(Cover story to the November 2015 issue of Guitar Player magazine)
Five Finger Death Punch’s Zoltan Bathory and Jason Hook Perfect the Art of Melded Metal
BY JUDE GOLD
“If there’s a 50/50 chance of survival, I’m in,” says Zoltan Bathory.
It’s a fitting qualifier, because of Bathory’s many passions in life, playing raucous rock shows with Five Finger Death Punch is probably the least dangerous. Bathory is also a professional monster truck driver, he competes in martial arts championships, he’s an Army-approved Modern Army Combatives instructor, and he pilots fighter jets. Add to all that Bathory’s regular charity work helping veterans suffering from PTSD, and it’s hard for him to say which pursuit he is most passionate about.
“I can tell you this,” says Bathory, who shares guitar duties in Death Punch with Jason Hook. “Guitar was the thing I started the earliest. And martial arts, which I started soon thereafter, has helped me with guitar, because in martial arts there is this saying, ‘Don’t accept the position.’ In other words, you fail when you accept a position that would be unfortunate for you. That’s when you see things go sideways. The music industry is an extremely difficult place. It’s one in a million who makes it here. Martial arts gave me the education of, ‘Don’t take a step back, keep going,’ which I applied to my music career. I was 20 years old when I came to America with a guitar on my back and a bag of clothes, not yet able to speak English. But I never gave up.”
The payoff has been huge for the Hungarian-born guitarist, as Five Finger Death Punch—the band he founded in 2005—quickly became a multi-platinum-selling metal act and continues to headline huge venues worldwide, as evidenced by their current tour promoting the group’s sixth album, Got Your Six [Prospect Park]. However, there was more behind the Las Vegas-based band’s success than just cool guitar riffs and jiu-jitsu training. There also was a clear vision.
“If you look at European music and culture,” says Bathory, “classical music is embedded in everything. Even if you don’t listen to it, if you are from there, it influences you. So when European bands write music, they tend to rely more on classical harmony and melody. However, typical American heavy metal bands—Pantera, for example—rely more on groove than harmony. American music is coming from rhythm and blues. I wanted to build from both those foundations.”
Bathory’s vision was a band that could deliver mosh-worthy grooves and compelling, sing-able melodies and solos within the same song. And he knew he couldn’t meld both types of metal without a very special team.
First, he needed a specific type of lead singer—someone who could scream like an American djent maniac, yet also could sing on pitch in the Euro-metal tradition, all the while delivering discernable lyrics. (“Lyrical content is important,” reminds Bathory.) The winning candidate? Colorado native Ivan Moody.
Bathory’s designs on the guitar department were equally crystalline: He wanted the sonic mass of nu metal (“Nowadays if you mention ‘nu-metal,’ people run to the hills, but there was something valuable in that sound, with the low tunings and powerful grooves”), yet alsothe soaring melodicism of old-school metal lead guitar. And while Bathory performed most of the solos on the first Death Punch album, The Way of the Fist, when he hired Toronto-born guitarist Jason Hook, he knew he could focus more on guitar riffs and leading the band.
“I was a really big fan of Jason’s solos,” says Bathory, “so when we got him, I was like, ‘Okay, you’re doing the leads.’ I still do a couple of leads here and there, but Jason’s so good, why should I bother? Meanwhile, when it comes to rhythm patterns, he might say, ‘Hey, I have this idea for a rhythm, but can you record it? You have the best hand for it.’ And it’s true—we write for each other’s hands. I’ve been playing baritone guitar for 20 years. There’s a certain way I play. It’s semi-palm-muted, and I can control it. And my pinky is always riding the volume knob so I can ride that breaking point where if I hit the string hard, I overdrive my amp. So, some parts work better played by me, and others by Jason—regardless of who wrote which parts. We have this respect for each other’s sound that way.”
“Zoltan is a vicious rhythm guitar player,” says Hook. “I think he would agree that’s his forte. When I first heard him play I was like, ‘Wow, this guy has something that really appeals to me—that fast, heavy, tight rhythm guitar attack.’ And I’m not just talking about [mimics slow, heavy riff]. I’m talking about that really percussive, super-fast stuff, and he’s exceptional at it. It’s a challenge for me to play some of his stuff, as his right hand is so fast. Inversely, solos have been something that I’ve been working on for a long time, and I think that he appreciates all the time I put in trying to be good at that.”
