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From the Trippy ’70s to the Evil ’80s: an Interview with Opeth Guitarist Fredrik Åkesson

opeth-Fredrik-Åkesson

I have no idea what the name of the new Opeth record is. Believe me, I tried. I don’t even know the lyrical concept or song titles. But I have heard the songs, and they’re damn good, as long as you don’t expect the album to sound like Blackwater Park.

But it doesn’t exactly sound like Heritage either. Sure it’s more in that direction in the sense that there’s no death metal grunts and I don’t remember hearing any blazing double kick during my listening session. But although the new Opeth retains the more progressive rock leaning, the band’s new jam just has this mood to it: more ominous. The key choices bring with them a foreboding doom.

I imagine you’ll hear it soon enough. But if you can’t hear the tracks, why not let the band’s guitarist Fredrik Åkesson describe the sounds and the tones to you? I got on the phone with him recently to ask about the band’s swerve in direction, how they got those haunting tones, his mindset when he goes into tracking, and more.

I just checked out the new album, and it’s great.  I was actually pretty pleased to hear that you guys continued in a kind of similar direction as Heritage – I really liked that record.  One thing I noticed is that even though it retains that classic progressive rock vibe, it’s also a little darker sounding, a little more evil.  Was that an intentional thing that you guys went into or was that just how things turned out?

We talked about that because Heritage definitely has a 70s type sound production wise, so we talked about if we wanted to do an album that had more of an early 80s vibe like Holy Diver kind of stuff, like the early 80s/late 70s type of vibe in the production.  The guitars, for instance, on the Heritage album we used single coil pickups.  On this one we used a regular humbucker and P90s for the dirty rhythm mix.

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What amps and guitars were using on this album as opposed to the last one?

I used Marshall JVM Satriani model that we took all the gains and extra stuff out.  It’s a plexi amp basically.  So we did that and cranked it to max.  We didn’t use the extra gain or anything like that and put it down to 50 watts to add a bit more compression to it.  The Marshall JVM Satriani model has a bit more 800 type of mode in 2nd channel – 2nd channel rest to be specific.

Were you pushing the front of it with any pedals or anything or just getting the amp as loud as you could?

I didn’t have to push the pedal because there was just enough amount of gain – the JVM had enough gain.  We all used another amp.  He used a hand wired Bluesbreaker for the more delicate leads.

What amp is that?  The Bluesbreaker?

Marshall.  It’s a hand wired model that’s like the one that they used back in the day.  We used that for some stuff and it worked beautiful.  He had a pedal up there that he built, the guitar tech that worked there to help us out a bit, and he built his own distortion pedal that we used a bit for solos for a bit of an extra push.  It was hand built, so it’s not on the market or anything.  Echo wise we used MXR Carbon Copy delay for some of the rhythm stuff and some of the leads and also the Way Huge pedal called Supa-Puss.  On the album you can hear in 3 or 4 different songs this psychedelic pulsating feedback type of sound with that Supa-Puss pedal that Way Huge does.  It’s kind of cool.

 Marshall-Bluesbreaker

Did you wind up changing your rig a lot for a lot of the lead tones or did you pretty much keep the same amp setup?

Right now I’m using Marshall JVM Satriani model since I needed a lot of different tones live, it’s perfect for me because it covers the whole spectrum.  You can get Plexi tones or more classic tones and really heavy, dirty stuff as well.

That’s something that I was curious of is that Opeth always covered a lot of sonic ground with their music, but now with Heritage having that 70s rock vibe and this one has that still classic but more 80s rock vibe, do you find it hard to recreate all the sounds that you have to cover live without having 4 amps on stage?

I think we have that kind of approach that it doesn’t have to be exactly like on the album.  For example on Heritage we used mainly single coils on the album for the dirty rhythms but live we used humbuckers.  The guitar parts were definitely heavier live.  You can do a lot with the tone knob if you wanted more of a laid back, classic rock sound you can just pull the knob down.  I use the Dunlop Volume pedal live, so if I need a really heavy sound I can just pull that volume pedal back a little bit to add a more old type of rock sound.

I noticed between this new album and Heritage that even though they have a very classic, analog sound that some of the lead sounds that you’re using tend to be more on the modern side.  I was curious if you were more comfortable with a modern lead tone or something that you wanted to do to intentionally bridge the gap.  Was there a stylistic reason that you still went for a more modern lead tone on top of that classic rhythm guitar sound?

Yeah, I think that was worked out in the studio in a way for the heavier leads with the PRS Tremonti model – which worked great.  I kind of like that mix.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be super vintage everything.

prs-tremonti

I was curious about some your arrangements.  I never read too much about how you guys work out your guitar parts.  Do you and Mikael usually flesh out your own rhythm guitars or is it usually that whomever comes up with the main riff usually has the idea for the 2nd guitar part already?

Yeah, Mike wrote the entire album.  Basically it’s playing the riffs like he wrote them on the demos.  The stuff I came up with are solos and more psychedelic effects and stuff like that, experimenting with it.  For the riff parts, we didn’t really experiment.  We did it pretty much the way he played it in the demo.  Then again, everyone plays a bit different.  For the rhythm guitars, we recorded one on each side of the album.

