Teenage Riot, Grunge Wunderkind Daniel Johns Demonstrates the Licks Behind Silverchair's Platinum Stomp

By Nick Bowcott / Photography by Neal Preston (Guitar World)

Photography by Neal PrestonRags-to-riches fairy tales are a dime a dozen in the rock world, but they don't come any better than the silverchair story. As this yarn's already been spun countless times, here's the abridged version:

In June of 1994, three young Australian surf buds form a garage band called silverchair. They write a song called Tomorrow and enter it in a national radio demo competition. The fledgling group beats out 800 other hopeful acts and wins a day in a professional recording studio. The boys recut the song and it zooms to Number One on the Australian singles chart -- and, like Lisa Loeb in the United States, who scored a huge hit with Stay before she had a record deal, silverchair have yet to sign with a label. To put the icing on the cake, the trio's next single, Pure Massacre, also hits Number One.

silverchair's next move is to record its debut, frogstomp (Epic). The album, completed in nine days, enters the Australian charts at Number One and is certified platinum in less than a week. American rock radio and MTV latch onto Tomorrow and then Pure Massacre as if they were unreleased Nirvana songs. As a result, frogstomp is now far beyond platinum in the United States as well. Meanwhile, Guitar World readers vote the band's guitarist/vocalist, Daniel Johns, "Best New Talent" in its Reader's Poll -- by a landslide margin no less!

That's an amazing tale by anyone's standards. And, when you realize that Johns is only 16 years old and has been playing guitar for only three-and-a-half years, it's easy to understand why "thirty-something" bands who have never been in the same room as a recording contract hate silverchair with a passion.

The fact that such a big deal has been made about the band's age bothers Johns. "I really hate all that "young band" shit," he states. "It used to piss us off a lot but it's kinda died down now and we've learned that there's no use in letting it bug us. In my opinion, we should be judged by our songs, not our age. Let the music speak for itself."

Another thorn in this talented youth's side are the inevitable "Kurt Cobain Jr." cracks. "Jeez, I can't help how I look," he says with an embarrassed grimace. "Maybe I should shave my fucking head!"

And in case your wondering the group's sudden surge to stardom hasn't gone to Johns' head. He's just a regular 16-year-old kid who plays guitar, digs Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs and happens to think that Helmet is the best band since the Beatles.

Of his earliest influences Johns says, "I was nearly 13 when I started on the guitar. I was in the car with my dad one time, and Black Sabbath came on the radio. As soon as I heard it I went, "I've gotta learn guitar!" My other influences were Led Zepplin and Deep Purple," he continues. "My dad was really into that stuff, and that's all I had."

Figures 1-6 Judging by riffs like the one that appears at 2:52 in Faultline and also the brooding gem that opens up Leave Me Out (figure 1), Sabbath certainly had a massive impact on the guitarist. On the album Johns plays the riff as shown, but live, every now and again he throws in major diads on the D-Db-C chromatic descent that closes the passage (figure 2). "Doing this gives the riff kind of a bluesy feel and makes it a bit more interesting," he says.

Figure 1 isn't the only frogstomp riff that Johns alters in live performance: "In the studio I played the clean break just before the first chorus of Tomorrow like this (plays figure 3). When we play it live though, I leave out the single-note-pull-off stuff and just strum the chords with the open high E string ringing all the way through (plays figure 4) -- it sounds like it's building nicely when I play it like this."

Another riff that Johns has altered for the stage is the haunting intro/verse motif in Suicidal Dream (figure 5). "When I play this song live, I double the B note at the 4th fret on the G string with the open B note to make the riff sound fuller (plays figure 6)," notes Johns. "I double-tracked the part in the studio and it sounded really good when I hit that B note (the one at the 4th fret on the G string), so I tried to find a way to duplicate that live."

Quote Johns' current influences reside on the heavier side of rock. "I really like Helmet, Tool, You Am I (an Australian act), Smashing Pumpkins -- their new CD is hell -- Rollins Band, Quicksand, Soundgarden. People say we sound like we're from Seattle, which kinda bothers us, but not too much," Johns says. "We were influenced by Pearl Jam for a while but, to me, the only song on the album that sounds a bit like them is Tomorrow. Sabbath, Helmet and Tool are much bigger influences, really. We're not a grunge band. We're just a heavy rock band that likes playing riffs."

One of the main reasons for the Seattle comparisons could well be the band's extensive use of that grunge staple, dropped D tuning (a guitar with the low E string tuned down a whole step to D). "Yeah, most of the songs on frogstomp, apart from maybe three or four, use that tuning," admits Daniel. "We didn't get the idea from fucking Seattle though! We got it from Helmet. I really like the sound they get -- it's really fat and bottom-heavy."

