Interview: Holy Grail Guitarist Eli Santana Talks New Album, His Varied Influences, Touring and More

American metal band Holy Grail was born in Pasadena, California, in 2008 and hasn't slowed down since.

They released their debut EP, Improper Burial, in 2009, followed by 2010's critically acclaimed smash, Crisis In Utopia, which Metal Assault called "a mind-blowing effort that exudes unbounded freshness and musicianship."

As the Holy Grail boys geared up for their Metal Alliance tour with Anthrax, Exodus and Municipal Waste, I sat down with Holy Grail's master axe slinger, Eli Santana, to discuss his past and future, not to mention the band's new album, Ride The Void, which came out in January.

GUITAR WORLD: What made you pick up the guitar in the first place?

I wanted to play guitar or be in a band since I saw a video of Quiet Riot. I lied to my friends in elementary school, telling them I was in a Def Leppard tribute band. When someone tried to hand me an acoustic guitar, I'd say, “No, I only play electric."

There was a guitar class at my middle school that I signed up for because I thought it would be cool to strum chords and sing “Every Rose Has Its Thorn." I got an acoustic guitar the summer before that class and got obsessed with it. At the end of that semester, everyone had to perform either “Cumbaya” or “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” I played “Only” by Anthrax. I got into Metallica initially and wanted to be Kirk Hammett until my guitar teacher showed me Yngwie. After hearing Rising Force, I knew I wanted to be a shredder, and I forfeited a social life in high school to practice.

What advice do you have for Guitar World readers who are trying to improve on the guitar? How'd you get so good?

First off, thanks! I started by working my way through a Mel Bay book, guitar magazines and songbooks. I started taking lessons at a music store for a while, which helped because I knew what I wanted to learn. I think the main way I saw improvement was by recording myself. I started recording on a cheap stereo right when I picked up the guitar. Being able to hear how I sounded, and not just how I thought I sounded, was the biggest learning tool.

Playing with other musicians helped lot. My friend’s brother was a drummer who wanted to jam, but I was scared because I wasn’t Yngwie yet. He told me, “You’re never going to be good enough, so just join a band and start playing shows." He couldn’t have been more right.

Another big turning point was when I started practicing to a metronome at slower tempos. A good thing to remember is to work in playing things at the actual speed while practicing at slow tempos, because your hands may be in a different position when you play fast. There is no quick fix trick to improving; you’re going to have to practice all the time. I really never put the guitar down, I was always playing. Play every note you with confidence and conviction, even if it’s the wrong one.

How was the writing process for the new album, Ride The Void? Do you lock yourselves in a room, trade demos back and forth?

We had kind of a running start going into the writing of Ride the Void by starting with songs from the Crisis In Utopia writing sessions. We had a couple songs that we didn’t have the time or maturity to tackle but that we knew we wanted on this album. We also had a bunch of riffs and song seedlings we had written on our time off. I subscribe to the theory that good songwriting is a numbers game, so like our first album, I flooded the rest of the guys with hundreds of riffs and song ideas.

Coupled with some songs from Luna and Alex, we picked our favorites and started developing the album. We started pre-production three to four times a week with Matt Hyde right when we got off the tour with Toxic Holocaust. We were so thorough in pre-production that not only did we have all arrangements, harmonies and drum fills planned out, we even had the sequence of the album set before we started tracking. It was great to focus on tones and performance when recording because we already knew what the album was going to sound like. My advice for bands is, don’t skimp on pre-production. It actually helps.

Crisis In Utopia is such a great album. Was there any pressure to live up to its success?

Not really. As proud as we are of Crisis in Utopia, we felt it wasn’t to our full potential. We were ready to write Ride the Void right when we finished recording it. We were so hungry to outdo Crisis in Utopia that we didn’t even really think there was any pressure. But as proud and excited as you might be for anything new you create, you’re always going to wonder if other people are going to share your excitement.

Holy Grail has an inspiring history. Could you talk about how the band started and lead us through how you got signed?

Holy Grail started in 2008 in Pasadena, when James Paul Luna, Tyler Meahl and James Larue defected from White Wizzard. In an effort to take things to a more shreddy extreme, I was brought in on second lead guitar, and Blake Mount was brought in on bass. We started playing around in LA and quickly gained interest from labels that were interested in White Wizzard.

When Prosthetic Records learned that only the bass player remained in White Wizzard, they started paying attention to us. We had some other label interest, but we really liked Prosthetic and the people working for them so we signed with them. We immediately recorded the Improper Burial EP and started touring relentlessly. We recorded and wrote our debut album in our time off from touring in 2010.

Right before the release of Crisis in Utopia, James Larue left the band, leaving us without a second guitar player. After touring with a replacement for six months, we employed the services of Alex Lee when he quit Bonded By Blood. We had toured with BBB on the Exodus tour and liked Alex’s playing and attitude. After having a stable lineup, we tracked the Season’s Bleedings EP to help get us back into recording mode while writing Ride the Void, which we tracked months later.

Your tour with Anthrax and Exodus is coming up. How does this tour feel for you?

