We discuss shredding guitar, streaming live and steaming fretboards with DragonForce's guitar maestro...

Extreme Power Metal

Herman Li is the guitarist, songwriter and producer of Grammy-nominated power metal act DragonForce and in the past 15 years has become one of the most recognisable guitarists in the world today. He takes influence from the classic shredders such as Satriani and Vai with an extensive repertoire of legato, sweep picking and two-handed tapping. He marries this traditional shred sound with a love for videogames, utilising his whammy bar and other tricks to create sounds inspired by classic games of the 80s and 90s.

DragonForce recently released their 8th studio album titles ‘Extreme Power Metal’, showcasing a band going from strength to strength after some lineup changes and including the frankly bonkers cover of Celine Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On’. The album features plenty of retro keys sounds, ridiculously fast guitar lines, pounding drumming and soaring vocals, all at the bands trademark top speed.

DragonForce are in the midst of a tour promoting their new album and we jumped at the chance to sit down for a chat with Herman to discuss his gig setup, playing technique and live streaming to Twitch…

Herman Li and Sam Totman
Photo: @hel7t9

Highway To Oblivion

Hi Herman, thanks for taking the time out to have a chat with us, how are you doing?

Herman: No problem, I’m doing good thanks.

So what are your thoughts on the tour at the moment, how’s it been going?

Herman: Tour has been going really well actually, it’s been a lot of fun… I guess this is our biggest tour in the UK in the last ten years, and definitely the biggest production we’ve done on a Dragonforce tour.

I’ve had a look at the some of the videos on your Facebook and it looks great fun, I also noticed you’re wearing a backpack whilst you’re on stage? What’s the story with that?

Herman: [Laughs] It’s an IRL backpack that I use to do a live stream onto my Twitch channel. So it has three 4G modems in there, it’s got like a massive battery and has got a GoPro camera on it, and there is another unit which combines all the data together so I can stream. For example, if a thousand people get their phones out and start streaming, I’ve got the three 4G modems to make sure the connection doesn’t drop. This is pretty cutting edge stuff for my live streaming channel, for my Twitch. The fans can see my point of view on stage when I’m playing the guitar live, so you can literally tune in while you’re at the show and see… You know if you don’t want to look at me at the front you can easily look at how it looks on my end as well. It’s a kind of crazy interactive experience that fans can do at the show.

So cool! Is the camera mounted on your shoulder or is it on the guitar?

Herman: It’s mounted on my shoulder at the moment. So I got a few different things I can clamp onto the guitar, but you know because it’s a relatively new thing I’m constantly ironing out the different issues that can happen depending on the show and there’s a lot of fun there. It’s pretty crazy, sometimes we mount it on the drums, sometimes we have the bass player mount it on him and we just try out different things.

Herman Li and Sam Totman

Valley of the Damned

I know you play Ibanez and that you’ve been playing them for a long time. Have you brought any new versions of guitars out for this tour? Or are you still using like your tried and trusted EGEN guitars?

Herman: I didn’t bring anything new. Actually I was testing because I’m always trying to learn about guitars right? So the last year or so, I’ve got so many guitars in my house, you know my collection has just increased to almost 200 now and I’ve been messing around with so many guitars. So this time I actually brought a PRS with me on this tour, I got a Private Stock that Paul [Reed Smith] made me just to mess around with. It has a totally different spec that is not on any other PRS guitar. I’ve been playing a lot of different stuff on this album. I used the John Petrucci Majesty for some solos on the new album, of course, my Ibanez guitars as well and I even used, weirdly enough, a St Vincent. I did a solo with one of those guitars too. Just to learn about the instruments you know? Right now I’m still playing the same guitars, the EGEN, but I’m actually building a next-gen version of the guitar, so by playing a bunch of guitars, you know, top-end models from all kinds of players, I’m able to get the knowledge to create something even better.

One of the things that I always found really interesting is all the modifications that you do to your guitars. For example, the Broad Axe LED tracking mod, I thought that was absolutely amazing! I just wondered if you’re doing anything like that on this tour, are there any further modifications you’ve made to the guitars themselves?

Herman: So I’ve got the Broad Axe one, but I’ve got some issues with it because of the way the guitar was built, we had to steam the fretboard off and put it back on so that caused some issues on those guitars. Instead of having a complete neck, because of the steaming, I’m starting to lose some of the LEDs on it so I need to make a new one. Apart from that, I think the main modification I’ve put in is really in the rack. I built a brand new rack for this tour, I thought my setup was going to get smaller but it’s gotten bigger again.

So what’s the modification to the rack?

