Mastodon’s Bill Kelliher: ’I Never Learned Any Scales’

Mastodon guitarist Bill Kelliher said that ne never actually learned any scales. Speaking to Guitar Summit in a recent interview, Kelliher admitted that he never went the usual path of his peers back in the day, preferring songwriting and pure creativity over conventional practicing.

“Yeah, I was never the guy,” said Kelliher when discussing his preference (transcript via Ultimate Guitar). “All my friends would just sit there, playing the same scales over and over. And I never learned any scales,” he added with a laugh.

Guitar Summit 2023 Talk: Bill Kelliher

For Bill, it was all about starting a band and playing music, even though he didn’t even cover some of the necessary basics:

“I learned that one chord and I was like, ‘I’m starting a band.’ At 15, my friends were still in their rooms all day and all night, and I started playing gigs. I started a talent show at my school; I was just playing covers of Ramones, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag… And that just led me to start writing.”

This might even feel like outright cheating to any 6-string (or more) player out there. However, Bill didn’t feel like doing all the usual things and ended up skipping all the steps that we — guitar players — usually go through. He added that “when you’re that hungry for something,” you just learn that “very quickly.”

The Making of Hushed & Grim

If this wasn’t unconventional enough, Kelliher then realized that he could move on to technically more demanding stuff. Being a high schooler during the 1980s and a metal fan, the choice was obvious for him:

“And pretty soon, I was like, ‘I’m much better than this punk rock stuff now, like I’m growing and maturing as a guitar player.’ And then I moved on to like the Metallicas and Slayers; I wanted to play as fast as Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman.”

The next stop for the world of rock music was grunge. Maybe divisive at the time, this more laid-back movement proved to be a game-changer. A huge portion of the bands who made their breakthrough in the 1980s were cast aside while groups like Nirvana, Alice in Chains, The Melvins, Pearl Jam, and others, took over. Kelliher reflected on it by offering:

“But then grunge came along, and I was just like, ‘Wow, this is a perfect mixture of like punk rock and metal in this new thing where it’s like garage rock.’ The Melvins, still to this day, I’m very good friends with Buzz Osborne, who’s one of my [idols], he’s up there, incredible songwriting machine…”

Mastodon - More Than I Could Chew [Official Music Video]

And when it comes to Buzz Osborne, Kelliher admits that he was a huge influence. So much that he wanted “to be revered like that guy someday.” The Mastodon guitarist added:

“Because he’s never had to sacrifice what he wants to do. He lives by his rules and just does what comes to mind.”

And this is exactly how Kelliher wanted Mastodon to be. These days, it’s really difficult to confine them within one subgenre, be it “alternative,” “sludge,” “stoner,” or even “prog” metal. According to Kelliher, this is exactly what he was aiming for with Mastodon:

“And that’s how I’ve always wanted Mastodon to be because we have so many different influences. There’s never like, ‘Oh, we can’t play that, it’s too country’, or, ‘That’s too metal,’ or ‘That’s too pop’ or whatever. We have songs that kind of wander into some of those areas sometimes, and it’s okay.”

Mastodon - Steambreather [Official Music Video]

Kelliher always prided in his unconventional approach to music. No, this shouldn’t be an excuse for you to ditch practicing scales and learning about music theory. But there’s always something new to learn when you’re, once in a while, trying to do stuff on your own and just noodle away on your instrument.

In another recent interview, Bill also recalled a creative way he managed to get a distorted tone with his guitar. Funnily enough, his dad was in the hi-fi business, and, for him, distortion was a no-go zone. He recalled:

“I was like, ‘Dad, I need distortion.’ And my dad, being in the hi-fi business, told me, ‘Well, Billy, us in the hi-fi business are trying to rid the world of distortion. We want a crisp, clear sound coming out of our speakers and our hi-fi gear.'”

Mastodon - Teardrinker [Official Music Video]

Bill added that his dad simply “didn’t believe in distortion.” But the young and rebellious guitar player just had to find a way to do it:

“I had to figure out how to get distortion. I had an old Sony receiver that was from the late ’70s, I had two Advent speakers, a turntable, I had this little MXR EQ…”

Of course, these were the days without the internet and easy solutions weren’t just available through this pocket-sized device that we carry every day. Figuring it out himself, here’s how he got what he wanted:

“I figured out how to plug my guitar into the EQ, into my tape deck, hold down the Record and Play button – so it was in Record mode, so it would pass the signal, but there wasn’t even a tape in there – press the Pause button and run signal through that.”

“I got this crazy distorted sound that wasn’t unlike Greg Ginn of Black Flag, and that was my dude that I was looking up to at the time.”

“I don’t know how I figured out these things, but when you’re a kid, and you want something, and you have ambition to get it, you make it happen.”

Photo: Alfred Nitsch (20170615-109-Nova Rock 2017-Mastodon-Bill Kelliher)

  • David Slavkovic

    David always planned for music to be nothing more than a hobby. However, after a short career as an agricultural engineer he ended up news editor at KillerGuitarRigs, senior editor at, as well as a freelance contributor to online magazines such as GuitaristNextdoor and brands like Sam Ash.