Figures 7-9 hen it comes to picking, Daniel, like most heavy-riff maniacs, likes to down-pick whenever possible and appropriate. "It depends on the type of riff, really," he explains. "If it's fairly light, like, say, the verse of Tomorrow (figure 7) then I'll pick up and down. If it's kinda aggressive and heavy though, I'll just play downstrokes -- unless the riff is too fast in places, of course!" To illustrate his point here, Johns played two riffs from Israel's Son. The first one (figure 8) is the main riff and is played using all downstrokes. Figure 9 illustrates the faster outro riff, and because of its speed in places, Johns uses a combination of upstrokes and downstrokes as indicated beneath the tablature. Note the clever variation of the repeated one-bar riff he plays in measure four. Instead of going from C to G, as in the previous three bars, he does a half-step bend and release from B to C and then pulls-off to an open A, a subtle but effective way to add extra interest and life to the passage.

Figures 10-12 In his quest for maximum heaviness, Johns will use any tool he can add extra balls to a riff. "I always play the low E string note when I'm playing this chord (figure 10) because it sounds a lot heavier," he says. To illustrate his point, Johns belts out figure 11, the pre-chorus of Tomorrow. How did he discover this inverted chord shape? By listening closely to Page Hamilton perhaps? "No, it was just a mistake!" he admits with a grin. "I went to play a chord like this (figure 12) but pressed down on the low E string as well (figure 10). Then I played the whole riff that way and thought, "That sounds all right," so I started using it."

Speaking of things that sound all right, Mr. Johns has an impressively thick guitar tone. How does he get it? "On the album, the guitars I used were mainly a Les Paul and a Firebird," he reveals. "For the clean sound, I used the producer's '55 Les Paul Junior. Live I usually use my Paul Reed Smith (once owned by his hero, Page Hamilton) and a Gibson SG. I use pretty heavy strings -- .011 to .052 -- and sometimes I'll use a .012 set. All my distortion comes from my amps - in the studio I used a Marshall JCM900 High Gain Dual Reverb but now I'm using Soldanos. I don't use any effects pedals, just a footswitch to change my amp from clean to dirty."

Figures 13-16 Effective use of the clean and distorted sounds to create light and shade within a song is a common silverchair device, as demonstrated by the band's two big radio/MTV hits. Tomorrow and Pure Massacre. "I switch from clean to dirty quite a lot to help get different levels of energy and sound -- you know, loud and quiet," Johns affirms, playing the clean intro/verse section of Pure Massacre (figure 13) and then its distorted verse and chorus counterpart (figure 14) to illustrate his point. Notice his use of massive-sounding, five-string root/fifth power chords (see figure 15) in bars 5 and 6 of figure 14.

Aside from employing regular root/fifth power chords, Johns has a penchant for adding his distinctive metallic crunch to some slightly more colourful-sounding chord shapes -- most of which he found by "messing around." Take the Dsus2/A and Csus2/G that can be found in the Tomorrow chorus (figure 16). "Don't ask me to tell you their names," he quips. "I don't know 'em!" Johns was also good enough to show us a sus2 chord fingering that works when your guitar is in "dropped D" tuning. The moveable shape in question is illustrated in figure 17 and surprise, surprise -- he found it by accident. "I forgot that my low E string was tuned down to D one day, I guess. I played the chord shape I use in the Tomorrow chorus (figure 10) and it sounded like hell! I use it a lot in the verse of Findaway.

 Figures 17-19

Aside from the solo break in Tomorrow, Johns doesn't play many lead breaks. "I don't really rate that as a solo. It's more of a part, really," Johns asserts. "When we play the song live now, I usually only play the first part of the solo (figure 18), and then I start riffing out using 'octave chords' on the A and D strings (figure 19) for the rest of it. I do this because we're a three piece, and it doesn't sound as full if I stop riffing for too long. Basically, we don't really think that solos are worth doing for our music. It's not the kind of thing we want to do. We want to keep the groove going. I'd much rather play a different riff and keep the song heavy instead of going 'widdly-widdly' and having the bottom fall out. We've written seven new songs while we've been on the road, and none of them have guitar solos."

Quote In closing, I asked Johns what he would say if he had the chance to meet himself two years ago. "I suppose I'd say that if you want to be in a successful band, just keep playing, practicing, and gigging until you're really good, and then hope that some luck comes your way. And if you just wanna play in your garage, good for you -- it's still good fun, it's still music. We never really had goals in the first place, apart from silly ones like, 'We wanna play Wembley Stadium!'" he laughs. "And then we realized that we'd probably never do it, so we said 'Fuck it!' We figured we'd be a garage band forever."