Interview with Ron Jarzombek
by Steve Turner

1. One kind of musical ideal is to aspire to freedom of expression in art - to overcome technical and theoretical limitations to bring both aspects into the service of musical and artistic expression.

On Solitarily Speaking of Theoretical Confinement you have created limitations for yourself on each composition, which some may argue would limit your creative expression. How do you feel your self-imposed limitations and discipline affected your creative expression on SSOTC?

That's one way of looking at, but a lot of times, using patterns and schemes actually help to write music. The melodies are already created, you just have to figure them out. When writing tunes for SSoTC, sometimes I was severely limited with timing but had all the freedom I wanted with pitches, then sometimes vise-versa.

All of the "chromatic" songs 'Dramatic Chromatic', 'Melodramatic Chromatic', 'Erratic Chromatic' and "Static Chromatic" were somewhat limited in pitches because I had to write all chromatic lines, but I could have used any timing that I wanted. Something very speedy like 'Flight Of The Bumblebee" would have worked, or something slow and doomy like the main theme from 'Jaws' could have also worked. That some serious contrast there.

There are two songs on SSoTC that are made up of only m2 and M2 intervals. 'Having Second Thoughts' is very pretty and soothing and is played with clean gtrs and a string section, mostly in 4/4 time. 'On Second Thought' is very heavy, aggressive and disgusting sounding in 7/16 and 7/8 time. Both songs are only made up of m2 and Ms, but sound totally different.

One song in particular that was somewhat difficult to write (without sounding too monotonous) was 'Snuff', that's having the main melody line flow for over 2 1/2 minutes without hitting any notes on any downbeat. Kinda rough...

A few songs ('Sex With Squeakie', 'Rigidude') are 'action' sequences so on those songs I didn't have to follow any type of note or timing pattern, but I had to write the music to imaginary movements, and that takes some creativity and discipline.

And then there are songs like '', 'Yum Yum Tree', 'WatchTower', 'I'll Be Back' and 'In The Name Of Ron') where the tune possibilities that fit the title's criteria are EXTREMELY limited, and that's usually because I had to specifically use certain notes that followed a given scheme (a few "schemes" are chromatic alphabet, morse code, diatonic alphabet). But even with those pitch restrictions, I had the possibilties of varying the timing and rhythm of the pitches.

A few songs were just fun writing and recording, like "Frank Can Get Drunk And Eat Beer". That follows a theoretical pattern of the order of sharps in Major scales, but also the music describes the title (a drunk guy stumbling all over himself). On 'Sabbatic Chromatic' I tried to duplicate the sound of Toni Iommi blowing up his left channel on the Paranoid solo. The key modulates down and up chromatically but the chords move a diminshed 5th for that "Sabbath" sound. 'Tri, Tri Again" follows the theoretical criteria of all 3s. Keys of A Major (3 sharps) and Eb (3 flats), all measures are 3/4, all triads, but also purposely repeats melody phrases and rhythmic patterns as the title suggests. And of course 'Sex With Squeakie' for obvious reasons. A animated video for that would be hilarious.

2. Few musical artists have attempted similar exercises in their art. Some have managed to push the boundaries of music far beyond what was previously conceived. Which artists or composers have you taken your lead from in this sense? What inspired you to set this challenge for yourself on electric guitar?

The music on SSoTC follows more of a filmscore that a normal "band" CD, even though there are tons of guitars. The format of the CD (45 tracks totalling 45 minutes) is not too common in a metal/rock band's CD, but it is very common to find filmscores that go through that many changes. And I'm not talking about the "soundtrack" garbage CDs that movie creators blatantly produce to sell copies of music CDs for movies. I mean the real music in films. So I would say that Danny Elfman, Elliot Goldenthal, Richard Band and Jerry Goldsmith lead me in this direction.

The idea of the content came partly from teaching, and explaining how/what notes are used in scales, chords, etc... To explain music theory to students, you deal with a lot of numbers, formulas, patterns, etc... and so it's difficult for me to write something without knowing what's going on theoretically. Usually when I write a tune, I know what it's going to sound like even before I pick up a guitar. Of course I'll know what the time signature, what tonality I want, so I'll know what the technical or theoretical aspects of what makes up the tune. I rarely just noodle around on the fretboard and come up with something. Again, this comes from putting myself in the shoes of a film composer who writes music that fits a mood, action, atmosphere, etc... What first got me thinking of writing music with patterns and various schemes was Rush's YYZ. I read in one of their concert booklets that the main theme of the song spelled out 'YYZ' in Morse code. This way of writing is also very helpful if/whenever writer's block sets in.

