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Tim Henson: “Between every album, I think: how can I level my s**t up?”

Tim Henson of Polyphia
(Image credit: Press)

In recent years, Polyphia have established themselves as virtuosic disruptors of everything the music world thought it knew about genre classifications. Over the course of their first three albums, the Texas-based shredders have brought metal, trap, rock, funk, and a slew of other influences together to spectacular effect. 

And now, having recently added nuevo flamenco to their list of stylistic conquests on Playing God – the band’s first new song since 2019 and their first ever to feature nylon-string guitars – Polyphia’s Tim Henson has not only gone unplugged, but he’s taken his non-conformist approach straight into Ibanez’s workshop to develop a bespoke new tool for the job. Cue the TOD10N: a prototype nylon-string signature model for Henson. 

Angelic sonics collide with devilish aesthetics in this head-turningly modern acoustic electric guitar, but the event that sparked the whole creative process happened back in 2019, when Henson found himself standing in a pawn shop somewhere in Europe, holding a forgotten relic from Ibanez’s catalogue: an electric-nylon hybrid called the SC500N. 

“I’d never seen anything like it before, so I texted Ibanez and was like, ‘What the fuck is this?’” he laughs. After a brief noodle, he realised he could play much of his Polyphia repertoire – bends excluded – on the guitar, and decided to drop 800 bucks to liberate the curious late-’90s design experiment and bring it home. 

“At the time, I had just started getting into hip-hop production and I was doing a lot of sessions with a lot of producers,” Tim recalls. “From using just the harmonic minor scale on these nylon-string guitars, it ends up sounding super-Spanish and classical. I thought: what if I made Polyphia-style, classical-type loops the way beat makers sample recordings of old classical guitar playing?”

As these ideas developed in complexity and became progressively less loopable, Henson began composing whole songs in the ornate style, but he hints that we shouldn’t make too many assumptions about the band’s new album based on Playing God alone. 

“I would say it’s a good indication that it’s some of the best music we’ve ever made,” he says, “but there are lots of vibes on the record. This is the classical, nylon, fancy-sounding vibe, but there’s so many we touch.”   

Likewise, the TOD10N itself is one of a number of models that Henson has been developing with Ibanez, and he says that a “not nylon” version may see the light of day in good time. “I hope to follow in the footsteps of Steve Vai and come out with a few signature models every year for the next 50 years and, you know, build that legacy,” he smiles. 

Unlike the S-type body shape of the SC500N, the TOD10N, says Henson, “kind of looks like a Telecaster. I wanted to stay somewhat close to the traditional, single cutaway acoustic-looking guitar, while also keeping modern aesthetics.” As such, it has a sleek matte black finish, and sports Henson’s new ‘Tree of Death’ signature inlay – another nod to Steve Vai, and a dark twist on Vai’s ‘Tree of Life’ inlay design. 

Those who have been following Henson’s social media may have also spotted a white prototype, though that colourway was unceremoniously ditched. Henson laughs: “I did a couple of videos with that one and people started calling it the ‘slice of bread’ because it’s white on top and brown on the sides.”

Keen to dispel some other early internet rumours, he also asserts, “I’ve seen a lot of people trying to say that it’s a Talman. It’s not a Talman. I’ve also seen people say that it’s a solidbody. It’s not a solidbody.”

In fact, the TOD10N has a semi-hollow design, with a discreet soundhole located on its upper bout, which, unlike traditional acoustics, projects sound directly towards the player. “It’s pretty loud for how thin it is,” he says, “which is awesome because I love a resonant guitar.” 

Throughout its development process, Tim has been busy honing new techniques informed by the TOD10N’s nylon terrain, and the upcoming record will chart this progress. As he puts it: “Between every album, I think: how can I level my shit up?” 

Having called upon fellow prog-metal pioneer Tosin Abasi for some thumping tuition, Tim recalls: “In between the first and second lesson, he also gave me two classical pieces to study. One was La Catedral, so that helped a bit, but Playing God was started before that. As you can see, the entire song is played with a pick, and it wasn’t until after that I started to develop right-hand classical prowess.”

As for adapting his left hand, Tim explains: “You have to be a bit more accurate. The meat of your finger has to land exactly where it’s supposed to and stay very stable. You end up mainly vibratoing like a bass player where you’re shifting between two frets. Bending the string doesn’t really give the same tonality.”  

Suggesting that he’s also been working on some more contemporary fingerstyle techniques, he adds: “The most recent thing I picked up because of this guitar is similar to that ‘campfire’ style of playing where they keep the backbeat, while playing melodies and chords.”

As a final thought on his recent deep dive into the unplugged world, and how it relates to his wider musical philosophy, Tim ponders: “I’ve been a firm believer, even before I picked this up, that when you compose something, it should sound good and complete in its most bare state. Once it sounds good by itself, you can add whatever you want in post-production, or move it to a guitar with a whammy bar. If it sounds good on this, it’s most likely going to sound good on anything.”

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