Here is my exclusive interview with my favorite Metal guitarist
Brandon “The Benchmark” Ellis..
What age did you start playing?
I think I was 11, I remember I was in 6th grade. A few of my relatives played guitar and I was into Ozzy and Van Halen and stuff like that, you know, the hardest rocking stuff an 11 year old knew about. There were some G3 DVDs around the house and after seeing Yngwie, Eric Johnson, Satriani, Vai, etc, I knew that I needed to play the guitar and what I had to do with it.
How did you learn how to play?
Basically I just bought a guitar and started playing it, I didn’t take lessons. First, I learned how to read tablature. It didn’t take long until I realized that 99% of internet tablature is incorrect, so I learned by ear starting from really early on. Also from the beginning I was aware there was a thing known as “music theory”, and although I couldn’t understand exactly what it meant as an 11 year old, it fascinated me that there was some kind of scientific way of explaining why music sounds the way it does. So any time I heard a word I didn’t understand I made sure to learn exactly what it meant and how to apply it. I started learning scales, chords, arpeggios, modes, all of that good “guitar player music theory” stuff, pretty much from the get go. In the midst of it, it was easy to get lost in it and become an exercise machine, spitting out scale runs and sweep arpeggios but not actually making any music or expressing anything. I was definitely aware that it was happening though and made every effort I could to dial it back and focus on musicality, phrasing, songwriting. It doesn’t take long to realize nobody in the real world wants to hear you burning through scales and arpeggios all day. I took some music theory courses in high school, but by that point I had already learned probably 90% of the curriculum from Google and Wikipedia. Having access to the internet as a child is an insane thing, when your brain is so hungry for knowledge. I never stopped, there is always more to learn, these days I’m a nerd for some classical style harmony and composition, but there is so much that is way beyond me. As far as technical proficiency, I was collecting instructional videos from my 80s and 90s guitar heroes and learning the sections that I liked, and not the ones that I didn’t. I think you need to pick and choose your style on your own, I tried not to take too much influence from any one player. I remember at my 8th grade battle of the bands playing Eruption and Hot for Teacher by Van Halen and Blitzkrieg by Yngwie, I think it was just me and a drummer and it was definitely really half assed and bad but I was trying my best, hahaha! Probably by the time I was 16 or 17 I could basically do everything I can do today on a technical level.
Have your folks been supportive?
Well to put it in context, I was definitely wasting my whole childhood away in the bedroom obsessing over the guitar, I probably played for nearly 8 hours a day most days. Sometimes I would stay up literally all night playing guitar and go to school the next day without sleeping. I had one or two friends and basically no social life whatsoever, no other hobbies, nothing else in the world that mattered to me. I would just come home from school and play guitar all day every day. It must have been concerning for awhile, but my mom came to realize it was more than just a hobby or an unhealthy obsession, that I was doing something different than other kids who played guitar and that it was important to pursue. When I bailed on school to go travel the world with my guitar at a young age she always 100% had my back, believed in me more than I did myself, she is pretty damn supportive!
Do you have a daily routine? Do you give lessons?
I do play every day, mostly I just pick up the guitar and go wherever my hands feel like, I just improvise. The videos I post to Facebook and Youtube of me just jamming for a minute or two, that’s basically what goes on when I play guitar at home. As a teenager I practiced hours and hours a day, practiced different shapes and exercises to get the muscle memory, new techniques, I played with a metronome, practiced really slowly, etc. Nowadays I don’t do that anymore. Once I got down all the techniques I wanted to use, I decided my time is better spent actually playing music. I’m either coming up with new riffs, songs, or just improvising for my own satisfaction. The techniques I use are more based on control and efficiency than actual raw physical ability, so they don’t really require maintenance or upkeep for me, as long as I just play.
I don’t give lessons often, when I had all the free time in the world, nobody wanted them. Now that I have no free time at all people are messaging me about it a lot. But every once in awhile my time management feels comfortable enough to take on a lesson here or there.
When learning Arsis and/or TBDM (how did you get involved with those guys?), do the dudes send you tab, expect you to learn the shit by ear, walk us through the process. Do you stay close to the album solos or do you improvise live?
