Supreme Shredder Sammy Boller Talks Technique, Influences & Debut Solo LP ‘Kingdom Of The Sun’ (INTERVIEW)

Second chances are always a good thing. For former Citizen Zero guitar player Sammy Boller, he’s looking forward to giving his debut album, the instrumental Kingdom Of The Sun, another whirl at getting heard. Released last year right as Covid was hitting and lockdowns were beginning, Boller may have gotten some attention but wasn’t able to fully let the record shine by getting out on the road and playing the songs live. After all, that’s where the songs truly come to life for people.

For Boller, a Detroit native whose parents were musicians, his path was sealed early on. Going to concerts as a toddler with his family, playing piano and then picking up a guitar when he had barely entered double-digit age, he followed his fingers into the world of heavy metal and hard rock guitar. In 2012, he won a Guitar Center Master Satriani Competition and joined Citizen Zero for their sophomore EP. Their 2016 studio album, State Of Mind, produced the hit single “Go.”

When Boller started to delve deeper into the intricacies of what he could do on guitar, he knew a solo album would be the outlet for his newfound creations. Working with his friend and producer Steve Lehane, Kingdom Of The Sun, was born. With eleven songs that hallmark his finger-tapping and melodic twirls, the album features composition over speed, mood over histrionics. Using his interest in Eastern spirituality as a guide, he takes his playing to heady atmospheric realms; “Cloak Of Light,” “Lolite,” “Sunrise/Sunset” and “Temple Of Time” being prime examples of what a young man can accomplish when a hurry-up mentality ceases to be the priority.

I spoke with Boller recently about the emotions behind the songs, band vs solo and round two of Kingdom Of The Sun.

Kingdom Of The Sun came out last year but so did Covid.

Yeah, it came out basically the first week of the lockdown in March, which was pretty crazy, but it’s been one of those things where everybody has kind of been in the same boat the past year. It’s been hard not to be on the road and play but it’s been alright, you know. I’ve done a lot of stuff, like online streams and stuff like that, kind of what everybody has been doing, just to keep it going. And I’m kind of lucky cause the guitar community, a lot of it is online anyway – Instagram, YouTube – so I feel like the record still had some momentum even though, obviously with rock, most of it’s about going to the show and playing live. But doing instrumental music is cool because you can still do a lot of promotion online. So I think it’s been a great year despite the circumstances.

But I think we’re going to finally get to tour near the end of this year, which is exciting. We’re shooting for like September or October. I’m sure it’ll still be distance shows and stuff like that but it’d be great. I’d really love to get back to playing this year if we can. I miss it so much.

This is an all-instrumental album and instrumental pieces are like emotional rhythms. What would you say is the predominant emotion on this album?

Wow, that’s a great question. I don’t know, I think every song is a little bit different. I’m really into Eastern religion and spirituality and stuff like that so a lot of my songs, even though they’re instrumental, I think a lot of them are like devotional songs, specifically like the song “Cloak Of Light,” which is one of the main tunes on the album. That’s like a devotional song. With instrumental, it’s cool because everybody kind of interprets the songs differently because there are no lyrics. Like, it could mean one thing to me and one thing to somebody else, completely different.

But is it easier for emotions to kind of get lost within a song without words, because you don’t have the lyrics to kind of help people know what to feel. But have you found it easier to relate to what you want to relate anyway?

Yeah, I think so. Since this is my first album, I didn’t know how it was going to be received. But I’m kind of blown away by the response I’ve gotten from a lot of people on different songs. They’ve picked up almost exactly what I meant to convey. It’s surprising. Like with instrumental, I didn’t know what to expect. When it’s your first album, you don’t know how people are going to react to it. I really feel so blessed and lucky that people listen to the song and kind of get out of it what I meant and that’s all you can hope for as a writer, you know.

Do you get more satisfaction creating music without words?

I grew up playing in bands and stuff so I kind of got the best of both worlds. But I’d say it’s just different. I wouldn’t say better or worse, it’s just a different thing. Like when the guitar is the voice of the band, you have a little bit more room to play, if that makes sense, ’cause you’re filling up so much space. So yeah, you can convey a lot of different things as opposed to just playing in a band with a singer.

I hear some Jazz and fusion in your playing. 

I did study Jazz when I was in high school and college. I went to music school and was a Jazz Guitar major, believe it or not. I love listening to jazz but I don’t play jazz much anymore. I really love like Joe Pass and Wes Montgomery and some of the traditional Jazz guitarists. I’m more old-school.

What is the secret to mastering that genre?

You don’t want to ask me that (laughs) I’m not qualified to answer that, though I wish I could answer something like that. When you compose music or write or perform live, you’re kind of drawing on all the music that you’ve loved in your life. It’s cool that you picked up on that I love different kinds of music because that is not the most obvious thing from listening to my stuff. It’s more like a metal album or hard rock album.

