Deftones Stephen Carpenter Interview

Interview: A Deep Dive with Deftones Founder Stephen Carpenter

Posted on .

The alt-metal guitarist dishes on his rig, holy-grail tone and being an original.

[This interview originally appeared in a slightly different forrm on]

By Lisa Sharken

The Deftones connected in Sacramento, California back in the late '80s, when the members were still students in high school. The group first emerged on the local scene and steadily built up a strong following on the West Coast. Soon after, they caught the attention of Maverick records and signed on. With Adrenalize, the debut disc released in 1995, the Deftones forged a distinct sound which set them apart from groups like Korn and Limp Bizkit, as well as the droves of imitators who copied that sound and style.

Unlike other heavy rock bands that became popular in the mid '90s, the Deftones survived the wave of nu metal and emerged even stronger by simply sticking to what the group does best. With its fourth album recently released and the single 'Minerva' riding high on the charts, the group hit the road to bring the music directly to the fans and is packing them into venues at every stop on the tour chilled out with Stephen Carpenter on the Deftones' tour bus a few hours prior to the group's headlining show at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom. During our chat, Carpenter talked about his evolution as a musician and detailed the experience of making the group's latest disc, Deftones [Maverick] — from his approach to writing the songs to the actual recording process. Carpenter discussed his technique for expanding ideas into songs and explained why he begins with the rhythm patterns and tempo rather than starting out with the melodies and guitar parts. Although many guitarists might consider this approach somewhat unusual, it's become standard procedure for the Deftones and a proven formula for success. In what ways has the band's style and sound evolved since the first record? How has the music and songwriting changed?

Stephen Carpenter: On the first record there was no Chino on guitars and I was on guitars, so that's pretty different. He plays on the last two records — White Pony and this one. He played on like four songs. But I've been clowning on him and telling him that he needs to practice his ****! I'm not telling him don't play, but I'm just saying he needs to practice. As a player, what has changed in your style and technique?

Carpenter: Nothing. It's all the same to me. I'm happy with what I know already. Which players inspired you most as you were developing your skills?

Carpenter: There are too many that I like so much. The only thing I really listen to now is Meshuggah. I don't really listen much to anything else. I mean, I listen to a lot of other stuff, but in general, if I'm at home, I'll be listening to talk radio all day before I'll listen to music. Sometimes I'd rather not hear music for a while. What about earlier on? Who or what had inspired you to play?

Carpenter: Definitely Scott Ian. He had the baddest tone and he was my favorite guitarist. Was that the type of guitar sound you would hear in your head as you were trying to dial in your tone?

Carpenter: I'd say it was a cross between him and Jim Martin from Faith No More. How would you describe your own guitar tone? What are the qualities that you look for?

Carpenter: I just want it to be clear and real solid, where you get a lot of definition from it — a lot of punch and clarity. Has your tone changed at all since the first record?

Carpenter: It's changed, but the attitude that I'm striving for hasn't changed. The gear changed a little bit, but I just think that's because gear has gotten better. In what ways has your rig changed?

Carpenter: I've had the same setup for like the last five years. All I use is the Marshall preamp. I mean, that's my sound 95 percent of the time. Maybe I'll throw chorus on it or I might have my gate on, but other than that, it's just the Marshall. The guitars did change though — I dumped all the 6-string guitars and went for 7-strings. I've still got all the 6-strings, but I don't play them anymore. I have eight baritone 7-strings that are actually my favorite and then I have 16 of the standard-scale 7-strings, which are the same scale as my regular 6-strings. I can live on them because the neck is bigger and that's what I've become used to playing, but the difference between those standard-scale 7-strings and the baritones makes all the difference. The baritones just feel like you're driving a big-ass Cadillac. When did you switch over from 6-string to 7-string?

Carpenter: I got my first 7-string in November or December of '99 and I've been playing them since then. How are your guitars set up?

Carpenter: I use a 7-string Fender set that's .011-.059 and I like my action set a bit high. I don't like it too high, but the higher it is, the more you can actually grip on to the strings and you can strike them a lot harder, but they won't buzz. What kind of picks do you prefer?

Carpenter: I use 1 mm Tortex picks. Which pickups are you using?

Carpenter: I switched over to EMGs. I'm using the EMG-707-85s which are the equivalent to the EMG-85, but for 7-string. I'm going to work on a custom pickup at some point. I haven't done it yet, but I definitely plan to. Tell us about the material on the new record and how the songs were developed. Do your songs usually start with a riff or chord progression or beat or lyric?

Carpenter: Well, I wrote a lot of the stuff on this record all on my drum machine first. I knew what I'd want to do as far as energy, then I just played with it until I got something I was happy with. So you started with the rhythm patterns for the songs first and then created the guitar parts around that?

