Metalocalypse mastermind Brendon Small is many things: comedian, voice actor, writer, filmmaker; but one of his biggest passions is the guitar. An extremely capable player who graduated from the Berklee College of Music in 1997, Small strives to be as authentic as possible when including “guitar stuff” in Metalocalypse. When a member of fictional death metal band Dethklok shreds onscreen, the fretting hand animation is uncannily lifelike. All the guitar gear featured on the show looks like the real-world item it represents, down to the officially sanctioned logos. And wicked pinch harmonics take the place of bleeps when somebody onscreen drops the F-bomb.
One particular mainstay of the Dethklok arsenal — both on the show and when Small takes the live version on tour (with drummer Gene Hoglan, guitarist Mike Keneally and bass player Bryan Beller) — is the Gibson Explorer, an instrument perfectly suited to Dethklok's intense, precise and heavy sonic assault. Now Brendon Small and Gibson Guitar have collaborated on the Dethklok “Thunderhorse” Explorer, a limited edition axe as deadly as Dethklok themselves. "I love Explorers," Small explains. "I think it's one of the coolest-looking guitars that's ever been made. When I've been touring with Dethklok, and even when I'm recording at home, I love the balance and feel of the Explorer."
The Silverburst finish of the “Thunderhorse” Explorer is a particularly interesting choice, given that the models played on the show and on stage have typically been black. Small explains the decision: "I have several Explorers, but I found one online — an Explorer that they didn't make anymore — called the E2, which is from the early ’80s. It had cool binding and a nice Tobacco Burst. They made a few different kinds of 'bursts, and they're some of the most beautiful guitars I'd ever seen. I was doing a search online and I saw a black and white picture of one, and I thought, 'Oh, my god, that's the coolest looking guitar I've ever seen' — and it ended up looking exactly like the Silverburst that would be on the Dethklok guitar."
A few years ago, there was talk of a different Dethklok Explorer, an Epiphone with appointments more like those seen on the show, but featuring a huge Metalocalypse logo inlaid on the fretboard.
"It was really cool to see one of those made, where we really went with an over-the-top version," Small says. "But my show is a cartoon, and I think in the wrong hands [the guitar] could really turn into a big mess, and I wanted to keep it as subtle as possible. And in fact, it is so subtle that the only reference to Dethklok is the truss rod cover, which says the word “Thunderhorse” on it in the Les Paul font. You have to know the TV series really well to understand what it means. We experimented with a bunch of stuff and every time I looked at it, it looked off-balance or wrong. It looked too cartoony. One of the things I always think about with the show is to treat the music as authentically as possible. Even though there are tons of jokes, when I'm making the music or considering how the music is going to be portrayed on the show I'm not joking. And I guess I'm not joking with this guitar either."
Another change from the model played on screen by Skwisgaar Skwigelf and on stage by Small is the switch from active EMG humbuckers to passive Gibson Burstbucker pickups. "I'm a pickup junkie," Small says. "I've been going crazy over the years with different styles, including EMG, which I love, and Gibson, which I love, and now I'm experimenting with DiMarzio, but when I switched out every pickup that I could, I found that the pickups I kept going back to were the Burstbuckers."
Small says he prefers the more open response of passive pickups in some situations, settling on Burstbucker 2 and 3 models for the “Thunderhorse.” "What I've learned as I grow up with the guitar is I really like EMGs for rhythm guitar playing, because it's kinda nice and compressed, but I also like to hear a little more of the guitar, something a little less compressed and a little less high gain, because if you're amp's doing its job with medium output pickups, you can get a really nice tone out of your guitar. When you play single coils or P-90s, you can hear different sounds out of the guitar and it expresses itself a lot better."
Small says he didn't want the “Thunderhorse” to be drastically different to the Explorers he knows and loves. "I didn't want to reinvent the wheel. Plus I'm a Gibson fan and I think a lot of Gibson fans are like me: when Gibson puts out a new guitar, sometimes they like the old stuff. I don't want them to mess with the Les Paul too much, and I don't want them to mess with the SG too much. So what I wanted to do was give the Explorer a different paint job, give it the binding and make it look like a modern metal guitar that could have also existed in the ’70s, because what I like to play on the guitar isn't just death metal. I like to play all kinds of music. And I wanted a guitar that would service all that different stuff."
In fact, the “Thunderhorse” includes the same nickel/silver alloy medium/jumbo frets as conventional Explorers, in keeping with Small's “Don’t reinvent the wheel” design brief. "I have a few guitars that I put jumbo frets on," he explains. "They work for some purposes, and for some purposes they don't. For fast playing, I found that jumbo frets really felt like speed bumps on the guitar. My fingers aren't skinny and sleek: I've got sausage fingers and I need to be really able to move fast. But I've also noticed that jumbo frets are great for tone and vibrato, and if you work hard enough you can get that out of medium to smaller frets."
The relationship between Brendon Small and Gibson stretches back to the development of Metalocalypse. "When the opportunity to put the show together came about, I decided to put real instruments in the show,” he says. “I think people miss the mark. I think they blow off the musical authenticity. Even in cartoons, why not make it all real? Why not make me when I was 15 years old be the audience? That's who this show should be for. I wanted them to animate sweep arpeggios. I wanted to see cool licks. Things that if I was a kid watching the show, I'd go, 'Holy [expletive], I don't think I've ever seen this. This is for me!’ I wanted to make sure I'd do it right, so I contacted Gibson and I said, ‘I've got this TV show, I want to put some kind of a deal together where we use real guitars, because I use your guitars anyway, so why not use the logo? It could work!’ To their credit, they were the first ones on board to see the potential."
In between Metalocalypse commitments, Small is now hard at work on a solo album. "I was going to take the last six months off to work on this by myself, but I ended up getting a few directing gigs for music videos, so I made a Soundgarden video and one for Scott Ian's new band, The Damned Things,” he says. “But I've got this album and I'm nearly finished with it. I wanted to be able to do things I couldn't do with Dethklok: make a rock album with melodic vocals. And it also has elements of metal and one big song where I can show off on guitar. I got Gene Hoglan from Dethklok to do all the drums, and I brought my old friend Bryan Beller to play bass. I'm really excited by it. It's a totally different record that blends all my different influences, from black metal to Queen to ELO to Foo Fighters. It's a rock album and it takes itself desperately seriously, in a really fun way!"