Artist Spotlight: Ben Burnley (Breaking Benjamin)

At this January’s NAMM Show, we made the first official introduction of the new LTD Signature Series guitar for Benjamin Burnley, frontman and main creative force behind the hard rock band Breaking Benjamin. Surprising just about everyone (except for the millions of hardcore Breaking Benjamin fans around the world), the BB-600B quickly became one of the most highly-anticipated of our new models for 2017. We chatted with Ben to learn more about his decisions in the creation of this outstanding new guitar.

Ben, do you recall how you first became aware of ESP?
Oh man. I’ve known of ESP since I was a teenager. You’re asking me to go way back.

I think I learned about ESP through a friend of mine who had an ESP that he had totally customed out by himself, with his own stuff. It was pretty cool. I remember it. It was black, and I remember really liking the neck, the feel of it.

I was like 15 then, and I’m 38 now, so this was a pretty long time ago.

What led you back to looking at ESP to help create your signature guitar?
We’ve always liked ESP. We’ve always had friends who had ESP guitars. I was never against giving ESP a shot.

When it came time to make a custom model, the band had just reformed, so the timing seemed right. Everybody we’ve dealt with at ESP has been really incredible. The way I think about it is that everything happens at the right time, and it was a good time to start our relationship with ESP.

Let’s talk specifically about that signature model, the LTD BB-600B. The guitar features both magnetic and piezo pickups. What’s the advantage of a piezo pickup?
The piezo lets us basically run an acoustic signal along with the electric signal. The main advantage for me, being mainly a rhythm guitar player, is that I can do things live that takes extra efforts in the studio.

When I’m recording, I do a lot of that. I back up electric guitar chords with an acoustic guitar to give an extra layer to the sound. Having the piezo pickup on the guitar lets us do that live. Breaking Benjamin is a band that plays with no backing tracks. We don’t even play to a click.

Aren’t there various acoustic modeling tools and emulators you can use instead?
There’s no acoustic emulator pedal that sounds nearly as good as the piezo pickup does for getting a real acoustic sound. it’s interesting, too, that you can also run that signal through an EQ and have it so that it doesn’t even sound like an acoustic. It’s more like a separate signal that you can utilize entirely in its own way, and have that diversity of sound.

There are two output jacks on the guitar. One is dedicated to the magnetic pickup signal, and the other for the piezo. How are they routed from there when you play live in Breaking Benjamin?
We run things in a pretty cool way. We use Fractal Audio’s Axe-FX II XLs, and we don’t have any cabinets. We run the outputs direct to PA. Within that effects processor, you’re able to take the entire unit and split it left and right. You can also find ways to make it virtual stereo.

Think about the signal flow like pathways. We run both the acoustic and electric signals into the Axe-FX. Then we can set up mute blocks that allows us to control the acoustic signal with pedalboard. We can set up scenes that contain a lot of different effects all at once.

So, it’s a theme within a preset, and we can turn it off and on within a preset. Doing it that way, you don’t get any lag while switching signals. It’s already there. We treat the acoustic signal as another effect that you can turn off and on with the mute block.

To be clear, someone could also take advantage of the guitar’s multiple pickup types and outputs by simply running each output into its own amplifier, or separate channels on an amp, or separate inputs on a recording interface or processor. It doesn’t have to be a super high-tech setup.
Definitely. This is just what works for us. Again, we don’t run tracks, so this lets us bring our studio sound to the stage completely live.

The LTD BB-600B Benjamin Burnley Signature Series guitar. 27" baritone. Set-thru neck. Mahogany body with quilted maple top. Three-piece maple neck with ebony fingerboard and 24 extra-jumbo frets. Red neck inlays, LTD logo, and pickup covers. Graph Tech Ghost Loaded Resomax NV bridge & tailpiece piezo pickup system. Seymour Duncan JB and '59 magnetic pickups. Discrete outputs for magnetic pickups and piezo system.  [more info]

The BB-600B is a baritone guitar at 27” scale. How did you get into baritone guitars, and was there any adjustment period for you using a baritone versus a standard scale guitar?
There’s actually a story behind that. I used to be in a cover band. That’s how Breaking Benjamin first got started. We’d do Korn covers, so I had a 7-string. We honestly didn’t know know that baritone guitars existed. Baritone guitars weren’t prominent at the time and they were hard to find.

The evolution of it is simple to explain. I started with a standard scale, six-string guitar, which is where a lot of guitar players start. Then we started playing covers where we tuned down to standard drop D.

