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An Interview with Tom Hess

Sometimes it feels like I’ve known Tom Hess all my life. He’s been a longtime contributor to Guitar Noise and is both a highly respected guitarist and gutiar teacher – a combination that’s much rarer than you might imagine! And Guitar Noise readers have been benefitting from Tom’s experience, observations and wisdom for almost ten years now!

When I got word that Tom had recently joined the Italian metal band Rhapsody of Fire, I thought that it might be a great time to catch everyone up on how things are going with him. And, fortunately, Tom was able to make time in his busy schedule to answer a few questions for me. So here we go!

Guitar Noise: Congratulations on your summer’s work with Rhapsody of Fire. How did you hook up with these musicians in the first place? And how did they approach you to become a member of the band?

Tom Hess: Thanks. I’ve been a fan of the band since the first moment I heard them back in 1998. It was by chance that a
guitar student of mine dragged me into a heavy metal CD shop (I never was in such a shop before nor since), and as we walked in, the opening tracks of the Rhapsody album Legendary Tails began playing. I heard the music and thought, “this is very cool!” Then I heard Fabio (the singer) sing the opening lines and I was completely and totally blown away. I said to my student, “Well, I’ve just found my new favorite singer!” I went to the clerk and bought the CD.

From 1998-2001, I studied every aspect of Fabio’s vocal phrasing and learned every one of his vocal lines on the guitar, trying to match perfectly his phrasing and vibrato. His vocal phrasing became a huge influence on my guitar phrasing and vibrato.

In 2003, I wanted to compose a new vocal album for my band HESS. I researched the band’s management and sent an email (with some of my music) asking to hire Fabio to sing on this album. I got a phone call a few days later from the president (Joey DeMaio) of their record label (Magic Circle Music) at the time. The record company instead invited me to play guitar for a new band (HolyHell) already signed to the same label.

I joined HolyHell that year, recorded guitar for the debut EP and LP and in 2005 went on tour. HolyHell was the opening band for both Rhapsody Of Fire and Manowar in North America and Europe. So in 2005 I was able to spend a lot of time with the band. In 2007 the three bands toured together again, so again there was more opportunity for us all to get to know each other. There was a great feeling all the way around, and later both Alex and Luca approached me about joint venturing in some instructional guitar/music lessons and programs. Luca’s website is one of them.

Through our mutual business together the relationship grew further. Alex and Luca understood that I have been a big fan of the band for many years and they also liked my guitar playing and compositional skills in my band HESS and felt it was a good match.

A few days after Christmas 2010, Luca contacted me and said that he and Alex Staropoli want me to join Rhapsody Of Fire. I said yes! Of course!

Three days later I was given the music to immediately begin recording the new album From Chaos To Eternity. There was no time to really learn the songs, I had to begin recording the very next day. I was reintroduced to the word “pressure,” but in the end the result was a great experience and a killer album.

GN: Can you tell us what went into preparing for being part of Rhapsody of Fire? How much work did you do before joining the band? And once you all got together how did you practice for the summer shows?

Tom: I already knew how to play many of the songs (but only the vocal lines!) So I had to learn all the guitar parts. I
practiced alone at home in three alternating phases:

Phase 1 – performing the songs

Phase 2 – learning to play the songs

Phase 3 – memorizing how to play them

Planning out various aspects of performing the songs was what I focused on first, before I actually learned the parts. Although I never get nervous about playing live, what makes me nervous are all the little things like remembering when to make program changes on my midi controller, where I need to be standing on the stage during specific moments of the show and all the little cues that have to happen with all other members on stage. Stuff like that makes me nervous if I’m not 110% prepared for it in advance, so I always begin with those things first, visualizing the concerts in my mind even before I have any clue what I am playing. I just listen to the live versions of the songs and go through all the non-guitar playing things that I need to think about and remember. Once I feel good about that stuff, learning the songs becomes easier because I have removed the most stressful part for me.

We got together in Italy for two days and played through all the songs exactly two times as a full band, then we went on to play the festivals.

GN: With your online teaching program and private students, not to mention your solo recording projects, you’re a pretty busy guy. How did you manage to find time to put in all this effort?

