Interview: Steve Smyth

Guglielmo Malusardi: This is your first instrumental project, but you're absolutely not a beginner, being a "metal militia soldier" since the mid-'90s. Can you summarize your career to this point?

Steve Smyth: I started gigging in the Bay Area with my first "real" band, Ariah, a five piece melodic metal band with a female singer, in 1988, which lasted through two demos (eight songs total), until 1992. Steve Hoffman was the bassist for this band as well. From there, I decided to try and see if I could impress Mike Varney, perhaps get something going with him. I wrote and recorded five all instrumental songs, he liked them, and put me in his Hometown Heroes column in the October 1993 column of Guitar World Magazine.

This gave me some good exposure, and I went on to form an early version of The EssenEss Project, with Steve Hoffman, and Atma Anur guest drumming on this, received more good exposure from this, and in 1995, I auditioned and got the lead guitar gig with Vicious Rumors. The fourth time I jammed with the band, Carl Albert got in his accident, and we lost him about a week after that. After some time, the band called me up again, and we finished writing their latest album, "Something Burning", and recorded it in 1996, and toured heavily from there in support of it.

In 1998, I co-wrote and/or wrote songs for the Cyberchrist album, and again we hit the road in support of this album as well. Band members began leaving in 1999, and I received a call from Eric Peterson from Testament, that they were looking to fill the lead guitar slot. I was told to learn about 20 songs, and began touring with the band from September 1999 to April 2004. If you saw the band during that time, that was me playing lead guitar! We never recorded an album together, but there are a few bootleg DVD's available on the band's website for sale.

In 2000, I helped Eric Peterson form the black metal band Dragonlord. From 2001 to 2005, we did two records, and toured as much as we could in support of both albums, schedule permitting. In about 2002, I received a call from Jeff Loomis, that they were in need of a second guitarist for touring, and hooked up with those guys for one festival.

The following year, I joined them on the "Enemies Of Reality" tour, did all but the six shows in front of that tour, and in 2004, was asked to join them full time. I accepted, left Testament, and with Nevermore, we began writing "This Godless Endeavor" together. We recorded the album in 2005, and began a six month touring cycle that took us through the end of the year, and on into 2006.

In January 2006, I was officially diagnosed with my illness, and had to drop off the tour. From there, in this darkest hour of mine, I finally found the time to finish an album project that Steve Hoffman and I had begun in late 2001. The EssenEss Project was reborn!

Guglielmo Malusardi: Let's talk about the teaming up of the EssenEss Project. How did this music ensemble take form?

Steve Smyth: Steve and I started this project in 1993, after both being featured in Mike Varney's Hometown Heroes column; I was in the October issue, he was in the November issue. Between us, from these demo sessions, we had ten songs, but decided to go into a proper studio (what you had to do at the time, as home recording equipment was very expensive!), and only record four songs. We located and asked Atma Anur if he would be interested in drumming on this project. He accepted, and we finished recording in late 1993, and shopped the tape and kit around. No luck there, but we kept on writing, found a drummer named Ron Redeen, who is out drumming again with us now, and wrote another 12 songs.

In 1995, when I got the Vicious Rumors gig, we put this on hold, and everyone went their separate ways. It felt like it was never finished, like we never saw an album through. So, Steve and I decided in 2001, we would take a look at some of those songs, pared them down to a few, wrote new songs, and started demoing.

Guglielmo Malusardi: How did you and Steve compose the music?

Steve Smyth: Due to mine and Steve's crazy schedules, we recorded demos, and passed each other CDs in the store where we both taught music. We took our time, and wrote and recorded parts on each other's demos, and passed them back and forth, until we had 12 songs we were happy with, and...

Guglielmo Malusardi: And then... enter Atma...

Steve Smyth: Ha ha, exactly! Enter the monster drummer and musician! I thought it would be great if we could track Atma down again; I frequently saw him in the Bay Area, and would ask him if he would still be interested in recording this album, and he was very into it! So, we found him in 2004, and began making plans to record his drums. This took a full year, but the end result was well worth it, I think!

