The metal guitarist talks about his gear and why drop tuning may not always work the way you want.
By Adam St. James
[This vintage interview originally appeared in a slightly different form at Guitar.com.]
Cartoonish masks, costumes, and face paint have been the initial focal point—for better or worse—for some of rock 'n' roll's most successful acts. Witness Kiss, David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, or Alice Cooper from days past. All went on to achieve legendary status—and more than a few hit songs or critically acclaimed works—despite being heavily bashed for daring to hit the stage in masks or wearing other facial adornment. Seems most people have a hard time looking beyond the theatrics and still hearing the music.
Today's entry in that whole mess is Slipknot, who of course, choose to sweat it out under bizarre, S&M-like masks that hide their true identities almost as well as their numerically-based stage monikers hide their given names. But are they deserving of more respect for their music than some critics would honor them with? Yes, actually, they're more accomplished musicians than often credited, and the rhythm section is nothing if not tight as a rusty nut and bolt. For proof, check out the band’s latest, Vol. 3: (The Subliminal Verses), which the band and Roadrunner Records released at the end of May, 2004.
Guitar.com spoke with Slipknot guitarist James Root—aka James #4—while he and his band were wrapping up their summer-long, headlining engagement on the second stage of the 2004 OzzFest. Root spoke in depth about his gear, his songwriting endeavors, hurricanes and hot masks—as well as his home (road?) recording adventures with Digidesign's Pro Tools and Mbox. Now here's your chance to get under the mask and learn somethin' fresh from the man himself. Infest this, ye maggots.
Guitar.com: Hey Jim, how are ya?
Jim Root: Excellent Adam, how are you?
Guitar.com: Doin' well here. I see your stint on the Ozzfest tour may end a few days early if the last three dates, in South Carolina and Florida, get blown out by Hurricane Frances.
Root: Yeah, I've heard it's pretty bad. We're on our way to Florida. It's what, a Series 4 storm, right?
Guitar.com: Yeah, and it's headed right for you.
Root: That's just our luck.
Guitar.com: The Virginia Beach show you just did was not an OzzFest show was it?
Root: No, that was an off-fest show. It was really excellent. It was a radio show. We flew in, did our 75-minute set, then went back about our business.
Guitar.com: Cool. How have those off-festival headlining shows been for you this year?
Root: It's excellent. I love playing off-fest shows, we get to do our longer set, we get to play with lights instead of during the middle of the day. It's much more conducive to a Slipknot show.
Guitar.com: Exactly. What about the heat—how do you deal with the heat of the masks in the afternoon sun? It's got to be baking in there.
Root: It hasn't been that hot. I only heat-stroked out one time, and that was in Dallas. Other than that, it's been pretty mellow; pretty cool.
Guitar.com: So who is playing with you on the OzzFest second stage that you're really into?
Root: There's a band called Unearthed that's really cool. I haven't really gotten a chance to check out a lot of the bands. I've been watching this band called Lacuna Coil every once in awhile, they're OK.
Guitar.com: They're from Italy?
Root: Yeah, from Italy. Other than that I haven't even been to the main stage once. Well, I kinda wandered over there and watched maybe like five minutes of a Black Sabbath set, and a couple of (Rob) Halford's high wails. But other than that, I've just been kinda hanging out, being real mellow, and sticking to my dressing room.
Guitar.com: Do you spend most of your time practicing?
Root: I practice a little bit, I write music. And uh, hang out with special friends that I meet. (laughs)
Guitar.com: I understand what you mean. Do you carry a small recording system with you to capture ideas?
Root: Yeah, I've got Pro Tools. I've got an Mbox out here with me, and a Mac G4 notebook.
Guitar.com: And what are you playing through? A POD or something like that?
Root: No, I'm just using AmpliTube, the plug-in. I bought the full version of AmpliTube. I've been using Pods through it once in awhile. The only problem I'm having right now is how to do drums. It comes with Reason Adapted but I haven't really figured out Reason yet. I don't want to learn another whole different program, just so I can import drums. I'd rather just use a drum machine or something.
Guitar.com: So what gear are you using on stage on this current tour?
Root: I'm using Flathead Telecasters, from Fender. I'm using one Custom, like a Showmaster, neck-thru, one-of-a-kind guitar that Alex and Nicholas over at the Fender Custom Shop made.
Guitar.com: Alex Perez?
Root: Yeah, and Alex Nicholas. Those guys. We're actually working on a signature model, not done yet. But after OzzFest is over I'll be spending some time out in L.A. doing that.
Guitar.com: And that will be a Showmaster or a Tele?
Root: It's gonna end up being a Showmaster, I think. I'm really into the Teles, and I dig them, but John 5 just put out a signature Tele, so I thought I'd steer clear of that.
