Fireworks Magazine, Issue 63
by Nicky Baldrian
‘Now Weaponized!’ is the new CD from multi-instrumentalist Randy Ellefson, who is from Maryland. Randy plays all instruments on his album. Anyone who knows me will testfy my love for instrumental guitar music and Randy’s album has been high up on my playlist of instrumental albums the past few months. It’s meloduc and full of fabulous tunes like ‘Surreal’.
‘Promenade’ and ‘Farewell’ show the depth of Randy’s playing. It’s not a shred album for the sake of shredding; no sir it’s an album full of fabulous melodies played with feeling and style. Think Joe Satriani. Randy has always loved rock and metal, so when he finally saw someone play guitar in person, he became obsessed with knowing how people knew what to do. That led to lessons and his own experimenting, which is how Randy stumled into writing riffs. ‘I was hooked right then’, he says. Randy is mostly inspired by twin-guitar metal bands of the 1980s, like Scorpions, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Metallica. He wanted to be in a band like that but when grunge hit in the 1990s, he wasn’t sure what to do anymore and stumbled into instrumental guitar, and has been doing it ever since.
Now Weaponized! is mostly a continuation of what Randy has been doing. ‘I’m always trying to improve, being more lyrical and adding more textures than before, like the acoustic and guitar synth. Many of the songs were initially written at the same time as previous albums,’ he adds. With his background in twin-guitar metal, his songs have much more riffing than you’d expect from an instrumental guitarist. ‘I don’t believe in background instruments. Everything is meant to be heard equally. I use classical variation techniques so you can hear melodies in leads and riffs being transformed as the song progresses,’ he explains. ‘I sound like what I am – a guy who wanted to form a band like Iron Maiden, Metallica, or Scorpions and just replaced th vocalist with lead guitar. I guess the genre [instrumental guitar] doesn’t have a good reputation for song writing, but that’s where my heart lies, more than with just guitar, and I think it shows.’
The album is mostly up-tempo hard rock with tons of riffs. Many songs, like ‘Serenade’, ‘Rapid Fire’, ‘Ostinato’, and ‘Farewell’ are written from a single musical theme, or motif, that appears in different guises so sections sound familiar but different. ‘It’s more fun for me and the listener. The biggest difference this album is that I’m the drummer, too, and there’s double-bass drumming. The latter was true on the first album but that was a drum machine, so this is the best sounding drum performance so far. The mix and production are the best, too,’ he adds. ‘Like every album, this one has a weird song with no lead themes or melodies, just riffs and guitar solos, but fans have cited ‘Moshkill’ as a favorite and I agree.’
Randy recorded the whole album at home in The Firebard Studios with himself as sole performer, producer, and recording engineer. ‘I started recording songs for this as far back as 2006, including ‘Serenade’ and ‘Crunch Time’, but most of it was done in 2011 while I was also recording songs for other albums. I had a big heap of songs to plow through.’ Next up Randy is intending to release a video for each song and has already filmed all footage. ‘Each video will show all drums, guitars, and bass onscreen at once,’ he adds.
This year is the 10th anniversary of The Firebard album and he is going to re-release it. ‘I’ve learned a lot since then and the sonic difference between the new and old is considerable,’ he adds. Randy is also finishing a second acoustic CD for release next winter. ‘Most of it is already recorded. I just want to add another few songs.’ And of course he does have a band. ‘I also have a metal band, Z-Order, that recorded its debut album a couple years ago, but the singer quit and we’ve had trouble with replacements. The newest one is slated to finish up by spring 2014 and I’m hoping to finally release that shortly after. I might be releasing four albums in 12 months if all goes according to plan.’
Guitarist Randy Ellefson Talks About Instrumental Excursions
by Rick Landers
June 5, 2012
Guitarist, Randy Ellefson, is driven to create something special, whether it’s his music or within the realms of his other artistic endeavors. His music range embraces free style melodic instrumentals and crushing heavy metal, both of which contributed to one very bad case of tendonitis. One that lasted over a decade, delaying Randy’s album , Serenade, well beyond most gestation periods. After he “discovered” the guitar, Ellefson would dive into metal and later the world of classical music. He earned a bachelor’s degree in music and within a few weeks of graduation, he wrote a full-album’s worth of songs that would be released 15 years later as The Lost Art album .
In 1996 his classical guitar work slammed him with tendonitus in both hands. It hit him like a freight train. He would move off into another career field, but always – always – yearn for the time when he could pick up a guitar and wail away or delicately pick his way through a complex classical piece. Determined, he would not allow the tendonitus to be a complete show stopper.
It took him five years before he could regain some of his guitar skills, and by that time he’d upgraded Firebard Studios and target the creation of his debut album, The Firebard. The album would garner some solid reviews that were followed up by endorsements from Peavey, Alvarez Guitars, and Morley Pedals.
In 2007, Randy would roll out another album, Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid album. His creative juices kept bubbling away, as he wrote a collection of rock instrumentals with influences from his classical training bleeding through.
In 2010, Randy would release two albums, an acoustic guitar CD, Serenade of Strings, and The Lost Art album. He also founded Z-Order, a twin-guitar metal band that includes Dave DeMarco on bass, James Goetz on drums and vocalist, Chase Breedlove.
Rick Landers: Your guitar journey has some twists and turn in it with you moving from different styles of playing then fusing them into an interesting blend of instrumental music. How did your passion of guitar begin and do you feel you’re on an endless path of discovery or have you settled into what you’d call your own style?
Randy Ellefson: I became obsessed with knowing how a guitarist knew where to put his fingers after seeing someone play for the first time. My first teacher started me off so slow that I started making up chords and stumbling into writing songs. Those two things are what really turned me on and has continued to be my focus.
