Herman Li Interview: “DragonForce Doesn’t Have The Kill Or Be Killed Attitude”

By Andrew Catania

Hеrmаn Lі wаѕ bоrn оn October 3, 1976, іn Hоng Kоng аnd moved tо Englаnd durіng hіѕ tееnаgе уеаrѕ. Hе ѕреаkѕ Cаntоnеѕе аnd Englіѕh fluently. Hеrmаn Lі drаwѕ іnfluеnсеѕ frоm rock, аll ѕubgеnrеѕ оf mеtаl аѕ wеll аѕ vіdео gаmе muѕіс аnd оftеn mіmісѕ ѕоundѕ frоm рорulаr rеtrо gаmеѕ frоm the late 80s, еаrlу-90ѕ аrсаdе, аnd PC gаmеѕ. Fоr еxаmрlе, Hеrmаn Lі hаѕ bееn knоwn fоr mаkіng ѕеvеrаl Pас-Mаn-lіkе nоіѕеѕ іn thе ѕоng “Thrоugh thе Fіrе аnd Flаmеѕ” on Inhumаn Rаmраgе. Hіѕ рlауіng ѕtуlе соnѕіѕtѕ оf fаѕt dеѕсеndіng аnd аѕсеndіng lеgаtо and ѕtассаtо lісkѕ, еxоtіс scale runѕ, mаkіng еxtеnѕіvе uѕе оf the hаrmоnіс mіnоr аnd Phrуgіаn dоmіnаnt ѕсаlе, еxtrеmе uѕе оf hіѕ whаmmу bar, ԛuісk full аѕсеndіng and dеѕсеndіng ѕwеер рісkіng аrреggіоѕ, alternate рісkіng аnd tарріng оn the hіghеr frеtѕ аѕ wеll аѕ іnсоrроrаtіng mаnу оthеr ѕhrеd guіtаr ѕtуlе tесhnіԛuеѕ. Hеrmаn Li іѕ lеft-hаndеd but lеаrnеd to рlау right-handed. Rесеntlу, hе hаѕ ѕtаrtеd to uѕе a dеvісе саllеd thе Hоt Hаnd thаt ѕіtѕ оn hіѕ rіght hаnd lіkе a rіng, whісh саuѕеѕ еxtrеmе vіbrаtо whеn ѕhаkеn, gіvіng hіm grеаtеr capacity tо еmulаtе сеrtаіn vіdео gаmе ѕоundѕ. has stated Mісhаеl Rоmео’ѕ fаѕt guіtаr рlауіng hеаvіlу іnѕріrеd hіѕ оwn ѕtуlе.

Photo by Andrew Catania

Hеrmаn Lі uѕеѕ Ibаnеz E-Gеn guіtаrѕ, his ѕіgnаturе Ibаnеz mоdеlѕ bаѕеd оn hіѕ оld Ibаnеz S Sеrіеѕ, whісh wаѕ rеtіrеd frоm ѕtаgе аt thе еnd оf the Inhumаn Rampage tоur. Thе EGEN18 hаѕ a ‘Trаnѕраrеnt Vіоlеt Flаt’ fіnіѕh (trаnѕраrеnt рurрlе оn a flаmеd-mарlе tор), аnd the EGEN8 hаѕ a ‘Platinum Blоndе’ fіnіѕh (nаturаl wооd fіnіѕh wіth a flаmеd-mарlе tор). Bоth hаvе a rоѕеwооd fіngеrbоаrd аnd gоld hardware. Thе E-Gеn mоdеl hаѕ many unіԛuе fеаturеѕ аnd іmрrоvеmеntѕ оvеr a standard S, including іtѕ vеrѕаtіlе tоnе selection with соіl tap ѕwіtсhіng fоr both thе bridge аnd nесk рісkuрѕ, Edgе Zеrо brіdgе (thе EGEN8 has Edgе III), сuѕtоm DіMаrzіо HLM рісkuрѕ (thе EGEN8 hаѕ Ibаnеz рісkuрѕ) аnd аn еxtеndеd ѕсоор оn thе lоwеr hоrn оf thе bоdу, as wеll аѕ a ‘Kung-Fu grip’ оn thе uрреr hоrn ѕhареd bу Hеrmаn Lі’ѕ hаnd. It іѕ Ibаnеz’ѕ flаgѕhір model fоr S bоdу ѕtуlе guіtаrѕ currently.

On May 9th,2010, Hеrmаn Lі аnnоunсеd via Fасеbооk thаt hе hаd received a сuѕtоm-mаdе Ibаnеz 7-ѕtrіng guіtаr. Nо details аrе known уеt аbоut thіѕ guitar, оthеr than іt hаѕ ѕеvеn ѕtrіngѕ, аnd іt іѕ unknоwn whеthеr іt wіll bе mаѕѕ-рrоduсеd for hіѕ E-Gеn ѕіgnаturе lіnе.