Carpenter: Yeah. Well, I like drums more than I like guitars, as far as when it comes to creating the ideas, mainly because I feel the rhythm more than I'm hearing the notes. I'll play ten different rhythms on the same note and it sounds different. Do you play drums, too?

Carpenter: I do play drums. But I play drums like a guitar player, if that makes any sense. I don't play drums like a drummer would, where a drummer has the ability to somehow manipulate that kit into different dimensions. I can't do that. I play to the riffs and I'm pretty straight forward. I could pull off playing drums in a little jam session, but when it comes to really writing songs as a drummer, I don't have it. To me, a tempo could be the same beat in every song, when it comes down to it. Really, you're just changing the tempos to back the riff. But for me, as a guitar player, I've been playing everything in 4/4 for the better part of my life, or maybe in 3/4, or something like that. It's good, but I can't do that anymore. It just drives me nuts. I'm bored and the only way for me to change it is to change it rhythmically. It's easier for me to approach it from the rhythm side because the melody can always be added. How do you document your ideas when writing?

Carpenter: I just got that little Digidesign Mbox, so I just write whole songs on my laptop. I already tell everybody that when it comes time to write this next album, I'll have the whole album written and recorded — everything minus vocals. Do you give demos to the rest of the band to learn the material?

Carpenter: I will, but that thing doesn't take away from the jamming aspect of it all. I think it makes the jamming a lot more focused, so you can get right to the point. I mean, since none of us can read music, the next best thing is to hear it. I can't play everybody's part at once when we're jamming, so I give them a CD. But I tell them that I didn't record it this way because I want you to play it exactly like this. I just want you to hear where I'm at with the idea. You've got all the freedom in the world to do what you want, but let's just keep going on this idea. Let's start out here and if it twists into something else, that's fine, too. But let's have something to start on. It's nothing more than that. After you work out the structure and parts for the songs, does the band make demos of the tracks before going into the studio to record an album?

Carpenter: We'll just work on the songs, rehearse the stuff, and just jam on them. Then when we're ready, we'll just go in the studio and start tracking, then build on it from there. Tell us about your experience in the studio making this record. What was different about the process this time around?

Carpenter: A lot of it was done in our warehouse and we also did some recording in some other places, too. We did some in Los Angeles and some in Seattle, but that was mainly vocals and overdubs. We did about 90 percent of the drums in Sacramento, in our warehouse. I think we did one or two songs in Seattle. How were the guitar tracks recorded? Did you use the same gear that you use onstage?

Carpenter: Yes. Everything was the same. How many parts do you typically record for each song?

Carpenter: It's usually just left and right. But on this one I did three tracks. I did left, center, and right. But we didn't end up using a lot of the center tracks anyway because it didn't make any sense on some songs. When you're tracking, do you like to work in the control room or stand next to your amp?

Carpenter: I like to be in the control room so I can hear. I don't like wearing headphones because they sound like crap. Nobody EQs the headphones and you're just getting a flat mix. Let's talk about performing live. How do you usually warm up for a gig?

Carpenter: Smoke a bunch of weed. Do you play guitar at all?

Carpenter: No. I don't do anything difficult. That's why I don't feel I need to warm up. What do you like most about performing live and how does it compare to playing in the studio?

Carpenter: The studio is like an audio canvas. You can do whatever you want. When you're playing live it's that same attitude, but it's your decision whether you wish to reproduce what you did in the studio or go somewhere else with it. What do you dislike most about both environments?

Carpenter: People tend to be a bit lazy in the studio. In a live environment, I don't have any complaints about it, but sometimes I don't really like the shape of the room and the way it affects the sound. But that's no big deal. I have no genuine complaints about anything. Which environment do you prefer?

Carpenter: I like them both. They're two different things. Where are your favorite places to play?

Carpenter: I love Australia. They're nice people. How does the audience differ in the way that they respond to the band, compared to audiences in the U.S.?

Carpenter: They're friendly! It's all smiles and they're all ready to have a good time. So no one throws things onstage in Australia?

Carpenter: People throw **** everywhere. You can't stop that. What's the worst thing that's ever happened onstage?

Carpenter: I don't personally have a worst thing. It hasn't been that bad for me. I'm a happy guy. I have had and am having a great time! What advice can you give to other players on developing their own sound and style?

Carpenter: I'd say to ignore what everyone else says and just be yourself. If there's something that you like to play, just play it. Whether it's someone else's song or your own song, you should play what's going to inspire you to play guitar. Can you offer any tips on becoming a better songwriter?

Carpenter: Stop listening to other peoples' songs! That way no one can possibly say that everything you create is derivative. If you're not listening to anyone else, you don't know! And if what you write happens to sound like everything else, then surprise — you're like everyone else! Big deal.

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