Doug Doppler engineered Atma's drums, and Steve and I recorded scratch tracks for future reference. Once we got all the drum tracks in late 2005 (I was at the end of six straight months of touring "This Godless Endeavor", and wanting to get this album done by the end of the year, before we hit the road for the rest of 2006), Steve and I began recording on our Pro Tools home rigs, as much as we could. Then my illness hit, and I found myself with a lot more time than I had known in a long time. Steve came over, and we recorded the entire record together, over most of 2006, taking our time, to make sure we got the best performance we possibly could.

We finished at the end of 2006, and I received my kidney transplant, and began recovery. Mixed in 2007, we released the album in November of last year, and have been playing in support of it since early this year. We kicked it off with some Winter NAMM performances, found our old drummer Ron Redeen, and have begun trying to get out and tour in support of this album. We hope to pick up the pace a little bit more in 2009, tour some more, and writing for another album has already begun.

Guglielmo Malusardi: You divided the album into two distinct "sides" featuring six songs each. Why?

Steve Smyth: Well, Steve and I talked about it, and the songs we wrote, the sequencing we chose for the album, it felt like an album, like a vinyl album, where you actually were put in a position to listen to an album side, get up, and change to the other side. This is what we felt we had with this album, so we decided to put the track listing as if they were album sides.

Guglielmo Malusardi: Reading the titles, it seems you titled each song precisely, most of the time with deep stuff.

Steve Smyth: Yes, there is meaning behind every one of these titles. Some mean everything to Steve, some mean everything to me! This was a very hard point in my life, with my illness. I would have died if I didn't seek treatment when I did. If that doesn't impact a person's perspective, I don't know what will. I titled my songs to represent varying degrees of thought; for example, "The Afterlife" is a musical speculation on what it would sound like on your spiritual journey to the next world, if there is indeed one! "Reflection, Redemption, Rebirth" was a musical exploration and retrospection on my life to that point, what I had done, any regrets I may have had, and the last section, the rebirth of my new life. "In God's Hands", I dedicated to my father, and my mother in law, who I lost within the space of about six months time, and in one case, before I knew what I was about to go through! I would have to let Steve speak for himself in regards to his titles, but I know "Learning To Swim", for me at least, has it's own meaning in my life.

Guglielmo Malusardi: I tried to analyze the cover art, but I think I missing the meaning of it. Can you explain?

Steve Smyth: The album cover is a concept. That concept of life as a game, in this case, a labyrinth, the ball in the game, is the Earth, or the "Sphere", if you will. We're all players in this game, "Only Time Will Tell" what these "Strands of Fascia" will see, but through "Reflection, Redemption, and Rebirth", or possibly in "The Afterlife", it's all "In God's Hands", even if God might only be your conscience talking. "It's All In Your Mind!" We try all our lives to enlighten each other, "Illuminate" one another, even when we're only still "Learning To Swim", and "Just When You Think" you've learned it all, there's "XIV" more lessons to learn. "Can You See What I Hear?"

Guglielmo Malusardi: Give us a technical analysis, track by track.

Steve Smyth: "The Afterlife". A very moody, heavy piece, a musical speculation on the travel of one's soul into the afterlife. Lots of shredding on this one, from everybody!

"Sphere". Very progressive tune from Steve Hoffman. There's a lot going on in this song, so you have to listen carefully to the contrapuntal ideas we present here. Lots of peaks and valleys, dynamically speaking.

"Only Time Will Tell". I wrote this song when I was 17, only to take a look at it some years later, and re-write a lot of it. A dedication to neo-classical shred guitar! Lot of shredding, and a great fretless bass performance from Steve Hoffman on here as well.

"Illuminate". A moody piece written by Steve, I added a lot of cool ideas on here, in particular, a tetra-chord idea on acoustic guitars, in the bridge of the song. I used Ebow for the chorus melody on there, trying to get a vibe that would not sound like guitar. Check it out!

"Reflection, Redemption, Rebirth". A moody piece written by myself. This is meant to be a musical introspection on my life up to that point, a lot going on in this song. Plenty of hooks, and plenty of shred in there as well, though I tried, as I always do, to keep in for the song, and not for the sake of shred.