When it comes to rhythm, however, Hook is no slouch. As you listen to his solos on Got Your Six (such as the leads on “Diggin’ My Own Grave,” “Hell to Pay,” and the album’s first single, “Jeckyll and Hyde”), it is striking how Hook is able to burst into climactic thirty-second-note phrases without ever losing his relaxed pocket and smooth delivery.
“When I was a kid, I had that book, Electronic Projects for Musicians, by Craig Anderton,” says Hook, who started playing guitar and other instruments at age six. “My dad would say, ‘Let’s build the preamp on Saturday.’ So we’d go to the store to buy all the components, and we’d sit there and put the thing together. One of the things that he built for me was the metronome, which you would build into one of those Plexiglas picture cubes people had on their desks in the ’70s. Having that metronome was great for my playing. I also had a pitch pipe, which I think was essential for tuning my ear. You’d blow through it and try to match the note with your string. There were no digital tuners back then. I think all of that contributed to me turning out a little differently than younger players might today.”
Hook continued to develop his pocket by studying virtuosos whose lead lines he felt displayed serious groove.
“When I first heard Zakk Wylde, I was struck by his amazing sense of rhythm,” says Hook. “His rhythm parts and his solos are all very tight with the beat, and they often feature cool counter-rhythms—same with Eddie Van Halen, who is very funky against the beat. Also, I started off as a drummer, and I think that that probably contributed to my extreme interest in staying on the beat and making sure every note has a clear rhythmic value. Nothing I do is sloppy or rolled. Every note is in its place for a reason.”
If you hear blues/rock inflections in any of Hook’s longer notes, it perhaps stems from his early diet of Ritchie Blackmore.
“I only have one or two blues licks, so they’re pretty easy to spot,” says Hook. “I dug in deep on Blackmore. He has some great blues moves in his music—like on the opening of ‘Strange Kind of Woman.’ I loved how he would do these real staccato, plucked-note passages, and then go really quiet and muted. Such a dynamic player!”
For maximum sonic mass, Hook strings his down-tuned signature model Gibson M-4 Sherman Explorers with .014-.070 Dunlop sets featuring wound thirds. The thick gauges allow Hook to hit the strings hard without causing them to ring sharp—an impressive feat, considering he is tuned down a fourth from standard on Explorers that are standard scale (24¾").
It’s no surprise that the detail-oriented Bathory had to seek out the perfect amp for the tone he heard in his head.
“Finding the right amp was a challenge,” says Bathory. “If you have solid-state amps, you get that nice quickness—they’re very fast to react—but they’re somewhat soulless. Meanwhile, it’s great to wail through a tube amp, but they’re a bit lazy on the attack. So I had to find an amplifier that could do both, and that’s when I started working with Jeff Diamant of Diamond Amplification. There was a day when Jeff called me and said, “I got it right. I have the amp. This is your amp.” It was the Diamond Nitrox. I like it so much we’re developing my own signature version, the Diamond Fury. It’s similar to the Nitrox, but it will have Dunlop/MXR Smart Gate-style noise suppression circuitry built in.
“Another thing that helps me get both worlds of tone happening is using Diamond 4x12 cabinets that blend two different types of speakers: two Celestion G12M-70 speakers, which are really fast and punchy, and two Celestion Greenbacks, which give me some of that lazy blues sound that is so awesome for lead playing—arranged in an X pattern so the sound is really blended. Also, there’s one last thing thing I would mention to players who want a consistent tone from night to night, and that is it really helps if you have consistent power from night to night. We travel with a rack full of Furman power conditioners so that all of our amps see the same power wherever we go.”
Onstage, Hook uses hand-wired Marshall 1959HW “Plexi” heads modded for extra gain by Carl Popek, but the amp situation in his home studio, the Leopard’s Nest, is a bit different.
“When I’m recording solos, I use the same Marshall head I’ve used on every solo I’ve ever played since my solo album, Safety Dunce, was released in 2005,” says Hook. “I’d love to tell you that this Marshall is gold-plated and all the others are horsesh*t, but it’s just a stock JCM 800 I bought off somebody in the Recycler in Los Angeles back in the ’90s. I run a Boss Super Overdrive in front of it, and plug it into a Marshall 4x12 with Celestion Vintage 30s. I mic it with a Shure SM57 and a Royer R-121. The mic signals go through two Vintech Neve clone preamps and some Neve EQ, and are blended to a mono track.
“I like tracking at home, because I have my setup right there—just the way I like it, with all my mic preamps in place and dialed in. I don’t consider a solo finished until I’m happy, and working at home gives me plenty of time to redo or rewrite it. Sometimes, I’ll put a solo away for the night, and then get up and listen to it first thing in the morning to see how I feel about it. There might be a section where I go, ‘What didn’t stand out to me as wrong last night is glaringly wrong right now,’ so I’ll fix it up. Solos are important—when you record them, they’re forever.”
