Heavy Metal Guitar Style
Virtuoso Shred Guitar with Toby Knapp
By Thomas Amoriello
NAfME Council for Guitar Education Chair
In the arts, it has always been a universal belief that in order to be successful one needs to relocate to a city with a thriving scene. Places such as Hollywood (Tinsel Town), New York City (The City that Never Sleeps), and Nashville (Music City) have the nicknames to prove it. These cities have served as a Mecca for the music industry with their thriving night club life, industry insiders, and record label headquarters.
Fast forward to 2018, and with the access to home studio recording technology and Wi-Fi, you can distribute your music worldwide and have a virtual audience from any location. This brings us to Bighorn, Wyoming, with a population of 490 and the home of resident Toby Knapp.
Toby is known worldwide as a shred guitarist who plays on a level equal to the most widely recognized neoclassical shredders in the genre. (For more on shred guitar style, check out the June 22, 2017, NAfME “Music in a Minuet” blog, “Joe Who? Joe ‘Shredlord’ Stump, That’s Who! Heavy Metal Neo-Classical Style.”) The Wyomese heavy metal guitarist has maintained a consistent and respectable career from his rural home base since his 1993 Shrapnel Records debut, Guitar Distortion (SH-1063-2). Knapp wields a Stratocaster and is slightly more eclectic and non-commercial than his contemporaries exploring sub genres of Heavy Metal such as Black Metal, Death Metal, and European Power Metal, in addition to his adventurous instrumental work. Even his debut with Shrapnel was stylistically unorthodox at the time for the label, known for extreme soloing. Knapp’s recording focused on his rhythmic power chord chops—which were, of course, on the highest level.
Currently, Knapp records his music and also teaches via Skype from Bighorn. I want to thank Toby for granting an interview. It is the opinion of the author that Knapp should be more revered in the guitar and metal world. I encourage you to visit www.tobyknappmusic.com to check out his discography as well as encourage your students to view a few of his lesson clips on YouTube. Toby’s demos were chosen out of thousands of cassettes in the late 1980s to appear on the Shrapnel Label. This was the highest honor for a guitarist during the golden age of shred guitar. I was especially touched by his self-penned liner notes to his 2013 Shredguy Records release , Archives of Magick, Vol. II (SFR 13-006) which are a testament to his will,
“I’m back. I’m never leaving, and I’m never stopping. The day I am done with music is the day I am done with life. Fame? No. Media Coverage? NO. Endorsements? No. Money? No. A loyal fanbase holding a double CD compilation in their hands and reading these words? Yes.”
Please tell me about your musical experience growing up in Wyoming.
I knew at a very young age I would like to eventually learn to play guitar. When my mother was pregnant with me, she was playing keyboards in a band with my dad—music has always been there. I heard Led Zeppelin’s second album when I was around four, and it drew me in. Finally, when I saw the LZ concert “The Song Remains the Same,” I picked up a guitar immediately thereafter and never looked back.
I was lucky to have a great guitar teacher named Paul Lenz who “tricked” me into learning theory. He would say, “We need to work on scales,” and I said, “No, I want to play like Jimmy Page” . . . and then he taught me “Heartbreaker,” and in learning that I learned the pentatonic scale. Then of course I got some instructional cassettes and VHS tapes with Paul Gilbert, Vinnie Moore, and Steve Lukather later in my development.
My big jump forward occurred during a three-month period during which I learned many of the melodies from Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.” I took those melodies and created heavy metal instrumentals based on them. That was a big learning curve, the ten hour a day practice routine that is necessary for many musicians to make a big step forward.
So you have a many recordings out on a few different labels from all over the world, how does that feel being from a rural town in Wyoming?
