Skip to main content

Korn's James ‘Munky’ Shaffer and Brian ‘Head’ Welch: "We love making weird noises – filling that synthy space using our guitars is something we love doing"

Korn
(Image credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for SiriusXM)

When we think of the innovators who shaped heavy music through the decades, Korn deserve recognition alongside more obvious names such as Iron Maiden, Metallica and Soundgarden. 

Formed in Bakersfield, California, Korn were, after all, the first metal group to popularise seven-string guitars – the band’s two guitarists, James ‘Munky’ Schaffer and Brian ‘Head’ Welch used the subsonic weight of the added B string to explore new uncharted tonal depths, thus inspiring players from bands such as Fear Factory and Meshuggah to follow suit and embrace a whole new world of low-end. 

Korn’s self-titled debut album, released in 1994, was a true game-changer, its mix of heavy riffs and hip-hop rhythms shaping the sound of nu-metal and influencing generations of bands from Slipknot and Linkin Park to rising stars of today such as Tetrarch and Cane Hill. 

That signature sound is still very much in evidence on the new Korn album Requiem, the 14th studio recording of the band’s long career. The music is thunderously heavy and brilliantly melodic, with Munky and Head whipping up a seven-string storm. And now, when these guys look back on how it all started, they acknowledge the influence of one guitarist in particular.

It was super-shredder Steve Vai who helped develop the seven-string with Japanese guitar giants Ibanez in the '80s. And for Munky, a teenager back then, Vai was a hero.

“After reading interviews with Vai, I learned how he could map out what someone was saying with his instrument,” Munky says now, citing Vai’s intro to David Lee Roth’s Yankee Rose – in essence, a ‘conversation’ between Roth’s voice and Vai’s guitar – as the mark of a musician wholeheartedly in tune with his instrument. 

“Vai could match the tonality of the human voice, using the same rhythms and lines to tell a story. I remember my mother telling me off when I was young, saying, ‘You play the guitar more than you talk to us!’

“But she also pointed out that it was my true voice. I thought about this later on in life and realised she was right: anything I try to say with my voice, I can say through my guitar. Whether it’s happy or sad, whatever I’m feeling can come through the guitar and out of a speaker. It was empowering. It helped me realise my purpose.”

I remember my mother telling me off when I was young, saying, ‘You play the guitar more than you talk to us!

Munky

He continues: “What I learned from Steve Vai – and I’m still learning from him because he’s amazing – was how he embodies the feeling he wants to transcend through his instrument. That’s something I really took from him. What do I want the listener to feel? Is it pure aggression or something purely melodic? He helped me kick that door open.”

Head tells the story of how Munky’s fixation on Vai led inevitably to the seven-string. “I was a Vai fan too,” he says, “but Munky was obsessed and followed everything he did. When he found out about the seven-string, he went to Guitar Center and was like, ‘I need this!’ He’d work little odd jobs to save up, getting 50 to 100 dollars a week. After a few months, he had enough money, but even in the meantime he was always in that store playing the guitar, telling us it was his before he’d even bought it.”

The day the young James Schaffer took that guitar home was unquestionably life-changing. The seven-string would become fundamental to Korn’s signature sound, allowing them to go lower, harder and deeper than any band that had come before them and help create the blueprint for what would soon become known as ‘nu-metal’. As Head says: “Steve Vai may have invented that guitar, but Munky had the vision for using it in heavy music.”

The combination of the seven-strings, the hip-hop-inspired rhythms of bassist Fieldy and drummer David Silveria and the new wave-influenced vocals of Jonathan Davis made for a unique sound. 

“We started mixing all these influences to find our new sound,” Head recalls. “We listened to everyone from Vai to Helmet, Nine Inch Nails, Pantera, Metallica and Faith No More, plus all this hip-hop music. Jonathan loved Duran Duran, Depeche Mode and The Cure, so it really was an interesting blend, with us embracing that low B-string on guitar. 

“That’s what was cool about nu-metal and the movement we started. We put all these genres together because we were fans and tried to make it our own, which I think we did.”

Requiem sees the band expanding on the melodic structures within that heavy sound. The album’s nine tracks – totalling just over half an hour – feel remarkably tight and focused, with no shortage of powerful themes and anthemic hooks. One of the standout tracks, Let The Dark Do The Rest, has the band revisiting the tones of their 1998 album – and commercial breakthrough – Follow The Leader.

