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Rise Against's Zach Blair and Tim McIlrath on their Grateful Dead-inspired guitar interplay and making music with a message

Rise Against
(Image credit: Jeff Hahne/Getty Images; Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images)

In March 2020, Tim McIlrath was heading straight for what he calls a “post-album emotional collapse” – and then the pandemic hit.  

The Rise Against singer and guitarist had just wrapped work on his long-running Chicago political punk crew’s ninth record, Nowhere Generation, and he was ready to retreat into a “dark room with blackout curtains and not see anyone for a while.” 

So when Illinois issued its stay-at-home orders, McIlrath’s plans weren’t quite as upended as many other folks across the country. “I turned the TV on and they’re like, ‘You can’t go outside and do anything,’” he recalls. “I was like, ‘That’s cool – that’s what I was planning on doing anyway.’ [Laughs] So the world falling apart dovetailed nicely with my calendar!”

It’s April 2021 when Guitar World connects with McIlrath, and his spirits are high. Nowhere Generation’s release is right around the corner (this past June via new label Loma Vista), and the COVID-19 vaccine rollout has the country entering what seems to be a much different, hopeful phase of the pandemic.

Despite McIlrath’s gallows humor, the guitarist is keenly aware of the toll the coronavirus crisis has taken on people’s health, emotional well-being, income and more. After all, social consciousness has been intertwined with his creative output ever since Rise Against dropped their first album, The Unraveling, in 2001.

For the past two decades McIlrath and his band have been perfecting their formula – packaging call-to-action messages in rousing melodic punk – and it’s paid off. Not only are they one of the scene’s biggest acts and most dependable tour draws, but their records have also achieved Gold- and Platinum-selling status and consistently rank on Billboard’s Top 10 chart.

Nowhere Generation continues McIlrath’s mission to use his platform to address social issues close to his heart, which include economic inequality, racial justice, LGBTQ rights, veganism, environmental preservation, animal activism and more.

But this time he’s adopted a slightly different perspective when approaching his lyrics. Now in his 40s, the “nowhere generation” McIlrath is referring to are the millennial and Gen Z kids coming up in the world today: from the young fans at Rise Against’s shows to his own two teenage daughters.

“I was getting feedback from young people that listen to our band about their anxieties and fears about what tomorrow’s going to look like,” he says. “This generation has to deal with unique things: the rise of the 1 percent, increasingly concentrated wealth, decay of the middle class, leaders shrugging off climate change… The whole album is like listening to these anxieties with a sympathetic ear.”

Over Nowhere Generation’s 11 songs, Rise Against – which also includes lead guitarist Zach Blair, bassist Joe Principe and drummer Brandon Barnes – create a powerful musical statement that runs the gamut from scathing protest anthems (Nowhere Generation, The Numbers) and furious burners (Broken Dreams, Inc.) to catchy-as-hell fist-pumpers (Talking to Ourselves) and poignant acoustic ballads (Forfeit).

McIlrath and Blair – who have been a six-string team since the latter joined Rise Against for their fifth album, 2008’s Appeal to Reason – lead the charge with a deft mix of whiplash punk-rock rhythm work, tastefully placed arpeggios, soaring octave riffs, “sparkly” atmospheric solos and more.

Tim McIlrath

(Image credit: Barry Brecheisen/Getty Images)

When asked to describe Rise Against’s dual-guitar attack, McIlrath cites the chemistry of '90s alt icons Fugazi as his aspirational reference point – while Blair hits us with what might be the most unexpected touchstone for a punk band ever: the Grateful Dead.

“Our [approach] to playing guitar is like something I read about the Grateful Dead,” he says. “Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir interweave around each other – Tim and I do that too. Because if you have two guitar players, why play the same thing at all times?”

McIlrath and Blair’s innate creative connection and fluid musical interplay is apparent throughout Nowhere Generation. But it’s taken years of collaboration to get to this point.

To better understand how a liberal activist punk songwriter from the Midwest and a heavy-metal-loving Texan arrived at such an organic, exciting sonic partnership, you need to step back and examine where each player’s guitar journey began. 

Today Tim McIlrath is a highly visible and influential musician, and Rise Against have become a well-established pillar in the modern punk movement. But when he first picked up a guitar, around the seventh grade, his dreams were much less grand. 

In fact, he suspected he was already too late in the game to “make it.” Despite his doubts, McIlrath carried on and quickly discovered that the instrument was the key to unlocking an unknown creative wellspring within him.

Music was my very primal way of communicating something deep down that I didn’t know how to communicate. I didn’t have the language… That’s what picking up a guitar was

Tim McIlrath

“Music was my very primal way of communicating something deep down that I didn’t know how to communicate,” he says. “I didn’t have the language … That’s what picking up a guitar was. Writing songs was something I didn’t even know I had in me ... But when I started playing guitar, those things just came pouring out.”

