Canadian metal band Annihilator is the lifework of guitarist Jeff Waters. Founded in 1984, the band took the metal scene by storm with their debut 1989 release "Alice In Hell", upped the ante with 1990's "Never, Neverland" and finished off their 3-record deal (Roadrunner Records) with "Set The World On Fire". While most late-80's era metal bands disappeared, Annihilator went on to forge 9 more studio CDs, DVDs and live releases, all consistently selling well and remaining true to the heavy metal cause.
Tours with everyone from Judas Priest to Pantera to Trivium plus dozens of headlining tours and festivals around the world have continued since 1989 with Jeff Waters and company tearing through each release with honest, raw power, along with excellent technical skill... and live shows that are considered to be the best in the business.
Jeff recently spoke to Epiphone about his career and his new Epiphone Signature Model... the Epiphone Jeff Waters Annihilation-V.
EPI: Tell us about your early days. When and how did you start playing guitar?
JEFF: I started playing guitar when I was around 7 years old. I'll send you a picture of a certificate from my first year on guitar. (Laughs) My mother was always noticing that I would stop everything and freeze, every time I saw a guitar on TV or in a shopping mall or at church. She knew that she had to put me in guitar lessons, as I was a very hyper-active child and she knew that if she found something I would stop and pay attention to, she better encourage it!
EPI: Were there any guitar idols back then that influenced you to pick up the instrument.
JEFF: At 7 years old... there were no idols yet. I do remember a good-looking blonde guitar teacher; maybe that was my first idol!
EPI: What were some of the first things you learned?
JEFF: Simple chords and basic rock and folk songs. Just the basics. My guitar was an acoustic folk guitar and it was probably the same size as I was. I have a photo to prove that too.
EPI: Were you one of those obsessed kids that practiced all the time?
JEFF: When I started, it was only an hour a day thing but as I progressed into my teenage years, I worked up to 10 hours a day. The 10 hours a day was only for a few years 1983 to 1987... but that was a lot of hard work... more than 10,000 hours.
EPI: While we are on the subject of learning... How important do you think it is for a young player to take formal lessons?
JEFF: Crucial... to at least get the basics down. The basics of theory, hand positioning, picking, etc... general knowledge. However if the young person already has an idea of what they want to do with guitar then it should be more of a specialized path.
EPI: What was your path?
JEFF: After I turned around 12 years old, I started to get pretty good so my Mom put me in classical guitar lessons... and this was a great thing for me. The main thing is that it taught me classical hand positioning which would end up being very crucial to playing fast and clearly when I got into metal music.
EPI: That must have also taught you a lot of theory.
JEFF: I did learn the basic theory of music... notes, scales, etc... but I was not really interested in that. I was more interested and drawn to the "feel" part of the music... which really made my classical guitar teacher angry! He would yell at me a lot and I also remember him smoking cigarettes the whole time I took lessons. All I wanted to do was jam but he wanted technical perfection.
EPI: How long did you stick it out?
JEFF: After 3 years, my Mother suggested Jazz lessons. I was willing to do this because I wanted to get away from my classical guitar teacher! (Laughs) But that classical teacher was the one who taught me the most, out of the music teachers I had! Jazz was really confusing to me. I did not "get it". So by the time I was 15 years old, I was done with lessons. The next teachers I had were named Van Halen, Young, Young, Stanley, Frehley, Tipton, Downing, Murray, Smith, Kudlow, Holt, Carlos, Hanneman, Hetfield, Hammett, King, Jabs, Rhoads, etc... THAT was the real schooling!
EPI: So you moved from Classical to Jazz... to rock and metal. Tell us about the technical progression. How did you develop what you learned from classical lessons into the ability to play so fast and so accurately in a Metal environment?
JEFF: The left hand for me was already "ready" for metal, after the classical and jazz lessons. But the right hand... or picking hand... was sloppy and not so good until I heard the first Exodus, Metallica, and Slayer records. Yes, the earlier heavy metal gods were god guitar pickers but Hetfield, Holt and Hanneman/King really stepped up the game for picking hangs worldwide! What I did is literally try to see what I liked about all of their picking styles and try to combine them all. I was lucky because I already had so much influence from the "left hand"... fretboard hand players like Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads, Jabs, etc... that when I tried to combine it all, it really made me good at all areas of guitar playing. Van Halen was the king because he could play great rhythm guitar, write great songs and play great and innovative leads... an all-round player. He was the best ever and no one will probably ever have the influence like he had on players in the late 70's and 80's.
EPI: Any advice for younger players trying to find their way?
JEFF: Listen to LOTS of guitar players in lots of styles of music. For young musicians, practice the song Chemical Warfare by Slayer, Creeping Death and anything off of Puppets/Kill em All. That will get your rhythm hand fast and tight. For solos, try to listen to as many metal guitar players as possible... listen to the 80's players to get more of an original influence. The 80's were the time when the greats were producing brilliance! Also, on a personal note, stay away from alcohol, drugs and cigarettes... if you want a long career... or a long life! These days, to have a career at all means that you need to learn the business and take care of your business; you cannot do this if you are cloudy in the mind or dying from lung disease.
EPI: Any advice on gear?
JEFF: Just have fun and try lots of things out at your local music store. As far as amps... if you have some money, try the Hughes and Kettner Coreblade. If you don't, there are a lot of good, lower-priced amps out there. I will say though... my new Epiphone Annihilation-V is very reasonably priced. It took me 2 years to design and create it with Epiphone because we wanted the best guitar possible at an incredible value.
EPI: How close are the production models to what you play?
JEFF: The same guitars you can buy in the music store are the EXACT same guitars I use live. No other company I know has done this, at this price level.
