What do you do when metal just doesn’t work out? Mexican guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela answered that question by moving to Europe and playing intricately fingered acoustic versions of their metal favorites.
Gabriela Quintero’s unique quasi-flamenco hand tapping and speed-blurred strumming technique fill in like a one-woman rhythm section. With Rodrigo Sánchez’s lead stylings dancing on top, their performance is spellbinding.
Past tours have included special appearances by some of their metal favorites, such as Alex Skolnick of Testament and Robert Trujillo of Metallica. They scored Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides with Hans Zimmer. And now it's a walk on the Cuban side with their fifth studio album, Area 52.
The album, which was produced by Peter Asher, is out today, January 24. It includes nine of Rod and Gab’s favorite songs from their own catalog, re-arranged and re-configured for a 13-piece Cuban orchestra comprised of some of Havana’s finest young players, collectively known as C.U.B.A.
It’s Rodrigo y Gabriela’s first recorded collaboration with another group of musicians. You’ll even find John Tempesta of White Zombie behind the kit for this one.
“The album is called Area 52 because we felt like Mulder and Scully approaching this — it was just a crazy idea, to see if a big Cuban band could play our music, a step in the dark," Rodrigo says. "We knew it was out there, everyone has heard of Area 51, but we wanted to take it a little further.”
Guitar World spoke to Gabriela about the new album.
GUITAR WORLD: Tell me about your new project, Area 52.
This album is a side project from the Rodrigo y Gabriela thing. We wanted to go to Cuba and do a musical project, because as kids, Rodrigo and I grew up in very musical families. Not that our families play music, but they listen to a lot of music. And it’s a tradition that all our grandparents, they used to listen to Cuban traditional music, so I grew up listening to that music also.
So we love it, and we thought that maybe one day we will go to Cuba. We will go and play music and learn that sort of music. So, this is the time that we decided to do that! And Rodrigo came up first with the idea that we should do our own music with a Cuban orchestra. We came to Cuba and we stayed there for a month. We met all these great musicians, we recorded a band there, and then we did record our own lines over there as well. But we re-recorded our lines back here in Mexico. As the project started to evolve, we started to rearrange and we change parts.
You must have had to change the approach to the way that you play a bit to accommodate the fact that there are so many other players performing with you.
Yes. Well, at least I had to step out of my comfort zone as a player, and I had to learn a lot of new, incredible rhythms. At the beginning when you are not that familiar with them and your hands are not familiar with the moves. It’s painful at the beginning, because you start from zero, from scratch. You are beginner again, and that’s so cool because then you have to practice again.
You have to do music all day long, so it’s very good in that sense, you know? You have to learn that the music is the one that dictates what it’s going on. It’s not a person or thing. It’s what feels right for the recording. And I think that’s very important.
And so we think that, me and Rod, we have to step out of our comfort zone and we have to rearrange most of everything. But on the other hand, it was just incredible to see and to hear our own music played by incredible musicians with other instruments like the flute and the violins and the piano and all that, you know? It’s very good.
Yeah, so you have to stretch a little bit there.
Can you tell me a little bit about how you got into playing guitar?
When I was young, but I always loved music. When I was maybe 13 years old, 12 years old, I had so many records, and my auntie had so many rock records, so I wanted to play the guitar. I liked Eric Clapton and the Beatles. It was in the ‘60s, you know? I loved Jimi Hendrix. My auntie has some really good records -– Black Sabbath. So I wanted to play that. Really. I went through all the music, but I wanted to play that particular. But I did not have a clue, and I didn’t have any guitar.
And then eventually, I asked for some guitar lessons, and they taught me some chords slowly. I was very excited, because I wanted to play rock. And then I met Rodrigo, and he had a band at the time. So eventually I joined that band, and we start to play together. And then that band finished, and so Rodrigo and I started to do this duo.
For us, it was easier to travel, and also we wanted to step out of the metal music that we had done. It was the only music we knew how to play, and we loved music even before we discovered metal music. So we wanted to just expand and travel, so just give up all these expectations to become famous and whatever. It was a very simple goal. We played at the resorts.
We started traveling in Europe and all that, and eventually a manager contacted me, and we had record deals and all that, everything. Yes! It would’ve been very silly if we said, “No, no, no, we are hippies!” You know? So we said yes, and we’re pretty much doing the same thing, playing and traveling! That’s the sort of combination we’ve been doing for many years now.
Do you ever miss just plugging in and playing really loud?
Oh, I do sometimes, but more Rodrigo than me. He loves to jam with Alex Skolnick from Testament and with John Tempesta from White Zombie. And I like metal music, but I really enjoy transcribing all the metal riffs on the acoustic guitar. That’s a lot of fun for me. Because usually they play the metal music with a plectrum, but I love the way I can do it with my hands, you know? Some of the riffs by bands like Metallica. It’s great fun to play, ‘cause how am I going to play the same riff with my hand? It’s entirely different. And because with the hands you kind of have to play the beat all the time, constantly. It really tricks me, you know? And I get so obsessed with one riff until I get the riff with the beat at the same time.
Well, I love how you’ve done that. I really don’t know of anyone else who sounds like you do. I think you’ve brought a really unique energy to the acoustic guitar.
Oh, well thank you so much. I guess when players find their own way to do things, it does become unique.
Can you tell me the guitar you use?
This guitar is Yamaha, custom-made by the Japanese Yamaha engineers. And because of the nature of what I do, basically a lot of percussion on the guitar and the beat and all that, I need a lot of piezo pickups. So this guitar has a lot of piezos all around the guitar.
I’m not very technical, but I know it’s a very complex pickup system. I keep breaking the system, and they have to send more from Japan. But the guitars are quite good, and they sound incredible acoustically and also on the live gig. They are really, really good guitars. And we travel with ten or eleven on the road. It’s just in case we break one, we have another one.
So we are not the type of guitarists that have different guitars, because each song is being played with a different guitar. No no no no no, we don’t do that. ‘Cause we are just two people on the stage, you know? But we better bring lots of them just in case something happens!
I’m wondering if you might have any advice for aspiring female players, just from your own experience.
I guess that my advice is don’t get too focused to female or male, because music is music, and it has no gender whatsoever. So when you play, you have to become you. The idea is to become the music you’re playing for, just forget about who you are. You are a man, or a woman, or an old lady, or a dog or whatever.
Play and just practice and be inspired more than being disciplined, because discipline is fucking boring and instead, if you get inspired, you want to play all day long. And if you keep disciplining shit, you don’t want to play. So if you keep yourself inspired…you can listen to a lot of music, or you can read incredible books or whatever.
To me, in my case I love arts and I love nature. That really keeps me inspired, so that I really crave to play guitar, or I really crave to do creative things. Whereas before when I was young, I was very disciplined, just very straight, you know? I wanted to do two hours a day in the morning, three hours a day in the evening, very like military, you know? But I think that’s not so much fun!
Look for Rodrigo y Gabriela and C.U.B.A. on tour now. Find out more right here.
And check out the video trailer for Area 52:
And here are Rodrigo y Gabriela tearing it up on the Tonight show with Jay Leno a couple of years ago:
Laura B. Whitmore is a singer/songwriter based in the San Francisco bay area. A veteran music industry marketer, she has spent over two decades doing marketing, PR and artist relations for several guitar-related brands including Marshall and VOX. Her company, Mad Sun Marketing, represents 65amps, Acoustic Bass Amps, Agile Partners, Guitar World and many more. Laura was instrumental in the launch of the Guitar World Lick of the Day app. She is the lead singer for the rock band, Summer Music Project. More at mad-sun.com.