Find Your Signature Sound: How Metal Guitar Players Can Stand Out From The Crowd

An Interview with Luc Lemay of Gorguts

For metalheads like me, it’s no secret that the genre as a whole has evolved considerably over the last couple of decades—not only is there a much larger swath of die-hard fans around the world, but there’s a seemingly never-ending surge of new bands popping up, who add to an already extensive list (and crowded field) of artists.

Among these, however, are the stellar few outliers— those who stand out from the crowd and push the genre forward. For me, Gorguts is one of those visionary bands whose creativity and innovation underlies their unquestionably unique sound.

Formed in Sherbrooke, Quebec in 1989, the technical death metal outfit is widely considered one of the most complex, forward-focused, and fiercely experimental bands in metal. Headed by venerable guitarist and vocalist, Luc Lemay, Gorguts’ inspired, enigmatic music expands and contracts around brutalizing passages: barbs of groove, sinewy guitar solos, and Lemay’s bellowing gutturals are at the fore, while dissonant harmonies ushered in by orchestral ensembles sweep through for added drama.

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Maestro Lemay, along with a revolving line-up of all-star talent, has paved the way for many modern tech-death progeny who have taken queues from Gorguts’ distinct sonic qualities.

To better understand how Gorguts developed their sound, I spoke to Lemay for insight into his approach to songwriting, refining his guitar tone, and for his advice on how guitar players can find their own signature style.

What do you feel truly makes a guitar tone “unique” or “signature?”

To me, what makes a guitar tone singular is all about the playing. How someone expresses themselves through the instrument.

It can be the simplest riff ever and still have a signature sound— amps and pedals come in second. You can have one rig set up a certain way and have two players performing through it one after the other and it will sound different.

What are some techniques or technologies you employ to shape your guitar tone when songwriting and recording?

Gear took a more important place in the composition process, especially on the last two records. On Colored Sands, I started writing riffs using more clean tones, experimenting with different phrasing with delays and reverb.

But the more significant use of effects in the writing was on Pleiades Dust. I’m a big fan of Steven Wilson’s work, and after seeing a rig video, I decided to get a multi-effect processor, and I used it 110% in the writing.

For example, on the Pleiades Dust album you have a quite long, dark ambient counterpoint with only bass and guitar using extremely long delays and reverbs. This section cannot be performed without the effects.

What other musicians or styles of music have influenced your tone and playing style over the years?

When I started, I was really influenced by Chuck Schuldiner from DEATH. Then, when I saw and heard Suffocation, they became a big influence when I wrote our second album. Then, we wrote Obscura, and we became more interested in writing with less distortion in our tone, but focusing more on creating textures, like using our pick percussively on the strings and using more dissonances and open strings.

Speaking of influences, how can a musician best incorporate their musical influences into their overall style, while still maintaining a unique sound?

I think that at some point, the personality and individuality of the player tends to break through the most basic writing ingredients, like palm muting or tremolo picking.

I think it’s also taking place in the arrangement and structure department. A riff full of influences sitting on its own doesn’t mean much, but when a musical context is built around it, that’s where the musical personality happens. 

What are some tips for balancing guitars with other tonal elements and instruments within a song? What should a songwriter or composer do or listen for within a mix?

To me, everyone’s important in a mix. The whole thing should sound like one. I find it annoying when I listen to an album where the drums are way too loud compared to the other instruments, or if the guitars are burying the other players. That doesn’t serve the music.

Everyone should sound at the right place. The tip I can give is to find a producer who understands your music. These things happen when the wrong people are mixing.

What are some tools of your trade? What are your current go-to pickups, pedals, strings, etc.?

I’ve been using Marc Chicoine’s guitars for many years. We’ve been friends for over 30 years now. He crafts beautiful instruments, and they’re a joy to play.

I’ve been using Mesa Boogie amps since 2013. We used them on albums, but I didn’t own one back then. I use the JP2C which is John’s Petrucci’s signature amp. I love the Mark series tone and it’s also MIDI so I can use my G SYSTEM along with it.

As far as pickups go, I use Seymour Duncan Black Winter and Elixir for strings.

Do you use the same guitar setup when practicing or songwriting as you do when recording and should a musician use the same set up when songwriting as they do when recording their music? 

I don’t think that the same setup should be used all the time. For me, it doesn’t affect my playing workflow. Sometimes, I can write using the tube amp, and another day, I can write on the computer using the Axe-Fx.

If you had to describe your own signature sound in a few words, what adjectives would you use?

The first words that come to mind would be dissonant, floating and melodic. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lindsay O’Connor is a musician and vocalist – she currently is a member of the ultra-dissonant death metal band, Coma Cluster Void, and is the vocalist in the hardcore/slam metal band Eyes of Perdition.

**main photo by Sylvain Lussier

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