Music Theory and Composition Interview with Jeff Loomis
Photo: Daniel Zetterstrom
Tommaso Zillio: Hi there, this is Tommaso Zillio from Musictheoryforguitar.com, and I am on the phone today with Jeff Loomis, and I think Jeff Loomis needs no introduction whatsoever. How's it going Jeff?
Jeff Loomis: It's going great. Thank you very much for having me today. I appreciate being here.
TZ: So Jeff I have a few questions for you on the topic of music theory and composition. I think I will start with this one. What would you say to someone, like our readers, who aspire to play like you but is intimidated at the level of theory and technique they have to master in order to play like you?
JL: Well, I mean, coming from a guy that's talking right now, obviously I don't know much music theory as I express in my guitar clinics. I really rely on what I think sounds good to my natural ear, and I think whatever sounds good is good as far as when you are recording stuff.
I do know a little bit of music theory and I do know my way around the fret board pretty decently as far as the way that scales are connected and such but really I rely on just my ear and what sounds good. And I try to write very dark heavy stuff, very minor sounding stuff.
But my definite answer to other kids out there that want to play the way I do is really to come up with your own style and technique and just try to be yourself. Try to be an innovator and try to come up with something that's original. It's very important that you do that.
A lot of kids out there that love metal just listen to metal music. I think that's cool and all, but I think you really can open your mind much more by listening to different styles of music such as jazz and classical music as well. So try to keep an open mind with what you listen to. It can really steer you in another direction musically as well. So keep an open mind. It's a good thing to do.
TZ: Yeah, yeah that's great. How your approach to music composition has changed through the years -meaning how did you compose your first song? What did you put together first, and how are you approaching composition now?
JL: Well it's crazy as far as technology has come over the last ten years even. I used to start writing with just guitar riffs and stuff like that but with all the killer technology that's out today, especially with Pro Tools and stuff like that. Nowadays it's much different of course. But back in the day when I was like 19 or 20 years old or something starting to write with Nevermore, I would have just a little drum machine and just compose simple little rhythms on there and basically just compile riffs and hopefully with any luck id have 10 or 12 really solid good riffs by the end of the day, and I'd just start putting them together like a piece of a puzzle.
It's like building a house, you start with the foundation and then you start working your way up and you just start adding more things to it to make it perfect. But nowadays it's much different. I definitely love to use Pro Tools where I can arrange and put different parts I have in different areas or different sections of the song very, very easily it's very easy to chop apart and get rid of it or add another part and add it a few times to the piece.
So yeah realistically the way I write is just coming up with a ton of riffs and putting them together like a piece of a puzzle and it's hard to do that sometimes. Sometimes it comes very easily. Other days I have writer's block where I just have to put down my instrument and try again. So it's kind of hit or miss for me.
But all in all, it's one of those things that can be time consuming and you just have to put the work and the effort into it and with any luck you will come up with a fantastic piece. It really comes down to a lot of practicing and just messing around and just seeing what sounds good.
TZ: I see. Those are pretty solid tips. Thanks. When you are composing what do you consider the most important element of your composition to focus on? How do you direct your thoughts? What are you thinking?
JL: Wow, great question. Man, what am I thinking when I compose music and write? Well I guess mostly just something that's catchy and has a groove to it where somebody can remember. For instance one of my songs I have on my new record called "Sibylline Origin" it's very, very, I think very catchy. The opening rift is something you will always remember and hum along to. It just has a very catchy hook to it. So really I am just trying to think of that and something that somebody will remember.
If you are just kind of writing quickly and coming up with spontaneous riffs that's all good and stuff, but they really have to be memorable and that's something that's really important. I try not to think too hard when I'm composing otherwise it just kind of sounds too worked out, so I really just focus mostly on something that comes from the heart and something that has a lot of emotion and technical feel to it. That's what I've always done from the beginning. So that's kind of a simple process but at the same time it's kind of complicated
TZ: Yes it is, yes it is.
JL: It's really hard to describe the way you write. Basically I keep it simple. I sit down and I play my guitar, and if something good comes out I'm very fortunate that day that I had good riffs that day.
TZ: Looking back over the year that has been developing and improving your skills can you think of anything you might have started differently?
JL: Anything that I might have started differently? Probably just more on technique; technique as far as my right hand. I always try to make sure that I am very articulate with my right hand, and I can't practice that enough. Every day when I sit down I always try to warm up for at least an hour and just focus on my right hand and make sure it is working with my left hand properly. Technique is such an important thing.