After that, I found it was a little heavier to go another half step down to C#. We did that for a good long while. On certain songs, we still use that C# tuning to this day. Then one day, I was like, “I have this riff, but let’s try tuning down another half step." So now we were a whole step down from D standard in C.

There are a lot of riffs we do where you go from the open string to the second fret… (imitates guitar sounds) duh nuh, duh nuh. That’s when I found that A# is a relative of C. I had one song that I’d written with that riff in it, and then I started playing with it in the open A#. It opened a doorway.

One point I want to make is that a lot of people think you tune down to sing lower. That’s not actually the case. I actually sing higher when we’re tuned that low. It’s all relative.

Because you can go to the octave above and still be in your singing range?
Yes, exactly.

People choose guitars for a lot of different reasons… how they look, how they sound, how they feel. What’s important to you in that regard?
The guitar definitely has to feel good in your hands. People have opinions about thicker necks, thinner necks. It’s just a preference thing. The guitar needs to feel like an extension of your hands.

The guitar that I have is perfect for me, and it seems a lot of players want the feel I have with it. So that’s most important. If you feel “off” when you play guitar, it’s going to affect your performance. It has to feel right in your hands.

How old were you when you started playing?
I was 15.

That’s relatively late compared to a lot of players. What made you get into it?
Mostly Nirvana. I really, really loved Nirvana when I was that age. I wanted to be Kurt Cobain really bad. I’d dress like him, I’d try and sing like him. It was a case where you had a singer who was a guitar player, but wasn't a shredder.

I would sit there and turn my amp all the way up, so loud it was blaring in my ear. I would be howling and trying to sound like Kurt Cobain. The funny thing is that if you listen to Bleach, there’s actually a lot of riffs on there. It’s hard to play!

Where did you go from there?
From learning that stuff, I started listening to Tool and other things with riffs. It’s an evolution. I started to listen to heavier stuff, but still a lot of singer-songwriter stuff. Breaking Benjamin is kind of like a mix between those two styles.

Who were some other influences on the singer-songwriter side?
I’ve always liked Queen. My mom would play it around the house. The brilliance of that band had an impact on me. Also David Bowie. But still, nothing was as big for me as Kurt Cobain.

Your bandmates Keith Wallen and Jasen Rauch are also ESP players. Any advantage in keeping it all in the family with one guitar brand?
Well yeah, mainly because we’re able to utilize the same resources. ESP is the most versatile custom guitar company that we’ve ever come across. When a musician is able to play ESP, they can make it completely their own. No offense to other guitar makers, but even if they make make you a custom, it basically looks the same as other models they make. With ESP, if you can think it, you guys make it.

A lot of people don’t understand how the business and legal aspects of being in a popular band can be a huge distraction to the actual creation of music. Breaking Benjamin went through a big upheaval at one point, and came back very strong. What advice do you have for people who go through difficult times in their bands?
I would never wish upon anyone the things I’ve had to deal with in the music industry. It is, sadly, like a learning experience. You have to make mistakes to learn what not to do.

For people in their own dilemmas, I can’t offer advice, since I don’t know their particular situations. But I will say that going into a band for the first time… just make sure everybody is 100% on the same page. Also, never do it for the money. You can’t put a price on the love you can find from playing music. If you’re not happy, what’s it really worth?

So, iron out all the business details right away, and make sure everybody’s in agreement. It’s best to find areas of agreement immediately, and make the parameters that everybody can be happy with. For me, I made a lot of mistakes. I didn’t even know what publishing was. You live and you learn.

Your most recent Breaking Benjamin album was Dark Before Dawn, which came out in 2015. Tell us what’s happening now with the band.
We got off a little tour we did, structured around the ShipRocked cruise. It marked the end of our last album cycle. Now we’re working on new stuff which will become our new album.

Is it important to progress and make changes in the styles you adopt as a musician and a songwriter?
I’ve always sort of been the kind of writer that writes the song for the song. I don’t try to make a conscious effort to be different just to be different. If the song calls for something different to be done, then we absolutely do that. We always do different things on each album, but it still fits in the box where Breaking Benjamin is supposed to be.

A lot of bands, especially after reforming, lose sight of what their fans loved them for to begin with. It’s like Star Wars. You can’t change it too much, or people aren’t going to be receptive. Our band’s been around a long time. People feel comfortable and at home with the staples of what we do. The new things that we do automatically fit inside the box that’s Breaking Benjamin. But in ways, we’re always treading new ground.