Interview on Composition with Nick Layton of Firewolfe

by Tommaso Zillio

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Tommaso Zillio: Hi. This is Tommaso Zillio from musictheoryforguitar.com and I'm on the phone today with Nick Layton, the guitarist for FireWolfe, bringing you another interview on music theory and composition. Now, Nick Layton is famous not only for his affiliation with FireWolfe, of which he's a founding member, but also for his solo album, "Storming the Castle".

In addition, Nick has also been a friend of mine for quite a long time. So, I thought that since he has inspired me, since he has pushed my guitar playing to higher and higher levels personally, I though an interview with him would be a good thing for you guys to listen to. I'm very happy to have Nick Layton here today and I looked forward to doing this interview very much.

Nick Layton: Thanks for having me. Great to be here.

TZ: Thank you, Nick. Let's get started. First question is what role has music theory played with you when you were first learning to play guitar?
How did this change later in your career?

NL: Well, I remember when I first got started, maybe after just learning some of the basics. I was very self-motivated and I wasn't one of those guys who really wanted a teacher. I wanted to investigate things for myself. I went out and at the time, this was in the late '80s, I went and bought all the instructional materials and videos. Back then, they were videos, not any DVDs, of my favorite players. I came across probably, maybe a couple years into my playing, across a video by Vinnie Moore. It was called, I can't remember the name of it, but it was the second video he did for "Hot Licks." "Speed, Accuracy and Articulation", I think it was.

A lot of it was about technique but he had this one section that was all about the modes. I found it so fascinating. It was a very simple way he had of explaining the modes but, as you know, explaining the modes is very difficult to someone who's never delved into that before. But, the way he did it made sense to me and he had his playing to back it up so I could hear what he was talking about. It was so interesting to me, that you could create a whole different tonal center and a whole different sound palette from just learning about modes and applying the modes.

That was how I started out on that. The basics of what he taught there was something I carry with me and I've applied to all the stuff I've written. From things on my solo album, there are a lot of different modal things going on there. Even the FireWolfe stuff, there's a lot of different modal changes and things like that, that all relate back to those things I studied back in 1987 or 1988.

TZ: That's great. Yes. Modes are difficult to explain, actually. But when you find the right explanation, they become easy.

NL: Yes. After that, I bought books and did different studies. I remember going through metal method and Doug Marks had some things on modes. I shortly studied with Tom Hess for a few months, probably around 2001 or 2002. I remember he wrote out a whole bunch of modal stuff for me as well. I've just kept going with that. I don't do it much now, but every once in a while when I have time I like to push my knowledge even further with modes and different things like that.

TZ: Good. Listen, when you improvise or write a solo, are you actively thinking of the scale and arpeggios on the fretboard? Or you just let it go and see what happens?

NL: I think I'm unconsciously aware of the scales and patterns and arpeggios. But I've done that stuff so much I don't have to think about it. Unless it's a key center that I'm not all that familiar with, I can usually just shut my brain off and let it fly. If it's a key center that I'm not as comfortable with, then I might have to familiarize myself with where all the things I know are on the fretboard before I can really feel comfortable about it. I really don't think about scales and arpeggios too much. It just kind of comes out.

TZ: This is because you worked a lot in the past, though.

NL: Tons of work, yes. Tons of hours and hours of applied practicing. Not just practicing scales, but practicing scales in the context of music. I mean, a lot of practice went into actually applying arpeggios and scales and phrasing ideas, too. Like, backing tracks or playing along with my favorite albums.

That's one of the things I think is missing in a lot of up and coming players' practice schedules. They don't take that time to actually apply the stuff that they've spent working on. So when they get in a situation where they need to improvise, their skill level is muted, you know? It's not where it could be because they haven't put in the time actually doing it.

TZ: I see, I see. Nick, what is your approach to composition? How do you go from an abstract inspiration to the actual notes and chords in the song?

NL: That's a good question. Well, let's see. I just wrote a song two days ago. The way the idea came to me was I hadn't actually played my guitar in a couple days. I sat down with it and almost the first thing I played was this riff that I liked right away. What I did, is I hurried up and recorded it. I still use a little cassette tape player. I don't even know if they sell cassettes anymore, but I still have one. I just hit record so I don't forget the idea.

That particular idea, I wanted to try and develop because as you know, I'm writing a new album right now. We're still working on creating new songs. I wanted to try and get this idea in some sort of form that sounded like a song and send it over to my singer. After I had the basic riff, I kind of, again, all this is kind of unconscious, I'm thinking of key centers and what kind of song I'm trying to project. We're a melodic metal band, it's going to be heavy and it's going to have melodic elements to it.

Basically, what happened was I came up with the riff, recorded that, then I went and fumbled around a little bit with some different ideas. That's usually the way it is. The initial inspiration is there, but then I really have to work at developing the arrangement for the song and filling out the parts. That's always the hard work of it. I usually find that the best ideas are the ones I come up with almost unconsciously. They just sort of pop up. Whether I'm practicing and I come across a riff or whatever. I'll instantly record it if I think it has potential. Then when I'm ready to write a song, I'll go back to that and try to develop parts around it, whether it's a verse or a pre-chorus or a solo section or what have you.

