“I Realized That Asshole Playing That Sounded Horrible Was Me” – an Interview with Emil Werstler

Emil Werstler gets around. Sure, someone like Jeff Loomis may have sat in on guitar with a slew of groups, but you could picture every one of those bands in the same mp3 playlist. But Emil has gone from Daath (and its offshoot Levi/Werstler) to Chimaira to jazz and back without blinking an eye. I don’t know if you’ve checked out any of his lessons on JamPlay, but this video from a couple of years back shows off the type of chromatic non-metal sensibility that you don’t hear in the average sweeper du jour.

Now that Chimaira is done, following the exodus of every member of the band which followed Emil’s initial departure, Werstler is moving onto new musical ventures. So the time seemed ripe to catch up with him.

Gear Gods: How did you get your start playing guitar? What was your first guitar/amp setup?

Emil Werstler: My childhood friend showed up at my house with a guitar.  A red “Phantom” pawn shop piece.  It was glorious because it was his.  I noticed the glory – I had to have my own so I could partake.  My first guitar was a Washburn Lyon.  This guitar was a piece of shit, but it was mine.  I had no idea what a setup was nor did I even know there were guitars that were easier to play.  I was just concerned about learning anything I could.

At that point it was no more baseball, no more video games, no more socializing with non-artistic people that were not on a mission.  No more full attention to anything outside of my world unless I found a parallel on the instrument.  I still feel horrible guilt on down time and have problems sitting still and focusing if it does not release whatever chemical inside of me improving does.

The amp I had was a ROSS keyboard amp.  I thought overdrive was from playing harder and turning up louder.  It’s the youthful ignorance that molds.  In retrospect, I would’ve never worked that hard had I’ve known any better.

How did you develop your background is music theory? Did you start by playing rock and metal and then move into other genres, or the other way around?

I come from a musically inclined family.  So, installed was plenty of Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Led Zepplin – a very large dose of the who’s who in music history, so it’s as if I learned faces to put with names.  My first instrument was the piano at 6.  So, an understanding of the basic language of music was installed before I even found the desire to be a musician.  The piano was something my father had to beg me to practice.  He took me every week for lessons for years and years.  It wasn’t until I discovered the guitar and my own age group’s era of music that it all collectively came together.

I’ve never designated one playing style any different than the other.  I think a genre is just a type of presentation and the key co-existing in any circumstance.  Since a scale is a set of notes that can be used in any genre,  I consider it all under the same umbrella.  These are more recent beliefs though.

Earlier on, a metal band was the first option to getting my playing out to the world.  By the time the opportunity presented itself, I already understood that I was chasing something else.   Not only was a a teenager that was into heavy music, but my natural behavior and reflexes were on par with what you could consider the requirements for metal.  I figured that out early and lost interest in the mechanics.

By the time my first real project got signed and became the focus, I knew the only thing that could make me develop a notorious sound that had lasting potential was by imposing something fresh.  With metal, the minor and diminished ideas are used on a very fundamental level.  Metal players tend to blast a parallel scale like diminished because it is easy to manage and has a slightly devilish sound.  That’s why you can pick out diminished sounds with ease when you hear them.  This is also why that sound is very cliche and predictable.

The physical side of playing came easier to me.  I’m naturally attracted to challenges, so guitar was actually something I did constantly like breathing while my mind was on the theory.  I knew what I wanted early on so I just took shit seriously.  Anything I could find to make people react was all I was really after.

When it comes to writing though, I always start without the theory hat on and only pull it out when something does not flow.  I find that the theory can put the train back on the tracks so you don’t have to think as much.

To make a long story longer, I was into all genres at the same time.  I was into theory and playing at the same time.  Once I got tired of one, I’d go to the other.

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Of the many musical projects you’ve been involved in, which has been the most challenging? Has there been any endeavor that’s been more challenging mentally than physically, or more physically than mentally?