"Strands of Fascia". Steve Hoffman song. The song has an underlying theme that he presents throughout the song, a steady bass motif that changes keys as we go through the song. There's a catchy chorus in this song, which I variated towards the end, and also we go through a few style changes in the song as well, from rock to jazz, blues, and funk.

"It's All In Your Mind". When I came up with this song, I was hearing a song that would change mood in the form of style. That's what we came up with here; a song that moves from a very moody, folksy style intro, with slide guitar melody, to a very heavy riff with nightmare type melodies, to progressive rock with a fretless bass solo, to full on jazz, then segue'ing back to an outro that matches the intro. It's all in your mind, after all!

"Learning To Swim". Steve Hoffman wrote this one. It was a musical vision of a dream that Steve had that he was underwater, learning how to swim. He doesn't know how to swim. I interpreted this as learning how to swim in life, and we set about making this as visual as we possibly could, within the music. Kind of a neo-blues meets progressive rock idea going on in this one. A lot of call and response between the bass melodies and guitar answering. I'm very happy with how this one turned out. Atma set up the moods perfectly on this one!

"Can You See What I Hear?" Another of Steve Hoffman's songs. On this one as well, it's a musical vision of hearing someone's mood, very melancholy overtones throughout. It's a long song, over eight minutes, but when you listen to it, there's a lot going on in this one, so you don't realize the time as this one goes by, I think. Steve played 8-string bass on this one, getting his melody ideas across. Plenty of tasteful licks in this one as well, so check it out!

"XIV". A more upbeat straight rock song, that a lot of people think sounds "country" in some ways? I am not sure why, but I tried for more of a classic rock type sound overall, with some licks pulled from sources that you wouldn't expect to be coming from me. You have to listen to it to know what I am talking about!

"In God's Hands". This was a song written back in 1993, and was originally dedicated to a cousin who I had lost in a very bad accident. A very moody song, driven by Ebow melodies, it's a dedication now to anyone who has suffered the effects of kidney disease, and their families, and also my father and mother in law. Lots of hotspot shredding in this one as well, a great "go off" section towards the end of the song, from Atma and Steve H., while I hold it down. Check it out!

Guglielmo Malusardi: Let's talk about what you used for the recordings.

Steve Smyth: We used a lot of gear on this record! For recording, I originally used my old PT 001 system on a windows based PC, then switched to a Mac G4, and the MBox 2. Steve used his Mac G4 and MBox to record for a while, then we both used my system, as I produced him. For Atma, we recorded him on a Fostex 1680, which Doug Doppler handled, and dumped his tracks into PT, and edited, and flew in on DVD's. I have an old pair of Yamaha NS 10's I use for near fields, powered by an old Mesa 2:90 power amp, all tube of course, so we don't miss that warmth!

Gear-wise for me, I used my BC Rich Bich, my Warlock 7, my Assassin PXT3 guitar, with a split coil feature, for those single coil sounds, a BC Rich Eagle acoustic, a Yamaha 12 string acoustic, Krank and Mesa Boogie heads and cabs, Line 6 POD for a few things, my Roland JC 120 for clean tones, I think I have it right there.

I used SIT Strings throughout the recording: .10-52 for the 6 string stuff, add the .64 for the 7 string stuff, Royal Bronze for the acoustic stuff.

EMG pickups: 81-85, 707's, an 89-85 combo on the Assassin, direct and mic'd for the acoustics.

Picks: Dunlop Tortex .88mm, 1 mm(electitr, and .77 mm.

Effects-wise, I used a Dunlop CrybBaby wah pedal, a Moonshine slide as well as several other slides, and the Ebow. Also a Digitech Tone Driver for boost on the leads, and to tighten up the tone a little bit on certain rhythm parts.

For Steve Hoffman, he used Alembic 4- and 5-string basses, a Dean 8-string bass, a G&L fretless, a Fender P Bass, mostly ran direct into our board, but also we occasionally mic'd a small Peavey Micro Bass practice amp, believe it or not, and got some FAT tones out of that thing! Rotosound strings, and all stock hardware on each bass he used.

Atma used a DW custom shop kit he had built, and had used 12 years prior to tracking with us, so we got a lot of the same tone he had back then, which was great! Not really remembering the cymbals he used, or sticks, I believe Zildjian all the way around though.

