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Between frontman David Draiman’s pure, powerhouse vocals and guitarist Dan Donegan’s disciplined, often elegant guitar work, Disturbed bring the spectrum of heavy sounds. Now, the platinum-selling metal outfit is staring down a headlining stint on this summer’s Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival, which kicks off in San Bernardino, California, on July 9. The tour also includes Megadeth, Machine Head, In Flames and more metal and hard rock players.

It’s impossible to deny Donegan’s influence on Disturbed’s sound, as his serrated riffing pours out of the speakers. In this interview, Donegan talks about his early inspirations, how he gets that classic Disturbed tone and why the upcoming Mayhem tour will make Disturbed “hungry as a band.”

Is there a particular player who inspired you to pick up guitar?

I can’t really single out any player, but I liked going to concerts and the idea of being in a band where you see the impact four or five guys on stage have over thousands of people. So, that power and the scenario of the lead guitar just pummeling through the speakers were two things that caught my attention. Early on, I got into a lot of the classic metal players: Tony Iommi and Black Sabbath, the guitarists in Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Queensrÿche, Pantera. These bands all had great guitar players, so it definitely inspired me to go down that road.

What’s the first song you ever mastered?

I don’t know if I mastered it [laughs], but the first song where I really learned the riff was Dio, “Rainbow in the Dark.” It was an easy, simple riff for me to learn. But, I mastered early Mötley Crüe songs, because the riffs were easy. I’m a self-taught player, so I started playing and teaching myself. It was a way for me to develop my ear. I think at one point, I knew every Mötley Crüe and Black Sabbath riff.

Disturbed have such a distinct, massive sound, and a lot of it has to do with your clear, heavy tone. What do you believe constitutes good guitar tone?

It’s in your hand. It’s in the way that you play. That, and the choice of tuning. A lot of metal guitar players have tuned down a lot lower, and that works for them and that’s part of their sound. But for me, that gets kind of muddy and lost. I wanted definition. I wanted a chord to ring out and be heard. So, my tunings for most of the albums haven’t gone lower than a Drop C tuning. I’m not saying I would never go lower than that. As long as there’s still clarity and real definition, then I would entertain that idea. But I kind of grew up with that sound. All those classic metal bands I grew up listening to were the tunings I was playing, which is really why I always played with standard tuning or a half-step down. I learned that way, and I haven’t really strayed from that way.

Congrats on Asylum being Disturbed’s fourth consecutive #1 debut. Did you feel, as you were writing the album, it would do well?

To be honest, we felt that. We don’t second-guess what it is that’s working or what the fans or label or anybody else is expecting from us. We just write music for ourselves, and I think we stay true to ourselves and keep that mentality of how we were when we were a garage band, making music for ourselves. We made Sickness in our garage. [laughs] So, we’re just fortunate that the songs and maybe the message and meanings behind them have connected with the fans. Every time we come out, we’re not going to release an album unless we feel that we’ve made something that topped what we did last time. Even though each album may have a slightly different vibe and everyone can pick a different favorite here and there, we’re not going to go into the studio and start recording unless we feel we have the body of work that’s ready to be heard.

Would you say Asylum is a return to Disturbed’s signature, earlier sound?

Some of it. A lot of it we don’t really discuss in the writing process. We don’t discuss where we want to go with it, because we want it to happen naturally. We can’t just say, “This album needs to be heavier or darker.” We know our background and what we enjoy. A lot of it is just pick up a guitar and start improvising and working on riffs, and once I get to the point where I’m ready to show it to the guys, then everybody starts putting their two cents in and putting their stamp on it, and it just kind of evolves from there. But we definitely had a little bit more of the old school vibe on some of it – just a little bit more attitude with the riffs. Starting out with “Asylum,” the song itself is a throw back to old school. It’s the longest song we’ve written, combining the intro that we added on the front of it. The instrumental piece was just more of an experimental thing; it just developed. It created a vibe, and we felt it was a nice way to set up the song.

Do you have any playing tips for our readers?

I think that more and more you play, for me, it becomes part of the daily routine. You get up, brush your teeth, have breakfast and go through your routine on guitar. It’s something I do on a daily basis, and my advice is just to keep playing. It’s an endless instrument of ideas. Stylistically, I try to absorb as much as I can watching other bands and listening to other players, and I try to pick up little tricks here and there and constantly practice.

Do you have a quick Top 5 Favorite Rock Albums of All Time?

My answer could probably change on a daily basis, but I would say that I was always big into Soundgarden, so Badmotorfinger is definitely up there for me. Alice in Chains, Dirt. Black Sabbath, We Sold Our Soul for Rock ’n’ Roll, mainly because that was a big inspirational one for me. Pantera, Vulgar Display of Power. Maybe Faith No More, The Real Thing. If I see you tomorrow and you ask me, I’ll probably name five different ones, but right now, those are definitely up there for me.

Disturbed are headlining the Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival in July and August, leading a lineup of Megadeth, Machine Head and so many others. Pumped?

Absolutely. It’s a killer line up of bands, and we always love those tours, because you really have to step it up when you’re surrounded by so many talented musicians. It makes you hungry as a band. And I like being pushed like that all the time. You don’t want to be one of those bands who goes up there and just goes through the motions. I think when you’re surrounded by that kind of talent, you can’t be lazy. You have to step it up and make every time count, and it’s a great feeling to be there. Just being a fan of music ourselves, to be able to watch some of those bands on a daily basis is awesome.

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