Interview: Korn's James "Munky" Shaffer Talks Musical Milestones and Go-To Gear

James "Munky" Shaffer (2002). Photo by: Kevin Winter / Staff, Getty Images.

Guitarist James Shaffer has spent the majority of his adult years in the close quarters of a tour bus, traveling the world with Korn. Alongside high school friend and guitarist Brian Welch, bassist Reginald Arvizu, vocalist Jonathan Davis, and drummer Ray Luzier (who took over for David Silveria in 2007), Shaffer has grown and matured, musically and personally, gaining perspective on the industry, his bandmates, and, most of all, himself.

When he spoke to Reverb, Shaffer—like much of the world—was at home on lockdown. The coronavirus pandemic rapidly brought the music industry to a halt, and an upcoming tour with Faith No More was postponed, leaving him to enjoy around-the-clock family time, but also pining to take Korn's latest album, The Nothing, into live venues.

The Nothing is Korn's thirteenth studio release in a history of writing, recording, and touring that dates back to 1993. Relentless and unapologetic in their determination to bend rules and crush parameters, the eventual Grammy-winning, multi-platinum Korn were at the forefront of a genre that came to be known as nu metal. The label remains affixed to their name, despite the fact that their musical output has shifted and morphed.

Music for The Nothing was recorded in Nashville with producer Nick Raskulinecz. Just as the band announced the commencement of sessions in August 2018, with Davis to later record vocals in his Bakersfield studio, news came that the vocalist's ex-wife had passed away. The tragedy, loss, and subsequent grief left the musicians rethinking the direction of their work—one of many things Shaffer discusses in his interview.

You've spent almost half your life in this band. When you look at the timeline, what are some of the milestones that stand out to you?

Obviously the first and second records [Korn, 1994; Life Is Peachy, 1996], and the third record [Follow the Leader, 1998], to be quite honest, because that's when things really started to take off. That's when we started having more commercial success. Making that record at NRG, on that Neve board, in that room—there are so many great memories at that point. So the first three records were pivotal. And performing at Woodstock. We stopped in the middle of making Issues [1999] to do that. We had written three or four songs and we decided to play a couple. It was fun because you don't do that often—present a song in front of a live audience before it's released. That's how excited we were about the songs on that album.

Korn perform "Good God" at Woodstock 99.

From there, it was sort of hit and miss. We did a pivotal deal with Virgin, the first 360 deal, and it was a big deal to have, not just monetarily, but as kind of a guinea pig to what other artists would try later. But it didn't really work for artists. We've partnered with different merch companies and promoters and things like that. Times change, so we change with them, or we try to.

Times change and people change. Who were you then? Who are you now?

Probably more responsible and trying to do my part, stay in my lane, I guess. When I was young, I didn't care. The ego and money and success blur your sense of reality, and of course you have people around you that enable those behaviors. Things change when you get married and have kids. For the better! It makes you think about tomorrow, when before I didn't care. It was a different time. The 1990s were like, "Y2K! Party like it's 1999!" The whole thing was just … real. When the party ended, it was like, "Let's keep going. This is a lot of fun."

We had some ups and downs personally, addiction, just trying to keep our mental health. Not only that, but the relationships in the band are always … we've been so lucky as a band. We grew up together, so we have so many memories together and successes and loss. The relationships have definitely gotten better over the years. We know each other better than ever and that helps us navigate. It helps us to know our thresholds, and when people need support or when they don't. Knowing that line, we can help each other out.

We're together a lot on the road, and things happen and the world keeps going while you're in this bubble of touring. It really feels like a time capsule a lot of times, where you're sort of in this space, and the rest of the world is moving and you're not. You're doing the same thing. It's like Groundhog Day. A good Groundhog Day. But your reality becomes skewed, and when you come home, your kids are older and life has moved on without you.

So many bands fall by the wayside. It is no small feat to have come this far.

I know. I think I take it for granted sometimes, unless I'm having a conversation about precisely what we're talking about. I think it's something to be proud of. It's like having four wives! And those four wives have four wives. So there are all these relationships going on in the tour bus. When you do the matrix of it, it's insane to have everybody interact and the chemistry between.

I think that's where a lot of bands lose themselves, because you put all these people and this matrix of relationships in small spaces. We only get to go onstage for an hour or an hour and a half. The other twenty-three hours you're in these tight spaces, you're hungry, you miss home, and fights break out. You can't avoid it. Again, you're in this bubble with your reality skewed by … it could be any sort of vice, too, that is enhancing the ego.

I've been through all of it myself. I've made mistakes. Hopefully we all learn and become better people. We're all fathers raising kids and trying to keep a balance between our career, where we want to go, and how we want to raise these kids. That's the reality of it. And the kids, when they get together, sometimes they get along and sometimes they don't, and it's like, "Man …" But it's been quite a journey, and I think the guys feel the same way.

