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Juanes: "If you want to be a good player, you need to practice every day, take your instrument everywhere. Sleep with it"

Juanes
(Image credit: Fender)

If you’ve caught the official trailer for Metallica’s upcoming Blacklist release – which sees no less than 53 artists tackling the 12 songs from their 1991 best-seller – you’ll have heard a somewhat more unusual take on Enter Sandman at the very beginning. 

That particular tribute is from one of Colombia’s best-selling singer-songwriters, Juanes, who began his career playing guitar in Medellin metal group Ekhymosis, before taking his rock roots to more mainstream avenues of noise. 

The singer and guitarist can also be seen in Fender’s new Re-Creation series video, using his American Acoustasonic Jazzmaster to reinterpret 2008 single Odio Por Amor, and with some truly stunning results. 

“I have to give Fender full marks on designing this guitar,” grins the multiple Grammy winner, speaking to Guitar World from his home studio on Zoom. “I started on guitar as a kid thanks to my parents. 

“At the time, in the '80s, we were living in Medellin. I would play this acoustic guitar with nylon strings and I’d use my fingers, because it would mainly be folk music from South America – from Colombia to Puerto Rico and Cuba.

“So I started out fingerstyle, and then in my teenage years I started listening to rock and metal music, which is when I learned how to use a pick. Then I found the Tele, which was a very special sound for me, and that’s why I recorded my early albums using only Fenders. 

“This Acoustasonic is a mix of those beautiful electric and acoustic sounds I love. I get this special feeling from playing these guitars – I actually have two of them at home!”

As he gravitated away from the heavier and more metallic sounds, he couldn’t help noticing that Fender guitars were the ones that allowed him to truly speak through his instrument. 

“I love the Strat sound,” he explains. “It’s very dynamic and allows me to play all kinds of music. It can be very soft to solo on. I use Telecasters too, I have a Thinline in my studio that I play a lot. I used to play metal music more as a teenager, so I would play very hard and hit aggressively. I got crazy about heavy metal, thrash metal, even death metal… anything loud and heavy! And I still love that kind of music. 

“But after nine or so years, I just realized that I would never be like Kirk Hammett or anyone like that. I could only be me, born and raised in Colombia. So I wanted to celebrate that by combining elements from the rock world with the roots of my country, which led to my own style of guitar...”

How did you go about reimagining Enter Sandman, the biggest metal track of them all, for the Blacklist album...

“I’ve been a huge Metallica fan since I was 13 years old. Honestly, listening to records like Kill ‘Em All really did change my life forever. I love their music a lot. When I had the opportunity to work on this cover, the first thing I wanted to do is find a way of bringing Enter Sandman’s riffs to Colombia, the Caribbean and Pacific/Atlantic coast. In Colombia, we have a lot of crossover. It’s a mix of African music and indigenous music, it’s a mix of many things. 

It was inspired by old guitarists from Cuba and Colombia, there’s a particular sound to how they play, so I tried to bring that into the solo as well as the rest of the song

“I started to incorporate Latin percussion and things like that, and started to divide the rhythm a bit so it pushes and pulls, more like Latin music. It has more of a dance to it! [laughs] I knew it was a big song and I had to be very careful with it, especially because I love the band. 

“I was really happy with how it came out. We tuned down a step, too, to give more heaviness to the overall sound. I think they like it, too... so I’m very honored to have been part of this Metallica project.”

It was interesting how you tackled the solo almost clean and reworked just a few tiny parts here and there... 

“When I was making the demo at home, I wanted to stay true to the original solo. And then I started to interpret it in my own way, trying to play in his style but using the information I have and my own style. I took all the sessions and transformed them into something very similar but not quite the same. 

“It was inspired by old guitarists from Cuba and Colombia – there’s a particular sound to how they play, so I tried to bring that into the solo as well as the rest of the song.”

What else can you tell us about the Colombian approach to guitar music?

“A lot of the Colombian folk music is in pentatonic minor. It has a Hispanic sound. We have many different rhythms in 3/4 and 4/4, like cumbia and porro. We also have an instrument called the tiple, which has a similar kind of sound to Greek mandolins. The sound is very similar and the guitar is tuned almost the same, too.

“We’ve had a lot of information coming from all directions because we are right on the corner of the continent and close to the Atlantic coast, Pacific coast, central America and the United States. So everything has come through and it’s made for an amazing mix of music. 

“These days, Colombian [music] has started to expand even more – now we have more information about music. It’s easier to understand other genres and music from other parts of the world thanks to the internet.”

You also have a new covers album out, Origen, which is more guitar-centric than some of the records before it…

“Yup, it’s a cover album – like Garage Days for Metallica, but my own garage days [laughs]. It’s all the music that inspired me since I was a kid. Tango music from Argentina, other styles from Spain, all different artists playing different styles. 

“Some of the songs were really old, from the '40s and '50s, and I decided to do them in my own style, with a mix of rock guitars and percussion. It’s a tribute to all these artists who’ve inspired me over the years.”

What kind of amps do you tend to use?

“I really love Bogner amplifiers. I have the Ecstasy in my studio as well as a Two-Rock Crystal, which I love as well. It might be one or the other or both. There’s also a Vox AC30 in my studio too and I have a Fender Super-Sonic I might use sometimes, too. 

“I use a Shure [SM]57 and Royer mics to get the sounds I need. For my live shows over the last few years, I’ve been using the Fractal. It’s been very helpful in getting a more precise sound every night.

I never had the opportunity to study theory to start with – I learned everything by myself. I followed my heart mainly

“I mainly love playing guitar direct through the amp, but I have a Boss SD-1 [overdrive] in case I need it. There’s something about the clean sound of a Fender going straight into an amp. 

“My first two albums, which I made 20 years ago, were done like that. It was clean and direct into the amplifier. I’ll also use things like iRig just to produce textures and atmospheric things.”

Finally, what do you think is the secret to your success as a guitarist, and what lessons have you learned along the way?

“There is so much you can explore in guitar, from the way you hold the pick to how hard or soft you hit the strings. It’s all about feeling. I never had the opportunity to study theory to start with – I learned everything by myself. I followed my heart mainly.

“Now I go on YouTube or take courses online to learn as much as I can. I love playing guitar every day. You have to take it seriously. If you want to be a good player, you need to practice every day, take your instrument everywhere. Sleep with it. And never stop listening to all kinds of music because that will help open doors and get you more information about melody and harmony. 

“You might need to listen the same song 20 times to figure out all the chords, but it will be worth it. Then you can start thinking about the arpeggios and scales related to the chords... that’s how I think. 

“Sometimes you might write something and not realize why it sounds the way it sounds until later, once you’ve learned the theory behind it. Thankfully I know more about what I’m doing these days.”

  • For more information on the American Acoustasonic Jazzmaster, head over to Fender.