If Epiphone were to have a have a hall of fame, Jeff Waters would not only be a charter member but he'd surely also be recognized as one of Epi's greatest ambassadors. Those who have experienced one of Jeff's guitar clinics know that he's not only a spectacular musician but also a gifted teacher--funny, patient, self-effacing, and utterly devoted to his craft. Though he's certainly proud of his work, he never plays to the audience, he plays for the audience. And the joy he finds in performing is infectious. To celebrate Jeff's big year--new album, new tour, and new clinics, Epiphone.com caught up with the hardest working shredder in show business.
New music, new tour, new clinics--do you ever rest?
Ha! I was just playing my Epiphone as you called. Can you believe that? And I have an Epiphone clock above my studio. You know those old ones they had a few years ago? So, I wake up every morning at 6am and do a 9-5 of writing riffs for another record, just burying myself in this life.
And you've been in the studio?
Yes. It will be my 15th studio album. Still going, still ticking, still having fun. It's supposed to come out in late October. We'll see what happens--how quickly I can pull it off without rushing it.
Where does your inspiration come from? You obviously love making albums.
It's like a battle. You put a lot of stress on yourself and there are so many things that can affect the writing--personal stuff and business baloney. Sometimes I write records when I don't even have a deal. Honestly, it would be great to be in a position where I can do it a 100% for fun. But you also have to think about what's on the schedule, what's the next thing that's coming, the next stressful business thing that has to be taken care of in order to actually make the record, have it sell, and be able to do it again. So, I always have that kicking around. I don't think I've ever made a record where I can just kick back.
The other side is--like a lot of artists--I start to wonder: 'geez was my last album the last bit of good writing I'll ever do? How many more can I do without having failure?' (laughs). There's always something hanging over you, you know? But I've been lucky and it seems to work out that the pressure gives me a kick in the butt to come up with some good stuff. It's hit and miss.
The people who love your music give you the benefit of the doubt.
Right. Every band I like has some good albums and some not-so-good albums. Even my favorite bands--Slayer or Judas Priest for instance--I have all their albums but I don't listen to all of them. I have my favorites where they have stronger writing and better records. There's pressure if you choose to do what I do for a living. Besides the mixing and mastering, the main thing I do for a living is Annihilator. Metal music--it's a tough way to make a living. You have to work your butt off, work hard, and get lucky. Make a lot of friends, be a good person. You have to really want to do it and enjoy it or you have to do other things. I've been squeaking by since I started. I do tours, I have about 100 guitars. I make records and I do clinics for this little company called Epiphone.
When you started on guitar, what kind of player did you want to be?
When I was a teenager, all my friends in Ottawa, Canada were into Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and Van Halen. I took the opposite view of that stuff and sat down and noticed that AC/DC and Van Halen wrote songs first--the rhythm guitar playing and the songs were more amazing to me. The lead guitar--the shredding--I was never listening to the solos. I was listening to the rhythm--which I still can't do. And lead guitar was a bonus. So at my clinics, I try to show that the leads are the icing on the cake. As Marty Friedman says: screw the solos--go join a band write some good songs. When I do clinics, our popularity is mostly in Europe, South America, and Japan. Fans know that I'm not the guy to do the covers and the 20 minutes solos.
When did you start doing clinics?
I started doing clinics about 5 years ago. I was uncomfortable at first. I talked, I showed some licks, and I honestly was not into it. I had a bad attitude that music school teachers were failed musicians. Then, I saw hundreds of kids and a light bulb went off--it sure is a good feeling to have people of all ages really enjoying it and thinking, 'what can I learn from this guy?'--just like I did when I was a kid.
Then I met up with (Epiphone President) Jim Rosenberg, got endorsed by Epiphone, and now I have a blast doing these. I do get the reaction from some people who want the technical, more theory stuff, but I go there to just have fun. I think people like that compared to the standard kind of boring clinic.
Part of it is, I'm an immature kid at heart. I'm also Canadian and I have a weird sense of humor (laughs). Some people don't understand the humor in what I do but they do in the UK and Europe. I might write a song called "Kraft Dinner" about the macaroni box and the next song might be environmentally conscious. I like that because that's my life. A lot of people in the United States didn't get that first. They wanted the 100% serious--Pantera-cool heavy stuff. Which I love, of course, but I also have that other side. I think that's another reason why the Europeans really jumped on us for our first record in '89 and stuck with us the whole time.
American fans take their metal very seriously.
That's true. At the same time, when I was a teenager and the first heavy stuff thrasher stuff came out like Slayer, I remember getting full-on into that, too. You put on a Slayer shirt, you don't also wear a Skid Row shirt or a Van Halen shirt. You don't wear a Dokken shirt. You might get beaten up in school or at parties. As I get older, I think I've lost that 100% be-serious-aggressive vibe. I got a bit more open minded and now, I just play melodic heavy metal.
What are you listening to for inspiration?
When you're writing, producing, engineering, mixing, mastering, sometimes sitting behind the drum kit and showing the drummer what you're after, when you're doing the entire thing yourself, you can get so bogged down. I love everything about it--all these zillion jobs. But it's hard not to rehash what you know and what you've done in the past. I don't have a lot of modern things I'm listening to. It's all old stuff.
And now you're starting to see your influence on other artists.
Whenever I've stood on stage with Slayer or Judas Priest I want to say--'oh man, this is not right! This is what its all for.' We toured with Judas Priest for their tour Pain Killer and I was quite shocked to be asked by Glenn Tipton, one of my all time favorites, because he liked one of my records. In 2005, I got a call from Roadrunner, my old label, to record on a project with Robb Flynn and I went down there, recorded, and did a concert in New York. I was really nervous meeting these guys in the U.S.--Killswitch, Trivium, Anthrax--a pile of people I respected and didn't know.
I went to catering to get a coffee and there were about 30 of these guys hanging out. I was like 'Jesus get your coffee and get out of here.' I was afraid I didn't fit in. Howard from Killswitch and Matt from Trivium and all these guys started lining up to say hello. Corey from Slipknot told me my album Never Neverland was all they listened to when it came out. That was one of the biggest times of my life. Rust in Peace said on the way to their recording sessions in 1990, they would all drive together and listen to one of my records. I always heard the Rust in Peace album with Marty Friedman and Nick Menza, and thought 'this Marty Friedman guy must be influenced by the same things I am--this bluesy metal that I could totally relate to." Later, he told me it was because he was listening to my record.
Tell me about putting together the Jeff Waters Annihilation-V with Epiphone.
I know a lot about studio equipment but I'm not one who knows much about necks or frets or how a guitar is really built--different pickups and tones. I meet guitar players all the time who are shocked that I don't know this stuff. I know what I want it to sound like but I don’t know much about what's involved in getting it. When Epiphone took a chance on me, I told them, 'it's very simple. I like a Flying V and I like black and red' (laughs).
And I like the kind of pickups that are not overdriven. I like to get any gain I can get from the amp. So, they sent three or four pickups and I pointed to one and said, 'I like that... #3.' I didn't even know what it was.
The goal of that guitar was to keep the price down but make it as good as possible. The Epiphone team made great suggestions like the Phenolic neck. Totally great. I left a lot in the hands of the Epiphone team that really know what they are doing. They were quite surprised that I wasn't barking ideas. We just Frankensteined it together. It worked, the pieces went together, and we said: great, done! They were surprised I think--'this is all he needs?' But I use it in the studio and live. And we're due to be talking about reissuing a new one soon. It was an awesome guitar and as soon as we ran out and it was discontinued, everybody seemed to want it.
That’s good, right?
Of course! That's just the way you want it to happen.