Guitarist Prashant Aswani is one of the top modern rock fusion players on the scene today. As a composer, his music often mixes heavy riffs and tones with a deep harmonic vocabulary to create a sonic landscape that appeals to broad audience. And with his well-honed chops that combine a legato approach with hybrid-picking (a right hand technique where the pick and fingers are used together), Aswani can peel off incredible runs with ease while still navigating through tough chord changes. He’s also a busy guy, having numerous session, sideman, and producing credits under his belt, in addition to his solo recordings.
Aswani’s latest album Sonically Speaking (Exotic Rhythms) was one of the standout instrumental rock fusion releases of 2010. Featuring the impressive lineup of drummer Joey Heredia, bassist Rhonda Smith, tabla master Abhijit Banerjee, and guest guitarists Brett Garsed and Rob Caggiano, the disc is a fine production that’s loaded with killer playing, and a fantastic collection of songs that are as melodic as anything you are likely to hear in the genre.
I sat down with Aswani at this year’s Winter NAMM show for an in-depth discussion about the making of Sonically Speaking, his writing process, his technique, and much more.
Rich Murray: Let's talk about your new album Sonically Speaking. It's been very well received; it's generating a lot of buzz in the guitar community. How long did it take you to put the album together?
Prashant Aswani: I did it in segments. I wrote the songs first - It took me a few weeks to a month to write the material. But at that point they were just skeletons. So I had basic skeletons and arrangements of the songs, then I laid down drums and tabla. Then I stated actually tracking the guitars. And during that process, what was considered a song - for some of the tunes - totally changed. After laying down all my rhythmic beds, and doing lots of production with filling in gaps, I gave the tracks to Rhonda (Smith - bassist). She finished in a couple of weeks, doing a song a night and sending it to me. Then I did some final production, and leads and melodies after that.
RM: Were these all new songs that you wrote specifically for this album? Or did you use any old stuff that you had in your backpocket for awhile.
PA: No, they're all new songs. And actually the song "Stephanie" was written way at the tail end. We were mixing when I chose to put that on there. I actually wrote it, recorded it, played the bass, the whole deal.
RM: Did you play the tabla on that song too?
PA: No I didn't. Abhijit Banerjee played the tabla - but I used stuff that he previously recorded and basically pieced it together. Then I wrote the song as the tabla rhythm was there.
RM: You have some great guests on the album, but I want to first ask about the core band that you brought in. How did you bring that group together?
PA: Joey Heredia and I have worked on previous records, and he's been in my trio for many years. We've worked on a bunch of stuff together over the past decade. So I knew I wanted Joey on this record; I wanted his sound. When we were recording, I asked him to leave some space for tabla, which he did - he totally left it in the pocket. Then I had Abhijit Banerjee come in, who I've worked with with another artist named Ronu Majumdar. He played tabla with Ronu and I on some fusion recordings we did together. Ronu plays Bansuri which is an Indian bamboo flute. Rhonda Smith and I met on a TV show that we were playing in the same band on called "Redemption Song." We hit it off, and I knew right then that I wanted her groove on the record. So that's kind of how the band was formed; it was real organic.
RM: Tabla is not an instrument you normally associate with your genre of music. Tell me about your decision to include the tabla on this album.
PA: Way back in the day when I used to play tabla, I was listening to AC/DC's "Back In Black" and I asked my tabla teacher "Hey man, can you groove a tabla groove to 'Back In Black'?" - and he totally did it! Ever since that day, I knew I had to make a rock record with tabla in it, and have it really incorporated. It added a "groove" element - obviously the record grooves, but it's a 2 and 4 thing. So Joey did the same kind of thing that (AC/DC drummer) Phil Rudd would do - kept it in the pocket, not too busy - and it left room for the pulse of the tabla.
RM: How much direction did you give to Abhijit regarding what to play? Did you just set him loose to react to the music however he wanted to?
PA: Yeah I just let him go man. Basically, we would take certain sections that he did that were precisely what I was looking for, and we'd massage it into the track. But I let him go. I mean the guy instinctually plays so phenomenally, and he's got such good groove. My production style is such that I get the right guys who I know are going to instinctually play the right stuff for the music. I don't really like to direct people too much or be too controlling in the process. I like things to really unfold. As long as the arrangement is stuck to somewhat, and the skeleton of the song is there in regards to the harmony and the changes, I like things to open up. I like the song to almost take over and produce itself in a way.
RM: You also have two guest guitarists on the album - Brett Garsed & Rob Caggiano. How did they become involved?
