy Pedal. We don’t use them that much; just enough to keep things fun for us. Music should be fun. We’re not serious musicians. We like to have a laugh.

GW You’ve been touring an incredible amount recently. Have you had a chance to work on any new material?

GABRIELA Actually, I had to cancel some dates on the last tour because I was exhausted. So I came back home and that really made me think about the question you just asked. For me and Rod, music is what we do. I’m not keen on living a rock-star life. We’re just an instrumental act that’s been lucky to play all these big rock festivals, but once you start to do that, all this machinery starts up behind you and it’s hard to say no, until you reach the point where your body can’t respond any more. I realized that we need to focus on the next album and give ourselves enough time to get creative between the tours. And that’s what we’re doing now, taking more days off between shows. We’ve been working at this for five years, and as exciting as it is to see more and more people discovering us, at the same time I know those people will love to hear something new from us, too.