Interview: Testament's Eric Peterson Discusses Gear, Influences and Writing Guitar Solos

I recently sat down with one of the brains behind the metal monster that is Testament, riff master Eric Peterson. We talked about all things metal -- including guitar solos, gear, practicing, touring and more -- in this two-part interview.

Keep your eyes peeled for Testament's upcoming release, The Dark Roots Of Earth.

GUITAR WORLD: What was it like writing your solos on Testament's last album, The Formation Of Damnation? Are you more of an improvising kind of guy or do you map out everything in advance?

It's improvised, pretty much. I improvise, and once I like the improv I just did, I map it out a little bit. I usually just get a bunch of different ideas, and when I'm writing a lead, I think, "OK, what kind of lead is going be killer for this? Should I use octaves, harmonies or some kind of line you can hum to?"

I'm not an arpeggio guy, but I use it to get out of a situation. Kind of like if you're in a fast car and you need to get over to the right lane really quick. You just put it in third gear and get over there, so I'll use that to get out of something and into a different part. And hammer-ons and muting -- like fast picking muting stuff, hammer-ons and pull-offs. I always have all that in mind.

I’ve always had solos throughout our career, but it's always been like just one little spot or something. On Formation Of Damnation, I did 35 percent of the leads. What I always used to do is, I'll think of things that are in leads I like and I will try them all out -- I'll try all octaves, and if there’s an octave thing I like, I’ll go, "OK, I like that one." Or I’ll try something fast and then I'll try other things. Then once I get all these different things I like, I keep them in mind and pick out what works best. I put a lot into it because, like I said, it's kind of new to me.

Who are some of your lead guitar influences?

God, there’s a lot of them. My main ones would be Michael Schenker and, of course, Uli Jon Roth. I'm talking all old stuff too. You know, records I grew up listening to in high school. Like Entranced and Tokyo Tapes. And Frank Marino; he's one of my all-time favorite players. That style -- that's kind of the ballpark where I’m at. It's funny because all of these guitar players I've looked up to, I've never tried to figure out what they do. Alex [Skolnick of Testament] has always been the kind of player like that, and I've kind of accepted that, but now there's a whole new twist on everything so I'm kind of rediscovering everything.

Also the early Kiss stuff with Ace Frehley -- the bluesy stuff he did. A lot of his leads were not that long, but they say so much in those 10 seconds. His solos have great hooks and are so memorable. That's one thing I want to do with mine. Especially on Formation Of Damnation, since my parts aren't that long; I was like, “Well, what can I do to make them memorable?"

With Frank Marino, I've always been like, “How did you get that tone?" I recently bought a Marc Bolan Signature Les Paul, and it's got the standard body with the custom neck and these old '70s PAF’s in it. I thought it was going to be like -- not like a Stratocaster pickup -- like, you plug it into a Marshall and it's twangy and there's no crunch. I didn't think it was going to be like that; I thought it was going to be like the humbucker version of that. It actually sounds like my more modern pickups, like an 81 or an 85 by EMG. Or like a super distortion or whatever. But it was actually up to par and made me go, “Wow, this PAF pickup sounds great."

Then at the middle toggle switch, that's where it started sounding like “Flaming Youth” by Kiss. You know, like Ace Frehly, those leads on that record like Rock 'n Roll Over and Destroyer. That tone is just sick. So it's the same with Ace; it's like, “How did you get that tone?” It's almost like he's got a wah turned on halfway or something. I don't know what the hell's going on, but I’d like to ask him how he got his tone back then.

I always think of pickups for me as for just getting good crunch tones, rhythm crunchy tones. But now that I'm doing leads, I’m kind of messing around with having a little bit more mid-range in my tone, which I did on Formation. I brought up the mids to four or five, halfway. I’ve always been the player that liked to scoop them out to get that wallop.

What is your live rig like now, and how does it differ from your recording setup?