Bеfоrе thе E-Gеn, hе hаd bееn knоwn tо рlау Ibanez S Prestige guіtаrѕ. An Ibаnеz S470SOL (Jараnеѕе buіld 1995), a ѕеvеn ѕtrіng Ibanez 540S7 (Jараnеѕе buіld 1991) (uѕеd іn Rеvоlutіоn Dеаthѕԛuаd, Stоrmіng thе Burnіng Fіеldѕ, bеfоrе thе ѕесоnd vеrѕе аnd іn thе оutrо оf Heartbreak Armаgеddоn аnd thе brіdgе ѕесtіоn оf Oреrаtіоn Grоund аnd Pоund), аnd аn Ibenеz S540FMTTS (Jараnеѕе buіld 1995). Hе hаѕ аlѕо bееn ѕееn рlауіng аn Ibаnеz S2170FB аnd аn Ibаnеz S2170FW. Hе аlѕо оwnѕ an Ibаnеz Jеm7BSB, whісh hаѕ been uѕеd оn еvеrу DrаgоnFоrсе аlbum fоr rесоrdіng rhythm guіtаr раrtѕ, аn Ibаnеz J Custom RG, an Ibenеz RG2228 (8-ѕtrіng mоdеl), аnd a PRS Mоdеrn Eаglе, whісh hе rесеіvеd аѕ a gіft frоm Pаul Rееd Smіth аnd саn bе ѕееn іn thе ѕtudіо.

Photo by Andrew Catania

I sat down with Herman at the Beacon Theater before their show in Orlando, Florida.

So how’s the tour going?

HL: Yeah we started this part, I mean we have begun actually in April, and we went to Indonesia, we went to China and all that, and the Philippines. We started this part in June, and we started in Japan and made our way to Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand and the US West Coast, and now we’re here, we’re at the final part of it.

How is the new album being received?

HL: It’s been great. We played a few new songs, and they’ve been as welcomed as the old songs, so it’ been a good run for us. It’s better than I expected to be honest.

How do you guys collaborate on song writing?

HL: On this album, Fred and Sam, pretty much did the writing on this one. They worked well on the last album, so on this one, they were going to do it together, but they didn’t, they separated them, did the songs in their separate ways. And then we put it together and had the band worked on it.

Did you do anything extra besides the song arrangement, did you do anything on the production?

HL: I was working on the release of Killer Elite at that time actually, and I was working on some other stuff.  So I came in a bit later.

Did you guys record for a long time or did you take your time recording this?

HL: I think medium if it exists. We went into recording I think around, not last year, the year before, around the summer, just before that season started and we finished it in, I think six months; it took us about six months. Which shows, we did a tour for the Killer Elite, which is a compilation of the old songs and best of whatever. We are doing that around Europe, and I think in Japan and running the US.

Did you do any different improvising on guitar for this, for the song like you did on the last one?

HL: We’re always trying to get better at it, so I don’t know how different it is, it depends on how you look at.  We try to improve so that the album is more dynamic than previous. I compare DragonForce to like, technology or a car or a computer; we’re always making an improvement to it slowly. It’s not like a crazy, dramatic sudden change, with a different band.

Photo by Andrew Catania

When people say you’re one of the best metal guitarists out there, how do you take that?[

HL:  I’d never see myself as such a great guitar player, I mean, I just do what I like to do, have fun and you know, who am I to judge? I mean I have my favorite players that I like. I think with the guitar the great thing is, it’s not like a competition, it’s not a sport where you have to score and then see who won at the end it’s so subjective. So that’s the right thing about it, it’s not meant to be competitive. I know a certain culture and certain people are brought up to compete on every single level. I don’t make more money than them, I don’t sell more records than them, we’ve got to do this, and we’ve got to fix our face because people are looking them, whatever. For me, at least for us in the band, the way we are brought up, we are not brought up to look at art and music that way, definitely not. So we don’t have that ‘kill or be killed attitude’ you know.

That’s a very different view.

HL:  Yeah I know. I mean the way we look at it is this, you’ve got to be true to yourself and come and act in a way that you’re brought up to, our family, that’s what they taught us, and that’s how we reflect. I mean, we make music, seriously the best we could. But when we’re on stage we’re ourselves, we have fun, we’re not angry people, we’re not too serious and intense people, we have a real good time, and we try to reflect that on stage and even in our music videos and stuff like that.

Talk about your guitar rig; I know you have your signature Ibanez, are you using anything special on this tour that you haven’t used on the previous?

HL: I have a  7-string custom Ibanez guitar. How many guitars do I have in this part of the tour? 1, 2, 3, 4, 5; I’ve got about 5 or 6 guitars, different colors. The guitars I use are the same one you can play in the shop.

