Chris DeGarmo

 

Groupology

  • Queensryche
  • Spys4Darwin

Jurassic

 

Watch Chris DeGarmo in Action at the bottom of this page!

Famous / Infamous for

 

Famous for: While Queensryche's guitarists always lived in the shadow of Geoff Tate's voice, it was Chris DeGarmo who gave Queensryche their musical identity. Despite what the album credits may indicate, Chris was the chief songwriter and the sound of Queensryche. And when Chris left Queensryche, the songs and the sound went with him. The band carried on with another guitarist, but without DeGarmo, it just isn't the same band. Don't believe me? Take a listen to Q2K or the even more abominable Live Evolution. On second thought — don't!

Infamous for: Dressing like Richie Sambora — right down to the stupid leather hat and chaps. Feuding with his former bandmates. OK, it wasn't just Chris — there was a time when the guys in Queensryche really couldn't stand one another. One the worst bouts of ALD we've ever seen! When EMI dropped the band after the lackluster Hear in the Now Frontier album, Chris just disappeared. Not only did he lose his desire to play solos, he lost his desire to play, period. Other than a short tour as backup guitarist for Jerry Cantrell, Chris pretty much went AWOL for the better part of 5 years. He returned to the studio with Queensryche in 2003 to record a few tracks for the album Tribe — a solid effort — though not up to the glory days of Operation: Mindcrime and Empire. The album has no guitar solos and DeGarmo declined to go on the road with the band. He is currently working as a charter airline pilot.

Influences

Obvious: Chris is probably most influenced by David Gilmour. It's not that he mimics Glimour's licks, but rather his approach. For example, the intro to Eyes of a Stranger closely mirrors the intro to Floyd's Empty Spaces, and Silent Lucidity sounds uncomfortably similar to Comfortably Numb. Chris uses a fair amount of slide guitar and lap steel like Gilmour. He also subscribes to the less-is-more school of melodic lead guitar. Rhythmically, there is also a ton of Alex Lifeson in DeGarmo's voicings and clean chord work.

As a band, Queensryche were influenced by the dual guitar harmony metal bands like Maiden and Priest, but Queensryche's appeal was more to the brain because of the prog influence of bands like Rush and the dark lyrical content and dynamics of Pink Floyd. And like those bands, Queensryche are a band that uses chords to make modal and tonal colors.

Not-so-obvious: Chris is a schooled musician, who had formal training in college. His approach to writing, orchestration, and harmony is very reminiscent of modern classical music. Despite hailing from Seattle, Queensryche's sound is the fusion of the traditional British metal mentioned above, with a classical sense of harmony, orchestration, and a remarkable understanding of dynamics. At its best, Queensryche's music is very dramatic and almost operatic. Seeing them perform Operation Mindcrime live — either back in the day, or on the outstanding Operation: LIVEcrime DVD, is like watching musical theater. And finally, believe it or not, there is also a bit of Beatles influence in there — check out All I Want on Hear in the Now Frontier.

Strengths

Songwriting and arranging. Chris was a major influence on me — not so much as a lead player, but as a total package: He is a true musician. His background in orchestration and arranging played a huge role in giving Queensryche their distinctive sound and identity. As Geoff Tate stated: "I never really was a metal fan, but I was inspired by the guy I was playing with, Chris DeGarmo, who is a very inspirational writer. We had a very strong collaborative practice between the two of us, and I really enjoyed working with him. If he wasn't in the band, I never would have even joined Queensryche. We didn't come into it as metal fans, we came into it as music fans who wanted to write music. It just so happened that the guys we picked to play with — Rockenfield, Wilton, and Jackson — were metalheads, so what we happened to come up with was a type of music that was just outside the metal genre but still within it to a certain extent."

Tate's right. Queensryche generally employ far hipper chord sequences and substitution structures than their metal contemporaries. This is no I-IV-V band. For example, in the hands of lesser bands, the chorus of Take Hold of the Flame, is basic F-G-Am progression. But by making a few chord substitutions the progression is less cliched, more ambiguous and interesting.

Melody. As a soloist, DeGarmo is the more melodic half of Queensryche. Chris leans toward soaring melodies rather than machine gun barrages of notes. Silent Lucidity showcases this approach: it starts slowly with slide guitar, and then builds in speed and tension as it progresses.

Distinctive style. We'll get into this more in the guitar style section below, but Chris is a very quirky, distinctive guitarist. It's difficult to pin down exactly what makes him so unique. For starters, he doesn't approach lead guitar from a blues-based Pentatonic box the way most rock players do. He's not a super flashy guy who'll melt your face with technique. But he has his own distinctive style and sound, and that puts him ahead of a lot of players.

Teamwork. There have been many legendary guitar duos in heavy rock and metal, and the names DeGarmo & Wilton certainly belong on the list with Perry & Whitford, Robertson & Gorham, Tipton & Downing, and Smith & Murray. One area where DeGarmo and Wilton particularly distinguish themselves is in the orchestration of their rhythm parts. Their approach is closest to Tipton and Downing's: two players using dissimilar tones and different chord inversions to separate themselves in the mix. But DeGarmo and Wilton take this approach further by combining two different chords to create one complex chord. When they do this, DeGarmo normally takes the lower part, and Wilton stacks a higher part over the top of it. This is hard to do without creating sonic mud. But by separating their sounds spatially and using different timbres, they achieve definition. Check the big layered chords in the opening of Screaming in Digital for a good example.