I’ve developed a unique style from not only avoiding standard voicings, like barre chords, open chords, or 5ths, but using uncommon voicings like 3rds much more often. I typically play tons of diads, or intervals, resulting in two-part counterpoint where the higher part is more melodic, being a theme. I then write a song of off that one idea using classical theme and variation techniques, structurally important key changes, and two and three point counterpoint for a single rhythm player.
At this point it’s pretty involved, so I’ve largely settled into a style, but I’m always exploring how the guitar can be played.
Rick: Taking a classical approach and working to blend it into a standard rock theme must have some challenges, working from some complexity to simplicity. Is that they way you approach your songwriting?
Randy Ellefson: Rock guitarists tend to play by fingerings and shapes, not the actual notes on the neck, and this makes using classical theory, which is note-driven, harder to use than it already is. Until I changed to playing by the notes, I really struggled but it became easy after that.
My rhythm style was actually pretty complex even before that and I just continued with it when I added the classical techniques. It was almost like I was headed in that direction anyway.
Much has been made of neo-classical rock guitarists being classically influenced, but I think their use of classical ideas is relatively simple. Most of them do what I call “ornamental use” of classical theory, as opposed to my more “integrated use”. They use scales or phrasing to evoke a classical sound, but they aren’t actually doing theme and development, counterpoint, voice leading, functional harmony, or doing much with key changes, not to mention all of these simultaneously. All of that is standard fare in classical composition and is also found in most of my songs. I brought more of the complexity of classical music into mine instead of simplifying it.
Rick: As a builder of your own guitars, what materials do you prefer to use to get the sonic you’re looking for and what about pickups, do you make your own?
Randy Ellefson: I’m not nearly clever enough to make my own pickups! I buy the parts and slap them together, using maple or ash bodies and maple necks, with Seymour Duncan Custom pickups being the main bridge one. I like a warm, punchy tone for rhythm and use Peavey amps to get the distortion I want. My riffs don’t sound quite right through Marshalls, for example. The production of my second album, Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid, captured the tone much better than the first. That said, you’d be surprised how much the engineer impacts the tone that’s captured.
Rick: Are you also building your own acoustics or classical guitars?
Randy Ellefson: No, though that would be cool. That requires a lot more know-how. I’ve been using Alvarez steel-string acoustics for 25 years and love the sound. I’ve got a Yamaha classical guitar that sounds great despite being an electric-classical, I never use the pickup. It’s got a thinner, flatter neck that fits my hand much better than standard ones.
Randy Ellefson: Back in 1995, just after finishing my classical guitar degree, I recorded those on a cheap 8-track cassette recorder for posterity, never intending to release them (partly because I’m no longer a classical guitarist, thanks to tendonitis). I always assumed the recording quality wasn’t up to snuff but liked the performances, which I can no longer do.
One of the songs, “Fantasia Etude” is an original piece, so I decided to include that on the 2010 acoustic album, Serenade of Strings; it was unlikely to ever be heard if I didn’t. My engineer thought the audio quality was pretty good, actually, so for the heck of it, I had the other 18 classical pieces professionally mixed and figured I might as well release them as The Lost Art on the same day as Serenade of Strings.
Rick: I see that you’ve never owned a manufactured guitar since 1987, but you have endorsements from Alvarez guitars. Are you borrowing guitars or what? How did the Alvarez endorsement come about?
Randy Ellefson: Manufactured electric guitar. All others, from acoustic to classical and bass, have been bought. I sent Alvarez a CD of demos for Serenade of Strings and told them how much I loved their acoustics. I’d been using one since 1987 and after they heard what I made it sound like, they gave me the endorsement.
Rick: Along the way you developed a severe case of tendonitis, an issue that a lot of guitarists face at some point. What happened and how did you deal with it?
Randy Ellefson: I had switched majors from composition to classical guitar halfway through my Bachelors degree, meaning I needed to gain four years of skill in only two years. I practiced up to ten hours a day and succeeded, then recorded The Lost Art, but a year later I got severe tendonitis in both arms and really lost everything: career, friends, savings, and all music pursuits. It was so severe that I was temporarily crippled and couldn’t work more than a few hours for the next 2.5 years. Losing my guitar playing, however terrible, was the least of my problems.
I couldn’t play for a year, and after that, was still really limited in what I could play and for how long, for the next five years. Despite that, I never really accepted not being able to play. It’s too ingrained in me. I had many demos for unfinished instrumentals lying around, so I began programming my drum machine with my feet as a way to make music. I also used the computer mouse on the floor with my feet, and bought a dictation program to control a computer with. I had weekly physical therapy for more than five years.
To be honest, it really destroyed me to go through the whole thing, but as corny as it sounds, I came out of it a lot better, including as a guitarist. I’m actually glad it happened. Most of the music I’ve released was actually written before the injury. It’s tough to be able to play like this and lose it all before anyone hears you, so the album releases have been a big deal for me.
Rick: You’re also in a metal band. How’s that going?
Randy Ellefson: The band, Z-Order, is influenced by classic Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Metallica. We finished backing tracks for the debut album in 2011, but then the original singer left and it took a year to find the right replacement. We’re turning it into a concept album about cyber bullying, isolation, meaningless connections; think Twitter and Facebook status updates, communication, suicide, and rebirth. Lyrics are almost done and we had to add a song or two, so we’re hoping to be done recording this summer, with a release by year’s end.
Rick: How about a quick rundown on your albums and what we can expect from each one?
