Dear Guitar Hero: Adam Jones of Tool Talks Tone, Gear, Videos, the Band's Anonymity, Time Between Albums and More

FROM THE GW ARCHIVE: His progressive metal group is one of the most artistically innovative and critically acclaimed acts in music today. But what Guitar World readers really want to know is…

Are you a self-taught guitarist? What did you do in your formative years as a player to reach the level you are at today? — Dominick Ruggeri, Saranac, NY

I’m a self-taught guitarist, but I have a classical music background. I started playing violin very young with a Suzuki program [a method of teaching music through a nurturing environment]. I had this really awesome teacher that taught me to read treble and bass clef. Then when I got to high school I played standup bass in the orchestra.

As long as I can remember, growing up we had a guitar around our house, and I was always plucking on it. My dad and brother both play, and my brother would show me how to bite the pick [play pinch harmonics] like Billy Gibbons. Also, when I was younger I was in a band with Tom Morello. When I first met Tom, he sucked. [laughs] He was such a bad guitar player. I wasn’t that good, but I do remember showing him stuff. He got so good so quick. Then it turned around to where he was showing me stuff. Now he can bury me. [laughs] He’s awesome.

You have a very distinctive tone. What are the main components of your sound? — Blas

I think it’s all about knowing what you want. It’s about picking up a guitar and saying, “This is the guitar I’m going to play. I’m not gonna use just any guitar; I’m playing this guitar. And these are the strings and the specific pickup I’m going to use.” I use a multi-amp setup because I don’t believe there’s one amp that has the perfect sound.

I think it’s about chemistry. It’s like ingredients in a cake. If there’s no icing, it’s gonna seem dry. So I’ve always played with two or three amps: one for high end, one that’s good with midrange and one that kicks in with the low; or I use one that’s got that good solid-state Metallica crunch and one that’s got that warm Marshall tube sound.

Right now, for my live setup I’m using two Diezel heads and an old vintage Marshall bass amp that’s been hot rodded. The good thing about the solid-state stuff is if you know what you like, you can go to any store and buy exactly that. But with the tube stuff, you gotta find the amp and hold onto it. I’ve never heard two Marshalls that sound the same, especially with the vintage stuff. I also have a solidstate speaker that I use just for the Talk Box. As you can tell, there’s a lot of experimenting that goes on.

I hear a definite shift between Opiate and Undertow’s straightforward, grungy/thrash metal and Lateralus and 10,000 Days’ more experimental, progressive and exotic metal. What specific experiences have helped shape Tool’s current sound? — Simon Northall

When we released Opiate, we had already written a lot of the songs on Undertow. We talked about how we wanted to represent ourselves and we thought we would get more attention if we put the harder songs out first. But what happened was the opposite: Opiate didn’t do nearly as well as Undertow. When Undertow came out and “Sober” hit, it was such a huge thing for us. But ultimately, I’m glad we waited and did it the way we did.

I think from album to album it’s all about playing from the heart. It’s not about worrying—like saying that “Sober” was really big, so on our next album we should write another song like “Sober.” We didn’t worry about that. We just got together in a room and explored new paths and tried different things. With Tool it’s always a weird and experimental process.

Why does it take Tool so long to put out records? — Thomas Bjorn

We do a record, we tour on it for a couple years, and then we take time off. Usually about a year later, one of us calls the others and says, “Hey, we should get together and start writing.” So we get together and start writing and rehearsing. It usually works out that it’s four or five years between records. I’m sure the record company would like us to put out a record a year, but… [laughs] We follow our own schedule.

In the time between records, I always have lots of stuff going on. I shoot photography, make little sculptures, play video games…[laughs] I’ll sit in front of the TV with my guitar, watch two movies back to back and play guitar the whole time. I definitely don’t have any strict practice schedule. I just make sure I have “me” time each day to do something creative.

Your work on songs such as “Stinkfist” and “Lateralus” features complex, difficult rhythm patterns. Were their specific exercises you practiced to play them with such precision? — Stephen Metas

Everyone in the group has a math rock or prog-rock influence, and we find it very exciting to challenge ourselves. But I have to say that drumming has been a very big influence on me. When I wrote the main riff in “Aenima,” Dan went, “Oh, that’s three on four. Do you know three on four?” And I was like, “No.” Then he showed me this thing called Pass the Goddamn Butter, which I’ve talked about in Guitar World before. It’s this polyrhythmic thing when one hand is playing in three and one hand is playing four.

My nephew is also a drummer, and he just showed me this great thing where you’re playing triplets with one hand and the other hand is playing straight. I’m also trying to work on some Warr guitar and I recently got a couple lessons from [ex–King Crimson guitarist] Trey Gunn. He showed me some finger exercises, because my right hand sucks for fingering. I just don’t have the dexterity. So I’ve been practicing a technique he calls “the Claw.”

