Anyone who knows me well enough will know how much of a huge Deftones fan I am. I first heard the eccentric Californian progressive metallers at an impressionable age from hearing songs like “My Own Summer”, “Back To School” and “Minerva” via music video channels and something about them absolutely captivated me. I hadn’t heard music that was anything like them before. It was crushingly heavy and yet achingly beautiful at the same time. A big part of that that I didn’t come to realise until much later was the incredibly distinctive playing of their main guitarist Stephen Carpenter. That’s why I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Stephen Carpenter is the most underrated guitarist of all time.
Why such a bold claim, you ask? Well, Stef is no ordinary guitarist. Anyone who’s no stranger to the Deftones back catalogue will know that right away. He’s not somebody who sticks to straight rhythms and straight chords. He has his own, wonderfully unique style where he seems to have made up chords and scales all of his own and freely embraces the most weird and wonderful of the spectrum of guitar in a way that many (including myself!) have tried to emulate but, honestly, few have succeeded. The discordant low-fi clanging of the intro of “Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away)” that leads into one of the coolest and most unique chord progressions in rock music is something that only he could have come up with. The same can be said for the beautifully meandering ambience of “Pink Maggit”, the angular alien-sounding riffs and grooves of “Needles and Pins” and “Hexagram” and the gloriously messy downtuned punk of “Rocket Skates”.
Part of Stephen Carpenter‘s unique musical vocabulary is his use of extended range guitars Ever since he started incorporating 7 string guitars into Deftones’ material in the early 00s and then moving onto 8 string guitars in the early 10s, it’s added even more to the unique voice he has as a guitar player. Diamond Eyes, Koi No Yokan and even Gore in some spots are hugely characterised by those huge, droning low notes that he’s able to achieve with the much broader range his 8 string guitars give him over the 6 string guitars he exclusively used in Deftones up until White Pony. Likewise, songs like “Hexagram” and “Needles and Pins” wouldn’t be the same without the lower territory he was able to expand into with his (at the time) new 7 string guitars. He even worked closely with ESP, his longtime endorsers, to create a range of 7 and 8 string guitars to fulfil his unique musical needs. With a weird pickup setup that eschews the traditional neck pickup in favour of one that’s in the middle position and fully embracing the high gain possibilities of active circuitry with EMG and then later with Fishman, he created a blueprint for what many heavy bands feel a 7 or 8 string guitar should sound like.
It’s not uncommon either for guitarists from other bands to be seen playing his signature ESP 7 and 8 string models with their distinctive pickup combination and out of the box crushingly heavy tones. A lot of metalcore and deathcore bands use them as part of their tonal toolbox to create those awesomely heavy guitars. Even Charlie Simpson, a noted huge fan of Deftones, used one of Stef’s signature guitars to help create the ultra-progressive textures of Fightstar‘s comeback album Behind The Devil’s Back. You could maybe say that Stef, along with Fredrik Thordendal, Steve Vai, Munky and Head of Korn and several others, is hugely responsible for the growth of extended range instruments into something that is much more of a part of mainstream metal than it was 20 years ago.
Stephen Carpenter‘s uniqueness on the guitar is such a fundamental part of the Deftones sound that when he stepped back a bit from songwriting duties, people really noticed. Gore, an album which was mainly written by the band’s frontman Chino Moreno according to interviews from the time, was so sonically different that it almost didn’t sound like a Deftones record at all. Whilst Chino is a fantastic songwriter in his own right (you only have to listen to anything by Crosses or Team Sleep) and Gore does have its fantastic moments, a lot of the time it misses the eccentric spark that only Stef can provide. His writing partnership with Chino is the true foundation of the Deftones sound. As much friction as it may have caused between the two of them in the past, it’s that unique chemistry that created some of the greatest metal albums of all time in White Pony, Diamond Eyes and Koi No Yokan.
Stephen Carpenter has a voice on his instrument that is completely his own and that’s what often separates the good guitarists from the truly great ones. It’s what separates the David Gilmours, the Slashes, the Guthrie Govans, the Emil Werstlers and the Tony MacAlpines (to name but a few!) from the rest. Stef sounds like… well, Stef. Nobody else sounds like him in any way. You could have him play any guitar through any guitar rig and he would still sound like him, because his style comes pretty much entirely from his brain and his hands. That’s what makes Stephen Carpenter a person who I think is the most underrated guitarist of all time.