Hot on the heels of our Kristofer Dahl interview comes this interview with Ben Higgins of GuitarMasterClass.net. Ben is one of those rare guitarists capable of combining extremely melodic playing with ferocious shred chops!
In this email interview, Ben talks about his guitar influences, practicing, circular vibrato, his home-built guitars and the importance of finding balance. He also offers us an uncommon glimpse into a day in the life of an online guitar instructor at GuitarMasterClass.net.
The Guitar Column: Thanks so much for taking time out to do this interview Ben!
Ben Higgins: You're welcome, thank you for the interest.
TGC: When did you start playing and what drew you to the guitar in the first place?
BH: Growing up, there were always acoustic guitars around the house which my parents and their friends would sometimes get out for a jam. It was only a matter of time before I learned a few chords and had a go! It totally developed my ear and rhythm abilities by putting me straight in at the deep end.
If you create a demand on yourself, you cannot help but step up to it, at least if it's something you enjoy doing. It wasn't a conscious decision to really start learning the guitar, it just happened so that would also go hand in hand with the relationship between enjoying what you're doing and making quick progress.
TGC: Did you take lessons?
BH: I didn't have any proper lessons, aside from being shown a few chords here and there. The rest of it was observing other players around me and trying to emulate whatever sounds I was listening to at the time.
TGC: Who were you listening to back then?
BH: The first music I really took an interest in and became a fan of was Michael Jackson. As we all know, a certain guitarist called Eddie Van Halen played a legendary solo on the song 'Beat It'. This captured my attention and directed it towards all the guitar orientated elements of Jackson's music. Then I found an old Iron Maiden tape and the rest is history!
TGC: What was a typical practice session like for you when you were starting out?
BH: The strange thing is, I can't remember a lot of it.. it's almost like it happened to somebody else. Either that or I was some weird experiment and I've had my memory wiped! The only things I can vividly picture are sitting on the edge of my bed and my little practice amp and Ibanez distortion pedal. I can remember the floppier picks I used back then which I couldn't begin to use now.
I do know that I didn't have a regimen back then. It was all just playing, with no particular structure. I think that's important in your early years of learning an instrument because it's how you really get a natural bond with it. If you ask people like Yngwie Malmsteen or Guthrie Govan, they'll say they never 'practised'.
TGC: What is your daily practice regimen like now?
BH: These days, I do really enjoy a good regimented practice session because it's a highly efficient way of working on your technique. I'm currently doing about an hour and a half, 2 hours daily or until my hands get too tired to carry on.
TGC: Have you ever run into any problems from too much practicing?
BH: I've had to learn the hard way that you shouldn't play through pain. I'm an advocate of taking frequent breaks every time you build up a big amount of lactic acid after an intense period of playing. Just sit around and take a few breaths, think about something else for a while and let your muscles relax on their own.
Or even put your guitar down and walk about, do something else for a couple of minutes. Doing this has allowed me to keep practising at a steady rate, much longer than I was able to before.
TGC: How did your association with GuitarMasterClass come about?
BH: Well, I'd left my previous job as a delivery driver and I tried busking a couple of times but I didn't feel comfortable doing it at all. An ex-bandmate told me about GuitarMasterClass so I took a look and decided to be brave and put myself out there. Thankfully, Kris (GMC founder Kristofer Dahl) saw beyond my low quality video and invited me to join and I've been proud to work alongside the mad Swede ever since !
TGC: You have a number of lessons on GMC devoted to legato. Would you say you're more of a legato-type player?
BH: I would say that it is more of a natural strength of mine, that I found my feet with quite early on. Although I wouldn't say I'm more of a legato player as such, it probably does feature in my solos more than alternate picking runs, for example. I've had to work very hard to get my picking technique as natural and effective as legato, for sure!
All of my practice is like an opportunity to improve all the other aspects of my playing so they can also be included and featured in my playing as much as my natural strengths. My goal is to make my weaknesses my other strengths too.
TGC: In the good 'ol days you had legato players like Allan Holdsworth and you had the alternate pickers like John McLaughlin.
BH: Yes and you've probably chosen two of the best, if not the best, exponents of those particular techniques! Although I'm not familiar with Holdsworth's music, I'm a huge fan of McLaughlin's picking technique.
In the 80's things got turned up another notch with guys that were picking fast, tapping fast, sweeping fast etc.. all the 'Star Licks'-type videos must have been the Holy Grail in those days!
Since then, with media making visual access to different guitarists so attainable, people have been able to develop in so many areas, which is a good thing. However, there's also the temptation to try and 'do it all' at the detriment of just finding your voice and becoming really good at what you do. As always, it's a balance that every one of us has to work with.
TGC: You have a really interesting vibrato. On your vibrato lesson it seems like you're moving your finger in an almost circular fashion. I remember Steve Vai talking about circular vibrato on his website years ago. Was that a thing you consciously developed?