The good thing about growing up in a small town is that there wasn’t much in the way of competition. No one told me I couldn’t accomplish my objectives. If I had grown up living near Paul Gilbert or Jason Becker, I may have become discouraged. I also lived in a bubble, very much doing my own thing without outside influences hindering my focus. I’ve been with some big companies and some small indie labels and have released more than twenty albums under different monikers/band names. Shrapnel/Roadrunner, Century Media, Transcending Obscurity, Pure Steel Records, and currently Moribund Records are the bigger labels. Shredguy Records also helped me out a lot and still continues to do so. As far as my home area, I’ve never been popular, nor do I want to be.
Please tell us about your work with famous guitar talent scout Mike Varney and his Shrapnel Record Label. This was the label of some of the greatest guitar players who walked the earth.
Signing to Shrapnel was the biggest goal. I set my focus on that and made a decision at sixteen: “I will send a demo to Mike Varney every month until I’m 20, and if I’m not signed by then, I will abandon music.” A month after I turned 20, Mike Varney called me for the first time and stated that he had listened to every demo and tracked my progress from the beginning. He asked me who my favorite guitarist on his label was, and at that time it was Tony Fredianelli. He hooked me up with Tony to produce my album and flew me to Las Vegas to record. He procured session drummer Ray Luzier (Korn, David Lee Roth, George Lynch) to play on the album, and it was an incredible experience.
Varney made the decision, however, for me to not play guitar solos on “Guitar Distortion” but rather to concentrate on heavy guitar riffs and odd meters because his “shred” albums were waning in sales. The musical climate was shifting. I left the label on my own accord and on friendly terms in 1995 because I wanted to do other things. The album is available on digital platforms via Orchard Music, but I don’t know if hard copies are in print.
What does your personal practice regimen look like?
Nowadays I practice when there is work to be done such as recording, playing live, or teaching advanced students. It’s not a constant; I just try not to get too rusty. All the things I need are there; I just need to rehearse them back in shape from time to time. I would rather listen to music than sit around with a guitar just noodling. Listening to lots of music sinks into the subconscious, and that is how I learn.
Who were some of the electric guitarists specifically who influenced your lead and rhythm style?
Well the constant influence is Jimmy Page. There is such a massive amount of things to learn from Led Zeppelin albums, they are almost like required texts. There are so many to name, but the other two really big influences were Ritchie Blackmore and Yngwie Malmsteen. Of course, there is the entirety of the Shrapnel Records guitar players from 1983-1993. I also like Johnny Winter and Albert Collins because they played such aggressive blues . . . the list is endless: Lifeson, Howe, Uli, Fripp, Takasaki, Norum, Holdsworth, Lynch, all the guys who worked in Thin Lizzy . . . it never ends . . . especially if you are such a music fan, you like and appreciate so many players.
Please tell us about your own record label. What is that like? The DIY aspect? Do they know you at the post office? Do you do everything yourself? Artwork?
The post office in the little town of Bighorn, Wyoming, is the greatest I’ve ever dealt with, and I’ve lived all over the U.S. through the years. I don’t have my own label though. These days when you do a record, the label usually gives you a large amount of your own CDs to sell at gigs and such so you can start earning money immediately. In doing all these albums I have so many titles that I sell and distribute, but the labels (currently Moribund and Pure Steel Records) do most of it. Many of the diehards like to get the albums directly from me. Once in a while I release a DIY album; these titles are usually some kind of compilation of rare/early stuff in very limited quantities.
I am fascinated by the the fact that you made a recording on a 4-track recorder. This is something that is a lost art as we live in a pro-tools world. Was this done out of necessity, or were you looking for a certain sound for that project?
I have a 24-track unit but prefer this fostex six track. It is so easy to use, and I am so comfortable with it that when inspiration strikes, I can get on recording the album very fast and it’s usually going to sound pretty good. I don’t have time to doodle around with pro-tools; I’m trying to channel something and capture it. It has to be done in the moment of inspiration—that essence has to be captured. I want to plug my guitar in and hit “record” and be done with it. My last few albums have been getting mastered by professionals in pro-studios, and they can fix a lot of things.
Please tell us about the black metal or dark metal scene that exists today in the underground heavy metal world.