I always from the beginning, I was always inspired by a lot of 80s and early 90's guitar players like Yngwie Johann Malmsteen, Jason Becker, Marty Friedman. All these guitar players all have very different picking styles but they are all very technically advanced. So I knew from the get go that I wanted to be like that where I had a very, very solid articulation with my right hand.
So I would have probably spent more time on that even though I put hours and hours into that, I really would have focused on that more just making sure my precision and preciseness were really up to par. And I am still working on it today it's a never ending thing you keep doing it until you perfect it. I guess that's the fun thing about guitar- there is always something new to learn every day.
The cool thing about today's day and age is I think a lot of younger guitar players are becoming better much quicker just because they have so much more to really look at. For instance, you have YouTube out there and you can literally type in anything you want and you can get a free lesson on the Internet. You don't have to go out and spend $50 an hour trying to find some guitar teacher to show you something. You can find all this amazing stuff on YouTube to kind drive you in a different direction.
That's what I do. Whenever I want something to learn, I'll just type it into YouTube and usually there are one or two guitar teachers on there that have something to show for free. It's a good way to advance yourself as a guitar player, so I do that a lot.
TZ: I remember in your clinic here you mentioned that, like you were saying before, among your many influences there are of course Yngwie, Jason Becker, and Marty Friedman. Actually, in the clinic you say it in a funnier way because you said it was Yngwie, Jason Becker, and Marty Friedman and Yngwie, as in: Yngwie counts twice.
JL: I would say Yngwie was the first that really came out that... Well obviously Randy Rhoads and Eddie Van Halen were the first two. Eddie Van Halen had the two handed tapping thing going on which I spent many, many days slowing down records trying to figure that stuff out. But then you know Randy roads came in with the whole classical approach to lead guitar playing where he had a lot of classical sounding riffs and runs and that was really inspiring as well
But then all of a sudden here comes Yngwie out of nowhere and he's in this band called Steeler and then Alcatrazz and I really started listening to a lot of his playing and that's kind of where my playing changed completely and I stayed in my room for just hours on end trying to perfect what he did. So I'd have to say that ultimately he'd be the biggest influence when I was a young kid starting to play. He really kind of made me want to be like as good as him and I know I'm probably still not but he definitely was a huge, huge inspiration which is why I probably mentioned him twice.
TZ: I remember you mentioning also Brian May.
JL: Yeah, yeah definitely. Brian May is probably in inspiration I got from my father because, I think I mentioned in my guitar clinic, that my dad had a huge, huge record collection, and so I would periodically go through that and check out records from time to time.
And I think one day I just stumbled upon "A Day at the Races" or "A Night at the Opera". One of those two records, and just put it on and was just blown away by all the cool harmonies that Brian did, and I just loved the sound of it. It almost sounded liked it was semi-orchestrated in a way, which it was. So yeah, just the beautiful melodies that he had and the harmonies that he did was something that really, really inspired me to even become a better player. He's definitely up there too.
TZ: I am assuming like most musicians you had your good periods and your bad periods in your practice. Skill plateau, things not seem to improve no matter what you do... What helped you get through these periods?
JL: Well when you have this thing called writers block it happens a lot. Especially if you are writing a lot, you always want to come up with something new and different, and sometimes when you sit down, it just doesn't work. And literally when you come to a situation like that there's one or two things to do. I think there is a right way and a wrong way. The wrong way is to keep on playing because you aren't going to come up with anything if you keep sitting there. That's as far as me goes.
What I do in a situation like that is, I usually walk away from the instrument for a few days. And you know, just it's hard to explain, I just give it a break for a few days and then come back. And then something good comes again. I think it happens to every musician. It's one of those things that comes with the territory. You are going to get writer's block from here and there. It just happens, but don't think of it as a bad thing.
Maybe just try to find your inspiration from something else. Maybe just go to listen to some different types of music or maybe just going out into the woods and taking a walk or something and thinking about it. It's different for everybody, but I think everybody does have it from time to time. It's not a bad thing but just move on from it and try to think of something else and come back to your instrument later.
TZ: Now I have a trick question for you. Do you think that reading music should be on the priority skill list for a guitar player?
JL: Well it depends. As far as a metal musician like me goes, I really don't need to. But there have been times in my life where I've been asked to come into a studio and do some studio work, and that's all been fine too. I was able to get the session done.
But I mean if you are in a situation say for instance, if you are in Hollywood or something and you get called in to do a session for a movie soundtrack, and you need to do something on the fly very quickly, and they put a piece of sheet music in front of you, and they tell you to chart read it, that's when it's a priority. And that definitely is something I couldn't do, so that would be a negative factor for me not knowing music theory.
