Interview: The Commander-In-Chief Discusses Zigeunerweisen Guitar Duel, Gear, Warmups and More

by James Wood
Posted Dec 27, 2013 at 9:26am

Many guitar fans know about the Commander-In-Chief from the amazing guitar duel she recorded with classical guitarist Thomas Valeur.

The video, which was featured earlier this month on GuitarWorld.com, has since gone viral in guitar circles. It came in at No. 4 on our list of the Top 10 Viral Guitar Videos of 2013.

The duo met last summer at a music festival and decided to collaborate on Spanish composer Pablo de Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen Op. 20, an extremely challenging piece of music, particularly because it was written for violin and orchestra.

The Commander-In-Chief is also a classically trained opera singer who has harnessed her guitar skills in master classes with Steve Smyth (Testament, Nevermore). She worked with producer Sterling Winfield (Pantera, Hellyeah, Damageplan) on her debut EP, Evolution.

I recently spoke with her about the physical and mental preparation it took to create the guitar duel. We also discussed her gear, influences, new projects and more.

GUITAR WORLD: How did you and Thomas Valeur connect, and what inspired you to take on such a challenging piece of music?

We met at the Bergen International Festival in Norway, where we shared the stage. Thomas first thought we would cover something more mainstream, but I wanted to play something classical and step into a different world for a change. I grew up listening to Itzhak Perlman's violin recordings and the "Zigeunerweisen" was always a favorite. I normally don't play other people's music, but it was very motivating to work on something this challenging.

How long did it take you to prepare it?

It took five months. Since there were no guitar tabs for this piece and no recording that could be used as a reference, I had to find out where to play the notes on the guitar. So I spent some time writing down the name of every single note from the sheet music.

How did you determine who would play which sections?

The majority of the runs in the front section could not be played by anything else but an electric guitar. I ended up doing most of the runs with the exception of a couple. Many of them had to be tapped or sweep picked in order to be playable. I also wouldn’t have been able to play this piece without the seven-string guitar, since I use the seventh string a lot on this recording.

Did you encounter any other difficulties in learning the piece?

Despite my extensive warmup routine, the physical strain from practicing this massive piece of music resulted in injuries. At one point, I dislocated my collar bone and my chiropractor had to use athletic tape to "tape me up" to get my collar bone and shoulder back in place again. I had to take three weeks off, but I've completely recovered now. I've found that the best way to avoid strains is to sit like a classical guitarist when I practice.

Do you come from a classical background?

I'm a classically trained opera singer in the Bel Canto technique. My mother was an opera singer and she studied with the award-winning Italian maestra Aida Meneghelli. I still take lessons with her every day and have a four-octave vocal range (up to C7). When it comes to guitar, I am not classically trained but do include some Paganini and Mozart pieces as part of my warmup routine every day.

What made you decide to play guitar?

I wanted to write songs. I had tons of ideas for melodies but couldn't play an instrument, so I chose the guitar. I always visualize my music and see pictures and music as one. When I write a song, I see the video or artwork for it right away.

What's your practice regimen like? Scales and patterns?

I enjoy writing my own exercises as I feel that being creative is way more inspiring than anything else. By doing this, you can keep challenging yourself with customized exercises that will strengthen areas you know you need help with. I have a very good warmup routine that I follow every day. I use my PowerBall for 20 to 30 minutes before I start playing. Then I'll run through some scales, sweep arpeggios and licks. Part of this warm up includes the Mozart and Paganini pieces I mentioned before. I also take breaks and stretch a lot.

Who are some of your musical influences?

My favorite guitarists are Randy Rhoads and Ritchie Blackmore. I'm also big fan of movie soundtracks and love the work of Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer. For me, a song has to be memorable, so I love good songwriters. I'll listen to everything from James Brown to Slayer.

What other projects are you working on?

I like to do things nobody has done before, which is why I'm pretty secretive about what I'm up to. Nobody knew I was working with a classical guitarist or that I was working on the "Zigeunerweisen." Right now, I’m working on my solo career, but I would love to do more collaborations.

What's your current setup like?

I've got the prototype Ibanez Falchion 7 with 57-7H 66-7H EMG pickups. It's a one-of-a-kind guitar that I run straight into my Laney Ironheart Amplifier. I've also got a Laney GH50. The two amps sound pretty sweet together. For effects, I use one effect pedal (only during my solos), and that’s an MXR Carbon Copy Analog Delay.

Do you have advice you can offer to aspiring players?

Don't listen to the haters. All musicians get pestered by nay-sayers when they start out! Listen to yourself and listen to your heart. We should all be free to pursue what makes us happy. Think for yourself that your success will prove them wrong! Then go and kick some a--!

For more about the Commander-In-Chief, visit her official website and Facebook page. For more about Valeur, visit thomasvaleur.com.

James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.