Doc Coyle is one of the most multi-faceted musicians on the ESP artist roster. His first stint with ESP started in the late ‘90s as a member of New Jersey-based metal band God Forbid, but Doc has since gained fame as a hired gun in a variety of other bands, as a columnist for sites like Metal Sucks and VH1, as the creator of the popular Ex-Man podcast, and most recently as a full-time member of the metal powerhouse Bad Wolves, who scored a platinum hit earlier this year with their cover of The Cranberries’ song “Zombie”.
Do you recall when you first become aware of ESP?
Yeah. I think ESP is a pretty ubiquitous brand for of fans of heavy metal because of Metallica. Even if Metallica wasn’t the first band that got me into rock or heavy music, it became clear they were the band that would supersede everyone else. Back when we were in God Forbid, my brother and I bought LTD M Series guitars that were kind of like a Kirk Hammett model. We had our own ESPs before we got sponsored by the company.
Tell us about the ESP model you’re playing now. We hear you’ve been really into the E-II Series.
Right now I have two of them. Two E-II Horizon FR-7’s, one black one and one in a turquoise burst. Both are seven-string. Both are fitted with Floyd Rose, where I have the trem blocked for stability. I wasn’t using Floyds for awhile, but the band tunes really low, and I blocked them because I didn’t want any variation in tuning.
You’re a guy who really likes to mod your guitars.
Yes. I have them outfitted with Lundgren pickups. One has their M7 pickups, and the other the Black Heaven, which is like a hybrid between the M7 and a JB. It’s a hotter, livelier sound. I also have an E-II ST-1, which also has the Floyd and a maple neck, and I also put a Black Heaven in there. It’s a six-string. Bad Wolves uses a multitude of tunings, so it’s good to have the variety. Those are the three guitars I have on the road.
I also have an Eclipse that I did some work on. I changed out the locking tuners. I also put in the Bare Knuckle Rebel Yell pickups, the Steve Stevens series. My other band Vagus Nerve is more on the progressive rock side of things, and I found myself utilizing guitars that had a greater level of versatility, and were warmer and softer as well.
All of these guitars are really incredible. I do a lot of stuff to them because when you’re touring at this level, they say the devil’s in the details. These little things make you play 0.5% better. I also sand the back of the neck to give it more of that maple unfinished feel. Also, the Lundgren pickups are extremely sensitive to dynamics. You’re out there, and everything you do is heard. It requires a proper guitar set up for accuracy.
Was there an adjustment to your guitar arsenal when you joined Bad Wolves?
When I joined Bad Wolves, there was already a sound established. I did everything in my power to outfit guitars that worked for this band. I did things with the guitars that I wouldn’t have necessarily done usually. Thankfully, ESP has gone out of their way to provide instruments that work for me. Getting that sound has been some trial and error. But now, being out for five months on the road with another three months to go, I’m really happy with instruments I have. Now, all my guitars are beasts.
How do you describe your current tone in Bad Wolves?
I would describe it as “djent-tera”, as in djent meeting Pantera. You have to understand that the guitar tone was devised by the former guitarist who’s not in the band anymore. He came up with a tone on an Axe FX. It’s a modern style that I’m familiar with, but I come from a different generation. I was bred on the thrash sound. That’s definitely a higher tuning, with a rigid right hand, and a midrange-y crunch. It’s a certain school of thought. I had to learn a whole new style, and it’s a way of playing percussively that involves a lot of muting and popping and slapping. It has a bounce to it.
The “djent” part of it is the idea where you shape the tone with an overdrive, so when you’re playing low notes, it cuts through. There’s a high-mid honk to it that can almost be abrasive on its own, but it works when blended in there.
The “tera” part of the tone is a scooped out fuzzy thing in there. It works out because in Bad Wolves, the riffs are single-note with expressive bending. There’s more on single-note riffs than there are power chords. There’s more of a bass-like quality to what’s going on. It’s just the style of the band, and it’s cool to wear a different hat, to evolve, and to be able to represent a different sound.
