Ray Toro of My Chemical Romance
Groundwire January 2007
Featured Artist: Ray Toro of My Chemical Romance
by Lisa Sharken
Meet Ray Toro, guitarist with New Jersey’s red-hot alternative punk-pop rocker group, My Chemical Romance. We had the chance for a long distance chat before MCR hit the stage in Germany to support its highly acclaimed new disc, The Black Parade. In just a few short years that included lots of touring and self-promotion, MCR quickly grew from a local indie sensation to an international phenomenon with a loyal and ever-increasing fan base.
Toro filled us in on what inspired him during his formative years as a musician and detailed the gear he uses live. We also got the scoop on how MCR crafted its monstrous guitar tones in the studio and what’s in store for the group in 2007. There’s a lot to look forward to and no doubt that we’ll be hearing a great deal more from these Jersey boys. The future is looking bright and seems to hold even greater success for this very promising new band!
Which players had the greatest influence on your musical style?
My two biggest influences have always been Randy Rhoads and Brian May. I was a fan of Randy Rhoads because he was one of the first players I can remember who mixed classical music with a metal and hard rock style of playing, and he did it very tastefully. It was really inspiring. “Dee” was just so moving because he wrote it for his mother and it was a classically-influenced piece. What I like about Brian May is that he views the guitar like an orchestra. His guitar playing is very symphonic. I’m just a huge fan of how he layers and harmonizes things like an arranger or a conductor. A little later, probably because of Randy Rhoads’ influence, I started listening to classical guitarists like AndrÈs Segovia and Christopher Parkening. I was obsessed with the way they would take classical pieces and arrange them for a single guitar with the way they have moving melody and bass lines that work together. Segovia was one of the guys who made classical guitar a respected instrument. When guitarists first started playing like that it wasn’t really looked upon as artistic. He traveled the world and was a champion for having classical guitar recognized as a concert instrument. Parkening was Segovia’s student and he carried on his legacy.
Have your listening tastes changed? Do you still listen to the music that influenced you when you started?
Yes. I don’t listen to much new stuff. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a music snob. I think that I’ve always been very careful about listening to current music and being influenced by it. I’m afraid of stealing stuff from it. But there are a couple of new bands that I like, Muse being one of them. I love Muse. They have great guitar work and great songwriting. They’re one of the few new bands that I can listen to nowadays. But pretty much, I just listen to the same stuff I used to listen to when I was younger.
With older music, do you tend to pick out things you hadn’t noticed before when you listen now?
Yes. That’s the best thing about music. Depending on what situation you’re in when you’re listening, you’re just in a certain head space and you’ll pick up on little things that you never heard before, especially when you’re listening to stuff like Queen or Pink Floyd. You’ll pick out things like harmonies or nuances in the guitar playing or singing, or you’ll hear little mistakes. I recently listened to Led Zeppelin and noticed that sometimes Jimmy Page’s guitar was going out of tune while they were recording, but it adds character. If you listen to “Stairway To Heaven,” you’ll hear how he’s doubling certain things on an acoustic guitar and he’s playing the same thing on an electric, and it’s panned left to right. These are things that I never used to pick up on when I was younger. But now I can hear those things and it gives me a different appreciation for the music.
When you had first heard these songs, was it on vinyl or CD? Most of the time you never could hear those very fine details as clearly on the original vinyl records as you could on remastered CDs, or even on the original version CDs.
You’re right. The first time I listened to stuff like Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Queen it was actually through my older brother and he had all this on vinyl. He was a huge influence on me and he was the one who showed me how to play guitar. He bought me my first real guitar and he introduced me to all that stuff. He introduced me to bands like Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, and also Motley Crue and Metallica. So he was my gateway into guitar playing and those styles of music.
Let’s talk about your gear. What are you currently using live?
Right now I’m using Marshall JCM 2000s® the DSL100 with two 1960A cabinets. I don’t use many pedals. I’m very basic. I just have a Dunlop Crybaby wah, Boss EQ pedal, Boss Pitch Shifter to do harmonies, Boss Chorus Ensemble, and Electro-Harmonix POG Polyphonic Octave Generator, which you can set up to play one octave below, an octave above, or two octaves above. You can make your guitar sound like a Hammond B3 organ when you use that in combination with the chorus pedal. It’s a really cool pedal.
