Talking Boot Camp With Rabea Afro
2nd May 2018
Catching up With Rabea
We caught up with the face of Boot Camp, Rabea Massaad, fresh from a tour of the Chapman factory in Korea. Apart from struggling to work out what was vegan or not, Rabea had a great time seeing how everything worked over there. Rabea has been the face of our Boot Camp range, the dealer-exclusive, stripped back range that we launched earlier this year. We’ve had some great feedback so far about the Boot Camp range so far, and Rabea’s tailored videos have been a brilliant way to showcase the different tones and styles of each of the three options; Old Guard, True Grit and Brute Force.
So Rabea, you’re known as a YouTube star, Anderton’s player, Chapman’s artist and Victory Amplifiers face. Where did it all begin for you, in terms of your career and playing guitar?
I started playing guitar late actually, I was nearly sixteen. I was drumming before that, but I snapped a ligament in my knee skateboarding and couldn’t drum. My dad’s a guitar player, so I picked up his guitar! I had the rhythms down from being a drummer so I got into it straight away. I then followed the old cliche of locking myself in my room for four or five years and did nothing but play guitar. I started on Metallica, and all the “shreddy” stuff, and then I got into Dream Theatre and Nuno Bettencourt, who is, to this day, my hero in the guitar world.
What guitar were you playing at this time?
My first guitar that I actually owned and that was mine was a Washburn X50, which was when I was sixteen. Then about a year or so later I saved up for a Washburn N4, which is the Nuno Bettencourt signature model. This was actually my introduction to Bare Knuckle. I was in a band at the time and we were trying to write our own songs and do the “making it” thing, and I was the only guitarist. The Washburn is great, but the sound of the pickups was quite thin and I wanted it fattening up. So I rang around loads of guitar shops asking if they knew of any pickups that would be good for the job. This one guy, who I think was from the Academy of Sound in Leeds, said “Ring this number, it’s a company called Bare Knuckle. Speak to Tim, you won’t be disappointed”. That’s literally what he said! So I rang the number and Tim answered. I remember very vividly how friendly he was, and so I explained my situation and the guitar I was playing, and he said “Oh yeah, I know that guitar, which wood did you get it made from?” Which I thought was really impressive. I said it was the Padauk wood, and he immediately recommended the right pickup for that job. He recommended the Warpig with the alnico magnet, and he even knew what leg length I needed and so on, and I just thought, wow, this guy is on it! Sure enough, it arrived in the post a few days later, I got it installed and I never looked back after that. I was gobsmacked with how good it sounded in my guitar. About a year later I bought a second Washburn Nuno guitar. I rang Tim again straight away and got another Bare Knuckle put in that guitar. To be honest I’ve played Bare Knuckle ever since then. I always knew they were good.
So how did you get into all the things you’re doing now?
My career really took off when I met Rob Chapman [Chapman Guitars founder] in 2011. I was doing band stuff up to then, the usual gig rounds. There was no real traction in terms of a music career until I met him and he introduced me to the idea of being an online musician on YouTube, and the various social medias that go along with that. If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in. I was doing my thing as a guitarist and I think he really enjoyed that, so when he introduced me to his fanbase and told them to watch me I got followers straight off that. Since then I’ve just kept up the momentum and it hasn’t stopped since then.
How did you and Rob Chapman meet?
I met Rob when I moved to Guildford from Leeds, to attend the Academy of Contemporary Music. Although getting a degree was the sensible choice, my plan was to use the three years to enjoy student life and to get a career. I was working part-time in a pub, and he came in for a beer and a pizza. The only reason I knew him was because, years before this, I had been watching a video of a Washburn Nuno guitar, and he had reviewed it, and I remembered his face and his voice. So I said to him “You’re that guy off YouTube, do you fancy having a jam some time?” Just to see what he said! He agreed, we had a jam and we hit it off straight away. I haven’t looked back since then. I started doing YouTube properly, and Rob and I started a band together, Dorje. We played some gigs and tours, and then Toska started a few years ago; to be honest, it’s been a snowball effect. Rob introduced me to a few companies to work with to do videos and collaborations. Then Andertons; I do all the audio engineering for all the videos they make. It’s all just accumulated into what I’m doing now, which is a combination of “new media/online guy” and working in bands, touring and so on. It’s really the best of both worlds. The bread and butter is the online stuff and then that takes the pressure off the idea of “making it” in a band. Because now I’m doing it for the love of it, and it seems to be doing really well because there’s no pressure.