Randy Ellefson: All four albums are instrumental discs. The Firebard  and Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid  are both high-energy, hard rock albums, with some clean or acoustic guitars for texture. My instrumentals are way more riff-oriented than usual, and I only shred when it’s needed during a solo. I’m not a big fan of showing off. These songs will get you a speeding ticket if you’re driving while listening.
Serenade of Strings  is all acoustic guitar; steel, nylon, 12-string, with drums, percussion, and bass, and more energetic than probably expected, though it has quiet pieces as well. It includes a cover of Randy Rhoads’ “Dee”, which I think hasn’t been covered before, actually.
The Lost Art  is all classical guitar and includes a Bach Cello Suite, some Villa-Lobos, lute pieces, and a guitar and flute sonata arranged for two guitars. The latter hasn’t been recorded that way before, I don’t think.
Rick: You have aspirations to be a published writer? How’s that coming along?
Randy Ellefson: I’ve put the focus on music for many years, so my pursuit of publication has been slow, like the novel writing itself. It’s one of those things you sacrifice, but I’m writing a non-fiction book in 2012 and will be pushing that and a re-worked novel with agents by year’s end.
Rick: Where can our readers find your albums?
Randy Ellefson: All four can be purchased or streamed from www.randyellefson.com or bought from http://www.cdbaby.com/Artist/RandyEllefson.
One on One with Randy Ellefson
by Matt Bankes
Rising Forces USA
September 30, 2010
Name: Randy Ellefson – my friends call me Rand
Hometown: Gaithersburg, Maryland
Instruments also played: Bass, piano
Been playing music since: 1984
Favorite instrument you own: My black electric with the mirror on it
Favorite bands: Iron Maiden, King Diamond
Musician you would most like to meet: Adrian Smith
Favorite music besides metal: Classical, especially orchestral
Best concert ever attended: Iron Maiden (Powerslave tour); Accept, 1985, in Columbia, Maryland
Favorite beverage (alcoholic/non alcoholic): White wine
Favorite food: Sushi!
Favorite movies: The Princess Bride, Terminator, Dead Poets Society, Ghostbusters
Favorite books: Dragonlance, The Troll Circle, Edgar Allen Poe Short Stories
Favorite quote: “The uninspired life is not worth living” – Me modifying “the unexamined life is not worth living” from Socrates
It’s been a long time coming for new feature articles at RFUSA (time and life move way too fast) but we now have our long-awaited next feature artists ready to roll and for you to read, learn about, and hopefully buy many copies of their music and support the scene!
On the individual front, the feature subject is a guitarist who overcame great adversity to continue playing the instrument he loves: Maryland-based shredder Randy Ellefson. After tendonitis nearly robbed the talented axe man of his playing career, Ellefson persevered and eventually came back to the six-string again! He has released two albums of shred guitar at its finest: 2004’s The Firebard and 2007’s Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid.
In 2010, Ellefson released two acoustic albums, The Lost Art and Serenade of Strings. In this interview, we talk about his influences, his extensive musical education, his dislike of the 90s music scene, his battle with tendonitis and overcoming it, his playing in the Iron Maiden tribute band Seventh Son, and his discography, including his brand new albums. ENJOY!
Matthew Bankes (MB): When you were growing up, what were your earliest musical memories and influences?
Randy Ellefson (RE): Kiss was it during the 70s, but that gave way to stuff like .38 Special, Pat Benatar, REO Speedwagon, and Journey. Then in 1982 I heard Ozzy and nearly shit myself. Randy Rhoads (guitarist for Ozzy Osbourne’s band) is the closest thing to a hero I’ve ever had because he was not only so unbelievably good and powerful, but so humble.
A couple years later I got into Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Scorpions, and shortly after that the Big Four appeared (Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax). It’s been mostly metal for me ever since.
Influences are mostly Metallica and Iron Maiden, though I’ve never been one for learning too many songs by others, so it’s mostly the general feel of these bands plus typical metal guitar playing – and I do a lot of my own thing on the guitar.
MB: When did you first start to play the guitar?
RE: When I was 13. I’d never seen anyone play in person, or on video for that matter, and was mesmerized by a classmate playing in the talent show one year. He wasn’t very good but it didn’t matter – I kept watching his hands trying to figure out how he knew where to put his fingers. It’s an obsession that has lasted to this day. I asked my parents for a guitar a few weeks later for my birthday and they got me an acoustic on the advice of a teacher. I wasn’t happy about it at the time but one eventual result is the Serenade of Strings album I’m releasing next month. I actually love to play the acoustic.
MB: Just for fun, can you remember what your first guitar was?
RE: I think it was a Martin steel-string acoustic, which I had for a year before trading it for my black Alvarez, which I still have and is my main acoustic. Three months into playing I got a cheap copy of a black Gibson Les Paul for my first electric. I also had this for about a year before upgrading to a Gibson Explorer, which didn’t last long because months later I built my first guitar and never looked back.
MB: Did you play any other instruments when you were growing up?
RE: Yeah I played a coronet, similar to a trumpet, in fifth and sixth grades, purely to get out of class and because a buddy was doing it. I hated it and was so bad you’d never have guessed I had any musical talent! I started playing piano after high school but tendonitis killed that a few years later – along with everything else.
MB: Usually, after someone learns an instrument, they search for a band to join. Were you in any bands growing up or did you always do your own material?
RE: I’ve always done my own stuff. I knew pretty early what I wanted to do – be in a twin guitar metal band – and am a natural composer, meaning I had songs accumulating all the time without even meaning to write them. I also didn’t want to learn songs by other guitarists for a somewhat unique reason: my playing has always been about discovering on my own how the guitar can be played. If I learn someone else’s songs, I’ll see what they’re doing, which means if those ideas are new to me, I can’t very well discover them on my own if I just saw this other guy do it. So I avoided learning songs.
