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Lord Of The Dark Riff… aka Riff Lord🤘 

This instalment finds us in a genuinely friendly city that that inspires its people and visitors to celebrate the melding of old & new. Tacoma, is world renowned for its glass art and nicknamed the “City of Destiny” now a hub of arts and creativity within the Washington district.

We find ourselves cross-examining a true icon of the crossover movement between grunge and metal, a time where freedom of expression within musical diversity was no longer encased and identified by stereotypical recognition.

A moment in time, a legacy that is now a movement, and is ever-evolving. An understated hero in an alternative scene Mr. Jerry Fulton Cantrell Jr..

“I'm not that proficient on guitar. I couldn't tell you what notes I'm playing or what scale I'm using." "I'm actually much more of a writer than I am a free-form-solo kind of guy,”.

Jerry Cantrell for UltimateGuitar.com

Image courtesy ofhttps://jerrycantrell.com/home

Rock 'n' Roll Dreams, Rock 'n' Roll Realities

“I knew what being a rock star was from an early age, I knew it wasn’t a safe path, but I’ve always been a gambler”

Jerry Cantrell - Kerrang (James Hickie)

Born into a musical family on the 18th of March 1966 Jerry was blessed with such encouraging surroundings from the outset.

His father was a combat veteran of the Vietnam war, Jerry sees this side of himself as a determined focused and disciplined part of his personality. His mother was an accordion/organ player and his grandmother also played the keys along with the melodica.

He recalls there being a Wurlitzer in the house as a staple instrument.

Like many parents of the time they where big country music fans and anything musical was celebrated within the household; music was an expression of escapism and positivity.


Growing up in a household full of music it was inevitable that Jerry’s curiosities would lead him to desire of an instrument of his own.

Initial discoveries of music can be significantly imprinting and this is very true of Jerry at a young age, the guitar players that laid impressions of him then formulate a legacy of him now.

Around the age of 10 years old he was awoken by the impact of Elton John and Fleetwood Mac; these were the first pieces of music that really identify him as a person or a personality within music.

“I wanted to create stuff that I could send out into the world that would hit people and give them an experience. I thought that idea was magical, especially with someone like Elton John, who lived in a country across an ocean, but I felt like I knew something about him.”

 Jerry Cantrell - Kerrang (James Hickie)

Image credit: Jen Rosenstein

One thing that fans and players alike really identify with is another player who is completely self taught. There's always a fascination with a self-taught player because of the freedom of expression and non-linear passage through musical expression, so this is always the topic of debate with Jerry and has to been a question put him often in interviews.

The following is a great question really, and then even better answer. It's good to learn through the player's eyes 👀 …

“I find your soloing extremely tasteful. You never drag out a solo, and they are full of beautiful harmonies. Who would you say inspired you to develop this style?" — Mark Franks

"I think the reason I fell into what I do is maybe I’m just a little lazy. [laughs] I’ve definitely gotten lazier over the years, as far as my technical ability goes when throwing out solos. I’ve always dug feel more.

When it comes to guys that play with simplicity and feel there are three players that I look up to: Davey Johnstone [of Elton John and Alice Cooper fame], [Fleetwood Mac’s] Lindsey Buckingham and Billy Gibbons. Gibbons is fucking amazing. He can have a real minimalist approach, but he can also throw it down. Plus Billy can create a solo that’s more like another vocal part of a song.”

Jerry Cantrell Interview - Kory Grow - guitarworld.com

Image Credit - Ernie Ball String Theory

The first guitar is always a memorable moment, one anticipated meant unprecedented excitement (we all remember it), but it's not always as we expect… .

Jerry now well absorbed into music lusted for one thing and one thing only: a Gibson Les Paul - this was due to a fascination with Ace Frehley of the band KISS 💋

So, specifying a guitar (and only a guitar) on his Christmas list a young Cantrell beamed with anticipation.

When you start to witness the presents being laid out under the tree and saw the guitar shaped box the excitement was uncontrollable, he could see this Gibson in his head the unveiling of it!

On the big day he opened it and discovered the guitar to an acoustic nylon instrument!

“Jerry: I was so fucking bummed out. I was so bummed. I looked up at him and I probably said something and he's like, "Look, you learn how to play that first and then I'll buy you a Les Paul. I'm not buying you a Les Paul until you learn how to play that." And of course I messed around with it for a little bit and it went in the closet.”


But it was at the second attempt that the guitar bug hit and it came around for Jerry in the most punk rock, grunge fashion out there in terms of beginner guitar experiences.

“My cousin Kyle was about a year younger than me, and he’d gone to this swap meet and got this stereo called a Soundesign, which was a radio receiver with an 8‑track cassette tape in the front, a turntable on top, two speakers, and on the back it had a guitar jack. There was a guitar that came with it too, which only had two tuning pegs and two strings. He only spent about $5 on it, but he was mad at me for about a year because I didn’t give it back. We’d laugh about it later. He’d say, ‘If I knew that was what you’d end up doing, I’d have just given it to you!’

Jerry Cantrell - Kerrang (James Hickie)

 Alice In Chains 🎼 

Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

After a number of years of personal tragedies in his early 20s Jerry was truly lost but found solace in his music. Unfortunately, sadly - as we all know - great tragedy, pain and emotional damage does tend to lead to iconic creativity and musical genius.

A young Cantrell had played in a number of bands and been moving around on the scene in a very general way.

Forming an initial partnership with drummer Sean Kinney the pair set out to take music and playing more seriously, but it's when they cross paths with Glam rock band 'Alice ’N’ Chains' that the musical chemistry was set alight between lead singer of this group Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell.

