Interview with Matt Leff from Machines of Grace

Vintage metal sounds of the ‘80s are certainly back in vogue, and while the new group Machines of Grace certainly reference bands like Queensryche, they manage to update it with a modern day mainstream rock sound, as well. The Massachusetts-based quartet – which has links to such metal acts as Trans Siberian Orchestra, Savatage, Metal Church, Circle II Circle, and violinist Mark Wood – is comprised of singer Zak Stevens, guitarist Matt Leff, bassist Chris Raposa, and drummer Jeff Plate, and are preparing to release their self-titled debut full-length. Leff recently discussed his playing with Guitarsite.

Matt Leff

How and when did you start playing guitar?

My grandmother used to play piano in the silent movie theaters, because of that my mom always played. We had a piano in the house when I was growing up and I started playing it when I was a kid. From there I went on to trumpet and when I was 12 years old, I picked up the guitar. Two music degrees and a whole bunch of recording/gigs later, I still haven't put it down.

Who were your early influences?

There were so many! Alex Lifeson, Ace Frehley, Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, Tom Scholz, Vivian Campbell, Neil Schon, George Lynch, Ronnie LeTekro from TNT…even Elvis and Billy Gibbons. I always gravitated toward bands with great players who wrote really strong songs. To me, songwriting is the most important because what good is a great solo if there's nothing cool to play it over?

Some information about your new release, ‘Machines Of Grace.’

The material on this record was written before Zak and Jeff were members of Savatage and before the Trans Siberian Orchestra or Circle II Circle existed. While Jeff and Zak were busy with their projects, I had a band in Boston with bassist Chris Raposa called Trigger Effect. We were lucky enough to do some touring with Iron Maiden as an opening act but were never able to land a deal. Chris is a fantastic bass player and I always hoped to play with him again, so when Jeff and I started talking about reuniting, Jeff called Zak, I called Chris…next thing you know we're recording an album together!

Any interesting tidbits about specific songs?

Because the songs had been written previously, we wanted the record to sound as fresh as possible. All the songs were torn apart, different parts were written, arrangements and instrumentation were changed. As an example, “Innocence” used to be a heavy song played fully electric, but Paul David Hager (producer) thought it might sound good as an acoustic song, so I rewrote it on acoustic and now it's got a Days Of The New/Tantric vibe to it. Sure enough, he was right. Paul inspired me to go in directions I wouldn't normally have headed toward with suggestions like that. Same thing on “Between The Lines,” which has a great chorus in it.

Paul suggested I try to find an alternate guitar melody to add some texture and depth to the choruses and I love the parts that are there now. “Fly Away” is the first song Zak and I wrote together when we were both at Musicians Institute and Jeff pointed out a few days ago it might be one of the best songs on the album. As a guitarist and songwriter, I just tried to make every song as interesting as possible by adding depth, texture and solid music for Zak to lay vocals over. One thing I dig about playing with these guys is they're not afraid to go in different musical directions. Songs like “Soul To Fire,” “Bleed,” and “Psychotic” are really heavy rockers. Yet others like “Time” and “The Moment” are lighter songs with really memorable vocal melodies.

Please describe your guitar set-up.

For the album my main amps consisted of a Diezel 50 watt Herbert into a Marshall 1960A and a Mesa/Boogie Roadking into a Rectifier 4×12 cab. I also used a Divided By 13 and a Mesa/Boogie Stiletto Deuce on a bunch of tracks. My main guitar was a Jackson JJP, which is an all mahogany bolt-on that was only produced for one year in 1996 and it looks like a Les Paul Junior. I also used a couple Strats and an Alvarez AD62SC, which although pretty inexpensive, sounds and plays extremely well. I didn't use many pedal effects other than a Dunlop Crybaby Wah and a Voodoo Labs Proctavia here and there. Everything else was done during the mix either as outboard gear or Pro Tools plug-ins.

Do you follow a practice routine?

I try to play for an hour or so every day and a bit more when I'm recording or doing live shows. I start unplugged and run through a bunch of different scales, arpeggios, right and left hand exercises…then I plug in and find different patterns or loops to jam over. I always try to find something new, even if it's just a two or three note line that sounds cool. It's really about consistently practicing every day in order to keep my chops up because it goes away quick when I don't put the time in.

What do you think of modern day rock guitar, and who are some of your favorite guitarists?

I dig a lot of the new stuff. Recent CD purchases have been new ones from Shinedown, Sixx AM, Slipknot, Disturbed, and Kings Of Leon. I like Andy Timmons a lot and John Petrucci blows my mind every time I hear him play. Same thing with Meshuggah and a lot of the Euro Metal Prog type stuff. I also play with another band called Hellspeak, which is more complex, heavier and loaded with shred guitar. It gives me an outlet for the really heavy stuff that's in my system!

What advice would you give to other guitarists?

One tip I'll share is something I learned from a guy named Paul DiBartolo. He was in a Boston band called Bang, they eventually turned into Spread Eagle and put out a couple albums on MCA. Paul taught me to always construct my solos in a manner so you can easily hear what the chord changes are, even if the chord changes aren't being played. I always thought that was genius and I keep it in the back of my mind all the time. Other than that, practice and get as good as you can!

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