Brendon Small

Comedy, Guitar, and Metalocalypse

Brendon Small

Brendon Small is a TV writer, producer, comedian, and voice actor who’s best known as co-creator of the hit animated series Metalocalypse on Adult Swim. He’s also a really good guitar player with a music degree from Berklee, and writes the songs and performs guitars and vocals for Dethklok, the death metal band portrayed in the show. While originally just a virtual band, the huge popularity of the series and associated albums led Brendon to turn Dethklok into a real-life touring act, which also features noted guitarist Mike Keneally.

We recently connected with Dethklok’s mastermind for Edition 44 of the BOSS Tone Radio podcast, and were pleased to hear that he’s a regular listener. A self-confessed guitar nerd, Brendon conversed at length about Metalocalypse, his background as a guitarist, his analytical practice approach, favorite BOSS pedals, and much more.

The following is an edited excerpt from our discussion. To listen to the complete conversation, visit the podcast page at BOSS Users Group. You can learn more about Brendon’s current activities at his website.

When did Metalocalypse get its start?

We started Metalocalypse somewhere around nine years ago. Time has flown and the whole project has become its own thing. It’s got its own world, its own music, its own guitars, and its own everything.

[“Thunderhorse”] was kind of a beginning song for people knowing about the show and how guitar-heavy the show was, because a demo version was featured on Guitar Hero II. Those guys were fans of my other show, an old show from Adult Swim called Home Movies. They said, “We’d love to try to feature some music on this new game called Guitar Hero.” And they sent me [the first] Guitar Hero, and I thought, “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. This is going to turn people on to guitar music.”

In order to know about guitar and why guitar is so cool, you sometimes have to have a cooler older sibling or a kid down the street who teaches you who Black Sabbath is and who Skynyrd is, all that stuff. In some cases, we’re always looking for that, and in this case it was the game Guitar Hero.

In that song, you do harmonies where the vibratos are perfectly synchronized. Do you practice vibrato?

Yes. That’s a great question, and I think that’s a really important part, if not the most important part, of having a personality on the guitar—or ripping off someone else’s personality on the guitar, which also an important thing to do. [Laughs.] Being able to do impressions of your favorite players is an important thing. Just like a comedian does impressions of different people, you have to learn how to develop your voice.

On guitar, there are these big Michael Schenker-style vibratos. The coolest stuff that Ritchie Blackmore does [is vibrato]. To try to cop that, to try to make your guitar sound like that, it’s really just mechanics of the muscle and the bones of your hands, just to find that fulcrum point off that first knuckle. To not fight the strings and have that right amount of friction in your fingers. It’s really tricky to record that stuff and make it sound right, because it’s not natural.

When a player is developing, their individual voice as a guitarist starts to come out as they get the vibrato technique down.

I totally agree. With just playing one note, you can tell if it’s Brian May or Angus Young. Angus Young has such a great vibrato. Steve Morse has such a personalized violin-like vibrato. All these guys have a sound. The difference between a bedroom guitar player and a guy who can go out and play in front of people is being honest with yourself as a guitar player. And part of that honesty is recording yourself, evaluating yourself, and saying, “Okay, I’ve got some stuff to work on here. I’ve got to work on my rhythm. I’ve got to work on my timing. I’ve got to work on vibrato. How do I not sound like I’m strangling a cat?”

[You can also learn by] watching a great guitar player control his guitar. You know who does that so well is Satriani. You can watch where he’s carefully putting one part of his hand, or his arm, or whatever it is, to make sure the rest of the guitar is not usurping or overriding what’s happening. I saw the Jeff Beck Live at Ronnie Scott’s Blu-ray. If anyone who’s listening has not seen that, you must see it. That will change your life. Here’s a guy who plugs straight from his guitar into his amp, and if anything good happens it’s his fault. That guy just has a very honest sound.

I heard Jeff Beck say he likes a low volume, because he can hear tuning better.

That’s interesting. There’s a huge difference in volumes, and I learned this the really difficult way. You know, bedroom volume versus stage volume, your guitar behaves differently. Even if you have a tube amp, and you have the master set somewhere between zero and one [because] you don’t want to wake your neighbors or family, you play and you get very used to that. But once you turn up an amplifier, the physics are different. It’s almost like whispering versus screaming. Your voice sounds so different, based on different characteristics.

I entered a guitar competition when I was 15 years old. I wasn’t bad for playing just a year and a half, so I decided to enter. What I didn’t realize was that I was going to play really loud, and I’d never played a Marshall amp, a big half stack. It was the most terrifying moment of my life, and I sucked! I was terrible. My knees were knocking. The lactic acid was building up in my muscles. I was white-knuckling the guitar, bending chords out of tune, playing some five-minute piece that was supposed to showcase my musicality, and I blew it. I blew it so badly that the whole audience adverted their eyes—they were so embarrassed for me.

I think most guitar players have had a moment like that. Do you think maybe Yngwie or Eddie Van Halen ever had that moment?

I think whether or not they had them, they don’t talk about it. [Laughs.] I like to talk about that moment because it’s about stage fright. It’s about reckoning with the live, loud sound. It’s about reckoning with the audience, and ultimately yourself. Because the most important thing you can do when you’re a young guitarist, or a middle-aged guitarist, or anything, is to be honest—evaluate yourself.

That night, I flipped open my guitar case, and I looked at my guitar and I looked at my hands, and I said, “What happened out there guys? Come on. You can’t let something like that happen.” I was so humiliated by that, and I thought, “I cannot let this happen again. I have got to correct this, and it’s got to start with my brain and my hands at home. How do I do that?” Part one is keeping up a very honest work schedule, recording myself, listening to myself. And sure, all that audience stuff and stage fright is going to keep on happening until you slowly learn how to breathe and perform in front of people.

