An Interview with Guitarist, Instructor & Entrepreneur, Tom Hess From Rhapsody of Fire

Author: Ed Cupler

Guitarist Tome Hess

Along with contributing articles to guitarmetal.com, Tom Hess is one of the busiest musicians around. As well as being a virtuoso guitarist and composer, Tom is also an instructor & entrepreneur. Now as a member of the symphonic power metal band Rhapsody of Fire, Tom continues to bring quality metal to the people.

Guitar Metal
How would you describe your playing?

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Tom Hess
It depends on the situation. In Rhapsody of Fire it is different than it was when I played in HolyHell and different still when I play in HESS. One has to take into consideration the musical context, the band, the song, the style etc., so it’s not a good idea to approach everything in the same way.

My two biggest musical influences are F. Chopin and Andy LaRocque, so you can often hear some level of one or both of those influences in my playing. There are of course other combinations of different influences and also a lot of just purely organic aspects of my playing that are not related to any particular influence.

Guitar Metal
How do you find metal audiences different between cultures, Europe, USA, Japan etc.

Tom Hess
I think a lot of the difference depends on economic factors of each country. For example a less wealthy country like Romania (for example) is going to have a different appreciation for us than you might expect in a country like Germany (where metal bands are touring all the time), Generally the less common it is for fans to see metal bands, the more appreciative they seem to be. This is not always the case and there are numerous exceptions to this, but I’ve found it to be a very general rule.

Guitar Metal
Other than music, where do you find inspiration for writing and playing?

Tom Hess
Personal life experiences, and ‘the way (I believe) things should be’.

Guitar Metal
Are there other styles of music you have done or you would like to do outside of rock and metal?

Tom Hess
Sure. I’ve composed numerous classical pieces in the 19th century romantic era style. I’ll one day in the future release an album of this music, but now is not the right moment for that. I also love Alice in Chains and would love to do something in that style as well, but again, now is not the time for that.

Guitar Metal
Due to file sharing, it has become increasingly difficult for musicians and record companies to make a profit selling recorded music. Do you have any suggestions for young bands trying to market themselves and still make a living?

Tom Hess
Yes, I have many ideas. In fact, as I think you know I have an entire mentoring program for musicians developing their own music career. In addition, Alex Staropoli and I also have a separate program for entire bands called Rock Band Success Coaching.

In short, my suggestion is to focus on the things that cannot be pirated. Live shows and creating exclusive experiences for your fans. The programs I mentioned above deal with how to do these things profitably and many other things of course too.

Guitar Metal
What music do you currently listen to? What’s on your iPod?

Tom Hess
This week I’ve listened to Alice in Chains (Jar of Flies album), H. Gorecki (symphony #3) and G. Mahler (symphony #2). But in general there’s lots of other stuff on there as well of course. Last week I was listening to Iron Maiden most of the week, the week before it was all Andy LaRocque guitar solos. Mike Wead (King Diamond’s guitar player) turned me onto a killer player Frank Marino, so I intend to listen more of that next week when I have more time to really listen intently (I do not listen to music ‘in the background’ – when I listen, I try to really listen.)

Guitar Metal
Practice?

Tom Hess
Rhapsody of Fire songs (there are more I still need to learn for future Rhapsody of Fire tours), and various exercises and routines I go through.

Guitar Metal
When you started playing guitar in 1986 how many hours would you say you spent practicing each day?

Tom Hess
Between 1-3, but never more than 3 hours of actual physical playing.

Guitar Metal
Was your practice time well structured from the beginning?

Tom Hess
No, I was completely clueless in the beginning and it gradually improved through working with various guitar teachers over time.

Guitar Metal
As you developed your skills, how did the way you practice change?

Tom Hess
There is a killer guitar teacher near Chicago named Jack Wilson who was the first guy to really get my guitar practicing more organized and into shape. That has helped me massively. As I began teaching guitar myself I learned a lot about my own flaws as a guitar player by studying the problems of my students very carefully and helping them overcome their challenges.

Guitar Metal
You have a degrees in Music Theory and Music Composition. How important do you think a formal education in music is?

Tom Hess
Certainly it helped me. I’d say it wasn’t ‘critically necessary’, but it was very helpful and I use skills and knowledge I gained in the university every single day.

Guitar Metal
At what school did you earn your degrees?

Tom Hess
Roosevelt University and Harper College

Guitar Metal
What aspects of playing do you feel are the most important to become a successful musician? Technique, composition etc.

Tom Hess
There isn’t a single skill that is most important, you need many different skills and more importantly you must have your skills integrated together. But if I was forced to chose only one skill, I think it has to be ‘guitar phrasing’. Guitar players really should seek out training on developing their guitar phrasing. This is a major area I focus on when teaching guitar students because its typically the area they lack most.

Guitar Metal
Do you have any suggestions for someone just buying their first guitar? Equipment, beginner lessons etc.

Tom Hess
Yes:
1.Buy an electric guitar if that is what you ultimately want to play (don’t start out on acoustic). You do not need an amplifier to get started on electric guitar.
2.Take guitar lessons right away. Trying to teach yourself or learning form your friends or free junk on the internet/YouTube is mostly a waste of time for most people.

Guitar Metal
In addition to teaching private guitar lessons, clinics, workshops and master classes you also teach via correspondence guitar lessons. Can you talk a little about how these lesson work and what potential students can expect when they sign up?

