Jerry Cantrell: Facelift

Originally published in Guitar World, December 2009

G&L Rampage guitars have shaped the sound of every Alice in Chains
record. Now the once-discontinued model returns as a Jerry Cantrell signature guitar, complete with a spruced-up feature set.

As the creator of such crushing grunge rock masterpieces as “Man in the Box,” “We Die Young,” “Would?” and “Them Bones,” Alice in Chains guitarist/singer/songwriter Jerry Cantrell is well-known for his distinctive sound and playing style. Part of that signature tone originates from his unique choice of ax: his 1985 G&L Rampage. But the journey that led Cantrell to this particular guitar was circuitous.

He explains, “The story really begins back in 1984, right after I started my first year of college. I had a friend that played the drums, and we jammed a lot. His dad owned an insulation company in Dallas, Texas. One day while we were in class taking a test, my friend mentioned that there was a great music scene in Dallas, and he suggested that we take a year off from college and try to put a band together.

“I said, ‘That sounds pretty good.’ So I walked up to the front of the class and turned in my test—and all of my books, too. I sat back down and said to him, ‘All right, let’s go!’ He said, ‘What the fuck did you do that for?’ and I said, ‘Hey man, this was your idea. Let’s go!’ So we did. We packed up the truck and moved to Dallas about a week later.”

Cantrell discovered a burgeoning hard rock/metal scene in Dallas and, especially, in Houston, where his favorite club, Cardy’s, featured early incarnations of Pantera. The guitarist soon landed a job at Arnold & Morgan Music, a store in Dallas. “We could just smoke pot and play guitars all day long,” Cantrell says. “It was a really great job for a 19-year-old kid.”

One of his buddies at the shop had a Rampage, and Cantrell fell in love with it right away. “From the very first time I picked it up and played it, it just felt right to me,” he says. “It was designed to blend the playability and high-end sound of a Strat with the darkness and full-bodied sound of a Les Paul.” Though some Rampage guitars were built with bodies of ash or poplar, “my Rampage is an all-maple guitar,” Cantrell says. “The neck is hard rock maple, and the body is maple, too. Also, it has one pickup with one volume knob. I’ve never had the need for a lot of knobs or switches, so the design has suited my needs perfectly.”

Cantrell’s primary Rampage is tuned to what he calls “standard Alice in Chains tuning”: standard tuning one half step down (Eb Ab Db Gb Bb Eb). A second Rampage that he purchased shortly after he acquired the first is in drop D tuning down one half step (Db Ab Db Gb Bb Eb).

On the new AIC album, Black Gives Way to Blue, Jerry combines the Rampages with his other main ax: the infamous white Les Paul with burn marks all over the front. “I had a lot of fun with a torch for a couple of days,” Jerry says with a laugh, “burning a design into the face of that white Les Paul. For just about all of the Alice in Chains records, my guitar sound has been a combination of that Les Paul with the G&L.”

For amplification, Cantrell stuck with his tried-and-true Bogner Ubershalls. “I used a Reinhold Bogner–modified Marshall exclusively on Facelift and Dirt,” he says, referring to the Alice in Chains albums. “I love that sound: clear low end with a lot of growl that doesn’t come at the cost of definition.” Cantrell also used a range of smaller amps, such as Orange, Laney, Matchless, Vox AC30s and a Bogner Fish preamp.

Cantrell fans will be happy to learn that the guitarist has teamed with G&L to create a Jerry Cantrell Signature Rampage. Cantrell says, “The signature model will feature a few tweaks I came up with simply because some elements of the original design were weak. The locking mechanism at the nut was basically just a couple of plates that clamped down, but they would snap off every time you put pressure on them. So I replaced the nut with a Floyd Rose, which is a lot sturdier and more stable.”

He also modified the pickup, replacing the original Schaller pickup with a Seymour Duncan Jeff Beck model. “In addition,” Cantrell says, “the guitar came stock with a Kahler tremolo system, and the low E string would fall out of the saddle when you pushed the tremolo bar all the way down. The solution was to countersink the tremolo, which put more tension on the strings and kept the E string sitting securely in the saddle.” While many guitar players have shown a preference for Floyd Rose trems, “that never really worked for me because I’m a very heavy-handed rhythm player,” Cantrell says. “Whenever I’d mute with a Floyd, I’d always push down too hard and inadvertently raise the pitch of the strings. That doesn’t happen with the Kahler.”

One of the most striking elements of Cantrell’s Rampage guitars is his custom artwork, which includes two stickers bearing the word “rock.” Cantrell says, “Some of the Cantrell Signature guitars will be released looking like mine did when I first bought it, and a limited run will be weathered to look as close as possible to the way mine look now.”

As you can probably guess, Cantrell remains as dedicated as ever to his original Rampage guitars. “I’ve bought plenty of other Rampages over the years, but the original two are still my favorites,” he says. “They are heard on every record that I’ve ever done, and they are the guitars that I play the most.”

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