[Editor's Note: Read our recent John 5 article and learn more about his signature model Fender Tele.]
Guitar.com: And what amps are you using?
Root: I'm using Rivera Knucklehead Reverbs. The ones that I'm using have KT-88 power tubes in them. I'm using a GCX switching system, and I've got all kinds of effects—that sounds like Prong on stage right now.
Guitar.com: What pedals do you rely on most?
Root: The main pedals are a Dunlop Auto Q, a DigiTech Synth Wah (envelope filter), I've got a Maxon overdrive pedal—I'm not sure of the model number, but it looks like the old Ibanez Tube Screamer. [Editor's note: Root is talking about the Maxon Nine series pedal.] I've also got a Maxon Filter pedal (AF-9 Auto Filter) that kicks ***. I use that a lot. I'm using a (DigiTech) Hyper Phase, just to give some color to some of the octave and ambient noise things that we do in some of the songs. Those are really the main pedals. I've got a Dunlop rack wah pedal too, but I really haven't been using that so much, just 'cause, with our band, it's kind of a pain in the *** to run something out to the edge of the stage. Usually it gets unplugged or kicked around. And I'm using a whole bunch of goodies from the kind folks at Planet Waves.
Guitar.com: Are you pretty hands-on with the settings in some of the more complex effects units?
Root: Yeah, absolutely. I'll absolutely sit there and tweak. Well, we don't have a whole lot of time for pre-production. When we were first starting the tour I spent a lot of time trying to dial in the sounds, trying to get them as close to the album as possible. Sometimes it's really difficult to match the record because when you're recording in a studio, you've got all this gear, and most of the sounds that you get kind of accidentally happen. And to try to re-create that is kind of frustrating—but it's fun at the same time. I mean, who doesn't like playing with pedals? And when you get to do that through a full P.A. system!
Guitar.com: Right. And with the guitars, how do you have them set up? What might we see on the signature model?
Root: Well, basically, I'm gonna be doing bolt-on necks, alder bodies, rock maple necks with ebony fretboards. I'm doing a wider, flatter radius neck than Fender usually does. I'm trying to match up maybe the Charvel San Dimas 25th Anniversary style neck. Or maybe a Jackson SLSMG, as far as the radius and diameter of the neck. It'll have EMG-81 pickups in the body, EMG-60 in the neck. One volume knob, three-way selector. A pretty standard, straight-forward guitar: No tremolo; hard tail.
Guitar.com: Didn't you use Jackson guitars for awhile?
Root: Yeah, I was with Jackson for about a year.
Guitar.com: Fender owns Jackson now. Aren't they doing signature model Jackson guitars? Why have you opted to do a signature model through Fender instead of through Jackson?
Root: With Fender, I bought my first Custom Shop Fender from Alex Perez back in '99 when we were doing OzzFest for the first time. And to me, Fender wasn't too much of a metal guitar. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized, it is what you make it. And I'd heard that Fender had bought Jackson, and with Alex, not only do I get killer Fender stuff—and every guitar I've gotten from Fender has been amazing. Every one plays amazing, they've held up on the road. Every one of them sounds great. I don't have any complaints about anything Fender. Even the Squiers that they've sent me, I just throw EMGs in them and they're amazing guitars. They're well built.
They've treated me really well. They've gone above and beyond the call of duty for me. They've given me more than I could ever have asked for. And I mean, come on, I'm with the same company that, you know, David Gilmour is with. And Jeff Beck. And all these amazing players. Eric Clapton. It's a dream come true. It's really amazing.
Guitar.com: Did guys like that influence you at all?
Root: Absolutely. David Gilmour is a huge influence. I was into Harrison, the real tasty, bluesy?
Guitar.com: George Harrison?
Root: Yeah, George Harrison. He's an amazing guitar player. Songwriter too.
Guitar.com: Do you listen to a lot of Beatles music? Or his solo stuff?
Root: I listen to his solo stuff—actually I listened to All Things Must Pass earlier today. I listen to that, I listen to all the Beatles stuff. I listen to some Clapton stuff. I like everything. I like everything from bands like Blur to bands like Entombed to bands like Mezzanine or Portishead. I like everything. I listen to all kinds of weird crap.
Guitar.com: What kind of strings and gauges and tunings are you using?
Root: I'm using Ernie Balls, custom gauges: .011, .015, .018, .028, .038, .058. We're doing a C# tuning dropped to B right now. We do have a drop-A tuning that we do for a couple songs. We're playing "Iowa" in our main set, and "The Heretic Anthem." Those are drop-A songs. My gauges on those are like basically like one higher than everything I just said (.012, .016, etc.), except the low string is a .064 instead of a .058.