Herman: Well the rack is now a video, audio and guitar combination rack. Synchronization between the Kemper, sequencer, video synchronization on the stage because we have a massive LED screen on this tour. So to synchronize all the visual, the guitar, the effects, all in time with each other I had to build a brand new rack. Also to sync the arcade machines we have on stage, they wanted all different things so it took me two days to re-rack everything with the new wireless system. Due to the changing frequencies, I had to throw away all the old wireless system and get new ones because of the way the frequencies are changing.

DragonForce on stage

Fury Of The Storm

In terms of the video aspect of things is this purely what appears on the screen?

Herman: We synchronize everything to the back screen but the arcade machines run different content so I need to program in advance at which point during the guitar solo the video is going to change. It takes a really long time to program. As a guitar player first you just concentrate on the playing but later on you’re thinking more about the show itself, so thinking about sound cards, video stuff, about projection, all of the things to make the visual experience of the show better. It makes the solo sound better when it looks good! [laughs] Even getting the right fan to blow into your hair is important! [laughs]

So the rack also includes all your effects changes as well?

Herman: Yeah I don’t press any pedals because they’re all programmed in by MIDI. I’ve got the Kemper running and they profiled my old rack sound with the new effects, you know Kemper has much better effects than my old rack. So I’ve updated it, it’s still got that classic shredder, metal guitar sound but it’s cleaner. It sounds really nice now actually after profiling it. The profiling actually made it a lot smoother weirdly enough!

What about your wah pedal are you still using one on stage?

Herman: Yeah I’m still using one, it’s the Weeping Demon wah, the big one I think it’s discontinued now. So I don’t have to switch it on and off as there’s no time when you’re playing at 200bpm to switch it on and off. It’s on a parallel loop so it’s only in the signal chain when I’m playing it.

And is the Hot Hand making an appearance on this tour?

Herman: I’m not using it on this tour because we’re not playing the songs. I kinda messed up my rack because I didn’t put it in. You know you should put everything you need for every single song but I didn’t have time! Once we change the setlist I’ll bring it back out.

DragonForce On Stage
Photo: Andy Shaw

Cosmic Power of the Infinite Shred Machine

Okay so now for some more general, guitar-related questions. What was your first guitar?

Herman: It was a Squier, a red Squier. It was just a Korean Strat.

And in terms of technique, we were talking about shredding at 200bpm, do you have a specific warm-up routine or exercises you do on tour?

Herman: I think that the important thing is when you’re on tour, and not many people understand this, the more you play on tour the worse you get on the guitar. And people go ‘oh what do you mean?’ and it’s because when you play a show – at least when I do – I play with all the incorrect techniques compared to recording. That’s because incorrect techniques make it more fun, you know big strums, putting your hand in the air, smashing the guitar, all these things. So you’re playing technique actually gets worse so what I do is, when I’m backstage, I sit there and play perfect techniques sitting down, to readjust and recalibrate myself back to what the technique should be as when you’re on stage you’re playing incorrect technique trying to animate yourself.

Do you have any particular exercises you use?

Herman: Just pretty much scales and arpeggios, I play the solos of the songs, playing as perfect as possible. The stamina is very important, the first few songs I’m playing much better than later you start to lose some because you’re playing fast for so long. So it’s important to maintain the stamina, work a lot before the tour and then try to maintain it.

For younger players is there anything you’d recommend for them to help them work on their speed?

Herman: Well there’s actually two kinds of speed, there’s thinking speed and your mechanical speed. A lot of people concentrate on the mechanical speed so you do your click track, you practice your scales which is a very mechanical thing but that doesn’t make you think. I would say you need to even out the mechanical and brain speed, so put a backing track on when you’re practising those scales, mess around with it, change it because with a backing track it works your brainpower. So when you move things around you think ‘oh okay this scale goes here’ or ‘I’m gonna move this over here’ and experiment finding the notes. You know because otherwise you just get stuck in the box, the scale box and you don’t know where to move so actually finding which note goes over which chord immediately, that kind of speed is actually more important to develop than just playing scales up and down.

Was there any particular album that influenced you when you were younger? You know something that made you go ‘I wanna sound like this’?

Herman: There was no one album for me but I would say Steve Vai’s Sex and Religion when I saw that tour that was the first time I’d been to a rock show and that really kind of… I thought wow, my god that’s insane. Funnily enough, Thomas McLaughlin, who was also at the show playing with Steve Vai, is opening for us on this tour! But that really made a difference to me, seeing Steve Vai playing with Devin Townsend that definitely made we want to play more!

Herman Li

Operation Ground And Pound

DragonForce are currently touring Europe and you can find their new album ‘Extreme Power Metal’ on all major streaming services. You can tune into their gigs via Herman’s Twitch link here – https://www.twitch.tv/hermanli