Lead wise, DeGarmo and Wilton are so good at handing off to each other that it's often hard to tell who is playing what. They don't really trade off solos in the traditional sense like Maiden's guitarists — where each guy gets a set number of bars in the song. With DeGarmo and Wilton, it's more like a conversation. One guy starts the solo, the other guy picks up, they come together for a harmony part, then one of them finishes it out. Walk in the Shadows is a good example of this interplay. If you have trouble distinguishing DeGarmo from Wilton on CD, Chris' guitar is always on the left side, and Wilton is always on the right. The best way to really see the DeGarmo/Wilton teamwork in action is to check out the Operation: LIVEcrime DVD.

Weaknesses

Being a role-player guitarist. Chris' focus was on composition, mood, and the message. I think Chris was perfectly content in this role and relished it. But while DeGarmo is a distinctive guitarist, he's not the stud lead player/guitar hero you envision as the focal point of a band ala Blackmore, Schenker, Rhoads, or Van Halen. As with Priest and Maiden, Queensryche is a band where the sum of the teamwork is greater than each guitarist's individual prowess on the instrument.

Desire. Something snapped in DeGarmo when EMI dropped Queensryche. His decision to walk away from music in 1997 infuriated his bandmates and saddened many Queensryche fans. Chris has said precious little on the subject. The band have never recovered from his departure. They probably should have called it a day, as Chris DeGarmo is really irreplaceable in Queensryche. It's clear from his work on Tribe that Chris still has the ability and can find something to say, but he doesn't seem to have the desire to go for it.

Tone

There are two distinct periods in Queensryche's guitar sound: pre-Empire, and post-Empire.

Chris' tone was noticeably warmer than Wilton's, even in the band's early recordings. His sound has less upper midrange, more low end, and is much smoother. He got his sound using Kramer super strats through Marshall JCM800 100 watt heads, and Marshall 4x12 bottoms with Celestion Vintage 30s. Around the time of Operation: Mindcrime both DeGarmo and Wilton switched to ESP guitars. Chris also obtained an ESP custom doubleneck (shown above) which he used for Silent Lucidity. Effects from this period were rack mounted Roland and Yamaha digital processors. The sound was very bright and edgy. Says Chris: "On Mindcrime, I went for a colder, icier approach. We were going for a brutal sound — almost annoying, really."

On Empire, however, the guitars became noticeably warmer and fatter, courtesy of huge Bradshaw rigs. DeGarmo began using a Soldano preamp around this time which really fattened his sound. He also began using a Les Paul to compliment his ESP's. In the studio, he began using smaller 1x12 cabinets. Chris continued to rely on various digital processors for delay, chorus, and reverb.

Guitar Style

As stated above, Chris' guitar style is very unusual. What makes it different from most of the guitarists profiled at Dinosaur Rock Guitar is a conspicuous absence of a blues influence and Pentatonic structures. Queensryche's sound leans heavily on the Aeolian mode. That in itself is not unusual. Bands like Thin Lizzy, Iron Maiden, and the German metal bands all use a lot of Aeolian too. But Queensryche's sound is different and very distinctive. And that is due to Chris DeGarmo.

Where Chris is most personally distinctive is as a rhythm guitarist. It seems as though whenever possible, Chris tries to use interesting (and atypical for heavy rock) chord voicings. He tends to leave the standard bar and folk chord voicings to Michael Wilton. Classic DeGarmo rhythmic trademarks include the extensive use of:

  • clean, arpeggiated passages
  • sus4 and sus2 chords. Sus chords are kind of ambiguous you're never quite sure if you're in Major or Minor, and it creates a pandiatonic structure that is moody and airy. These chords are more associated with bands like the Police and Rush than metal bands.
  • diad and triad chord forms that often feature some open strings. This is similar to what Alex Lifeson does in Rush, but in the context of Queensryche's dramatic dynamics and vocal delivery, it sounds darker.

Like Lizzy, Priest, and Maiden before them, Queensryche is a band that often features the two guitarists playing harmony lead lines. But again, when DeGarmo and Wilton play harmony lines, it sounds very different from the aforementioned bands. DeGarmo and Wilton start with the classic 3rds and 5ths approach, but they also throw in a lot of parallel 4ths and 5ths to give the music a slightly modal, almost Asian quality. Again, this thinking outside of the blues box sets Queensryche apart from their contemporaries. Parallel harmonies are not often used in heavy rock. Most harmony guitar lines stay diatonically in key. Parallel harmonies aren't always in key relative to the underlying progression, and consequently can sound dissonant. NM156 from The Warning is a great example of parallel harmonies at work — the entire solo is a massive exercise in how to apply them.

Chris also doesn't lean much on the Pentatonic's as a soloist. He is much more modal, sticking mostly to the Aeolian and Phrygian — particularly through Operation: Mindcrime. Early on, he tended to play lines that sounded almost atonal. This is part of what gave Queensryche their distinctive sound. But as he matured, Chris became more melodic and less enamored with the discordant sounding notes. Chris retained some elements his earlier style, but became a player with a greater sense of melody, and someone who played with a lot of taste and feeling. Yet he still sounded like Chris DeGarmo. With Empire, Chris began to flirt with the blues, but even so, it wasn't a typical Pentatonic blues approach. Instead, he released his inner Gilmour — consciously slowing down, playing with more feeling, using more sustained bent notes, and less of the dissonance that characterized his earlier work. Silent Lucidity and Waiting for 22 are good examples of this bluesier side of Degarmo.

Vibrato:

Medium width, medium speed — a lot like David Gilmour's on Comfortably Numb. Like a fine wine, Chris' vibrato has gotten much better with age. There was a lot of whammy (Floyd Rose) abuse in the early years. Check out Chemical Youth (We Are Rebellion) from Rage for Order.

Chris DeGarmo in Action



Recommended listening

 

Queensryche

Profile by John Walker. Copyright ©2004 All rights reserved.