Baroque and Roll
Tom, many thanks for agreeing to this interview. For those readers that may not have heard of you, can you give a little background information of your career to date.
Tom Hess: I play in two bands: Hess (progressive rock/metal, neo classical guitar playing with 19th century Romantic era expression and harmonies) and HolyHell (a melodic metal band fronted by female singer Maria Broen. Joe Stump also plays in this band.) . In 2000, I released my first record: HESS ~ Opus 1. The second record (Hess ~ Opus 2) was released in 2004.
HolyHell recently toured with Manowar and Rhapsody in North America and Europe including the huge metal festivals, Earth Shaker in Germany and Masters of Rock in The Czech Republic. We will be continuing that tour in late 2006.
I've done a bunch of other things but these are the main highlights of what's been going on.
In addition to writing, recording and touring, I also teach other guitarists from around the world via my Interactive Online Guitar Lessons.
Ok, if we can start right up to date with your latest band project 'Holy Hell'. We had a little insight in September from Joe Stump on the project, but I am guessing quite a bit has happened since then. Whats the current state of play with the project and when can we expect the album? Also the European tour with Manowar and Rhapsody has been put back to December, why the delay?
Tom Hess: At the moment, we are working non-stop finishing the recordings. All is going great and we are really excited. This band is very unique and will forge a new direction. The album will be out for sure this year, an exact release-date is not known yet for now, but all latest news can be found on www.holyhell.com. We will launch a brand-new website very soon, so check it out.
And yes, unfortunately the European tour had to be postponed due to an unfortunate motorcycle accident of Manowar's guitarist Karl Logan. He had severe injuries on his arm. We are glad that the future looks very positive now and that we can be on the road later on this year with HUGE concerts in Europe especially!
How would you describe the music in Holy Hell?
Tom Hess: Mystical, magical metal which is both heavy and melodic, but its done in a new way. Certainly it will be very different from what I do in HESS and what Joe Stump does on his records.
How are you interacting with Joe as double pronged guitar attack?
Tom Hess: Joe is a badass guitarist and the fans can expect an awesome show with the two of us together in one line-up, but these songs are much less about guitar playing and much more about the entire picture and mood that is HolyHell.
Having released 2 of the most successfull independent instrumental releases of recent years (and two Guitar9.com top sellers) with Hess. What do you think this band brings to the neo-classical genre?
Tom Hess: The neo-classical genre is really not a good label for the style as very little of what is called neo-classical is actually classical at all. Neo-baroque would be a much better label. Classical implies the Classical era (circa 1750-1820) (composers like Mozart and Haydn). Players like Yngwie and Stump are more related to the Baroque era (circa 1600-1750) Composers like Bach and Vivaldi. This misunderstanding among fans has always bothered me since I think the distinction between the two eras and what they represented is important. Obviously your site got it right (hence the name Baroque & Roll!)
Certainly the Hess band has elements of Baroque era (counterpoint for example), but the harmonic structure, musical form, increased dynamic range, timbre and textures, use of exotic modes and a much deeper level of expression all derive from the ideals of the Romantic era (1820-1900). The harmonic language in HESS (especially on the Opus 2 record) is more similar to Chopin, Brahms or Liszt than it is to Bach. When you hear HESS Opus 2, the difference will be obvious. I think the Romantic era ideals in HESS are the biggest differences between us and the cool neoclassical guys like Yngwie.
How do you go about writing a Hess composition?
Tom Hess: I don't use the guitar much for writing anymore. I have many compositional processes that I use. I have a composition degree from Roosevelt University and learned many great things there, but the one area I feel I learned the most in was compositional processes and pre-compositional thought. I can't get into all of these methods here (the interview would be many hours long if I did), but I'll just say that my fundamental idea in composing HESS music is to think about what it is I want to express first, then consider how every single musical might be able to contribute to bring out that expression. On the HESS Opus 2 CD, you can really hear this on tracks 1, 4, 5, 6, 9. A bit less so on the other tracks since I used different processes for each of those.
There is a lot of intricate guitar work, time signatures, key changes throughout both Opus 1 and Opus 2. How do you guys manage to stop the music being a barrage of scales and no substance?
Tom Hess: I don't think about my abilities as a guitarist when composing HESS music. I am focused generally on expression, the musical tools I use are just that, "tools". The tools are there to help create the music, but are not generally the focal point of the music itself. Honestly, I am surprised that more musicians don't focus more on expression as the primary goal. But, hey whatever they want to do is cool, we all do our own thing.
Tom Hess: They are both highly self expressive records. I certainly do not intend to do anything original. I don't think "trying" to be original is a good goal to have. I say that because by attempting to do only "new things", one is severely limiting great musical options and possibilities from the palette. I don't think about sounding like anyone else and I also do not think about trying to avoid sounding like anything else. I write what I want to express and if its original, that 's cool, if it is not original that's cool too. That being said, because my approach to writing is generally very different from others writing music in these genres, the music ends up being quite original. If others decided to follow the same ideas and write music that is similar to mine, that wouldn't bother me or anything like that. I do what I do regardless.