PA: Rob was in LA at the time - he had just finished recording guitar for the Anthrax album. He was producing the album actually. He called me up and said "Hey I'm in town, what are you doing?" I said I was in the middle of tracking - he said "Let me lay down a solo." I was like "Alright!" So he came over, layed down a solo, and we actually finished two other songs that we were going to use on a duo album we were working on together, then he got called back to New York to work on some other things. Now he's doing The Damned Things. We'll have to come back to it eventually.
RM: So you do think you will come back to that album at some point?
PA: Yeah, for sure. I've known Rob since we were at Berklee College of Music together. We used to hang out there every day and just shred you know? We've wanted to do a record together for a long time. It's gonna happen, it's just a matter of timing.
RM: How about Brett?
PA: I've been a fan of Brett's for many years - this goes back to the Berklee days too. I saw him do a clinic there with Bobby Rock, the drummer. They were doing their clinic tours back then. I think it was in '92 or something like that. I'd never heard of Brett, and I saw him play with that fingerstyle hybrid-picking technique and I thought "This guy is amazing." So I went and tried it, and it's become a significant part of my technique. In any case, I was in Australia doing some clinics and we did some shows together - I was sitting in with his band actually. It was cool, we hit it off, and I asked him if he would do a solo on my record and he was totally down for it. SUPER nice guy; totally humble, and a brilliant musician. I think he did an amazing job - both guitar players had incredible contributions.
RM: Listening to this album, the first thing that struck me was how melodic it was - especially the main melodies which are fairly simple and catchy. For your style of music, that's kind of unusual; normally you'll hear more complex song heads in instrumental rock fusion stuff. Tell me about your writing process, and how you come up with your melodies.
PA: Most of these songs stem from the melodies, I write the melodies first. I just hear them in my head, I don't really know where they come from.
RM: Do you consciously try to write melodies that are catchy and tuneful in an effort to break away from the pack in your genre of music?
PA: No, not at all. In fact, I'm not really thinking about what's out there or listening to a lot of other music when I'm in writing mode. I think most of the time it's whatever I sing. I've developed this technique of writing melodies where if I'm playing a harmony, or a riff, or a groove - or even if I'm not - I'll sing out what I'm hearing in my head. I won't touch my guitar at first, I'll just sing it out. Then I'll find the notes on the guitar, and then I'll get the performance with the inflections afterwards. So the initial melody is super-raw. And I can't sing a bunch of 16ths and 32nds - that just not what I sing. Whatever I sing, as simple as it may be, I'll take that form and that base of the melody and I'll develop it along those lines. So basically, any of the melodies you hear are melodies I sung first.
RM: Many pieces on the album include multiple guitar parts layered in the background; some of which are very subtle. “11 Miles” is a good example. Talk me through how you go about writing a piece like that, and where those extra background parts come into play when you’re putting the song together.
PA: Speaking specifically with "11 Miles" - I'll have a song, and I'll have a main idea. Sometimes it will be busier initially when I write it so I'll try to simplify it as much as possible. And then I like to layer melodies on top of each other. So where I have space, I'll have a different tone from a different guitar playing a melody. It almost becomes like melody overload, with different tones and in different spots where there's space. I like to keep space, but I also like to take advantage of it to throw in something that's going to either hit the rhythm - like hit a drum or a kick - or a tabla part, in a way where it's going to accentuate that. So everything connects to something. All the guitar parts that are there, they all connect to something - whether it be the bass or the drums, or the tablas, or the hi-hat or the kick, I'll always connect it to a pattern and develop a melodic structure from there. And tones are very important - I can't use the same tone everywhere otherwise when the time comes to mix it's all going to be a muddy mess. So I've got to be real selective with how I get my tones.
RM: I'm curious about the influences you've had over the years. Your music has always had a mix of both heavy riff-based elements and deeper harmony, especially in your solo sections where you usually throw in some cool changes to improvise over. Tell me about the artists that have inspired you in regards to these different aspects of your music.
PA: I think the heavy stuff, it's got to come from early Metallica. Master of Puppets, Ride the Lightning, Kill 'Em All - those were records that I listening to all the time on the heavy side. I was super into them, and I still am; those are keepers for the collection. And they're real rhythmic you know; James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett are great rhythm guys. Especially James, I think he's the one who orchestrates most of that if I'm not mistaken. They're both monster rhythm players. That gave me a real understanding of that heavy stuff. And I like it! I connect with it. I also love the contrast of clean harmonies over a heavy groove. I don't know where I got that from, but it's something that I do a lot. I like to take the root of a heavy groove and see where I can take it, and move it harmonically. Once again - it comes back to the whole melody thing. Typically on those harmonies you hear, I'm singing the top note whereever the movement is, then I just stack chords below that that will work for my ear. It's all about melody again; I'm singing over that heavy groove.