For effects onstage, both guitarists rely on TC Electronic gear. Hook uses a G-Force processor, and Bathory goes for the complete G-System. To remain untethered, they use Shure wireless systems, and mobility is not a bad thing on the Death Punch stage, as theirs is a very physical crowd. Case in point: England’s Download Festival, 2010.
“There were like 100,000 people there, and during the song ‘Dying Breed,’ Ivan was inviting everybody to crowd surf up to the front and shake his hand,” says Hook. “Well, that works great when we’re playing a small venue, but with a crowd that size, all of a sudden we had thousands of people flying over the barricade. Whoever was in charge of the event got really nervous and decided to stop the show.”
If helping vets deal with PTSD is Bathory’s dearest humanitarian cause, Hook’s passion project is perhaps the upcoming documentary Hired Gun, which he is generously helping to fund. The film aims to deliver insight into the lives of the sidemen and sidewomen who back acts such as Billy Joel, Whitesnake, Pink, and Alice Cooper. Helping gain exposure for these unsung heroes is a cause that is likely dear to Hook’s heart, because when Hook left Toronto for Los Angeles in the ’90s, he found building a music career to be a tougher task than anticipated.
“I started many original projects, and I often got close to getting record deals,” he says. “But, at a certain point, I decided I had to go out and play for people as a hired gun—like backing Hilary Duff—and I began to get frustrated. In this band, though, I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing, and I have the freedom to make the music that I like to make. I can’t imagine finding that fulfillment anywhere else. It took hard work and some luck to get here. I’m very blessed.”
Although Five Finger Death Punch is the prototypical modern-thrash act, Bathory’s advice for anyone dreaming of starting the next great metal band is inspiringly old-school.
“The one thing that will never change is that people want to hear songs,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if you play acoustic guitar or full-blown heavy metal—that’s just the instrumentation. The questions are: ‘Do you have an actual song? Will this song stand up if someone played it on a piano? Do you have a chorus, a melody, and lyrics that are interesting?’ Songwriting and playing an instrument are two wholly different animals. If you sit in your room and practice with your metronome for eight hours a day, you’re going to get mechanically good. But you have to study songs, too. You should learn why certain songs resonate with people.
EXTRA: Zoltan Bathory on Down-Tuning Without Losing Highs
Having two decades of experience playing in baritone tuning, Zoltan Bathory has gained some insights into how to maintain a full-spectrum tone while playing on guitar strings so thick they border on piano wire.
“When you’re playing down in B, you don’t want a guitar that’s solid mahogany, as that’s going to be pretty dark sounding,” says Bathory, which is why his signature model Diamond Halcyon ZB guitars typically have maple tops on them. “Sometimes I’ll even use solid-maple-body guitars with maple necks. The maple brings out the brightness, and brings back some of the highs when you’re tuned down. Also, for what I do, I’ve found that high-grade ebony fretboards sound and feel better than rosewood. And I’ve got a passive Seymour Duncan Pegasus/Sentient pickup set in there. I don’t like active pickups because they squash your sound a bit and take away the dynamics.”
With all strings down a fourth from standard, Bathory uses behemoth .013-66 or .013-070 Dunlop Heavy Core sets to maintain tension.
“One cool thing about those sets is that Dunlop tapers the ends of the low strings for me—like the .070, for example—so they’ll fit into the slots on my Floyd Rose bridges,” he says. —JG
EXTRA: Jason Hook’s “Squeezebox”
Most Gibson Explorers have fixed bridges and therefore cannot deliver “divebomb” vibrato bar sounds. This is not the case with a particular signature model M-4 Sherman Explorer in Jason Hook’s arsenal.
“It still doesn’t have a bar,” says Hook of the guitar, “but I cut a hole in the body and mounted a Boss PS-5 Pitch Shifter stompbox in there that I can use for whammy-bar-style dive sounds.”
Instead of stomping on the effect, Hook just reaches over and squeezes the pedal when he wants to engage it.
“That pedal has this cool T-Arm setting few people know about that simulates a bar dive,” he says. “When I want that dive, it’s right there for me.”
To hear Hook’s squeezebox Explorer in action, listen to his solos on “No Sudden Movement” and “Jeckyll and Hyde,” off Five Finger Death Punch’s new album, Got Your Six. —JG