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  • LJ DeWitt

The Torch: Series 2 - Issue #2

The Torch is a monthly tech series aimed to please the fascination of amateurs and experts alike. Today, a special edition featuring exclusively solo guitarists—And, of course, the first person I asked was my old friend and outstanding musician, Brian Kang. It’s been a whole 7 years since Brian helped me debut The Torch. I thought it was about time for an updated interview. This time, he’s brought along friends and fellow solo stringmasters, Justus Hajas and Nick Palma.

D&D: How old were you when you got your first guitar? What was your first guitar?

Justus Hajas: I bought my first guitar for my 13th birthday because I was honestly curious about music, as I grew up with my musician father. In fact, all the guys on my dad's side of the family were musicians. I knew it would probably make him happy if I picked up an instrument, as well at the time, I thought it might make me look cooler to girls (the thought process of an elementary school kid). The guitar I picked up was an acoustic Seagull (about 1100$ Canadian) out of this little Long & McQuade (Canada’s Guitar Centre). Picking the guitar purely based on how it felt, it had the best acoustic tone out there. I still miss that guitar due to a fire that happened in my grade 9 year in 2017. Lost my first acoustic guitar and electric. Electrical shortages are a bitch, but even after that happened, I was still practicing the next day when I got my first Schecter.

Nick Palma: I think I was about 10 years old when I got my first guitar. It was a no name brand, black and white Stratocaster. I got it for Christmas. Took it with me for lessons every week, so it definitely got plenty of use but looking back at it, it was pretty terrible lol. The frets were sharp and would cut my fingers whenever I slid up and down the fretboard, the logo on the headstock was a cheap sticker that started peeling off. Definitely a beginner guitar but I actually still have it! I could never bring myself to get rid of it since that’s where it all started for me and I get sentimental about stuff like that.

Brian Kang: I was 13 years old when I got my first guitar. It was a starter-pack Fender Starcaster from Costco, which was basically a beginner-level strat with a cute little combo amp!

D&D: For anyone wanting to learn, what would you suggest as a starter guitar?

Justus: Honestly, I personally believe it does not matter what you start with as long as you start. All gear is genuinely preference. Based on personal experience, I would go with a Squire or ESP as most do.

Nick: My advice would be to go with a well known brand and look at their low end lineup. Most brands have entry level guitars and I can guarantee you it would be way better than my Walmart Strat knockoff haha.

Brian: Honestly, it’s up to the person wanting to learn, but if they do plan to take it seriously, I

would suggest any guitar from $200 - $500 range. That way the player is getting something quality and sturdy that would last them a good amount of time without breaking the bank before they decide to level-up to an even nicer guitar.

D&D: Through trial and error in your career, are there any mistakes you’d warn young guitarists to be cautious of?

Justus: I have had plenty of ups and downs over my short career so far. A lot of them can be avoided through detaching yourself from the internet and your ego. Put your mental health first, work hard, and stay true to yourself. The reason you want to detach is amazingly simple. The internet is a rollercoaster, you cannot ride the highs without riding the lows. Secondly, don’t longboard or skateboard if you want to take guitar seriously. August two years ago, I fractured my right hand completely and now have 7 metal screws in my right hand. I would never let anything stop me from playing guitar and after months of physiotherapy, I made a full recovery. Put down the bone breakers lol.

Nick Palma: If you’re anything like me, don’t wait until you feel “good enough” to start something. You’ll never feel ready that way because you’ll always be striving to improve. Just jump right into the deep end of whatever it is you want to do and enjoy the process. Another big thing for me is to practice songwriting just as much as technique. You can impress someone for 15 seconds but it won’t have a lasting effect on the listener without any context. I’m at a point now where mindless shredding with no context is the most annoying thing to me lol. SONGWRITING OVER EVERYTHING.

Brian: Over the years of being a guitarist, if there are three things I’d advise young guitarists to take note of: Be aware of your finances, network the shit out of your connections, and learn to brand yourself.

You need to be aware of your own personal finances and your time. Music is an expensive endeavor. The music industry is an industry that favors artists who can invest more time and money into their craft. Those are your “game” parameters that will determine how far you can take your music. With the rules set in place, you have to ask yourself these questions as an artist: How am I going to fund my music? Can I afford to put in the most quality into my work? Do I have enough time or do I have to make more time so I can invest into my craft? The better your finances and the more free-time you have, the more you can invest into releasing the most quality and well-crafted music. The less you have of both of those, the more of a disadvantage you will be at. Assess your parameters and make a game plan based on it.

