“My dad didn’t believe in distortion”: Bill Kelliher took us through his unlikely guitar tone journey – while he cooked us lunch

Bill Kelliher
(Image credit: Future)

Mastodon’s resident riff architect Bill Kelliher recently linked up with Guitar World and Mojotone to take us through all things electric guitar, from his tone journey, biggest gear mishaps and favorite instruments – and he did so in the most unlikely place.

Because as well as dishing up his six-string wisdom – and showcasing the brute force of his signature Mojotone Hellbender pickups – Kelliher also demonstrated his favorite sweet potato hash recipe.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the video (aside from the superb culinary skills on display) is Kelliher’s admission that his dad “didn’t believe in distortion”, and that he had to formulate his own round-about rig to harness high-gain tones as a young guitarist.

As an aspiring player, Kelliher was first bought a Starforce Kramer Eddie Van Halen copy and then a Traynor combo amp that didn’t have distortion. Naturally, the then-15-year-old asked his dad for something with a little extra oomph.

His requests were met with opposition – as a hi-fi business owner of 35 years, Kelliher Senior wasn’t too fond of the sound-altering effect.

“I was like, ‘Dad, I need distortion,’” Kelliher recalled. “And my dad being in the hi-fi business told me, ‘Well, Billy, us in the hi-fi business are trying to rid the world of distortion. We want a crisp, clear sound coming out of our speakers and our hi-fi gear. He didn’t believe in distortion.”

So, in order to overcome the tonal setback, Kelliher improvised: “I had to figure out how to get distortion,” he explained. “I had an old Sony receiver that was from the late ‘70s, I had two Advent speakers, a turntable, I had this little MXR EQ… 

“I figured out how to plug my guitar into the EQ, into my tape deck, hold down the Record and Play button – so it was in Record mode, so it would pass the signal, but there wasn’t even a tape in there – press the Pause button and run signal through that.

“I got this crazy distorted sound that wasn't unlike Greg Ginn of Black Flag,” Kelliher continued, “and that was my dude that I was looking up to at the time.

“I don't know how I figured out these things but when you’re a kid and you want something, and you have ambition to get it, you make it happen.”

Kelliher doesn't divulge what his father thought of his round-about distortion setup, but we imagine he would have been rather impressed by his son's electrical ingenuity – if not the tones.

To find out about Kelliher's biggest gear mishaps, his remarkable guitar collection, and, erm, how to make Sweet Potato Hash, watch the full conversation in the video above.

And for more info on his signature Hellbender pickups, hit up Mojotone.

Thank you for reading 5 articles this month**

Join now for unlimited access

US pricing $3.99 per month or $39.00 per year

UK pricing £2.99 per month or £29.00 per year 

Europe pricing €3.49 per month or €34.00 per year

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Prices from £2.99/$3.99/€3.49

Matt Owen

Matt is a Staff Writer, writing for Guitar World, Guitarist and Total Guitar. He has a Masters in the guitar, a degree in history, and has spent the last 16 years playing everything from blues and jazz to indie and pop. When he’s not combining his passion for writing and music during his day job, Matt records for a number of UK-based bands and songwriters as a session musician.