I believe you are currently writing material for Opus 3? What can we expect on the third installment?
Tom Hess: Listen to track 4 of Opus 2: "The Cynic, The Sad, And The Fallen". The entire Opus 3 is based on that piece of music.
Having just seen your cool website I see that you offer lessons tailored to the player yet with strong structure and definite goals. Can you tell our readers what you can offer to say someone that has been playing 10 years, but has never been able to reach the levels they wished they could in the neo-classical genre?
Tom Hess: No I can't. Because every single player has different goals, different experiences, different skill sets, different potential, different needs, different learning styles, etc, etc. I can't give general advice without knowing all of these things about the person in advance. I teach people, not situations or circumstances, so that information is vital for me to know before I can teach anyone anything in the best and most effective manner.
How far widespread are your students?
Tom Hess: I have students from all over the world. Many of them are already making a good living in the music business, but I do teach less experienced guitarists as well. BUT I ONLY ACCEPT VERY SERIOUS STUDENTS THAT ARE COMMITTED! In general I only accept about 1/4 of the people who contact me regarding instruction. I am very fortunate that I can choose which students I want to invest my time into. I'm all about getting results and will only teach guitarists who have that same type of mindset and are committed to that.
Teaching must be very rewarding for you, what do you get out of it?
Tom Hess: I am very, very committed to the people I teach. It brings me great personal fulfillment and satisfaction to see students reach their really big goals. Because I know I had a lot to do with that success, it's very cool. The success of the students is the only thing that matters.
What led you to taking up the guitar?
Tom Hess: My first desire to play came at age 10 or 11 after hearing Def Leppard's Pyromania album. When I heard Ride the Lightning [Metallica], I was on fire and had to play!
Who were your influences then, and now?
Tom Hess: Besides the above bands, I was into Iron Maiden, and lots of other 80s metal. I heard Yngwie and was blown away (who wasn't!), he inspired me to listen to baroque music and aspire to become a virtuoso. Later I got into Dream Theater and Symphony X. In college I discovered the Romantic era composers - mainly Chopin who is my biggest influence today. He was the master of self expression and I studied him, his life, his music and everything else about him. He inspired me to want to become a great composer and not merely a guitarist.
For guitar phrasing and vibrato I love Jason Becker, Marty Friedman and George Bellas (my former teacher) and of course my all time favorite guitarist is Andy LaRocque (King Diamond's guitar player) - although I prefer his stuff from 1986-1990.
I have many non guitar influences also that have helped both my guitar playing and composing skills. Fabio Leone (Rhaposdy) is my all time favorite singer. It was totally cool to have been on tour with Rhapsody and hang with Fabio, Luca and the rest of those guys. I also love the writings of Goethe, the paintings of Rembrandt, and I almost forgot the composer Gorecki! There are tons of other influences but these are the main ones.
Where do you feel the neo-classical genre is going?
Tom Hess: I have no idea honestly, I don't think about that really.
Are there any players or bands that readers should check out that maybe don't have the exposure they should for whatever reason?
Tom Hess: Top of my list are: Bellas, Becker, Freidman, Yngwie, all the standard guys, but I also love Andy LaRocque, Mike Walsh (he also has another band called SAGE), there are tons of great (lesser known) players at guitar9.com. I would suggest people to start there after they are done checking out the rest of your great site!
Guitars - what do you look for in a guitar and what are you currently using?
Tom Hess: I use various Carvin V220 guitars. I also have a bunch of other guitars, but mainly I am a huge Carvin fan. Generally I used fixed bridge guitars and Metal Live Wire Pickups, 10 or 11 gauge strings, high action (makes the guitar sustain better) and I prefer ebony fingerboards with neck through construction. The number one most important thing for me is the position of the pickup selector! I must be able to change pickups while playing blistering solos so I can get optimum tone for each phrase.
Amplification - I believe you endorse Randall amps, what model are you using and why?
Tom Hess: Yes both Mike Walsh and I use Randall X2 heads and Randall cabs. We use them because the tone is killer and tight.
Any tips for getting a good sound on tape?
Tom Hess: My opinion, it begins with the pickups! Metal Live Wire Bridge pickups Rule!
What do you feel are your strengths and weaknesses as a player?
Tom Hess: My greatest strengths as a player is my ability to express myself completely and totally with the guitar. My weaknesses are all in areas that are non supportive to my self expressive goals. For example, I suck at finger picking, but I don't care about that, because this tool is not needed to express the types of things I want to express. I focus on the tools that matter to me and have worked very hard to master those to the best of my ability. I don't waste my time on other areas that are not a part of my own self expression.
How do you feel you have grown as a player?
Tom Hess: Having something to say! Some players don't seem to have much to express and just play guitar. Don't get me wrong, that's cool too, but for me, having something to say with music has done more for my growth as a musician than anything else.
What's the one bit of advice you would give to anyone thinking of going into the music business?
Tom Hess: Find a music career mentor
Any final messages for our readers?
Tom Hess: Yes, thanks to all of you who have supported me over the years! The best is yet to come!
Many thanks for your time.
My pleasure, and thank You Andy.