Let's talk about gear.

If you want to know a quick history, I don't know what my first acoustic guitar was, but it was a nylon-string my brother had. I had an accident where I chopped the end of my finger off when I was 12, and then I got this guitar strung up, a classical guitar, and it didn't quite sound like Eddie Van Halen to me. I had to put this all together and figure it out.

I met Brian when I started high school, and one day during lunch—because he lived very close to school—we were at his house and he started playing this Charvel that looked like George Lynch's guitar. He was playing all these George Lynch riffs and I was like, "What in the world?" He taught me all about it—"This is a distortion pedal, this is the amp." I was like, "Wow!" My first electric guitar was a Peavey Mystic, and then I bought a Charvel with a Kahler bridge after I saw the movie Crossroads, because I wanted to be Jack Butler when I grew up.

I started out with a Randall amp, a solid state, a rack mount with cheap Peavey cabinets, but it sounded good. That's all I needed. And simple effects pedals, like an overdrive and a chorus. That's all I had in the beginning.

When did you start playing seven-strings?

When Steve Vai started promoting Passion and Warfare, that was the kick in the door. Eddie Van Halen made me interested in knowing more about electric guitar, and I followed that to Steve Vai and the introduction of the Universe. I loved how he took the instrument to the extreme and made the guitar talk. That, to me, was so unique and different, that everything has a tone. Every word and every noise, you can apply a music note to it, whether it's a rhythm, the way people talk, or a sound outside. That blew my mind, how he was emulating everyday sounds. That was really inspirational.

With that spirit in mind, I was listening to Pantera, Sepultura, Faith No More, all this heavy music. But Passion and Warfare changed the way I thought about music because he was telling stories with this album and that was intriguing. It's something I still try to do.

I bought my first seven-string, and I remember putting $100 down on it as a layaway at Guitar Center in Torrance. I would bring them sixty or a hundred bucks every week after I got paid. It took about six months to pay it off. Once I got it, it was cool, but it still wasn't tuned quite low enough for me to resonate with what I heard in my head, so I adjusted the springs and lowered the tuning. With those floating bridges you have to make up the difference in tension on the springs in the back, so there was this battle back and forth. I finally got it a whole step lower and that's where I've stayed for twenty-five or thirty years or however long it's been.

I changed the tuning on one album, The Path of Totality [2011], where we had guest DJs. It made sense because it helped with communicating notes. When you're working via DSL lines and over the internet with other people and you're giving notations, you can get a lot of work done quicker if you know how to transcribe everything, because you need musical vocabulary. But all the other albums have that low, heavy sound.

When did you expand beyond an overdrive and chorus?

Again, in that spirit of pushing the instrument to its capabilities, I used the pick to do pick scrapes, bending the tremolo in an upward pitch, and the vibrato as well. Brian and I were so inspired by '90s gangsta rap, how Dre and Professor Griff from Public Enemy took records and made these amazing samples and tracks. Even DJ Lethal, for that matter, when he was in House of Pain. Some of the stuff he created with DJ Muggs—those guys were doing amazing stuff. Tom Morello took that by the horns and mastered it. He's one of my top inspiring musicians. On the business end he's smart, and his playing is out of this world.

We've always been into effects pedals and trying to create sounds where it didn't sound like a guitar. I've always been intrigued by how you can manipulate and modulate the sound, like synth sounds, and make the guitar sound almost oscillated. One of my favorite pedals that I have on my pedalboard is the EHX Microsynth. It has synth voices in it that retain the organic guitar attack.

With a lot of pedals, there's no connection and I don't recognize it as an extension of creation between the guitar and the sound. When you lose that organic feel between the amp and the guitar because there's so much stuff in between, it's too much. There's always a fine line. And it depends on the part. It can sound great in a rehearsal room, but when you record, you go, "This is garbage," and you have to rethink the whole section.

Ross Robinson produced our first couple of albums, and he always brought in these crazy effects pedals. We were working at a studio in Malibu called Indigo Ranch that burned down [in 2007]. The owner was Richard Kaplan. He had a workspace in the other room and he used to make all these crazy circuits. While we were recording, he would take some of our pedals, open them up to the circuit board, and recreate them. He opened up a couple of Big Muff pedals and modified them, and he'd give them all these crazy names. He would bring in a PC board with a couple of connectors and a little pot not even mounted in a box. He was a pretty amazing guy. So a lot of our overdriven fuzz pedals were homemade.

