For well over a decade, Nergal — the frontman and main creative force behind internationally-acclaimed Polish metal band Behemoth — has turned to ESP for the guitars that allow him, as he puts it, to “go onstage and unleash hell and chaos”. Nergal’s latest addition to the LTD Signature Series, the Nergal-6, is available now at ESP dealers worldwide.
Do you recall the first time you became aware of ESP?
I don’t remember the first time. I remember getting to know ESP during the first time we came to the US. It must have been during the Demigod touring cycle. 2005 or 2006, maybe. We got connected with ESP and ended up in their office. I remember there was this moment, going in there and looking around, and feeling like a kid in a toy store.
From that moment, we were just overwhelmed by the quality and everything. Ever since then, we stuck to ESP guitars. We have serious history with ESP at this stage.
ESP has just released a new signature model for you in 2018 — the LTD Nergal-6. What went into the design process? What’s it like as an artist, creating a new signature guitar?
I just go with the flow, really. I go with what I feel like in the moment.
In the first place, the V shape which I’d been using for years now, I got bored with, honestly. I’ve always been a fan of the classic single-cutaway shape. The first ESP models that I got were actually LTD Eclipse guitars, and I still own them, and that was the first shape I’d been using for ten or more years. I really dig that guitar. I love them.
So, I just had this idea, this flow. I said, “Let’s go with a classic-looking shape.”
If you compare this guitar to the earlier LTDs I had, it’s pretty much one-to-one the same, but the finish, the hardware, it’s all very minimalistic. Very stylish. It’s still looking dark and definitely coherent with the band. Also, I think the Nergal-6 is just more approachable. It’s more accessible for regular players. Anyone can grab the guitar and play it.
With a V, it’s a typical extreme heavy metal shape. I noticed immediately, when I first used the Nergal-6 onstage, the balance was different than what I’d been used to. It took the first couple of shows to get used to the different balance between the neck and body. That’s true with any new guitar... the way you grab the neck works differently with your muscles and fingers.
But now I’m used to this shape and all the little nuances of the guitar. There’s really no agenda there with the design, though. It’s just an idea. “Let’s fucking go back to a more classic shape.” Also, maybe it was also because Orion had shifted to a classic shape for his guitar. They look like twin brothers. I approach that conceptually and envision the band on stage, and see the bigger picture of what we’ve become. It’s bigger than just my own wanting something.
You’re using Fishman Fluence pickups in your new model. Tell us what you like about the pickups and the tone of the Nergal-6 in general.
It’s the same story. I’d been using EMG for almost two decades. We were approached by Fishman. “Hey, you wanna try this out?” I enjoyed it, and that’s it. I think it has a little more attack than the EMGs, but I’m not so particular about it. It just worked. I had also just switched to Peavey amps, and both elements connect with each other flawlessly. They work amazingly.
It does change with time. Our style fluctuates, transforms, changes. It doesn’t always have to be super heavy, super this, super that. I can’t explain it clearly, but it’s all about the flow. You grab it, plug it in and play it. What you get is, “This is me.” The older I get, the less I care about details. I don’t give a fuck. It’s a tool to go onstage and unleash hell and chaos. I’m pretty good at this.
You know, I’m not a nerd about guitars. I’ve never been a nerd. Ten years ago, I had way more knowledge about them than I do now. Here’s an analogy. I drive an Audi A5. It’s five years old. It's all black matte paint, black windows. It’s like my guitar in that way. But the only thing I’m interested in is the pedal to make it go. That’s all I love about this car. I press the pedal and it never fails me.
The same goes with this guitar. It plays great and looks amazing.
You mentioned the feel of the guitar. The Nergal-6 has a set-thru neck so there’s clean access to the highest frets.
It feels comfy. I think that the setup also offers a better sustain because of that. I’m a fan of classic ingredients of a guitar, and that’s one of them. Follow what’s timeless. What we choose to do with the finish and stuff, that’s our thing. In my opinion, the setup is timeless and universal.
You’re on tour right now, playing on Slayer’s Farewell tour. As a musician who plays live, going from city to city, environment to environment, is the reliability of a guitar important to you?
It’s essential. I go back to my car metaphor. I never have issues. I start the engine and fucking take off. I expect nothing less from my guitar.
I don’t need to play diplomat here. ESP guitars are great axes for my battle field and that’s what stage is for Behemoth. That’s how I perceive what we do. We are at war! Getting onstage is going to war. We will spend one day literally in Siberia, freezing our butts off. A week later, we’re in Indonesia, melting down. I need to count on my weapons, and these weapons are the best. In a metaphorical way, it’s a lethal weapon and ESPs are like Kalashnikov!
Your last ESP Signature guitar was the Hex-7, which came out in 2010. Is it difficult or confusing as a player to move between a 6-string and a 7-string guitar?
The reason for the 7-string was that 15 years ago, I had this ambition to go ahead to do new things. I thought, “Morbid Angel is the best ever, they use 7-strings. Let’s go heavier” on the next record, let’s expand our potential! And so did we!