When it comes to networking, the music industry really boils down to who you know. I’ve seen some of the most talented/deserving musicians remain obscure from lack of good networks on their part while some artists that made me scratch my head have an amazing career because of who they knew. You could be the hardest-working and most talented artist on the planet, but if you have zero connections and don’t know anything about taking advantage of resources, you’re going to be dead in the water. Social media is a powerful tool that can aid you. Reach out to as many musicians, videographers, photographers, agents etc. who are above you in ”level.” Hit them up, pick at their brains, establish a meaningful connection. Those people ahead in the industry are a wealth of knowledge.

Lastly is self-branding. We live in the TikTok era: Anyone can put themselves out there and the bar for talent has been set exceptionally high, with guitarists like Tim Henson and Ichika Nito taking charge. But that doesn’t always equate to success as a musician. Talent is one aspect, but how you can differentiate yourself from a sea of other musicians is just as important. Investing in things like a logo, your own unique style and aesthetic, what style of guitar you play, or even associating a color palette to your content goes a long way in making your brand as a musician more memorable than the competition.

D&D: What’s the biggest stage nightmare you’ve ever had?

Nick: Probably one of the bigger shows my last band played. We were playing with a couple of well known bands and before our set, there were people chanting our name. We take the stage feeling all confident and 5 seconds into the first song, I realize that someone accidentally turned my amp off after soundcheck. For about 30 seconds or so, I had to totally fake it and the first chance I got I had to turn around and turn it back on. I don’t know if the crowd could tell what was going on or not but it was definitely super embarrassing for me lol.

Brian: I caused my old band to lose a song off of our set for a management showcase due to technical difficulties from my amp. This was while I was still in the auditioning process mind you. I thought I blew it after that show but they still ended up giving me the spot luckily! From that day forward, I stopped using a traditional amp and pedals and invested in a Kemper Profiler haha.

D&D: Current equipment setup for playing live?

Justus: Typically, I will run through my line 6 helix live just custom patches I made. Wireless pack of course. But it's different for every show, if it's something small I will literally only bring my laptop and run through an amp sim.

Nick: Once I switched from real amps, I’ve only ever used my Kemper and a couple extra pedals live. It’s so much more convenient and I don’t care what anybody says, the crowd cannot tell the difference between an amp head and an amp sim. I’ve got my Kemper, wah pedal, Whammy pedal, and my guitar. That’s pretty much it. I think the simpler the better because things are less likely to go wrong that way.

Brian: I run through a Kemper Profiler Power Rack, which I can plug directly through a venue’s

PA system or through a cabinet. All the desired effects I need are integrated into a performance I programmed that can be accessed through the footswitch. The only pedal I have is the Digitech Drop Pedal. What that does is it allows me to drop tunings down to 7 semitones, eliminating the need to change tunings manually or bring multiple guitars on the road with me. Lastly for guitars, I primarily use my two BC Rich Mockingbird Pro Xs.

D&D: Does your setup differ in the studio?

Justus: It does slightly. When I record, I run through the same helix, but record a dry signal at the same time. Which means I'll most likely use multiple amp sims to blend with each other; Archetype Tim Henson is a favorite right now. It is on all my new tunes.

Nick: Oh totally. In the studio, I’ll pretty much use whatever is necessary for what we’re trying to achieve. I’ve used guitars that weren’t mine, amps I’ve never used before, you name it. I don’t get very territorial about having to use this or that because if the end product sounds good, then that’s all that matters to me.

Brian: It can differ slightly but is more-or-less the same. The only difference would be the

specific effects I play around with, the mixing and EQ, and the guitars I would use.

D&D: Best guitar you’ve ever owned?

Justus: The best guitar I've ever owned currently is my Music Man Jason Richardson Cutless 7 string; It’s an amazing guitar of the highest quality. I've also recently acquired a Strandberg headless NX7, which I'm starting to love. We’ll see where that goes moving forward.

Nick: I think I’m gonna have to go with my 7 string Ibanez Prestige. It’s my first 7 string that I’ve ever owned, and it took some getting used to, but now it just feels like butter and it sounds amazing. There’s just something about it that feels so good in the hands and it's easy to make it scream. And it looks amazing, so that’s always a huge plus.

Brian: I have two actually: My BC Rich Mockingbird Pro X and my modified Epiphone Les Paul.