You’re not doing anything custom or different, I can just go into wherever and just pick one up, and that’s the same one you’re using.

HL:  Well, it’s not a signature model if it’s not the same guitar I’m playing. So I mean obviously, the Ibanez, you could do the original model which, the one I played on Saturday, there’s a new cheaper one which is not made in Japan, because Japan is expensive to get it done there. The pickups are not the DiMarzio USA ones; they’re like cheaper yeah. So I mean, actually the high-end one is the same as mine, same setup, it’s got to be the same. And that’s one of my things, when I talk about the way ‘I believe in things and try to stick to it’ and not get moved around by the ‘kill or be killed’ attitude or the commercialism of music and music business, I try to keep it as much as possible. I said to Ibanez when they made the guitar I said look ‘I’m not going to customize the guitar if you cannot release the same guitar I’m playing on stage. So it’s got to be the same.

Photo by Andrew Catania

Wow, that’s awesome!  I was going to say that is awesome because when you look at some of the other players, they might have their guitar all specced out and the public can’t get it like that

HL: My own is pretty much, I mean if there is a difference, I would say I have this one little screw at the back,  and that’s it. I glued the neck, you know the neck is put together by 4 bolts right,  I added extra glue inside it and the 4 bolts just to give it extra strength and travelling and kicking the guitar in the air all the time, but the rest, the wood, and pickups, everything is the same.

Are you a ‘bolt on’ or a ‘neck through’ fan?

HL:  Bolt on. I think bolt on is great Rock, heavy metal guitar sound. I know people are skeptical and would even say ‘neck through’ because it cost more on the neck [of course] but that hacks if the dynamics are different, so it’s almost like ‘oh my way is better than yours,’ but it doesn’t work that way in music. I mean there’s always a compromise where you get the ‘bolt on’ you get a bit less sustain, but you’ve got a more direct attack sound, and the locking bridge can give you a bit less sustain, but you’ve got more flexibility and better tuning. So there are so many things.

People on the inside talk too much when they don’t know enough information about different things they want to just side on one thing and forget about the balance of all the things that compromise, each thing, the music or stuff like that. Like a car, you know a stocked car is fast, but you can’t put more than two people in there.  It’s almost like kind of the same thing.

Photo by Andrew Catania

Do you have the same rig you had on the last tour?

HL:  I have a Kemper, which is profiling system, so it copies what I’m using is, I use the Profile to copy my old sound into the Profiler, to use the new up-to-date effects like the harmonizer, that I don’t have on my older system. I’m just kind of an old school, shredder, rock solid pre-amp. So I know everyone is always putting new technology and putting new sounds, but I’m just sticking to those sounds that I liked when I first started playing guitar when I was listening to the 80’s shredders. So I’ve kind of got that, and I copied it into the new system, the Kemper and I use the new effects; because the effects will be bold right. Computers, however, an amp is always an amp, and there’s this tone of an amp, like an old Marshall, people still write it, and I feel like that rock hard sound. So I’m just using modern technology with the old sound.

If it works, sometimes you’ve just got to stick with it, why change it up if it already works?

HL: Exactly! Because I remember about 20 years ago there was the piece of gear that came out, and everyone said, “Oh my God, it’s the most amazing thing I’ve heard, ” and then no one is even playing it now. So they’ll even forget the acknowledgment that you can use it, and I think, “oh my God, it sounds terrible, listen to this stuff.” So it’s like, who is right and who is wrong? You know what? If you’ve got a piece of gear that you love, and it’s been making for 20 years, that means it got through the test of time, apart from this kind of like consumed, quick gear that comes in and out then throw away, you see them at the used store, and no one wants them.

Sometimes less is better than more.Yeah exactly! Unfortunately, I got burned like the CPU power mode so.]

HL:  Yeah exactly!

What picks are you using these days?

HL: I use Planet Waves picks, I use something of a matte finish, so it doesn’t slip out of my hand.

Are you a 2.0 guy, 1.5?

HL:  1.10

So you’re a Jazz mini guy.

HL:  Yeah the problem is the Jazz picks are too small, and when I first started touring I used to use the Jazz free and Stubbies. The problem is you can’t do any fun things with them, and they’re just too little. You can’t do a strum, and you just fire up your finger, and you can’t throw it, and you can’t put a signature on that, so I stopped using them, and I got into big picks once I started to tour. It’s a compromise.

In the studio, if I’m sitting down playing or recording, a Jazz III pick is great. If you’re just chilling, you’re not out on stage running around and jumping around and having fun.

I was going to say, the Jazz minis, I just can’t see how people are using them. Some people swear by them and others, usually like 1.5s or 2.0s, I guess it just depends on what you’re doing.