He soon found a crew of like-minded buddies and they started jamming in his parents’ basement. The camaraderie he experienced in the punk and hardcore subculture “fed the flames” of his musical ambitions and he became “purpose driven” to get his message out.

By then McIlrath had graduated from the nylon-string starter guitar his parents gifted him to a 1984 Gibson SG (“I still have it to this day, it’s still my favorite guitar!”) and a Marshall JCM 900 half-stack. The young guitarist took a DIY approach to learning the instrument, which included a period between 1991 and 1993 when he subscribed to this magazine. 

Guitar World was starting to let go of hair metal and having to respond to the juggernaut of grunge and alternative music,” McIlrath recalls with a laugh. “I was so hungry for knowledge… It didn’t matter to me what genre it was. I just wanted to read the tablature and figure it out … So [that’s why] I know how to play 18 and Life by Skid Row, This Love by Pantera, Tool’s Sober and most of Nirvana’s songs.”

McIlrath played in punk bands around Chicago throughout his teenage and early adult years (including Arma Angelus with future Fall Out Boy bassist Pete Wentz) before linking up with former 88 Fingers Louie bassist Joe Principe and guitarist Dan “Mr. Precision” Wleklinski in Transistor Revolt.

The crew put out one self-titled EP in 2000 before signing to NOFX founder Fat Mike’s Fat Wreck Chords. Fat Mike had one stipulation: the band needed to change their name.

After a few suggestions… Rise Against was born. During Rise Against’s early years, Zach Blair was down in Texas cutting his teeth in punk and alternative bands. He was raised north of Dallas in a town called Sherman. His dad was a local radio DJ and music obsessive who introduced his young son to the state’s homegrown blues legends.

“Freddie King, Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, Johnny Winter, Billy Gibbons and, of course, the Vaughan brothers,” Blair recites. His father also routinely schooled him on the classic-rock greats.

It was during one such lesson when he was “5 or 6” that Blair had his musical aha moment and was inspired to pick up an ax. His dad had tuned in to a PBS rerun of the classic 1970 concert film Woodstock – just in time for the Who’s blistering set. 

“Pete Townshend was wearing the white jumpsuit. He had the SG Special… I was just gobsmacked,” recalls Blair. “He looked like a superhero! He’s jumping, then he breaks the guitar. I knew that’s what I wanted to do.” 

By the age of nine he was banging around on an old acoustic guitar with “action so high you could put a finger between the strings and the frets.” But it wasn’t until he scored a Silvertone-style electric, and later his very own Gibson SG, that things started to fall into place.

We were young, and all the major labels wanted a Green Day or an Offspring. And we were trying to rip off the Descendants

At the time Blair had taken a detour from classic rock and blues (styles he would revisit in later years) and was barreling full throttle into heavy metal and hardcore territory – from Minor Threat, Dag Nasty and Bad Religion to Metallica, Possessed, Death and more.

Blair’s brother, Doni, was also a budding musician (he would go on to play bass in Toadies), and in the early '90s the pair formed the alt-punk outfit Hagfish. When the band inked a deal, Blair promptly dropped out of high school and hit the road.

“We were young, and all the major labels wanted a Green Day or an Offspring,” he says. “And we were trying to rip off the Descendants.” [Laughs] In 1999, after a whirlwind run and several albums, Hagfish called it quits. Blair returned to Texas and started looking for his next project. Through a series of unexpected events, he found himself auditioning for Virginia shock-metal punks GWAR.

Rise Against

(Image credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for iHeartMedia)

To his surprise, he landed the gig – and for the next few years Blair assumed the role of lead guitarist Flattus Maximus.

“The guy I replaced, Pete Lee, was a fucking wiz,” Blair says. “He can double-pick so fast, it’s like a hummingbird wings… The music was difficult and out of my wheelhouse. And then I’m doing it with a 60-pound costume… and a prosthetic mask. [Laughs]  I can honestly say that was the best bootcamp training… I was ready for anything after that.”

Blair’s next big “anything” moment arrived in 2007, when he joined Rise Against. That kicked off the fruitful guitar partnership between McIlrath and Blair that has resulted in a string of hit albums: Appeal to Reason (2008), Endgame (2011), The Black Market (2014) and Wolves (2017).

If Nowhere Generation’s title track is any indication – the lead single cracked the Top 10 on Billboard’s Hot Hard Rock Songs chart – the album is primed to be their next triumph. The record may be arriving in a very different-looking world than previous Rise Against efforts, and McIlrath may be writing from a new lyrical perspective. But one thing hasn’t changed: the dynamic, and respect, between the two guitarists. 

“I love the way Tim plays guitar,” Blair says. “He has such a signature sound and style that our producer Bill Stevenson calls ‘Tim’s blues.’ If you show Tim a thing, he’s going to nail the way you’re showing him. But because he’s such a great songwriter, he’s immediately going to start thinking of something really cool that accentuates and complements your original idea. He can’t stop writing. He can’t stop creating. Music falls out of the guy.”