BH: Thank you very much. I definitely remember seeing Vai do this and then taking my guitar and seeing if I could do it too. I knew nothing about the technique at all and never read, or heard anyone talk about it. I didn't even have a computer growing up, let alone access to the internet so everything was trial and error! Somehow I made it work and still use it!
The person who made me aware of vibrato and inspired me to develop it is a British guitarist called Jan Cyrka. He used to have a monthly column in Guitarist Magazine, which had a CD which came with the mag. A lot of my vibrato technique and the way I use it comes from him.
Since then, listening to Marty Friedman helped me hone it a bit but 90% is Jan Cyrka. I should also mention Dave Kilminster too, who also had a column in the mag. Between Jan and Dave I always had a lot to work with and a lot to look forward to every month!
TGC: Name some other guitar players that have influenced you greatly.
BH: Ah, well those questions lead into each other very nicely. The previously mentioned Marty Friedman and Jan Cyrka. Before I heard of them I was first blown away by Joe Satriani and then Yngwie Malmsteen.
The next guitar orientated album that totally shocked me to that level when I first heard it was Speed Metal Symphony by Cacophony, with Marty Friedman and the amazing Jason Becker. First Satriani, then Malmsteen, then Cacophony. When I heard all this stuff, all I thought was 'This is impossible.. what they are playing is impossible guitar! What are they doing ? How do I do it ?'
A bit later I discovered Michael Schenker and The Scorpions. Although they're different artists they both have a certain sound. In fact, a lot of European bands from the early 80's have a similar sound. A thick, crunchy, mid range heavy Marshall tone with an almost nasal lead sound. Even if you listen to early Mercyful Fate, who were Danish, they still had that similar tone. I don't know what it was about them, but those Europeans had it nailed !
TGC: What are some aspects of their playing that you would like to get into your own playing?
BH: More melody, haha! Every one of those guys is able to choose great notes. I always approach a solo with my composing head on, it's never about techniques. However, a lot of those guys are good at getting a very melodic sound whilst improvising whereas I have to have time to compose it to get near their level of expression. The answer is, of course, just to spend more time improvising so that's something I've got to do. Balance, again!
TGC: What is Michael Schenker's influence on your playing? So few guitar players these days seem to give him credit. And what is your quintessential Michael Schenker album?
BH: I think those really high, choked bends that he does. He'll play a note, cut it off, then pre-bend to another note before striking the note. I love that sound.
Everyone should own a copy of the first MSG album and my personal fave, Assault Attack which had Graham Bonnet on vocals. That's an incredible record. It's got one slightly dodgy, commercial track but the rest is pure guitar and vocal gold!
TGC: What guitars and amps are you currently using?
BH: I'm using a Marshall JVM 410H, which is the 100w head, and a 1960A Marshall 4x12 cab.
In terms of guitars, I'm very lucky. My Dad has always been a woodworker and he taught himself how to build guitars mainly for personal enjoyment rather than business. I've got three that he's built. Two of them have that Jackson/Ibanez-style look. One has a hardtail and the other a Vintage/Wilkinson style trem. The 3rd guitar is based on a Gibson Explorer which is a shape I fell in love with, possibly because Matthias Jabs of the Scorpions played one. My one's slightly bigger and heavier than a Gibson one, though, which is not good news for the back and shoulders !
TGC: How about picks, strings, pickups?
BH: I've been using the same picks for years -- Dunlop Tortex 1.14mm, the purple ones. I manually sharpen the tip down to a point because they're too rounded straight from the factory. I tried the Sharp version of the same pick but they're too narrow, like playing guitar with a toothpick, so you can't really get a good grip on it.
I use Ernie Ball strings, 9-42. A lot of people say you need thick strings for better tone but it all depends what you class as good tone. For me, I need lots of sustain and what I call 'juice' to get the most out of legato and the thicker the string, the less distorted it sounds and the more rounded it is, which is detrimental to my legato technique. So I'm very happy with my 9-42's !
The pickups in 2 of my guitars are Kent Armstrong. I can't remember the exact models but they're 'hot' pickups designed for playing rockier and heavier stuff. One of the guitars has a pickup made by GoldenAge, called Vintage Vibe which is a replica of the old Gibson hotwired pickups. They help me get that classic, slightly Germanic metal tone I was talking about earlier.
TGC: Any favorite must-have pedals?
BH: No pedals to speak of except a Dunlop Cry Baby Wah which I've used on a few recording projects. I'm not really a 'gear head'. The less bits and bobs, the better !
TGC: You get a really singing, creamy tone on your GuitarMasterClassvideos and the Marshall JVM410H amp you mentioned is usually in your gear list. What do you like about the JVM410?
BH: Thank you, that's a nice compliment. Tone is very important to me and I spent a lot of years unhappy with the sounds I was getting. I found that, although I loved the sound of tube amps, most of the ones I tried didn't have enough juice without adding pedals to them.
I'd played through a few Marshalls over the years and I loved their crunch sound more than any other amp but, again, they didn't seem to have enough juice for Satriani style legato. The notes would sort of dry up.