You’ve cultivated your anonymity throughout your career with Tool. Has this ever worked to your disadvantage? — Glenn Kingston

Now those are some 10-dollar words. [laughs] I think I know what you mean, though. From day one we went with a record label called Zoo. They weren’t as big and the offer wasn’t as good as other major record companies were offering, but we went with Zoo because they seemed really visionary in their support of artists. I mean, come on, they had Green Jello, and they’re completely nuts! Plus, Zoo’s operation was all under one roof, so there was no, “Hey, what’s going on with marketing? Let’s call them in New York or in Canada or wherever.” You didn’t have to chase anybody around.

As far as anonymity, from the start we wanted to push the music. That idea came from our influences, like Pink Floyd’s The Wall. You bought that record and you never saw the band on there. All the propaganda from the continuous story contained in its artwork had such a heavy impact on us. When you don’t know what the band looks like, it puts the emphasis on thinking and taking the music and message more seriously.

We butted heads with Zoo a little when they said, “You have to be in your video.” So we ended up actually appearing in our first video, “Hush.” For that video, we had a budget of five grand, which is nothing. [laughs] We did this political message thing because at the time the whole Jello Biafra and Tipper Gore shit was rising. [In 1986, following up on a complaint registered by the Gore-led Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), the Los Angeles district attorney’s office brought Biafra, then lead singer for the Dead Kennedys, to trial over an allegedly obscene poster distributed with the group’s album Frankenchrist.] We’re not a very political band, but we had to figure out something to do in only one day. [laughs]

The packaging for 10,000 Days is so cool. Whose idea was it and what inspired it? — Paul Swanson

Each time we’ve put out a record, we’ve signed our souls away with the contract. Basically, the record company is like a bank, and they give you some money and you try and make your project. What we do is start with the music: we write a song, and that song has a feeling. Then we write 10 more songs, and each one of those has a different feeling or color. And then, collectively, all those songs have yet another feeling or emotion to them. So that base is where the influence and inspiration for the artwork comes from.

We always wait until we’re done with the music before we move on to what propaganda we’re going to use to work the album. As far as 10,000 Days, I’ve loved stereoscopic photos and 3-D movies since I was very young. When I was in high school, I got a Yashica camera with a 3-D stereoscopic mount and started taking pictures. When we do records, we always try to do something that’s not been done before.

We like to take our budget—the money from the record company—and stretch it as far as we can, even though the record company is like, “What? You don’t spend that much on packaging!” [laughs] That’s what I would want. I would want a band I like to really put it out there, like The Wall.

I like to give you more than your money’s worth and create something really collectible. I had a really great team working on it. The photos were taken by Travis Shinn, Alex Gray did the art, Mackie Osbourne did the layout design and Ray Zone was the 3-D consultant. It was hard work and I definitely lost sleep putting it together, but 10,000 Days is my favorite record and album packaging thus far.

I read that you’re responsible for creating Tool’s killer videos. I’m wondering why there haven’t been any to support 10,000 Days. — Carl Brookes

There are, we just haven’t finished them yet. We ran into a really big snag because the first video is all CGI [computer-generated imaging] and we had some vicious production problems. The company we started with kinda screwed us, but luckily my friend’s company is bailing us out. Since he’s helping us, they can only work on it when their schedule is clear. But it’s gonna be great. When I go home, practically all my time is spent on it.

I thought the CGI process would be a lot easier than physically filming something, which is what we’ve always done in the past. But it’s actually a lot harder to get action down and get it moving and looking right. Plus, you can say, “The character has 15 eye lashes. Can he have 16?” You can get super picky. So at some point you have to shoot for 100 percent and try to get 70. We’re also doing pre-production on the second video, which will be all stop-motion.

You and the rest of Tool seem to have a fixation with occult imagery. I read that Danny sets up his drums in accordance with sacred geometry [geometry used for the design of sacred art and architecture]. Does sacred geometry have any effect on how you live your daily life or how you write music? — Paddy Johnston

Yeah, but labeling it “occult imagery” is sort of a knee-jerk reaction. I don’t look at it as an occult thing. To me, sacred geometry is basically the study of existence, be it physical, spiritual or metaphysical. But to answer your question, yeah, the consideration of these things really connected the group when we first met. We were all searching for ideas, instead of just pinning down one idea and calling it the absolute answer. What we do is more like searching for facts where no facts can exist.

You can take anything and break it down to its simplest form. I think that’s what really drives our band. You can break something down and communicate it with a shape, color or vibration. Communication doesn’t stop at talking or sign language. There are different ways to get ideas across. That’s why the art is very important to this band. It sounds kind of pretentious when I talk about it. [laughs] But if you talk to us, everyone in our band has this completely dry sense of humor where we totally rip on everything. It’s like you get this together with three good friends. You have inside jokes that no one else understands. Tool definitely have those jokes.

Do you use any synth pedals for the guitar effects, or are they mixed in separately? — Robert Perry

Yeah. I use an Access Virus B that I have hooked up to a Moog Taurus [bass pedal synthesizer]…it’s basically an octave of pedals. I use the Taurus to trigger stuff while we’re playing. Sometimes I’ll play an underlying bass part to give a song more low end and a greater emotional boost.