These two things kept me from ever joining a band or doing a cover band. It caused problems, too, because people would want to jam and I wouldn’t know how to play anything by anyone else. No one understood this either, and some just assumed I was being difficult or something, so I sort of kept to myself, which has actually continued to this day, now that I think about it. I’m still a loner with a guitar and eventually got used to doing everything myself so that I no longer want a second guitarist on my recordings. This also eventually led to the production issues on my first album, The Firebard, because I had no one around to wise me up about mistakes I was making on that.
There weren’t any singers around in high school, but after that I tried to form the imaginary band I’d been writing for. It didn’t go so well or last very long because no one else in the band was serious or kept their chops up, and bad attitudes seemed more important to them than playing music. And then grunge showed up in 1991 and I just pulled the plug on the whole thing. Soon I started writing instrumentals, doing everything myself, and enjoyed not dealing with the bullshit. I’ve always been about the music, not girls, drugs, popularity, or whatever else.
MB: You eventually studied music in college. Where did you study music and can you tell us about the experience?
RE: I started at a local junior college, Montgomery College in Rockville, Maryland. They have a great music department there and that’s where I got into both theory and classical music itself, and became a serious composition major. It was when I left for Catholic University in D.C. (on the recommendations of MC teachers) that I switched to classical guitar.
I started off being what I call a “graduate of the ignorant and proud of it school of rock guitar,” so it came as a surprise that I got good at theory and became that guy that the other students went to for help. I was intending on a masters and doctorate in theory and being a professor myself when tendonitis killed that.
I loved learning counterpoint, form, orchestration, and even music history. I always found it odd when other students complained about their classes. If I had time to go back for refresher courses, I would! I was the only long-haired guy at CUA and didn’t have a friend in the world there, so I stuck out pretty bad. I was the only guitar major, too, and yet my interest was composition and I just wasn’t majoring in it, so I couldn’t hang out with the composers. I felt like an outcast there and found MC to be a much better environment. I mean the teachers at CUA were great (so were the ones at MC), but I was definitely in the wrong place socially. My car was also stolen while at CUA and the school couldn’t have cared less. There’s no love lost for that place.
MB: The switch from metal to being mainstream to underground was a bitter pill to swallow for you, as it was for me. Can you describe your feelings about your musical future at the time?
RE: I came to hate a lot of the grunge bands because of what they did to metal. You could say it wasn’t their fault and they were just doing their own thing, but I clearly remember lead guitar in particular being under constant criticism in interviews from these guitarists. Basically there are players who don’t want to know theory or practice at all, which is their right, but they openly attacked the idea of players who knew things or had discipline (which is OUR right), casting both as signs of being pretentious and therefore shallow (right up there with big hair) and having no artistic integrity. The whole thing pissed me off.
I took a break from my own band in 1991, getting into classical music in college and then starting with instrumentals on my own by 1993. I was too busy in school for a band anyway, and by the time I finished the degree in 1995, it was even more obvious how dead rock and metal were in the U.S. I didn’t know what to do and just kept doing what I liked on my own, hoping things would turn around, but they didn’t. Then I got tendonitis in 1996 and nothing mattered anymore.
MB: According to your bio, it was your tireless practice schedule that almost ended your career. Can you talk about that?
RE: I was originally a music composition major in college, but it’s even harder to write classical music when you haven’t taken a lot of the courses you need (you have to be a junior or senior to take them), so for a lot of reasons, I changed majors to classical guitar halfway through. This meant I had two years to pick up four years of skill, though I could’ve stayed in college longer and not crammed, but I really didn’t want to stay another year or two just for that.
You have to pass a junior recital (30 minutes) and a senior one (60 minutes), plus a performance “jury” at the end of every semester. To put this in perspective, normally you’d be playing at least two years before you can do a junior recital, and have as much as two years and nine months to do it. For a senior recital, you could do it as soon as three years or as late as three years and nine months. Well, I did my junior one after one year and three months, then the senior one at two years. I squeezed in the extra credits needed by doing summer school just for guitar lessons.
At first I practiced about four hours a day, maybe four-five days a week, which wasn’t too bad, but after the junior recital, I had nine months to learn an hour of tough material for the senior one. With three months left to go, I reached about eight hours a day for three months straight, never taking a day off, and managed to pass the recital and graduate. A few weeks later, I recorded 19 of the pieces at home, and I’m releasing those as The Lost Art album in September 2010.
A year later, in 1996, I got such severe tendonitis in both arms that I lost all guitar playing, career plans, and the rest of my life. I was crippled for the next two and a half years, broke, and stuck living with my parents. I dropped off the face of the Earth. My arms were so bad that playing guitar was really the least of my problems. I couldn’t get a job or even take care of myself, really, since stuff like doing laundry was way too much to handle.
MB: Did you ever have the feeling that you might never be able to pick up the guitar again?
RE: Yes and no. I could never accept the loss of it. My playing is too ingrained in my life and thoughts. I can’t listen to music with a guitar in it without thinking about it, for example. I’d have to go deaf, too, to really accept it being gone.
That said, I knew it was basically gone and wasn’t coming back anytime soon. I put all my guitars and other gear away after about four months, even though I hadn’t played in at least two – I was stalling. One of the shockers for me was about a month into the injury when a physical therapist suggested I play ten minutes three days in a row and see how that went. I had laughed, thinking that was nothing and a good test. Well, not only could I not do it then, but a full year later I still couldn’t get away with that.
MB: What helped you find your way back to the guitar again?