My main guitar right now is a Gibson Les Paul Standard that I think is either from ’91 or ’93 which I picked up while on tour. I have Seymour Duncan Phat Cat (SPH90-1) P90-style pickups in it which are the size of a humbucker. They’re amazing. I’m really psyched about them. I have another Les Paul Standard which is probably from ’93 and it has a Seymour Duncan JB (SH-4) in the bridge position and the neck pickup is whatever came on the guitar. My brother was the person who had turned me onto the JB. It was the first after market pickup I bought because he said that I had to get a Seymour Duncan JB!
What do you like most about your Duncan pickups and what types of tones do you go for with each of them?
For the Phat Cats, I call it a “meat and potatoes” tone. It’s very thick and punchy, just in the right spots. I use the guitar with the JB for songs that need a little more edge and more gain. The JB has a hotter tone and more gain than I get with the Phat Cats. It works really well for songs that are a little more riffy. A lot of our older material has more riffing going on with lots of single-note picked riffs, and there’s a lot more playing. On the new stuff, the guitar parts are a bit more simple. There are more chugging power chords and things like that. I find that the Phat Cats are better for that kind of stuff and I use the JB for the more shredding songs.
How are your guitars set up?
The action is not too low or too high. It’s at that sweet point. I’ve never been a fan of guitars with really low action. I know it can help you play faster, and I get that aspect of it, but you don’t feel like you’re playing. You can’t dig in. It feels almost too easy. As far as strings, I use .011-.052 S.I.T. strings. For picks, I’ve always used Dunlop black nylon 1 mm picks. I think that’s what my brother used and I’ve used them since I started playing guitar.
How do you and Frank Iero [MCR guitarist] differ as players? What are the most recognizable characteristics you each possess?
I’m more of a technical player. On the records, I play all the solos. I’m more into the harmonization of parts, so the harmonized leads on the records are usually me. I guess that’s what I bring to the band and my metal influence. Frank is kind of the counter to that. He’s very rhythmic in his playing and his lines. He plays all of the octave runs and the choruses, and the counter melodies to the main rhythm parts in the verses are his. The way he writes is very linked with what the vocals are doing. He listens very closely to what Gerard [Way, MCR vocalist] is doing and he finds a way to reinforce the melodies that Gerard is singing, but he adds some of his own things to it that either harmonize with what Gerard is doing vocally or with what I’m doing. He finds a really cool way of just fitting in the mix and hitting melodies that your ear wants to hear that fills in those gaps. He’s really good at coming up with very cool melodic lines on the verses and choruses. It’s a cool relationship that we have. Technically, he plays more of the leads, in a sense, and I play the rhythms, but I’m playing more of the leads in a solo sense. It’s just very different depending on which song it is and we do whatever works best for the song.
Did your studio rig for recording The Black Parade differ much from the gear you use live?
We used the guitars we play live as our main guitars in the studio. I’m not a big gearhead. I go more on feel and I’m used to the way that my guitar feels. I’m comfortable with it, so that’s what I used predominantly for the whole record, unless there were certain songs or parts that called for different tones that my guitar just didn’t sound right for. The main guitar I used was the Les Paul with Phat Cats.
When we went into preproduction in Los Angeles, my DSL100 that I use live broke down. So [producer] Rob Cavallo let me borrow a 100 watt Marshall JCM 800 series head which was the loudest and ballsiest amp I’ve ever heard. Since it sounded so good in preproduction, we used it on the recording. I’m not sure what model cabinet we were running it through, but it was a Marshall. That was the main setup. On occasion when we were going for different textures, like throwing in an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff or another distortion pedal, or any other kinds of effects, we usually ran it through a Hiwatt head. That was pretty much it. We tried to stick to the basics and not get too crazy. We did use a Roland midi guitar synthesizer for all sorts of cool sounds. We used that any time there was a heavier riff on the record. We usually doubled it two octaves lower than the actual note. A lot of the stuff you’re hearing is just straight guitar tones that are very layered. On certain songs, like “The End,” which is the intro to the record, when the tone gets really heavy and the single-note riff comes in, we stacked it by tracking the lowest octave on the guitar to the highest. It’s that Brian May-type mentality of making the guitars very symphonic. Once in a while there’s a chorus pedal or a phaser, but we’re not a very heavy effects-driven band. We like to plug straight into the amp and go. Rob has a huge collection of stompboxes and that’s how we were introduced to the POG. He’s got tons of vintage guitars too, and we used a few of them. For clean verses, like on “Mama” and “I Don’t Love You,” we were using one of his Teles. I think I used one of his Strats for the solo in “I Don’t Love You.” So we did use other guitars for certain parts, but the guitars we play live were the main ones used to record.