What is it about the relationship between yourself and Bare Knuckle that you think works and keeps you coming back?
That’s a great question…I would say that I liked Bare Knuckle from the off, first and foremost because of the customer service. For any guitarist to have such a great experience, like I did with that first phone conversation with Tim, and then everything around it, like the packaging. I had no idea of the size of the company back then, but I’m assuming it was nowhere near as big as it has become now! It was the way it was so word-of-mouth, and then I had such great results immediately. It was a really refreshing thing for me as well, especially as I was so young then. I liked the idea of this custom, unique brand and I got loads of compliments on my guitar sound when I was playing live, and I put it down to the pickups. This guitar and my Marshall amp were great, but the only thing I’d changed were the pickups; people used to tell me my sound was huge. I moulded my sound around the sound of my instruments at that time, and they were all Bare Knuckle loaded instruments. It definitely changed the way I played, because when I was a younger player I wanted to do all the “shreddy” stuff, and then I got into songwriting and riffing, chords and all the ambient stuff I like to do. Using the Bare Knuckle pickups provided so much in the way of dynamics. And then social media exploded, and I got to find out more about Bare Knuckle. I was hearing some of my favourite bands using them, and people like Misha [Mansoor, Periphery guitarist and Bare Knuckle signature artist], and then getting to see the faces behind Bare Knuckle. I had no idea what Tim looked like for years! I met him at The Guitar Show a few years back, and he was a really nice dude. The Bare Knuckle brand is that true British hand-built, very proud…it feels very proud and I like that. I think, from my end of things, I’m a guitarist that’s trying to incorporate traditional, leady-rocky, shreddy kind of stuff, but also trying to do more unique guitar playing with more ambient sounds, more songwriting and riff writing; I think the two of us work really well together, personally.
What happened to bring the Boot Camp collaboration about?
My profile started to grow as an individual in the guitar community, and people knew that I used Bare Knuckle and always asked me what pickup I used. So I wondered about creating a signature pickup, something that was a tweaked version of something I already used. So I rang Tim to have a chat, and he was really cool about it. I guess we were both super busy, so we left it for a few months to think about. Then he rang me out of the blue, and said that he wanted to pick up (pun not intended) where we’d left off, and that he hadn’t forgotten about it. He said he had a proposition for me, and explained the whole Boot Camp thing. He asked how interested I’d be in launching that with Bare Knuckle. I think he’d seen what I’d done with the Ragnarok, and the response from that being quite cool. I suppose because I had played a song that demonstrates the pickup, and he wanted the same sort of treatment for Boot Camp. That, for me, was something I really enjoyed. If he’d asked me to play some lightning fast solos, and show off how good it sounds as a shred I may have been more reluctant, as that’s harder. Also, playing guitar like that is not what I do best, in my opinion. I much prefer writing cool riffs, so when he said about the idea of there being three output ranges, so I could do a more classic style song, something a bit more hard rock and then something really heavy, I was so up for that. It was totally my kind of work, and I was so flattered that he’d asked. So I was really excited about it, and the response was really cool. They’re awesome, as is all the Bare Knuckle stuff, but I’ve been really, really impressed with the range. I installed the Brute Force Tele set into Joe Gosney from Black Peak’s guitar, and he was just in love immediately, which was really good.
How has the feedback been from your peers about the Boot Camp range?
Everyone has been really complimentary. The initial response was “these sound great, tell me about them!” People wanted to know if somehow Bare Knuckle had got cheaper parts in, or they were being made elsewhere. It was great to say no, they’re all made with the same parts by the same people. It’s just stripped right back. I think the response in my community from my peers was mostly that they were really impressed that Bare Knuckle had done this. The company has been around for a long time now, and are known for being this aftermarket, boutique, quality pickup brand that offers endless options. You always see custom Bare Knuckles in these really expensive, high-end, custom guitars and it was really nice to see Bare Knuckle had hit a price point with the Boot Camp in line with a lot of other aftermarket pickup brands, and I think it was a really good move for Bare Knuckle, I feel they really needed to do that. You just appealed to everybody; you know, there’s no ambiguity around who Bare Knuckle are, and what you do, and you now have a full spectrum in terms of products.
Your sound and how you play has matured as you have got older. What approach do you take with your own music?