Since its inception, hard rock and metal was supposed to be dangerous. It goes back to the Rolling Stones, Beatles, and Led Zeppelin; there was a strange vibe to some of it, something mysterious. That just kept progressing with Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, etc. In the ’80s bands kept pushing the envelope with the Thrash Metal movement . . . but then thrash became commercialized and mainstream. So fans and bands upped the danger factor, and Death Metal took hold, and it wasn’t long before it was commercialized and sold to the masses.
Black Metal was the logical backlash to that. It was created for the creators and a few “cult” fans . . . and guess what? This once untouchable genre which really has some dark and esoteric things going on became mainstream. Movies are being made about it! I stay true to the original essence of Black Metal when I work in that realm. I guess I’m not surprised about its popularity . . . but its original intention was the exact opposite of what much of it became.
Is there a social background or culture, dress style, that may attract someone to this genre of music?
I’m not sure on that . . . I’ve seen people of all backgrounds embrace that culture. I just heard the music, and it gave me the creeps just like that second Led Zeppelin album I heard when I was four years old.
What would you want someone to know (who knows nothing about this genre and is dismissive) about this style? The players and bands?
A lot of it is raw emotion, and the players aren’t so good. I appreciate it because it makes you feel something, usually bone-chilling coldness. However, we have Emperor’s “In the Nightside Eclipse,” Dissection’s “Storm of the Light’s Bane,” Mayhem’s “Grand Declaration of War,” Ved Buens Ende “Written in Waters” . . . and many others. I’m a musician first and foremost, and I can appreciate those albums as much as a Yes or Rush or King Crimson album. I don’t like modern Progressive Metal Bands and contrary to what people think . . . I really dislike a lot of Power Metal. Blah!
I like classic Heavy Metal, not our Power Metal contemporaries. The Traditional Metal band I’m in is Necrytis on Pure Steel Records. Coincidentally, much of our first two albums were recorded within 100 miles of Headley Grange in England. We were in the Led Zeppelin vortex!
It is worldwide?
Black Metal? Absolutely, it’s huge. Moribund Records just released my fourth Waxen album “Terror Decree,” and Waxen is not a “big” Black Metal band; it’s a cult one-man project . . . but the album is everywhere, and some of the previous Waxen stuff did get mainstream media attention quite to my surprise.
Please tell me about a current project.
My instrumental album “Blizzard Archer” is mixed, mastered, and Moribund Records are working on album layout and plan a worldwide campaign for the album to begin in January 2019. I recorded it at home with the usual gear, and then Brett Hansen mastered it. (Brett did my Shrapnel album in addition to my work with Onward and other Century Media and Shrapnel Records artists.) It sounds really good, and I think it might be my best work so far.
It’s ironic. I recorded all the music for it without the solos and then got tendonitis in the left hand so I had to put it on hold. I almost cancelled the whole project. I finally healed and began finishing parts of the album several months later just to “test” what the album might be like. I was really happy with what was happening, the whole organic process. I knew it had to be finished. I am really excited for people to hear this album . . . it’s what my first album on Shrapnel would have sounded like if I had been given creative control. Thanks so much for the interview!
About the author:
Thomas Amoriello is the NAfME Council for Guitar Education Chair and also serves as the Guitar Education Chairperson for the New Jersey Music Education Association. He teaches guitar for the Flemington Raritan School District and Hunterdon Academy of the Arts. Tom graduated from Shenandoah Conservatory with a Master of Music Degree in Classical Guitar Performance. He is the author of the children’s picture books: A Journey to Guitarland with Maestro Armadillo & Ukulele Sam Strums in the Sand (March 2019), both available from Black Rose Writing. He recently made two record releases (7- & 12-inch vinyl) on the H42 Records label of Hamburg, Germany, featuring former members of Black Sabbath, Whitesnake, Dio, Ozzy Osbourne, Yngwie J. Malmsteen’s Rising Force, and more.
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