Ever thought about taking your video directing to another level and putting out a movie? — Jerm the Worm

Yeah, we’ve talked about it. We had shot a bunch of live concert footage and were going to put out a DVD, but it turned out to not sit very well with our band. We were like, What can we do that’s more epic than just a live DVD? I think we’re just going to keep shooting stuff, and when we’re ready, we’ll put something out. Of course, we’d like to do something really epic, like the movie version of The Wall, but movie deals are really tough.

Here’s a hilarious example: [director] John Carpenter was putting out Escape from L.A. and they wanted an original Tool song. We said, “Well, you’re not getting an original, but maybe we’ll give you an older one.” But then we realized John Carpenter is a musician. So we were like, “Wait, let’s do a song with John Carpenter!” [laughs] The last thing we heard was the studio wanted half the rights to the song, our record company wanted the other half and John Carpenter’s people wanted the other half. [laughs] So we were like, “Ah, fuck it!” and gave them an older tune. Basically, there’s a lot of red tape in trying to get a movie made. But if we can—or if there’s anyone out there that wants to facilitate a Tool movie—I’m totally open to it.

What song do you feel has been your greatest accomplishment as a guitarist? — Joel Farris

That’s hard to answer. There are so many songs I’ve challenged myself on—songs that I can sleep well at night thinking, Yeah, I took that as far as I could. I think “Wings,” from 10,000 Days, turned out amazing. There’s also a song called “Rosetta Stoned” that’s a really great tune.

I love the lead in that one. Evil Joe Baressi brought in this thing called a pipe-bomb mic. It’s a one-inch diameter tube of brass with one old pickup in it. It’s capped at each end and really looks like a pipe bomb. [laughs] He just threw it in the room when we I recorded the lead for “Rosetta Stoned,” and it sounded amazing. That’s what you hear on the record, just one pipe-bomb mic with one amp.

Much of your music is trancelike, yet it must take enormous amounts of concentration to perform. Are you at a place where you can flow with it, or do you have to really focus? — Tom Brein

It is a hypnotic process, but I definitely have to focus—although there are times when we get into a routine and I start thinking about my laundry. [laughs] My mind might wander sometimes, but it’s always fun. I’m living the biggest dream ever. I get to play my own music—that I like and I’m a fan of—in front of people and have it be reflected. They can see and hear what I’m doing, and I see and hear what they’re getting out of it.

Justin Chancellor’s bass parts interlock with your guitar parts in an incredibly complex way. Do you compose his parts? — Borntorock1124

Oh, absolutely not. The chemistry between Justin and me is so good for composing music. Justin is an excellent musician and can play guitar too. That’s what we liked about him at first: he can play his bass like a guitar, but when he needs to sound more supportive, he can do that, too. I’m the same way. Sometimes I play bass parts on my guitar while he’s taking the lead melodic stuff. Everyone in Tool writes equally; everyone holds their own. A typical Tool writing day is when people bring in riffs and we all tear them apart. [laughs]

Tool fans are a different breed. What’s the strangest experience you’ve had on tour? — Rich Greczi

We’ve had some stalkers. We had this one guy who was sending each of us daily emails saying, “I’m going to kill you,” and “Maynard Is God,” just real crazy stuff. But at some point we actually got scared, because it was getting out of control. So we hired this ex-F.B.I. internet guy to track him down, but he couldn’t find him.

So my wife and Chris Graves, who was working on our web site at the time, trapped him. They sent him an email saying, “Because of your participation in sending so many emails, you’ve won free tickets to the next Tool show. We appreciate your loyalty.” When he came down to pick them up, the cops nailed him. His pockets were full of little green army men, and he was saying, “Maynard has been breaking into my house and rearranging my refrigerator magnet letters!” [laughs] He was obviously schizophrenic.

Do you think your work on film has influenced the way your music builds like a dramatic movie? — Patrick Baker

Absolutely. That’s one thing that is a big influence to everyone in the band. I think the art of film is very important—how you can toy with emotion, and the power of the right actor in the right costume, makeup and set, and the way it’s captured and edited…all that. We’re actually surprised that no one’s come to us asking if we’d do a soundtrack to a movie.

What kind of strings and picks do you use? — Burl Smith

For strings, I use the equivalent of the GHS Boomers; I think they’re the Ernie Ball skinny top, heavy bottom strings. As far as picks, I use the gray nylon Jim Dunlop .88 and .72. They aren’t too heavy, and they have a little bit of give, which I think you need sometimes to get percussive stuff in your attack. They also allow me to bite into the strings better.

I remember hearing about a project you were working on with Robert Fripp. What’s that project’s status? When will we be able to hear it? — Kent

Fripp and I did three days of recording, but we put that on hold until we both have time to finish it up. It’s all recorded, we’re just gonna start playing with drums and arrangements. We’ve got some really cool and weird stuff, and I’m hoping to put it out as soon as possible. But he’s a giant, a total legend. He’s one of my biggest heroes, and I want to make sure that I’m being respectful.

Brad Angle Google +

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Brad Angle

Brad is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor and video producer. He is the former content director of Revolver magazine and executive editor of Guitar World. His work has appeared in Vice, Guitar Aficionado, Inked and more. He’s also a die-hard Les Paul player who wishes he never sold his 1987 Marshall Silver Jubilee half stack.