Mark Tremonti is a busy man. The longtime PRS Guitars endorsee and signature artist has only just finished wrapping up the fifth Tremonti record, Marching in Time, and he’s already in the process of switching gears for early work on the next Alter Bridge album.
“It’s almost like the sessions never stop!,” he says, speaking to Guitar World from his home studio, where stacks and stacks of pedals are neatly lined out on the many shelves behind him.
The newest effort from the Tremonti band, in which he sings while sharing guitar duties with Eric Friedman, packs in plenty of the metallic crunch out of which he’s built a magnificent career. And though his recorded output in this group has almost caught up with his main band – at least in terms of albums released – he admits there has been a small amount of cheating involved.
“I think we barely skipped a beat between [second album] Cauterize and [third album] Dust,” he says. “I kinda think of those two as one record, because it was really just one long recording session. So this feels more like our fourth album, at least in terms of the workload.”
Talk us through the writing process for the record. When did you start building this new body of work?
“Pretty much immediately after [2019’s] Walk the Sky with Alter Bridge, I kinda hit the ground running. I was probably a year and a half into the writing before I got together with [co-guitarist] Eric Friedman. He’s the guy I count on for demos and bouncing ideas with. He’ll just come stay at the house and I’ll break out my laptop and play him a few hundred ideas.
“Those are some of my most fun moments as a songwriter. Sitting there, we’ll break out some beers and go on until four in the morning going through all this material. I like to get that first reaction. Eric’s always been great to bounce ideas with. You need to have a comfort spot with your bandmates.
“The same goes with Myles [Kennedy, Alter Bridge]; both of us are very open with one another on our creativity. You have to let your walls down. It’s the same with Eric. I know what I like, so once I’ve bounced all these hundreds of ideas, it’s good to hear another review of what I’ve done. Once I get the second opinion, I haul ass with arranging the ideas that seem like they’re at the forefront.”
How exactly do you choose which songs end up in Alter Bridge and which ones are for Tremonti?
“The most obvious way of knowing is if there’s any kind of speed metal influence in the song. I’ll tend to keep that for Tremonti. Whenever I bring speed metal to Alter Bridge, Scott [Phillips, drums] and Brian [Marshall, bass] kinda look at me like I’m crazy. [Laughs]
“I think that’s one of the main reasons I started this band. I got tired of coming up with riffs that I loved playing and those guys would be like, ‘Aaah!’ I probably reminded them of the days when we started the band – I’d bring out my Metal Master distortion pedal and do horse gallops. They thought I was nuts. I get to live those moments through this band. So it’s mostly the metal stuff.
“As far as what works for Alter Bridge, I find it’s usually the more drawn-out, atmospheric stuff. It probably fits that band more, though I love doing songs like that with Tremonti. One of the longest songs we’ve done is the title track on this new record, and that definitely crosses into that grey area of what could work in either band.
“The subject matter of that song I needed to sing; it’s a song from a father to a child, and my perspective singing it to my daughter. Having your wife being pregnant through 2020 was sketchy, so it was the sentiment a father would have speaking to his child.”
The opening track kicks off with some of the heaviest sounds you’ve ever dialed in, though you still somehow find the right melodies to follow through.
“I think the balance I’m always searching for is finding things that are fun and exciting to play, but carry emotive melodies that mean something. That’s the most important part of any song, the vocal melody. You can strum campfire chords and sing great melodies, but that’s not fun night after night. I want it to be musically challenging and fun to play. Sometimes the heaviest and most brutal riffs are the hardest things to write a great vocal melody over!”
Your solo in The Last One of Us has a wide interval arpeggio that gets played twice and really catches the listener’s ear.
“It’s that old trick of playing something and then repeating it to make it a theme. That arpeggio that starts it off is the theme, but the second half is actually my favorite part of the solo. There’s a lot of space to phrase; you can do a lick and stop before doing the next one. The heavier stuff is more intense and flashy, but I like the dramatic stuff a bit more.”
And in other parts of the solo, it sounds like you’re playing pentatonic runs in five.
“Yeah, that’s one where I’m using fives. I fell in love with fives a while ago. I’d listen to other players and whenever someone would use those patterns, it would turn my head and I’d say, ‘That’s badass!’ I love that sound, especially when Eric Gales, Eric Johnson or Joe Bonamassa pull it off. I’d always think, ‘I’ve gotta learn that thing!’ And I tried for years to do it like Eric Johnson does it.
“I watched a million videos and can do it when I’m sitting at home with nobody watching me. As soon as I get any adrenaline flowing, I just can’t! That little sweep between the two strings every time you reset that phrase of five is tough. I play hard, so I’m not good at it when I’m amped up. But I finally found a pattern of five where I could pick every note and I’m abusing it on this record… I love it maybe a bit too much. [Laughs] It’s my new go-to picking pattern.”
