Talking Tone With Skeletonwitch

Skeletonwitch has been making a name for themselves on stages from Ozzfest to the Jägermeister Presents Tour and all points in between since their formation in Ohio in 2003. That was when guitarist Scott Hedrick met his future bandmate and fellow guitarist Nate Garnette at Ohio University. They released their first album in 2004 and have toured and recorded steadily ever since. Their music is aggressive, intense and intricate, with neck-snapping tempo shifts ranging from near full-galloping speed to pounding palm muted chording, all topped by (Nate’s brother) Chance Garnette’s  growling vocals. They stand apart from the pack sonically, though – for a few reasons.

Scott rocking his custom SH-6 loaded lefty V. Photo taken from the Skeletonwitch Twitter feed.

For one, Skeletonwitch may be the only contemporary metal band to employ standard ‘E’ tuning, almost unheard of in today’s world of Z-flat detuned riffage. If you think about it, even some classic “rock” bands are tuning lower by a half step. None of this deters the punishingly brutal nature of Skeletonwitch’s music. Their sound is very bare-bones and in your face – direct and to the point. Who needs bells and whistles when you have epic riffs? Scott and Nate also have a spartan approach to gear, eschewing elaborate pedal board effects setups, opting to (almost) plug directly into their amp heads for full frontal brutality. Their live rigs are also interesting in that each guitarist has the other’s signal in the bottom 4x12s of their full stack as a stage monitor system, so they never lose sync. They’re not taking a chance by counting on the monitor guy, ever – smart move!
Their new album, the follow-up to 2012’s Billboard-charting Forever Abomination, is called Serpents Unleashed. It was produced by Kurt Ballou (Converge, Trap Them, High on Fire), and will be released in late October of this year. The band recorded at Godcity Studios in Salem, MA, and also released some cool “behind the scenes” videos.

Scott, Nate and bassist Evan Linger are also recent Seymour Duncan converts. Scott and Nate are both using the new Black Winter pickups, and Scott also has a Duncan Distortion model in one of his guitars. Evan is using the SD Rickenbacker pickup in his bass. I recently had a chance to chat with Scott about the new album, and ask about their impressions of their new pickups. Scott was also kind enough to pass along my pickup questions to Nate and Evan. I particularly wanted to hear (and thought readers would too) about their experience with the Black Winter, Seymour Duncan’s pickup designed with extreme metal players in mind. After all, the Tone Chart rates it at 6/6/6 (!) so I was curious as to how well they translated the Skeletonwitch riffage!
First off, congrats on your tenth anniversary.  Can you tell the readers – how do your guitar roles differ in the band? Do you split rhythms and leads equally?
Scott: Thanks. Ten years makes me feel old! Haha! There’s no method to our madness in assigning rhythm and leads. It really depends on the situation. My leads tend to be a little more wild, bendy, and shreddy. Nate’s tend to be more rock’n’roll and emotive, if that makes any sense.
What can fans expect from your new release, Serpents Unleashed?

“Serpents Unleashed” released on October 29th on Prosthetic Records.

Scott: First off, they can expect the production to match the energy and intensity of a Skeletonwitch live show, which is something we’ve been chasing for a while. In addition, I think we’ve really hit our stride in terms of songwriting, and honing the Skeletonwitch sound. This is the tightest, most cohesive material we’ve written.  At this point I think Skeletonwitch is instantly recognizable, at least to a metal fan, when someone puts one of our records on.
Was your writing process any different for this album? What did Kurt Ballou bring to the table, and how did he alter your approach, if at all?
Scott: The writing process was the same. If it ain’t broke…!  Nate and I write independently with drum machines, send each other what we have, and get each song into a “finished” demo form with two guitar tracks and the drum machine. From their we send it to everyone else in the band who absorbs it, comes up with their own parts/ideas/dynamics…etc. Then we get together and start playing the hell out of it and making changes until we’re happy.
Kurt’s biggest contribution was the overall production. He gave the record teeth, so to speak, and used the spatial relationships between the instruments to great affect. It’s really in your face. Kurt also contributed some excellent ideas like double tracking the second guitar solo in “From a Cloudless Sky”, adding a harmony part to the outro riff in “This Evil Embrace” and he also had some solid rhythmic/drum fill ideas. Working with Kurt was easy, and pretty damn rewarding.
Did you stick to your no-frills live rigs for the recording, or did you mix it up?
Scott: We mixed it up. We used a blend of 3 amps for the guitar tone: A Blackstar Series One 100-watt head, a Marshall JMP, and Peavey Bandit (yes…..that Peavey Bandit. Hahah!). The majority of the sound came from the Blackstar with the Marshall blended in, and the Peavey blended in just a little to make it gritty. We played through a few different Emperor Cabinet enclosures.
Will your respective live rigs change for the upcoming tour, or have you changed anything (besides adding the Duncans) in your set-ups? 
Scott: Yes, actually. We really liked the Blackstar amp, which isn’t terribly surprising, considering their company was started by guys who used to work at Marshall (which is what we were playing). When we got out of the studio, I got in touch with the company and they decided to take the plunge and send Skeletonwitch some gear. So you will now see us rocking the Blackstar full-stacks. Contrary to popular belief, I approached them, not the other way around.
I’ve heard you’re not really a gearhead like some of the SD blog readers, but for them, can you tell us a little bit about your guitars, particularly your Custom Lefty Explorer?