Using your own guitars also makes it a bit easier to recreate the sounds on the record when you go out to play the songs live.
Yes. And like I said, for me, the most important thing is being comfortable. Obviously, every guitar plays different and you just get used to how certain guitars feel. I think that when you’re comfortable with the guitar that you’re playing, you’ll play better.
Do you have any particular favorite tracks from the album?
My two favorite tracks are “Welcome To The Black Parade” and “Famous Last Words.” “Welcome To The Black Parade” is like our “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It’s probably the most epic song on the record. I love how it came together. It’s a song that we had been writing since the start of the band, but it started out in a very different form. It started out very similar to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” which sounds really weird as a comparison. It was very slow and very chordal-based. The melody that Gerard would sing and just his style of singing was, wellÖ the closest thing it sounded like to to us was “My Way.” And it used to be called “The Five Of Us Are Dying.” It didn’t make our first indie record because we just didn’t have the time to finish it. We brought it back for Revenge, and it was another situation where it just wasn’t feeling right. So it didn’t make that record. Then it was one of the first things we looked at when we started writing this record. If a song didn’t work for the first or second record, we like to go back and revisit it because sometimes you just don’t have it in you to write the song at that particular time. That song had about five or six different movements and the closest thing I could relate it to is Green Day’s “Jesus Of Suburbia,” where you have all these different parts of a song which all work together. When we moved to LA to work on the record, we decided that the song still wasn’t working, so we tried adding that fast punk beat and then it felt really good. We tracked the whole thing and then Gerard felt that the lyrics weren’t saying anything to him, and neither was the chorus. So we changed a few things. What’s really cool when you write music is sometimes all you have to do is change a chord progression and that completely changes the face of the song. So we basically just changed one note in the chorus and it let Gerard go somewhere else that he wouldn’t have gone, and that’s where the hook of the song came from. I just have very fond memories of that song because it started out in a completely different form. It’s been a part of this band for five years, and it took that long to really finish the song and define what it truly was about. Then on top of that, the song was just so much fun to record with all the horns, the piano, backing vocals, and do all the layering with the parts. It was a very complex and fun song to record. Five years ago we would never have thought that the song would have ended up becoming what it did.
“Famous Last Words” is another of my favorites because lyrically and musically, it’s not one of the most uplifting songs on the record. I just think the song is very powerful. It’s a little simpler than “Black Parade” in a sense, but it has those same movements. It starts out very small with just the vocal and single guitar, then it grows from there and gets to this apex, then breaks down again only to get brought back up. That was one of my favorite songs to write and record. It was written very late in the writing process, and at a very hard time. I think that the song is an example of showing things that the band went through because we went through some hard times and ended up coming out on top. When I listen to it now, it makes me think of that period in the recording process.
The band has grown so much in a short time and achieved a great deal of acclaim, particularly with this album.
The band has always moved very fast, even from the beginning when it was just three of us. We’ve always found ourselves in these situations where it was “put up or shut up.” I guess it’s just our attitude and where we come from as people, and what we’ve gone through growing up. We just never quit and we work our asses off. That’s what we have always done. So things have moved fast, but for us it’s like a lifetime of work. As far as the musical side of things, I think this band tends to think one or two records ahead into the future. There was a time before we started writing for The Black Parade, when we were almost writing the album that should have come out after Revenge. A lot of the songs were similar feeling and similar sounding to what we did on Revenge, and a lot of that got scrapped once we really started writing for The Black Parade. After we had written “The End” into “Dead!,” we would rehearse them and we linked those two songs together. We knew they didn’t feel like anything we had done before. We thought that those songs raised the bar for us, and a lot of the songs that we had been writing on tour and some of the songs that were written while we were in New York got scrapped after that because they didn’t measure up. The writing process was fun because we were always trying to match what we had done the week before or even surpass it. We always try to top ourselves, and not only in albums, but also from song to song.