Rising from the Seattle grunge movement of the time with bands such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam & Soundgarden they were always put into the grunge category but this is not strictly true of their musical identity.

“Do you still consider Alice In Chains to be a "heavy metal" band or are you just "rock" now?

No, we're part of the metal thing. We're a lot of different things, too. I don't quite know what the mixture is, but there's definitely metal, blues, rock and roll, maybe a touch of punk... The metal part will never leave us. And I never want it to.”

J.Cantrell Interview - Jeff Gilbert, Andy Aledort - guitarworld.com

Alice In Chains took the music scene by storm and for an alternative band made a serious impact: selling 30,000,000+ albums worldwide and 11 Grammy nominations to date are just a couple of their incredible achievements.


The band truly felt like a musical movement and something quite different from what they were pigeonholed into within the Grunge movement.

The blend of Cantrell’s songsmith wizardry and the epic frontman presence of Staley portrayed unity within the group, displaying great camaraderie but also open, emotional vulnerability.

A uniqueness that had fans and the music press in awe, another signature aspect of the group, was their incredible and sometimes haunting vocal harmonies which really pushed their identity, layered and backed by some dark and eerie riffs.

This is how Jerry Cantrell become known as “Riff Lord”.


“When it comes to your solos, my sense of things is that you’re a guy who improvises your lines?

You’re wrong! [laughs] I’m actually much more of a writer than I am a free-form-solo kind of guy. I will do some of that stuff for sure — for feel and for vibe and whatever. But I’m a songwriter, so I write solos, too. That’s probably for two reasons — one, technically I’m not that fucking proficient. I couldn’t tell you what notes I’m playing or what scale I’m using. I can’t tell you that. I just kind of fumble around until I find it. So that’s one part of it. And then the other part is I’ve always looked at a solo as a piece of the music that needs to sing, you know? I always look at it as a cross between a horn line and a vocal line, and stuff like that. So, more often than not, my solos are pretty constructed. But that said, the way I construct them is by doing a lot of improv shit. So, I guess I write solos the same way I write songs. I throw a ton of shit up against the wall, and then I pick out the best pieces and string them together. The early phases of solo writing are impromptu, and then I use what makes sense to me for it to be a really powerful and complete statement in itself. It’s got to be something that’s going to add to the song, and not just a bunch of wankery.

Jerry Cantrell Interview - By Richard Bienstock September 10, 2018 - guitarworld.com


Along with the countless iconic albums, recordings, music videos and live performances the performance at MTV unplugged was something truly magical as these sessions always seem to be for certain bands.

It's a must see and a must listen and displays their heart on the sleeve emotion as a band and showcases their musical ability as top-flight musicians.


Strings ’N’ Chains


Cantrell is hailed as a real metal legend in the world of heavy guitar playing. His riffs and twisted melodies along with harmonious solos are coveted amongst fans and players.

His recent feature on Gibson TV is something quite epic and awe-inspiring to absorb:

“In the latest episode of “Icons”, Gibson TV sits down with one of the most iconic rock musicians of our generation, Jerry Cantrell to learn about his early years in Spanaway, Washington and the birth of the Seattle sound. The show takes a deep dive into his 30-plus year career in music as the guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter of Alice In Chains, and as a solo artist.

Cantrell’s career outside of Alice in Chains has consisted of two solo albums and contributions to major film soundtracks. Jerry’s first solo album, Boggy Depot, was released in 1998, followed by his second album Degradation Trip (2002). In addition to his solo artist work, Jerry Cantrell has released music on soundtracks for several films including Spider-Man, The Cable Guy, John Wick 2, Last Action Hero, and The Punisher.”


So we conclude on the string choice as always... . Now you would be forgiven for thinking that being a heavy player with a heavy sound Jerry would be using a heavy gauge.

But simplicity is not something to be overlooked, like many players of his generation he has nostalgic affection for his original encounters with guitar strings.

Ernie Ball are a staple of a generation.

“The first set of strings I ever got ever got were Ernie Ball's as well. So also back then money was pretty tight.
So you'd play those things until they basically just rotted off your guitar. But the cool thing about Ernie Ball's is they always had the bins of individual strings. So whichever one busted you could go get a replacement instead of having to buy a whole set. But I always remember that.”


Jerry has specified in interviews trying out other brands as you do but seems to be at home with a set of REGULAR SLINKY RPS NICKEL WOUND ELECTRIC GUITAR STRINGS - 10-46 GAUGE.

You can see these feature on many of his guitar interviews and Rig rundowns. He never specifically mentions why he use the RPS strings but as he uses a lot of tremolo systems on his guitars and seems to have very stable tuning this would be the key reason to use these type of strings.

"The plain strings feature a patented winding of brass wire that is tightly wrapped around the lock twist of the ball end string to minimise slippage and breakage at the ball end. RPS strings last longer and stay in tune better than conventional plain strings."



The deep aggressive tones come from many of the compositions being played in half a step down, Jerry has been quoted as saying he just prefers tuning half a step down purely for the feel and for the sound - nothing to do with pitching for the vocals - he feels like many that the guitar seems to operate better in this tuning.

Very much a debate between guitar players along with the ongoing discussion about 432 Hz… maybe we need to do a blog entirely on that subject 😉 

“Well, I mean the thing that keeps me playing is, I don't know how to do anything else. And so there's that and I really couldn't think of anything that I'd rather be doing. I still enjoy the feel of the guitar in my hands. It's really exhilarating to stand on a stage in front of people who give a shit about what you're doing. And to elicit an emotion from them and to feel that emotion yourself. It's a transfer of energy and that's really the whole thing.”



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