When something is 100% your own and reflecting directly upon you, you are going to take it more seriously and search harder for the right things.  This usually involves more thought, time, and acclimation of an idea.

What I’m working on right now has been the most challenging on a mental level.  With rock and metal, the solution is usually just the opposite.  In other words, if you have an A section, you’ll want to have a bigger or B section.  There is more apparent bronze over brains in the creative department for this genre.  For me, this has always created a sense of autopilot which is why I just don’t want to play a well put diatonic solo.  I have to inject other things to wake the listener up and let them know I’m controlling what they are hearing which takes listening as well.

When you are an artist that knows what moves people expect from you, it grants you the ability to coast.  Most people call it “a formula that works” but real listeners with depth of hearing will just refer to it as “the same shit over and over” or “devoid of life”

Anything that is closer to being completely yours is going to be handled with kid gloves.

Are there any musicians who have had a big influence on your playing, but wouldn’t be easy to identify by listening to you play? Anyone from a very different style of music, a different type of instrument, etc?

Most of my influences can be pointed out immediately when it comes to soloing and the overall language I choose to use.  What I really enjoy listening to on a deeper level is quite the opposite.  I’m heavily influenced by Martin Gore (Depeche Mode), David Eugene Edwards (Woven Hand/16 Horsepower), Anna Calvi: usually musicians/vocalists with a very strong sense of individuality as well as darkness.  Sometimes vocals leave little to the imagination when getting the message across.  When I’m not in the mood for that, you’ll find me listening to a lot of electronic music, but not whats been recently declared EDM.  The coolest things that have made me jealous lately would be the latest MIA and Flying Lotus.  What Flying Lotus is doing stresses me out its so good.

Listening to jazz is more mood based for me.  It’s not something I can pay attention to all the time.  I find myself listening to it out of inspiration as well as closely digging for new harmonic ideas.  George Benson, Charlie Christian, and Pat Martino are players that had a huge impact on me that you couldn’t tell by listening to my playing.  Charlie Parker is a big influence but someone that intimidates me because I feel like if I go there, I have to get it right.  No faking.

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You’ve played with a lot of musicians over the years. Who do you think is the most underrated player you’ve ever gigged with?

I think it is easy to say that any musician of substance is a gem.  The same as a musician that actually has good business ethics and can stick around.  Now that I’m done being nice, I can tell you there are a few that are beyond the point of basic comprehension as far as musical prowess and where they stand stylistically is concerned.  These are people that not only are incredible with the execution of the music, but also where they stand within its culture.  These are the people that go unsung as they constantly create something new, while simultaneously not giving a shit at all because they just do what they do.

Carter Arrington, Kevin Scott, and Deantoni are are names that everyone should be aware of.  Nicky Moroch and Brent Mason are people that have been incredible for decades, no matter what new situation people think “the music business” is in.  These are musicians you will not see on the front of some publication because they are TRUE innovators.  They don’t just exist off of the perception of being great.  They don’t need a perfect setup or a perfect piece of gear.  You give these people your attention and they’ll blow you away no matter what the circumstance.

Let’s say hypothetically you were cursed, and had to choose: you can either gig with any band or musician of your choice whenever you want, as often as you want, for the rest of your life, but can never write a note of music again: you have to play the material you’re given… or you can create music with any musicians, at any studio, of your choosing, and make a living off of nothing but writing or recording amazing records, but can never gig again. Which would you choose?

I would say making records, but, if I was on stage and could interpret the music however I wanted, I’d stick around in that situation longer.  It is closer to creating something of your own.  In my world, one feeds the other, so if I had to choose I would be miserable.  That’s like asking me if I’d rather be blind or deaf.

So, my answer to this would probably change every hour.

PRS Archon High Gain Amp

Can you describe what guitar rig you had the first time you ever found your sound, the first time you were really happy with your tone? And has that tone stayed ballpark to what you shoot for now, or has it evolved over the years, or depending on the musical context?