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Guglielmo Malusardi: Are you bringing the Esseness Project on the road?

Steve Smyth: We are! I did a number of performances at the NAMM show this year, and had Steve Hoffman come with me to play as many of these tunes as could fit in the time allowed. We made plans to tour this record by April, but delays got in the way, and we ended up doing just a mini-tour of California, dubbed Shredstock, which I will talk about later. We are completeing two shows after this weekend, and looking to break out of California in the early part of next year, and do some touring in other parts of the US, and hopefully bring it over to Europe, economy dependent of course! Ha ha!

Guglielmo Malusardi: During the composition of the songs, you really had to face the music, cracking the biggest nut of your life. Can you talk about this time?

Steve Smyth: It was a really tough time. While writing this album, I was involved with three other recording acts, all writing records around the same time. When I left Testament, being that I wasn't contributing musically other than leads, a riff or two, and helping Eric construct drum parts on a drum machine, it freed up more time to focus on this album. Then there was the Dragonlord and Nevermore albums being recorded at the same time. We were writing Dragonlord's "Black Wings of Destiny" and Nevermore's "This Godless Endeavor" at the same time as tracking Atma's drums in 2004, getting Atma tracked was a challenge in itself, just from my schedule!

In 2005, both of those albums were recorded overseas, Dragonlord in Sweden, Nevermore in England; that worked out, as it was just a hop on the plane to go track DL, then come back and finish up Nevermore. As soon as both were done, I was in the middle of upheaval in my personal life, and trying to track Atma at the same time. It was crazy! But we got him done by mid-April, and got the tracks about about a month or so after that, then Steve started tracking.

At the end of the year, I began tracking, and then found out about my kidney condition, and after the worst hit, I found the time to focus purely on this album, and get the best out of myself, in my condition, as I could. I was on dialysis during the time I tracked myself, and Steve, and it was not easy. Three hours at a time, three days a week, and the most you feel like doing after you're done with that, is sleeping, you're so drained. But, I fought it as much as I could, tried to learn as much as I could from previous recording experiences over the years, and apply that, as well as production ideas I had for this album.

I am very proud to say that I did this as a person suffering from the effects of CKD at the time. For what it's worth, I don't think this album was meant to come out any other way than how it did, in the circumstances under which it was made. It's truly the product of where I was in life at the time, where Steve Hoffman was at his life in that time, and where Atma was as well. The next album can only be bettered by this entire experience, and Steve and I intend on making the next one even deeper than this one was intended, just without all the health stuff getting in the way!

Guglielmo Malusardi: You seem to be (using the Phil Collins definition for guitarist Daryl Stuermer) a temporary permanent member in all the bands you joined. But then you really left the bands behind, correct?

Steve Smyth: Ha ha! Well, they start out good enough! But really, I was a permanent member in Vicious Rumors; I spent nearly five years with that band, did two albums and several tours behind both records. We basically took that as far as it could with the members of the band at that time. Then it was time to move on, and I joined Testament as touring guitarist. I was never offered a "permanent" position in Testament, other than the touring position. Chuck and Eric are Testament, if you ask me, and now that Alex and Greg came back into the fold, and with Paul, they are that band again. I'm happy for them!

Testament was also a situation where it had gone as far as it could for me, and Dragonlord and Nevermore became my next creative outlets. Two records in five years with Dragonlord, a lot of touring with Nevermore, being asked to join them as a full member, doing the record, and more touring, until my health, and previous to that, business and personal issues came up. All had run their course for me, so I moved on.

Now, I am in better health, and doing The EssenEss Project, my own music for a change, allowing people to hear a side of me without the confines and boundaries of someone else's perception of music. This is me! At least one side of me, more coming along in the near future!

Guglielmo Malusardi: There will be a future for EssenEss?

Steve Smyth: We are currently handling all distribution on our own, making our own merchandise as well, CDs and t-shirts, and soon we'll add more items. But this is getting pretty hard to handle on our own, so we are looking to shop around for a good label to distribute the album. Things changed so much in the time I was sick, to my recovery, that it was a different industry coming back in. So, at the moment, we are looking at connecting a number of small independents in a chain around the world, and getting the album out that way, in addition to our site.

