Mastodon Guitarist Explains Decision to Stop Using Big Guitar Rigs

Bill Kelliher, the guitar player for Mastodon, seems to be more in favor of simpler “fly rig” solutions as opposed to big, elaborate setups for live shows. In fact, according to what he said in a recent interview with Thomann, he’s been “trying to build the world’s smallest fly rig.” And, as he adds, we’re looking at “really small.”

This came up when he was asked whether he’d go fully digital at some point. So far, we do know that he’s using Line 6 Helix and HX Stomp modelers, apart from his real actual amps. There are also a few other things in his live setup, but it’s still pretty compact. To explain his future plans, he said (transcript via Ultimate Guitar):

“To answer your question — yes,” replying to the interviewer questioning him about going all digital in the future. “I’ve been using Synergy, which I really love. [It] sounds really, really good. Every module they come out with is sounding even better and better.”

Bill Kelliher Interview | Mastodon | Guitar Tone Talk | Thomann

To those who may not be familiar with them, Synergy is a brand that makes modular preamplifiers. They’re fairly compact, all while coming with the usual parameter controls that you’d expect to see on any conventional amplifier. They’re tube-driven and are done in collaboration with famous brands, such as Soldano, Engl, Friedman, Bogner, and others.

Despite all this, Kelliher is still a fan of his Friedman and Victory amps, admitting that nothing could really beat the tone that they produce. He added:

“I mean, I love my Friedman. It’s awesome. When I’m at home in the States, I use that, I use a Victory Super Kraken, and the sound of those two things together is… Nothing sounds that good.”

Mastodon live at Rock am Ring 2022

On the other hand, doing a big tour and flying around the globe comes with its challenges. So thinking about making the “world’s smallest fly rig” makes sense knowing how incredibly complicated it can get when bringing old-school-style full-stacks on the road.

Kelliher is far from being the only one with this stance, of course. We already are familiar with Metallica’s use of Fractal Audio’s Axe-Fx. However, his live setup is a little different. He continued:

“But right now, I’ve got a Victory Duchess pedal and a Friedman BE-OD pedal and I’m just plugging those in direct to a Ffryette power amp, and using those as the actual amps. They’re controlled in settings in the in the [Line 6] Helix.”

“So basically, I’m switching between the two — one’s a clean amp, like a preamp, and the other is a dirty amp. If you’re not looking at it, you’d be like, ‘That sounds like a real giant amp.’ They’re now making preamps and little tiny pedals that, I’m like, ‘Man!'”

Mastodon - Live at the Concord Pavilion, Concord CA - 2023.04.20 [Full Show]

The Duchess pedal by Victory Amps is a versatile pedal-format preamp. It’s a single-channel unit but comes with a decent number of controls to shape your tone. But this isn’t all there is to his current rig.

“So those are my amps,” Bill said. “Giant amps shrunk down to these little pedals. And then, inside the Helix, I’ve got all my effects. That goes into a little lunchbox, and you’re good to go. That’s great. I just want to show up one day with a little tiny [rig], open up, and like ‘Here’s my stuff!'”

“But you can do that these days. You don’t need a giant Marshall full-stack and all that stuff.”

Mastodon - Blood And Thunder (Live at Resurrection Fest EG 2022)

It may be a little controversial to say that “you don’t need a giant Marshall full-stack” anymore, at least not for live shows. But, again, he’s not the only one doing this. Even the most die-hard lovers of tube-driven amplifiers have praised them in recent years with the incredible advancements in the field.

Chad Zaemisch, guitar tech for James Hetfield, discussed Metallica’s decision to go fully digital for live shows in a recent interview. Discussing his role in the band’s camp, he said:

“When we switched to more of a digital setup with the Axe-Fx, and we had to rethink a bunch of stuff, I got a lot more familiar with this stuff.”

Bill Kelliher's incredible tone journey

“Matt Picone [of Fractal Audio] came out and helped us to transition into this stuff because we actually had to go play a show in Antarctica [in 2013]. That’s why we couldn’t bring any amps, all the people at the show that we brought with us on the ship wore headphones, there was an environmental issue too, where you can’t disturb the wildlife.”

“We did all seven continents that year — I think we’re in the Guinness Book for that — within a 12-month period. So yeah, that caused us to rethink how we were going to do things.”

“And I gotta actually give James a lot of credit because it was a big deal to give up your typical analog amps. We got an old-school band, and it’s all about the loud amps, and James was really like, ‘Do we continue to use these?'”

The Captain Meets Bill Kelliher! (Mastodon)

“All this stuff is cheaper to ship around, it’s more reliable, and all the rigs now sound exactly the same, rather than analog amps being finicky. It made a lot of sense. I was all for it because anytime I can plug my computer into my equipment and manipulate it.”

“I’m all for it because it was starting to get boring, just taking strings off, putting strings on for bands, and plugging a couple of things in it. You gotta be really creative when doing that. So, once we got into that, then yeah, we started from scratch and built up presets.”

Photo: Mr. Rossi (Mastodon – Rock im Park 2022 – IMG 2503 – 2)


  • 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.