There’s a documentary about the making of a Dethklok album. Was that done in your studio?

There are two different studios I think that we showed. Most of it was Ulrich Wild’s studio.

He co-produced the Dethklok albums, and your solo album as well.

Yeah. I [first met] him a long time ago. My understanding of recording was pretty simple, and actually a pretty good philosophy: try to write something cool, and then try to play it right. That’s the ultimate recording philosophy. Everything else is basically a spice rack; you’ve got 1000 spice racks that can keep on blooming into the other spice racks that you can use. But try to write something cool and try to play it right. And then you’re going to win—your record’s going to sound cool.

What’s your own studio like?

I have the ultimate studio for a guy like me that does vocals and voice-over in cartoons, and also records guitar amps. All the leads on the first record I did at my home apartment. At the time, I had a one bedroom. I thought if I ever get a new place where I can build a studio, I’m gonna build the ultimate guitar studio.

My idea for a studio was I want to turn up guitars really loud, [for] tube amps to be able to open up and sing as much as they can at the right volume. So the next part was, what do I do for microphones, and what do I do for microphone preamps? Basically, I found there was an industry standard. It kind of matched up between Steve Vai and Satriani; they both had a similar kind of thing.

How did you meet those guys?

The coolest thing about Metalocalypse is that I made this decision that I was going to cast people who were my musical heroes, and give them an opportunity to be funny. In music, there are a lot of funny people out there. They really like comedy a lot, and there’s a lot of crossover between music and comedy. Even guys from the band Cannibal Corpse have really good senses of humor, and these Norwegian black metal bands like to laugh, believe it or not. [Laughs.]

I got to meet Joe Satriani and Steve Vai at a Guitar Player magazine event once, and I was like, “Okay, you guys have to come and do the show.” I pay them to do voices, but what I’m really doing is paying them to hang out with me. [Laughs.] Asking them about guitar questions, you know? Which is all I really want to do, being a guitar nerd. I want to ask them how and why and what you do. How do you solve this? What goes on? If I have a guitar question and I really want a great answer, I’ll ask them both.

DS-1X Distortion

I’m such a guitar nerd. I’m the guy who subscribes to all of the demo channels, like Pete Thorn’s demos. He’s such a nerd, in the best possible way. He’s a great player and he really does these amazing demos. They’re so elaborate, where he’ll write a new piece of music just to showcase a demo. And I saw the new BOSS DS–1X [in his demo]. It’s amazing. It’s got the original tonality of the DS-1, but there’s something that just sizzles in a really fantastic way. And it’s got extra game. It’s got so much personality and dynamic range to it.

How do you approach using effects?

The pedals and the delays and the reverbs and all the cool things…the choruses…those are like having a big spice rack. That’s the way I look at it. Sometimes you don’t use paprika in every dish, but it’s nice to know that it’s there.  Sometimes you’ll need cinnamon and sometimes you’ll need cumin and things like that. That’s what you have in front of you: the spice rack, and you want to have all your options there.

You’re not going to need a ring modulator on every moment of every song, but if you use it sparingly…a great guitar player here in L.A. is named Jamie Kine, and I saw him just smartly use a ring modulator on two notes in the middle of a solo, and I thought, “Wow, that was so punchy, so personalized, so cool.”

Are there any favorite BOSS pedals that you have?

Yes. I’ve been messing around with a lot of stuff. [I’m] always swapping something out and making room because there’s only so much room in the place. I recommend highly the new DS-1X, and the new OD-1X is really cool too. That has a really cool sound. You can use it on its own, or you can put it in front of a dirty amp.

A staple I think that’s in everyone’s pedalboard is the [TU-3] tuner. And I’ve been playing around with the [PS-6] Harmonist. It’s a smart harmonizer and an octave pedal, and it’s like a whammy pedal kind of thing too. You can do really cool dive bomb-y things. It’s got a lot of stuff and it sounds really, really clean. And the octave pedal on that, I use that a lot, because it’s just a really solid—really good tracking on it.

Those are cool things, and those are off and on my pedalboard at any given moment. The other thing that I think is really cool is the [SL-20] Slicer. There are so many different things [it does].

I’ve used it for recording. The SL-20 has a MIDI input, and it will synchronize to MIDI clock from your DAW.

That’s cool. [Laughs.] These pedals do so much cool stuff. [BOSS engineers] have thought about stuff I will never be able to think about. That is really cool. The way I use my guitar, my pedals, Pro Tools, all the BOSS stuff, I use it like I use my brain—I use about four percent of it. And I try to squeeze the best four percent I can, because that’s all I can mentally handle.

I want to say one other thing. First of all, for anyone that’s listening to this right now, I don’t know if you’ve listened to this podcast before, but there are so many other cool [BOSS] podcasts. They’re so informative about really cool topics. I listened to you talk to Jude Gold, who’s a buddy of mine. You guys got into a really interesting conversation about tuning the B string.

If you’re a guitar nerd like me, go back through the whole library and listen to the [archived podcasts]. People spend all this time in cars, and you may as well learn a couple of cool things about guitars and get inspired, which is what I do with this podcast. And Jude Gold talking about tuning the B string, it’s an unspoken thing that we’ve all experienced every day!

Do you have any last words about BOSS?

I’ve got nothing but good stuff to say. Like I said, the best thing that you can do as a guy who’s playing guitar is sit with these things for a while. Buy them. Take them home—you’ve got to play with them. You want cool options to personalize your sound, and you can really do that with these pedals. I love ’em. I’m such a nerd. I want them all on a gigantic pedalboard that’s 15 feet wide! [Laughs.]