The JVM is the first amp I can take as it is and play everything I need to play and it sounds like I need it to.
TGC: What is your lesson recording setup like? Mic'd or DI?
BH: For recording lessons or demo'ing new tunes, I run a DI from the JVM head into my audio interface and go from there. I might sometimes add some reverb and a touch of delay for solos but that's about it. The amp sounds a lot nicer when mic'd up but the XLR output for DI'ing is a godsend.
TGC: What is that single-pickup flame maple top guitar you play? It looks like an Ibanez judging by the headstock. I've always been fascinated by single-pickup, hardtail guitars. Tell us about this particular axe.
BH: This guitar is the one I use 99% of the time. I love its simplicity. Although I like the sound of using a whammy bar, and I get on with the technique very well, I can't seem to live with having a tremelo system.
My Dad built this one more as a project to utilise some hardware he had lying around. The body is made of sycamore, not sure about the neck but the fingerboard I can tell you is a wood called wenge, an alternative to rosewood. The machine heads are Fender and that's about all I know about it. I'm rubbish at this stuff!
I think you get people who love guitars, and then people who just love playing guitars. For me, the act of playing and composing is where the enjoyment and fulfilment is. I'm not one of those people who views the guitar as an object of beauty, not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's the vehicle for my expression first and foremost. It would explain why I'm not really a gear head and don't know a lot about guitars and amps !
TGC: What projects outside of GMC are you currently involved in?
BH: My main musical project is called The Reckoning, which is metal music along the lines of Megadeth or Metallica. I've had the time recently to start adventuring into writing instrumental music although my biggest strength is songwriting. I'd even go so far as to say that I hope I'm a better song writer than I am a guitar player.
TGC: What is a typical day like in the life of Ben Higgins?
BH: Boring for an observer, haha!
I get up around 7 am or so, go and help my other half feed the horses which is a 10 mile round trip and I'll get back around 9 and then have my second coffee of the day. The first drink or so always has to be coffee but after that, I won't touch hot drinks for the rest of the day.
I'll catch up on emails. I'll use this time to get involved with GMC. This can be forum work, helping members with guitar issues. I'll revisit GMC at different times.
Recently, I've been fitting in more guitar practice in the late morning/early afternoon period which is when I seem to be most awake.
If I'm creating lessons for GMC, then I'll need to practice them before I'm ready to record them. I very rarely compose a lesson that doesn't require some serious practice because I don't want to just churn out something on autopilot. I believe we have an obligation to give our best to the people that keep the site going and these guys genuinely want to learn and improve so the last thing I'm going to do is just put out lessons with no content.
Sometimes I can go too far and compose something that is quite beyond my own ability and I'll have to practice it for a matter of weeks before being ready to have a go at it. It's life on the edge but it's always interesting !
At some point I'll find time to reluctantly wash the dishes.
A second journey in the early evening to put the horses in stables and feed them again.
Home and catch up with GMC again.
Practise some Karate which I took up just over a year ago. Spending lots of time sitting at a computer or standing straight and playing the guitar for long periods definitely takes its toll, so doing something physical to balance out the inertia is good for mental and physical balance.
Have a bath, have something to eat. I've never been a '5 meals every day at a set time' kind of guy. I think it encourages over eating, even when you're not hungry. I eat according to when I'm hungry. If I've done less physical things that day, then I find I eat less. Either way, I think it's important to let our bodies tell us when it needs refuelling, not eat just because it's tradition.
Going into the evening, depending on what's going on, I'll either get back to the computer to mix a tune or edit something. If not, then I'll see if there's any good movies on. Or crime dramas.
TGC: Sounds like a fairly busy day to me.
BH: Do you know that feeling when somebody asks you, 'Hey, so what have you been up to?' and you just know that you've been busy but can't think of anything of note to mention? My life is a bit like that. I know I do stuff but it's not until I answered this question that I realised how boring it sounds !
TGC: You're putting your fantasy band together. Who would you like to be playing with?
BH: Dave Mustaine on rhythm guitar, Marty Friedman on lead, Gar Samuelson on drums (yes, it's basically Megadeth), Steve Harris on bass. Vocals is a hard choice because different guys do different things brilliantly, but I'll go for Rob Halford.
So, the best mix of Rust in Peace, Painkiller and Seventh Son of A Seventh Son. I'd buy that record!
TGC: You'll have to fit in there as well.
BH: Oh, hang on.. I'm in the band as well? I think it might be better if it's kept the way it is!
TGC: Any parting words for our readers out there?
BH: The most important thing I can think of is to always hold on to the principle of following the sound that you want to follow. Dig into the areas that interest you, don't dilute yourself by believing you have to be good at everything. Digging deep into your corner is where you'll find your sound.
TGC: Thanks for doing this interview Ben -- it has been a pleasure! All the Best for the future!
BH: Thank you very much, the pleasure was mine!