Michael Wilton

Groupology

  • Queensryche
  • Soulbender

Jurassic

Watch Michael Wilton in Action at the bottom of this page!

Famous / Infamous for

Michael Wilton is probably best known for being the other guy in Queensryche, which isn't entirely accurate or fair. Where Chris DeGarmo focused more on songwriting, production, and orchestration, Wilton has always stuck more to what he does best: playing guitar. Even so, Wilton provided an essential element to the bizarre chemistry that was Queensryche at their creative peak. In Queensryche, Wilton is the riff guy. Many of the fast alternate picked riffs that drive Queensryche's more aggressive songs, such as Speak, or The Needle Lies from Operation: Mindcrime, are Wilton's. Mike was an early endorsee of ESP guitars and actually is one of the few guys who used maple bodied guitar, which produce very bright tone. And once again we have to ask: what the hell was Queensryche thinking with the whole glam-goth thing on Rage for Order?

 

Influences

Obvious: Primarily Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. Mike also lists UFO, Van Halen, and other hard rock bands from the late 70s as influences.

Not-so-obvious: Michael first got into music through his father's record collection. He lists the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Mountain, The Allman Brothers, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and the San Francisco scene as early musical influences. However, you don't hear much of this in any of his work with Queensryche. Wilton and DeGarmo took music classes together at college, and this formal training made Wilton's style of metal a little more brainy and modal than blues-based — especially early in the band's career.

Strengths

Technique. In the classic Queensryche lineup with DeGarmo, Mike was known as the speed guy, and DeGarmo the feel guy, and although their roles occasionally would overlap, it's fair to think of them in this way. Wilton has an excellent right hand and he's clearly spent a lot of time working on his alternate picking. In the early days, Wilton would attack a lead like a pit bull attacking a chihuahua, often opening with a barrage of alternate picked triplets or sixteenth notes. Speak from Operation: Mindcrime is in my opinion one of Wilton's best moments. It really showcases his guitar style and shows very clearly how his approach differs from DeGarmo's.

Balls. DeGarmo and Tate came up with the grand concepts. Wilton, bassist Eddie Jackson, and drummer Scott Rockenfield brought the music to life and gave it balls. Wilton provided contrast to DeGarmo's art rock influences by bringing a healthy dose of Judas Priest style riffery and aggression to the band's guitar sound. Without Wilton, it's fair to say that Queensryche would've been a much tamer band, and probably more on the art rock and prog side of the spectrum than the metal side.

Distinct style. More on this in the Guitar Style section. Wilton's approach to lead guitar in Queensryche is more modal than blues-based. This makes his leads tough to cop, even if you have a singer with a 4+ octave range and you want to do some Queensryche at your Friday night bar gig.

Teamwork. There have been a lot of great two guitar teams in Dinosaur Rock: Robertson/Gorham, Tipton/Downing, Smith/Murray — and DeGarmo/Wilton certainly rank right up there with these legendary duos. DeGarmo and Wilton take it one step further in my opinion — they are so good at handing off to each other that often you can't tell who is playing what! They don't really trade off solos in the traditional sense like Maiden's guitarists, where there's a set number of bars for Murray and a big key change and then a set number of bars for Smith. Rather, 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. They help us out a little by positioning: DeGarmo's guitar is always in the left speaker, and Wilton is always in the right. Even with this, the differences are subtle.

Another area where DeGarmo and Wilton excel is in orchestrating their rhythm guitar parts. Maiden, for example, tend to have a lot of doubling going on when they are playing rhythm. Priest is similar, although Tipton and Downing use very different tones and different chord inversions to separate themselves a little bit more. DeGarmo and Wilton do this too, but they also add to it by using their two guitars almost as one, which lets them combine two different chords to create one complex chord. When they do this, normally DeGarmo takes the lower part, and Wilton stacks a higher part over the top of it. This is is hard to do without creating sonic mud. By separating it spatially and using different timbres, they get more definition. Check the big layered chords in the opening of Screaming in Digital for a good example.

Weaknesses

Being a role-player guitarist. Similar to the guys in Iron Maiden, in Queensryche the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Wilton is the more technical of the two guys, but he's not a Vai or a Malmsteen. The focus is on the composition, the mood, the vocals, and the message. Wilton and DeGarmo are not the kind of players that you envision as the focal point of a band ala Van Halen, Blackmore, or Schenker. They are a team like Tipton/Downing or Smith/Murray — two guys who operate as one. This is something that other musicians tend to appreciate, but it doesn't win you many magazine polls for Best Guitarist. That said, it's easy to overlook how good a guitarist Michael Wilton actually is, and I have certainly been guilty of it! He's arguably the best technician of any of the classic dino two guitar lineup guys.

