As lead guitarist of Avenged Sevenfold, Synyster Gates is one of the top shredders in the metal world. With the popularity of his finger-twisting, mind-bending, high-octane fretwork that lays much of the foundation of the A7X sound, he’s now making his unmistakable tones available to the masses with Schecter through the Synyster Gates series of guitars and his new Hellwin amp—which made its recording debut on the band’s latest album, Hail to the King. We caught up with Syn during the band’s current tour and discussed his gear, his sound and what it’s like to create a signature line of gear while being in one of the biggest metal bands around.
Musician’s Friend: How did you end up working with Schecter?
Synyster Gates: Our producer at the time we were working on Waken The Fallen, in 2003, was [Andrew] Mudrock, and he was sponsored by Schecter. I used Schecter primarily in the studio for all the solos. They had really great guitars that played really well, so we tried to get signed by them. They hadn’t heard of us at the time, so they were like, “We don’t really know. We’ll check it out.”
Once the record came out, there was a decent amount of underground success, and they were the only company willing to give a small metal band a chance. They gave us a bunch of guitars, and just a couple years later, they asked if I wanted to do a signature model with them. I was honored, and have been doing that and hanging with those dudes ever since.
MF: What was it, specifically, that drew you to Schecter?
SG: Pretty much the feel. I’m definitely a tone guy as well, but I just like things that play well. I think if you’ve got a style, you end up sounding like yourself no matter what, good or bad. I just like the comfort in knowing that I’m going to pick up the instrument and it’s going to play amazingly.
MF: What kind of input did you have on the designs?
SG: One hundred percent. They were really cool. They let me design exactly what I wanted. I picked a couple of things from their existing guitars. At the time, the Avenger, coincidently, was the name of the body style. I really liked it, thought it was really unique. I used it in the “Bat Country” video that we did in 2006 before I had a signature model with them. Then I just added the custom headstock and pickups that I liked. Basically, that was it.
MF: How did you go about picking the different features for each of your four signature models?
SG: I really liked Dimebag Darrell’s signature model. It was always very flashy and cool. It was very discernible from other guitars, as opposed to going the Slash route and playing a classic. I wanted to do something of my own, and I like flashiness.
So we worked on different paint jobs, and I thought that the pinstripe thing was cool and felt pretty iconic, so we went with that. We’ve been mixing it up, matching different colors and stuff. We get really cool combinations like the white and the gold. The black and the gold are probably my favorite at this point.
I wanted to iconize the fingerboard as well and just kind of put my name on it. For the pickups and stuff ... I just think it was the best tone in the studio. That’s where I got the heaviest tone. … I just liked the way that played.
Then in 2007 we recorded our self-titled record and we had this insane guitar tech, Walter Rice, who brought a bunch of fun new toys every single day. The Sustainiac guitar was one of them. I did so much stuff with the Sustainiac guitar. It was so much fun to me. It just really drew me in.
I felt really compelled by that instrument, so I had to talk to the Schecter once again and asked them if I could do that. They’re like, “Sure. You can do anything you want.” I did it pretty much in my stage models and stuff like that.
The kids started seeing that the pictures didn’t match up, and it pissed them off a little bit, so we had to make them for general use. In my defense, it was impossible at the time, because it only came from this one guy that had a patent, and he wasn’t really willing to make a bunch of different ones or mass-produce them. Luckily, by the time the kids caught on, he was a little more established and we were able to put them in my guitars.
MF: For those who are a little less familiar with the Sustainiac system, what do you do, specifically, with it?
SG: I use it for a bunch of different things. Basically, what it does is it just acts like an EBow. It’s a hands-free EBow. You just click the switch and then magnetic whatever [laughs] starts vibrating your string so you can get it to sound like a violin or something of that nature. Then it has a switch with three different points in it, one for the note that you actually play, an octave above on the middle position and then the third position is two octaves above.
So you can get these really cool harmonic textures. I use it for dive bomb, feedback-y sounding stuff. Sometimes I’ll use it for a trail off in a solo. On this last record, I use it at the end of “Requiem.” I hate giving away little secrets, but that’s what it is. I just have this thing on the whole time. At the very end I flip the switch, and it goes to two octaves above at the last note and kind of dive bombs from there. It’s just a really cool effect.