3. John Cage has spoken at length regarding the perception of experimental music.

"It seemed to me that composers knew what they were doing, and that the experiments that had been made had taken place prior to the finished works, just as sketches are made before paintings and rehearsals precede performances."

Many people exposed to your art refer to it as 'experimental'. Do you view SSOTC or any of your finished products as experimental? Is the term 'experimental' misunderstood?

I think the word "experimental" in music means that the artist is doing something a bit out there, abstract, risky, not common, or adventurous. For me, that's a compliment, so I don't mind that label at all. And yes, I do think SSoTC is experimental, same thing with 'Spastic Ink - Ink Complete'. The CD format itself is experimental (45 tracks running into each other). Of course, concept albums are nothing new. But I think when full concept albums like Rush's '2112' (well one full side) or Yes' 'Close To The Edge' and 'Topograchic Oceans' surfaced, it was something new back then, but now it's a bit common, expecially in progressive rock. The music on SSoTC is also "experimental". Again, mixing computer sounds with heavy guitar is nothing new these days, but basing the tunes on the concept itself is a bit different, or I hope it is.

4. SSoTC is a masterwork of guitar acrobatics and thematic manipulation. How long did it take you to compose the various parts? Did they evolve or do you come up with a final version quickly? How long did the complete recording process take?

I came up with the concept/idea for the CD very late August/early September 2001, and had 31 titles the first day. I remember I that finished writing all of the basic songs and the arrangement of CD on Dec. 31. There were just a few songs that had already been written, namely "Sick, Dirty, Sick", "In The Name Of Ron", "WatchTower" and the main theme for "Battle Of The Hands". All of the lead melodies and solos took about 2 months to write. Finalizing the programming, and recording the basic rhythm gtr tracks, textures and effects took about 2 months. I recorded the bass tracks in a few weeks, gtr solos and melodies in two months. Then final production/mixing took a few weeks. There were 2 months in there where I had no time at all to record. I had just joined a local cover band called Dragonfly during the summer and I had to learn 3 sets worth of songs, get my equipment situated to play covers, while teaching 6 days a week, and gigging 4 days a week. So from conception of SSoTC to having actual CDs in my hand took about 14 months. I know that seems like a long time but for me, that's not bad.

5. I have described you in the past not merely as a "Musician's Musician" but as a Musician to whom Musician's Musicians listen. Your music is certainly of fringe interest, even in the world of progressive and art rock. Would it be possible for you to write a radio friendly song? Would this be the kind of challenge that Ron might set himself when nobody is looking?

That's a question that all of us "prog" people have to think about and answer. Should we do what we want to do or conform to whatever music is popular at the current time. Be different and innovative by doing what you really want to do and what motivates you, or try to be like everybody else and satisfy other people by compromising our integrity. For me it's a simple answer. I'm not going to write a nu-metal song or some bland rock song. End of story. I suppose I could write a heavy tune that would be underneath a bunch of (c)rap, but I'm not into what would happen to the tune after I'd write and record it. And with a radio-friendly song, lyrics are a big part of it. I have some students that ask me to help them write music to lyrics that they've written and sometimes we up with some really cool songs. Now I wouldn't release such a song as Spastic Ink, but I do believe that a song can be "good" without having time signatures of 5/8 and 11/16, and scary Al DiMeola "Racing With The Devil On Spanish Highway" licks everywhere. Honestly, that's why on SSoTC I touched on quite a few different styles. Just about everything that I've ever recorded and released has been "progressive", although I'm rather familiar with other types of music. But I think it's sad how awful "radio rock" music is nowadays. I currently play in a local cover band doing covers of Tool, Pantera, Stone Temple Pilots, Alice In Chains, Godsmack, Nirvana, etc... so I'm not against playing music that isn't "progressive". I do however have a problem with the garbage that they play at a lot of the clubs whenever we take a break. Nothing pisses me off more than watching a bunch of white people totally getting off and and singing along to every freaking word of every radio (c)rap song. And everybody walks around calling each other "dog". LOL... Where the hell did that come from? I've had people come up to me on breaks after I take an extended solo or something and say "Yo dog, I just wanted to give you props for...". I just look at them and say "whatever dude"... If those people only knew what else was out there. I think radio is a big part of the problem.