I’m really glad that when I was younger all I wanted to do was to play technically, because it allowed me to have technique, and helped me to create the competent technique that allows me to execute the ideas that are in my head. What I want to do with my playing now is to use the technical ability I have to be able to portray whatever is in my mind. These days that’s fewer shred solos and not so much flashy guitar playing. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but for me I get a lot of satisfaction off a chord progression that makes you feel something. I think this is true in the music I write, particularly in Toska. I try to embrace the two sides to my music. With Dorje, it’s your traditional riff-rock, heavy music that’s powerful and people can sing along to. But in Toska it’s more of an experiment and an exercise in me really digging deep into my musical mind, and really trying to come up with unique sounding progressions. I like being very cinematic and trying to create tension and release. When you listen to classical music, there’s a lot of tension and release in a lot of the moods, and it goes through a lot of different feelings. I want to take that principle and apply it to modern day rock and progressive metal. On one side you’ve got crushingly heavy tones, but on the other you have beautiful, ambient cleans. I just really want to be a cinematic-sounding guitar player, as much as I enjoy riffs and playing solos. There’s so much crossover with classical music and rock.
Do you have a favourite Bare Knuckle pickup that you come back to again and again?
Pickup-wise I have almost exclusively used the Warpig, in a combination of both alnico and ceramic. I found that to be my “sound” in that pickup. But also I’ve used the Aftermath in a lot of my lower-tuned and baritone guitars. Recently I’ve adopted the Ragnarok for that because when you put it into a down-tuned guitar it sounds very similar to the Warpig. Down-tuned guitars are less articulate, inherently, because they’re lower-pitched, but it kind of pays off, and there’s a nice contrast there. I also really enjoy the Crawler, and those four are the main ones I’ve had and used a lot. But then I really, really enjoyed the Brute Force Tele set, the P90s from the Brute Force and the Strat coils from the True Grit range. I use a dual amp stereo rig, my Victory VX Krakens, which were amps that I helped design with Victory. For both bands I use those amps then I run a pedalboard that consists of Strymon effects, so reverb, delay and modulation, and that’s all controlled with TheGigRig, a G2. Then I have a plethora of fuzz pedals! I’ve got about five on my board, and an Octave, because they all do slightly different things, and I blend them in to various different degrees with the amp gain to get different levels of intensity for the music. So that’s my main touring/gigging rig that I use for my original music, but then on the other side of it, the other side of my live playing, would be a Fender Strat with a Klone into something like a V40 (Victory) Deluxe, which is based on a Fender Hot Rod with a bit more gain in it. Kind of John Mayer territory. Again with a combination of things like a fuzz phase for classic blues rock tones. Lastly, in the studio, where I spend a lot of my time, it’s a combination of a Kemper, cab sims and whatever amps I’ve got! For a lot of people, financially, a pedal can give a more achievable tone quickly. I think people like building things, so all pedals have that appeal. I like multi-effect, but really I like a pedalboard that looks like a Google Server Farm! I’m quite traditional when it comes to pedalboards, I like each box to do a specific job. You can really fall into a black hole when it comes to pedals.
Finally, is there anything you would say that inspires you to keep making music, other than for the love of it?
In a nutshell it’s anything that’s unique. I love when you hear something that’s familiar but it’s done with personality; if you can feel someone’s personality, and hear the person behind the playing. Like when I listen to Nuno, I know it’s him playing. When I listen to bands like Incubus or Periphery you know it’s them. I think for me, what inspires me is achieving that. If people can listen to my music and say, hey that’s Rabea, I feel like then I have achieved what I set out to do. That’s inspiration for me. That and classical music! Classical music is a goldmine of ideas for new chord progressions. Whilst making the new Toska record, which I’m currently working on, I spent a lot of time digging around to listen to different composers to see what ideas would translate to heavy guitar sounds; I’m really excited about the new record as I feel it has gone down that rabbit hole a bit.
Rabea is currently working with Leo from Frogleap Studios, whose channel makes heavy metal covers of popular songs; his cover of Adele’s “Hello” has had over 43 million views. Rabea, who introduced Leo to the Juggernaut, has performed a few covers with Leo and Rabea’s girlfriend, most notably Toto’s “Africa”. They are working on taking the channel to the live stage, with Rabea on guitar. The first gig is next month, May 2018, and you can find out more info here.