It's kind of the same as what I use to record with. My tech -- he specializes in building racks for people in the Bay area. My rack is like a store (laughs). It's cool because it's pretty big. It goes up to your chest and it's got the drawers and that plush purple velvet. It's also got the two Mark EVH III heads, which is what I used on the record. But instead of having a bunch of rack units, I had him take my favorite stomp pedals and he mounted them on a board so they're all internal and close. There’s no weird grounding or anything like that. Everything’s real close to each other so I don't have any problems with noise.

I have the English Woman pedal by Love Title. Have you ever heard of that? Google it. The tone is just so liquidy and creamy, but it's got this really great bite to it. It's sort of like something Eric Clapton would use, but with my playing style through it, you just got this really raspy tone. I can’t even explain it. You just have to hear it. But just the colors of the lights on the boutique pedals is cool. Like on the Eddie Van Halen flanger with all the blue and red lights. Anyway, the whole board looks vicious. It’s got that flashy look to it. It looks like you're inside a BMW, like your sports car (laughs).

Sounds like you’re a big car fan.

Yeah, I've got a Porsche Cayenne, so I'm really into fast cars and stuff like that.

What can you tell us about your Dean signature model?

I've been with Dean for a while and I’m up into two different V’s. When Schenker came on board with Dean, I was really interested in what his specs would be. Then, of course, there are the older models they had in the '70s with the girls in bikinis on them; so between all of those, with the heaviness of the woods, etc., I told them what I like and what I didn't like and just got the right formula that works for me. Then they gave me the prototype, and it was awesome. Mine came out a little bit lighter than those; and I don't know why, but I think it just has that extra little bit more top-end that I like, especially for leads. Some guitars tones, it's just too heavy. It's almost like weighing the tone down. And the action is really fast. I use small frets like on the old Les Pauls. I notice a lot of people in their signature models use jumbo frets, but I like the smaller ones. I had them put some Tone Pros on there. Another thing I like about them is they have the strings through the body.

What is your practice routine like when you're about to record or tour?

You can do all the practicing you want by yourself, but playing with a drummer and with a band is a whole different thing. It's like playing catch with your friends and then you go out and play a real game. The next day you're sore all over from places you've never been sore before. But it's good to keep your wrist going. That's definitely something you’ll want to keep practicing, and I think stretching is a big part of it. Especially when your right hand is moving a lot and your left hand is slinging away -- you need to stretch out. That's a very important thing. When I was younger, I used to play harder for faster stuff. I thought I had to dig in more and push harder, but what I'm starting to find out now is when I go faster, I actually play lighter. Just relax. I don't need to hold my breath that way; I just relax and I can actually go faster.

On this last tour with Anthrax, you guys had Gene Hoglan on drums. How did you hook up with him?

He is the atomic clock. He is really good at keeping time, and he's just amazing. We were kind of just waiting around and Paul Bostaph injured his wrist after the last tour. We were writing and working on stuff and waiting, and when it came time, we just needed to get the ball rolling. So the pressure of the management and the label and Paul's wishes, we just had to keep moving. I was kind of like, “Fuck, who can I get to just come in and nail it?” The first person I thought of was Gene Hoglan. He did the Demonic record with us, and I remembered how fast he learned and how quick and easy he was to work with.

He's not the kind of person where if you say something, he goes, “Oh, you should do it like this." The one thing with him is you'd better be right when you tell him what to do because he's a pretty smart guy. I think I had 10 days with him to teach him everything. Just after that experience with him this tour came up and Paul wasn't ready; actually, John Tempesta was the first person I got a hold of and kind of had to split the duties up between the two.

What made you pick up the guitar in the first place when you were a kid?

I would say Ace Frehley. I was in sixth or sevnth grade and I had Alive, Rock 'n Roll Over and Destroyer, and Ted Nugent and Aerosmith. Kiss was first, but Aerosmith was another band I was just a fanatic over. I discovered all of their early stuff like Rocks, Draw The Line and Toys In The Attic. But Rocks was my bible. That really kind of molded me a lot and the way I played.

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.

Dave Reffett headshot photo by Yolanda Sutherland

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