Originally published in Guitar World, September 2010
He's got chops, style and—on Avenged Sevenfold's tour for their latest album, Nightmare—plenty of pyro. Synyster Gates shows why he's one of the hotshots on our list of 30 coolest guitarists.
Nowadays, the metal world is jam packed with young guitarists who can tap, sweep and shred with dizzying dexterity. But you’d be hard pressed to find one who can do it all with as much skill and style as Avenged Sevenfold’s Synyster Gates. Though thoroughly modern in his approach to his instrument, the flashy and colorful Gates (born Brian Haner, Jr.) is also something of a throwback to an era when guitar icons were celebrated for not only what they played but also how they looked when playing it. “It’s very important to focus on the music first,” the 29-year-old guitarist acknowledges. “That’s always number one. But after that, it’s extremely important to just have fun with what you’re doing.”
Gates and Avenged Sevenfold’s adherence to the last part of this statement has helped to make the group one of the most successful acts in metal—as well as one of the most divisive when it comes to metalheads. But while the band has weathered its fair share of criticism for mining a sound and look viewed by some as excessive and flamboyant, Avenged Sevenfold are arguably one of the most exciting acts on the metal landscape. Certainly, their guitar credentials are unassailable: Gates and co-axman Zacky Vengeance form an airtight rhythm tandem, and as a lead player, Gates exhibits a technical grasp on his instrument that is seemingly a step beyond most of his metal contemporaries.
Which, given his background, is not surprising. The son of a session guitarist father who has worked with everyone from Frank Zappa to Tower of Power, Gates as a teenager attended GIT, where he studied jazz and fusion styles. While he cut his guitar teeth on metal, he is also heavily influenced by such jazz and fusion giants as Joe Pass, Frank Gambale, Robben Ford, Allan Holdsworth and, in particular, Barney Kessel. “When I was 18 and just a complete dickhead and wanting to play shit way over everybody’s head, Kessel was my guy,” he says.
Though Gates originally planned to follow in his father’s footsteps and make his name as a session ace, in 1999 he joined up with the then-fledgling Avenged Sevenfold, whose drummer, Jimmy Sullivan (a.k.a. The Rev), he had previously collaborated with in a side band. “I wouldn’t be one-third of the player I am today if it wasn’t for Avenged,” he says. “They’re an inspiring group of guys, and I’m constantly challenged to write things beyond my ability and then figure out how to play them.”
On Nightmare, Avenged Sevenfold’s fifth and newest full-length (and first since the Rev’s death, at the age of 28, this past December), Gates pulls from an ever-widening bag of tricks. Songs like the title track and “Welcome to the Family” feature the type of blistering, precision shredding that is the guitarist’s stock in trade, though there are also some less characteristic moments, such as the smooth, singing leads on the ballad “So Far Away” and what he describes as the “dirty slide guitar” lines on “Tonight the World Dies.” “I do some cool call-and-response stuff with Matt [singer M. Shadows] on that one,” Gates says. “I don’t really play a lot of slide in general, but it was fun getting into that style and exploring it.”
By his own assessment, Gates says that it his facility at playing what the song requires that is key to his success as a guitarist. “In a studio situation, I’m able to dig deep and come up with stuff that all the guys think fits the vibe of the song,” he says. “And I think that’s partly due to the fact that I grew up listening to just about everything under the sun. I’m very open to music, and I like to do things in a traditional and musical way. For example, if I’m soloing on a ballad, I don’t want to play fast; I want to play slow and melodic. Or on a song like ‘Dear God’ [from 2007’s Avenged Sevenfold], which has a country-ish vibe, I don’t want to play like myself—I want to play like a country guy. I always try to fit the song to the best of my ability.”
That said, at times Gates’ playing, and his band’s music in general, has threatened to be overshadowed by the group’s over-the-top look. “We were always image conscious and interested in putting on a show,” Gates says unapologetically, while also noting that in recent years their appearances have been somewhat toned down. “I cringe at some of the shit I used to wear three or four years ago,” he says, with a laugh. “The crazy mascara, some of the clothes—I looked like, I don’t know, a buff Tonto or something. But as you get older you become more fearless and confident, and you find your own style.”
Asked to cite examples of guitarists who mine that perfect combination of style and substance, Gates points to players like Slash and Joe Perry, with whom he shares the cover of this issue of Guitar World. “Joe has never written a bad solo, in my opinion,” he says. “He’s a brilliant player, and he looks good doing it. And when I was growing up, Slash was the guy, for sure. The hat, the guitar, the ‘November Rain’ video where he’s standing on the piano ripping that solo—he’s the whole package. And I still consider him the best melodic player of all time.”
In Gates’ opinion, it is melody above all else that is key to a good guitar solo. “That’s the number-one thing,” he says. “Even if it’s fast, it’s gotta be tasteful. You want to blow kids’ minds, but you also want what you’re playing to sound good to their ears.”
Avenged Sevenfold are currently gearing up to blow minds on this summer’s inaugural Rockstar Uproar tour, which they’re coheadlining with Disturbed. Though he’s hesitant to give away any specific details about their stage show, Gates assures that, in true Avenged Sevenfold style, their set will be a spectacle. “All I can say is it’s just fucking nutty. It’s like a completely different world. There’s a lot of fire. There’s a lot of staging. It’s gonna horrify parents, and kids are gonna fucking love it.” He laughs. “I always hate it when people say, ‘This has never been done before,’ but I’ve been searching around online, and so far I haven’t seen any other band that’s done some of this shit.”