Head to a Rise Against show, and it’s obvious these guys are no-frills. With no pedals and duel Gibsons in hand, they blast out a style of punk rock that’s loud, fast and energy-charged.
Guitarists Tim McIlrath and Zach Blair head up Rise Against’s invigorating, honest-to-goodness punk sound, and together, the duo bring a mix of speedy riffing, layered choruses and imaginative songwriting. Their old-school influences of Black Flag and Bad Religion are all over 2011’s Endgame, but their guitar influences go beyond punk.
“Pete Townshend is my idol!” Blair told Guitar Edge. “I thought he was the first guy to ever make guitar dangerous. He’s also the kind of guy that’s not going to lose control on a solo. He’s going to play something that was right for song.
“That said, I also respect guys who can flourish and show chops like John McLaughlin or someone like that. I tend to have really crazy musical taste. [Laughs] But my guys are Pete Townshend, Tony Iommi, Greg Graffin from Black Flag. And currently Brian Baker from Bad Religion – that guy is amazing. He’s one of the best guitar players I’ve ever met.”
Blair joined Rise Against in 2007. While the group had already developed its sound and style at that point, he wanted to add a touch of wild. That included spunky, smartly placed guitar solos that don’t get in the way of the song.
“To me, the songwriting wasn’t broken. There were no problems there,” Blair said. “But being a self-described nerdy guitar player, I did want to do some solos. I find that Brian Baker from Bad Religion finds a way to tastefully solo, and it’s not offensive. It’s a guitar solo, but it’s aiding the melody.
“So on Appeal to Reason, with the opening part of, ‘Collapse,’ I wanted to stretch my legs. I didn’t feel that had been done so much with the band. Also, with live aspects of band, as a fan I used to go see Rise Against and I toured with Rise Against with other bands I was in, and I wanted to see the guitar player have more stage presence and move around more. To me, the music was so energetic, so when I got in the band, I wanted to get up there and go crazy a little more.”
Listening to Rise Against’s fast and furious tracks, it’s easy to pick out two very distinct guitar players that are working together, yet not necessarily playing the standard lead guitar, rhythm guitar roles.
Blair and McIlrath have completely different approaches to guitar playing, and that discrepancy, ironically, is what makes the music fly.
“Tim and I have very different styles, and I think that’s the only way it will work,” Blair told Guitar Edge. “Tim’s also the lead singer, so there’s a lot of interplay where in the middle of a song, he just won’t be playing. When he does play, usually it’s something that’s really indicative of his own style and something he wrote. But when we do play rhythms together, it’s natural between us, because our rhythm styles are similar. We were both into metal when we were kids, and it helps your right hand tighten up. I really respect his playing. He’s not just a guitar player who sings. Tim is very much a well-established guitar player, in my mind.”
“There aren’t a lot of challenges. Zach is a much more proficient guitar player than I am,” McIlrath added. “I can put some chords together and write a song, but when it comes to more technical stuff, I defer to Zach. He really nails that stuff. Therein lies the balance we have. I love playing rhythm and playing songs, and I think Zach loves the challenge of playing more technical and more difficult stuff, and I love watching him play and seeing how his ideas complement my ideas.”
Blair and McIlrath have more in common when it comes to gear. Both are avid Les Paul and SG rockers.
“My first real guitar was a SG, and I knew Pete Townshend used that guitar, so it was always cool to me,” Blair told Gibson.com. “For a while, when I started playing in punk bands and I would be the only guitar player, I would only use SGs. Then, with Rise Against, I found the Les Paul was better for me as a tool, because it has a bigger sound and a fatter sound.
“For me, the Les Paul is the greatest rock and roll guitar of all time. If you’re not playing a Gibson guitar and you’re playing this kind of music, whether it’s punk, metal or anything grounded in rock and roll, you’re not really doing it right. I don’t think professionally I’d every play anything else. Gibson, thank you for making greatest guitars ever.”
“I’ve always owned Gibsons, and I’ve never owned a bad guitar,” McIlrath told Guitar Edge. “It’s comfortable, and they make some really quality stuff. If the shoe fits, I wear it.”
As for playing tips, Blair says for young players to simply “make as much noise as you can” and, of course, practice.
“I have a ritual before any show to practice the entire set list before I go on,” Blair told Gibson.com. “I don’t care if they’re songs I could play in my sleep. I’m still going to go over those songs backstage. Because if you’re onstage playing a song, and it becomes about just muscle memory, you can get to a point when you don’t remember what’s going on. And that’s the worst, because that’s when you really start making mistakes. When you turn your brain off is when you’re going to play a bad show. Kids are paying good money to see your show, and maybe they didn’t hear the mistake, but you did.”
Rise Against will kick off the second leg of their 2012 North American tour April 15 in San Diego, California, touring with openers A Day to Remember and Title Fight. Find a complete list of tour dates on the band’s official site.
Live photos by Anne Erickson – Tim McIlrath (with microphone) and Zach Blair
Band photo by Evan Hunt