MF: How much trial and error went into the designing process before you decided on the final version of what you’d put your name on?
SG: I don’t really remember. It was relatively fast. I think that the longest process was finding the right artwork, the right paint job. Going through a number of different idea and colors until the black and silver pinstripe thing worked. They sent us the mock-up of the shape with the devil-horn headstock. I was already sold then. I knew what pickups I wanted to play; that was really fast. It was just getting that paint job together.
MF: The pinstripe paint scheme is very minimalist, but nobody else does that. How long did it take to come up with that paint scheme?
SG: Probably about a month. It wasn’t incredibly long. We developed that whole guitar in a few months and had prototypes shortly thereafter. I definitely wanted to go for the flash, but keep it classy, or as classy as it could be [laughs]. In my eye, it had all those things. It stood out from the crowd, but didn’t look like a pimped-out ’57 Chevy.
MF: A lot of signature models, especially ones from popular musicians such as yourself — the price point on guitars is usually many thousands of dollars, but yours is right in line with just a good guitar that’s not a signature or anything like that. Was that a factor in the deciding process?
SG: Definitely. I didn’t need to throw in more bells and whistles just to beef up the price. Schecter’s always been really good about making things affordable for kids, to the best of their, or our, ability. You get a lot of bang for your buck, and there are a lot of great features, a lot of fun stuff on there. You can do pretty much anything with it, but it’s not over the top. So it worked out well.
MF: Do you have any plans for more body shapes or completely different styles altogether?
SG: I hadn’t really thought about it. Definitely, I feel complete with the model that I have right now. If I needed something that was a little different, that necessitated a different body style or whatever, I probably would do that. But not just for s***s and giggles.
MF: What is your road setup, from pick to speakers?
SG: We use Dunlop picks, I believe it’s the 2.0, really thick bastards. Schecter model guitar, most of them now, at this point, have the Sustainiac in it. I’m not sure which wireless system I use, but through that into my amp, which is the Hellwin, another endeavor with Schecter. We spent a few years developing that with the world’s best amp designer, James Brown. It’s sick. Just the coolest amp of all time, in my humble opinion.
In the effects loop, we have the Axe-Fx by Fractal. That creates all sorts of warm, unbelievably rich-sounding effects, the way I use them. I use it pretty much for custom scales so it doesn’t have to get thinned out every time there’s a harmonized guitar. [Guitarist] Zacky [Vengeance] can still play rhythm, and then I just bump that up and I can get these exotic scales and stuff.
MF: How does that compare to your studio setup?
SG: Not much different [laughs]. We used the Hellwin amps on all recordings. Probably we use the Axe Fx, definitely, a little bit. But we had access to a great collection of pedals, so we use a lot of pedals in the studio.
MF: How did the Schecter Hellwin amps come about?
SG: They came to me and asked if I wanted to design an amp with them. Like I said, we’re good friends, so we probably discussed it over a few beers and said, “Let’s do an amp.” I was very honored when they came directly to me. I basically wanted it to be exactly what I would use live. It has become more than a signature thing. It’s everything I’ve ever looked for in an amp, from, obviously, tone and playability to the best clean sounds that I’ve ever f*****g heard. I mean they rival the greats, like Princetons and VOXes, Fender Tremolux, all that.
There’s two clean channels, which I’m very, very proud of. Very cool. But also, too, the MIDI switching so I can hook up a Fractal to the FX loop so you can do anything with it. It’s very universal. It’s got all the bells and whistles. It sounds freakish. It’s got cleans that are mind blowing, especially for a metal/rock amp.
MF: The designing of that, was it just you give the thumbs up when you hear it and you just like the way it sounds, or was it more like you want to go after a specific target?
SG: Yes, definitely. I sent this guy, James Brown, who did the [Peavey] 5150 and worked for Peavey exclusively for many years. He does his own thing now, at Amptweaker.com. He does a lot of really old, cool pedals that sound unreal. I sent him my favorite amps and told him what I loved, what I disliked and what I thought could be cooler about them.
So he worked on that for a while. Sent a couple of prototypes until it was pretty close. Then I flew out to hang with him for a weekend, and we spent three days drinking beer and tweaking on this amp with him and the Schecter guys.
