Interview: Chris Surma

Dan McAvinchey: Chris, when did you first get interested in guitar, and how did you learn and progress as a player?

Chris Surma: My dad always had an old 1960s Yamaha steel acoustic string laying around the house and after I stopped playing piano I started listening to Black Sabbath, Metallica, Suicidal Tendencies, Joe Satriani, the list goes on. I would attempt to learn the bass lines and melodies on the 6th string and once I became familiar with that I moved on to the 5th string and so on. Then I took lessons for two years at C.B. Perkins in San Jose from Don Balister, which is actually where I work and teach at now. I got my hands on as much music as I could and learned every note for note transcription of every Metallica, Joe Satriani, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and Pink Floyd song and would play along with the albums six hours a day, everyday.

Dan McAvinchey: Was your latest album self-released, or did you consider getting help from a label?

Chris Surma: My latest album was self-released and to be honest I completely forgot that there was even an option of being on a label. I never attempted to send a disc anywhere asking to join a label. I do remember before I recorded my first CD in 2001 that that was my intention at first and still may be an option.

Dan McAvinchey: How would you describe your music to someone who has never heard you before?

Chris Surma: Ambient, space, experimental new age rock - a mix between instrumental Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream, and Joe Satriani, with a touch of Metallica, Sabbath, and High on Fire.

Dan McAvinchey: How did you write the songs for your most recent album? What approaches did you use to compose new material?

Chris Surma: So far on all my solo albums, I've written, recorded, performed and produced everything. For most songs I would set up a tempo, hit record and play for an hour and go back and find highlights and hopefully there will be 3-5 riffs that would fit somewhat together. Usually in that process I'll come up with other ideas that will inspire different ideas so the song can become its own. Then after that, the song structure, main melodies, and layering would be done to form the song. In addition, there are days and weeks of analyzing what should and shouldn't be there down to the last note; and thats not including the mixing and mastering.

Dan McAvinchey: Tell us a little about the guitars and other gear you use to get your sound.

Chris Surma: I use a Martin OMC 16 RE Premium Acoustic guitar with a Fishman Pickup plugged into a stereo set of TC Electronics effects pedals: Delay, Reverb, and Chorus. Then usually a Shure SM-57 or a AKG C-1000 in addition. I just picked up an AKG C-214 condensor that I'm looking forward to using on my next album.

For electric guitar on the last album I used a Music Man Luke with piezo pickup and an ESP M-II. I then used the speaker XLR AUX out of a 4x12 JSX half stack I used to have before I lost it to a Texas Hold 'Em tournament. All that was in front of the amp for effects was a MXR phaser, Dimebag wah and a whammy pedal.

Dan McAvinchey: Are you using any social media sites to promote your music and get your name out there?

Chris Surma: I have a website (, as well as a Soundcloud and Youtube account.

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Dan McAvinchey: From a promotion standpoint, what do you find is working best for you?

Chris Surma: It seems that playing live, YouTube and having music available for purchase online is helping out the most. I still think word of mouth and playing live are much more important from a promotional standpoint than having to rely on someone accidentally finding your music somewhere.

Dan McAvinchey: What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of being an independent musician?

Chris Surma: Well it would be a little easier if someone said, heres a gig, here's your check, now go and play, instead of having to do all the leg work yourself. Plus the avenues and connections aren't as apparent when your doing it your own. The advantage though would be that you get to play and record whatever you want at your own pace.

Dan McAvinchey: So, if you could do a once-off album project with any guitarist in the world, who would you pick?

Chris Surma: Matt Pike.

Dan McAvinchey: What are some of your plans for the future?

Chris Surma: I'm always looking forward to starting a new album once I finish one and I am always on the lookout for a killer band who needs a guitar player. Being able to to find a band to orchestrate all my albums is always something I wanted to do as well. I'm also very interested in creating music for TV shows and movies - specifically science-oriented programs and documentaries.

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Chris Surma has been playing guitar for over twenty years, and has taught for over eight of those years. He is an innovative player who has integrated several two-handed tapping techniques into his playing. Surma won the Acoustic Guitar Competition at GUITARFESTLIVE in September of 2012, and was featured in Guitar Player magazine in December of 2012.

Dan McAvinchey conducted this virtual chat with Surma to talk about his methods, aspirations and early beginnings.