Alex Webster: To The Extreme

May 11, 2012
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Extreme Metal Bass Is Alive & Thriving In The Frenetic Hands - And Restless Mind - Of Alex Webster

For the past 22 years, Alex Webster has pretty much been doing two things: anchoring the seminal death metal band Cannibal Corpse, and pushing himself to wreak technical havoc on the bass guitar. This isn’t just garden-variety shredding, either: Here is someone deeply versed in theory, songwriting in every time signature under the sun, and applying advanced modal scales to death metal. Someone who transcribes his bandmates’ guitar parts so he can conceive boundarypushing lines on his own time. Someone who actually cares enough to write his own metal bass instructional book detailing a groundbreaking three-finger technique and other tools for anyone seeking metal mastery. Someone who now has a signature Spector bass. Quite simply, at 42, he’s at the top of his game.

Maybe you didn’t notice because, well, he’s in a band called Cannibal Corpse. As such, Alex’s typical interview starts like this: Let’s talk about the censorship problems you’ve had in Germany. What is this bloody, gory album artwork all about? That’s okay—he’s used to it. “I’m like, ‘Well those things are cool, but most of the day I’m thinking about bass and how it works with the band.’ Anything that’s emphasizing music as opposed to controversy is always a welcome question. I mean, I do love horror movies and everything, but the imagery of our band, to me, is absolutely secondary to the music.”

Hailing from Buffalo, New York, Webster took only intermittent private lessons as a teenager, citing a single high-school music theory course that piqued the curiosity of his arithmetic-oriented brain. “It was my favorite class—I totally loved it. I’ve always been pretty good at math, and I could then see how math could be applied to something fun. Since taking that course, I’ve really seen a connection between math and music.” His musical numbers fetish was eventually realized in collaboration with math-metal master guitarist Ron Jarzombek. Their band, Blotted Science, just released an album of too-impossible-to-describe material that embodies Webster’s desire to keep pushing. His main bass influences—Billy Sheehan, Geddy Lee, Steve Harris, Cliff Burton, and Steve DiGiorgio—are all groundbreakers in their own right. And Webster’s instructional book, Extreme Metal Bass [Hal Leonard], could only have sprung from the mind of someone unable to quit while he’s ahead.

But his life’s work (as in literally over half his life) is Cannibal Corpse, which he co-founded at age 19 “to be as extreme as possible—to be the heaviest, the fastest, most over-the-top death metal band we could be.” Their 12th studio album, Torture, is chockfull of extremely challenging technical passages, while at the same time delivering the blunt brutality of a classic death metal outfit. It’s tight as nails yet still organically loose, and somehow, always, terrifying.

We talked to Alex just as he was leaving for a European tour. The perhaps predictable irony is that he couldn’t be a nicer, sweeter guy. Just, you know, don’t tell the Cannibal fans.

What do you remember most about your early years as a bassist?

I couldn’t hear the bass in a lot of the thrash [metal] I was listening to. It seemed like the bass was doing exactly what the rhythm guitar was doing, so that’s what I tried to do. I think that shaped my righthand technique, having to learn how to play the really fast stuff with three fingers. I didn’t realize a lot of these guys were cutting things in half [playing half the notes] or doing something a little different. I’ve always played fingerstyle since we got Cannibal going, just trying to keep up with the guitar players. In thrash, there’s not as much of a bass–drummer connection as there is a bass–guitar connection—at least I didn’t see it that way in the beginning.

Did you always play with three fingers?

When I started, I played fingerstyle with two fingers, and not very fast. I could get going to a respectable speed, but not something crazy like Jeff Berlin or Juan Alderete. But then we did a show with Cynic and Malevolent Creation. Cynic’s bass player, Tony Choy, played with three fingers, and Malevolent Creation’s bassist plucked with four. I said, “I have to be able to keep up, and I’m not going to use a pick. I have to be able to figure out how to do it with my fingers.”

