Interview: Toby Knapp

Dan McAvinchey: Toby, let's start with your roots. When did you first get interested in guitar, and how did you learn and progress as a player?

Toby Knapp: I was around eight, and I really liked acoustic music, particularly Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. My grandfather gave me an acoustic and some lessons were scheduled and I couldn't do it - I gave up immediately. Soon after I saw Jimmy Page in "The Song Remains The Same" and picked up the guitar again and stayed with it, eventually getting a Les Paul copy and an Ibanez Tube Screamer. I went back to my guitar teacher and things progressed because I was very determined and my fingers were stronger. Page was a real catalyst for me, unfortunately I started smoking cigarettes to complete the picture, I have since quit.

Dan McAvinchey: Tell us a little bit about your latest CD "The Campaign". How did you come up with the concept and songs for the CD?

Toby Knapp: It was time to follow up "Misanthropy Divine" released on the German label "Rock It Up Records" in late 2008. I remember sitting on the couch and visualizing an album with various guest vocalists and having absolutely no rules musically for the album, a little bit of many genres and not just one. Fortunately, I contacted the vocalists in mind and everyone agreed. I wrote the songs with each vocalist specifically in mind; progressive and melodic for Dean Sternberg, black metal influenced for Attila Csihar, heavy rock music for Tom Cline and death metal inspired music for Jeff Gruslin. People tell me it turned out perfect, and flows well. There is something for everyone on this album.

Dan McAvinchey: What are some of your favorite songs off of "The Campaign"?

Toby Knapp: I really like everything, every song has something special and unique about it, obviously. My favorite instrumental is "Towards Power Unimagined". I think that turned out great. It is a salute to my Shrapnel record "Guitar Distortion", particularly near the end of the track.

Dan McAvinchey: How has your approach to writing rhythm and lead guitar parts evolved since your first album release with Shrapnel Records?

Toby Knapp: I have grown so much as a guitarist and have a good understanding of music theory, I don't force songs anymore, they have to present themselves to me. If that means months or years between songs, fine. I don't believe you sit down with your instrument and say "time to write a song"; the song writes you. When you hear generic music, you can bet the composer wasn't inspired, rather they were stringing riffs together and trying to impress. I did that early on. I recorded my Shrapnel debut at age 20, I am now 37. Lots of things have changed.

Dan McAvinchey: Do you ever hear from the folks at Shrapnel?

Toby Knapp: I haven't spoke with Mike Varney since about 2003. I have all his cell phone numbers in case anyone out there would like to buy them. Seriously, Varney is busy and I'm not a pest. Other guitarists have to call him every 15 minutes, I wouldn't be a bother unless it was very important. I do like him and the people at Shrapnel. I figure If I visit Varney again, we'll synchronistically bump into each other somewhere, that's the way it works.

Dan McAvinchey: What in your opinion is essential for a great guitar solo?

Toby Knapp: Emotion. The solo has to convey a feeling and I will leave mistakes in a solo if there is a certain part that has something special. These players with their "set up" chops are getting really boring, and their solos are cold and mechanical with crappy vibrato. Vibrato has to sing! Who cares how fast you are? With weak vibrato you do not have anything; you are a circus act. I consider myself to be similar to Jimmy Page in that respect. Just the way he rings out a chord you can tell it's him, if he misses a note, it's still him, it's his trademark and it's great.

Dan McAvinchey: Why did you decide to write a mix of vocal and instrumental tracks for "The Campaign"?

Toby Knapp: I like both. My previous album was the same way, and with "The Campaign" I wanted to take things a step further. I don't like too many instrumental artists these days with the exception of Adrian English and Sean Baker. I hear these "new" instrumental albums and I feel Shrapnel Records could sue everyone. People are still trying to replicate Richie Kotzen's debut! Folks, Cacophony's "Speed Metal Symphony" was recorded over 20 years ago and it is still unequaled, even those trying to clone it are blowing it.

Dan McAvinchey: How has the economic slowdown across the world affected how you personally buy and discover music?

Toby Knapp: Not too much. I have purchased 95% of my music through underground mail order since the late '80s. You gotta dig for the good stuff. Then you have a collection of these great, obscure albums until some mooch comes to your house and takes inventory of what you're listening to and then gets the same albums and tells all his friends. Furthermore, the artists do not make extra money, because the mooch finds a way to steal the albums others have to earn through legitimate means.

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Dan McAvinchey: Are you using social media sites to promote your CDs?

Toby Knapp: I don't know... Myspace I guess? Myspace sucks though, there are too many bands posting "check me out" every 10 seconds. It worked a few years ago but now it's polluted and oversaturated. I get and reject the same friend request from this one tool whose message is, "Saw you on the Yngwie page come check out and comment on my super fast better than everybody else bass shredding abilities I'm the first and the best EVER!" As far as Twitter and Facebook I don't get involved. They should come up with "Spacebook" where you just communicate with astral entities.

Dan McAvinchey: I like that Spacebook idea - cut out the middlemen. At this point in your career, from where do you feel you draw your greatest creative inspiration?

Toby Knapp: I don't know. Reading, silencing the thoughts - obviously if you are very excited about a certain sound it will come through. I never cared for The Police until a few years back, then I went nuts and bought every album. They became one of my favorite bands and you can hear the influence on "Misanthropy Divine". I liked strong bass lines that moved the song forward while the guitar was used for... ahem... "ambient textures". Like much of Rush's music, obviously, even Duran Duran.

Dan McAvinchey: Give us an idea of what's coming up in the future for you.

Toby Knapp: Keep on playing and when the time comes, create more music. I do need to get playing in front of audiences again, nothing beats that!

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Toby Knapp began his recording career early, and with a bang, recording the ripping "Guitar Distortion" album for the Shrapnel Records label when he was only 20 years old. He's put out a number of recently recently, with his latest, "The Campaign", featuring four new instrumental tracks, along with five recorded with guest vocalists.

Dan McAvinchey conducted a cyber conversation with Knapp to discuss his latest CD, the boys at Shrapnel, and the finer points of promotion and marketing.