That kicked off a whole journey of effects and manipulating guitar textures on top of each other. We were young, and I think the way we were applying them was unique to our sound and helped shape it. Ross helped us guide that, and it was always, "Turn it all the way up!" So a lot of the effects pedals you hear, the effects all the way up, that's his approach, which was so inspiring. There were no limits with him.

When we recorded Follow The Leader, we had a bigger budget, more time in the studio, and we were able to expand. We were able to waste time, basically, but we did come up with cool stuff. That's when the whammy pedal became permanent fixture on our pedalboards and you started hearing more of those effects on that album.

From what I've read, you used a Mesa/Boogie Triple Rectifier, a Diezel VH4, and a Bogner Uberschall on The Nothing, with three cabs and everything double-miked. Is that correct?

Yes, those are on the record. We also used a Friedman. We used a Supro. Everything is fluid. It's like, "Here's our selection." In the studio we like to do triple tracks, so I'll go through three amps and three separate cabinets and we combine the total mics we have on all of these cabinets to come up with one tone. So when you hear one track, that's a Mesa, a Bogner, and a Diezel at the same time, one track on the left. Then there's another track on Brian's side with a different Bogner and a slightly different Mesa head, maybe a Dual Rectifier, something to give it a little more grit, and we combine those.

There's a few effects pedals. When we were making our last record, I got into making a Eurorack modulating system. I built one. It's pretty amazing. I'm trying to patch my guitar through those and treat them like effects pedals, and treat my guitar as the signal path or a CV/gate.

When we get to overdubs, it's all Fender Strats, and Gibson SGs, and cool boutique guitars because it adds texture. I want to not just widen the sound, but, "What if this guitar had height?" If we add a Goldtop and play single notes over the top of the rhythm, cleaner, through something like a Vox, it will make it so much heavier. Sometimes backing up can give you a bit more punch because you're thinking about it in a different way, where a clean sound might make the whole riff sound bigger in the background, if it's tucked in there in the right mix. So I'll use anything that sounds good.

And it may not work the next day. We might come back and listen and say, "No, let's redo that." You can go down a rabbit hole, like anything, and sometimes you veer a little too far, but sometimes it leads to something you wouldn't have done. It's good to explore that atmospheric soundscape.

You're a longtime Ibanez man. How has that relationship developed over time?

When we first started, we were about to go on our first real tour with House of Pain and Biohazard. We were the opening act, we were scheduled to leave in about eight weeks or something, and Brian and I had Ibanez guitars that we bought off the shelf. We didn't have backup guitars, so we called Ibanez and they told us, "We don't make them anymore." We were about to go on tour, we needed backups, and "Sorry, we don't have any."

Brian had a black-and-green Ibanez seven-string that he bought when they first came out in 1991 or 1992. I looked in an LA magazine called Recycler, went to somebody's apartment, and bought a guitar off of him for $1,500. He said, "Some guy who I guess invented the guitar signed the back." It had Steve Vai's signature, and I was trying to keep my poker face. I still have that guitar.

We went on tour, the record started picking up steam, and one of the Ibanez reps, a great guy, said, "We'd like to bring back the seven-string. We'd like to endorse you and basically bring back the Universe." They brought us one or two guitars to start with, and people started demanding them. Ever since then, we've had an ongoing relationship with Ibanez. The people in their LA office have seen us through the years and they take good care of us. A lot of companies since have made seven-strings, but I fell in love with the Ibanez. That's the guitar that took me to where I am, that took me on this journey.

What makes their guitars right for you?

They make me feel like a kid again, I guess. I remember being 14 and playing a few chords and the feeling it gives you. You can't explain it. It's like asking a surfer to explain, "What's the best wave you've ever ridden?" I think it's one of those things, a feeling. It's like putting on new sneakers on the first day of school when you're a kid. Being reminded of that feeling always helps you create because it's comfortable.

Tell us about your new signature models. [Note: Ibanez introduced the APEX 30 and K720th at the winter NAMM show in January 2020.]

The APEX is a workhorse. It's indestructible. What you hear on the new album is a prototype of the new APEX 30. It's an RGA; it looks like the RG, the same shape, with a thinner profile and a slightly arched top. It's streamlined. I needed a bit lighter guitar because I'm not a spring chicken anymore, and to have a guitar that weighs ten or twelve pounds over an hour on stage every night rocking out, you have to cut corners sometimes.

It's a beautiful guitar with a matte satin finish. Being in the studio with this prototype helped shape that guitar, along with communicating with Ibanez about the things I like. Eventually we had a good enough list that they were able to make the APEX 30. To get to that point there was a lot of refinement as far as volume knobs, tone knobs, fretboard. There are so many options to think about, and it comes down to preference. Through the years, your tastes change. But there are certain things I do like—for example, the ebony fretboard.