6. How do you resolve being a long haired metal warrior (tm) with being one of the most theoretically advanced musicians on the progressive rock scene?

I'm an 80's dude, and I'm not changing anytime soon. I don't know it would take for me to chop off my hair. I used to love listening to Rush's Geddy Lee on "All The World's A Stage" when he called Neil Peart "The Professor". That just gives the musician character. Just about all of the "old fart" technical musicians had the long hair, Rush, Yes, Genesis, UK, etc... And I'm not going to change my appearance to look like the current nu-metal version of what a "rock" guy looks like. I don't care to have that Fred Durst truck driver look with the baseball cap turned backwards. I mean really, does that even look like a musician? Long hair goes way back to The Beatles, Stones, Led Zeppelin, hell we could even go back to Bach! Yeah, that was a wig but who cares?! Some kids today are so stupid and naive that they see any musician from years ago, and they think that since they have long hair, they're from a "hair band". I didn't know that Mick Jagger was in Poison, or that Paul McCartney was in Cinderella. Whenever I see an old school rock guitarist cut his hair, it bums me out. I think to myself "well, there goes another one". About me being theoretically advanced, for me that's the only way to go. The more theory the better. Learn what you can, then abuse it.

7. You play custom built guitars. Who builds them? What makes a great guitar in your hands and ears? Have you held the ultimate guitar or is it still an ideal?

I build all of my guitars from scratch. I buy 1" x 4"s and 1" x 6" from a hardwood store and break out the jigsaw and go at it. The last few that I've put together are made of poplar, but I've used maple, mahogany and ash before. Poplar is rather light so that works best for me. Maple sounds better but it's too damn heavy. All of my necks were taken off of other guitars. The purple and yellow strat neck was taken off of a short scale bass, that's why it's got enough room for 29 frets. I refingerboard all of the necks with hard rock maple wood, then cut the fret slots, and hammer in some Jim Dunlop extra high jumbo frets. All of my guitars have Seymour Duncan Distortion pickups and the old school Floyd Rose whammy bars. I should check into finding a different pickup because I've been using the SH-6 for over 15 years. I don't know what the ultimate guitar would be because I'm pretty simple and straightforward. Kind of like the Eddie Van Halen approach. One pickup, one knob, and I'm outta here. I do wish somebody would design a whammy bar that would stay in tune regardless of the tuning. With a floating spring- against-string system, that's impossible, but it would be cool. If I didn't build my own guitars, I'd probably be playing Ibanez.

I just finished building another guitar. During the past several years, I've had lots of people asking me via emails how I do the paint jobs on my guitars, so I videotaped myself painting it (green and white swirl). It'll be up on the Ink web site (as a downloadable .wmv or .ra file) in a few weeks. I'm editing it right now.

8. In your explorations have you ever been attracted to alternate tunings of the guitar? If so to what end and what structure?

Not too much. I recorded SSoTC mainly with two guitars and keep the tunings rather straightforward. I used my purple and yellow swirl guitar (tuned E A D G B E) for most of the stuff, with the Floyd Rose whammy bar blocked. For the low riffs like "Dramatic Chromatic", "To Be Or Not To B", "Sabbatic Chromatic" and "Gimme 5", I used my old black strat which was tuned B E A D G B. And for the whammy bar parts I used my ink blotted strat with the whammy bar floating. I don't mess much with alternate tuning because then all of the notes change on the fretboard, and I like knowing exactly where I'm at. I really should get a 7 string one of these days. There is a song on the next Ink CD called "A Chaotic Realization Of NothingYet Misunderstood" where I have the guitar tuned B F B F B F, all diminished 5ths. That tuning is very useful and makes it very easy for playing half-whole scales, diminished 7 licks, and whole tone scales. The harmony solos on "Two Thirds Of Satan" uses that tuning also. Other than that, I play a bit in "Drop D" tuning.