Songwriting. It's not really fair to throw all the blame for Queensryche's demise on Wilton's shoulders, but if the band is to continue, somebody needs to step up and fill the void left by Chris DeGarmo. Michael comes up with riffs and cool parts, but he needs a co-writer or producer to edit the riffs together into something cohesive — preferably someone who understands heavy guitar music. Unfortunately, whatever writing relationship exists between Wilton and Tate hasn't produced quality results in the post DeGarmo era. And though Michael still plays at a very high level, he's been unable to raise his own game in the songwriting department or create a chemistry with either of the guys who replaced DeGarmo. Based on the band's post-DeGarmo sound, it seems fair to say that Wilton is more of a follower than a leader. Rather than preserving the classic Queensryche sound and enforcing the previous standard of guitar work, Wilton seems content to do his thing and let Kelly Grey and Mike Stone do their thing. Unfortunately, their styles don't really work in Queensryche. For Queensryche to recapture any of their former glory, Wilton needs to step up and take a more assertive leadership role, which he seems unwilling or unable to do.

Emotion. Especially early in the band's career, Mike often sounded very cerebral. A lot of his leads from that period resemble the sound of computer circuits frying. His leads were intense, but there wasn't a lot of emotion in his playing. He's gotten more expressive as he's matured, but it's still not his strong suit.

Tone

There's an exhaustive gear rundown on at www.michaelwilton.com. One look there and you'll see that Michael's has so many varieties of guitars and amps that trying to pin down what he uses to get his sound would be an exercise in futility. Historically, however, there are two distinct periods in Queensryche's guitar sound: pre-Empire, and post-Empire.

Early in the band's career, Wilton used Kramer's into a Marshall JCM800 100W head and Marshall 4x12 bottoms with Celestion Vintage 30s. Around the time of Operation: Mindcrime both guitarists switched over to ESP guitars. Effects were courtesy of rack mount Roland and Yamaha digital processors. Mike's maple bodied ESPs sounded very bright and piercing, with a lot of upper midrange and not a lot of bottom. His tone probably would have sounded too bright if not balanced by DeGarmo's warmer sound.

For Empire, the guitars became noticeably warmer and fatter, courtesy of huge Bradshaw rigs. Wilton experimented with Bogner and Soldano amps, which really fattened the sound up. In the studio, rather than micing the 4x12s, little 1x12 speaker cabinets were used. Mike continued to rely on various digital processors for delay, chorus, and reverb.

At some point in the late 90s Mike switched over to Mesa Boogies. He currently uses Dual Rectifier heads and is working with ESP on a signature model guitar.

Guitar Style

Wilton is definitely a schooled, 80s metal stylist and it's not by accident that his closest stylistic contemporary is his former Queensryche sidekick, Chris DeGarmo. By design, the key to the Queensryche sound — and what sets Wilton and DeGarmo apart from their 80s metal contemporaries — is avoiding that blues-based influence that defines most rock music.

Though there is a lot of overlap on who does what within Queensryche, Wilton's rhythm style features more alternate picked riffs and standard root-based chords, whereas DeGarmo's style is characterized by more exotic chord voicings. Mike also plays quite a bit of acoustic guitar live and on album with Queensryche. Harmonically, both Queensryche's guitarists employ much hipper chord voicings than the other bands that they get lumped in with. There are lots of sus4 and sus2 chords in place of the traditional root-5th power chords. I associate these chords more with bands like the Police and Rush than Judas Priest and Iron Maiden.

Wilton is not a mind-blowing lead player, but he has the technical ability to hang with most of the 80s metal guitarists. What distinguishes Michael from the majority of his peers is that he makes more interesting note choices. Wilton was the first guy I remember playing modally in metal. The modal scales he uses are common among fusion and jazz players, but not very prevalent in rock. Thus Wilton's melodic sense can seem a bit warped and dissonant to ears schooled exclusively on rock.

Wilton's solos are interesting and often tasty, but there's really's no sex in his style at all. Consequently he just doesn't seem to connect on the emotional level very often. To be fair, Michael's in a band known for dark, moody, thinking-man's metal — not cock rock. But here's the issue: We at DRG love classic Queensryche, and we like Michael Wilton, yet somehow, his lead work never really amazes or knocks you on your ass. Despite his distinctive scalular choices, Wilton still manages to avoid being an instantly-recognizable player. There just aren't any Michael Wilton trademarks you can hang your hat on. He doesn't have the eccentric phrasing of a George Lynch, the sexy style and vibrato of a John Sykes, or the tear-you-a-new one attitude of a Zakk Wylde. And so the question remains: would anyone recognize a Michael Wilton solo outside the context of Queensryche? Maybe. But would anyone care? Wilton's solos are like Chinese food: tasty while you're eating it, but twenty minutes later you're hungry again and you don't remember what you ate. To be fair, much the same can be said of DeGarmo as a soloist.

Michael excels at alternate picking and his sense of rhythm is very precise and on-the-beat. When playing harmony guitar lines, DeGarmo and Wilton start with the 3rds and 5ths approach of Lizzy and Maiden, and throw in a lot of parallel 4ths and 5ths. Again, this is thinking outside the blues box. Parallel harmonies are not used very often in dinosaur 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. This is another thing that sets Queensryche apart from most of their contemporaries. NM156 is a great example of parallel harmonies at work — the entire solo is a massive exercise in how to apply them.

Vibrato:

Narrow and fast. Similar to KK Downing's, but more tasteful and more controlled.

Michael Wilton in Action

Recommended listening

Queensryche

Profile By John Walker. Copyright Dinosaur Rock Guitar ©2005 All rights reserved.