It is kind of difficult to answer this question within one genre.  For metal and loud rock, when I discovered the dual rectifier, it’s nice to have the reliability as well as constancy and features that suit me in whatever situation comes with that territory.  Lately for metal and loud rock, it’s been the PRS Archon of which I’m playing exclusively.

The one amp in particular that has been on the majority of my records is the 20th Anniversary Bogner Shiva, or the regular EL 34 model.  I got rid of 2 of those before I finally found the one that makes me angry when someone tries to put a drink on it.

bogner shiva

What was the worst rig you’ve ever played through, not for a one off gig? Specifically, did you ever have a setup that was yours and you look back now and wonder what you were thinking? I feel like most of us who played guitar in the ’90s have had such a setup.

Krank amps were the worst sounding amps I’ve ever heard.  I’ve unfortunately had to play through one for an entire tour.  Twisting those knobs for a half an hour every day accomplished nothing but saying goodbye to time that I’ll never get back.

Oddly enough, the worst gig I’ve ever had on an amp is the Bogner Shiva in a combo form.  It caught me off guard a long, long time ago when I was in a cover band.  I was not used to hearing everything so clearly, that I thought someone else was playing poorly beside me, but it was me.  It took butchering half of a tune and looking around to see what the hell was going on before I realized that asshole playing that sounded horrible was me.  It was a packed house as well.  The only sensation I could imagine being similar would be getting slapped in the face by a beautiful women in public.

Needless to say, I found an amp that could cut through anything to the point of catching me off guard.  This is why I still use some model of Shiva on the records I’ve done up to this point.  Being slapped in the face with the truth can be a good thing.

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Can you give a brief overview of your current go-to guitars, amps, and pedals?

Yes.  My go to guitar at the moment is a PRS Private Stock JA-15.  The sustain on it is so close to infinite and the tone is brilliant.  Most players go for “brutal” or “scooped” – I go for brilliant and audible.  Oddly enough letting the instrument be in its indigenous range prevents a lot of problems like having a terrible mix live and on record.  Imagine that!

Amps for me recently would be the PRS Archon.  This amp is busy surprising a lot of people because it sounds incredible, is affordable, and actually has a clean tone.  As I mentioned earlier, I’ve used a 20th Anniversary Bogner Shiva for my leads, cleans, and detail highlighting for years.  Before the Archon my touring amp of choice was a Mesa Dual Rectifier.

Xotic Overdrive is my go to in the world of pedals.  It has the transparency that I need to fluff up a tone without adding scooped or fuzzy tones on top.  Other than the essentials, I’m fond of the Electro Harmonix family of products – which is a direction I’ve been working out for the past year or so.

As far as time based effects go, I’m hot and cold.  I’m not a big delay guy at times because my style is chromatic.  Delay smudges your notes and puts you further away from the listener anyway.

I have a Line 6 Echo Pro (rack) if I do decide to highlight a phrase, and I delegate my signal flow with Voodoo Labs GCX and Ground Control Pro.

That’s about as far as I go with gear.  I don’t get much more detailed unless it involves making music.

line-6-echo-pro

Is there any new piece of gear that you’ve heard about and are eager to check out?

Not really.  I hate to piss down the back of the party, but I’m a hard sale when it comes to anything media or product based.  I’m not a grumpy old man when it comes to being turned onto something new, but even if it is music or film, I’m not sold by hype or what works for others.  The only reason is because I’m very aware of what works for me and what does not.  Like music, if I come across it on my own in a natural, unbiased way, then it will stick with me.  If it sticks, I’ll go after the entire back catalog.

So as far as gear goes, it’s the same thing.  Timelessness is important to me.  Most of the gear I use or music I listen to works and it is old.  So, new things are always welcome, but I’m not going to change what I’m doing to fit in.  Instead, I’ll just keep doing what I know and improve while keeping myself away from the majority.

I know a lot of people that would be better players if they were less concerned about gear and more concerned about making music.