It feels right. We are so beyond pumped for this tour. Not only to be able to see Anthrax perform Among the Living in its entirety but to reunite with Exodus. And I think touring with Municipal Waste is going to be such a blast. We’ve never met High on Fire, but we’ve dug their tunes for years. I’m not sure I can think of a more fitting tour to promote Ride the Void.

How do you prepare yourself for a big tour like this?

We’re preparing by relearning some of the songs from Ride the Void. I’m still trying to get some of the new licks up to performance levels. Some of us have been doing a lot of cardio and trying to eat healthy to get in shape, and some of us not so much.

We’re also doing some preventative maintenance on our van. And by “we," I mean Tyler, our drummer. I’m positive we wouldn’t have survived half of our tours had it not been for his automotive know-how. There’s another nugget of advice: Always take care of your van, because breaking down on tour is the worst.

The best advice I’d have for young bands is play the music you love and you’ll always be happy playing it, no matter where you are or who you’re playing to. Always play like there’s a full stadium of rabid fans watching you. You never want to be remembered as someone who pouted their way through a set.

Here's a question from Victor M. Ruiz of Spain: Eli has been paired with several guitarists in the band. What did/does each of his partners bring to the table, and how did they make him a better player?

That’s the great thing about music and playing guitar. You are always learning something. When I joined the band, I had come from years of being the only guitarist in a band. That first year playing with Larue made me re-examine my playing and focus on playing every note really clean.

After that, I found myself teaching the songs to numerous players. That made me really evaluate everything I was playing and the best way to play everything. I also learned about tone on our first tour with 3 Inches of Blood. I always thought their tones on their Marshalls sounded so huge. Shane and Justin made me play on their amps for a couple of shows, and I couldn’t believe how little distortion they were playing on and how much mid-range they were pushing. Every mistake and nuance was really amplified (no pun intended). That really changed the way I practice and play live.

From John Montgomery: Are there genres you like to play or have influenced your style outside of metal? If so, are there any specific artists you love?

I studied classical guitar in college under Steve Thachuk. I also played in a steel drum band and sang in two choirs in college. Most people experimented with drugs in college; I experimented with awkward musical experiences. I played in a reggae band for about a year and played off and on in an R&B group. I’ve played in a funk band and in a backing band for a rapper that opened for the Ying Yang Twins. I also played on and produced a demo for a country singer.

I really feel like playing all of those styles influenced my playing one way or another. Looking back, I realize how valuable those experiences were. I still love a lot of soul and R&B singers like Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett, Maxwell, Stevie Wonder and Al Green. Steel Pulse, Jimmy Cliff, Buju Banton and Freddie McGregor are some of my favorite reggae artists. I’ll be an eternal fan of Bjork, Prince, Elliott Smith, Del the Funky Homosapien, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Queen, Tchaikovsky, Chopin and so many more. I know I’m going to be kicking myself for weeks thinking about all the artists I forgot to mention.

What bands are you listening to now as you've gotten older? Is there anything that might surprise your fans?

I think I can find a redeeming quality in every style of music, probably because I always hear everything through a metal filter. For instance, if I hear a Liszt or Stravinsky piece I like, I imagine it done by Cacophony or In Flames or something. I’ve noticed that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started listening to older stuff like Deep Purple, Robin Trower, Thin Lizzy, Cream, David Bowie and Elvis Costello.

The current stuff I’m digging on right now is as follows: Neurosis, Steve Von Till and Scott Kelly’s solo acoustic stuff, Converge, Night Flight Orchestra, Dawnbringer, Be’lakor, Prong, Candlemass, Pallbearer, Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats, John Legend and the Roots, Eliot Fisk’s Classical Guitar version of Paganini’s 24 Caprices, Tomahawk, The Faceless, John Konesky from Tenacious D’s solo acoustic album, Godhammered, Glassjaw, Aborted, Junius, Kadaver, Chelsea Wolfe, Kiko Loureiro, Lionheart, Angelwitch, Grizzly Bear, Royal Thunder, Witchfinder General, Admiral Sir Cloudesly Shovell, 3IOB, Robert Schumann and Alabama Shakes.

That’s about half of the stuff I have in my phone to put on shuffle for ultimate enjoyment. I’m not sure if any of that is surprising, but it’s varied enough to keep me awake on the overnight drives for the next tour.

Dave Reffett is a Berklee College of Music graduate and has worked with some of the best players in rock and metal. He is an instructor at (and the head of) the Hard Rock and Heavy Metal department at The Real School of Music in the metro Boston area. He also is a master clinician and a highly-in-demand private guitar teacher. He teaches lessons in person and worldwide via Skype. As an artist and performer, he is working on some soon-to-be revealed high-profile projects with A-list players in rock and metal. In 2009, he formed the musical project Shredding The Envelope and released the critically acclaimed album The Call Of The Flames. Dave also is an official artist endorsee for companies like Seymour Duncan, Gibson, Eminence and Esoterik Guitars, which in 2011 released a Dave Reffett signature model guitar, the DR-1. Dave has worked in the past at Sanctuary Records and Virgin Records, where he promoting acts like The Rolling Stones, Janet Jackson, Korn and Meat Loaf.

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