RE: Rest! I had a lot of physical therapy (more than five years) and did other treatments like ice, heat, and stretching, but in the end, rest is the solution. After a year, I could play 30 minutes a few times a week, then got up to 90 minutes every other day but could only play simple music of mine. It took a full five years before I could play all of my own rock music, but it was still too hard to play an acoustic. Ten years passed before I could regularly do that!
I have what I called “playing days,” meaning that after the injury, I became able to play every other day. Then it got to two days in a row, which I still stick to, usually. For example, as I write this, today is a playing day. I played yesterday and can do it again today. Tomorrow is not a playing day – it’s a day of rest. I’m still doing this 14 years after the injury.
That might sound limiting, but I’m not a kid anymore – once you’re an adult, life gets in the way a lot anyway so this actually works out fine most of the time
MB: After your comeback, you recorded your first album The Firebard. How long did it take to make the album and how satisfied are you looking back on it?
RE: It took over two years to record because I could only play guitar every other day at the time, if I remember correctly. This made it hard to keep my chops up, and I kept running into weird issues that would stop me from recording on a playing day. Having a splitting headache, guitars being impossible to tune, my playing just sucking, or other weird stuff I don’t remember. At times I felt cursed. It was a bit of an ordeal. The album was recorded under duress, much of it self-inflicted!
I had also just assembled a new studio set up with ProTools but didn’t really use all the new bells and whistles of it to my advantage, treating it like a bigger tape recorder. In fact, the first ten recordings I ever made with all the new gear are The Firebard. This was a mistake because I really needed to take the time to learn it properly, but after so many years of delays, I was in a bit of a rush.
I really like my level of technique on the album, and the technical lead guitar passages were a new high for me, but my playing is a little stiff due to two recording issues I was having at the time and didn’t know how to fix – both made me play carefully instead of freely. One result is somewhat mechanical playing. I would also say I hadn’t really recovered my vibrato after tendonitis.
Production-wise, I made a lot of mistakes on that album. I was so used to the drum machine that I never noticed how fake it sounded anymore, and the mixing engineer made it sound much worse, actually. Another mistake was having lead guitar everywhere. I remember thinking, “Well, you can never have too much melody.” That may be true, but if lead guitar is there all the time then there’s never a texture change and it wears thin.
The mixing was one of the biggest mistakes. I use guitar amp modeling software during recording but record the raw signal from my guitar so that it can be “re-amped” during mixing, for better sound quality. Well, I had done some experiments with that, knowing the tones weren’t the final ones, but I got stuck with these experiments in the end, and this is what caused the less-than-stellar guitar tone on the album. This was partly the studio’s fault – they lied to me about their setup – and partly mine because I should’ve walked away from that studio. I also trusted the mixing engineer and let him override my judgment on some things and shouldn’t have.
I like the songs but am very disappointed in the production, but at least I learned from those mistakes.
MB: In 2007, you released your second album, Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid. You also formed a backing band to play on it. How did you form your backing band and how long did it take to do the album?
RE: Some Things is actually the real first album, and what I mean is that those are the first ten rock instrumentals I ever wrote, back in 1993-94, before tendonitis. These are the songs that made me an instrumental guitarist, and I could play like that and lost it all before anyone had ever heard me!
In 2002, when I went to record an album, I decided not to re-tread the earlier material and work on something newer instead, so I chose the next ten instrumentals that were the closest to being finished and would make a good album together. That became The Firebard. With that released in 2004, I just started recording everything I had lying around without worrying about which album songs would go on. It wasn’t until 2005 that I focused on this release – some of the re-recordings were already done by then.
I naively thought many local clubs would let an instrumental guitarist perform, so I formed a backing band for that, and that’s when Jeff Moos came on as drummer. When the first lineup split up after a handful of shows, I took Jeff into the studio to record his parts and hired a session bassist to do bass. I have a log of how things went at: http://www.randyellefson.com/albums/somethings.aspx#Log.
That was mid-2006 but I had to wait almost a year to release it due to costs accumulating. That’s actually what’s caused all the delays between albums. I know people want music for free, but studios, manufacturers, promoters, distributors, and retailers don’t accept the logic of, “hey people want my music for nothing so therefore I shouldn’t have to pay for your services!”
The live band disbanded after the second lineup because venues wouldn’t let us play a decent time slot.
MB: Looking back on it a few years later, how do you feel about the album? Is there anything you would change about it?
RE: I love the way the album sounds! Considering the huge difference in production, you might be surprised to know that both albums were recorded in identical fashion, with the obvious exception of real drums and another guy on bass, both recorded elsewhere. I was able to successfully re-amp my guitars this time and the difference is huge. I also learned from my other mistakes.
One thing I realized is that it’s nearly impossible to recoup expenses due to limited sales when you’re both an indie musician and an instrumental guitarist, a genre not known for sales. The result was not spending money on artwork compared to the killer cover on the first album. I don’t really regret the decision, and the artwork fits the title for being ambiguous (it doesn’t mean a thing), but a better cover couldn’t have hurt.
I’ve very happy with the way Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid turned out, and I feel like I saved that album from oblivion by recovering my playing and releasing it. It means a lot to me.
MB: You have two new acoustic releases ready to hit the shelves. Can you tell us about them? I know in the case of one of the albums, it’s a bit of unfinished business being resolved
RE: Serenade of Strings marks my return to the acoustic guitar after a decade. Half the songs on it are from before the injury, and I always had my heart set on doing this. I had wondered if I could still write like this, but I picked up right where I left off. There’s one cover song on there, too: “Dee,” by Randy Rhoads.