Has touring become more exciting for the band this time around?
You spend so many months writing and recording the record, and during that time the record is just yours. It’s the band’s and just the four or five guys who worked on the recording. You sometimes play it for select people, but no one actually has a copy to take home and listen to. What’s great is that finally after six or seven months of writing and recording, the record is now out there “living” and being a part of peoples’ lives. To finally be able to play those songs live for people, it’s just the best. Our fans have been awesome and just super supportive through all of this. They’re excited to hear new stuff. But we’ve never been in this position before because when we wrote Revenge we were a very small indie band and no one was really excited for Revenge to come out. We built it up to where it got, but when that album came out there weren’t many people who were excited, and we built it from there. It was completely different from this experience where we’ve now built up a fan base and they are excited to hear the new music. So it was very nerve wracking because you want people to appreciate what you did — what you worked hard for and worked hard on. The fans have been awesome and we’re finding that they are singing the new songs louder than the older stuff at the shows. It’s that support and an over all sense from people that they really love the new record. It just feels great to go out there and play these songs for people.
What does the band have planned for 2007 and what are you looking forward to most in the coming year?
We’ll be touring more and more in 2007. Right now we’re doing smaller shows just to get our feet wet and play live. We were off for so long recording that it takes a while to get back in shape and you just want to ease into it. It’s been cool to get reacquainted with the fans and reacquainted with playing live. Next year is when we’re going to step up the show a notch and bring out more production, so the shows will be bigger and the songs will feel bigger. Right now we’re playing the songs a little more stripped down than we would like, but it’s just to get reacquainted and get back into playing live. In 2007 we’re going to play a lot of parts of the world where we’ve never been before. Playing your first show in a new country is the most exciting thing, and that excitement never goes away. There are a lot of places where we haven’t played yet, so I think that’s what I’m most looking forward to.
Tell us about what you recall to have been your most memorable gig or gigs with the band so far.
On this tour, the first show that we played was in Bournemouth, England. It’s a pretty cool place and that gig was awesome. We had such a great time and it was nice to get back and play real shows again. We had been doing a lot of tv and radio performances leading up to the release of the record, and then after that as well. But those performances just didn’t feel like real shows. It was maybe one or two songs, or even if we played a full set, the place was lit for tv so I couldn’t get into the vibe of those shows. So this gig in Bournemouth was the first show we played in a while where it was a real My Chem show, and it felt great to play the old songs again and to finally play the new material. The audience was really great and it was a lot of fun to get back out there.
As far as past memorable gigs, we played Continental Airlines Arena in New Jersey, which was just awesome. I used to go to shows there all the time there to see my favorite bands like Metallica. My brother took me to that show and it was just incredible. To play places like that, those are the shows that usually go down in my memory as my favorites — when you have a direct connection to that venue or that city, it makes it just that much more special.
I’m sure there were a lot of hometown people there who were cheering you on.
Yes. Our families usually end up being the loudest people in the crowd.
That can sometimes make you even more nervous compared to playing in front of people you don’t know.
It is true because you definitely want to play your best and give them a good show. That’s usually what you’re thinking about. But it’s distracting when you’re looking out in the crowd and trying to find your family and all the people you know.
What advice would you give to other players who are trying to create their own identity in a two-guitar band?
The best way to create your own style is to just be yourself. You can be influenced by what other people do and take the little bits that you like from the different players that you appreciate, but never completely cop someone’s style. Put your own flavor to it. Play what makes you feel good and that’s how you develop your own style. One of the fun things about playing with another guitarist is working on parts together. It’s kind of what music is about — working together as a team. When two guitar players can bring in what they do, make it bigger and better, learn from each other and influence each other, that’s a cool thing. Frank and I have been able to do that and we’ve kind of rubbed off on each other. It’s great to have that experience and it helps you to grow as a musician.
For the latest news on My Chemical Romance and updated tour information, visit the band’s official website at www.mychemicalromance.com.
By Lisa Sharken, Seymour Duncan’s
New York-based artist relations consultant.