Guglielmo Malusardi: Your ex-"guitar twin" in Nevermore, Jeff Loomis, released his first instrumental solo CD. Did you listen to it?

Steve Smyth: I have heard maybe part of one song. He owes me a CD! I sent him one of ours, and he promised to send me a copy, so I'll hit him up for it. To be honest, I have little time to listen to anyone else's music anymore; I am too busy trying to get the music in my head out, and don't want any outside influence coming in, when I get in this mode.

Guglielmo Malusardi: July brought for you a very exciting experience with the ShredStock tour, together with amazing guitarists such as Doug Doppler and Adrian Galysh. How did the "pay for one, get three virtuosos" tour come about?

Steve Smyth: Well, this started off with Adrian and myself talking about exchanging some shows together, a show in LA, a show in the Bay, and maybe a few in between to fill it up. Doug and Adrian were doing a show together around this tie, so Adrian figured he would talk to Doug about this, and see if he wanted to get involved at all. Doug jumped on with us, and put forth the vision of ShredStock, a Califorina mini-tour, with the chance at making this a bigger vision, ala G3 in the future.

We did the six shows, from LA to the North Bay, and had a great time jamming night after night! Every single person on that tour was amazing, both personally and musically speaking! We did two clinics, and four shows in total, and had a blast. I am hoping we can get together and do this again in some form soon.

Guglielmo Malusardi: As if you weren't busy enough with composing, recording, rehearsing and touring, I know you are also a brilliant guitar teacher.

Steve Smyth: Yes, I teach online, in real time, via video IM! I always have space available, so if anyone out there reading this is interested, please contact me through my web site ( and include "Internet Guitar Lessons" in the heading. I'll teach you whatever it is you would like to learn; I am comfortable with most styles, and all levels of experience are welcome.

You want to learn how to shred? I can teach you how! Theory and musicianship development? I will be your guide! I have been a teacher for 22 years now, and have about 25,000 lessons of experience behind me. The way we set up for this is simple. You need a computer, a webcam, AIM, and a guitar! For more info, please visit my website: and click on the "Lessons" icon.

I am also about to teach privately again in London, at the ICMP there. This is going to be a trial run on October 18th, getting back to teaching live in person again. The more of you out there that come to this, the more I'll do it! I am also set to begin teaching regularly at a music academy on the South England coast as well, but you have to be at this school already, to experience these classes I will be teaching.

I have always taught in my down-time from touring and recording. I enjoy it, helping a person learn, guiding them in the direction they want to go in, hopefully inspiring them in some small way. This is something I will continue on with, in the future.

Guglielmo Malusardi: What's on your mind for the future, musically speaking?

Steve Smyth: I am in the process of putting together a new metal band! I have about eight songs in various forms written right now, and am working with an awesome guitar player on this, and gathering musicians who can dedicate themselves to this, and make this their number one project, as I will be doing as well. This is a band I hope to get together, and begin jamming, and recording a debut album, by the end of the year, or early next year. That's the plan right now, and so far, we're on track to do that. Stay tuned!

We are also writing for the next EssenEss Project album, gathering material for this, and have plans to record in 2009 sometime for sure. I want to do as many shows as we can in support of our debut, make ourselves known as a band, and then go on with the next steps.

Other than that, catching up on my sleep!

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It definitely seems that Steve is a good name for people seriously intending to make a living playing guitar: Booke, Fister, Hackett, Howe, Lukather, Morse, Ray Vaughan, Stevens, Vai - or slightly altered such as Stef (Burns), Stephen (Ross) the French guitarist Stephan Forte from Adagio and last but not least the Hungarian Istvan (Steve) Alapi. Quite a lot of great guitarists. We meet another great guitarist called Steve; his surname is Smyth. After almost 15 years of record releasing and endless tours with top level metal bands, carving his name in the "holy metal stone", Steve Smyth teamed up with bassist extraordinaire and old friend Steve Hoffman and a living legend, drummer Atma Anur, to finally release his first, and surely not last, instrumental project, called (putting together the first letters of his name and Hoffman's) "The Esseness Project".

Guglielmo Malusardi manged to get Smyth's opinions and thoughts about his personal guitar world.