Around that same time, I was listening to Sadus a lot, which is the band that Steve DiGiorgio originally came from. I could tell the bass was played fingerstyle, and it was really fast. I managed to track down Steve’s phone number, so I called him up and asked, “Dude, how do you do that?” He explained his technique, which was going from the ring finger to the middle to the index back to the middle—there’s your four notes. I was very grateful, and we’ve been friends ever since. I tried to learn that way and got it down, but as I would start to drift off in doing muscle-memory practice, my technique would start to fall into a different technique. That was the one that I described in the book, where it ends up being a 12-note cycle [see Ex. 1]. You’re basically playing a triplet pattern, but it ends up feeling like straight 16th-notes. So Steve’s tip helped get me started, but I ended up developing my own thing.

What made you want to do an instructional book?

There was nothing out there like it. Instructional books with advanced material are generally written by jazz-fusion players or really good session guys. The books I’d seen about metal seemed really primitive, and I thought there was a void that needed to be filled. That was one of the motivations. Also, I just like working with books. I would rather have done a book than a DVD. DVDs are cool, but you can throw a book in a gig bag and go practice it in your room. You don’t need something to watch it on. I’ve learned a lot from videos, but I always end up taking a book with me. When I’m touring, I usually bring a book of scales to work through.

What do you hope players will get out of the book first and foremost?

I wish I had a book like this when I started, because we just learned everything by trial and error. I was thinking, What do you do when a guitar player is tremolo-picking? Do you play exactly what he plays? Do you play half-time? What do you play when a blast beat is happening? What about a thrash beat? What’s the best thing to do during a fast double-bass fill? What if it’s a little too fast for you to play? Is there a way you can cut things in half without it sounding corny? I’m hoping the book spurs people’s creativity to create more interesting metal bass lines that pop out in the mix.

How important is theory for metal bass players?

Probably more important than people think. It also can spur your creativity. I’ve found that the guys who don’t know as much theory tend to write things in 4/4 most of the time. The guys who know theory are the ones who end up experimenting more and having music that sounds a little more out there, which I like. The more you know, the more you can mess around.

What separates Torture from Evisceration Plague [2009] and Kill [2007]?

It’s the third record with the same lineup, and the third record with Eric Rutan producing. Even though we record to Pro Tools with a click track, I think we’ve learned how to use it in a way where everything still sounds organic. I feel like we managed to capture an old school death metal vibe. It doesn’t sound like one of those modern metal productions where everything is overly precise. When you play bass with a pick, you can keep things a little tighter with rhythm guitar. Playing with fingers, I think I keep it pretty damn tight, all things considered, but there are probably times when I’m off by a few microseconds here or there. Quite simply, the attack of fingers and the attack of a pick are different. So there are times when my playing is not identical to the rhythm guitar. With that bit of human inconsistency, you can tell it’s a person playing, not something that’s been cut to ribbons and put on a grid. People played this music—not a robot.

 
Cannibal Corpse (l to r): Alex Webster, Rob Barrett, George Fisher, Pat O’Brien, and Paul Mazurkiewicz.
I wrote five of the songs on Torture: “Scourge of Iron,” “Intestinal Crank,” “The Strangulation Chair,” “Crucifier Avenged,” and “Rabid.” I tried to have a different feel for each of them. We want each song to be individual. Even though hardly anyone has vinyl albums anymore, I say you should be able to drop the needle on it anywhere and be able to figure out what song it is within a few seconds.

In the straight-up thrash groove opening of “Scourge of Iron,” did you use the 3-2-1, 3-2-1 right-hand technique?

I did. The part is all on the C# string [E tuned down a minor 3rd], so it’s really easy to keep it going. Things get a little trickier when you start skipping strings. I didn’t think it was necessary for the part to make it harder than it needed to be, so I kept it all on the C# string so I could pedal along nicely. I kept it at a tempo where I can comfortably play 16th-notes, which is 172 beats per minute. It’s still fast, but once I start getting past 180 BPM, it gets tough. And anything beyond 190 is just not advisable [laughs].