Since these are instrumentals, what was going through your head when you were composing the title track?

I wrote that for a buddy of mine that passed away, Phil Durr. He was in a band called Big Chief in the nineties and he was kind of like a legendary guitar player in Detroit and I wrote that as a tribute to him. I had the riff for a long time and that was actually the last song we recorded for the album. The album was done but I had that riff and I liked it so much that we went back and recorded it and then it ended up becoming the title track. 

“Temple Of Time” is just this tiny piece of music that sounds like medieval music on psychedelics.

That’s cool (laughs). The goal of this album was to see if I could take like the two-handed tapping clean stuff and build a whole band behind it. But with that song, I left it just the guitar because I thought it would be cool for people to hear how a lot of the songs start out or what the songs sound like before we produce them and put a band around them. That’s why I left that on there, bare like that. I wanted it to be more like an interlude.

What can you tell us about “Dark Night Of The Soul”?

That song was one of our favorites to play live when we were still playing shows, just cause it’s really up-tempo and it doesn’t really let up. But that was one of the first songs I wrote for the album and finished. It’s funny, I forgot how much fun that is to play. That’s a really cool live song more than anything, I think.

Which one of these songs would you say you’ve had the melody or the riff for the longest?

The second song on the record, “Sunrise/Sunset.” I’ve had that riff since I was like nineteen. I remember when I first started living on my own I was sitting in my apartment and I came up with that and recorded it on my voice memo on my phone. So I’ve had that for years and I just never used it for anything. It’s also like the first demo I made and I showed to my friend Steve Lehane, who produced the album, and he was like, “Man, this is really cool. You should do some more songs like this and put it together.” So that was like the first song that kind of inspired me to do a whole record.

Which guitar did you use predominately while you were recording?

It’s a black Les Paul Custom. It’s kind of a weird guitar cause usually on Gibson guitars they don’t have whammy bars but the Les Paul I play has a Floyd Rose whammy bar. That’s pretty much the main guitar on the album.

When you’re able to tour, how many guitars will it take to reproduce this?

You know, a lot of people like using different tunings and stuff but I’m more like a one tuning/one guitar type guy. I always hate changing guitars onstage. It kind of throws me off. I’ll probably take two so I’ll have a backup but I mainly play that Les Paul live.

I’ve seen Jeff Beck and he has like this long row of guitars off to the side.

Oh, he’s one of my favorites. He’s incredible but you know, everybody is different. A lot of the times with guitarists they’ll be using different tunings on different songs and that’s why they switch. Some people do it just for show. Like, Joe Perry has a different guitar for every song just because I think he can, you know (laughs). But like Mark Tremonti, he plays in a lot of different tunings and that’s why he has so many different guitars.

Which song on this record do you think will actually be the most complicated to do live?

The trickiest one to play is a song called “Illusions,” just because it’s one where if you lose focus for a second it kind of falls apart. It’s kind of a tricky guitar part but that is the hardest on guitar. That or maybe a song called “For Madmen Only,” which is in odd time. I don’t play in odd time that much so that one’s a little bit tricky too.

What about Satriani attracted you over all these other guitar players out there?

I just really loved his sense of melody. He was like the first one to do instrumental stuff that I latched onto and he has like a singing quality in his guitar sound. That’s something I always try to go for as well.

You were just a little kid when you started playing. Did you already know what sound you wanted to chase?

I think so. I think everybody kind of has an inherent sound in their heart but it can take a long time to kind of have it come out. But it’s kind of like what we were talking about earlier, it’s a combination of all the stuff you’ve loved and all the music you learned and if you play it over time it kind of comes out naturally.

So you didn’t want to be like a blues guitar player?

I love listening to the blues as well but I’ve always been a rocker, from day one. As you develop musically, there are some things that just come really natural to you and some things don’t. Not everybody can play everything well, so I think what happens is the things that do come naturally to you, you stretch them out as far as you can go. Then the stuff that is maybe trickier for you, at least for me, I just kind of ignored it (laughs). That’s been my approach for years now and it’s been alright. Not everybody takes that approach but I think it’s useful. Like with Jazz music and blues music, all the stuff that I really love was done fifty years ago or older but there are still people kind of pushing it, a lot of new, great blues players come out every year; same thing with Jazz. But once again, it’s all just what you really like, your personal preference.

When you first started learning to play guitar, what was the hardest thing for you?

Probably playing quiet. I was always just so loud (laughs), the cops were getting called and stuff like that. I played in school and stuff like that but when you grow up playing metal, as soon as you start playing other genres and getting into a group, you can’t be blasting away if you’re playing with a bunch of stringed instruments or playing in an orchestra. So probably playing quiet was hardest.

What was the biggest challenge in recording an album like this?

When we first started I didn’t even know if I could do an instrumental album. But there wasn’t a ton of pressure cause it was more just for fun at first, you know. It still is and that’s how it always should be. But I think the biggest challenge was we did it over kind of a long period of time. We did a couple days here, a couple days there. I’m hoping for the next one that we can just go in in a more traditional way, like go in for a week or two and just knock it out.

