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Godsmack: Keeping It Simple

Godsmack could very well be one of the most recognizable bands in the music world today. Even if you don't count their multi-platinum album sales, Godsmack's music pops up everywhere from video games to Navy recruitment commercials to movie soundtracks. That presence has emerged once again with the band's latest release IV, which debuted at number one on the Billboard charts.

After taking a few months to wait for American fans to get more familiar with IV, Godsmack is now gearing up for a tour of the U.S. in support of the band's latest and more blues-based record. Guitarist Tony Rombola talked to Ultimate Guitar about Godsmack's new sound, the new tour with Rob Zombie, and how one little lighter was the inspiration behind one of most interesting intros on the new record.

UG: There's a bit more of a bluesy feel on the new album. Was there a different approach to the songwriting, where you intentionally decided to go for a new sound?

Tony: A little bit different, not a whole lot different. Typically we would write a little bit on our own and then Sully, we'd get with him and help him write his songs. But this time he was separate from us writing. So me, Robbie, and Shannon wrote our batch of songs - a good 40 songs - and Sully wrote some on his own. When we got together, he kind of picked which ones he liked out of ours and used them. Like "One Rainy Day" was actually a curveball. I had the music for that and I didn't think he would pick that at all. I was gonna use it for something else, but he ended up liking it and using it. Because that's more like Robin Trower or something, like dark blues. Then the other ones he picked were "Voodoo Too," "Speak," and "Living In Sin." It was a little bit different. It was actually a little bit more separate, this writing process, I feel.

So on previous albums you all worked collectively as a band or were you still only working with Sully part of the time during the writing process?

The other records, usually he would have ideas and he would just get in a room with us and tell us what he thought he heard. It was less of us, really. So the songs that you're hearing that we wrote, we wrote the whole song except the vocals.

There are some really fantastic guitar lines on "One Rainy Day" that almost sound like they could just be improvised blues solos.

You know, most of my stuff is improvised. I sometimes have a general idea, but I always improvise. I play guitar all day long and I just noodle.

On the song "Bleeding Me," is that a slide guitar that you're using?

It sure is. You're probably gonna laugh, but it was an accident really. I've always played slide and dabbled with it. I've always dug the slide. That was Sully's song, "Bleeding Me," and we had been playing it. I had a lighter right next to me and I was just noodling around with the lighter, and I came up with a quick melody for it at the beginning. He's like, "Wow, that's cool!" He got all excited. So I went and grabbed a couple glass slides and started working. We went to do the record and that was it. So it was just me noodling around with a lighter on the couch!

Your songs have been heard on video games, TV commercials, movies, you name it. What do you think it is about a Godsmack song that has drawn so much attention?

I think part of it is that it's high-energy music. You've got the drums wailing, the heavy guitars and a bunch of heavy riffs. And part of it is Sully's signature voice. He's done a bunch of records, so people recognize his voice right away. We try not to clutter things up too much with big changes and everything. We try to keep it simple. I don't know if any of that is the key to it, but that's all of the elements of our style.

It must be flattering that so many people find a connection with your music.

We reach more people in a different way, you know?

How did the Navy commercial come about?

The Navy one, that was management. They called our management and wanted us to do the song. We really didn't plan it. A lot of that stuff is turned into our management and then they present it to us. We give it a thumbs up or thumbs down to it. It was Sully's song that they used, so it was pretty much his decision.

Congratulations on debuting at number one on the Billboard album charts. You've had a lot of success already, but when something like that happens is it still exciting to you?

Definitely. It motivates me. I hear my song on the radio and I still get excited. It feels good to be in a successful band where I can do what I love doing and get paid for it and get to express myself. It's still great. We all get very excited about being number one for a week. For a hard rock band, that's just a tough thing.

Why did the band make the decision to hold off on immediately going on an American tour after the album was released?

That was Sully's idea. What usually happens to us is we come right out with a record and he feels like they can only play the first single and no one knows any of the songs off it. So he thought if we went to Canada and Japan for a few months that the record would get out there and people would get to know it. So when we did come and tour, we could play more of it. It was actually Sully's idea as far as that goes. I don't know if I agree really. I think I would have liked to come out right when the record comes out. I would rather just go and do the American tour right away, but he felt adamant about letting the fans know the music a little bit more.

Let's talk about the new tour with Rob Zombie and Shinedown. Godsmack has been known for its dramatic stage shows, so what can people expect from this tour?

I haven't seen Zombie's set yet because they're going in for the first day, but he always puts on a big show. We're doing what we usually do. We have all the pyro and we have a huge light show like nothing that we've never done before. We have a brand new stage that we're bringing out, too.

What will the stage set look like?

It's a whole new look. We've done it before - we've always done different things. But this is the first one for the American tour, so it's our first run with it. I don't want to give the whole thing away. It's actually fairly clean looking. We have some videos that Sully actually put together for some of the songs. When we're doing "Vampires," he's got some video footage for that stuff. So it's a combination of video, pyro, and a stage set. We're doing probably four or five songs off the new record, too.

How has the overseas leg of the tour been?

That was all good. We went to Canada and we had a great time. We went to Alaska and did two great shows up there. And then we went to Japan and played two festivals. It was a really diverse bill. Steve Vai played right after us. It was awesome! I got to meet him. It was cool to got to tell him that I'm a big fan of his. There was Jeff Beck, Santana, Kiss, Alice In Chains. Plus, Paul Rodgers was there. We got to see a lot of different bands.