“Zach is a born lead guitar player,” McIlrath adds of his partner. “Not that he can’t do rhythm because certainly he’s great at rhythm. He’s like a really proficient guitar player.”

When it comes to Rise Against lead breaks, Blair is all about serving up something “tasteful.” He’s a fan of the shredding styles of Michael Schenker (“He’s the greatest!”) and Eddie Van Halen (“I use the Phase 90 because of Eddie”).

But Rise Against requires a more restrained approach, and for that he finds inspiration in the solos of Brian Baker of Bad Religion/Dag Nasty/Minor Threat fame. “Brian is an astounding guitar player,” he says. “He can shred, but he was always so tasteful in his lead choices and he always played for the song.”

He also credits Baker and his double-picked, galloping rhythm work with “bringing a lot of metal styling to punk-rock guitar” – a technique Blair puts to good use in Rise Against. As examples, he points to two of his favorite Nowhere Generation tracks: Monarch and Sudden Urge

Monarch is almost metal in its approach,” he says. “You’re palm-muting a lot and [playing] very fast. Sudden Urge is one of my favorite tracks because it’s just a heavy drop-D riff that I’m happy that our band can pull off under the umbrella of still being called a punk-rock band.” McIlrath also picks the clobbering detuned section in Sudden Urge” as a standout guitar moment on the new album.

“I love the drop-D riffs,” he exclaims. “That goes back to growing up on Quicksand and Helmet and guitarists with that drop string [who are] having some fun with it.” McIlrath loves a good breakdown, but he also admits he’s not one to dwell on technique. In fact, he says one of his greatest “strengths as a guitar player is knowing when not to play anything at all, knowing when it’s too much.”

McIlrath is all about serving the song, which brings our discussion back to two of his core influences: Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto.

“They were the biggest guitar players in my world,” he says. “I love their style. When I try and play guitar, if I’m emulating anybody it’s that vibe. I love the way Fugazi makes me feel. When I’m writing a Rise Against song, I always want to create that kind of feel.” 

Rise Against are a study in balance. McIlrath and Blair share some fundamental punk and hardcore inspirations, but each brings a distinct musical perspective to the collaboration.

I love the way Fugazi makes me feel. When I’m writing a Rise Against song, I always want to create that kind of feel

Their similarities and differences are also reflected in their pandemic activities – McIlrath took college classes in political science and philosophy; Blair completed Berklee College of Music’s advanced blues program – and their approach to gear. 

Blair’s arsenal contains upwards of 50 vintage and modern guitars: Gibson Les Pauls (often outfitted with EverTune bridges, Seymour Duncan JB pickups and Ernie Ball Strings), Fenders (Jim Root Tele, Tim Armstrong 12-string), Nash (Strat and Jazzmaster styles), Dan Armstrong (1969 Lucite) and Martin acoustics, to name just a few.

But his prized electric is his 1976 SG, which he says, “was one of two guitars I had to my name when I joined Rise Against and I used it at my very first show with them.” 

Blair also owns a host of Marshalls (JCM900, 800, Jubilee, JMP50), Peaveys (5150, 6505), Fenders (Hot Rod DeVille) and a whole lot more. McIlrath says he’s never been a collector, and his criteria when it comes to guitars  is exceedingly practical: “Is it playable and can I write a song on it?”

He’s also a Gibson/Marshall/Martin guy like Blair and says he typically gets a couple of new guitars for each album: one to record and one for the road. But the Nowhere Generation album cycle has looked a little different. This is partly because the pandemic has delayed touring [They’re on the road right now, by the way].

But mostly, it’s due to his rekindled love affair with his “first real guitar”: the 1984 Gibson SG he played all those years ago in his parents’ basement. “I just pulled it out of  storage since the pandemic,” he says. After a tune-up at his local store, Chicago Music Exchange – and a surprise gift from Blair – the SG is now sounding, and playing, better than ever.

“For my birthday Zach got me these custom Seymour Duncan pickups,” says McIlrath. “He made them listen to a bunch of our songs and my guitar playing and had them custom make these pickups based on our tones. I was like, holy shit, this is a really cool gift.” The updated SG paired with his Marshall JCM900 – the same style of amp he started out with – has McIlrath super pumped to take Nowhere Generation’s songs on the road once the pandemic restrictions lift.

“I am playing the rig that I did when I was 13!” He laughs. “I’m always trying to get back to that – when guitar playing and songwriting is so pure and innocent... That’s when good things happen.

“Otherwise, you’re overthinking things,” McIlrath continues, “Like, should I write a song that’s going to be big on the radio? Should I write a song that’s going to be a throwback to our roots? Should I write a song that’s pretending I’m someone that I’m not?  Should I write a dance hit? [Laughs] Those are none of the things you thought about when you first picked up a guitar and started to play. And that’s what you have to get back to.”