Extreme Metal Bassist: An Interview with Alex Webster
The evolution of heavy metal has presented a plethora of extreme subgenres: thrash metal, death metal, tech metal… the list goes on and on. But while the term extreme metal covers lots of territory, you can’t talk about extreme metal bass playing without talking about Alex Webster.
As a founding member of the iconic band Cannibal Corpse, Webster has spent his career defining what it means to be a metal bassist. His advanced technical prowess coupled with his creative compositions have kept the interest of heavy music lovers for over 20 years, with no signs of slowing down.
We got a hold of Webster to pick his brain about his projects, his influences, his gear and his technique.
Your most recent release is the Blotted Science EP, The Animation of Entomology. How did that come about?
Well, we had released a full length album in 2007 (The Machinations of Dementia) and then [took] some time off to work on our other bands and projects. When we decided it was time to work on a follow up release, Ron came up with the idea of writing music that would fit with clips from various movies that featured bugs and other creatures. Basically, this EP wound up being a collection of unofficial scores for those scenes.
What are the differences of writing with Cannibal Corpse and Blotted Science? Do you play a key role in Blotted Science as in Corpse or is [guitarist] Ron Jarzombek the main writer?
Ron is the main writer in Blotted Science, in particular on Animation since he has a much better grasp of how to score video than I do (though I have to say I learned a lot about it from this experience). On Machinations, I contributed quite a few riffs to the songwriting process – in particular songs like “Amnesia” and “Bleeding In The Brain”, where most of the riffs are actually mine. But Ron’s arrangement of those riffs was instrumental in making those songs as good as they are. I’m really quite happy to let Ron take the lead for the song writing in Blotted Science. I was a fan of his long before he asked me to work with him, so I have full confidence that the musical decisions he makes will be good ones.
With Cannibal Corpse, it’s different. I’ve written a lot for the band since the very beginning, and from the mid-90’s on I actually became the most prolific writer in the group. I really enjoy writing music, it’s probably my favorite part of being a musician. So by the time we get into the studio I always seem to have a few more songs ready than the other guys.
What is your own writing process like?
I like to sit down with my bass, fire up Pro Tools and Sibelius so I can record and transcribe my ideas, and start jamming. I’ll usually pick a tempo and maybe a scale or chord I want to base the riff on, and then just start playing. Once I have a solid idea, I’ll transcribe it and record it so I don’t forget it, and then move on to the next riff. I’ll work like this until I’ve got a whole song ready, then I’ll write drum and guitar parts for the song in Sibelius so that I can export them as MIDI and put them into Pro Tools. After that I’ll assign sounds in Pro Tools and make a demo MP3 that I can give to the other guys, along with the charts I made in Sibelius. Programs like Sibelius and Pro Tools have made my writing process go a lot faster than it used to, back when I’d have to record with a 4 track and write out tabs by hand.
Speaking of writing, early last month Cannibal Corpse announced they had begun work on a new album. How is that coming along and what can fans expect?
We’re just about finished with the new album, and so far we’re very happy with how things are turning out. Fans can expect more of what we’re known for – aggressive, moderately technical death metal with an emphasis placed on making memorable songs. From a bass point of view, I’ve made sure to add a bit more spice to this album. There are quite a few places where the bass stands out, so all low-end fans of CC should be pretty happy.
When will we see the next full-fledged Cannibal Corpse tour?
We’re doing a few shows this year, including a two week tour of South America in December, but we won’t be starting the bulk of the touring we’ll be doing until February 2012, which is around the time that the new album will be released.
Can you give us a rundown of your gear setup?
I use Spector Euro 5LX basses exclusively these days, including a signature model they made for me that I absolutely love. For amps I use SWR SM-1500 heads and SWR Megoliath 8×10 cabinets (I also used an SWR 750X for Cannibal’s most recent album, it’s a really killer head for metal).
My strings are DR Hi Beams 130-50 gauge for our G# tuning and 125-45 for A#. I use EMG 40DC pick ups and an EMG BQC system wired for 18 volts in most of my basses.
As for effects, I’ve always kept things really simple. I use a Radial Bassbone live as a DI/control center, and I have recently decided to add an overdrive pedal to my live rig to get some additional cut and attack. I’m not looking for much distortion at all, just a little grit – like a clean bass that’s being cranked. So I’ve been checking out a few pedals, and I think the winner is going to be a Darkglass Electronics Microtubes B3K. I’m getting one next week so we’ll see! Other gear I use includes a Line 6 Bass Pod xt (which I have used for both Blotted Science CDs), Monster Cables, Planet Waves straps, and Classic Cases.
What is your practice routine like?
Well, a lot of the time I’m just practicing material that I’m going to record or play live. It really depends on what I have on my plate at the moment. When I don’t have any upcoming recording sessions and I have our live set completely solid I’ll set up a practice routine. I like to do some mindless stuff first – I’ll play scales at a certain tempo for a certain period of time, maybe 5 to 10 minutes. Even that short amount of time can really get your fingers and forearms burning if you’re playing at a quick tempo. After I’ve done some of that, I’ll grab a book off the shelf and try to learn something new. Once I’m satisfied that I’ve learned at least one new thing then it’s time to have some fun. What that usually means for me is playing over some changes using the scales I’ve been practicing. I’ve used Bunny Brunel’s Power Bass Soloing Secrets a great deal for this, it’s probably my favorite bass book. I’ve learned a lot from it and it’s incredibly fun as well.
