Photos by Stephanie Cabral
Whether performing straight-up metal in Armored Saint or getting more progressive with Fates Warning, Joey Vera has spent the last 35 years as a bass player in the spotlight. He’s also spent the past few years bringing the low end to the studio and stage with his ESP and LTD basses.
What made you make the switch to ESP? Do you recall any specific moment that led to you being here?
I do. I was at NAMM, and got introduced to Pancho Tomaselli. I had never met him before. He’s very gregarious and personable.
Yeah, that’s putting it mildly. He’s a super high-energy guy.
He basically came up to me and introduced himself. We got to chatting. He told me he was a big Armored Saint fan from way back. We talked about what he was doing. I was aware of the stuff he’d been playing in PHILM and War at the time. We got to talking about gear and basses.
So, it was a Saturday at NAMM, and Pancho said to me out of the blue, “You have to come over to ESP.” I had been playing other basses forever, literally since I started playing. He said, “They have a bass called the Vintage 4 that you’ll love.” Now, I wasn’t looking to change brands. I’d been with the other brand so long that it had become like an old shoe, and I didn’t want new shoes.
But Pancho wouldn’t take no for an answer. He got my number, and said, “I’m going to call you on Monday, and we’re going to meet at ESP.” Now, I meet a lot of people, and there are always conversations like this, and nothing ever transpires. But he didn’t even wait until Monday. Sure enough, he called me Sunday evening and said, “Meet me at ESP on Vanowen at 10:45 tomorrow.” He basically dragged me down there. Not against my will, mind you.
So, I met him there and he brought me in, and I was introduced the head of A&R at the time, and the president of the company. They showed me around the shop and I was blown away. ESP seemed excited to have me in the family. I played a few basses while I was there, and thought that these guitars played very nice. I left there with a guitar that day, without making any commitment. I took it home and only said, “I’ll play it for awhile.” I didn’t want to make any promises. That bass was an LTD Vintage 4. I loved it. It played great. I signed up on the artist roster by that Friday.
What was it about the bass that sealed the deal for you?
It felt very familiar to me. I’ve been playing P-basses since day one, so I’m very much used to the feel off the guitar, the neck. I don’t particularly like small, thin necks. When I played the LTD, it felt like what I’m used to.
From there, it was a matter of getting to know it a little deeper. For me, it was a very solid instrument. The notes were consistent throughout the neck. The neck and body were well made. It weighs the same as my older basses. It felt great in my fingers. It felt very comfortable. That was the interesting thing; when you pick up a brand new guitar, they usually don’t really feel like that. It feels like a new pair of shoes. The difference with the Vintage 4 is that as soon as you pick up one that’s straight off the line, it feels like it’s been played through all the smoky bars for years. It has its own character.
Between the multiple bands and projects you’re in, you play out as much as any working bass player around. The reliability and build quality of a bass must be super important to you.
It was the first thing I noticed. It just felt solid, and became an immediate asset to my touring arsenal. When you tour and go through weather and temperature changes, you need a guitar to be solid.
What is your expectation of a professional bass when you get to a new city and open the case?
Ideally, the guitar is just as you left it, when leaving the last city, or leaving home for that matter. You want it playing the same way. You don’t want to worry, when you’re lying to a freezing Nordic country, that you’ll arrive and the neck will be bowed. It’s a concern with traveling musicians. It’s especially true on fly dates, where every day is a different set of circumstances. It’s good proof that a guitar is solid when it can withstand that.
In that regard, I’ve found that neck-through-body basses have more of a challenge. I play bolt-on necks for that reasons. I love the bolt-on necks on the Vintage 4. On both the ESP and LTD, they’re just super solid.
You’re pretty well known for modding your basses, as many ESP players do. What kinds of changes do you make?
I’m hot-rodding every one. I replace the pickups with EMGs, which I’ve been playing forever. I kind of feel like EMGs are a very flat pickup. The don’t color it a lot. You have more room for tone from your fingers, and the wood of the bass itself. I’m using the EMG X Series. I put in a PJ set.
I also put in a custom pickguard. It’s something I’ve been doing myself since I was about 20 years old, though now Eric Gonzalez at the ESP shop does it for me. He knows what I like, so he sets it up, and bevels it. I also set up my basses with Babicz bridges, and play DR Handmade strings.
You were with Armored Saint from the beginning in 1982. What keeps you motivated and fresh after all those years in one band?
Believe me, it’s still challenging, this many years later. It never goes away, that challenge to stay fresh as a musician. Maybe that’s what it is; the challenge to get something that’s always slightly out of reach. You always want to do better than the last time.
Being in multiple bands probably helps you avoid burnout.
I’ve been blessed and fortunate doing things outside of Armored Saint. It’s super healthy and inspiring for me, particularly with Fates Warning, who I’ve been with for 20 years. That’s a long time too.
Being able to play with a lot of different drummers, other musicians, keyboardists, playing in different situations. It’s been the thing that’s kept me going to keep things interesting. Armored Saint came out of childhood friendships. It’s super deep and connected. As far as keeping that relationship fresh, for me, it’s been the fact that I’ve had outside projects. I look up to people like… how do Mick and Keith stomach each other all these years?
Any advice for players who find themselves in the inevitable rut that we all hit from time to time?
Explore other people to play with, and explore other types of music. Push yourself outside of your comfort zones. Don’t be afraid to set yourself up for failure. You learn from them. It’s not easy to stomach, but you come across with more confidence when you fall down and find that you can get back up.
Do you turn to non-metal genres to try and push yourself?
I am personally into lots of different kinds of music. Starting with hard rock from the ‘70s, but also fusion and funk from the ‘70s. Especially funk. I continued to try and listen to a lot of different music throughout my whole career.
Breaking through the skill plateau is not easy to accomplish. It does take a lot of time that you have to put in. I’m honestly not one to talk about that; I admit that I’m very bad at practicing. I don’t have a good regimen. I could be so much better. So, I reached a plateau a long time ago. But I have conquered certain things along the way. Getting involved with a band like Fates Warning, for example. It opened my eyes to things that were unknown to me at the time. I became a better player and a better musician as a result of going outside my box.
I also studied with a jazz guitar player for a year.
I had to force myself to do it. I hated being the student. But he was great teacher and it was focused on theory and harmony with an emphasis on jazz improv. I had no previous background in that area, but immediately all of these doors started opening. I think people gotta get outside their comfort zones and previous experiences, and don’t be afraid.
Tell us what’s going on you with at the moment, music-wise.
Armored Saint is doing a month-long tour with Queensrÿche. That starts in Seattle, on November 15. It covers the entire US. I’m looking forward to that.
You’ll have a fellow ESP player on that tour with Michael “Whip” Wilton.
He’s a great guy. All those guys are great.
In January, I’m going out with Fates Warning. Our new record Theories of Flight came out in July. In January we go to Europe for three or four weeks, and then we do the US in April. I’ll be busy. We also have several summer festivals next year.
In the middle of all that, Armored Saint has a new live record coming out which I mixed as well. I do engineering on the side. That’s coming out on Metal Blade in February. We currently have a Pledge Music campaign for preorders, which people can find at pledgemusic.com/armoredsaint.
It seems that the life of most successful musicians we talk to is either at 100% busy or 100% downtime. Is that your experience as well?
I’m afraid I’m just one of those people… I need the torture. I feel best when I’m just insane. My wife has noticed that when I’m super busy, I complain all the time, but as soon as I have nothing to complain about, I get restless and start looking for more ways to torture myself.