I’ve always believed that Godsmack’s Tony Rombola was one of the more underrated hard rock guitarists of the post-grunge era.
He was never really flashy and there was little about his character that stood out.
When it came to the guitar, he wasn’t really a speed guy and most of what he played was oddly, basic. But the way he utilizes a fairly simple amp setup is extremely effective, as he takes advantage of a thick, metal tone to compliment his rhythmic playing style.
Here's some of what he uses:
Tony Rombola's Guitar Gear
Gibson Les Paul Custom
Boss PH-3 Phaser Shifter Pedal
Dunlop Cry Baby Wah Pedal
Boss DD-3 Digital Delay Pedal
Diezel VH4 Amp Head
Rombola was good for a lot of reasons that went unnoticed by the rock community at large. Perhaps he was just content to work in the shadows of Sully Erna, a far more noticeable and outspoken member of the band.
But from a guitar player’s perspective, Rombola did all the right things on Godsmack’s records, right down to every measure.
His chord progressions were tight, his rhythm was punchy and everything he played just sounded big and driving. Sure, the music was hard rock, but it had a smoothness to it and emotion that sounded like a kind of raw, powerful push. It was controlled, but somehow very aggressive.
The guy’s guitar just sounded down right awesome.
Here are a few reasons why I think that was the case.
1. The Proper Use of Drop-D
On most of Godsmack’s records, Rombola plays primarily in drop-D.
Despite the fact that any song can work similarly in standard tuning as well, drop-D is a hard-rock friendly tuning because it lets you play power chords with one finger. It’s the quicker and more efficient way to play hard rock progressions.
Rombola uses it almost exclusively and often tunes a whole step down to what ends up being drop-C.
The reason I cite Rombola’s playing as the “proper” use of the tuning is for the following reasons.
- He doesn’t use drop-D to speed through chord progressions.
- He plays chord progressions that are more functional when handled one finger at a time.
- It smooths out his chord changes.
Godsmack’s music and the way in which Rombola plays it necessitates that he play in drop-D.
It’s part of why he’s able to achieve that tightness and the smooth transitions in his progressions that you hear on their albums.
2. Timing and Staying Tight
A lot of guitar players struggle to stay tight, partly because timing isn’t something that occurs to many in their earlier years of practice.
You spend tons of time playing by yourself, without a drummer or bass player, then suddenly you’re thrown into a situation where you’ve got to keep time, and haven’t practiced it. Timing is a skill that if mastered can make you sound a lot better, and there are few hard rock guitarists who are better at staying tight and keeping time than Rombola.
During the early 2000s, regardless of whether Tommy Stewart or Shannon Larkin were on drums, Rombola’s guitar playing was in lockstep with every rhythmic cadence.
Overall, they were just an incredibly tight and well timed group of musicians.
So part of the reason that Rombola’s guitar sounded so good, was because he was able to keep time, stay on beat and accentuate the rhythm of the music. It made simple riffs sound fantastic, which goes to show that you don’t have to over-complicate music to give it power.
For example, note this tab for the intro to Greed.
It’s just the first few seconds and then the riff repeats. But notice how everything is completely tightened up. Rombola is just stepping through the rhythm right along with the bass and kick drum.
What you’ve got here is a lesson in hard rock song writing as much as a lesson in guitar; though the principles are the same either way.
Here’s how I would attempt to break it down.
- The drum beat syncopates a simple count.
- A bass line develops that accentuates the down beat.
- The guitar locks up with that bass line to create a punchy rhythm.
This is how I’d explain what is really a simple phenomenon. The timing isn’t complex, but the bass line and the guitar are accentuating the down beat, which gives the song a more powerful feel.
3. Distortion and Tone
When examining the sound of another artist, it’s important to take note of how they’re creating their tone. Rombola’s case is no different, as the distortion he uses and the tone he achieves is a major hallmark of his playing style.
Make no mistake, his gear is top end and most of us don’t have the money to afford a replica rig. So the goal isn’t to just examine what amps and pedals he uses.
Instead, we want to identify what it is about his tone that sounds good and emulate it based on those qualities.
- Bass and Low End
- Saturated Distortion
- Controlled Feedback and Sustain
One thing of particular interest is the control that Rombola has over his guitar’s feedback and sustain.
With higher levels of distortion you usually get a lot of extra, unwanted noise. While studio mixing and compression certainly play a role in what you’re hearing on the albums, Rombola achieves a similar sound when he plays live, and he’s very good at minimizing that extra noise.
Rombola’s riffs are almost never complicated or technically intricate. Even his solos are relatively tame compared to a lot of what you might hear from comparable bands. Yet every note and chord is placed so that it sounds big, emotional and powerful.
It’s not something you can easily explain, nor is it something that can be taught or imparted to someone; but the principle is still there.
Don’t over-complicate things when it comes to hard rock.
Basic riffs, combined with emotion and raw power are enough.
You know what you’re going to get when you listen to Godsmack’s records, because a template that has worked well over the years, Rombola has allowed to stay the same.
Some might say that’s lazy, or that it indicates a lack of creativity. I disagree.
If you find something that works and can develop a template with which to house the variables of your creativity (and those around you) it’s smart to keep doing that.
What’s not smart is to change things up when you have something that’s working for you musically.
Part of why Rombola’s guitar playing sounds so good is that he’s maintained a certain approach and style for a lot of years. It’s what we’re all trying to do when we get behind the guitar. Find something that we’re good at, that people like and then just start to crank out music.
That’s the basic job description of every successful musician.
Darrick Nichols says
Facts are facts. The man’s sound is dead on. Anyone can critique another guitar player but I got to point out the obvious. He’s got it going on 👍
Bobby Kittleberger says
Yep. A childhood inspiration of mine.
Here’s my attempt at his tone: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hrOQW-XEEvs
What effects does Tony Rombola use in the song Mistakes?
Are you talking about the intro specifically?
What effects is he using at the beginning of Keep Away? Thx
Just distortion there. Probably from a Mesa dirty channel.
Tim Petersen says
What guitar string does Tony Rambola usually use?
Bobby Kittleberger says
I think he uses GHS Boomers, or at least he used too during the Awake and Faceless years.
Nice to hear someone else feels the same as I do about Tony Rombola. I’ve always admired him as a guitarist. His style is right up my alley. I’ve been playing guitar since their first album and have always enjoyed jamming along with Tony. The simple riffs make Godsmack a quick study and easy to jam with. Not like trying to figure out what James Hetfield is playing under a Kirk Hammett solo.
Bobby Kittleberger says
Agreed. I’m not crazy about Godsmack’s recent stuff though. Gotta be old school.