Perhaps the hardest thing about those Eric Johnson runs is keeping time when switching from alternate picking to economy for that one note.
“Yeah! It’s a strange new reflex to learn as a guitar player. It’s not only hard to keep in time but it’s also hard to keep the same velocity to the picked stroke when striking through. You don’t want it too soft or hard, or slipping through too quickly.
“I think Eric Johnson has such a soft touch and so much control when he does it. Like I said, I’ve spent hundreds of hours playing that stuff, putting on the metronomes and learning all the licks he’s known for. I watched Troy Grady’s stuff, the guy who mastered picking, who teaches incredibly well. You can trust what he’s showing you.
“When I was growing up, a lot of the teachers would teach you things wrong or the tabs weren’t right, so it’s good to find people like that. You can trust what he’s teaching you is correct because he’s done his homework and shows you the original video and then him playing it with close-ups of the picking. I went through all of that and there were moments where I felt I had it and then I’d pick up a guitar somewhere to show someone and I’d screw it up every time.
“I got it when I sat there for 45 minutes playing the same thing over and over again, but never to the point where it could be part of my live arsenal. I kinda gave up on it! And you should never be a quitter as a guitar player, but I’d spent too much time on it, so I found my own secret trap-door to doing it picked, but without that sweep.”
Now and Forever features some serious modulation on some of the guitars. What are we hearing?
“The one I used at the end of the song is wicked. It’s called The Carrier by Hexe Guitar Electronics, and it has this really cool, trippy sound. You have it either rise or decline in tone and it ramps up or down with this kickass swell. And then when it hits the top or bottom, it goes blub blub blub, almost like a muscle-car engine.
“When it comes to recording sessions, I’m usually the meat-and-potatoes chunky rhythm guy. Myles and Eric are pedal nerds; they’ll sift through boxes until four in the morning with [producer] Michael ‘Elvis’ Baskette.
“There’s one pedal I loved using for these sessions, and that’s the EarthQuaker Devices Transmisser. It’s really cool and vibey, so I used it for this trancey atmosphere here and there. There was a hand-wired Tube Screamer for overdrive, my Morley wah, a Phase 90 and a Guitar Systems Vibe Tool.”
What guitar amps did you end up using?
“I wanted to focus mainly on the PRS MT 100. We’ve gone through a lot of different versions of it now. The one I used on the record was a two-channel version and it’s very close to what the final product will be. We’ve actually dialed back the gain because it had so much.
“I noticed I never went past two o’ clock on the amp; I never needed to. I wanted this to sound quiet at bedroom levels if needed. The clean channel had a push/pull, now we have a little bit of gain boost – you can dial that back, but it’s probably my favorite clean from a non-combo amp.
“My favorite of all time is a Fender ’65 Twin. This, for a 100-watt head, is the best clean I’ve heard. So that’s the main tone. For cleans, I always brought in a Victory V40, which always makes me bring in my Cornford RK100. I think I got a special one. Back when they were still making me amps, they offered to send me one while they were making mine. I liked that one but when they sent the new one, it was a whole other animal. Everyone I know who has tried it absolutely loves it. You can dial the knobs any way you want, it will still sound great.”
It’s interesting how composed some of these leads feel, like If Not for You, which has very distinct jumps around the neck.
“I come up with my solos by improvising and then stumbling upon something that I dig. But by no means do I ever worry about making mistakes. If I’m improvising in front of people, sure, I might be more pentatonic and stay safe. But when writing solos, I’ll try to go for sour notes, open strings, overbends, things that might not make any theoretical sense whatsoever.
“And that’s how I stumble upon the things I dig. About 90 percent of it goes away and 10 percent turns into the solo. On this one, I also got to use an Yngwie lick I learned when I was a kid; it’s the first fast run in that solo. I also got to use one of my favorite descending legato things, but I’d say my favorite thing about this solo is the use of open strings.
“I do it twice, just like in The Last One of Us, where you have that repeating theme. In this one I do the lower octave for the first half and then a higher one for the second, but it’s the same notes played the same way. The rest is just experimentation and finding which notes speak to me more.
“A lot of times the hardest thing with writing a solo is coming up with the first four notes. Once I’ve done that, it kinda floats. My weakness, probably, is the blues jam stuff. I feel a bit like when I play the blues it’s pretty typical stuff and not very inventive. That’s kinda why I get out of the box and do stuff that hopefully you haven’t heard a million times.”
We’ve spoken a lot about the solos, but some of the riffs on tracks like In One Piece are tricky in places too.