Tom Hess
Most of what of the teaching I am doing now is online guitar lessons. I have some live master classes I do in Europe and the US each year at events called HESSFEST. As far as what can students expect, they can expect to establish clear musical goals and then work with me to reach each and every one of those goals. They come to me with challenges and obstacles that typically are standing in their way and we work together to remove all of those so that each person can play guitar they way he or she always wanted to play. I love helping people in this way and those who are committed to achieve their own personal musical greatness will virtually always do so as we work together.

Guitar Metal
How do you balance your schedule between teaching, playing live, writing, and recording?

Tom Hess
It’s a combination of things really. First, I have a great group of people who surround me. They take care of a lot of things so that I don’t have to, this gives me a lot more time than I would normally have to spend doing the things I love doing (playing, recording, teaching, writing, etc.).

Second, I love what I do, so it never feels like ‘work’ when I sometimes spend a lot of hours doing all of these great things.

Third, I’ve realized over the years how easy it is to waste time and not even realize it while it’s happening, but then at the end of the day you sometimes realize that not much was accomplished. So to help solve this I began to become much more disciplined with how I invest my time and most importantly to keep my brain fully engaged in what I am doing and not allow it to go on ‘auto-pilot’ or wander onto other thoughts. This has greatly increased my overall productivity and now I get a lot more done in a lot less time than before.

Equipment:

Guitar Metal
What kind of setup do you use live?

Tom Hess
It depends on the situation and location. For the 2011 summer festivals I used whatever backline was already present at the festivals and for a preamp I use a modified ElevenRack. I’m using absolutely zero effects now for these festivals. I’m playing a Carvin V220 guitar with Metal Live Wire pickups (the greatest metal pickups ever invented in my opinion).

For the upcoming Rhapsody of Fire headlining tours the gear will be different. In North America I’ll likely bring my Deizel Herbert amp head and plug straight into it only (I may bring a reverb unit for leads, but that’s it) The tone of the Herbert is the ultimate tone for me.

For Europe and South America I’ll likely use the AxeFX (of course with the Deizel Herbert preset). I’ll be using Carvin guitars and/or some new custom made guitars I’m having built right now.

Guitar Metal
What kind of setup do you use in the studio? Equipment mike placement etc.

Tom Hess
Carvin V220 guitars
Metal Live Wire Pickups
11-52 gauge strings
Diezel Herbert head
4×12 solid wood cabs and 35 watt Celestians.
SM 57 mic and a blend of various other mics.

That’s it.

Rhapsody of Fire:

Guitar Metal
Why did you leave HolyHell?

Tom Hess
The band’s management / record label (Magic Circle Music) and I didn’t agree on some important things. When it became clear that those disagreements were not resolvable, it was time to move on, so I did.

Guitar Metal
What is your process for song writing and how has it differed between HESS, HolyHell and now Rhapsody of Fire?

Tom Hess
In HESS, I compose literally everything and have total creative control. The compositional goals in HESS are my own and there is a very wide range of compositional processes to create this music.

In HolyHell, the band’s producer was heavily involved in the songwriting process and there are multiple songwriters writing songs mostly independently from each other.

In Rhapsody Of Fire, it has typically been Alex and Luca composing most of the music with some contributions by Fabio. We’ll see in the future what happens.

Guitar Metal
Did you have a lot of input on the latest Rhapsody of Fire CD “From Chaos To Eternity”?

Tom Hess
The music for the album was already composed when I was asked to join the band. I was brought in only days before recording of the album began. I had some control over the guitar tones since I recorded the rhythm guitars. We used my Deizel amp, so immediately the rhythm guitar tone was different compared to any of the other Rhapsody Of Fire albums. I composed and recorded 3 solos for the album (2 in the song ‘Ghosts of Forgotten Worlds’ and 1 for ‘I Belong To The Stars’).

Guitar Metal
What new challenges does becoming a member of Rhapsody of Fire have for you?

Tom Hess
Although there are challenges of touring, recording and other time commitments, I enjoy those things and I love the band, the people in the band and we have an absolutely great road crew – so those experiences are fun. In addition, I’ve been a fan of this band for many years and I already play in this style, so I feel that I fit right in.

Guitar Metal
What do you feel you can add to the band?

Tom Hess
Rhythm guitar – more power, more metal guitar sound/tone.
Lead guitar – different phrasing, techniques and more vibrato.
Songwriting – different ideas (if my role will include songwriting or editing of demo ideas).
Business – I have a strong business and entrepreneurial background and have many ways to help the band in a wide variety of ways. In the end, the fans will benefit from these new ideas immensely.

Guitar Metal
What are the current tour plans for Rhapsody of Fire? Also, are there any plans for playing in the United States?

Tom Hess
It’s premature to comment on specific touring plans but we absolutely do intend to tour extensively and North America is also being discussed.

Guitar Metal
Anything else you would like to add on your time with HolyHell, Rhapsody of Fire, touring, teaching etc?

Tom Hess
I have the fortunate experience to be doing exactly what I want to be doing in my life. Playing guitar in Rhapsody Of Fire (with my all time favorite singer), touring, recording albums that debut in the top 50 music charts in many countries and having built the leading online guitar lessons business in the world. I’m happy, but yet always hungry for more… that never ends :)

For more information on Tom & Rhapsody of Fire, please visit thier website @ www.rhapsodyoffire.com.

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