But then again I'm not really doing work like that. I'm mostly doing guitar solos for other bands sometimes where I can just freely do it in my own studio and take my time doing it. I'm not really a studio musician where I have to get called in and do stuff like that, so I would say it's a positive and a negative. If I had to go into a studio and do something like that then it would be rough, unfortunately but that's not my situation.
TZ: I perfectly agree. Anyone should learn what they actually need. Learn whatever they want. That's my opinion too.
JL: Yeah ,exactly. Exactly. It's probably something I can still pick up. I don't want to say I'm a lazy guitar player, but at the same time like I said in the beginning of this interview, I know it sounds good when I play it. And I kind of just stick to that thing, and it's always worked for me so I say, "Don't break something if it's not broken."
TZ: Jeff, you have this kind of spontaneous writing and improvising on your guitar. Have you ever met another musician that in your opinion over think their music theory? Like in "what scale I play on this", "what arpeggio I play on this?". And if so what would you suggest this person to do?
JL: It all comes down to how you are actually writing a piece of music, or a solo. For instance, I always try to keep it a little bit spontaneous when I'm doing a solo because I think if you actually spend time working out a complete solo 100%, it's just going to sound like that. It's going to sound completely worked out. And that's very easy to read through when you are listening to something back.
I mean what I try to do personally is, I work out about half of the solo and improvise the rest of it, or I kind of do vice versa where I improvise first and then work out a little bit of it. But I usually put 50%, 50% of each one in there if that makes sense. I think if you work something completely out, I guess it's cool, but a lot of the vibe of a complete solo is lost, so I just try to break it up man. And I think everybody does their solos differently. So I just try to put a little creative act of improvisation in there and also a little bit of worked- outness too. So I kind of do a little bit of a half and half deal there.
TZ: When you are in the studio essentially you work out the half of the solo and improvise the other half. When you play your pieces live at this point do you just remember what you improvised or do you improvise a new or what do you do exactly?
JL: That's funny because a lot of the stuff for instance, off my first record Zero Order Phase I actually had to go back and relearn some of my stuff. So it happens. Lots of players out there that improvise 100% like Yngwie, he's known for doing that. If you hear Yngwie play a song like "Far Beyond the Sun" nowadays it doesn't even really sound like it. It's totally different. It's like, what the hell?
But yeah I do like to stick to what I compose because I think a lot of people like the compositions that I do and they do like to hear what was actually recorded. So for instance, if I improve something, like a part of a 30 second solo in the studio, I usually like to go back and relearn the actual kind of quote unquote vibe of what I did to keep it fairly accurate. And that's happened to me quite a few times.
But there's also too times live where you kind of feel the fire and the passion of wanting to do something a little bit different and there is nothing wrong with that either. I've kind of been known to do both of those things. Sometimes you just have so much energy on stage from the crowd going crazy that you just say, "Screw it man I want to do something different here." And that's what's fun about guitar, guitar music gives you the freedom to do what you want to do. It's just an amazing feeling to be able to do that.
TZ: One last question for you.
JL: Yes sir.
TZ: Are your skills, knowledge, and experience of today in perfect alignment with the vision you created for yourself when you started out? Are you doing exactly what you imagined?
JL: Yes I've been very, very fortunate. Man, you know a lot of the inspirations I mentioned to you in the beginning of this interview such as Jason and Marty and stuff like that and Tony Mcalpine, Vinnie Moore, all these guys are like my friends now and I've been able to keep in contact with them and just tell them how much they've inspired me as a guitar player. And I've been really fortunate to be able to talk to these guys and learn from them, so I have to say I'm very happy with how my career has gone thus far and I'm very, very fortunate where I am at the moment right now.
I had many good years with Nevermore. Now, as you know, I am doing my own solo thing so I'm excited about that and for where that is going in the future. I've got a really good project with Keith Merrow who is a good friend of mine from the Portland Oregon area and we are going to be doing a project all this summer and that's my next thing going on.
So yeah it's always a continuous music thing for me and I just plan on keeping to do that since the day I die. I'll just keep doing it as best as I can and I hope people keep on enjoying what I come up with. I really appreciate that.
TZ: That's great. Well that pretty much wraps up all my questions for today. Thank you very much Jeff for your insight on everything here. I know you are busy in general. I appreciate you being here to answer my questions and the reader's questions.
JL: Thank you very much and I really appreciate being a part of this. Thank you. Have a nice day.