Ruby the Hatchet’s Johnny Scarps: “If a solo doesn’t evoke some sort of emotion within me, I toss it in the trash and start again”

Johnny Scarps
(Image credit: Skylar Watkins)

Along with Lucifer, Witch Mountain and Royal Thunder, Ruby the Hatchet surfaced in the early 2010s with a psychedelic breed of melodic stoner/doom metal that caused heavy-lidded eyes to open and heads to bob. 

A little over a decade later, the southern New Jersey quintet is no longer content to bewitch listeners with trudging, repetitive minor-key power chords and hallucinogenic, effect-laden flourishes. The band’s fourth full-length album, Fear Is a Cruel Master, is trippy for sure, but it’s firmly rooted in classic ’70s and ’80s songwriting and imbued with rhythmic diversity – kinda like Fleetwood Mac on meth with references to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. 

From the galloping, lick-saturated album opener The Change to the melancholy, arpeggio-driven 1000 Years, Ruby the Hatchet prioritize substance over style and are equally happy exploring the indie drone of Black Angels as they are the trudging power chords of Black Sabbath. For guitarist Johnny Scarps, providing the best parts to service the songs is the main goal.

“I’ve been trying to get away from just writing riffs that sound cool and, instead, build the songs around the feel of the vocal melodies, which still leaves me room to experiment with other stuff for solos and intros.”

To evolve as a songwriter, Scarps has drawn influence from various unexpected genres, including classical acoustic guitar music and quirky indie rock.

“I’m interested in mixing different styles together to try to do something different,” he says. “You’d never know it, but Radiohead have become a major influence for me. I love the way they adapt fluidly into new sounds and do simple things that sound complex, different and interesting.”

When Scarps launches into a lead, he locks into the pentatonic scale, chooses his notes carefully and doesn’t overplay.

“I try to be meticulous and find a sweet spot for every one of those notes,” he says. “When I’m doing a solo, if it doesn’t evoke some sort of emotion within me, I toss it in the trash and start again.”

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Jon Wiederhorn

Jon is an author, journalist, and podcaster who recently wrote and hosted the first 12-episode season of the acclaimed Backstaged: The Devil in Metal, an exclusive from Diversion Podcasts/iHeart. He is also the primary author of the popular Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal and the sole author of Raising Hell: Backstage Tales From the Lives of Metal Legends. In addition, he co-wrote I'm the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax (with Scott Ian), Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen (with Al Jourgensen), and My Riot: Agnostic Front, Grit, Guts & Glory (with Roger Miret). Wiederhorn has worked on staff as an associate editor for Rolling Stone, Executive Editor of Guitar Magazine, and senior writer for MTV News. His work has also appeared in Spin, Entertainment Weekly, Yahoo.com, Revolver, Inked, Loudwire.com and other publications and websites.