Is it important that you develop a unique sound for a new project?
It’s rare these days. That’s not by anyone’s fault, with so many bands using the same gear, reading the same literature, following the same YouTube review pages. Everyone is going for this arms race for the latest thing. Everything sounds pretty damn good, and it’s cool, but there’s this thing that has diminishing returns in terms of individuality.
I wrote an entire article about the Pantera production sound. It’s a good/bad sound. From an audiophile standpoint, it wasn’t a good guitar sound on its own, but it was great for Pantera. That’s why you purposefully break the rules, and do things that would be more unorthodox in character.
You’ve done a ton of touring. How do your ESPs hold up on the road?
Great. I’ve been using ESP since 1999. I started touring in 2001. I think that’s a big reason why they’ve been a staple across the heavy music community for years.
On this tour we’re on, I noticed that Keith from Breaking Benjamin was using LTDs! He’s not out there using custom shop guitars. He said, “This baritone works for me for these reasons.” It doesn’t have to be expensive. It’s like, you’ve had it for 20 years and it’s going to hold it down.
I have an ESP from 2009 when I filled in for Mark Morton from Lamb of God. That guitar was used on all the rhythm tracks on the last God Forbid album, Equilibrium, and it has this evergreen quality to it. As you know, a lot of guitars get better with age. That guitar has a special vibe, and I’ll never get rid of it. I do so many session gigs and various jams out here in LA, and it’s always a standby.
A lot of the guitars I have on the road right now are fairly new, but they’ve been extremely resilient. I haven’t had to to do a lot of maintenance. Believe it or not, I’ve had an LTD acoustic from 2004. Tommy from Bad Wolves and I did a show for “Rock to Recovery” a couple days ago, and it sounded great. I wouldn’t put it in the class of a $3000 Martin, but it doesn’t sound like any other guitar, and doesn’t play like any other guitar. This has a cool sound and cool vibe, and it’s good to know you have that in your arsenal.
Bad Wolves is made up of people who’ve all been experienced in working with other popular bands. Is there a big difference in how you personally approach working with this band versus your previous ones?
John Boecklin, the drummer from DevilDriver, got the band started with Tommy. I was coming into something that was already in motion. The guys have a lot of leadership qualities. I’m used to being at the forefront, so it’s about coming in as a supporting role, but seeing where I could take my skillset and experience, and elevate what was already there.
When I first came to LA, I took on a hired gun role. The default situation ended up with me being the musical director for a lot of bands, organizing the live shows and so on. In Bad Wolves, the responsibility I took on, along with the other guitarist Chris Cain, is to translate what’s on the record to the band’s live sound. That involved things like dealing with low tuning, which combined with gain and speed can give you a jumbled mess. It took months of rehearsing and experimenting, but now it’s a pretty damn great representation of how it sounds on the record.
The cover of “Zombie” was a surprise huge hit. Had you personally been a Cranberries fan previous to covering the song?
Yeah. I was a fan in the way that I was a fan of the entire era. I was a child of the ‘90s, in that it was my seminal period for absorbing music. I spent three, four, five years watching MTV. They were one of those bands who were part of that entire fabric. Obviously, that song had a persistence. Certain songs become part of an era, but there was a lasting power to it. It didn’t vanish from the zeitgeist after the era ended.
I think sometimes when you get to that age, you take for granted that there’s an entire new generation that doesn’t have the relationship with the material that we do. Even going back and listening to the original, records from that time were produced in a way that was more minimalistic. With our version, you hear the way Tommy sings, the big production, the big drums. It’s presented in a very different way.
The other part of it is the fact that it’s someone that, when she (Cranberries singer Dolores O’Riordan) passed away, people were devastated. I think it was a tragedy, and people felt connected to it. Hearing the song in the way we did it, a somber version… people enjoyed that level of depth. The music video is a tribute to her. It created a different narrative. When you have a song that’s that amazing, it’s timeless. In any era, it would have been a hit.
