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Famous / Infamous for
Famous For: Writing some of the most intelligent metal of the 80s, having a superb BIG metal tone, a truly distinctive sound and style.
Infamous For: Being tragically killed on October 17th 1993 at the age of 30. Criss was driving in his car with his wife when an oncoming car crossed the median and struck Criss' 1982 Mazda RX7 head-on killing him instantly.
Criss, like Randy Rhoads, always had a guitar on him and by all accounts was "one of the the good guys".
Sadly, Criss and Savatage were unrecognized geniuses of the genre, never achieving the sales their music richly deserved (however, Streets did go platinum.) Sadder still, Criss was ignored during his lifetime by the leading guitar magazines of the day. Guitar World and Guitar Player never did an interview with him; and after his death, neither magazine felt compelled to honor him posthumously as one of the most influential guitarists of this genre. Criss Oliva was Savatage, whilst the band has carried on after Criss death, they have never written an album as good as those that featured Criss.
Obvious: As very few interviews exist with Criss discussing his influences its difficult to say for certain. The two names that have appeared in interviews are Ritchie Blackmore and Jimmy Page. Whilst Page's bluesy approach may not be totally apparent in Savatage's music it is there, listen to the way Criss uses different guitar textures and makes use of light and shade to craft the song to his vision.
Not-So-Obvious: Criss was apparently a big fan of classical music. Whilst he did not use this influence in the same way as Yngwie Malmsteen or Uli Roth, it does show through from time to time, especially the interaction between guitars and keyboards.
Riffs: Every Savatage albums has a whole bunch of killer riffs. Personal favorites of mine are: Sirens, Power Of The Night, Hall Of The Mountain King, Gutter Ballet, Of Rage & War, Jesus Saves, Sammy & Tex, and the majority of the Edge Of Thorns album.
Solos: Criss was an exciting lead player whose style is best described as a cross between Randy Rhoads, Eddie Van Halen and Michael Schenker.
Songs: Kind of ties in with the riffs, but there's no denying that Criss wrote intelligent songs that always had a bit of the unexpected in them.
Not a lot in the playing department, one might say that Savatage were always a little too odd to appeal to mass metal market but this was no fault of Criss, the blame for this could be laid on the distinctive yet slightly bizarre and haunting vocals of his brother Jon.
Criss's tone is very full and fat. It is fairly well saturated but yet always retained a lot of definition. His solos always had superb tone, a great silky quality that allowed legato lines to flow out seamlessly. His tone could best be described as a great 80s metal tone.
It's been suggested that Criss ran a clean amp and used two Boss SD-1 Super Overdrive pedals (one with tone rolled off, with with the tone full on) for his distorted tone. Frankly, I don't believe this at all; after trying a similar experiment the sound was miles away. To my ears the pre-amp gain plays quite a big part, yet there is an element of power tube grunt in there too, particularly on the slamming riffs.
Criss's later day tone is my favorite, that from the Streets and Edge Of Thorns albums. This tone has a bit more preamp saturation than earlier albums but everything is still crystal clear and superbly defined. I have a feeling that on these albums Criss may have went the rack pre-amp route — possibly an ADA MP-1 Preamp?
There is also normally some delay (especially on solos) and occasionally some chorus on the signal to make the sound a little wider and fuller, it sounds to me like Criss was using a wet/dry stereo rig around this time. Laney amps are credited on album credits and the most likely amp to be used was the Laney Pro Tube series which had a very good reputation in the late 80s for crunchy metal tones.
However, an interview with Alex Skolnick (who replaced Criss after his death) reports that Criss used a Marshall JCM 900 50 watt head on Edge Of Thorns as Skolnick used the same amp himself on the Savatage album Edge Of Thorns.
Guitar wise Criss pretty much used Charvel or Jackson Super Strats, fitted with Floyd Rose tremolos. However, he also was seen with Telecaster shaped Charvels equipped with locking tremolos. Bartolini pickups are credited in albums, and one fan's discussion with the folks at Bartolini indicate he used a v88d in the bridge and a v88s-n in the neck with a Bartolini pre amp booster to increase output on his Gargole guitar during the Edge of Thorns period. Other sources suggest that Criss used Seymour Duncan JB's in the bridge position. As with most guitarists, Criss tried different things at different times.
I suspect Criss was a 'schooled' guitar player. Though the lack of interviews doesn't help my observation, listening to Criss certainly suggests it. Intricate riffs and solos show Criss was well-versed in scales and modes.
Rhythm wise Criss played fairly stock metal riffs, yet he always added a little extra colouring to chords to make them stand out from the pack. Criss often added a clean guitar part over a riff for more impact and variation.
Acoustic guitar work is a side of Criss's playing that is often overlooked — check out the beautiful instrumental Silk & Steel on the Gutter Ballet album.
Double and triple tracking played a part in Criss sound; like Randy Rhoads Criss was exceptionally tight in his triple tracking.
Lead wise, Criss had the full bag of metal tricks. He could blaze with the rest of them, but also slow down and play a super melodic line that brought a new mood to the solo. My favorite Oliva solo is on the track Ghost In The Ruins from Streets. Here Criss starts out slowly with a few melodic minor lines playing simple phrasings before building on each part with more licks that complement one another. He often allows a bar or so between licks to really let them breathe, creating a nice ambience and building some tension for the forthcoming lick. He then added a variety of sound effects such as string scrapes and whammy bar noise before launching into a few scathing licks that run the gamut of the fretboard — all sounding very fluid and natural. Some of Criss's solo definitely sound like they are worked out, but this one sounds very natural indeed. For another moment of Criss Oliva magic check out his solo break on the track Edge Of Thorns.
Criss had a vibrato that at times would sound like a not-so-nervous version of Tony Iommi's — short and wide. At other times he was wide and slow like John Sykes' but not quite as powerful. Criss intonation was good on his vibrato, at times it sounds like he uses the tremolo bar for vibrato's, but didn't over do it as many players of the genre have.
- Sirens - V V V V
- Hall Of The Mountain King - V V V V
- Gutter Ballet - V V V V v
- Streets - A Rock Opera - V V V V V
- Edge Of Thorns - V V V V v
Profile by Andy Craven. Copyright © 2002 All rights reserved.