The Mockingbird is a shred monster that I’ve owned since I was 17. That guitar has been in every music video, studio recording, and live show I’ve been a part of. The Les Paul has a little bit more of an interesting story. I got it when I was 15, and since I never really had the money to afford a Gibson, I modded it over the years to make it perform like a Gibson. Even though it doesn’t have the +1.5k price tag of a “good” guitar, it performs just as well. It’s usually my go-to for more varied styles outside of rock and metal. I’ll use it for everything from my clean tones, warm leads, and a more pop-driven rhythm.

D&D: Worst guitar you’ve ever owned?

Justus: I haven’t had that many “bad” guitars, so I cannot give any guitar that title, however the worst amp I have ever played was a Marshall Code.

Nick: Definitely gonna have to go with the knockoff strat with the scratchy frets haha.

Brian: Probably that Fender Starcaster, but that’s because in retrospect it pales in comparison

to my current guitars. I milked the shit out of that guitar before I got the Les Paul and I think I gave it some good mileage haha. I also have a Schecter Blackjack ATX that just doesn’t work.

D&D: Do you name any of your guitars?

Justus: Yes! Naming my guitars is so fun but sometimes takes a while. My Strandberg is named Scythe, my EBMM is named Richard (for obvious reasons), and my bass is named Reginald.

D&D: Dream guitar to own someday?

Justus: My dream guitar would be a Justus Hajas signature model, simply because it would be my own :)

Nick: For years now, my dream guitar has been a totally custom Aristides guitar. They’re a custom company from the Netherlands and I’ve only ever heard great things about them. I’ve actually spec’d out a couple of them but couldn’t bring myself to pull the trigger on it yet. Hopefully one day, but my next guitar will definitely be a custom beast.

Brian: Because I already own my dream guitar, there aren’t any other guitars out there that I

have an absolute burning desire for. Sometimes I feel like Saitama from One Punch Man having his existential crisis but it’s dream guitars instead of finding a worthy opponent haha. On the flipside, I do at least have a goal regarding my guitar collection. I want all of my guitars to be black and yellow! Been eyeing a couple guitars that I feel like would be fantastic additions such as a Gretsch Black Falcon, Black & Gold Fender Strat, and a Gibson Les Paul Custom “Black Beauty.”

D&D: What’s the most extreme way a guitar of yours has met their fate?

Justus: I’ve had many of those situations, from a house fire burning my two first guitars, exes stealing guitars, and the works… One time an old acoustic I had broke because when it turned to summer, the humidity made the head snap off.

Brian: All of them are still intact to this day since the last time we spoke!

D&D: What guitarist(s) had the biggest impact on you?

Justus: I’ve got to give first credit to Jimi Hendrix for getting me into electric guitars when I was 13. Everything changed when I found Synyster Gates through Black Ops 2. His solos are the reason I got into “shredding.” And for the last TOP influence, Jason Richardson. His playing inspired me to get to a whole other level. I’ve had 3 lessons with him that I am still thankful for years later.

Nick: As a teenager my top guys were Synyster Gates, Alexi Laiho, and Andy James. And they’re still my favorites today. I gravitate towards players who I think blend shred and feel perfectly, and that’s what’s been my goal with my own playing all along.

Brian: Growing up, it was primarily scene shredders like Jake Pitts and Monte Money who had

the biggest impact on me. The guitarist that currently has the biggest impact on me is Cazqui. He’s the ex lead guitar-player of Nocturnal Bloodlust and currently has his own project called Cazqui’s Brutal Orchestra. His finesse and showmanship on the guitar topped with his visually crazy yet melodic solo work are some of the best I’ve seen in my entire life! He’s one of those guitarists that you can hear has a huge personality and presence in their playing and tone. The blend of his showmanship and his creative mastery over the fretboard are what I strive to be like!

D&D: Finally, what’s your favorite part of being a guitarist?

Justus: My favorite part of being a guitarist is walking up on stage and feeling the most alive I could feel, building a community of guitarists and finding purpose through these 6 strings (7 strings if you’re me, lol).

Nick: It feels like I have a voice without having to sing. There’s so much you can do on guitar that you can’t do on other instruments. You can bend, you have vibrato like a singer, you can shred, you can bring someone to tears with just a couple notes. I’m grateful that I have a creative outlet that allows me to feel like I'm conveying everything I want to through my art, and at the end of the day, that’s all it's about.

Brian: The ability to express yourself in a unique voice, the ability to command the crowds like

you’re splitting the seas during a live show, and the perfect amount of attention you get (Not too much like the singer, but a good amount during your solos haha).

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