This interview was originally published in 2010.
Few bands wield the raw power and intensity of Slayer – the group which set the standard for speed metal. Since the group’s formation in 1982, Slayer has remained true to its roots, never jumping on trends or compromising its methods or message. As the heart of Slayer, guitarists Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman thrash out the metal with bludgeoning rhythms and rapid fire riffs, as demonstrated on the group’s recently released live DVD, War At The Warfield [American].
Guitar.com checked in with King as Slayer was readying to kick off its upcoming U.S. trek as the headlining act on the fall Jagermeister Music Festival tour. Always forthright, King gave us the full scoop on his early roots, explaining why he started playing guitar and which artists had been most influential to his style. He also talked about his choices in gear, and what led him to the B.C. Rich and Marshall setup he uses today.
In addition, King offered a sneak preview of the special treats we can expect to find in Slayer’s upcoming box set, which is scheduled for release later this year. From what we’re told, fans certainly won’t be disappointed. Even the discerning Mr. King himself is quite impressed with the delectable assortment of goodies included.
And furthermore, since he has no problem whatsoever in expressing his inner thoughts and telling us straight up when something sucks, we asked King to weigh in on the state of metal today. Take note as he reveals his top picks of new bands that “don’t suck”-a true compliment coming from King!
Guitar.com: What inspired you to pick up the guitar?
Kerry King: You know, that’s a stupid story because it wasn’t anything that was life-altering or mind-numbing where “I heard this guy and had to go play.” I attribute it to my dad, who was trying to give me a hobby to keep me off the streets. He gave me a couple of options and there was a guitar lying around my house, so I decided to take guitar lessons.
Guitar.com: What were the other options?
King: Karate and I can’t remember the other ones. I dabbled in sports for a little while, but I got out of that fairly early.
Guitar.com: Who were your main influences early on?
King: Early on, Eddie Van Halen-without a doubt, Ted Nugent, Ronnie Montrose, Ritchie Blackmore.
Guitar.com: How have your influences changed over time?
King: After that it would have been Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing, but more so Tipton. I’ve said on more than one occasion that I think he’s the most underrated guitar player in history. Dave Murray and Adrian Smith, and Randy Rhoads were also influential. Now my two guys are Dime and Zakk Wylde.
Guitar.com: Which players inspired you most in terms of style and tone?
King: I think we’ve morphed into something completely different. But if you give credit to anybody, it would be the Judas Priest guitar style of two guitar players. We never went for the big time harmonies of the Iron Maiden dual guitar players. We went for more of the two-guitar rhythm attack.
Guitar.com: In what ways do you and Jeff differ in your styles and tone?
King: Jeff is more moody than I am. So nine times out of ten, if there’s a moody song on a Slayer record, he wrote it. If there’s a thrashy punky one, chances are I wrote it, even though Jeff was the original punk influence.
Guitar.com: Which players influenced your choices in gear?
King: That could have been Priest again for the amps. I remember going to see Priest when I was younger and flipping out because their entire stage was like Marshalls everywhere. I think it might have been on the Screaming For Vengeance tour, where they just had Marshalls on the ground, Marshalls four stories up, Marshalls behind the drums, Marshalls everywhere! I was kind of blown away by that and I’ve always liked Marshalls, so as far as that goes, it would be Priest. I think I got into the B.C. Rich thing because I was just into weird guitars. At that point, the first real guitar that I ever took a big liking to was a B.C. Rich Mockingbird and I can’t remember anyone playing a Mockingbird that I cared about. I just liked it because it sounded good and it was different. Then I went on to the Warlock and I just forged my own way.
Guitar.com: What inspired you to have B.C. Rich build you a 7-string?
King: Well, the 7-string had been around for a while, but I didn’t take it in right away. I kind of expected that it was going to go away, but it lasted longer than I anticipated it to, although now I do think it’s going away. I had one made just to see what I thought about it and to see if I made up a song. And within a day, I wrote a song on the 7-string. So I kept it around and made up another one. But I’m not sure I’ll go that route again because it’s already out of style and I’ve only had it for a couple of years. If I come up with a riff that demands a 7-string, then I’ll certainly use it. But I’m not going to go out of my way to work with it.
Guitar.com: In what ways has your approach to playing guitar evolved from the ’80s to now? What has specifically changed in your style and technique?
King: The only thing I could guess is that I pay more attention to leads. In the beginning, it was just full-blown make-something-up-I-don’t-care. We just had a real reckless approach to it. We still have that, but now I try to put some sense into it. Ten or twelve years ago, I noticed myself coming up in the guitar polls and I thought, “Man, I suck in the context of all these other guys!” So I took it upon myself to relearn what I was doing and still do the loose-cannon leads, but to play things that makes sense, as well.
Guitar.com: You’ve been very influential to a lot of the younger bands that are coming up today. Do you hear yourself in any particular guitar player?
