In Search Of Tone: Ryan Ferrier Of Valley Of The Sun

I ’ve been a fan of Valley Of The Sun since 2014 after their first album Electric Talons Of The Thunderhawk was released. Immediately, that album pulled me in with the opening song Worn Teeth. Needless to say how excited I was that my first video interview was with Ryan Ferrier (lead singer, guitarist). Not only that, but he was in the studio recording their fourth album and he showed me around!

Ryan Ferrier / Valley Of The Sun - Photo by Kiera Kalleberg
Ryan Ferrier / Valley Of The Sun – Photo by Kiera Kalleberg

Ryan is down to earth and spent a lot of time answering all my questions in detail. He showed how knowledgeable he is about song writing and getting that perfect tone. Part 3 of this series is already showing the variety in song writing and gear guitarists use to create outstanding music.

Hey Ryan, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule at the studio to chat. The basic idea for this interview is to get your perspective on song writing and the gear you use. Let’s start off with how you create unique riffs?

That’s a hard question. It can come from a bunch of different sources and influences for me. I think in rock and roll, everything has been done and we’re all ripping each other off in one way or another. Most ideas come from reinterpretations of songs, noodling around on guitar, sitting down and just playing. Mostly, putting the time in.

Another thing that I think is helpful with coming up with a riff that you’re really into, is to determine the feel that you want in the beginning. The feel is important and then after that just whatever cool notes you come up with, just throwing a little bit of stank or swagger on it. I was getting on Josh [Pilot, also guitarist inValley Of The Sun] about that the other day when we were tracking some stuff. There’s the most subtle hammer-on in this riff and he was sliding it more than hammering the note. I told him no, you really need to hammer that note. You can barely hear it but to me it is important [laughs].

When playing the guitar do you generally record everything you play?

I brought a super ancient Mac with Pro Tools from home, to the studio. I usually use it in our rehearsal space to record ideas and stuff. I’ll usually mic the room whenever we’re rehearsing. I also make ample use of the record audio function on my phone when playing outside our rehearsal space. For example, our bassist Chris and I, especially during the pandemic, has been one of the few people in my ‘bubble’ so he and I hang out a lot. We’ll just sit around the house, smoke pot and play guitar. When we play, I usually stick solidly in the pentatonic scale you know and I kind of noodle around in that.

I think in rock and roll, everything has been done and we’re all ripping each other off in one way or another…

One (of the many things) that I love about Valley of the Sun, is that you guys start with a great riff but by the bridge it’s almost a different song, like in Nomads and As Earth And Moon. Is this something you set out to do from the beginning?

I definitely have some formulas I follow, and it happens almost subconsciously. One of the first riffs I write for the song usually ends up being the main riff. I use that to establish the song and then I really get it going with vocals and everything. From there I like to let the song flower and do its thing as we play. Generally, but not always, I like to wrap the song back up with that original riff. It’s particularly cool in longer songs where you really go off into left field. I like to make a story out of it and take the listener on a trip and somehow smoothly work back to that beginning idea. Even listening to it myself, I will get to the end and think oh shit it’s still this song because it’s taken you on so many paths. That’s something we’re doing a lot on this new record.

Ryan Ferrier - Amps & Cabs
Ryan Ferrier – Sound City Amps & Cabs

You guys are in the studio now recording your next album. Are you following some of the same formulas or going a new direction?

This is a different record. There is a lot of blues on this album. It’s kind of all over the board. There are some fuzzy upbeat rockers like previous albums. We also have some really laid back, quiet, bluesy stuff and we use a lot of organ as well. We used organ in Old Gods on a few songs too. Also, I played a little organ on Electron Talons, specifically the song Centaur Rodeo. Our bassist Chris, when I first met him, I was looking for an organist and I thought he was a cool dude and asked if wanted to join the band. I found out very quickly that he played bass as well and I was like, well fuck play both.

We have twelve songs that we’re tracking. I don’t know if they will all make it on the album. They’re really all over the place. There is definitely a couple that start off chill. Some are chill the whole time. There’s some stuff that are tearing ass right out of the gate with a little bit of a southern rock feel. We’re being a little bit traditionalist on this album. This is a whole new group of guys I’m recording with. I’m the only original member of the band. Chris and I worked together on Old Gods, but Josh (guitar)and Lex (drums) joined after that was recorded.

You know on Old Gods we had those three interlude songs: Buddah Transcends, Shiva Destroys and Gaia Creates. We each wrote one of those songs. I wrote Buddah Transcends, Aaron (previous drummer) wrote Shiva Destroys and Chris wrote Gaia Creates. So, Chris had a fair amount of influence on the last album. Now we have Lex, our new drummer, who is a bit of a wild man and likes to play hard and fast. I have to slow him down a bit for these chill blues songs. We have a new guitarist, Josh, who is ten times the lead guitarist that I am. The solos on this album will be unlike anything that’s has been on our previous albums.

If you need to seek out inspiration, then for me, I like to take a drive. Riffs may pop into my head and I’ll just sing them into my phone…

When I play guitar, I feel like one day everything just works only to be followed by a day where nothing sounds good. What do you do on off days (if you have any) to get inspired to play again?