9. Are there any players at present that you respect highly or feel you can learn from? In what ways?

That's a rough question. Honestly, I don't pick up too many CDs these days. I just recently discovered a killer guitarist out of Sweden named Mattias IA Eklundh. Just unbelievable imagination. He's a Zappa freak and you can hear it in his playing and writing. Ron Thal is a freaking looney bird too, some absolute wild and crazy stuff. What I've learned from these guys is to go all out, try something different and inventive. Most of the stuff I have to listen to is CDs that students bring in for me to transcribe. Last year I probably bought less than 15 CDs. If somebody is raving about a certain band, I'll pick up the CD to hear what all the fuss is about. I'll listen to the CD maybe once or twice and that's it. Sometimes I don't even make it through the whole CD. I picked up Planet X's Moonbabies and that stayed in my truck for a month or two. I saw them live in Austin and thought they were just awesome. I picked up a few Meshuggah CDs and tried to get into them because it was heavy and progressive, but couldn't get much out of it. Kinda strange though because I had Fredrik Thordendal's Sol Niger Within CD in my truck for months. Hell, it's probably in there right now. I picked up the latest CDs by Dream Theater, Symphony X, Dysrhythmia and Cosmosquad, and have listened to them quite a few times. I don't think I learn anything from these guys (although they are awesome players), if anything I just get motivated. There are a few times though when I'll notice something cool happening on a CD. Like when I noticed some different tonality and chord progressions on DT's first CD with Jordan Rudess. Or Michael Romeo's computer orchestrations on the latest Symphony X. Dysrhythmia is killer live, and those guys are barely in their twenties. I think I am getting lost these days though. Sometimes I hear what most prog fans call a "progressive" band, so I expect lots of cool, interesting things happening but nothing is there at all. It sounds like basic heavy rock to me, and I think it's all been done too many times before. I'm sure that's there's lots of cool stuff out there, I just haven't heard it yet. The band that I learned the most from is, of course, Rush. UK had a big influence on me too.

10. I hear that you have received a remarkable number of preorders of the upcoming Watchtower album. Given the limited number of Tower releases, and the time between releases, how do you feel about the existence of such a loyal fan base?

The release of "Demonstrations In Chaos" has sold a few thousand copies. That CD is made up of some demo tapes and old studio recordings. Billy White, Tower's first guitarist, is on most of that CD. I'm only on 4 songs. I haven't heard about any preorders for "Mathematics", mainly because we don't know ourselves who will releasing the CD. If it ever happens, we'll probably print up the first batch and see if there is any label interest. It might make more sense to just do it ourselves, but we'll see what happens when we get there. I was having a hard time keeping up with SSoTC orders until Ken from Laser's Edge started distributing the CD. I've got a few more distributors now, but at first it was rather hectic. Who knows what will happen when "Ink Compatible" is released. And yes it is flattering when current bands list WatchTower as an influence. We also got a taste of Tower's lasting popularity when we did the Bang Your Head festival a few years ago in Germany. It wish we could get "Mathematics" done so we could do a few shows or festivals.

11. How much of the backing - drums, keys, bass - is programmed on SSOTC? Dee Fore puts on an otherworldly performance. What surprised you about the other musicians involved in this project?

The only human being playing on the CD is me. I thought it would be cool to make it appear to be a "band" by twisting up the names of my processors. Dee Fore is actually an Alesis D4 drum module. Roland Emessy 1 is a Roland MS-E 1 String Ensemble module, and Prodeus Effects is an E-MU Proteus FX sound moudle. I thought it was only fair to give these guys credit for their hard work and dedication. All of the music was notated in Encore 3.0. What I really liked about working with these fellows is they never gave me any crap about anything. They cooperated and got me the parts that I wrote for them with no problem whatsoever. No attitude, no gripes, nothing. If I would have had these same guys for "Ink Compatible", it would have been released years ago. Alan Holdsworth credits "Mac Hine" on one of his recordings. That's actually a "machine".

When I first started writing the material for SSoTC, I thought it would seem as if too many parts would be played by computer and not enough by a humans, but after I realized how many tracks I actually had to record, that thought disappeared pretty damn quick. I made a checklist of all the solos and main lead melodies that I had to record and it was a total of 44. Ouch!..