King: Oh yeah, a number of times, although I couldn’t even point one out in particular. You know, even for us, we make something up, but you can’t say we didn’t borrow from somebody down the line. It’s a lot harder to cover up who you got it from, although that’s something we’re really good at. If you listen to the new Chimaira record, you’ll hear a riff and say that sounds like Pantera. You’ll hear another riff and say that one’s like Killswitch. You’ll hear another riff and say that one’s kind of like us. But as far as I’m concerned, Chimaira is one of the few new bands that I really like. They’re like the second coming of all that is good in thrashland to me.
Guitar.com: How has your guitar tone evolved over time?
King: I don’t know. I think I’ve been the same for years. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
Guitar.com: What are you currently using in your live rig?
King: I’ve got my two 100-watt Marshall JCM 800s, plus I’ve got my old Boss rack EQ from the ’80s, a Dunlop Crybaby rack wah, which is really cool, and a Rocktron Hush. I’m not running a Voodoo Valve right now, but I’ve got it in the rack and it’s not hooked up. Basically, that’s it. I’m not using any effects, just the Crybaby the EQ and the Hush. I’ve also got a wireless. I think I’m using a Nady, although I think that may change.
Guitar.com: How do you typically set the controls on your amp?
King: My mids are around 8, treble is probably around 6 or 7, bass is between 4 and 6-depending on the venue because every stage makes it sound different. I’m going to guess presence is around 7, the preamp is probably around 8 or 9. I get a lot of gain out of the Boss EQ. The master volume level also varies depending on the venue. I’ve got one Herculean bastard son of Jim Marshall and when you put that thing on 2, it’ll blow you out of any venue! Actually, I had that amp sent to Europe after our last tour and I had Jim Marshall sign it.
Guitar.com: What brand and gauge of strings are you using?
King: D’Addario. I use different gauges, depending on the tuning. For D#, I use .009-.042. For C#, I use .010-.046 and if we drop-D, I put a .056 on the bottom, instead of the .046.
Guitar.com: How many guitars do you travel with when touring?
King: It depends on what we’re going to play on tour because we’ve got four tunings. We’re not doing an of the 7-string stuff right now, so we can just bypass that tuning. So ideally, then I take six guitars, so I’ve got a backup for each tuning. Even if we’re doing songs in D, we’re doing one or two, so I might only take five. Maybe I’ll take the sixth one and make it a third backup for the most popular tuning for that tour.
Guitar.com: Do you have a set routine that you go through to warm up for a gig?
King: I’ll probably start playing guitar about an hour prior. I’ll play for 15 or 20 minutes, so I’m at gig speed, then I do all the other body stuff, like the back and the neck stretching. I stretch my back because my back has got to support that headbanging for an hour and a half, and I stretch my neck, too. Then I’ll play for about 10 minutes more and then change my clothes. Then I’ll play for the last 15 minutes or so with a little headbanging mixed in, just so I’ll get used to moving and playing at the same time.
Guitar.com: Do you maintain a regular practice schedule when you’re at home and not touring?
King: No, I’m horrible. I’ll take two months off at any given time, just because it’s been such a big part of my life for so many years. Sometimes you just want to take time off and say “fuck this!” I mean, my perfect thing right now would be if we just came off tour and I had football season for two months. Then I wouldn’t even consider thinking about music.
Guitar.com: When you take time away, do you find that you come up with different kinds of riffs?
King: Well, certainly. You get back into it and once you get acceptable again, you might think up something that is just totally off the wall from where you were before you stopped playing.
Guitar.com: What advice would you offer to other players on developing their own style and improving their tone?
King: Give up! [Laughs] I meet so many people that are so much better than me that can’t even fill a club. It’s just all about being lucky and being in the right place at the right time. That’s as far as getting signed. Now if you do that, that’s when the talent comes in, and you’ve got to make something of yourself.
Guitar.com: Do you think it’s more important to be able to write a great song than to be an amazing player?
King: Well, yeah! How long can you watch Steve Vai or Joe Satriani? They’re as good of guitar players as you’re going to find anywhere, but I’d get bored of them in like 25 minutes.
Guitar.com: What do you listen to for enjoyment? Do you listen to any styles of music that might surprise anyone?
King: Not really. I’m pretty much still the town metal kid. Right now I’ve probably got Chimaira’s new album and Killswitch Engage in my CD player in the car.
Guitar.com: What was the last CD you purchased?
King: It was a live Pat Travers disc. I was just looking for “Snorting Whiskey,” and they didn’t have the studio album with it. I’ve been thinking that one of these times when Slayer’s off, a really cool thing to do would be getting together with Dime and doing “Snorting Whiskey.” I think that would be perfect. That’s not something Slayer should do because it’s not a real Slayer tune. But me and Dime could pull it off.