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Do you tend to mostly use similar gear regardless of the musical context? Have you found a setup versatile enough that you can bring it and be confident you’ll have the tones you’re looking for? In short, have you found a “desert island” rig that pretty much always works?

My desert island rig is simply my demeanor and my hands.  When I show up to the studio to get the job done, I truly don’t care about anything but what is being played.  In the current state of things, there is always “THE BEST MODELING SOFTWARE” and “THE BEST REAMPING ABILITIES” if this is the case, and there is all this amazing new technology, why does anyone even care?  Why would someone spend six hours finding the best amp to use, when its going to be replaced?

It’s real simple actually.  If you have every movie ever, do you watch exactly this or that, or do you spend too much time finding what to watch?  I think we all know the answer to that, but very few of us acknowledge the fact that gear is the same way.  If you are re-amping or using modeling software, what is the point of wasting the time on things that are going to be undone?

For the last record or two, I’ve plugged straight into a head and made sure every note low and high can be heard.  Once I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I nailed the holy shit out of something, with no assistance from overdrive or compression or modeling software, I know its going to pop.  9 times out of 10, a tone close to it is kept which is further proof that conviction, execution, and demeanor is what creates the majority of “good tone.”  Fluffing things up for ease of use limits what you are saying while doing away with the nuances of human detail in my opinion.

Letting yourself get away with things is not a training ground for excellence.

What’s your preference in the feel of a guitar? How many frets? How flat of a neck? Is there a particular uncommon feature that you wish more manufacturers would build in standard, like a sustainer pickup or a locking jack? Personally I’ve always hoped that companies would start adopting balanced outputs (but of course pedals and amps would also need to accept and pass through a balanced signal, so it’s never going to happen).

I don’t really dig on ease of use for the most part.  If a guitar has low action and thin strings, it can’t handle my velocity without sounding off.  The main part of my sound is digging in and playing hard in the upper register. To me, this is a sign of conviction.  When someone pops and accents, it adds variety which is something that is rarely heard these days.  I think a lead instrument should come as close as possible to baring the characteristic of the human voice.

As far as my guitar preferences are concerned, I’m a traditionalist.  I’m a 22 fret guy by default, but it all depends on the gig.  I go for a bigger, wider, fatter neck than most due to left hand control as well as tone.  I like to fight for what comes out of my guitar because of the way it sounds.  A pencil thin neck holds less sound, and for me, makes vibrato more of a challenge.  I’m also a passive pickup guy.  I prefer lower output and hard playing over high output with soft playing.

You’ve made a big change it seems, in leaving Chimaira. Any news on new musical output from you to fill that void?

I would not say that there is any void filling necessarily.  I always have my hands in a few things at once.  Right now I have a record almost complete that will be under my own banner.  I’m hot and cold about it being under my name, because I can’t stand the terminology “solo record” which sounds like something undesirable or second best.

This will be the start of something that will move forward no matter what gig I take, or what people expect out of me as a player.  It’s finally about an original sound and a musical identity I’ve been sitting on for quite some time.  It’s not what people are going to expect and I fully believe it will make them listen and actually understand me as a musician.  I also have to do something grandiose to get far away from what is currently going on music in general.

Someone has to do something instead of just talking about it.

Thanks Emil. Anything you wanted to mention in closing?

If you have any interest in online instruction or if I am in your area and you would like to improve your playing, you can contact me here:

WWW.EMILWERSTLER.COM
WWW.EMILWERSTLER.COM/BLOG
WWW.FACEBOOK.COM/EMILWERSTLER
WWW.TWITTER.COM/EMILWERSTLER

Other than that, thanks for the read.

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Written by

Chris Alfano has written about music and toured in bands since print magazines and mp3.com were popular. Once in high-school he hacked a friend's QBasic stick figure fighting game to add a chiptune metal soundtrack. Random attractive people still give him high-fives about that.