Black Stone Cherry are one of those bands that live right on the edge of where hard rock becomes heavy metal, and have built a strong fanbase around the world because of it.
On their eighth full-length Screamin’ At The Sky, they’re treading new ground in places, but if you’re looking for colossal tones and hard-swinging riffs, then you certainly won’t be disappointed.
A major factor in all that, say singer/guitarist Chris Robertson and co-guitarist Ben Wells, is how they co-exist as two sides of the same coin…
What’s the secret to finding a tone that isn’t too soft or too heavy?
Ben: “We both want that heavy sound but we’re going for two different versions of it. Chris is more vintage-sounding and my tone is a little more modern, I guess.”
Chris: “We both like different kinds of amplifiers, but the blend of the two creates this unique thing. I go for an old-school modded Marshall kinda tone that pushes the power stage more while Ben likes to drive the preamp harder. His heads have more preamp gain internally than the ones I use.”
So which amps have you used most over the years?
Ben: “My number one amp, since even before the first record, has been the Peavey 5150. Even before I had any relationship with the people there, I was using that amplifier. It’s the sound I was always drawn to. Before we started using digital gear like the Line 6 Helix for our live shows, that’s the kind of backline I was requesting for our fly dates.”
Chris: “The first record was Marshalls. The second was Marshalls, Fenders and Peaveys. On our last record [2020’s The Human Condition] I used a Splawn, which is essentially a modified Marshall. On the new record I recorded the whole thing with Line 6 Helix Native, using the Friedman Placater sound and 2x12 impulse responses because of how the midrange sits. It was more than good enough for me!”
If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of gear advice, what would it be?
Chris: “I would tell myself not to be afraid of using more gain and to experiment more with pedals. Because when we started, I just wanted to be Paul Kossoff – a Les Paul with a wah into a Marshall and nothing else. I’d always be telling myself off for dialling too much gain and back it down!
“It took a while to break out of that mindset. I remember when we got over to England and plugged into the Marshalls over there, they were chugging a little harder because of the power. I remember thinking, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna turn it up a notch when I get home!’”
Ben: “We’ve used all sorts of things, but I keep coming back to the same kind of sound. On the second album, I started using Diezels. Then there’s the Peavey Invective I used on the last two – it’s the signature of Misha Mansoor [of Periphery fame], which I think is a bit underrated but sounds unreal. It can go super-heavy but also has incredible cleans. I guess my advice to myself would be to turn down the gain!”
Chris: “Over the years, we’ve grown more like each other tonally! Now I like more gain and now Ben likes less!”
Chris, you’ve been working with a lot of British brands recently, from your Peacemaker Bare Knuckle set to your new Chapman signature. Clearly you’re a bit of an Anglophile…
Chris: “It’s been a cool couple of years. There was an amazing response to those Bare Knuckle humbuckers. I’m working with Chapman because I went to a local store and picked up one of their cheaper models. I took it home, played a show with it and could tell it was badass. After I posted something online, they reached out and the relationship blossomed into the shiny white prototype I’ve been using live.”
The new partnership surprised people as you’ve been a PRS man for a long time. Are you using both or have you switched endorsements officially?
Chris: “I’m still playing whatever feels best. In my UK vault, for example, I’ve got an American Elite Strat, a Les Paul, a couple of Chapmans and there’s some PRS in there, too. Tastes might change but a great guitar is a great guitar at the end of the day. Recently I’ve been mainly playing maple neck, rosewood fretboard bolt-on guitars and I’ve got to give some credit to Anthony Sims from Lucky Dog Guitars.
“I bought one of his Evangelists and it reinvigorated my love for Fender-style guitars. Everything I’ve played since has been a derivative of good old Leo Fender, who definitely got a thing or two right! I’ve fallen in love with that stuff again. My first guitar was an Epiphone Telecaster with the batwing headstock, so coming back to T-styles feels full-circle for me.”
Ben, you’re clearly a fan of Lucky Dog Guitars, too.
Ben: “Every time we talk about guitars, that name comes up! It’s fantastic to see an independent builder getting the respect they deserve. You can custom order, but he also posts ones that are for public sale and they go quickly! I saw this particular Tele, and Chris even messaged me about it.
“I told him, ‘Trust me, I’ve already sent a message!’ It was one of those guitars you buy on cosmetics alone. We’ve all been guilty of doing that in the past. Sometimes you just have to roll the dice. As soon as I got it, I knew it was perfect. It’s been a mainstay for every show.”
It’s interesting how you’ve stuck with more mid-tier American-made Les Pauls like Studios and Classics than the higher-end Standards and Customs…
Ben: “My first Gibson was a Classic. I cut my teeth on that, which is why I’m drawn to them. I like the hotter pickups, then there’s the ’60s neck which is skinnier. I also love the finishes – you can get purpley colours like my Classic Premium Plus, which is one of my main guitars.
“I’m on the lookout for the pink version! In school, my dream guitar was an Alpine White Custom. I had one for a minute but it was a little heavy and I couldn’t get my hands around the neck like I did the Classic. So I’m waiting on them to put out an Alpine White Classic… when they do, it’s game over!”
Chris, your PRS SC245 has a P-90 in the neck and a humbucker in the bridge – which is a less typical configuration…
Chris: “Yeah, it’s cool because it creates huge tonal opportunities. I like unusual configurations, whether it’s a humbucker in the bridge and a single-coil in the neck, or the old ’72 Tele Custom style with a humbucker in the neck and a single-coil in the bridge.
“Plus, with coil taps you can get a shitload of tones from one guitar. That PRS was built for me and though it’s not a Private Stock, it was made by the same team. It’s one of the greatest guitars I’ve ever played. I’ll never part with it. Written on the back it says ‘Custom built for Chris Robertson’, so that one stays!”
So what are the pedals you couldn’t live without right now? And are there any new favourites?
Ben: “I love Electro-Harmonix. I have the B9 Organ Machine, they also do synth and piano machines which sound incredible. I recently switched to the MXR talk box. I was using the Rocktron Banshee 2 because it allowed me to use the same amp. I don’t want an extra amp just for a damn talk box! The MXR does that too and is a little smaller.”
Chris: “Live, I’m using digital stuff, but at home my most-used pedals are my ISP Decimator to get rid of noise and this twin reverb pedal made by Westminster Effects called the Chalcedonian. I’ll run it in the effects loop of a combo that doesn’t have reverb, like a Friedman Dirty Shirley. Another pedal I use a lot is the JHS Fuzz Bender.
“They make the Angry Charlie, which is my favourite overdrive. My version is the dark brown V2 with the red knobs in a diamond pattern. I just got one of those really cool-looking purple Vox AC15s, so right now it’s that overdrive going into that amp. Actually, I saw something recently that got my attention. I need to try one of those all-white Kernom Ridge Augmented Analog Drive pedals. It’s all these different clipping circuits in just one box. Man, stuff like that really interests me!”
- Screamin’ at the Sky is out now via Mascot.