I generally learn by ear. Once in awhile I’m provided tabs, but often I use my ear anyways because it’s easier for me to play when I can find the most natural positions for myself on my own. For my first Arsis tour when I was still a fill in, I was provided tabs for all of the rhythms. The solos I figured out myself. The next gig I got, I had to learn a set for the band Sylosis LITERALLY overnight, with no materials whatsoever. I was watching live videos to see where the dude’s hands were so I could guess which harmony he was playing, haha. When I played with Finntroll I did the same thing, but with a week to learn a 90 minute set. Basically I would chart out all the chords in each part and give each riff a nickname, and I would type out the song structure in a text file to look at while I played through. That sped up the memory part of it quite a lot. I learned 3 songs each day for a week to learn the set in time. In Cannabis Corpse, I get scratch tracks of the guitar riffs that I learn by ear. For Black Dahlia I had exactly a year in advance to prepare before I ever played a gig, so no issue there. When Brian first called me, he asked me to make a video for the solo in In Hell is Where She Waits for Me. I got off the phone, learned it, and sent them a video within a few hours. They requested 4 or 5 other solos and I knocked one out each day. Next they wanted me to learn something like 15 songs and make playthrough videos for each of them, straight through. Usually it was like “learn the guitar on the left side”. I would learn the song by ear and try to make a video the same day, if I couldn’t get it that day I would do it the next. The songs I learned then were most of the songs that are staples in the live set. I also would look up what their recent setlists were and learn a few others on my own for good measure. Before I played with them, I went out as their guitar tech on Ryan Knight’s last tour, so I could learn the stage setup, get a feel for how the songs sound live, and basically just get to know everyone. By that point I was already prepared to play the whole set, so by time I actually played my first show I had been like 1000% prepared for a long time! Nowadays I just get the setlist for the shows we’re about to do and when I show up for rehearsal I’m expected to know the stuff. I ask for clarification if there’s anything vague about who plays what. For the solos, it really depends. Of course, I do have a particular style of guitar playing, and in order to be Brandon Ellis I have to sound like myself. To be honest, there’s really only one way I know how to play guitar and I couldn’t authentically do it any other way. The melodic phrases, hooks, what I identify as the more memorable moments of a solo, absolutely I do not change them. But I will play the notes in my own style, adding bends, vibrato, slides, tremolo bar, etc. I play it the way I would have if I had written it. For the shreddier sections, if there is something that feels awkward to me, if I just can’t connect with it or it’s not something that I would have done, I will rework it. I use the same approach in Arsis, Cannabis Corpse, and The Black Dahlia Murder. I definitely don’t try to imitate the guitarists who played on the records that I didn’t. When people come to one of my shows, they are seeing the band perform, but they’re also seeing ME perform, and I would be doing my own brand a disservice if I let people judge me based on my impersonations of several other musicians. So I do it my own way. I try to find the balance of doing justice to the original and making it my own at the same time.
Music/bands you listen to for enjoyment:
Oh man, all kinds of stuff. Really all I can do here is skim through my Spotify and start listing what I see. Toto, Kansas, Yes, Blue Oyster Cult, Saga, City Boy, Boston, Magnum, MSG, Kings X, Van Halen, Yngwie. I like Ultravox and Depeche Mode. I like Earth Wind & Fire, Bee Gees, Phil Collins, Steve Winwood, Chicago. I’m into a lot of hair metal and 80s rock type stuff, Winger, Dokken, Whitesnake, Scorpions, Tesla, stuff like that. I’m also an aficionado for classical music, I like Scriabin, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Mussorgsky, Strauss, Brahms, Schumann, Wieniawski, Poulenc, Saint-Saens, Debussy, Liszt. I like Haydn, Schumann, Vivaldi, of course the obvious Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, too many to name… I’m more a fan of certain pieces than the composers themselves though, since it’s just overwhelmingly vast. I think the kind of rigorous harmonic structure you find in classical music is definitely embedded in most everything I do as a musician.
What heavy bands you into? There a genre of Metal you like best?
To name some of my favorite metal bands, King Diamond, Vicious Rumors, Iron Maiden, Megadeth, Crimson Glory, Savatage, Queensryche, etc. If you can lump all that stuff into the same “80s metal” genre somehow, that would be my thing. Metal with that kind of reckless attitude that kicks the goddamn door down. I find the same attitude in rock n roll, maybe more so. When metal is missing the rock n roll attitude it doesn’t really do it for me. Anyhow, I’m really an appreciator of the innovators. The bands that are either really unique in some way, or did something so different that it spawned it’s own subgenre. Metallica, Megadeth. Carcass, At the Gates, Dissection. Edge of Sanity, Amorphis. Cannibal Corpse, Obituary, Death. Dismember, Entombed. Maiden, Priest, Sabbath of course. Blind Guardian, Manowar, Helloween. Nevermore, Symphony X, Evergrey. I like bands where the personalities of its members really shine through the music, I feel that and connect to it the most. So the subgenres themselves aren’t of much concern to me, it’s the bands that defy and define them that I’m looking for.
You seem to use a lot of different gear, can you give a rundown on what you use?