You just released an instructional book, Extreme Metal Bass. What was the catalyst to put that together? Do you see the genre becoming a more legitimized and taught style?
There were a couple of reasons why I decided to write Extreme Metal Bass. First of all, I couldn’t really find anything like it out there, so there seemed to be a void that needed filling. There were some metal bass DVDs available, and a few metal bass books, but they didn’t really cover modern extreme metal. I figured if the book I was looking for didn’t exist I’d just have to write it myself!
Secondly, a lot of Cannibal Corpse and Blotted Science fans had been asking me questions about how I play, and many had suggested I do some sort of instructional release. I always did well with writing in high school and college, and I as I mentioned above I enjoy using books when I practice, so a book seemed like the best route for me to take into the world of bass instruction. I definitely see metal becoming a more legitimate form of music. If you listen to modern extreme metal, it’s clear that the musicians playing it are as serious as any musicians out there. I think it’s gotten to the point where there’s more than enough substance to the style for it to be taught alongside other forms of music. I’d love it if my book were something a teacher would use to teach a student the basics of the metal, and I also hope to see more extreme metal bass instructional releases in the future from other authors and artists. I would certainly buy them!
Lots of bassists are intrigued with your three-fingered right hand technique. Can you explain it a little, and how you came to start using it?
My three-finger plucking technique is fairly simple. It goes ring, middle, index repeatedly. The trick is to make sure that you can create an even pulse of 16th notes rather than simply triplets and gallops. To do that, I recommend that you practice accenting the pattern in a way that creates a feeling of four: RING, middle, index, ring, MIDDLE, index, ring, middle, INDEX, ring, middle, index, etc.
Of course, once you’re playing the pattern quickly you won’t be thinking a whole lot about the patterns and counting; it’ll just be a steady, natural pulse. This way of plucking is pretty much the same way that John Myung and Billy Sheehan pluck, though those are not the players I learned it from. I actually learned it accidentally back in 1989. I was listening to Steve DiGiorgio from Sadus a lot at the time and I could tell that his playing was fingerstyle, but it was incredibly fast and able to keep up with a lot of the speed picking that the guitarists were doing. I had to learn how to do that. So, I looked up Steve’s number through information and called him up to ask him about it. Rather than hanging up on a crazy fan that had tracked him down, Steve graciously told me his technique: he plays with three fingers, returning to the middle: RING, middle, index, middle. Armed with that information, I slowly practiced the pattern for hours. The strange thing was, when I began to increase the tempo, I started falling naturally into the cycling way of playing that I described above, rather than the “return to middle” technique Steve had shown me. I do use the return to middle technique for certain things, but the bulk of my three finger playing is the cycling technique. It just came naturally to me I guess. It wasn’t what he taught me, but it worked.
How did you get your start playing bass?
I started playing bass in 1984. I had taken guitar lessons for a few months when I was really young, but given up. The lessons were mostly folk music, which was just not very interesting to me. When I decided I wanted to take another try at playing an instrument I chose bass and began taking lessons from a friend and classmate named Mike Hudson, who was a couple of years older than me and played in our school’s jazz band. He taught me the basics: how to get a good tone from your fingers, the basics of sight reading, and so on. I have to admit, part of my initial draw to the bass was the idea that it wouldn’t take quite as long to master as the guitar. I listened to bands like AC/DC and Van Halen, so I think when you compare the roles of the lead guitarist vs. the bassist in those bands you’ll see the logic in my thinking at that time! I’ve always been the kind of person who likes to set reasonable, achievable goals for myself. Little did I know how much I’d wind up challenging myself on the instrument as time went by. Beyond that, I also loved the sound of the bass, and what it did in the band. I love the way the drums and guitars are tied together by the bass- I think that’s something you’ll hear from a lot of bassists. There’s just something about being in the center of the rhythm and harmony that’s really incredible.
What genres other than metal influence your music and/or bass playing?
Metal’s my favorite genre of music for sure, but I also enjoy a lot of other stuff. Fusion obviously has some of the best bassists out there, so I’ve listened to a lot of that over the years and I’m sure it has influenced my playing. I also enjoy classical music, and that sort of stuff has probably influenced my song writing, if not my bass playing.
Career-wise, what do you think it is that got you to where you are today, and what advice would you give to younger bassists trying to “make it?”
Well, luck was probably a big part of it, but I’ve also worked hard and have always tried to be a team player. My advice to young players would be to practice hard and learn as much as you can about your instrument, and even more importantly, learn how to work with other people. A good musician who is easy to work with will make it a lot farther than a great musician who’s a pain in the neck.
With your new Spector Signature bass, your instructional book, the Blotted Science EP and working on a new Cannibal Corpse album, it’s been a big year for you. What’s next?
It has been a big year, which is unusual for an “off” year from touring. But I guess I’ve been trying to occupy my down time from touring with lots of other things, like the book and recording with Blotted Science. I think that now that those projects are complete, I’ll simply focus on the upcoming world tour that Cannibal has planned. That should be enough to keep me busy!