Then there’s “Intestinal Crank,” with its 5/8 rhythm.

Like I said, when I was writing the songs I wanted to have different feels for each one. “The Strangulation Chair” has a triplet feel throughout. “Crucifi er Avenged” is more of a straight, fast 16th feel—it’s got a more standard 4/4 vibe. So why not have a song that features some riffing in 5?

There’s a wild riff that starts 30 seconds in.

You’re probably talking about the wholetone riff. Ever since I learned the whole-tone scale back in the mid ’90s, I’ve thought it’s a great scale. So much metal is written with minor 3rds, and the whole-tone scale is a way to keep a riff dark and creepy sounding without having that minor tonality. You still get diminished 5ths all over the place, but you get augmented 5ths, as well.

How does the long instrumental chorus riff on “Rabid” work?

That’s one of the later songs I wrote for the record. I look at numbers a lot when I’m writing, and I was trying to think, What rhythms haven’t I used already? We had “Intestinal Crank,” which has those fives at the beginning. Then there’s “Strangulation Chair”—that’s triplets. “Scourge of Iron” and “Crucifier” are both more straight four feels, so how about seven? Each section of the song has 14 bars of 4/4; it’s 7/8 against 4/4 playing the whole riff twice. It’s fairly simple. And then in that long instrumental stretch thing, I end up playing eighth-notes: it’s 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3. Meanwhile, the drummer is playing 4/4 on top of that. Every seven bars it turns around and hits the point where it starts again, so I had him just throw a cymbal on that one to mark the spot.

What’s the biggest challenge of pulling this stuff off live, versus cutting it in the studio?

You’ve got to nail it live. That’s why Cannibal practices four days a week, because we want these songs to be burned into our brains so that it’s as easy as anything else we do every day. You brush your teeth every day, you wash your hair every day; these are things you can do without thinking about them. We want the songs to be that way, too. It’s the old “if you’re thinking, you’re stinking” thing. You should be able to go up there and play it perfectly while thinking about the pizza you’re going to order when the show’s done [laughs].

What made you want to do another Blotted Science record with Ron Jarzombek? Wasn’t the first one torture enough?

[Laughs.] I love working with Ron—he does not show any mercy! He won’t let me simplify anything unless it’s literally impossible to play.

What’s the one thing that you get out of Blotted Science that Cannibal Corpse doesn’t give you?

There’s more freedom. We impose certain guidelines on ourselves in Cannibal Corpse—we want it to be a pure death metal band. We’re trying to be as creative as we can within those boundaries. With Blotted Science, it can be whatever we want it to be. There are definitely things I’ve written for Blotted Science that just wouldn’t work for Cannibal. It can be equally heavy at many times, but some of it is just a little too out there. With Cannibal, we want you to be able to head bang. Blotted is a lot more herky-jerky.

Talk about “Ingesting Blattaria,” the opening track from Blotted’s latest. How do you comprehend a form like that, let alone execute it?

We record at home, so I’m able to record it in sections, as opposed to memorizing the whole song and playing it from start to finish. The entire deal with The Animation of Entomology is that every last bit of it syncs up with these video clips that Ron found from various horror movies that featured creatures and bugs. That’s what the album is about. So he went through and painstakingly matched up every measure with everything that’s going on onscreen. That’s why the songs are in such crazy structures. It seemed like trying to memorize them from start to finish was going to be pretty challenging. So I recorded it in sections.

What are you most proud of so far in your career?

I guess I’m just proud that we’ve had such a long career, playing the kind of music I love, getting paid for it, and doing it all on my own terms. I’m very fortunate. I am also very proud of the book, because the book is my latest baby. I’ve done a lot of albums and a lot of touring, but writing a book is different, because I’d never been a writer before. Any time I’ve challenged myself with something new and been able to succeed, it’s something I’m proud of.