RM: How did you start getting into more advanced stuff like playing over chord changes? Did that stem from your Berklee days?
PA: Oh yeah. I played over changes without really knowing what those changes were before I went to Berklee. I had developed my ear in that way. But when I got to Berklee it was all about bebop and jazz. I studied jazz composition and harmony. So it was all about "What changes can I play over?" So I think I naturally got that from there.
RM: Let's talk about your technique a little bit. You're well known for your hybrid-picking technique. Tell me how you developed that, and why you went in that direction as opposed to being a picker, for example.
PA: Well for years I tried to do the whole Paul Gilbert thing. I got his videos when I was a kid. And I just couldn't do it man. Actually I take that back - it wasn't that I couldn't do it, I didn't want to sit around and practice alternate picking scales. I was so bored so quickly, that my attention span just wasn't there for the technique to come to fruition. But after playing tabla for so many years, I think using my right hand fingers to play the instrument was a natural thing. And then when I saw Brett Garsed use his fingers, right away it become something that I advanced technically with. Within hours I was doing very advanced stuff naturally. So have to attribute it to tabla, and then Brett for giving me the idea that it was possible, because I never saw it before Brett. With the combination of those two things, it's become a natural technique for me.
RM: Sort of along those lines, I have a geeky guitar question.
PA: Good, I love those.
RM: You seem to be really good at playing long fast lines that have a free-form, improvised feel. I know that's a difficult thing to do without tripping over yourself and getting stuck in the mud; unless you just start stringing together pattern after pattern. But I don't hear a lot of patterns going by when you play these runs.
PA: No, there's not.
RM: How did you get to a point in your playing where you can play long runs like that with your hybrid-picking that sound free-form and improvised?
PA: Alright that's a great question. I was asked that awhile ago by a student and I really didn't know how to answer it, so I really analyzed it. Basically all of my slow runs, my slow phrasing, is sped up. So if I play 16th notes at 80 (bpm) - and I'm improvising with arpeggios and playing over key changes at that tempo - all of the fast stuff is just that played in flurries, connected. That's all it is. So my fast stuff can be slowed down, and it's the exact same stuff that I phrase with. I think that's why I’m not tripping over myself - because I'm doing it slowly first. Then when I speed it up it's just natural.
RM: Cool. Let’s talk about the gear you used on Sonically Speaking. What guitars did you use?
PA: I used mostly my ESP Custom Prashant Aswani models. They're available through the custom shop, they're not in production. All made in Japan. Custom necks, DiMarzio pickups.
RM: Which pickups?
PA: PAF Pro mostly. Also the PAF Classic for the lead pickups, and then in the neck I use a Humbucker From Hell, and an Area 61. Those are the pickups I mainly used. I used a Norton sometimes on one model, but mostly a PAF Pro and PAF Classic.
RM: What about amps and effects?
PA: For amps, it was Bogner for the whole record. I used an Ecstacy that Reinhold (Bogner) made for me, and a first generation Shiva that he had. And I used Maxon effects pretty much for the whole thing. I used their overdrives in combination with the gain on the Bogner.
RM: How about future plans? You’re a pretty busy guy; you do a lot of producing and writing with other artists. What projects are you working on now, and what plans do you have going forward as far as promo stuff for the album is concerned?
PA: Next week I'm going to be in the studio with Rhonda, we're writing for a project. Actually the drummer for Scott Henderson is going to be with us too - Andy Sinise. We're going to be doing some gigs together too; Rhonda, Andy and I.
RM: So is this going to be a project with just the three of you, a trio?
PA: Possibly. We'll see where it goes. We've booked the time, we'll be in the studio starting next week. Once that project is finished, I plan to do a follow-up record which I've already finished the drums on. Twelve songs with Jose Pasillas, the drummer for Incubus. We just finished tracking drums about a month ago.
RM: This will be your album? Another "Prashant Aswani" album?
PA: Yes. It's a Prashant Aswani record, Jose played all the drums and it's going to be released on Lakeshore Records. Rhonda is going to be playing on that as well. Hopefully it will be released in early fall, in September or October. I should be done with that in March or April. And I do plan on getting out to tour for Sonically Speaking. I've got some festival dates that are coming together for Europe, so we'll see how it all pans out. Japan is definitely in the mix as well. It's just a matter of finishing up these studio projects that I'm obligated to do first and then moving forward.
RM: Alright, well thanks a lot for your time Prashant.
PA: Thank you so much man, I appreciate it.