If you’re holding a pick and you switch it and keep it somewhere else, you grab the whammy bar, a bigger pick has more room to hold, and you’re not going to drop it. With a little pick, if you slip, it comes out of your hand, done. You have to grab the whammy bar. You’ve got to do something; you’ve got to slide, move the microphone. So you’ve got to move the mic, and you’ve got to put your pick here, adjust your chin move the microphone, you need to attach a ring and adjust your pack I would have to have like ten lining up] you’re going to keep dropping this small pick. So it all comes from being tested on tour. [Trial and error] Yeah and the reason why I started playing the Ibanez guitar in the first place is that my favorite guitar players were playing Ibanez. So I thought, they must know something.  Steve Vai,  Satriani,  they must know something. These guys are such high level, touring around the world, they’re not just sitting in a bedroom playing, you know.

Like the YouTube generation.

HL: Exactly. They are testing the gear, telling you what stays in tune, what works, what sounds good and not just in their bedroom, but also on stage, on the P.A. loud, along with the pickup. So just like you wouldn’t buy a sports car, you would take around the race track, you would never be testing it on the race somewhere if the engine was never in some test or guys don’t know what they’re doing. They say ‘oh this what it is.’ I would say that is how I would end up using what I’m using.

How did you take up the guitar? Is there something back home that got you interested in it?

HL: Not really. I guess I just needed something new like a new hobby. I think everyone gets a new hobby. Somebody would get into gardening, bird watching or cars, I don’t know. So at 16, I got into guitars.

Were you self-taught or did you have lessons? Did you have lessons and self-taught?

HL: Just self-taught really. I mean learning from books is almost like a lesson. Or you’re watching videos; watching videos; those were my lessons, VHS videos.  I learned this watching instructional videos, but live videos are so important. To see how someone performs, and so I was watching a lot of live videos from Guns ‘N Roses, Metallica, playing it frame by frame by frame, Watching it again I thought ‘Oh, that guy looked cool doing that.’ I didn’t like the guy putting the guitar up here, I’ve watched apparently Chris Impellitteri, he’s one of the best on the guitar.  Beautiful and some insane styles, I mean like ‘God how did he even do that?’  I saw that, and I thought ‘well that’s impossible to play anyway.’ There’s a friend of mine who had a bootleg of him playing in Japan for that Stand in Line Tour, and I thought ‘God this guy is so good.’

Photo by Andrew Catania

What was your first band that you got into? Was that in your early 20s or late teens?

HL: Early teens, I discovered Bon Jovi and Ritchie Sambora, yeah and I found Europe and they play finer times on the radio (Overlapping of music and voices) The Soul Glows, Miracle, that’s where I first and [John Levin and Key Marcel] yeah, that’s when I first discovered actual music that I liked. I like music but the guitar kind of grabbed me and then, later on, I got into, what was popular then, Bryan Adams, ‘Wake up the Neighbors’ that was a cool album I thought, great solos. Then I got in all the Hard Rock stuff and of course Metallica,

Do you think YouTube is a useful tool for people trying to learn the guitar or do you say it has hallowed the instrument from playing with teachers in person?

HL:  I think everything you can get, is useful, but you shouldn’t just learn from one resource. You need to learn from multiple resources, go out and see a show, play in a band, play with friends, play live, see what it’s like and learn things. Maybe you would get some culture if you’d rather sit at home and not go out and thinking ‘I’m listening to YouTube.’ But hearing something live is a whole different thing than someone listening compress in a computer lab, probably having terrible speakers at home. Then they learn because you’re allowed to (talk in the studio) I made a mistake, or I deleted this, I mean, these people never even played under pressure you know.

To know what’s like when the lights are flickering, your ears are blasting  You screw up for one second, and you’ve got 400 or 500 people down there retweeting on Instagramoh, he screwed this up” so it’s a lot of stress. And the confidence of pressure, when to show it and bring it. You know it’s like you’re playing in competitive sports when you’re playing on stage. You get a bit nervous, you cope, but you don’t know what to do. So I think the culture got to the point where people always have their opinion but before thinking about it or learning about enough, people rather say something than trying to learn enough solve information.

So if I was starting to play the guitar now, I think I would be fortunate because there is so much information out there so I would just shut up learn before complaining about it to other people.

Have you ever thought about doing a solo album?

HL: I’ve thought about it, I’ve thought ‘if I’m going to go out I’m going to go out, I’m going to collaborate with somebody.” I don’t want to do it by myself; it isn’t exactly fun when you have to do it by yourself.  I’m going to finish up the European leg of the tour this year, and we’ll see what happens.

You can learn more about Herman Li and DragonForce at http://www.dragonforce.com/

PIck up DragonForce’s acclaimed new release, “Reaching into Infinity” via their website and other retail outlets.

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