Head explains: “Let The Dark Do The Rest was a homage back to 1998 and the track B.B.K. – which had a lot of those screechy sounds. We love making weird noises with our guitars. When you kick in that Whammy pedal and push all the way down it kinda sounds like a catfight! Filling that synthy or keyboardy space using our guitars is something we love doing. 

“Our old producer, Ross Robinson, taught us that on the first two Korn records and we stuck with it. However, at the beginning of Let The Dark Do The Rest, you can hear these weird piano notes... that’s actually Munky playing a keyboard on his iPhone with a mic on the speaker. It just sounded so cool, he was talking about recording it on a proper piano but we all said it sounded perfect as it was because of that super-lo-fi vibe.”

As per classic Korn albums of the past, the new tracks showcase how the two guitarists often cover different ends of the instrument at the same time, maximising the depth of the group’s collective sonic profile. 

There are moments on tracks such as Lost In The Grandeur where they’re not even playing notes in the conventional sense, instead looking at their instruments purely on a noise-making level like Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, who started making waves in the same Californian clubs a few years before them...

“Exploring the whole fretboard to divide and conquer is extremely important,” explains Munky. “When I grew up, I always felt like the higher strings and top of the neck was just for soloing. But then I started finding these staccato, dissonant sounds that were really useful. 

“Whether it was just a noise or sound effect or even a pick scrap across the higher strings, I started to think about how I could include those things into my riffs. It filled out the spectrum, because I was using the higher and lower end of the guitar’s range within the same riff...

James 'Munky' Shaffer

(Image credit: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

“That’s one thing I always tell new players: don’t be afraid to use the higher strings or go up the neck. And it doesn’t always have to be the ‘traditional’ way of playing guitar. Come at it more like a sound designer trying to find the right noises, in combination with the low rhythmic thing on the heavy strings. It’s fun for people listening through headphones.

One thing I always tell new players: don’t be afraid to use the higher strings or go up the neck. And it doesn’t always have to be the ‘traditional’ way of playing guitar

“We want to put some noise candy in there for people to go, ‘Woah, did you just hear that?!’ Tom Morello was great at all that stuff – using the whole guitar, from the body to the hardware, as his instrument. He’d even use the strings above the nut to get these unorthodox noises, and we started doing that too, just to create more atmosphere.”

Tracking the guitars for Requiem was very much business as usual for Munky and Head – the former sticking with his Ibanez Apex signature series, which were originally launched in 2007, and the latter handling his own custom models through ESP and LTD, having switched over from Ibanez in 2017. 

That said, the two guitarists also understand when situations call for something different, turning to other brands and instruments where necessary.

“We usually go through five to seven guitars each and figure out which sound best,” says Head. “Every record is different because we get new guitars and the tones change depending on what the tracks needs. On this record, I used one of my ESPs and one of my signature LTDs, which was funny, because the more expensive ESP model didn’t always sound the best. 

“There were moments where we felt the cheaper guitar sounded better! I can’t explain why. We’d also grab old Telecasters, Strats and Les Pauls for little bits here and there. Jonathan has all these freakin’ weird old guitars, which we’d use for verse overdubs and things like that.”

“We’d bring out Fenders, Gibsons and 12-strings, even this seven-string acoustic that I have,” adds Munky. “I also love the Fender Bass VI. I have one that was built in Mexico, but it works great – I love how growly it sounds. There was also a Starcaster in there somewhere – we’ll use random guitars to add extra textures and depth to certain parts, depending on what we’re trying to accomplish. If it’s a nice clean melody, for example, then we’ll pick up a Telecaster.”

Brian 'Head' Welch

(Image credit: Keith Griner/Getty Images)

Similarly, it was a mixed bag for amplification – the Korn pair used a combination of different heads and cabs to dial in that perfect punch, favouring an old-school analogue approach to their signal path as they typically have done in the past.

Though very occasionally they might have used something like an Axe-Fx or Kemper for “crazy atmospheric sounds”, to their ears nothing sounds better than real valves being driven through loud speakers. You simply can’t beat that sensation of air being moved, insist the duo, and we’d be inclined to agree.

There were moments where we felt the cheaper guitar sounded better!

Head

“My setup is a 150-watt Mesa/Boogie Triple Rectifier with a Diezel and an old modded Marshall, all blended together,” continues Munky. “The Marshall goes into a Marshall cab, the others into a Mesa cab, which are mic’d using various SM57 and Royer microphones. So there are quite a few faders mixing all these tones to make one sound! Head’s side has a Triple Rec, a Bogner Uberschall and an Orange. 