I would say I have more off days than on. I think it’s important to be forgiving of yourself. Anything that strikes your fancy, it’s important to record it any way you can. Then revisit it. If something seems cool in the moment, record it and if you decide later it sucks, just let it go. I have this old ass computer with an 80 gig hard drive in it and I added another 80 gig external hard drive that are both full. I’ve added a 1 terabyte hard drive to it now and I’m working on filling that. This has been over years that I saved all this music.

On Old Gods, one or two of the songs are over 6 years old. For instance, Dreams of Sands is super old and I love that song. I’ve been wanting to do that for a really long time and Aaron was never into it. When we were putting stuff together for that album, I asked him to give it another chance. He ended up really liking it and we’re pleased how it turned out. On this new album, there is a song we will be recording that is about 14 years old. I wrote it for my previous band Blacklight Barbarian. We did a lot of psychedelic/bluesy kind of stuff. It’s a song that never made it to tape and it’s a rocker, about three minutes long and fits nicely into this new album.

To go back to your question, don’t be too hard on yourself on those down days. If you need to seek out inspiration, then for me, I like to take a drive. Riffs may pop into my head and I’ll just sing them into my phone. Another thing, sometimes I don’t listen to music enough. If I’m feeling like I want to write something with a specific feel then I will overexpose myself to music with a similar feel. For example, in the spring I was listening to TONS of 90s grunge. Devouring Soundgarden and all that. I picked up stuff I haven’t listened to in a long time like Temple of the Dog, Mad Season, Screaming Trees and even Mudhoney. I was trying to get back to my roots a little bit. I’m 42 years old, I graduated high school in 1996, and so that was my music.

Ryan Ferrier - Hiwatt Cab
Ryan Ferrier – Hiwatt Cab

Moving on to the endless sea of gear! What kind of amps do you use and do you prefer tube or solid state?

I prefer tube amps. For my first band Blacklight Barbarian and early Valley of the Sun stuff I was using Sound City gear. The Sound City 120s are a poor mans Hiwatt. They have tons of head room and are really clean. They have a good mid range punch and a really sharp attack. The attack is what I require most in an amp. The other guys laugh about it all the time because I fucking hate Orange Amps due to the fact that they kind of have a spongy attack. If you really get on the strings they swell a little bit. They don’t feel as sharp as I would like it. I don’t know any other way to describe it.

Also, another big thing is I like an amp that really responds to different levels of pick attack. I don’t like to mess with my shit any more than necessary on stage.

I’ve also been using a ’76 Hiwatt DR103 for about 6-7 years now.  Since we’re here in the studio you can see all the amps we can choose from. We have used the Hiwatt 50 and the Sovtek’s a couple of times. He has two mid 100s here that I’ve used on Thunderhawk. Actually, we get crazy sometimes, for instance on Thunderhawk I had a pair of Hiwatt rhythm guitar tracks and a pair of Sovtek rhythm guitar tracks. One of those Sovtek’s I ran through a Fender 215 cabinet. I was trying to create as much depth as possible and layering is very important. For solos, I’ve used that white Marshall 800 a handful of times.

There’s one thing we haven’t touched on yet and are often overlooked. Speakers are so important to me.

I’ve also been using a ’76 Hiwatt DR103 for about 6-7 years now…

Yes, you’re right. I even overlooked it in my questions [laughs].

Because my tone is kind of muddy with a lot of low end, there are many cabinets that do not handle it well. They don’t accurately replicate what the amp is trying to do. This is a ’76 Hiwatt cabinet which I got with the head a few years back. It originally had four second generation Fane speakers in it. I ended up blowing one speaker and I didn’t want to replace just one. I had an old sound city cabinet that had first generation, cast frame, Fane speakers which are super sought after. Instead of it being a thin metal stamped frame, it’s actually cast so it’s super heavy duty. This provides a really rigid surface and less flex. It’s supposed to provide longer speaker life as well. There are plenty out there over 40 years old, so I believe that’s true.

In the ’76 Hiwatt cabinet, I have two of those first generation Fanes and two second generation Fanes now. It does things to my tone that I couldn’t never get out of a Marshall cabinet or anything with Celestian speakers because of the low end I’m getting from the octave pedal.

Ryan Ferrier - Pedal Board
Ryan Ferrier / Valley Of The Sun – FX Pedal Board

It seems you have a vast knowledge of amps and cabinets and really perfected your tone through them. What are you using for pedals currently?

I’ve been using the same pedal board for some time now. The key to my sound is this beat up old Green Big Muff. I’ve had it since about 2005 and I bought it for about $60 but now its worth about $400. That Big muff in front of a high wattage, high head room tube amp is essential for my tone.

I also wire my pedal board in reverse to what most people do. It’s common to put your tuner pedal first after the guitar. I do the opposite. I start with an octave pedal, OC-2, which is featured a lot on our albums because of its super deep heavy tone. It has two sub octaves. You have the original tone and then one octave down and two octaves down and it plays it all at the same time. It’s monophonic so you can’t play chords; it has to be single string. There is a way to play to really get the best out of it.