I recorded everything in 2009, doing all the guitars and bass myself at my house and getting surprisingly good recording quality out of what used to be my guest room and is now my studio. Jeff Moos returned on drums, which we recorded back at High View Studios in Baltimore, Maryland, like the last time. It’s quite a different record and I’m still figuring out whom to market it to.
The Lost Art is the other album and it’s the classical guitar recordings I made after the senior recital. I’m glad I did that because I still can’t play that music, hence the title. I had thought of doing this before but it became a reality when I included an original piece, “Fantasia Etude,” on Serenade, and my engineer agreed that the recordings sounded pretty good. I see this as a bonus disc and am releasing it along with Serenade of Strings.
MB: I met you while you were playing guitar in the Iron Maiden tribute act Seventh Son. How did you end up joining them and are you enjoying the experience?
RE: The guy who’d played bass on my last album (Dave DeMarco) called me about forming it with others he knew. I pushed for me doing Adrian Smith’s parts because he’s one of my favorite players, and when the original Dave Murray guy didn’t work out, I asked James (Goetz, Division drummer) to join. He’d played guitar in my second live band, though his primary instrument is drums. The songs are fun to play and the band has excellent players so we don’t even rehearse much before a show now that the tunes are all up and running.
To my surprise, there are almost no venues that will allow even this band to perform so we’re pretty much on hiatus now and I can’t say I’m really expecting another show ever again, but you never know. It was fun while it lasted. I videotaped myself performing 26 of Adrian’s solos for YouTube as that seems to be the only way to perform around here, despite being in the Mid-Atlantic with so many clubs around. The U.S. is just dead for metal.
MB: Do you build your own guitars?
RE: Only electrics, though I always get help somewhere along the way. I choose all the parts and assemble the guitar, but there’s almost always something off about the neck pocket that requires skills I don’t quite have to fix. When I give it to a luthier or real guitar tech, I just have them fix the setup, too, since that gets thrown off. I can do the set up but it’s pointless if the neck doesn’t fit on the body right, and I’d rather have a pro get it right. I don’t care about claiming I did the whole thing – I just want the custom guitar and a hand in building it.
MB: What guitarists are your biggest influences?
RE: That’s a tough one because I seldom learned many songs, but for riffs it’s mostly Metallica, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Scorpions. Early on, I assumed I could never play the solos of my favorite players (most were pretty fast) and never learned them, so I’m more of an oddball as a lead player. You actually don’t hear many typical licks in my solos as a result, for better or worse.
My influences are really about bands I like as a listener, not a player. Some of my favorite guitarists, in no particular order, are Mattias Jabs (Scorpions), Andy La Rocque, Adrian Smith (Iron Maiden), Glenn Tipton (Judas Priest), Randy Rhoads, Tommy T. Baron, Wolf Hoffman (Accept), and George Lynch (Dokken, Lynch Mob). Their sense of style, feel, and structure is what I get from them, more than exactly what they were doing.
Of course, in college I learned classical theory and use that in my playing a lot, and I’m heavily influenced by classical ideas on harmonic structure, counterpoint, theme and development, and definitely use of motifs. I write almost all of my songs off of one or two small ideas called motifs, turning out more sections of music that are all derived from the motifs. It’s a lot of fun and very interesting music to write and play.
MB: You overcame huge challenges to get where you are and keep playing. I’m sure there are many musicians who are enduring the same challenges as well. What advice do you have for them?
RE: I’ve actually written an article about dealing with tendonitis at http://www.randyellefson.com/guitar/articles/recording/got_tendonitis.aspx. Many people don’t take it seriously and don’t realize what they’re in for, but caution is really wise here. It’s much easier to avoid than deal with the consequences. The injury is permanent for me, and though it’s more manageable now, I’ll be dealing with it for the rest of my life.
MB: What are your plans for the near future?
Promoting Serenade of Strings and The Lost Art are my priorities. I’m intending to videotape myself playing “Dee” and my own piece, “Menagerie,” and post both on YouTube. I’ll also be releasing guitar tablature for the latter and “Fantasia Etude.”
I’m also far into working on my next album, which will have vocals on most of the tracks. This is something I’ve been meaning to do for years but only found a good singer last year. His vocals are done on one song, with others lined up to go. Since I’ve been writing this album for years, most of the guitars and bass are already done, but I have a lot of lyrics to write.
This year I also have a new drummer, James Goetz, who’s been in my live band before as a guitarist. He also plays in Seventh Son on guitar. We’ve already recorded drums on a half dozen songs at my house, using an electronic drums kit I bought earlier this year, plus we’re using James’ real cymbals. I’ve always engineered my guitars, but now with the drums and vocals recorded at my house, my role as recording engineer has really stepped up.
I’m hoping to get a record deal for the fifth album and release it in 2011, but with the ways things have been going, 2012 is more likely.
MB: Thanks Randy! I really appreciate your patience as we put this together. You are truly one of the best shredders in the underground. Do you have any closing thoughts for the fans?
RE: Thanks for your support! It means more than you think! It takes a lot of work and money to record, release, and promote music as an indie artist and it really helps to hear from anyone who likes what I’m doing, especially if they buy a CD or help spread the word. As one guy, there’s only so much I can do, so any help or encouragement goes a long way
Thank you, Randy! You have been so cooperative with us in putting this together and we are honored to have you as our next individual feature artist! You rock, and Adrian Smith rules, so we hope to see you and our friends in Seventh Son once again sometime!
Guitar Gods: Randy Ellefson
Tuesday, March 22 2005 by David McLean at music.tinfoil.net
Instrumental rock guitarist Randy Ellefson has a flowing, almost lyrical style of playing that places song above chops. That said, Rand has plenty of chops for the die-hard shred fan! With a Bachelors of Music in classical guitar (Magna Cum Laude), a couple of tasty endorsement deals (Peavey & Alvarez), and a new CD, “The Firebard”, Randy is on a mission to spread the Gospel of Guitar.