EPI: 2 years is a long time developing the Jeff Waters Annihilation-V Signature model. How do you think it came out?
JEFF: Fantastic! I could ramble on about how great the guitar is but I think the best way to answer this is to simply see the video that is on the Epiphone web site... that will speak for itself. You must see it to understand what I mean!
EPI: You have had a very successful career so far and there are obviously great things ahead. Looking back at your career... are there any things you think you could have done better... maybe some more advice for up and coming artists?
JEFF: I would not have started smoking cigarettes... and I would have taken a part-time business course. I am one of the luckiest musicians I know. I have had many chances after being ripped off by managers and other companies in the biz and for some reason, I keep getting chances to re-build and re-start. The business side is crooked, criminal and the sad side of being an artist... but if you want a career in this biz, you need to watch out for everyone and everything and keep your head clean and clear. I have built Annihilator into a successful business that makes money and does well, however most bands that sell 10 times what we do don't make money. So stay clean and take a business course. Oh yeah... another thing... write good songs and get better at songwriting. Many kids just want to "shred" but if you just "shred"... then all you are is a shredder and not a songwriter. Van Halen, Hetfield, Malcolm Young, Gary Holt, Tipton... all these guys WRITE GREAT SONGS FIRST... then they shred.
EPI: You are considered by many to be one of the most influential metal guitarists of all time. Joel McIver's 2009 book 'The 100 Greatest Metal Guitarists" ranked you at number 3. How does it make you feel that a generation of players considers you an influence?
JEFF: Very cool. I have spent 20 years in interviews telling everyone about the 30 guitar players and bands that influenced my music with Annihilator... now the torch passes on. In the last 5 years or so, I have heard from so many well-known metal, rock and even pop bands, about the influence my playing and/or songs have had on their work. I remember my good friend Dave Ellefson, who plays bass in Megadeth, telling me recently that back in the early days Megadeth used to drive to the recording studio... when they were recording their
classic "Rust In Peace"... while listening to Alice In Hell... the first Annihilator release. Now, to know that great young bands like Lamb Of God, Children of Bodom, Trivium, etc... grew up with my music and playing having an influence on what they are doing today... now that rocks!
EPI: And it's not just the heavier bands...
JEFF: Annihilator has been known to write heavy and thrashy songs but we also have
had a lot of melodic songs, instrumentals, rock-style songs and even ballads. To have someone like Jesper from In Flames tell you that you are one of his favorite guitar players and then the next day have members of Nickleback and 3 Doors Down saying similar things... well, you know you've had an impact, let's just say!
EPI: You are extremely popular and seem to focus a lot of your marketing efforts in Europe and Asia. Is this a conscious effort?
JEFF: We had some limited success from 1989 to 1993 in North America but then came Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and Grunge. That essentially killed off 98% of all metal bands. In fact, unless you were playing music similar to Pantera or Biohazard or Sepultura, you had no chance to survive in the biz at that time. Most that did survive had to change their image and music and I was not into that... and, quite frankly, my music would not have survived here anyway. It was traditional heavy metal with thrash influences so that was target number one to go in North America.
Where I lucked out was that Europe and Asia still had large, faithful followers of this kind of music and while other bands were putting makeup on and changing their clothes and music to suit what was "hip", Annihilator kept throwing out it's "typical" metal music and it has given the band 20 years of popularity now overseas.
Thankfully, things started changing here. I noticed that bands like Sum 41 and other pop and pop punk bands were starting to wear Iron Maiden, Slayer, Motorhead and Judas Priest shirts in their videos and live. I am pretty sure that their young fans started to question who these bands were and then went out and sought the music from these ancient dinosaurs... (Laughs) and BANG... metal was on the way back!
EPI: And not a minute too soon! Thankfully there were some bands like Annihilator that didn't give up.
JEFF: Slayer was a very important band because they kept touring throughout the USA and Canada during those difficult "un-metal" times. I can remember seeing Slayer playing God Hates Us All in Vancouver, to maybe 1200 people... a far cry from the arenas they used to play here. But... they never stopped or gave up... they just kept rolling along like the Energizer bunny! (Laughs) If I had to name one band that kept metal going from the 80's to now, it is Slayer. Of course it was a happy occasion to hang with Kerry King in Ottawa
after a show... back around 2005 or so... when he was playing to an arena again! Fantastic stuff.
So anyway, back to Annihilator... I have tried to "re-enter" the USA a few times but the labels are understandably more interested in signing younger bands with more "current" styles of music. We were never a "big" band here so there will be no grand comeback! That
said, I am trying to get us back touring the good ole USA. Let's see if it happens! I love Canada and the USA.
EPI: How many shows a year do you typically play?
JEFF: Depends on the cycle... and sales. Fortunately they are never so low that we can't headline to 30,000 people in the Czech Republic or do killer tours with other bands like Judas Priest and the like. Sometimes 85 shows a cycle, sometimes less. Since USA/Canada are not there for us yet, 85 shows is a lot overseas!
EPI: What can we look forward to from Jeff Waters this year?
JEFF: A new CD... our 13th studio CD. There are 10 killer tunes with 66 guitar solos on it... for the I-Love-Shred-Only folks. It's well-produced with some serious bass playing, singing and drumming... and not a bad guitar player on it! I even made a daring and bold move by trying to cover a Van Halen song... "Romeo Delight" form the "Women and Children First" record. It's real metal... AND A KICK-ASS GUITAR!!!!
EPI: Thanks Jeff... and we look forward to more great guitar playing from you!
JEFF: Love from Canada and see you all on tour soon!