This particular song, all came together really quick and I sent it off to our singer. He suggested that we put an intro at the beginning of it. Sometimes, collaborating with other people also opens up other ideas. I didn't really have that in mind, but now that we've done it, it works a lot better to have this really cool intro at the beginning of the tune and then the riff kicks in and the rest of the tune plays out. That's kind of the process. I mean, it's not very scientific by any means.

TZ: Well, music is an art, not only a science, apparently. Or so they say.

NL: Yes.

TZ: Okay, Nick, how important is ear training for you? Is there any exercise or routine that's particularly important or useful to you?

NL: Well, music is a listening art, right? We need to have good ears. We don't need to be looking at tab all day. We need to be developing our ears. Tab has its place and that's fine and reading music is fine and all that, but at the end of the day we're musicians and we listen with our ears and we need to work on that.

Now, as far as what I did, I didn't really do exercises for that. I did, well, tons and tons of listening, for one, to music that I love and even some music that I don't love. You can learn from anything, whether it's good or bad, even if it's what not to do. I've always loved music, since I was a kid, so there are years and years of listening there.

As far as developing the connection between my ears and my fretboard facility and things I can play on my instrument because I hear them in my head, that came through learning from my favorite bands, trying to figure out their stuff a little bit. I didn't do hours and hours and hours of that, but I did do that.

I also practiced, always. From day one, I practiced writing my own riffs and writing my own melodies and recording myself and listening back and comparing that to the bands I was trying to emulate. Eventually, you start to close the gap and your ears improve in the process.

For me, it wasn't a thing where I said, "OK. I need to improve my ears." It was just that whole process of learning about music and practicing and creating music and listening to my heroes and comparing what I did to what they did and trying to close the gap. My ears improved, also. It was more that, for me, than it was any sort of exercises.

TZ: Speaking about that gap, what would you say to someone who aspires to play like you or like their heroes, but is intimidated at the level of theory and knowledge he has to master before arriving there?

NL: I don't think you can look at the whole big picture and worry about conquering all of that. I think you have to put one foot in front of the other. I think it's important, first of all, to have that passion and drive for music and to play music and to improve on your instrument. If you have that, and you just keep taking one step at a time, one bite out of the cookie, as they say, at a time, then you'll eventually get to where you're going.

But if you look at the whole thing, I mean, there's so much information now with the internet, it can be completely overwhelming, especially to a beginner or even an intermediate player who's trying to become a professional, that you just want to quit, you know? Because you never think you're going to get there.

It's going to be years and years and years and years and who has that amount of time? And then you have your parents or your wife or somebody that's chiming in your ear about all this time you're putting into something. That's why you kind of have to be resolute about the fact that this is something that's important to you, that you're passionate about it and you're not going to allow yourself to be overwhelmed by the sheer mass of information.

What I would say, also, is that it's good if you can focus in on what you really love about music. Whether it's a certain style of music, certain way of playing or if it's certain techniques. Because you're probably, most people don't really have time to master everything. If you learn how to specialize what you really love, you're going to be able to focus on that. You're going to be happy during the process of practicing and learning and applying your craft and you're not going to be spreading it so thin that you're going to get frustrated and want to give up.

When I first started out, I thought I really needed to learn everything. I needed to learn about music that I didn't even really like, just so I could be a better musician. Although some of that's good, it's good to be open minded. I think, the farther I've gone, the more I've learned that to be really great at something, you really do end up having to specialize to a certain degree in what you're doing. You should do that based on what you love, not what somebody else tells you.

I mean, unless you're Guthrie Govan, who's a master at everything, which that guy's just crazy. He can play anything. Even him, you listen to his music and it has a certain common thread to it. So, I think play what you love and keep pushing on with that, and I think you'll be fine.

TZ: OK. Nick, I'm assuming that like most musicians, you had your good periods and bad periods in your practice, such as when your skills plateau and don't seem to improve no matter what you do. What helped you get through these periods?

NL: Oh, geez. I'm kind of in one right now. No, not really. I don't know. I think when I was really developing my skills I would get frustrated often because I really put a lot of pressure on myself to be able to play as well as my heroes. I wanted to play like Yngwie Malmsteen and Vinnie Moore, whoever. I wasn't there and in many ways, I wasn't even close.

I would practice things and then I would get frustrated because I wouldn't see myself, as we said before, closing the gap as fast as I wanted to. But for me sometimes, it was just to get really frustrated and want to go out and burn my guitar and want to run it over with the guitar then I'd wake up the next day and be more determined to get better. It was never a thing where I wanted to quit.