Both the OC-2 and the Boss TU-2 tuber are single buffer pedals. I just make sure I have a buffering pedal on the beginning and end of my chain. I like to have the tuner on the end because I can also use it as a mute. The big muff is so noisy that if I had the tuner on the front, it would mute my guitar but I would still have a buzz. By moving it to the end of the chain it’s totally quiet.

The chain currently is a clean tone from the amp going into the octave, delay, wah, fuzz and tuner. That’s actually how I always run it. It’s also funny, I’m usually pretty clumsy on stage so I normally wouldn’t want my pedals this close, but for some songs I turn the octave on and the delay off at the same time, or vice versa. I use a little link to connect the delay and octave so I can step on them at the same time. Random trivia for you [laughs].

the key to my sound is this beat up old Green Big Muff. I’ve had it since about 2005 and I bought it for about $60…

These are all the little tips and tricks I’m looking for, so this is amazing. Thank you. What about guitars? I noticed you used a brown Les Paul (I believe) at the concert I saw back in February 2020. Is that your main guitar?

My main guitar I’ve used is this 1979 Gibson ‘The Paul’. I got it around the same time as the Green Big Muff, so about 2005. They have the walnut and mahogany Firebrand ‘The Paul’ guitars. They look exactly the same. I used to have a Firebrand but the mahogany body didn’t resonate the way the walnut guitar does.

Another key to my sound are these T Top pickups, which really sucks because I bought all this stuff years ago for really cheap and now it’s all getting expensive [laughs]. I bought this guitar with the pickups for about $800 back in 2005 and now for the same guitar its $1600 and the pickups alone are $500 to replace. I can’t get any spares of anything anymore without breaking the bank [laughs]. Josh was the one who got the Reverend endorsement and that’s what he was playing last tour when you saw us live. The one he was leaning on all the time.

Ryan Ferrier - Marshall Amp
Ryan Ferrier – Marshall JCM 800 Lead Series Amp

Yeah the one he was balancing on his fingers while playing, that was awesome.

Yeah that one. It was a Reverend Sensei and unfortunately it was stolen. He’s got another one now and he did get one for me as well. I’m a little weird about playing it because it’s so new and pretty, while my Gibson is beat up. [laughs]. He got it for me because I’m getting more nervous flying with my Gibson. I’m waiting for it to arrive broken or something. Next tour in Europe, I’ll probably just bring the Reverend.

We have also taken advantage of this guitar room in the studio. I’ve used an SG to play leads on and couple of these Les Pauls I’ve played as well. I’m usually a Gibson guy. We do have a Reverend endorsement now, however, so that’s probably what we will be playing on tour next time.

I can show you this as well. Chris used this on Old Gods and will break it out for the new album. It’s this insane Korg Organ/Synth thing. It sounds amazing.

Another key to my sound are these T Top pickups, which really sucks because I bought all this stuff years ago for really cheap and now it’s all getting expensive…

Do you have any practice routines or warm ups that you do everyday?

Oh no, well this year is very weird and my answers may have been very different a year ago. But, this year has been soul crushing. I was bartending and my bar actually closed permanently. So I was just throwing myself around the house and drinking too much in the beginning. I got nothing accomplished and barely even picked up a guitar.

More recently, the band practices once a week for about 5-7 hours and then Chris and I will meet up one extra time a week as well. But, since we’re recording our fourth album, we have been meeting up 2-3 times a week. We’ll have practice on Monday and then Chris and I will get together Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. We will spend the whole evening just working out little details to prep for the studio.

You’re a big inspiration for me, not only in music but I read that you reached out to Dango and asked if you could set up a US tour for Truckfighters and he said yes. Can you tell me how the tour went?

Valley Of The Sun
Valley Of The Sun

Back in 2013, I was following Truckfighters on Facebook. They’re a really big inspiration to me. I saw they posted a tour announcement in Europe and I jokingly said you should come to the US and I’ll drive you around and you can use our gear. They said yes, set it up and I was like ‘oh fuck’ [laughs]. We booked eleven dates for them and I had this old 1976 dodge van and a U-Haul trailer. I had to work on it every day we were on the road. I had all my Sound City gear as well.

I drove to NY to pick them up at the airport. We did four days in NY, Philly, Providence RI and Boston. I was basically just tour managing for them because Valley Of The Sun didn’t play those shows. We then joined up with the rest of the band in Columbus, Ohio and opened for Truckfighters. We played in Chicago, Columbus, Lexington, one of the Carolinas (I think Charlotte, it’s been so long I don’t remember).

The following US tour they were on, they came through Dayton and asked us to play with them. By that time Thunderhawk was out and we were selling the record. Dango said he really liked it and asked if we wanted to join Fuzzorama Records.

Thank you so much again for talking to me about your perspective of music. I learned a ton and really enjoyed the tour of the studio. I look forward to your new album and thanks for the awesome music.

When concerts do come back, make sure you see these guys live. They were the last show I saw before the pandemic and put on one hell of a performance.

Label: Fuzzorama Records
Band Links: Facebook | Instagram

Interviewed by: Josh Schneider