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Alex Webster: “Cannibal Corpse is always a ‘song first’ kind of thing... a big, heavy rhythm machine“

Alex Webster
(Image credit: Mairo Cinquetti/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Alex Webster is best known for his fleet-fingered lines in death-metal legends Cannibal Corpse, a name that instantly unnerves many people even before they hear the group’s songs, which are relentlessly aggressive and much loved by millions of headbangers worldwide. 

He’s one of the band’s founder members, along with drummer Paul Mazurkiewicz, and does most of their press, as he’s doing now because their 15th album, Violence Unimagined, has just been unleashed.

Webster is also a respected educator, having authored the Extreme Metal Bass book in 2011 and written columns for Bass Guitar magazine from 2013 to 2015, and also plays progressive bass guitar parts in projects such as Blotted Science and Conquering Dystopia. 

You might assume that Webster is a pretty extreme character based on the above, but meet the man himself, and you’ll be struck by how calm and reasonable he is. Just the bassist you want in your band, in fact, when a pandemic strikes and you need to figure out what to do with your new album.

Alex, does it feel strange to issue Violence Unimagined and then not be able to tour?

“Absolutely. Generally, you put out an album, and you’re immediately touring. That’s how we like to do it, and most bands do, I think. At first we were like, ‘We’ll delay the release a little’, but eventually, you just have to put it out. We knew that we probably wouldn’t be doing much in 2021, but at least we got an album out. Maybe we’ll end up doing a live stream later in the year. We’re not sure, so we’ll see what happens. It’s different for all the bands. No-one’s dealt with something quite like this before, so we’re all figuring it out as we go.“

There are bass parts on the new album that we don’t normally hear from you, like the fills in Follow The Blood, which almost have that fretless, Steve DiGiorgio feel. 

“That’s a song that Rob [Barrett, guitar] wrote, and after I recorded the basic tracks he said ‘Could you go back in and do fills on these two parts?’ He didn’t give me instructions beyond that, so I thought, ‘Let me see what I can come up with’, and I took a good listen to what the guitars were doing there and picked scales that I thought were appropriate. 

“Major thirds were happening there, but I thought a major scale would be a little too happy, so I went with Lydian because it has the augmented fourth, so there’s that tritone in there. For one of those little licks I started from the third note up, which is a cool thing I’ve learned to do over the years – instead of starting on the root note, start on the third. I’m glad that Rob had it in mind for me to have a little bass feature in there, because I didn’t write much of that kind of stuff for my own songs. I think it’s the first time I’ve played Lydian in Cannibal Corpse.“

People like me who admire your bass playing would love to hear more stuff like that. 

“Yeah, but with Cannibal Corpse it’s always a ‘song first’ kind of thing for me. Some of the side projects I’ve done have allowed me to stretch out a little bit more, but Cannibal is really about being a big, heavy rhythm machine, and stepping out too much might detract from that. So when there’s an opportunity like this, it’s great.“

Another cool part is in Overtorture, when the band stops and you’re just pounding out a cool solo line.

“That’s just the root note. I asked myself if I should bother putting in more notes than just the root, because anything else at that speed is going to be a little bit hard to hear. Erik [Rutan, guitar] wrote that one, and he wanted me to do something there. The difficulty was that I was playing those notes on the low B string, but on that song we tuned to G sharp – so that open note is way down there. It’s a pretty quick tempo, so I’m doing the picking with two fingers, not three, for extra consistency.“ 

This album is the first time I’ve played the Lydian mode in Cannibal Corpse

You once told us that when the guitars are playing 16ths, above a certain tempo you’ll switch to eighths for accuracy. At what point does that occur?

“Below 180bpm I’ll give it a shot – somewhere up in that range. Above that, sixteenths are a little much, so I’ll cut the notes in half. There’s been a few times in the past where the guitars were playing 16th notes and I wound up playing as fast as I could, but I ended up playing more like triplet eighth notes. That probably sounded a little jumbled, so at that point, I’ll cut it in half, which usually lines me up perfectly with the kick and snare. That sounds nice and tight – and nobody’s ever complained about a bass player who sounded too tight.“

You’ll also tap in order to get those accurate 16ths. 

“That’s also a way to get a bunch of notes pretty fast. I do that on the new album, in the middle of Necrogenic Resurrection. I’ll take the note – say, A – and grab an octave of A with my left hand and an octave of A with my right hand, higher up on the neck. Then I’ll tap those in sequence, because then you can get really clear notes.“ 

We bass players sometimes beat ourselves up about not being able to keep up with a fast guitarist, but the physics of the way the notes bloom on a bass doesn’t always allow that.

“Yes, absolutely. You know, it’s a choice that bass players in this kind of music have to make. Sometimes it makes sense to try and go as fast as you can, even if it is a little jumbled, maybe in a tremolo picking part. If both guitar players aren’t quite lining up anyway, then I think it’s okay to have things sound a little jumbled. It gives it a frantic sound, and that might be exactly what you’re going for. 

“You’re right about the notes – they don’t have the chance to bloom, especially when they’re really low – and if there’s double bass drums too, they almost create an illusion that the bass player is picking everything. There’s a lot of options that can sound good. What’s important is that you’re landing on the accents in time.“ 

It’s okay to have things sound a little jumbled. It gives it a frantic sound, and that might be exactly what you’re going for

You had a case of focal dystonia a few years back. Tell us about that.

“Focal dystonia is essentially an injury, but not the kind of injury that people would normally think of – it’s not carpal tunnel, or a tendon problem, or something like that. It’s essentially a neurological problem, and it happens in a lot of disciplines that require precise, repetitive movements, and not just in music.“

What were the symptoms?

“The normal fingerpicking that I would do would become very strained. It seemed as if my pointer finger would be going left instead of down. When I first noticed something was going wrong, it was very confusing and frightening. I was like, ‘What’s going on with my right hand? Why isn’t it behaving the way it’s behaved for the past 30 years?’“

What specifically were your fingers not doing that you wanted them to do?

“Basically, the signals from your brain are going wrong on the way down to your fingers. Imagine your legs walking. What if the signal from your brain was telling both legs to go forward at the same time? That’s not exactly what was happening with my picking fingers, but certain signals were definitely getting through and certain signals weren’t.“ 

How did you solve the problem? 

“I saw a specialist named Joaquin Farias, who helped me out very much, and I also spoke with a classical guitarist, Apostolos Paraskevas, and the bassist Scott Devine, who gave me tips on their bouts with this. It’s something that can often be resolved, which is good news for anyone who gets it. You just have to work through it, learn what you need to correct, and then take the time to correct it. What’s interesting is that in some ways, I’m playing better than I did before.“

I think part of the reason people get focal dystonia is that there may be fundamental flaws in their playing technique that they never knew about. They can trigger this thing

In what way?

“I think part of the reason people get focal dystonia is that there may be fundamental flaws in their playing technique that they never knew about. They can trigger this thing.

“I’m not an expert, and anyone who really wants to learn about this should read the books Dr Farias has written, but it could be that part of the trigger is having imperfect technique. I think I was maybe digging in a little too much. Fluidity and economy of motion are really the key. After having something like this happen, I’ll never take it for granted again.“

  • Violence Unimagined is out now on Metal Blade.
Joel McIver

Joel McIver is the Editor of Bass Player magazine. A journalist with 25 years' experience in the music field, he's also the author of 35 books, a couple of bestsellers among them. He regularly appears on podcasts, radio and TV and occasionally teaches at BIMM.