It's just that sometimes I needed to take a step back and say, "OK. Here's where I am. I still got a lot of work to do. But I'm not going to get any closer to my goal unless I actually put one foot in front of the other and do the work." So sometimes I'd go into a funk for two or three days and think I was the worst guitar player in the world and I'd want to quit. But then I would come to my senses and get back on it, you know? That still happens, by the way. I'll listen to somebody who's great and think, "Man, I don't even know what I'm doing." But then I get my wits about me and I get back on the horse.

TZ: Well, if there is somebody with your level of technical accomplishment that feels like this, I think yes, it's a good message for every one of us.

NL: I think it happens to everybody at whatever level. You just have to keep going. Sometimes you need to take a step back. Maybe a day or two off isn't a bad thing. But, yes, that's what I'd have to say about that.

TZ: Yes. You were talking before about tablature and reading music. I wanted to ask you, do you think reading music should be on the priority skill list for a modern guitar player or not?

NL: It depends on the goal. I'm not a very good reader. I can read tab great, but as far as reading notation I'm not very skilled at it. I've never really put a lot of time into it because I haven't needed to, to reach my goals. I think that it is valuable and it is important, at least to have the fundamentals of rhythm notation especially, so that you can make sense out of different rhythms and things like that.

If your goals are to become a studio musician or even to teach at a really high level or be involved in other things, like some stuff you've done with theater and things like that, I'm sure that reading comes in handy with all of that stuff. For me, I'm primarily a hard rock and metal guitar player and haven't really had a lot of need to master sight reading, so to speak. But I understand notation and I can read it, just not very quickly. I think it's really dependent on one's goals and how much time one has to reach those goals.

TZ: Nick, have you ever met musicians that over think their music theory so they go into 'analysis paralysis' or has it ever happened to you? If so, what would you suggest, for the person that over thinks, to do?

NL: You know that old saying about "Learn it. Learn everything and then forget it." That's kind of true. I mean, theory is a strange animal to me because there are so many different facets to it. We just talked about modes a little bit but there are so many other things to do with theory. You could explore it from here to the end of time, probably, and still not get to the end of it. But, yes, I've had times where my knowledge of theory has actually hindered me because I tend to think, even if it's unconsciously, about what is proper theoretically.

Even when I'm writing a song, I always in the back of my mind have what mode I'm using for what riff, what my options are as far as changing keys or modulating to another key and things like that. Sometimes that can be a little too formulaic. Your music can sound a little bit stiff and uninspired if you over-rely on that stuff.

I think it's one of those things where I think you have to learn things like modes and experiment with them within the realms of what's correct theoretically. Then, I think you have to get to a place where you realize that that's only a tool. It's not really correct, necessarily. It's just the way something could sound and maybe the way we're used to hearing something sound, but you could deviate from that as the muse, let's say, speaks to you as you're writing your own music or improvising.

One example and I'm sure that there are guitarists out there who aren't fans of Dimebag Darrell, I know that from reading interviews of him, he really never knew what he was doing theoretically. I'm sure he had a basic understanding of key centers and things like that so he could solo in the right key, but he didn't really know modes or things like that too much. In some ways, his soloing sounds very inspired because of that. He kind of went outside the box, so to speak, even though he might not have known that he was going outside of the box. I'm not saying to be ignorant of it, but there is a place for just turning that part of your brain off. Let the music lead you. Don't try to force the music into a box.

TZ: Yes. From what you say, I can see pretty much a parallel with technique. You practice and exercise to get the movements, but then when you actually play you're not thinking of the exercise.

NL: Right.

TZ: Would you agree with that? No?

NL: Yes. Exactly right, yes. At a certain point, you're not conscious of what your fingers are doing. You're just doing it.

TZ: Good. I have a last question for you. It's this: are your skills, knowledge, and experiences of today in alignment with the vision you created for yourself when you started out? Are you doing exactly what you imagined or do you see something more in the future?

NL: You know, I have to say as of right now I really am doing exactly what I had set out to do. I'll tell you this, it wasn't a straight line. It was zigzags everywhere. There were detours. There were road blocks. There was times when I was totally on the wrong track. But if you look at my path from when I started playing guitar in the mid to late '80s to where I am now, if you would have told me that I would have been doing this 25 years later, I would have been thrilled.

So, yes, I'm doing exactly what I wanted to do and set out to do. I didn't know how I was going to get there but I kept at it and I'm thrilled to be here. I'm blessed to be doing exactly what I love to do.

There is always room for improvement. I'll be working on that as well, to write better songs and have better skills and learn more things and interact with more musicians and increase everything about what I'm doing. I want to always keep moving forward and never get complacent. As of right now, I'm very happy with where I'm at.

TZ: OK, Nick. This about wraps up all my questions for today. Thank you very much for sharing your insight on composition and music theory. It's quite rare that a guitar player of your caliber and accomplishment takes the time to share some of his secrets with the general public.

I hope that everyone who will listen or read this interview will really appreciate and apply the content that you talked about today so they can benefit from them the same way you did.

Thank you again, Nick. All the best for your future musical projects.

NL: Thank you, Tommaso. It was my pleasure and I wish the best to everyone out there that's working on developing their skills.

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