“The Firebard”, which was released in summer 2004 in Guitarosity Records, is a nod to Randy’s bout with tendonitis, which took away his playing for 5 years. Ultimately, Randy conquered it and is currently in rehearsals with his new band for a series of performances. He is also a prolific teacher, with monthly columns at Guitar-Guitar and guest columns at IBreatheMusic, Guitar-9, and other top guitar-centric sites. I had a chance to speak with Randy recently. Check it out!
1) What are your current projects?
Playing live is the main thing. I just formed the band, since I did The Firebard by myself, and am getting the guys up to speed. In the last 6 weeks, I’ve gotten more new gear than in a decade, too, from a half-stack, effect pedals, a new acoustic guitar, and best of all, I’m building a new custom guitar similar to my others. I can’t wait! It’ll have my logo painted on it, too, and will be my main live guitar. I have a couple endorsements I’m pursuing. I’m also recording tunes for the next album, writing more articles for websites, and designing another website all about tendonitis. And of course, doing promotion when I can.
2) How does this (do these) differ from your past work?
It’s been 15 years since I was on a stage, so this is all new territory for me, from playing standing up to playing with other musicians, and all the new gear to create my sound. Being the front man will be interesting! I also need to play lead guitar most of the show, which doesn’t leave much room for having a bad night! This has been way too long in coming, partly from tendonitis interfering with it, so I’m excited to finally play for people. As for the next album, the songs and approach are similar, and these are actually earlier songs, but I wanted to do more current stuff when I recorded The Firebard. The songs are a little more direct, I think, and some acoustic guitars will appear on this record, too. The plan is to have the drummer, at least, appear on the next record. He comes up with great textures.
3) Do you have one project that you are most proud of as a guitarist?
That’s a tough one. I’ll have to cite the more technical lead passages on The Firebard, mostly because it was a long time before I was good at writing such things, believe it or not. I find it much easier to write a melody, and since I don’t jam with people much, I don’t improvise fast stuff particularly well and don’t have guitar licks, really. I write it out, and it ends up being a genuine passage instead of high-speed B.S. I’m not proud of it in the sense of “look how fast I can do arpeggios” but that the technical parts are smooth, melodic musical statements that fit the dramatic arc of the song.
4) Can you give our readers a run-down of your basic gear (live and/or studio)?
All three electric guitars are homemade, with ash bodies, maple necks and fingerboards, Floyd Rose tremolos, and Seymour Duncan Custom pickups, with 5150 strings and Dunlop purple picks. Live I’m using Peavey XXX Head and 412, Morley Bad Horsie 2 Wah, Boss TU-2, GE-7, CH-1, and NS-2. I haven’t chosen a delay yet. For the album and when tracking, I used Bomb Factory’s SansAmp PSA-1 and Waves effects for EQ, gating, reverb, and delay. My acoustics are both by Alvarez. I have a gear page with some pictures at http://www.randyellefson.com/gear.aspx. I’m videotaping the building of the new guitar, too, and will post that online once done.
5) Who would you cite as early influences, and who are your favorite new players?
I’m funny with influences because I learned very few songs by others before adopting my own style, so very few players affected the way I play. Very often it’s the sense of style that influenced me, not the notes they chose. Randy Rhoads, old Metallica, Iron Maiden, Accept, and Coroner were the main bands whose songs I learned. I have always been a rhythm player first and have few direct influences to my lead playing. I always assumed I couldn’t play a Randy Rhoads solo, for example, and so never learned them. By the time I could play like that, I had my own approach, though his phrasing is a big influence. This is one reason I don’t have many guitar licks – I should’ve taken some from other people! Acoustically, Rik Emmett of Triumph and those little acoustic bits you find on 80s metal albums were my main influence. As for new players, Evergrey is pretty cool.
6) Can you give a few tips to aspiring players?
Learn to play musically. All the theory and chops in the world won’t make you a great player if you don’t have musical sense, an appreciation for the vibe or feel, or a sense of what’s appropriate. Don’t just play the notes, even for simple stuff. In fact, that’s the best music to practice giving a shape and character to. Even the start of “More Than a Feeling”, which many beginners learn, can be imbued with strong flow, an ebb and tide to the arpeggios. It’s all about varying the strength of how the notes are struck. A great player can make this roll, and this musicality, once coming from you, will appear in everything you play.
7) What are your future plans?
Playing live, a new album, endorsements, another website, and more articles are all in the works. I’m off to a good start but am looking to push things to another level and am hoping for bigger things to happen. It takes time, though, and patience isn’t really my strong suit!
8) Thanx for talking to us, Rand!
Thanks for the interview and support David! Keep in touch!
Local guitarist prevails over tendonitis
by Ashley Parker
Special to The Gazette
July 7, 2004
That’s the thing about tendonitis — it just sneaks up on you.
It doesn’t care that your “Lagrima” rendition once made it to No. 3 on MP3.com’s classical guitar charts, or that you’re working toward your bachelor’s of music degree in classical guitar, and cramming four years’ worth of Catholic University playing requirements into two years, with 10-hour-a-day practices.
Maybe that’s why it sneaks up on you. At least that’s what happened to classical guitarist-cum-software developer Randy Ellefson.
And now that the Gaithersburg resident is rising from the ashes, he’s not sneaking up on his illness, like tendonitis did to him, but openly flaunting his album debut with hard rock guitar and Van Halen-esque riffs.