Scott rocking his Custom Black Winter-loaded United Lutherie Explorer. Photo by Maurice Nunez.

Scott: It’s true. I like to play guitars/amps and not fu** around, spending hours looking for the right “tone-scape.” This doesn’t mean that I don’t care at all. I get my rig into an acceptable zone where it sounds good to me, and then I don’t fu** with it again. And then Nate usually walks over and tweaks it a little bit. Hahaha!
I love that Explorer! Shameless plug time: As you mentioned, I’m a lefty so it can be difficult to find decent guitars, or they’re just supremely expensive. Luckily, my good buddies at United Lutherie (www.unitedlutherie.com) offered to build me a custom guitar.
They made the body of the Explorer out of a single piece of Honduran mahogany and a quartered neck from the same plank. Brazilian rosewood fretboard, bone nut, and everyone’s favorite touch, a hand carved deer skull inlay at the 12th fret, actually made from a deer skull (you can actually watch Gene Embody making the inlay here).
Very cool! On your new SD pickups – Scott, what do you like about the Black Winter pickups?  Also tell me what you think of the Duncan Distortion. Which guitars did you put each in?
Scott: I have a Black Winter in my United Lutherie Explorer and the Duncan Distortion in my EJC custom flying V. I love how hot the Black Winter pickups are without being active.  We’ve established that I’m not a huge gear head and I hate fu**ing around with 9 volts and active pickups. Wow, I really sound like an old man, huh? Ha!  But anyway, the Black Winter pickups rip, but I still get a lot of clarity out of the high “G, B, and E” strings. We play some black-metal stuff on those high strings where we pick fast as hell. With the Black Winters I don’t have to be worried about picking too hard and having it sound shrill or too biting.
I probably don’t need to say anything about the Duncan Distortion. It’s pretty much a classic at this point.  It gets me right where I want to be quickly and easily.  It’s very versatile for heavy music.
Nate, what do you think of the Black Winters, and which guitar do you have them in? 
Nate: I put the Black Winter in a ’92 Les Paul i recently bought. The pickup is perfect for what we do. It gives you heavy ass riffin’ while staying clear, and on the high end it has a lot of warmth. For me clarity is very important and this pickup delivers!!
Evan, you’re using the SD Rickenbacker pickups, how are those working out, and what do they add to your bass tone?
Evan: The Seymour Duncan pickups have been working out great. They preserve the natural classic tone of my bass while giving it the bite it needs to cut through in a Metal band. We have a unique bass tone in Skeletonwitch and part of that is achieved with the Seymour Duncans in my Rick. Also with the overdrive I use they eliminate much more hum than the standard single coil in Ricks. 

Your new video for “I Am Death (Hell Has Arrived)” has a 70s slasher/horror vibe.  Was that the director’s or the band’s concept? Are you all fans of the genre? Is it true 100 beers gave their lives to make that video?
Scott: It was our idea.  Chance, our vocalist, had a basic concept and Evan, our bassist, came up with the idea of stylizing it like a 70’s slasher/horror trailer. Then we had several discussions with the people at Turnstyle Films and planned everything out. We shot that on a Saturday and released it that Tuesday.  Pretty incredible turnaround for a video. Thanks Turnstyle!
Is it true about the 100 beers? Ask Nate, I think he drank 90 of them.  Hahaha! After we shot our performance footage, we basically just started partying.  After a while, I think we were starting to do more harm than good on the set.  Ha!  oh well…..
You’ve already got US and Canadian tour dates booked well into 2014 with bands like the Black Dhalia Murder, Enslaved, Amon Amarth etc. Will you be touring Europe as well? Are you going to be doing some headlining dates?
We will definitely be playing festivals in Europe this summer and hope to do some headlining or support over there in early spring. We’ll also be playing Australia, New Zealand, and some shows in Southeast Asia. Really looking forward to that.
What else can Skeletonwitch fans look forward to in 2014 and beyond?
They can look forward to Skeletonwitch bringing the metal to them! We plan on touring exhaustively once “Serpents Unleashed” drops on Oct. 29th. They can also look forward to several more records from Skeletonwitch. Ten years in and we’re just getting started!!

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