Volbeat's Michael Poulsen: “I’ve been asked if I want to have any guitar lessons, and I say, ‘No f**king way,’ because it might ruin what I’ve got”

Michael Poulsen
(Image credit: Sergione Infuso/Corbis via Getty Images)

For their new album, Servant Of The Mind, Volbeat have taken their signature metal-meets-psychobilly sound up a notch. 

Penned by Michael Poulsen, the band’s mastermind, frontman and rhythm guitarist, the record was borne out of a short period of relative calm: at home in Denmark with the family during the lockdown necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic – but you wouldn’t guess so from listening to it. 

The riffs are huge, the tones are dark and foreboding, and the riotous pace barely lets up throughout. 

All in all, the writing and recording process took only three months – a creative outburst that surprised even Michael himself. He recalls: “I was even asking myself, how the fuck did you come up with all this in such a short time? But I think being at home – not leaving home or being on a tour bus or playing shows – there was only one thing I could do and that was writing.”

This time around, with American lead guitarist Rob Caggiano stuck on the other side of the Atlantic, most of what you hear on the record is Poulsen, whose trademark heavy riffs and energetic playing are very much the beating heart of the album.

“I always had a signature guitar sound when it comes to Volbeat,” he says. “You can pretty much hear that it’s my guitar on the record, and on this one I recorded all the guitars.” He laughs: “The only thing I didn’t record was the solos because I’m pretty terrible at that, and we have a really good guitar player in Rob and he’s a lead guitar player.”

Not knowing how long the pandemic would last, Michael decided not to wait on Caggiano before heading into the studio with drummer John Larsen and bassist Kaspar Boye Larsen: “We just wanted to get to work,” Michael explains, “and Rob was fine with that because it was just how the situation was. So we just sent over the tracks and he put down the solos, and I actually think that’s some of his best solos ever.” 

Although this way of working might seem inconvenient, it actually proved refreshing for Michael not to spend such long periods of time in the studio as they did when making 2019’s Rewind, Replay, Rebound

He reflects: “The thing is, Rob is a perfectionist, and I don’t believe in perfection – I think it’s kind of boring. I like to get stuff done quickly so it still has a soul and a spirit and an energy. But there’s certain other people who can be in the studio forever and Rob is one of those guys.” 

Michael’s musical personality is stamped all over his playing. He notes: “I definitely have a signature rhythm guitar sound. A lot of people, mostly beginners, think that you have to have the right amp, you have to have the right guitar and that’s only correct in a small way of looking at it.” 

Although he has favoured a Marshall JCM800 and a Gibson SG GT with Seymour Duncan pickups for many years, Michael has never been overly-picky with gear.

“The guitar has always been important for me,” he says, “but if the truck with all my guitars was going into a river and I suddenly had to play another guitar for a couple of shows, I would be okay! It’s not like I would be jumping in the river to save the guitars. I would just pick up whatever is available until I get my Gibson back.”

I remember when Rob Caggiano first stepped into the band and I was going to teach him some of the Volbeat songs and he said, 'What the fuck are you doing? How do you do that?'

Years of experience have taught him a thing or two about where a recognisable guitar sound really comes from: “The signature sound is in how you play the guitar. I’m not really technically skilled. You know, when you look at blues guitar players, half of the time their guitars are not even in tune, but they know how to catch the strings so it sounds right and that brings the signature out of them.”

Likewise, much of the magic in his rhythm playing comes from the little idiosyncrasies of being self-taught. Describing one of the quirks in his technique, he explains: “There’s a way where I’m picking my strings, where normally you would pick down and I pick up, in between some of the riffing. 

“I remember when Rob first stepped into the band and I was going to teach him some of the Volbeat songs and he said, ‘What the fuck are you doing? How do you do that? You’re not supposed to go up on the strings!’”

He laughs again: “I’ve even been asked if I want to have any lessons in playing the guitar, and I say, ‘No fucking way’, because it might ruin what I’ve got.”

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Ellie Rogers

Since graduating university with a degree in English, Ellie has spent the last decade working in a variety of media, marketing and live events roles. As well as being a regular contributor to Total Guitar, MusicRadar and GuitarWorld.com, she currently heads up the marketing team of a mid-scale venue in the south-west of England. She started dabbling with guitars around the age of seven and has been borderline obsessed ever since. She has a particular fascination with alternate tunings, is forever hunting for the perfect slide for the smaller-handed guitarist, and derives a sadistic pleasure from bothering her drummer mates with a preference for “f**king wonky” time signatures.