School’s Back With Godsmack

Bill Mossman
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September 07, 2011
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Godsmack is (from left) Tony Rombola, Sully Erna, Robbie Merrill and Shannon Larkin.

Middle-aged rocker Robbie Merrill has gone back to school, and he’s willing to take you along if you’ve got a passion for the bass guitar. Despite a hectic touring schedule that included last month’s Mayhem Festival, the Godsmack bassist decided to launch his own higher education music course, Rock Dawg University, anyway this summer. Consisting of 10 live sessions, the course allows students of varying abilities and in all locations from Johannesburg to Papakolea to study under one of rock’s finest musicians in an exclusive online setting.

“I’ve been always wanting to do lessons, but I didn’t really want to teach them in a store,” the 48-year-old “Professor Merrill” tells Musical Notes. “This dude I knew had the technology know-how to set up the online bass lessons, and it sounded like fun. The idea was I could have pretty much all my students around the whole world tune in on a certain day and time, and I could interact with them through live lessons and live chats.”

The sessions come at a cost, of course, but at $15 a pop ($150 total) they are about as good as it gets for any serious student of the bass. And with the second series tentatively scheduled to start next month, now may be as good a time as any for local musicians to register at rockdawg and start learning from one of the business’ true masters.

Of course, you don’t have to become one of Merrill’s students to appreciate his electric, seductive style of fingerpicking and string-slapping. Just catch him live in concert at 8 Friday evening at Blaisdell Center Concert Hall, along with bandmates Sully Erna on vocals and guitar, Tony Rombola on guitar and Shannon Larkin on drums, and you’ll understand why Merrill and the hardworking boys from Lawrence, Mass., remain a must-see concert act.

Known for music that’s dark and dirgelike yet grippingly tasty, Godsmack blasted onto the music scene 15 years ago and hasn’t slowed its frenetic touring pace since. With five studio albums, one EP, numerous road shows (including participating in Ozzfest and the aforementioned Mayhem Festival) and a string of radio hits such as Whatever, Voodoo and I Stand Alone to its credit, the group remains a force in the hard rock world.

Just make sure you don’t refer to the band’s music as “heavy metal,” Merrill says.

“I never really felt we were a heavy metal band. To me, we’re more groove rock with an attitude,” he explains. “We get the groove from a lot of Tony’s percussive riffs and the attitude from Sully’s vocals.”

Musical Notes caught up with Merrill and got him to opine about touring, his earliest musical influences and a certain birth defect.

MN: The band recorded its 2004 EP The Other Side here on Oahu and you’ve even had locals such as Kelly Hu and B.J. Penn appear in your music videos. Yet, you’ve never played a live show in Hawaii until now. What gives?

RM: We’ve always wanted to play in Hawaii, but it’s been difficult in the past, with the market and everything, to bring our whole rig over and not lose money. But we’re excited about finally getting the chance to play a concert there.

MN: After 15 years of seemingly nonstop touring, does it ever get tiring for you?

RM: Nah. I mean, yes, we’ve been doing this for a long time and yes, life on the road means getting on the bus and going from place to place and sitting around a lot, missing your family. But in that hour, hour and a half a day that we get to play, that’s the best part. You could say we’re addicted to touring.

MN: Who were some of your earliest musical influences?

RM: Jimmy Hendrix, Aerosmith and Foreigner. My dad played the guitar and he always told me to be versatile. So, I began playing country and western music, too, and whatever I needed to make money. Playing those other forms of music helped me develop my own style.

Kelii Makua

MN: Speaking of style, you’re not the typical bass guitarist in the sense that you don’t have all your digits at your disposal, right?

RM: That’s right. I was born with a birth defect in my left middle finger and even though the doctors operated on it when I was young, it still wouldn’t work meaning, I wasn’t able bend it or anything. When I finally picked up the bass, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to play the instrument right-handed. So, I switched it around and began playing the bass left-handed, using just my thumb, and index and ring fingers.

MN: How did you settle on the bass as your instrument of choice?

RM: When I was 14, a friend of a friend was looking for a bass player for his band. I didn’t have one, but I had a neighbor who had a bass guitar. So I went over to his house one day and told him I’d trade my train set for his bass. He took the offer. That’s how it all started for me, from me giving up my train set.


If you’re in the mood for vintage Hawaiian music, head on down to the Hawaii State Art Museum on South Hotel Street Friday evening, when Eddie Kamae & The Sons of Hawaii, Ledward Kaapana and Mike Kaawa serenade guests as part of the museum’s monthly program on the lawn. The free concert runs from 6 to 9 ... If Friday’s lineup isn’t enough for you Hawaiian music lovers, check out Sunday’s Na Mele No Na Pua (“Music for the Generations”) concert series from 5 to 6 p.m. at Waikiki Beach Walk’s Plaza Stage. This weekend’s performance comes courtesy of the Waimanalo Sunset Band made up of Kelii Makua on the pakini bass, Lanakila Makua on the six-string guitar and Keao Kamalani on the 12-string guitar, and noted for its paniolo stylings ... Finally, get the next best thing to live performances from Cheap Trick, Collective Soul or Foo Fighters a cover band that does those groups’ music justice. Stinkeye plays classic and modern rock tunes, and even sprinkles pop, R&B and disco into its sets, every Friday night from 9 to 1 a.m. at Coconut Willy’s on Lewers Street. “We put out the good music vibe, and (the crowds) give us back tenfold,” says guitarist/vocalist Brian Mikami. “We love what we do and it’s awesome to see, hear and feel the crowd love it too.”

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