At home I’ve got a Baron K2, a Krank Nineteen80, a pair of Peavey VTM60 and 120s. The Krank and the Peaveys are like muscled up JCM800 style amps. I have bought sold and traded a LOT of amps over the years, and basically where I’m at now is I will pretty much play anything. I don’t put much thought into it. With Black Dahlia we use 6505s, the band has 3 of them in the US and 2 of them in Europe, and they’re easy to put on the rider for fly-in shows. The consistency there is important, the fact that it’s highly available and we can sound the same everywhere. But, personally as a guitar player, I really enjoy the character of the British voiced amps. I have a variety of overdrive pedals I use with different amps to accomplish different things. With a 6505, Ill use either my Seymour Duncan 805 or my Maxon OD808. With a Marshall I’ll use my Seymour Duncan Forza or my Rat. I’m also fan of running a slow phaser first in the chain for solos, for that first Van Halen album type of solo sound. For pickups I use Seymour Duncans, the PATB1 Parallel Axis Trembucker Original is my go to, I also like the PATB2, PATB3, JB, Custom, Screamin’ Demon, RTM. I have over 30 guitars! Most of them are floyded super strats. First thing I do is drop in Duncans and make sure the floyd is either a Schaller, Original, or Gotoh. I like the 22 fret bolt on style best, just something about they way they resonate, but often to play a live set for my bands I need 24 frets, so you’ll usually see me playing the 24 fret neck thru style of guitar. I also love Les Pauls, and I have a few explorers and extreme shaped guitars I also love. But with all gear, I’ll pretty much work with whatever you throw at me, it all serves it’s purpose!
Any dream gear you’d like to acquire?
Not really! As a collector, there are some rarer pieces and high dollar guitars I would love to add my collection, some high end amps that would be cool to have. I have an appreciation for the luxury and art of handmade guitar gear, but at the end of the day it’s all wood, strings, and tubes, and the utility is really the same. I get scared taking my nice stuff on the road anyways, and I’m out there more than half the year.
Do you set up your own guitars?
I do, I set them up, I do electronics, fret levels, repairs, I have so many guitars I have to know how to do everything. I’ve scalloped a couple fretboards, refinished a few things, repaired headstocks. Once in awhile I visit my guitar tech with a job that is beyond my confidence level, routing or refrets, more major things. Having the know how to work on guitars allows me to turn basically any guitar into what I need it to be. You’ll see me playing Vesters and other cheap guitars on tour because I can set them up to play the same as my more valuable guitars and I don’t have to worry if they get beat up.
Name some guitarists who have inspired you.
Eddie Van Halen, Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Lukather, Blues Saraceno, Mattias IA Eklundh, Paul Gilbert, Jason Becker, Michael Romeo, Michael Schenker, Andy LaRocque, John Sykes, John Norum.
Your thoughts on vibrato (which I am an absolute stickler for; the mean shit).
I’m known for using a really wide, dramatic, over the top, aggressive vibrato, but, I am down with any kind of vibrato so long as it sounds natural, purposeful, thoughtful, and emotional in the appropriate way for the music. About the WORST word that I could use to describe vibrato would be “arbitrary”, that is what you’re hearing 99% of the time when someone’s vibrato turns you off. Doing it just because they think they are supposed to, with little or no thought put into it’s purpose or effect. I take into consideration the timing (and tempo of the song), range of pitch, direction of pitch (higher or lower), technique (finger, tremolo, sliding), also the overtones/harmonics (the way I pick the note, how much I want it to scream), and most importantly, feeling. Sometimes when I track a solo on a demo, I play in a way that is really difficult to reproduce on purpose, and I’m kind of screwed if I have to re-record it for the record. Hard to do while overthinking it. It’s best when you’re just feeling it. As far as I care, you can do it any way you want, as long as you have an actual goal of what you’re trying to express, and you achieve it. I am even cool with the really unsettling, shaky, narrow, ugly sounding vibrato in the right context. If the music is hectic, chaotic, evil, it sometimes just works. I’m talking about Slayer or something here, you know? That’s cool to me too. Context is important.
Any advice to aspiring guitarists?
The best thing I ever did for myself was to learn how to record. Do it right now! The earlier the better. When you hear yourself under such scrutiny and clarity your technique will adjust itself. Your hand tone will improve dramatically. You’ll fix bad habits you didn’t know you had. You’ll play cleaner. Your timing and pocket will improve. You’ll develop a producer’s ear for a good performance. You’ll become intimately familiar with every aspect of guitar tones and develop a more refined ear for dialing in the right sounds. You’ll be able to easily write and record music, share it with others, collaborate. You’ll get over the fear of the red light, be able to go to a studio already experienced and nail your parts confidently. It will seriously improve your musicianship in ways you’ve never even thought of. I was around 15 when I bought my first audio interface and it was definitely crucial in my development as a musician. In fact, every solo I’ve ever recorded for an album I did it at home myself. Every serious guitar player needs to be able to do it, I really can’t stress it enough!
Albums Brandon has played on:
2012 – Arsis – Leper’s caress
2013 – Arsis – Unwelcome
2015 – Six Feet Under – Crypt of the Devil
2017 – The Black Dahlia Murder – TBA
Nice!! Guitar Player, Guitar World, it looks like I have done your job for you. I accept Paypal, bitches. And I’ll go halvsies with Brandon.