Tony Rombola doesn't consider himself a guitar hero. But he might just be the guy that directs modern rock back to the land of the screaming single-note lead break. On Awake, the sophomore disc from Boston-based Godsmack, guitarist Rombola actually slips a few measures of blues-based pentatonic noodling into the bone-crunching rhythms that have fueled the bands success. And it rocks.
Produced by vocalist and sometimes rhythm guitarist Sully Erna, Awake builds on the groups self-titled debut. That record initially recorded in 1996 for $2,500 landed the band on the airwaves of their hometown rock radio station, then on a major label, and eventually on the Ozzfest and Woodstock stages.
Obviously it was all a dream come true, and Tony is still pinching himself. But in between those bouts of self-abuse, he keeps working on his playing and songwriting. Guitar.com caught up with Rombola at the beginning of Godsmack's current tour to get his insight into soloing, songwriting, and staying true to your roots.
Guitar.com: You have some solos on here, that's kind of a new thing.
Tony Rombola: I don't think solos ever went away for real musicians. Obviously, in popular mainstream music there haven't been many solos for awhile.
Guitar.com: Why do you think guitarists got away from soloing?
Rombola: Kurt Cobain. He came in and made a whole new thing out of what was cool. Guitar solos got left by the wayside.
Guitar.com: You're happy to see solos come back then?
Rombola: Yeah. I think we're just playing regular rock that's always been around.
Guitar.com: It's funny to see music come and go in the waves that it goes in
Rombola: It is. It comes back in different waves. I think grunge is just rock without solos, with a punk edge.
Guitar.com: Where do you fit what you're doing with Godsmack into what's going on in music right now?
Rombola: We're just writing what gets us off: Heavy guitars, heavy tunes stuff that gets us off. Sully was thinking about it before we did this record. We were wondering if we should try to go in a certain direction. We wrote some different kind of vibes but we just weren't happy with them. So we ended up getting back to our roots and doing what we do: heavy stuff and jamming guitars. Just rock.
Guitar.com: Were you more involved in the writing of Awake than you were in the past?
Rombola: Yeah. On the first record, when I came in, they already had five or six songs. With this record I was there for all the songs. I was in on writing half of them. Sully wrote six of them himself and I just put the solo in and worked with them a little bit. He wrote at least half the record himself.
Guitar.com: You did contribute some parts to those songs?
Rombola: Oh yeah. Like I said, there were like six he actually wrote, and then the other ones I had little pieces, simple riffs that he turned into something or made something out of. On a couple of the songs he had the whole thing down and just needed the solo.
Guitar.com: You write on the road, right?
Rombola: Yeah. We all have little set-ups. We have guitars and [Line 6] Pods. Mostly its just an amp and a guitar and a little recorder for me. I have a Roland digital 8-track. It's like a thousand dollar unit, but it's good just to demo, to get it on tape and get the idea across.
Guitar.com: So you have this on the bus?
Rombola: It's everywhere. We have little cases made; push around cases. They have some studio speakers, and a drum machine, and a Pod. It's a whole set-up, a portable studio. It's very cool. It helps a lot.
Guitar.com: Do you spend a lot of time programming drum tracks for your demos?
Rombola: A little. I've had to learn it because I'm not much of a drummer. I can't play a kit. But I can figure it out as far as drum programming goes. I can do it good enough, and if I need any help, I've got two drummers in the band who can tweak it for me. But it's definitely good enough to get my point across if I have an idea for a song, or a riff. It's better than just giving them a guitar riff. They might not understand the timing of it, or what I had in mind. I can elaborate a little bit on my own idea.
Guitar.com: Do you usually overdub more than one guitar part?
Rombola: Sometimes, because we have that ability. Sully can play live, so if I have a part for him, or if he has an idea for two guitar parts, we can both play live. He doesn't like playing all the time. He plays on four or five songs between the two albums. A couple songs on each album.
Guitar.com: Are there specific riffs on Awake that were your riffs?
Rombola: Yeah, like on "Spiral" I had the melody. He actually had the open string riff, the open C string riff, and I had that Egyptian kind of melody. We put them together and ended up making the whole vocal part out of the melody I came up with. He had the basic structure of that song and needed something more for it. I came up with the melody line and it turned into the whole vocal line, which he copied with his voice. That was my contribution to that. On "Trippin" I had the verse and the pre-chorus and he had this chorus, but he didn't have anywhere to put it. It ended up fitting right in there. That was a match right there of two halves of a song that went together. On "Bad Magick" I just came up with the chords. He had most of that whole song. He came to us with a tape recorder and he had hummed the whole song.
Guitar.com: How do you think your playing has influenced the way Sully writes?
Rombola: I've showed him some chords and a few things. He just knew about power chords and Drop-D tuning. I just showed him some demented chords that sound kind of eerie. He's always leaning toward stuff that sounds a little darker. I think my influence might have been some of the darker sounding stuff.
Guitar.com: What kind of stuff did you play before you joined Godsmack?
Rombola: All kinds of stuff. I played in a cover band and I played everything. Just about anything: blues, funk stuff, rock, classic rock, metal.
Guitar.com: Was the cover band a working band?
Rombola: Yeah. We played around. We didn't really travel far just within an hour of where we lived. We played five or six places and had a little thing going, just to make a few extra bucks. It was actually good for me because that's where these guys saw me play. I would have never even got this gig if they didn't see me playing in that band. In a way, that was a big part of it.
Guitar.com: Were they just out partying and saw you play?
Rombola: They were looking for a guitar player. The guitar player that had started with them quit and they immediately started looking around in the clubs for a replacement. They saw me and I had played with Robbie [bassist Robbie Merrill] a couple times. He was in a cover band and we played together. He knew of me and they approached me that night and asked me if I wanted to check out what they were doing. I heard their demo, six songs, and I liked it. That was it. We started working together.
Guitar.com: Musicians from the East Coast seem far more likely than players from the West Coast to have spent time in cover bands. Do you think that's a good thing?
Rombola: Yeah. I do. I think it was definitely good for me because I got to play even though I didn't have a guitar tech or anything, I did my own gear but you're still going through the same process: getting ready for a gig, rehearsing and practicing, getting your equipment together, performing. It's like a training camp in a way.
Guitar.com: And the stuff that you learn from the songs that your band is playing obviously influences you down the road
Rombola: Yeah, of course. We were playing all kinds of new stuff like Stone Temple Pilots and Rage Against the Machine, and a lot of the newer bands at the time. This was seven or eight years ago when I was doing this. So, yeah, I'm sure it all had a big influence on me. Everything that I listen to that I think is cool is going to become part of me.