12. Your guitar tone on SSOTC hits like a ton of beautifully EQ'd bricks during A Headache and a Sixty Fourth. How did you get such a deep, chunky, driven tone and yet leave it some colour? How different is the EQ on your lead and rhythm tones? What is that awesome harmony phased sound that kicks in between runs?

All of the electric guitars on SSoTC were recorded with a Johnson J-Station. For the acoustics, I have an old Oscar Schmidt (believe it or not) with a Martin pickup that I used for the perty stuff. Most of the EQing was done on computer in Sound Forge. I also added some chorus, delay, phase, and the usual FX. And yes, for the lead presets, I add a bit of hi-mid to round out the tone a bit. Most of the rhythm riffing has very little mid, that pretty common for rock/metal guitarists. That phased sound on the breaks is just that. It's a phase shifter that comes with Sound Forge. Actually, that part was a big bite in the ass. I think there's something like 5 or 6 guitars playing on that sections and I had a hard time trying to make all of the parts audible. I mostly use the Rectified setting on the J-Station with different cabinets. I use a Line 6 when gigging locally playing covers. The Mesa Boogie that I used for Tower gigging didn't have enough tone variations for a cover band, so I had to pick up a most versatile rig. The Line 6 has a total of 36 presets, with my Boogie I used to use 2 sounds with Tower.

13. The orchestration of Dramatic Chromatic would almost lend itself to Orchestral treatment - it reminds me of Schoenberg's break up of voicings and parts in his Brahms interpretation. In the twisted imaginings of Ron Jarzombek do you ever consider the orchestral voicings of such an interpretation?

Hhmmm, interesting observation. Actually, the whole "Dramatic Chromatic" song was originally written with the chromatic melody line in the same octave. I thought it would have a cooler effect if the notes were scattered, but yes I agree with you that parts could be heard as the breaking up of orchestral instruments. When I write for gtr and bass, it's usually obvious what parts will be played by each instrument. However, when I write on computer, it's a different story. Strings and synths can cover just about any pitch range and level of intensity and dramatics. Piano too is a very useful instrument. I rarely use any horns when writing on computer. I just don't care for that brass sound. I've had that bad attitude since high school. Michael Romeo (Symphony X) does an amazing job programming for orchestral instruments. And by the way, he uses horns VERY well. But yeah, I wonder what "Dramatic Chromatic" would sound like with orchestral instruments. When I first write something on computer, I usually have a piano playing the guitar part, and I have to listen to it like that for months. Right now, I'm listening to a few sections from Ink Compatible songs like that. The fun part is when I finally record the part on guitar and it's comes to life.

14. In Dramatic Chromatic it sounds like the descending run phrase is slowing down over the underlying beat. There are similar fluctuations of time in Erratic Chromatic. What is creating this impression? Are you actually varying the tempo or is something else going on? I don't think I have heard anything quite like it before.

You're most likely refering to that quintuple lick in 'Dramatic Chromatic'. There's a illusion of a tempo change because the majority of the song is straight sixteenths. You get used to hearing a repeated figure, then when something different comes in, it seems as if the tempo has changed. On 'Erratic Chromatic' there's an inconsistent numbers of rests placed in between notes, so you get that varying tempo illusion. There's a song on "Ink Compatible" called "A Chaotic Realization Of Nothing Yet Misunderstood" that has a section where I purposely wrote it to sound like somebody is taking a speed knob and randomly turning it up and down. I got the effect that I wanted by using sixteenths, triplets, quintuplets, triplet sixteenths and septuplets. Jeff Eber (Dysrhythmia drummer) did an unbelievable job of executing this.

15. The orchestration of Frank can Get Drunk and parts of Snuff are reminiscent of the player piano writings of mathematical music genius Conlon Nancarrow. Are you familiar with his work? If not I think you might be pleasantly impressed.

Nope, never heard of the guy. A fan/friend of mine named Dave Reich in Germany picked up a copy of SSoTC, and after hearing it asked me if I had heard the Bela Bartok piece "Mikrokosmos". That's some very intersting stuff. I have a Bartok book called "A Study Of Tonality and Progression in Twentieth-Century Music" that I really need to get into a bit more.

16. For Sex with Squeakie you drop a Pat Metheny style before launching into one of the sweetest guitar melody tones ever - what is it?

