Saturday, 11 April 2009

Chris Letchford of Scale The Summit

Houston-based progressive-metal band Scale The Summit's new album Carving Desert Canyons has received rave reviews from fans of metal and instrumental guitar alike, leading to a recent attention-grabbing feature in Guitar World. I caught up with eight-string wizard Chris Letchford to talk, gear, the early years, and the state of modern prog...

Tell us a little about yourself and your musical background. Were there any particular influences early on that drew you to metal and progressive music?

I started music in the 4th grade, playing saxophone. I moved onto bass at age 12 and was playing that instrument for about one year until my dad brought home my first guitar. I started with lessons very early on as well. So I have been playing guitar for a little over 10 years now. I really didn't start taking it seriously until 15 years old. I grew up in a very musical family, so the inspiration was always there. My dad was huge into Yes, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Johnny Winter, and Buddy Guy. Out of all of those I'm still listening to pretty much only Yes. I was drawn into metal actually through Pantera. Dimebag is one of the reasons I started taking guitar more seriously. After finishing High School I decided that playing guitar was definitely something I wanted to do professionally so I enrolled in Houston Community College to take a bunch of sight-reading, theory and jazz theory improv classes. I was also still taking private lessons and a piano class. After one semester of that, really enjoying it, me and Travis (other STS guitar player) decided to move to Los Angeles to attend Musicians Institute, to not only get better at guitar, but to find a bassist and a drummer. We were having a hell of a time finding members in Houston. We both took the Guitar Craft Academy course and the GIT Course, and here we are now. We all moved back to Houston once the band line-up and school was complete. I'm currently teaching in Houston when we're not on tour.

How did Scale the Summit come to be?

Well, like I mentioned earlier, we formed in Los Angeles. Me and Travis moving out to LA to attend MI was the best decision we could have ever made. We met the rest of the guys there and haven't looked back since.

How did you settle on the eight-string as being your primary instrument, and how did you arrive at the BEADGbeg tuning?

I first started seeing a few of the jazz guys using the eight-strings set up with five guitar strings and 3 bass strings. Thought it was a neat idea and seemed challenging but obviously would not work for the style of music the band was playing. I started researching more about eight-strings and found Conklin guitars. I got my first 8 string Conklin a little over 4 years ago, tuned with the high A and low B. I knew having a the F# would not work for my style of playing. I started using the eight-string with the band the first day. I just liked the idea of having the extra space to move around, larger chord voicings and more strings for extended melody. Plus, I always like a challenge. Playing an eight-string, one of the biggest challenges is keeping the other strings quiet while playing. I later on went with the high G string, just because I simply found more use for it, especially with chord voicings.

Tell us about that gorgeous Sherman eight-string! Do you have any strong preferences in terms of guitar setup, like string gauges, action, pickups?

Well the Sherman is awesome. I actually have two more on order right now. Me and Mike have really helped each other out. He makes me some killer guitars and I push his name. Guitar World Magazine was obviously huge, I'm sure his email was swamped from it, as mine was extremely swamped as well! It was crazy actually!
I like my action lower, and I play a normal pacj 10-56 for the first seven strings and then a 08 for the high G string. I'm able to get the action height the same on all my guitars from taking the GCA course at MI, we spent the first three months just learning proper setups. Its great being able to work on your own guitars. I like my radius very flat as well. Usually around 16. My current Sherman and the couple more I have on order have Nordstrand Pickups. I like them a lot...super clear and quiet.

What do you use for amplification and effects? Do you have to make any special adjustments or additions to accommodate the eight?

No special adjustments needed. It's just a normal guitar but with extra strings. I play an ENGL Powerball Head. I'm actually endorsing them as of last week. So I have a cabinet on the way from Germany to replace my current Orange 4x12. I run a Holy Grail Reverb pedal and a Boss DD-6 through my effects loop, to fatten up the sound and make it nice and smooth.

Was there a period of adjustment when you got the eight, particularly with the unusual tuning?
No, not at all. I know a lot of theory and I know the notes on my fingerboard well, so it was an easy change. I switch between six, seven and eights on a daily basis, as I primarily teach on six-strings.

How does the compositional process work for the band? Do you write notation for everyone?

I write 90% of all the music, including all the second guitar. Me and my guitar player use to guide our drummer as to what we needed for select parts but now we just write out of the music, show it to him and he'll come up with his own parts, same goes for our bassist. He comes up with a lot of killer stuff. Being that we play pretty complicated music, its nice that we all know a good amount of theory. It's a lot easier to communicate with each other. Plus we're one of the few bands that all like what each other write. I hear horror stories about bands getting into arguments over writing and usually breaking up soon after forming. We're lucky I guess that we came together with a pretty much exact same view on what we wanted to play.

How heavily does improvisation figure into the band's approach?

Usually only during the writing stages. I write most of my solos by analyzing what the rhythm part is, and then start working out ideas. I'll first jam over the part to see what stylistic approach I'm going to take. My drummer we'll pretty much approach it the same way. We'll jam some parts over and over until we hear something we all dig.

You and Travis are definitely a strong two-guitar team. Are there any arranging tricks with the dual-guitar lineup that you feel are unique to the band?

Thanks a lot! I would definitely agree. I think thats another lucky aspect to this band is that we both have the same practice discipline and similar style of playing, so we fit together well. I would say the most unique thing would just be all the layered guitar parts we play and the riffs that helps us stand out from all the other progressive-style bands.

Are there any new players or bands that have caught your eye recently?

Tosin and Bulb's stuff is really awesome. I've been into Tosin's playing when he had his older band Reflux, who are also on our same record label. His new project with Bulb called Animals as Leaders is great as well. I found out about Bulb a long time ago through myspace, I now have something like 100 of his songs in my Itunes. My favorite, if he is reading this, was a straight riff based ENGL Invader head demo called 'Palmer'. Damn good. Needs to make that a song in his band.
Cynic is another, although not a NEW band, they are NEW as in being back together. Their new album is great. I also like Textures' new album. Got some sweet riffs in every song.
And lastly, there is a side project from Cynic's new rhythm guitar player and the drummer of Textures called Exivious. Which is a more fusion type band, which is great. Should definitely check that out. They have also been around for a while, but just started really putting time into it and getting a full length released.

How do you feel about the current state of progressive music in general?

I think its doing alright. With progressive music, you have to be some what talented to play it, so there is never going to be a take over of prog bands, like there has been with all the deathcore bands that have been coming out. Not that any of those bands are talentless, but I think we all know what I mean. That style is obviously easier to play, at least for guitar.

What's next for the band?

Tour in support of our new album Carving Desert Canyons. We, our agent and our label are very picky with what tours we take, so hopefully there will be some good some coming together this summer/fall. Would announce a huge tour we're going to be having this fall, but I don't want to jinx it from happening since its so far away, but its a great one!

Thank you for taking part in this interview!

Thanks for having me!