GEAR

Basses Two Spector Alex Webster signature 5-strings (see page 46), three Spector Euro LX 5s, all with EMG 40DC pickups
Live rig Two SWR 750x heads with two SWR Megoliath 8x10 cabs (for Europe); two SWR SM-1500 heads with four SWR Goliath 4x10 cabs (for North America)
Effects Darkglass Electronics Microtubes B3K bass overdrive
Strings DR Strings Hi-Beams (.050–.130 for G#C#F#BE tuning, .025–.125 for A#D#G#C#F# tuning)
Other Radial Tonebone Bassbone (clean DI), Radial ProDI passive DI box (dirty DI, post overdrive), Monster Cables, Boss TU-2 chromatic tuner, Gator Cases pedalboard
Recording Torture Two Spector Euro 5 LX basses, SWR 750x head with SWR Megoliath 8x10 cabinet (miked with an AKG C-12), Boss ODB-3 bass overdrive, Teletronix compressor, Avalon U5 DI
Recording Blotted Science Spector Euro 5 LX, Apple Macbook Pro, Avid Pro Tools 8 software, Pro Tools M-Box, Line 6 Bass PODxt

SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY

With Cannibal Corpse (all on Metal Blade) Eaten Back to Life (1990); Butchered at Birth (1991); Tomb of the Mutilated (1992); Hammer Smashed Face (EP, 1993); The Bleeding (1994); Vile (1996); Monolith of Death (live) (1996); Gallery of Suicide (1998); Bloodthirst (1999); Live Cannibalism (2000); Gore Obsessed (2002); The Wretched Spawn (2003); Kill (2006); Evisceration Plague (2009); Torture (2012)
With Blotted Science (on ElectricElectric) The Machinations of Dementia (2007); The Animation of Entomology (2011)

Finger Frenzy

ANYONE STILL UNDER THE impression that Alex Webster hasn’t put serious thought into what he’s doing is in for a very rude awakening. These four musical examples will bring you to your technical limits— and beyond.

Let’s start with Ex. 1, an exercise adapted from Alex’s instructional book Extreme Metal Bass. This is the essential primer to learning his threefinger technique. As he suggests, we’ll start with a single fretted note, A on the E string. Note the right-hand fingering pattern 3-2-1-3, 2-1-3-2, 1-3-2-1. Says Alex, “This picking pattern easily lends itself to groups of three, like triplets and gallops. Now, for these 16th-note groups, you’ll need to create a feeling of ‘four’ for each beat. The best way to do this is to slightly accent the first note of each group. So this pattern will cycle every 12 notes, as shown with accented notes in bold: ring, middle, index, ring, middle, index, ring, middle, index, ring, middle, index, etc.” Once you master the single-note pattern, move on to the next three bars, where the notes start changing, and prepare to be frustrated at first. Remember, start slow, and consider that Alex says he can do this at up to 180 beats per minute!

How about a two-handed tapping bit? Example 2, the diminished-flavored bass break at 2:14 of “The Strangulation Chair” (from Torture) will keep you busy for a while. Alex explains: “I had already written that tapping stuff for a later section, and I thought, Why don’t I bring this down a bit and put it a little lower on the neck?” Note the tuning for playing along: A#D#G#C#F# (all strings down a half-step).

Webster makes good use of the Locrian modal flavor and its inherent b2’s with Ex. 3, the demonic line from “Caged … Contorted” (at 1:07 and 3:10). Alex didn’t write this tune, so he transcribed the guitar part and then worked with it for a while to come up with this line. Watch out for the hellacious position switch (at 244 BPM!) in bar 6, and make sure to tune the whole bass down a minor 3rd to G#C#F#BE.

Finally, for the truly brave, there’s Ex. 4, Alex’s distortowah- drenched solo from the Blotted Science tune “Vermicular Asphyxiation” over a bone-rattling series of timesignature and chord changes. “Ron suggested I use F Lydian dominant for the first half of the solo and B melodic minor for the second half, so that’s what I did,” says Alex. Hey, at least you’re in standard tuning on this one . . . . —BRYAN BELLER

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