Yeah, that's about as jazzy as I get. I think that lead preset on the J-Station is the "Brit Combo" which was set very clean. And recording it then I added some delay and chorus in Sound Forge. There's some plain old M7, 7 #5 and 13 chords in that main theme. Actually, I use 7 #5 and 7 b5 chords quite a bit but I don't really use them properly as in a jazz or classical voice leading context, as they probably should be. I usually fit them into a whole tone scale or an artificial scale. A 7 #5 chord sounds great over what I call a major/minor scale, I'm not sure what the real name of that scale is, but it's a minor scale with a natural 3rd. Or a major scale with a flatted 6th and 7th. There's also some 3 part harmonies in the "Squeakie" melody, something I picked up from Brian May. He's a genius with that stuff.

17. The production of SSOTC is divine. It is dense and enveloping and yet transparent and clean. Do you have an interest in engineering/producing the works of other musicians?

No, not really. I have an ADAT/computer setup at my house that works very well for me. I rarely have somebody over to record something. I usually record on ADAT then transfer tracks digitally to computer, then edit them with Sound Forge. I mix with a program called CakeWalk Home Studio 2002. I used to mix on a Mackie mixer from the ADAT but I've had too many tracks to work with lately. Some sections of SSoTC have 6 or 7 guitars playing at the same time, then I need stereo drums, bass, strings, click, etc... It was either learn to mix on computer or buy another ADAT. I really should just get rid of the ADAT and record straight to computer, but I'm so used to working with the ADAT.

18. What is the origin of your surname? Do you come from a musical family?

Well, my dad whistles pretty good, but that's about it. Mom just plays the radio. Of course my brother Bobby plays drums for Rob Halford, Spastic Ink and was with Riot for several years. My oldest brother Ralph has a Master's degree in music and works for a sheet music company here in town. My sister Lisa played flute in high school band, and my youngest sister Linda doesn't play any instrument but writes poetry very well. She's cool because she always helps me with my CD's liner notes, mostly punctuation.

Jarzombek is Polish. We pronounce it wrong over here in the states. It's supposed to be with the "J" sounded as a "Y" and the "Z" silent..."Yar-OM-bek". I like how it sounds pronounced wrong. I think it's a cool last name... Jar-ZOM-bek.

19. Satan meets you at the Crossroads and says:

"Ron, I am in a good mood - your music is promoting the kind of chaos in the world I really dig. I am going to assemble ANY band combination you want for your next solo album - but the only catch is you can NOT use anyone you have already included on a Watchtower, Spastic Ink or Solo release. Oh yeah, you can keep your soul too."

Who would you nominate? Ralph Macchio is not available.

Hhhmm... Well, I'd have to have Geddy on bass, for sure. Probably on vocals too. If Geddy didn't want to sing, then maybe Robert Plant or Glen Hughes. On drums would be Terry Bozzio or Virgil Donati. If there were keyboards it would be Rick Wakeman or Eddie Jobson (he could do some violin solo too). On tambourine I'd have Britney Spears. If she doesn't know how to play tambourine, who cares!..

20. So now that you've completed and released your solo CD, what's in the works?

Well, of course the first thing I need to do is get "Ink Compatible" released. That has been going on for way too long. When I had totally completed the audio and graphics for SSoTC, I backed up all of my computer files and saw some Ink audio files on my hard drive. A few of them are dated 1998!, that's when I started working on it. That's awful. But I'm hoping for a release sometime after this summer. I finished putting all of the drum tracks together last month. There are still a few people that need to get me tracks, I need a few voices, and I'm also recording solos right now. One thing that I would like to do though is get involved with other projects, just do some writing and recording, possibly some shows. Another Ink CD after "Ink Compatible" is out of the question unless Bobby and Pete call me up and say that they have a year or so off to focus on writing and recording. That's not going to happen. I will also be composing music for an animation company called Morley Arts, in Atlanta. I received an email a few days ago from Richard Morley (who has used music of Spastic Ink for his short films), and they just finished a video for a multimedia piece that I recorded years ago called 'Martian's Marchin'. Then he asked me if I would be interested in writing music for a 24 minute film are working on. Hell yeah! I gladly accepted. I've been wanting to do something like that for over a decade. I really hope it works out.

Return to