“I’m using a combination of open strings and fretted, on the 12th fret. I was doing my best to make it not a simple riff, with something extra weaved in there. When you’re a young guitar player and the first things you learn become your home base for the rest of your life. For me, that’s metal rhythm playing – palm-muting and galloping rhythms. That’s my comfort zone.
“The lead stuff is harder for me. I practiced a lot of the fast Paul Gilbert patterns when I was younger, but when it came to stuff like Stevie Ray Vaughan, I was terrible at it. My bending and vibrato was nowhere good enough. I attacked the guitar so hard with that rhythm stuff, it didn’t translate well to picking higher strings and bending during solos.”
What kind of exercises helped you most with your down-picking and triplets?
“When I was in school, I would challenge people to draw the letter N continually on a piece of paper. I would bet them a dollar I could do twice as many in a minute. I’d practice that all day in school! [Laughs]
“The best way to get the right hand ready is to set a metronome for 104 or 105 bpm and see how long you can survive doing just downstrokes. Try to get that going for a minute. If you can last three minutes, you’re a champ. Downstrokes are the core of metal rhythm guitar.
“Once you’ve gotten that down, do the exact same thing with gallops. Those things are workouts. It’s not something you can just instantly get; you have to build up that muscle and make it part of your technique.
“Growing up listening to Metallica, Testament, Slayer and Exodus, I couldn’t care less about most of the leads. There was no way in the world I was going to learn a Slayer solo. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anybody play a Slayer solo note for note. It’s funny – I went to see them live and saw Kerry King playing a solo from one of their records. I thought he would wing it but no, he played it exactly as it was recorded.”
You recently shared a cover of Another Day, Another Idea by Brazilian guitarist Mateus Asato, which uses some really colorful ways to link through chords.
“I found this guy called Darryl Syms online who taught that song. It would take me weeks to sit and learn it by ear, watching videos of Mateus. There was a guy who had done the work for me! It took a few days to get under my fingers and a few more to get closer. It’s those things that might not sound difficult but are difficult, little slides and switches here and there, that I like.
“The reason I learned that song is because he uses his thumb like Hendrix and does some fingerstyle stuff in the second half. I wanted to incorporate some of that and find new ways of using fingerstyle in my clean playing. I’m always going through YouTube looking for new ideas to pick up, at least one thing a day.
“It’s funny… my in-laws are staying here right now and my mother-in-law came in asking me the name of that beautiful thing I’d been playing all day. And it is a beautiful piece. I think Mateus is an incredible guitar player, one of the best on earth. There’s so much feel because of that rhythmic side, the way he slaps the guitar as he’s going along. He always finds nice, big-sounding chords and knows how to intertwine them.”
You had Wolfgang Van Halen playing bass in this band for a number of years. It must be nice to see him enjoying all the success with Mammoth WVH.
“When you take away the Van Halen name, he’s just a really nice, down-to-earth kid – and he’s super-talented. When you hear him sing live, he’s incredible – plus he’s great on drums, guitar and bass. I found he was really good at learning stuff and memorizing parts.
“Writing a record is a different skill; it’s very far away from being a shredder or killer drummer. I know so many great guitar players who don’t write. I was blown away when I heard the album. It’s an amazing record and one that I’d wanted to hear for a long time.
“He and Elvis had been working on it for a few years, maybe even three years. I was online the other night and saw a clip of him playing in Hershey [Pennsylvania], opening up for Guns N’ Roses. I think he’s doing a little better than playing bass for the Tremonti band right now! [Laughs] I’m happy as hell for him.”
And you were also lucky enough to meet Eddie a few times, too.
“I have some really special memories. One of them is when we were opening for Van Halen at Madison Square Garden and Wolfgang was there. He must have been six – he was just this tiny kid! His mom was there too. Eddie had given me one of his guitars backstage; he tapped away on it and said, ‘Yeah, feels good, here ya go!’ and obviously that’s become one of my most prized possessions.
“When the show was over, we were backstage underground and there was 300 crew, guests, press everywhere, just swarming the place. We saw Wolf, his mom and Eddie walking out. Eddie saw me out of the corner of his eye and walked through hundreds of people to come over and say, ‘Hey I forgot to tell you – you need to take out two springs to make it play right – sorry I forgot to tell you that earlier!’ Then he gave me a kiss on the cheek and walked right through all the people clamoring for him again.
“He did that for me?! He had his kid and his wife with him and knew he’d get caught up by everybody, but he took his time out because he gave a shit about his products and passing on knowledge. I got to see him at his core a handful of times and I was lucky. It was a very cool thing.”
- Marching in Time is out now via Napalm Records.