Michael Amott: “I actually play quite soft – I’m not as aggressive as people might think. I prefer to explore the dynamic range”

Michael Amott
(Image credit: Chiaki Nozu/WireImage)

One of Sweden’s premier metal exports, Arch Enemy are led by guitarist Michael Amott, who combines his love for classical motifs alongside ferocious heavy metal thunder on the band’s new album Deceivers

He tells Total Guitar how he was influenced by Michael Schenker and Dave Mustaine, and how modern technology has given him more flexibility in the studio.

The new album’s opening track Handshake With Hell starts with some neoclassical tapping and also features some baroque-style chord movements.

“Those chord progressions are a very Bach thing to do. Sequences like that mean you can bring in the harmonic minor scale – ultimately, they’re melodic and help break you out of the standard blues or metal feel. Of course we had a big guy come out of Sweden once upon a time who specialised in that – and I really loved Yngwie’s early stuff. 

“It’s good to have that influence in there, but not too much. I just use it as another flavour because Arch Enemy is a kind of hybrid situation for me as a guitar player. We’re not focused on just one thing – there will be riffs from my death metal days, plus old school influences like Iron Maiden or Judas Priest. They’re all different flavours I picked up along the way.”

Where does your fascination with classical music stem from?

“I guess it all started in my childhood. My mother’s favourite music is classical and we’d listen to the great composers. She wanted me to know my stuff! But then later I got into rock, metal and punk – that became my rebellion!”

I loved what Dave Mustaine was doing on Megadeth’s Peace Sells... record because that was when I was learning how to play lead stuff

Your leads often mix bluesy pentatonic phrases with searing diminished runs. Which guitarists rubbed off on you most? 

“I loved what Dave Mustaine was doing on Megadeth’s Peace Sells... record because that was when I was learning how to play lead stuff. I’m a big Michael Schenker fan, too. Those were the 80s players taking guitar to new levels when I was growing up. I’ve always loved Adrian Smith from Iron Maiden, who inspired a lot of our modal minor runs. 

“I actually play quite soft – I’m not as aggressive as people might think. It sounds aggressive because I use a hard pick, but I have a very soft touch. I don’t like to thrash my guitar too much, I prefer to explore the dynamic range. I’m less into every note sounding the same. I prefer to be a bit more sexy with my phrasing and vibrato!”

You signed with Dean guitars back in 2008. We’re guessing Schenker may have had something to do with that?

“Probably! I figured if they are good enough for him, they’d work well for me! At the time, Dave Mustaine was playing them as well, so it made sense for me to trust in them. The first guitar they gave me was actually a Schenker V in black and white. It sounded great. 

“I didn’t like the neck profile that much at first, but I did eventually get used to it. More importantly, the tone was incredible. I loved the string-through body, which helped get this really nice sustain. It felt like a big step up for me when I started playing those guitars.”

In the videos for the new singles, you’re seen playing your Tyrant Tin Man, Burgundy and X Splatter signatures. What else are we hearing on the record?

“I’m a big fan of the Marshall JCM800 2205 50-watt head, and there’s one I own which is an especially magical amp with this crazy tone to it. But on this new album, for the first time, I didn’t use that head. I used an Engl for most of the recordings. I did the rhythm tracks through a Kemper or plugin and then we re-amped the clean signal at the end.

“It’s different to the old days where you’d search for your tone and then have to commit to it. Technology has made the recording process more open-ended. For the leads and melodies, I prefer to go into a real studio and mic everything up in stereo. The solos come out better that way – the sound of a real amp will influence my next note or lick. I’ll also bring out my favourite pedals like the MXR Phase 90 and my Boss Dimension C chorus pedal for extra depth.”

What kind of exercises helped get you to where you are as a player?

“The funny thing about us guitar players is that we’re all still playing those same pentatonic scales we grew up with! It’s not really about getting better; it’s just about keeping those skills so that they don’t fade. I played along to a lot of records growing up.

Hearing Metallica and Megadeth made me realise I needed to lock in more!

“There was no Internet in the 1800s! You couldn’t see what people were doing; it was more like something magical from another world. Somebody in my village would figure out how to do the Gary Moore thing, where you slide mute with your picking hand while pulling off to create these rolling harmonics. And we’d all be like, ‘Oh shit, that’s how you do it!’ 

“You’d share secrets and rumours about what gear our favourite guitarists were using. And hearing Metallica and Megadeth made me realise I needed to lock in more!”

Like Metallica and Megadeth, your riffs can often be as challenging as the leads...

“That constant picking is a big part of my sound. I did all the rhythm tracks for the album. Our other guitarist Jeff Loomis is a highly accomplished player, and even he tells me he struggles with riffs sometimes, because it’s a merciless onslaught of fast picking. He would probably say the riffs are harder than the solos!

“I love the sound of a palm-muted chug. I played in Carcass in the early ’90s and I picked up a lot from Bill Steer. His technique was great for that. Playing riffs really tight became my main way of practising and doing it all by ear was how I learned. I think it helped!”

I’m a self-taught player, so when I hear something in my head I will keep playing until I get there

And do you still practise?

“I’m a self-taught player, so when I hear something in my head I will keep playing until I get there. And sometimes I might stumble across things from just noodling around. I still play guitar for several hours every day. I don’t practise or write... I just play! I’ll collect all these small parts: random riffs, chord progressions or melodic ideas, and then start piecing together. Occasionally it might even be a full song in one go.”

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Amit Sharma

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 as a guitar player. He's worked for magazines like Kerrang!Metal HammerClassic RockProgRecord CollectorPlanet RockRhythm and Bass Player, as well as newspapers like Metro and The Independent, interviewing 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 handled lead guitars for legends like Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols, The Faces) and Stu Hamm (Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, G3).