Is that usually something that you haven’t done in the past?

We did that on Heritage.  On Watershed, we did 2 each on each side.  I think it’s kind of cool to keep it at 1 each because there’s a lot of other stuff going on.

So there was no double tracking?

Not on this album.  We did 1 each on each side, that’s it for the main heavy riffs.  Then we put the leads and other stuff on top of that and stuff like that.  That’s the way we want to keep it so that you can hear the players’ actual touch.  It’s not the wall of sound where the guitars are completely synched.  It gives it a bit more life.  It’s not super-duper tight.  We play slightly different and it gives it more of a different atmosphere in a way.

I actually like that you brought that up because I feel that a lot of producers nowadays say “now it’s time for the double on the rhythm track” and they don’t even really think about it anymore.

Yeah.

Was that something that you guys went into the recording process knowing that you wanted to do or did you kind of experiment and see?

We’re not too picky about it and hoped that it gives it a bit more life.  Most of the Opeth albums aren’t played super perfectly.

You guys have gone through quite a few amp configurations since the Watershed days.  Back then weren’t you using Laneys with Boss fffect processors and you were with Blackstar for a while and then went to Marshall?  How did your tone develop through those years?

I’m always experimenting to come up with the best tones and pickups and all that.  I used the Blackstar amps for a while but before that I used Marshall.  I’ve always been a huge fan of Marshall.  I figured that I should go back to Marshall and they came out with a Satriani JVM head, and when I heard that I was like “this is going to cover everything I need”.  It’s always the ultimate guitar tone but I feel solid with this amp now.  I’m not going to jump around anymore.

I hadn’t heard that one specifically.  What’s the information on that model?  Is it a 3-channel one?

It’s a JVM and they improved the effects loop as well.  It doesn’t take much tone out of the core of the sound, which is very important to me because I want to have the full core.  It has a noise gate built into it instead of reverb like the original JVMs, which is quite useful.  It doesn’t really cutoff any sustain or anything.  It works really great, so I don’t have to plug any noise gate pedals in my system, which I like.  It’s easier this way.

You guys have Axe-FX units in the effects loop, right?

Mike uses the Axe-FX in the return of the Vintage Modern Marshall Amp.  I have one back home, but I use old analog stuff.  I have a bunch of different Dunlop and MXR pedals that I use in a rack with a Voodoo Lab switching system for 8 different loops.

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Is that the GCX switcher?

Exactly.  That’s the one I use.  I have a Carbon Copy delay and Dunlop Uni-Vibe in there.  I kind of change it up a bit.  That’s what I like about it because if I need a tremolo for a certain song, I can just replace one pedal and put it in there.  It’s kind of vintage but still high tech.  The idea was to have the control cables up front so that you keep the signal path as short as possible.

That’s pretty much it.  I was trying to think of the other pedals that I have in there.  I have a Phase 90 as well by MXR.  I’m probably going to put in the Supa-Puss delay by Way Huge.  I really like that one.

Fredrik-Åkesson-opeth-prs-signature

One last thing that I wanted to ask you about is some of the design decisions you made with your signature Paul Reed Smith came out.  There are a couple of interesting things on there like the positioning of the volume and tone for the bridge and neck pickups are backwards, right?

Yeah because I usually don’t roll off the volume like a reflex because when I finish a song, I always roll off the volume and it’s confusing for me to have it on the bridge pickup.  I’m used to having it closest that’s why I changed that up.

What was the advantage of doing that versus just having one volume control in that position that would control both pickups?  Do you have one pickup at full volume and the other at half volume?

Yeah, you can do that.  That’s a good idea.  I think one is a classic 4 knob setup and you can do that quickly with a pickup selector as well.

Before you did a major signature model, what model guitar were you mainly playing?

One of my favorites is a Mark Tremonti PRS guitar.  I used that a lot and also the 245 SC.  Those are my main ones.  I still use those.  I also use another by PRS the P22.  I really like that one.  They make fantastic guitars.  They’re trustworthy workhorses.  Before I used PRS, I used ESP for a while.  Before I was endorsed by anyone I used a couple of Gibson Les Pauls as my main models.

prs-245-sc

Out of curiosity, what was your 1st guitar?

That I ever bought?

Yeah.  That you had.

I think I got my 1st one when I was 10, and that was an Ibanez Les Paul copy.  Those are rare these days.  I regret selling it.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen one.

It had the sunburst finish.

Is there any info on when the album title will be announced or when the album will come out and when you’ll start touring for it?

It’s going to be out at the beginning of the summer.  I can’t say the exact date.  Mikael is going to come up with the title any day soon.  He has some ideas.  It’s very fresh for us still.  We haven’t even played it to our friends yet.

Do you have an overall theme or something with the lyrics that he’s working the title off of?

I can’t reveal anything now.  I would get yelled at.

[Laughter]

Thank you so much for your time.

My pleasure totally.

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