Tom: Over the years, I’ve learned three things about time management:

1. Don’t waste time (no matter how small!)

2. Choose what matters (stop giving time to the things that don’t carry you forward)

3. Surround yourself with a great team of people who can help you get stuff done. The little things that others can help you with will save you a lot of time. With that saved time I reinvest it back into music, playing, recording, teaching, mentoring other musicians, etc. … plus I have gotten pretty good at multitasking.

GN: Rhapsody of Fire originated in Italy and has band members from Germany as well. On top of that, you toured in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Germany, England and Sweden and all over. How do you deal with the multi-language scenarios that you and the band inevitably run into?

Tom: It’s pretty simple actually, we speak English and in most places in Europe (and elsewhere in the world), people under
the age of 30 or 35 have learned at least some English in school. So it’s generally not a problem.

GN: After a long and successful career, Rhapsody of Fire is essentially splitting into two bands. Alex Staropoli (keyboards and one of the founders) is going on with you on guitars, Fabio Lione on vocals and Alex Holzwarth on drums. Are you working with a bass player? And what are you doing to prepare for your upcoming shows in France and Spain this fall?

Tom: Although there will be an upcoming world tour, no specific dates or locations have been confirmed at this time. There of course will be a new bass player in the band, but we have not announced the name of this special person yet. We are all very excited and eager to begin the next chapter of Rhapsody Of Fire history together!

GN: Is this new lineup of Rhapsody of Fire working on any studio recordings? If so, what are the songwriting process and the recording process like? As the relatively new member are you finding yourself an active participant in the process?

Tom: The main focus right now is preparing for the upcoming tour to support the new album From Chaos To Eternity. Although we did play five super awesome festival concerts in Europe this summer, we have not yet toured to support the new release. So this is our next priority. After the upcoming world tour the band will get to work on the next album. On the last album I was just brought into the band and all the music was already composed with the exception of the three guitar solos I had to compose and record. Beyond that, my role was primarily to record all the rhythm guitar parts. It’s likely that my role in the next album will be a bit more (certainly I’ll be responsible for all the guitar parts at least).

GN: It’s easy to fantasize that touring the world with a rock band is all fun and music, but what is a typical day really like?

Tom: Well, sometimes it’s what you make it. Festivals are different from normal touring. Typically, you arrive at the next venue sometime between 10:00 am and 3:00 pm, depending on how far away the new venue is from the show the night before. Once the bus arrives to the new venue that’s often when I’ll wake up from sleeping on the tour bus. After we arrive, I head for the shower, then to eat something small. Depending on how much time is available before the show we may or may not have time for a meet and greet signing session and/or interviews with the music press. There is a sound check, sometimes meetings, personal time to call home, check emails, etc.. Then it’s time to eat something small again. We also meet with the crew when necessary to discuss any problems, challenges or address other important details. In the dressing room before the show, we typically warm up for some time while also talking, laughing and having fun to keep things relaxed and relieve stress. Often there is not time for all of those things, but we squeeze as much in as we can.

Next is to arrive at the stage. We warm up and loosen up for a few minutes before our introduction music begins playing. When we hear the roar of the crowd, excitement and adrenaline fills the veins and then the show starts.

After the show, it’s shower time (again), talk about the night’s performance, meet with the promoter or other important people at the venue. Then eat a full meal. After that there might be more activities going on, but usually we are all on our own (the only true personal time is at this point). I typically make time to go back out near the crowd outside the venue for those who are still hanging around hoping to meet someone from the band, take some photos, etc.. I’ll usually spend some time there with them before heading back to the bus, turning on my laptop and teaching my online guitar students.

It’s a great experience overall and I do my best to enjoy every moment of it all. This is a great band, with great fans, and a fantastic crew, so having fun is pretty easy!

GN: In addition to your gig with Rhapsody of Fire, what other projects do you have for the future?

Tom: Beyond my time with Rhapsody Of Fire, I’m still composing and recording new music for my other band HESS. In addition, I invest a lot of time running my online guitar lessons business and teaching guitar players at

… I love everything I do, which is why I still do it even if I do not have to anymore.

Life is good…

very good!