Ibanez Limited Edition K720TH Munky Signature

But I also wanted to push forward and try something new with the EverTune bridge. We waste so much time in the studio tuning our guitars, always tuning. That's gone now. We're not spending hours making sure the intonation is right. Live, especially how hard we play, it's perfect. The guitars are perfectly in tune and it makes a big difference.

With the K720th, I wanted to keep some of the original stuff from the Universe that we used when we did the K7 model because, again, I didn't want to lose those things that remind me of being a kid. There was one change we made: We almost didn't use the U-bar. Brian and I came up with riffs that chromatically climbed by bending the string or pushing on the bridge, the floating bridge, to make the pitch higher. So we created this bar on the K7, an out of the way, alternative whammy bar, which a lot of people liked.

We almost put a graphite lightweight whammy bar, one that Joe Satriani and Steve Vai are using, on the K720th. And then I was like, "Wait a minute. Just because they're doing it…" And so we retained the U-bar design.

You've also streamlined your pedalboard.

I took some things off of my pedalboard. I figured out I was getting a lot of outside noise and signal reduction, especially when I'm running a wireless with an ISO cab offstage—there's a lot of signal loss. So I cleaned it up. When you're trying to play songs from thirteen albums from different eras, you need to be reminiscent of that song and that period and pack it all into one show. It's challenging.

This was your second time in the studio with Nick Raskulinecz. What is his role in producing Korn?

We worked with Nick on the last album [The Serenity of Suffering] and we had such a good experience that it made sense to carry that on. He has a way of explaining what he wants to hear from a fan's perspective, and that's what makes him different from other producers. He listens to all the albums, he knows the progression, and he gives you insight. He knows what he wants to hear more or less of in the new songs. That's rare. A lot of times producers come in and they want their one-fifth say, like, "Let's make a hit and let me put my name on it." Nick is into it like a 15-year-old kid. He becomes so involved, and I think that's important.

There's a spirit Nick has, and an excitement, that he brings to the studio every day. It's "When people hear this outside of the lab, they're going to freak out! They're going to love it!" and "Today what we're going to do is going to be great. It's going to be magic." Bands need that. Musicians need that extra pat on the back because we're insecure. There tends to be self-doubt about what you're doing and what you're working on, so it's good to have a coach like Nick to cheer you on. It's comfortable to create when you know there are like-minded people in the room. You can have fun making music and recording the ideas along the way.

Korn - "You'll Never Find Me," from their latest release, The Nothing

You mentioned earlier how Steve Vai inspired you when he made the guitar "talk." In a different way, do you feel you are interpreting Jonathan's lyrics on the guitar, translating the words and emotions through your parts?

The way we did this album, and all our albums, we record the music, and then Jonathan gets pieces of it and starts writing at the studio in Bakersfield. So whatever we're resonating, he's going to react to it. We had written about half the album, and then he had this tragic event unfold in his life, so knowing what the lyrics were going to be about, we felt we should rewrite some of this stuff.

We didn't know what the lyrics were going to be, but we knew what the tone was, so we went back and created something more atmospheric that he would feel OK to be vulnerable in and create, and that would pull him into a safe place, a place where it's OK and a place where it's aggressive, and that's OK too, because some of the songs shift from the intro to the ending as they're telling the story. The song "Finally Free" is an example of that. It starts off dark and sweet, and ends with this big, aggressive explosion. That helps tell the story as well.

We did have to go back and re-record some of the stuff and make it a bit darker and more serious. Having this tragic, life-changing event made us go back and say, "Are we there? What do we need to do with these songs to make them better, now that we have all been through this and witnessed somebody dear and close to us, watched our friend, go through this? Are these songs worthy of him writing what we know it's going to be about?" In the end, we trust each other and we rely on each other a lot, but it was a tall order to fill.

Other than the obvious "a lot more practice, a lot more playing," how have you evolved as a musician?

By the time of the third record, we started to understand song structure. When I look back at the first couple of albums, I think, Where's the chorus? OK, I guess that's what we thought was a hook. But there's innocence to that. We didn't know. We just liked this part, so we played it again. Being in a band with these guys, my songwriting capabilities and understanding have gotten a lot better.

One of the things that has gotten us this far is that we have been willing to take risks when it comes to creating sounds and doing stuff outside the box. I think that's why we've had such a long career. We've gotten much more refined in what we do, in the studio and live, which is good as long as we always remember the essence of the first two records and embody those roots.

Some of the qualities the early songs had—they were honest, and remembering all that is important for this band, because that's where it all starts, from down deep within, and you can hear that in the first couple of albums. I think when you pull from that well of inspiration, you're going to reach something great, as long as you always stay true to that.

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