Guitar.com: When you say C# dropped to B, you mean C# standard—just like E standard except the entire guitar is tuned down to C# -- and then beyond that you drop that low string one more step to B?
Root: Yeah. It would be B-F#-B-E-G#-C# -- and don't ask me about the A tuning. It would take me awhile to put that together in my head. So basically it makes your band sound like there's absolutely no tone, which I'm not a big fan of. I'd like to start tuning back up. There's just so much tone that you lose from low tunings. You do gain some thickness and heaviness, but you sacrifice in actual tone. Most amps weren't built to handle those lower frequencies. That's why they're guitar amps and not bass amps.
Guitar.com: Right. If you tune any lower you'll have to either switch to a bass amp, or maybe put 15- or 18-inch speakers in all your cabinets.
Guitar.com: And the speakers you're using are 4x12 cabs, right?
Root: Yeah, I'm using the Rivera 4x12 cabs, but actually the main sound (that the audience hears) from the front of the house (the main P.A. speakers) is coming from a Randall Iso-cab that I've got a Celestion T-75 in. And it's miked off with two (Audio Technica) 4050s. That's my main sound out front. The cabinets are really just there to push air on stage. I could get rid of them completely if I wanted to and it wouldn't make a difference.
Guitar.com: What do you do with all the songs you write on your own? Is it meant for Slipknot, or is it meant for other projects?
Root: It's for whatever. I constantly write. It's part of what keeps me sane out on the road. I write, I take pictures. I just try to keep my mind busy with things like that. Whatever comes out, I'll use it for whatever happens. When I wrote "Circle," that was written in 2001 on the Iowa tour. I had no idea that would ever be used for a Slipknot song. But Clown and Joey and Paul fell in love with it and, what do you know—three years later it ends up on a Slipknot record. And it turns into a Slipknot song because everybody adds their own flavors to it. And that's really what makes a Slipknot song anyways.
Guitar.com: How does the writing process usually go in the band?
Root: There's so many different ways. It could be all of us in a room, and somebody comes up with a drum beat and we all just start adding to it. Or Joey could have a riff, or somebody else could have a riff. It could be Joey and Paul getting together and demoing things. It just depends.
Guitar.com: Is everybody usually coming in with something?
Root: Yeah, everybody usually has a little bit.
Guitar.com: From the guitar standpoint, how do your and Mick's playing and/or writing mix? How similar or dissimilar are they?
Root: We're basically from the same guitar school—the kind of woodshedding, practice, although I haven't really practiced my guitar in years. But there was a time when both of us were just dedicated to being dorky kids from Iowa who nobody liked, so we sat in our rooms and learned songs and practiced all the time. (laughs) But our approach is completely different. He has a very technical, theoretic approach—but he does go out there on a limb sometimes too. I think I just go more for the feel of it. We definitely have two different guitar styles, but I think they really complement each other well.
Guitar.com: Does Mick handle most of the soloing?
Root: On this album I think he's got like one more lead than I do. I think he does the lead on "Vermilion." And I don't have a lead in "Vermilion." But it's about 50-50, with the exception of "Vermilion." We do a lot of switching off. He'll be playing like really high, single-note stuff, but it's not really a lead, but it could, in a way, be considered lead playing. If you look at it in terms of lead and rhythm playing, in the old school rock ‘n' roll sense, like maybe the Beatles and stuff? Harrison was considered the lead guitar player, but really all he was doing was, instead of holding down the root notes of the song, he was fiddling around up high. And both Mick and I both do that. In any given song there are melodic high things that either of us might be doing. So it's not necessarily lead playing, per se.
Guitar.com: Do you work together in practice, like the two of you getting in a room and working out harmonies or anything like that?
Root: Never. (laughs).
Guitar.com: You just go by feeling as to your part?
Root: Yeah, pretty much. Or we'll sit in the studio in the control room and listen to the song and he'll be like, 'OK, I've got an idea!' Or I'll be like, 'OK, I've got an idea!' And each of us will do our idea and then whatever happens happens. It's not really like this big thought out process. It's kind of fly by the seat of our pants.
Guitar.com: Well man, keep on flying. It's really rockin'
Root: Cool, thanks Adam. Look us up when we come through Chicago.
Since this interview, Jim’s association with Fender and Squier has deepened.
Guitarists wanting to walk a less trodden path should check out Root’s Fender Jazzmaster with its super-minimalist treatment. For players on a tight budget, the Squier Jim Root Telecaster with dual humbuckers is a potent crunch machine.
For much more, check out the excellent guitar instructional and documentary, Jim Root: The Sound and the Story.
Tags: Electric Guitars