You mentioned Alice In Chains was on the bill. There's been a lot written about the influence that the band has had on Godsmack's music.

I know that Sully was a huge fan of Layne Staley. And I've always liked the band a lot. I love Alice In Chains. I think they're a great band. When we started out, when we were looking for a name for the band, they found the name right off of an Alice In Chains record. So I would say they were influential in a way, but musically I think we're a little harder hitting than they were. They were a little more melodic in their songs. They had some heavy stuff, too, but I just thought they were a little more melodic. But I know vocally, Sully really dug Layne Staley. He doesn't sing quite like him, but I know he had an influence on his vocal style.

Did Jerry Cantrell have an influence on your guitar style?

I was in a couple bands when I heard a bunch of his songs, so I imagine somewhat. Sully wrote a lot of the songs on the first few records. I mean, I'd always have two or three songs I'd write on each record, but he's always writing. He has a lot of ideas. So I wouldn't say a whole lot. I'm more of an old-school guy. I was into Jimmy Page, Hendrix, Michael Schenker, Gary Moore, Randy Rhoads. Those are the guys when I was really studying guitar who I was into.

When you did the acoustic record "The Other Side," what was it like making that album in comparison with your regular studio releases?

It was more like a vacation. We were on our way home from Japan and it was a shorter trip if we stopped in Hawaii, so we stopped there and just did a bunch of cover stuff acoustically of our songs. We threw on a few original songs, too. So that was more like a vacation, really. It was easy and it was kind of fun. It wasn't a lot of pressure or anything. It was relatively easy.

There are some bands that think playing the acoustic guitar is much harder than the electric. Do you find that the two are similar or do you find one more challenging than the other?

No, I have always played acoustic. With me, it's just another voice. I don't think it's any harder. I guess for a guitar player, maybe the one that turns the reverb up and needs a lot of overdrive or sustain. Some people use a lot of cover-ups. The acoustic is very naked. You play what you play. But I've always played acoustic my whole life. I have nylon strings, 12-strings, 6-strings of many different kinds. I'm always learning new things. So for me, it was easy.

Do you write most of your songs on the acoustic guitar?

No, I mix it up. A lot of them are on electric, really. But I do play acoustic and I've come up with songs. "Serenity" was one that I actually wrote on electric. To me, it's almost the same thing.

Do you have specific acoustic and electric guitars that you're always drawn to?

The past couple of years, I came across a custom builder and I've been using his guitars for the past probably four years now, three or four years. Now I'm using them exclusively since the Metallica tour a couple years ago. They're called McNaughts. David Thomas McNaught, he's out of the Carolinas. I think he's from South Carolina and he built a great guitar. Ever since I've gotten one of those in my hands, I've been kind of married to that.

You've also used Les Pauls in the past. Have you set those aside?

I don't really play my Les Pauls anymore. Once I started playing these, I just found they played and sounded better. As a bonus, they look better to me. I was just all about them!

What about acoustic guitars?

I had a J-45 Gibson that was always my favorite, but Takamine has a couple more that I like a lot. And live I actually have a double-neck Ovation. I play a little acoustic solo intro for like three minutes, and then I go into a 12-string to play "Serenity." So as far as the function of the guitars that I have, the 12-string that I play live, it actually plays great, sounds great. I have a bunch of different ones. I have a Yahama acoustic that I love. I'm real not married to any.

Do you use certain amps and pedals?

I used to use Mesa Boogie exclusively for years. With this new record, we wanted to change the sound a bit so we actually used a lot of Marshalls. Almost all the solos on that record that you hear is a 1967 Plexi Marshall Tremolo I used with a Zakk Wylde MXR in front of it. I use that tone for most of the solos. Actually, without the MXR was the song "One Rainy Day." We actually had a Diezel Herbert amped in, too, for some of the heavier stuff like the chorus in "Living In Sin." We didn't really use the phaser at all and we were trying to mix it up. We've used it so long; that's been our staple. But we wanted to change it. Live, I've found this amp company called Splawn. It has the voice of a Marshall, but boy, it's the best-sounding Marshall I've ever heard in my life. I'm using that and a Diezel, and I get the fattest sound I've ever had live. Those two and the McNaughts, I just can't believe how good it sounds. I get so excited to play every night just to use my gear!

Have the road crew or fans noticed a difference in the live sound?

Oh, yeah. The road crew, they can't believe how good it sounds. My guitar tech, he's an accomplished player from California and he does session work. He wants a model of these things now. It's like the ultimate Marshall sound that you've ever heard.

Did you experiment with new sounds when you were recording the new album?

I saved those because I have a side project coming out next year that I wrote with Robbie and Shannon. I don't know if you remember Whit Crane from Ugly Kid Joe? He's singing on it and it's a side project called Another Animal. I kind of saved that amp because I wanted a different voice for that record. We used the Splawn exclusively on that record.

Is the music you'll play in Another Animal similar to Godsmack's?

It's all the leftover stuff!

Does it take on a completely different feel with Whit Crane singing?

Yes. It's so good. And it's so great for us as a band, too, because Sully produces and writes a lot of the material. So it gave us a chance to really use our own voice. We produced it ourselves so it gave us a chance to spread our wings a little bit and see what we could do with it. I'm so proud of it.