Did you feel caged in in a band situation or was it more freeing cause you didn’t have so much responsibility?

I didn’t feel caged in. I love playing in bands and that’s like my favorite thing in the world, being in a band. So I didn’t feel caged in musically. One thing that’s cool about music now is you can kind of do whatever you want. Maybe in the seventies or eighties you could only be in one thing, that it’d be weird for a guitar player to be in a band and do other records, but now how the music industry is, you can do a lot of different things and I enjoy that. I love being in a band, I love being solo. It’s all music and that’s exciting to me.

How involved are you in the studio, behind the glass, behind the knobs?

I like working with a producer, like having a second opinion, and I really trust Steve. I’ve worked with him for a long time. As far as like arrangements of songs and stuff like that, I kind of lean on him for a lot of that. But I do work as a session guitar player quite a bit at a studio called Rustbelt Studios in Royal Oak, Michigan, and I enjoy that too. I like taking a song from the beginning stages and building it up.

Who was the first real rock star you ever met?

Wow, I got to think about that (laughs). Probably Billy Gibbons. My old band opened for ZZ Top years ago and he was really, really nice and he watched our whole soundcheck. He gave me like a bunch of guitar strings and he showed me and a friend of mine that was there, his whole guitar rig and I don’t know if he was messing with me or not but he plays like really light guitar strings, like abnormally light, and I was like, “Man, you must break these they’re so light,” and he goes, “I’ve never broken a string.” (laughs)

Did you go to a lot of concerts when you were a kid?

I did. My parents were both musicians so they took me to a lot of stuff. I think my first concert I saw The Who. I must have been like three or four and I remember I was really bummed cause I had to wear those sound-canceling headphones. I don’t know how much I really enjoyed it but it was cool. I grew up going to shows all the time.

What was the first song you obsessed over as a kid?

I think maybe “Dream On” by Aerosmith. I just loved the guitar on that. That made me want to play guitar.

What was your very first guitar?

My first one was a blue Squier Stratocaster. As soon as I got an electric guitar, I just played it obsessively. I’d stay up all night and play it. 

How did you get it?

We had a garage sale and I sold a bunch of like Pokemon cards and baseball cards and bought it one summer. You know what’s funny is we had a lot of acoustic guitars around the house cause my parents play but I wanted an electric more than anything so I sold a bunch of stuff in a garage sale and got it.

How much was it?

I think it was $150 bucks with an amp

So you had that much Pokemon crap?

(laughs) I must have! But we’re talking years ago! But I was talking to somebody the other day and for me, getting a guitar, my life just changed overnight basically. All the other stuff I was into was just done as soon as I got a guitar. 

What were you playing in the beginning?

I was really young, probably about ten when I first started playing, and that whole summer I only knew how to play “Smoke On The Water” and “Iron Man” and also “Day Tripper” by The Beatles. I knew like three songs and I’d play them over and over and over and over. Finally my parents were like, “You know, Sammy, you can learn other songs. Please. I can’t listen to this anymore.” (laughs)

But I loved it so much and played so much. I feel lucky that I picked it up pretty fast, learning like AC/DC songs and stuff like that. I never took lessons or anything and I think that’s kind of cool cause it’s really good to figure out songs by ear as opposed to learning out of a book or something or taking lessons. It helps you find your own style if you’re teaching yourself.

I read somewhere you taught guitar in high school and you teach guitar now. Have you noticed what kids wanted to learn the most back then and what they want to learn now, has that changed or do they still all want to learn the same thing?

I teach a lot of different styles but it hasn’t changed that much. A lot of kids want to learn like Metallica and AC/DC when they’re starting off. I think with rock and metal, there’s some songs that you just got to know how to play. So those kind of stay the same. I think guitar has changed since then and what people listen to now is kind of different but I’d say the initial stuff people learn is pretty close.

Are they still coming to you with the same guitar heroes?

I’d say so, yeah. What is cool now is there are a lot of amazing new players but the classics live forever, like Hendrix and Van Halen and Jimmy Page. So I’d say the heroes are still the same.

What do you want to pursue next? Where do you want to go as a musician?

You know, I’m working on a new instrumental album but I don’t want to do the same album over and over again. During the lockdown I’ve been studying a lot of Indian music and Eastern music so I’m going to try to incorporate more of that stuff into the way I play, and write music as well. I don’t think I will be playing sitars soon or mandola (laughs). It’s more composition, I would say, as opposed to the instrumentation.

Did you learn something new during lockdown?

I’ve just been studying a lot of music, reading a lot. I got a new keyboard about a month ago so I’ve been playing that a lot. That’s about it. Mostly just been hiding out and reading and studying, trying to stay busy.

 

Portrait by Cheyenne Comerford

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