It was really, really fun, and they got it dialed in to where the hardest thing to get was the balance between great tone with the playability. It might be a little bit harsh, but you’d knock off some high end, and it would be a little bit difficult to play some of the legato passages that were really fluid and easy before. Like I said, we spent three days tweaking pretty much that. He got the cleans right away. But, like I said, it was just getting that match of playability and tone.
MF: Was that amp, like your signature guitar, also built with a price point in mind?
SG: It was. This amp got definitely a little bit expensive, but like I said, I didn’t want kids to say, “That’s not what he uses.” I would definitely need to put MIDI switching on my amp. If I didn’t, it would be cheaper, but they’d find out I had MIDI switching.
Unfortunately, it’s a little pricy, but even for boutique amps, it’s at a great price point, which to me transcends normal market amps. This is a very, very, very high-end amp at a great price with a lot of functionality. You don’t need another amp for clean, or this or that. You have a rich jazz voice and you have really unbelievable sparkly metal and rock clean sounds. It’s just many amps in one, as a matter of fact.
MF: You’ve said in the past that putting in the noise gate was just a nightmare.
SG: Yeah. [Laughs] My beloved noise gate. Yeah, to get that perfect tapered sound where it doesn’t squash anything and it doesn’t affect your tone, it took a long time. James had to actually fly out after he finished that. We got the tone, and it was amazing. And we knew what we had to do for the gate, but we just didn’t have time to perfect it. It was just making room for all these little diodes and weird things, without it screwing up the sound. This guy’s a genius. I mean, he’ll sit there and figure out any problem. He can find a solution to anything. He’s pretty remarkable. We got it done. It sounds amazing. The gate is unreal, and I’m really proud of it.
MF: Was that exclusively Hellwin, or did you also mix in some other stuff [on the latest album]?
SG: Pretty much exclusively Hellwin. I think there’s a couple of textures that we used, I’m not even sure what it is. I have to find out. Rob Cavallo did a couple of Green Day records with it, and it’s like a souped up something or other, but a very minimalistic type of usage.
It literally won a blind shootout from 15 amps and 25 entire combinations, altogether, from just my amp, my cab, to my head, through a Marshall cab, through a Marshall, through this. I mean just a ton of different juggernauts we used. We all looked into this repeated phrase, a signal. It was a recorded signal and we’d just reamp it so it wasn’t susceptible to my poor playing.
Everybody voted unanimously for the amp. It was my amp through my cab. I didn’t expect to use it in the studio. I know you do weird things to get what seems to be a pretty normal tone sometimes. It was a really, really cool surprise. I know the amp sounds good. No worries about that. Definitely was going to use it live. … But sometimes you can mic up a Cube, and sometimes that’s just fucking translating better in a studio. It’s just the weirdest thing, how that shit works. But it was a good day for me.
MF: How has your rig evolved from the early days?
SG: Pretty much the Axe Fx and the Hellwin are different. I used to use Mesa Boogie. I went through a bunch of different amps—5150, a bunch of stuff. It’s always been a half stack through a guitar, you know? Not much has changed besides the guitar and the amp.
MF: Have you always had an idea of what you want your sound to be like, or has it evolved over the years
SG: It’s definitely evolved. I think as you become more confident and successful, and you realize that kids actually like your sound, you aren’t as concerned with sounding like Dimebag Darrell or Slash or anybody. You just focus on you, which is definitely rewarding. But, yeah, in 2000 and 1999, I just wanted to sound like Dimebag Darrell.
MF: Who doesn’t?
MF: The new album, Hail to the King, is kind of a stripped-down version of years past, but it’s still guitar-heavy. What was the hardest guitar piece for you to write and/or record, and why?
SG: Oh, my goodness. Probably “Planets,” the second to last song, because it’s just so dissonant. We really wanted to have this cinematic quality to it but maintain the catchy melodies that kind of bind it all together, so when you took it apart you’d say, whoa, there’s a lot crazy modulation, chord changes and crazy s**t going on. It’s a different kind of arrangement, but it sounds very palatable still, and communicates what we were trying to communicate. Which was intergalactic f*****g war, I guess.
MF: What was your toughest solo to do on that album?
SG: They are all tough, either writing or playing. They take pretty much the same amount of time. There’s nothing that stuck out more than another. Definitely “Planets” and “Acid Rain” are my two favorite solos.