When you do a cover, how difficult is it to balance the respect for the original song versus wanting to add your own vibe to it?
I have a very fluid notion of the idea of covers. I started a cover band. I loved doing it.
I did some writing for VH1.com and CreativeLive.com. I wrote one article about the Avenged Sevenfold album Hail to the King. A lot of people were criticizing it. “They’re ripping off Metallica, Gn'R, Megadeth.” In my article, I was decrying the notion of the illusion of originality. It’s not that there’s a scale of “most original” versus “least original”. But everything comes from something.
You look into the modern pop and rock umbrella, popular music of the last 50 or 60 years. That’s the legacy of this era. People playing other people’s music. Rock bands playing blues. The British bands playing blues… Zep, Stones, Beatles. Those same kinds of musicians in previous years would be playing jazz standards. Classical music was being done when there was a period of classical composers. That’s just what people played! With hip hop, there’s an entire culture derived from sampling other people’s music.
So, you have to get it out of your head that doing covers and being influenced by other bands is a failure of historical norms. We’re just making music. You look at things like Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke getting sued by sued by Marvin Gaye’s estate. I don’t agree with the way it turned out. You can’t own notes! There are only 12 of them!
With a cover, the point is in making it your own, and presenting it with your personality on it. There’s a skill to it. When I was at VH1, I did a piece on my favorite cover songs. You look at something like Johnny Cash’s version of “Hurt”, and that became more famous for Johnny Cash than it was for Nine Inch Nails.
It takes different forms. Where we fail is when we get too precious with things. It’s just music. It’s OK. In our case, it helped us launch our career in a big way. Doing something like this, there are people who are plotting and planning and making formulas. When people see success, they want to replicate that, and I can see the cynicism around that. But I just think doing covers is fun.
Do you still consciously try and improve and add to your abilities as a guitar player?
I think that functions on two levels. First, there’s maintenance. “I’ve been able to do this, but if I don’t sharpen the axe, I’ll actually lose skills.”
What you’re talking about is adding new skills. If I’d made a decision when I was 21 to be a shredding guitar player, I’d be really good at that. Instead, I learned to sing. Sing and harmonize. After that, I started teaching and learning theory and understanding modes. Then I started sitting in on really cool improv jam sessions, and learning how to do that. I became focused on being a multi-tooled player, and someone who is versatile and can do a lot of different things.
What I realized in years since… there might be guys who are better at that one thing they do, and they got certain gigs over me in a heartbeat. But I could sit in on a hip hop gig, and then be in a rock session. Some of this is on purpose, and some because I’m interested in being a better overall musician.
Back in God Forbid, we would compose as a group. I’d come in with a piece of a song, and we’d jam. In recent years, I’ve learned to write entire songs top to bottom. Since then, I’ve written songs for Jamey Jasta and for Body Count. I like to challenge myself. I did the theme song for my podcast, which has an ‘80s synth vibe. I enjoy having that versatility.
I was reading a book by Scott Adams, the guy who did Dilbert. He’s kind of a weirdo now, but he is smart. His book talks about talent stacking. When you combine three or four talents in different areas, you come away with a unique skill set. Is it truly better to be good at a bunch of things than be great at just one thing? You can make an argument against that. Look at Daniel Day Lewis. He’s the greatest actor, right? He seems to be doing alright. Look at LeBron James.
But in my case, I get kind of bored. I need new challenges, new endeavors to get interested in. At the heart of it, I would like to be a better technical guitar player and be shredding and all that. When there’s a new Bad Wolves record coming out, I’m going to have to put all ancillary interests aside and devote myself to that. I need to go back and woodshed, and learn some new techniques. Bad Wolves is a big band now, and there are a lot of expectations. For me, it’s a chance to showcase my playing, and put a stamp out there as a guitar player.
Keep up with Doc and Bad Wolves at their web site. Photos courtesy of Doc Coyle.