But then with time, I started liking it less and less. 7-string is cool but it’s not really my thing anymore. It’s the same with the Floyd Rose. Why should I even use it? I don’t want to use it. It’s great for Kerry from Slayer but not me. There’s a thing called “less is more”, and that’s what I’m aiming with me instrument and music approach lately.
I listen to us now and compared to The Apostasy from ten years ago, I think, “Why did I even play all these notes?”. I probably had a need to prove something. I don’t remember exactly what it was. Probably a girl, ha ha... but seriously, I think I was all about becoming the most technical and the heaviest band on the planet. Then when we reached that crazy peak we were like, “Ok... I think it’s better to go back to where we REALLY belong”.
Behemoth is really a rock and blues-based band. It’s more simplistic and minimalist these days. It’s more based on atmosphere. We play the notes that are necessary to be played. It’s no problem to grab a chord and let it go, and let the notes breathe... I think it’s awesome. It feels liberating to be playing music that’s WITHIN you with no obligations, no restrictions whatsoever. Obviously there are faster bands, heavier bands, but we’re not racing with anyone. We’re not of them. We do our thing on our terms, and at our pace.
We do use the 7-string on the closing sonsg of every set, "At the Left Hand ov God”, and “Slaves Shall Serve”. They're Behemoth classics. We’ll stick to that. If we use 6-string on that tracks, it’s gonna be super weird. That’d be a betrayal, it would lack so much of the initial heaviness. Then again, you never know. Three or four years down the road, if a song requires 7-string tone, this heaviness again, we will use it!
Some people assume that the LTD version of a signature guitar is going to be completely different than the original artist’s guitar that’s made at the ESP Custom Shop, but you’ve been actually using the LTD model that anyone can buy, playing live on the road. What’s been your impression of it?
I’ll tell you my example. ESP Eclipse and LTD EC. I’ll grab one, and then pick up another one. I found that I wouldn’t play the ESP at all. The LTD feels better. Keep in mind that every guitar is different. When you play guitar, it’s the relationship that you have with the instrument. For some people it will work, for some it won’t. I won’t sit here and judge. It’s like with women... confront ten gorgeous females in front of you... but it doesn’t mean that it will automatically click with each one of them, if you know what I mean? It’s the chemistry, the vibe, the mood. It’s the energy you share with the instrument in this particular case. Why musicians give names to their guitars? That’s why... cause they cherish them, embrace them, LOVE em.
But above all, I can say that ESP guitars are definitely quality instruments. From my experience, some LTDs outplay the identical ESPs.
Let’s talk about playing for a moment. Who were some of your early influences as a player and songwriter?
Venom! When I was a kid, I listened to all kinds of bands. Venom was the first band that made me want to go onstage and be a performer. It never really changed. I still worship this band!
I had a conversation with Gary Holt and Kerry King backstage a few days ago, talking about Venom. They said, “To me, you guys are what Venom could be if they learned to how to play their instruments!” But really, for some bands, it does work to be loose and sloppy and chaotic. That’s what I found so captivating. I’ve always been a huge fan, and that never changed, really. There’s bands in the underground that cultivate that formula these days like German Katharsis, Canadian Blasphemy or Swedish Nifelheim or Watain. True genuine spiritual MUSICK of death!
You’re a veteran musician and a respected guitarist. Some people hit a plateau on their instrument, and that’s as good as they’re going to get. Do you still take steps to try and improve as a player?
I’m not sure, to be entirely honest with you.
Ten years ago, I was just way more ambitious when it comes to playing. I’m way more interested in being myself these days. When I grab a guitar and grab a chord, I want it to express who I am, and what’s happening within me, emotionally. It’s like Miles Davis said: “I can tell you the musician is good just by the way he stands and holds his instrument”. I wanna play with my BODY, I wanna embrace music and instrument wholly with WHO and WHAT I am. I try to play with my balls... with my dick... using mind but intuition is where it should come from!
I went from showing off to just being me. It’s sometimes complicated, sometimes simple, sometimes aggressive, sometimes delicate... it’s the whole spectrum of variations, different shades... different flavors. I’m trying to perfect myself in expressing my inner moods and vibes using guitar. The atmosphere comes first though. When I make Behemoth music, I never play guitar plugged into an amp.
Yes. I start by just fucking around on electric guitar, and not plugging into anything. That’s how I make all the songs. It’s always done it that way. A lot of ideas for the new album I would play on acoustic guitars... or semi-acoustic. It requires a different technique, and since it’s no good for fast picking or shredding, you naturally come up with way more chord-based and atmospheric stuff. Then, once the main idea is ready, I bring it to the rehearsal room and play it loud. It always comes down to a song theme that starts in my mind. Then I try to build around, adding notes and riffs if necessary.
Guitar is just a tool for me. Writing a song on guitar is no different that humming the riff to the other guys, which I do often to driving around in my car. So yes, 15 years ago, I wanted to be a better guitar player. Today, I’m sure I became a better songwriter and creator. If I can express that on guitar, fine. If I must use different tools like humming, or beating the primitive drum beat to Inferno, fine! Whatever it takes to make a song! It’s all about the tools around you. Make it happen using whatever means are around you.