Guitar.com: How would you assess the current metal scene?
King: I think it’s on the upswing. I think there are a lot of new bands that are making some kind of noise like Shadows Fall, Arch Enemy, Killswitch Engage, Lamb Of God. There seems to be a big swing of new bands that play metal all over the place, and MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball is back, even though I think that show just sucks a big fucking nut sack! But at least you get some decent music between the crap they force feed you.
Guitar.com: Are there any particular guitar players from these new bands that impress you?
King: I haven’t listened to enough of Shadows Fall, but I’ve heard enough of it to know that the guitar players are interesting. Like I said, I haven’t gotten “woody” into it. I just know I’ve played it a couple times when they might have been up for a tour and checked it out. I thought, “Yeah, these guys don’t suck.” That’s a compliment-“These guys don’t suck!” [Laughs]
Guitar.com: Did Slayer select the support bands for the upcoming Jagermeister Music Tour?
King: Yes. We had a hard time finding a third slot band because everybody we were wanting to get got sewn up somewhere else. When it was chipped in stone that we were going out, Chimaira had just signed to go to Europe. They were talking about canceling Europe to do our tour, but I told them not to cancel Europe because they need to go. We’ll tour again sometime. I really wanted Killswitch, but they were going out with Lamb Of God and Shadows Fall on the Headbanger’s Ball tour. I remembered that Arch Enemy’s name had come up in the past, so I brought that up. They happened to be doing a new record, so it was perfect timing.
Guitar.com: Are there any particular cities you’re looking forward to playing again?
King: New York is always sick. We’re going back to the Aragon in Chicago for the first time in a couple of years. I think the last time we were in Chicago we played somewhere else. But the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago is always a notoriously fucking cool show.
Guitar.com: Tell us about the War At The Warfield DVD. What were some of the highlights of that performance?
King: It’s cool. It’s an entire live show from San Francisco. It was the only one that was filmed. It wasn’t like we did four shows, filmed them all, and then picked the best stuff. As far as live footage goes, it’s all from one show. The fan stuff was taped over four or five shows. But then there’s a 50-minute “Fans Rule” thing at the end of it, and that’s my favorite part. It’s a side of things that I don’t get to see every day. It’s been so long since I’ve watched the music part of it.
Guitar.com: Is the live footage edited or is it a complete live show, as if you were there?
King: I’m pretty sure it’s a complete show. I don’t think we yanked anything from it. That was done so long ago, but I really don’t think we pulled anything.
Guitar.com: When was it taped?
King: It’s from December 2001. That was Paul Bostaph’s last tour. It’s nearly two years old already.
Guitar.com: Tell us about the Slayer box set that’s scheduled for November release. Will there be any unreleased material, alternate cuts or live tracks included?
King: There’s tons of stuff on there. The problem was that we had too much stuff. I’ve got five big Tupperware boxes-the big storage boxes that you find in a garage-and I’ve got those full of stuff that I’ve collected over the years. I’ve got every magazine that I’ve seen us in, and I probably have around 70 VHS and 8 mm videos dating back to ’83. So we just had tons of shit to sift through everything. I think the first two discs are just audio. Basically, we picked through all our records, and I think “Disorder” from the Judgment Night soundtrack [with Ice-T] is on there. Then there’s a disc of audio rarities, and there’s a DVD with a lot of the stuff we picked from the stuff I’ve filmed over the years, and some of our other TV engagements. There’s a bigger box which will have a fifth disc with pieces of a live concert from Dave Lombardo’s first tour back. There’s also a 70-page book, and a cool banner. They put their minds to it and came up with some good stuff!
Guitar.com: It sounds like it’s going to be a must-have for any Slayer fan-and it’ll certainly make a wonderful Christmas gift!
King: I would imagine! It’ll be just in time for Christmas. We never put anything out around Christmas. That’s really odd for us.
Guitar.com: Who selected material for the box set?
King: I think we all just spewed up a bunch of stuff for people to choose from. We told them to give us back a disc of what they thought were the best things. Then we’d look at it, and if it’s a good performance but we didn’t care for the song, we’d say to pick another song. Nick John at our management went through every video and transferred it all to DVDs. So he saw just about everything.
Guitar.com: Has your approach to the older material changed in any way? When you play live, do you change around some of the parts from what you had played on the records?
King: Maybe a lead, but musically and generally, no.
Guitar.com: What is your beverage of choice for onstage consumption?
King: Onstage, I just drink cold-ass water. If it’s really hot, then cold-ass Red Bull! But as much alcohol as I drink, I can’t drink onstage, and I don’t drink before a show either. I like to be as clear as I can be, and hopefully the hangover from the night before is gone. Booze just dehydrates you and all you’re doing onstage is sweating, so it doesn’t make sense to be drinking onstage. Get lit after the show. That’s my advice!