Appropriately titled “Firebard,” Ellefson said his first album reflects his struggle with tendonitis, playing on the legend of the phoenix — a firebird that grew so hot it burned itself to ash before it was reborn — and the lute-strumming bard of yesteryears.
The all-instrumental album debuted June 29, and Ellefson said he still has trouble believing that two years of recording has finally reached compact disc fruition.
“To be honest, I wish I could stand around and bask in the glow, but I’m so preoccupied with trying to get attention to the album,” said Ellefson, who grew up in Burtonsville. “I almost have to have my wife smack me and say, ‘You’ve actually completed the album.'”
After all, just eight years ago, at the age of 25, Ellefson did not know if he’d ever be able to make music again. That’s when his right forearm suddenly became tight, then a week later his left forearm tightened, too. The diagnosis: Tendonitis.
Chiropractor Richard Schmitt, of At Last Healthcare in Bowie, said the nature of the guitar lends itself to tendonitis. “Repetitive motions, the way you have to bend your wrist at a very steep angle and do something repetitive… would cause anyone to get tendonitis,” Schmitt said.
However, Schmitt added, despite musicians’ rigorous practice levels, they are less likely to suffer from tendonitis because their bodies should be conditioned to such a regimen. “They don’t just pick up an instrument and start playing,” he said. “It’s unusual for musicians to get that, because they are accustomed for that. They’re usually conditioned for it.” But 10 hours a day proves difficult for even the most well-trained musicians, and Ellefson said he thinks his extreme practice levels led to his tendonitis.
“It seems very sudden, but it’s been happening gradually without you being aware,” Ellefson said. “When the pain finally shows up, you’ve got it.”
As Ellefson was practicing his guitar — both classical and hard rock — tendonitis was lurking just arms’ length away. And then, suddenly, the excruciating pain was in his arms.
Although unemployment, HMO frustrations, Cortizone shots, anti-inflammatories, physical therapy and an acupuncturist would follow, Ellefson said he did not realize the severity of his diagnosis back in August of 1996. “I really underestimated how bad it was going to be,” he said. “I thought maybe I wouldn’t be able to play much for a few months, but I didn’t realize that I wouldn’t be able to play for a full year.”
Even after a year of rehabilitation, Ellefson could only play for 10 minutes a day, if that. He said he could barely hold a pencil, and even getting dressed was painful. “People really underestimate the effect tendonitis can have on your life,” he said. But for Ellefson, the worst part was realizing that the boy who had been playing guitar since eighth grade would have to put down his guitar to recover.
“I think it was having so many activities that I had planned and was actively pursuing and then having to watch all of those come grinding to a halt,” Ellefson said. “My dreams and injuries were tied up in that and one injury took them all away.”
He began working with a physical therapist — an undertaking that eventually became five years of weekly appointments — and started weight training. Ellefson said he felt like he was making slow progress, restoring the strength in his arms, before suffering a second case of tendonitis.
When Ellefson’s life finally started heading back toward music, he said the transition was especially welcome. “Being able to get back to making music was a very emotional experience for me, more so than usual,” Ellefson said. “It may have only been 10 minutes, but it was certainly the best 10 minutes of my week.”
He said he started by playing his own songs, focusing only on his most simple material. That included “Chimes of Passion,” a track that appears on “Firebard.” “Chimes of Passion” was “the last song I had started writing before I got tendonitis,” Ellefson said. “It’s certainly nice to be able to pick up where I left off. … it’s great to have it on my album.”
Now able to create music again, albeit painstakingly and more slowly than before, Ellefson is looking to the future, and relying on now-touring bands like Kiss and Van Halen for inspiration.
“At least with bands like Van Halen going out there, it proves that there’s an interest in this,” he said. “It gives me some hope that even if the radio won’t play it, people who love this will still find me.”
Randy Ellefson is a passionate, self-motivated guitarist from Gaithersburg, Maryland (USA) who describes his style as instrumental hard rock and metal, as documented on his latest release, “The Firebard”. His guitar of choice is a Homemade Electric (second one built). Ellefson has played guitar since 1984, and openly affirms his career goal, “I’m working toward two more rock albums in the same vein as the first, but with some additional approaches to composition, song structure, and instrumentation. I’m going after licensing opportunities with the music, plus endorsements, and other musicians to play on the next CD, most notably a drummer. An all-acoustic guitar album is also in the works. Increasing the recording and production quality is part of my current plans, as songs for the next album already exist and are ready for recording. Spreading my fan base with every release is something I work on every day.”
When prompted to reveal his preferred effect for the guitar, Ellefson responded with, “Distortion,” and offered his musicial goals, “Though I can play fast when needed, I tend to focus on melody and reaching a wider audience who is interested in songs more than speed and scales. Nonetheless, my current musical goals included more variation in the lead guitar treatment, such as alternation between guitar licks and themes, and more guitar sounds within a song. Adding to what I can already do helps keep things interesting, and every artist wants to grow.” He would love to someday study engineering (to have greater control over his recordings, since he is currently the sole engineer and producer), and is currently listening to Evergrey, Iron Maiden and King Diamond. His greatest satisfaction? “Having a new compositional idea or approach to guitar playing is what drives me, inspires me, and gives my life meaning, purpose, and the will to put up with all those unpleasant parts of life,” he states unambiguously.
Ellefson notes ongoing and upcoming projects thusly, “Right now I am promoting The Firebard relentlessly, and when I have time, toying with a new midi keyboard. Songs for the next two albums exist already, so I am playing them and imagining alternate arrangements. Recording may start by summer’s end, and I’m hoping to have a new drummer lined up soon.”
Ellefson’s discography (available at Guitar Nine Records) includes one solo album (“The Firebard”).