Featured Artist: Mick Thomson of Slipknot
by Lisa Sharken
In the late ’90s, Slipknot emerged from Des Moines, Iowa and literally changed the face of metal with its masked nine-man lineup and extreme style. Comprised of some of the best musicians around, the group can also put on a theatrical show that few can rival.
The group has been working steadily for the last decade, with some members finding time to work on other projects between Slipknot’s tours and albums. Now, after a marathon two and a half years of nonstop touring and recording, the group took a long break, giving band members a chance to rest, recharge, and prepare for another full-on audio and visual assault of Slipknot.
Guitarist Mick Thomson, known to fans as “7,” recently had the opportunity to try out Duncan’s AHB-1 Blackouts pickups and was definitely intrigued by what he heard. A self-professed gearhead, Thomson is always in search of a better sound, and after replacing his pickups with Blackouts, his guitars now breathe invincible fire. He’s inspired and eager to get back to work. Thomson spoke with GroundWire about getting back into the groove with Slipknot and
rediscovering his love for playing guitar.
In what ways have your playing style and musical interests evolved?
Stylistically, I’ve had my voice for a long time. I do enjoy playing and listening to other styles of music besides metal, but I’m not suddenly turning into
an acoustic rock player like James Taylor. It would be too strange. But then who doesn’t grow up as a kid strumming simple open-chord changes on an acoustic? Music is everything–a variety of many styles. I don’t see why you wouldn’t want to learn to play anything from classical to jazz or blues. To me, having a very wide range of tastes for listening and playing stuff like that is important. You don’t have to get super serious, but you should be educated. I think you’re doing yourself a disservice when you limit your interests. So I listen to a lot of different stuff. I’m sure that if somebody pulled up next to me at a stop light and heard what was coming out of my car, they might not believe it was me. It’s a big scary guy with Ben Harper playing on his stereo! But great music is great music, and being influenced by another style can be very inspiring. Corey [Taylor, Slipknot's lead vocalist] recently got me into Ray LaMontagne, who is mostly mellow–probably not the type of music you would assume that any of us would listen to. I’ll not be writing stuff that sounds remotely like what he does, but it’s inspiring. I hear that and then I want to create my own stuff that sounds like me. Till The Sun Turns Black is my favorite record of his. Influences shouldn’t make you sound like them. Influences should get you fired up and just keep your passion up.
Describe your introduction to Seymour Duncan pickups and your first
impression of Blackouts.
I think the first time I ever played Seymour Duncans, I was 12 years old. A kid I went to junior high school with had a Kramer® guitar with Duncan pickups, and it sounded infinitely better than whatever stock pickups were in the Hondo® guitar I had at the time. It certainly had a bigger and better sound. I’ve always liked the sound of a passive pickup, but when it comes to doing what I do, the bottom end washes out too easily and it isn’t tight. I love the upper harmonics and the richness of passive pickups, but with high gain at really high speeds, you can lose articulation sometimes, and that’s why I always liked active
pickups for what I do. They allow each note to be heard a little better,
so you can hear all those notes in fast runs.
I was very pleased after I installed the Blackouts in a couple of guitars, played them in different tunings, and with different string gauges. I thought they sounded good. There really weren’t any other options before Blackouts in terms of pickups that held up to my expectations of a pickup. What I think is cool about Blackouts is that they manage to balance all the best properties of the active pickups that I’d always used, but there was more of the harmonic
richness that I was getting from a passive pickup. In the past, I never recorded any of my leads with active pickups because they just didn’t have the tone I needed. For metal rhythm stuff, it was great, but I would always go to passive pickups for solos, like I did on the last record. Most of the solos were played on the neck pickup. What’s cool is that with Blackouts, I don’t have to switch. I can record with the same guitar and the same pickups the whole time, and not have to be switching things around. And live, I don’t have to be compromising the sounds that I got on the record.
Are all of your guitars set up the same or are some set up for a certain feel or tone?
The guitars that I play are all custom-built by Ibanez® and use the same
combination of a mahogany neck, mahogany body, neck-through construction, 24 frets, reverse headstock, and fixed bridge. That combination of woods really works the best for the music I play and matches well with the low tuning. It’s not too boomy on the bottom, and it’s got a nice midrange which projects, so you can hear the notes really well.
Typically, I’m tuned to C# with a dropped B, but all of the songs on the Iowa record were B with a dropped A. It’s just a standard dropped-D tuning, but with all strings dropped down really low.
I’m using D’Addario® strings–.011, .015, .018, .028, .038, .058. At home, I absolutely have a lot of them set up differently. Everything I have on the road that I’m going to play onstage is going to be extremely close in spec. Sometimes a certain neck will move a little more than another, especially when you’re exposed to conditions that we play in. Many times it’s fairly wet, and that’s not very good for the wood, the fingerboard, or all of the glue joints. They get a little variance. I keep my action as low as it can go without any buzz. But once you add in the extra adrenaline I have when I’m playing live, I have to raise it up a little. I dig in a lot and I don’t want my strings bouncing off the edge of the pickup and my 24th fret. I keep my pickups super close to the strings. Pickup height is very important, and I think that’s one thing that people really overlook. With Blackouts, you can get them right underneath the strings.
On most of your guitars, do you have both pickups set at the same height and angled the same on the treble and bass sides?
I do on the bridge pickup. On the neck pickup, I keep the bass side further away from the strings, just because the bass strings are naturally louder. But every guitar is different. You’ve got to fine-tune it by ear. You know what you like and don’t like, so experiment with it. Get a baseline and start adjusting things to see where it takes you. Sometimes it gets way out of line and you need to reset it back to what stock would have been, then start over. But every guitar is going to be different, so you have to set up each guitar based on how that guitar naturally sounds. I’m a total advocate of tweaking each guitar individually and knowing what you like. If you set something up in standard normal fashion, you’re not necessarily going to get the most out of that guitar.
What type of amplifiers and cabinets are you playing through?
I’ve got my 120-watt Rivera KR7 heads that run into Rivera 4×12 cabinets with 100 watt speakers Celestion did for me. They sound amazing.
What are your favorite songs to perform live?
My favorite song would have to be “Eeyore,” which is the hidden track on our first record, just for the speed and the downpicking throughout at such a quick tempo. It’s lots of fun for me to play. I like all of the songs, really, but “Eeyore” really stands out because I get the most fired up when I’m playing it. “Vermilion,” from Vol. 3: The Subliminal Verses, is also cool because I’ve got a lead in it, and there are some cleaner parts where I back off a little bit. I enjoy playing that one a lot, too.
Is there a particular track you recorded that you’re most proud of?
I like “The Nameless,” which is also from Subliminal Verses, because it just changes a lot and it’s all over the place. It’s a lot of fun.
For more information on Mick Thomson and Slipknot, visit the band’s official website at www.slipknot1.com.
Lisa Sharken is Seymour Duncan’s New York-based artist relations consultant.