“When we’re both playing, you’re hearing six amplifiers! We also use these really expensive room mics to get more ambient sounds. It really helps because you feel like you’re in the room with the cabinet, but from a back corner. You can feel the air being moved. Even if we only use a little bit of that, it sounds cool and brings a more distant sound that the up-close ribbon mics don’t catch, with its own natural reverb.”

In between the guitars and amps were a host of pedals, including many enduring staples of the Korn arsenal, including that “catfight” DigiTech Whammy pitch-shifter. The pair also engaged its lower octave harmony function to create what they refer to as “tractor” sounds, in order to thicken the main riffs with a distorted sub frequency. It’s an old trick that, for them, will simply never go out of fashion.

“I also had my Boss Chorus Ensemble, which I’ve always used for melodies,” recalls Head, citing it as his go-to. “You can hear it on Let The Dark Do The Rest and the chorus of Start The Healing, just to add some colour to the melody. I’d actually say seven or eight of the nine songs had that Boss in there somewhere, even if just a little bit to add a wet kind of feel. 

“Sometimes I might even turn every knob so it’s on full blast and warbles like it’s underwater. I love that sound! Munky uses a different one, the pink Ibanez BC9, which blends really well with mine. I had my old Uni-Vibe pedal with me. Munky used an Electro-Harmonix Small Stone on Worst Is On Its Way.”

“I also had a Strymon Timeline for repeats and the BigSky for those big open wet sounds,” adds Munky. “I have some boutique pedals to get some crazy modulation – one of them is the Blackbox Quicksilver, which is similar to a Small Stone but it’s a warbly delay. I also have this WMD Geiger Counter fuzz pedal which is really over the top and distorted... it’s really dope.”

As their gear roster makes clear, there has always been a lot more to Korn than just seven-strings through high gain amps. “Uniqueness has always been very important to us,” says Head, explaining how there’s a sea of new bands and artists constantly coming out, arguably now more than ever. 

Those lacking a sense of strong musical identity often get pooled with the rest and disappear amongst the noise. Embrace your idiosyncrasies, he says, and celebrate whatever it is that makes you weird. After all, that’s what worked for Korn.

“At the end of the day, the best song wins,” Head says, “so my best advice is write, write and write. That’s how to craft your skill and develop your gifts. It might take hundreds or thousands of songs until you find the one that shows you the way. I learned all my pentatonic and blues scales back in the day – they were pretty helpful. 

“Then I moved onto major scales, running through them while watching TV, constantly practising to get the movement and finger strength. I got into Yngwie Malmsteen, George Lynch and Eddie Van Halen, but I couldn’t develop a lead style that was as good. I could fake it, but those guys are on another level. It wasn’t my calling to be a shredder.”

He pauses for a second and points out how embracing his own limitations and oddities is precisely what got him to where he is today.

“Instead, I found my own style through a band, rather than just my own solos,” he says. “So we focused more on the riffs. When we wrote Blind, for example, we were listening to a lot of Mr. Bungle. They were so weird, with all those dissonant chords which we loved. Jonathan brought that song from his old band Sexart. 

“We rewrote the chorus and made it really bouncy and heavy, taking it down really low. We came up with the intro because we all loved Jonathan’s ‘are you ready?!’ and it needed an amazing build to get there. I look back now and think, ‘What a cool, left-field intro!’ And that became our thing. When we started this band, we wanted to be weird because we love the weird...”

Thank you for reading 5 articles this month*

Join now for unlimited access

US pricing $3.99 per month or $39.00 per year

UK pricing £2.99 per month or £29.00 per year 

Europe pricing €3.49 per month or €34.00 per year

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Prices from £2.99/$3.99/€3.49

Amit has been writing for titles like Total GuitarMusicRadar and Guitar World for over a decade and counts Richie Kotzen, Guthrie Govan and Jeff Beck among his primary influences. He's interviewed everyone from Ozzy Osbourne and Lemmy to Slash and Jimmy Page, and once even traded solos with a member of Slayer on a track released internationally. As a session guitarist, he's played alongside members of Judas Priest and Uriah Heep in London ensemble Metalworks, as well as handling lead guitars for legends like Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols, The Faces) and Stu Hamm (Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, G3).