Mexican guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela smash the templates of metal and classical guitar, reconfiguring them into a fiery, hybrid sound. Acoustic sat down with the duo
Words: Teri Saccone Images: Richard Ecclestone
For the uninitiated: Gabriela Quintero and Rodrigo Sanchez started out playing heavy metal in their native Mexico before relocating to Dublin in 1999. They began by busking but then broke internationally thanks to the millions of views the YouTube videos illustrating their enormously emotive guitar playing racked up.
By the time they returned to reside in their homeland in 2007, they were established stars in both Europe and USA. Rodrigo is the melodic player of the two, Gabriela the percussive wonder – her dazzling right hand technique blending intricate fingerstyle playing with propulsive percussion. Rodrigo meanwhile writes most of the melodies and wields a plectrum to play monster riffs and melodic solos, leaving Gab to create the song structures based on Rod’s melodies.
First things first: please don’t mistakenly label them as folk, Latin or, most egregiously, flamenco – although they are influenced by all of those – as the only genre they both feel comfortable with is rock.
“People still confuse our music with flamenco music, probably because we play nylon-string guitars and there is an influence,” Gabriela says. “Another misconception is that we play traditional Mexican style, which it isn’t either. It’s far from it. But we now kind of understand that people will think or believe what they want to about our music.”
Still, it rankles Rodrigo, as he explains: “We just did a tour of 23 countries in just two months but we purposely chose countries we’d never been to before and it was really good. We went to places like Argentina, Chile, Lithuania and other Eastern European countries but in some places they wrote in the music press that we play ‘flamenco!’“
Going back to the beginning of their aforementioned musical odyssey: they left Mexico for Ireland where they spent eight years which was prompted by their inability to land a recording deal.
“Our metal band Tierra Acida didn’t break through,” Gabriela explains, “and we decided that our chances of getting a record deal were non-existent after chasing one for years. We picked Dublin as we knew someone living there and figured it would be a new start moving so far away. We didn’t speak English yet and figured we’d start there and if it didn’t work out we’d move elsewhere in Europe. It was cold but people were very friendly and we just immediately became street performers. Before we left home we decided to sell all of our electric instruments and travel with two cheap acoustic guitars rather than pay to move all our gear over there. We were much younger, and we ended up busking for about four years. It was actually great! We made a good living there, and then our music started happening more organically. I guess we set ourselves free from chasing the record deal dream. Instead we just focused on our music and we enjoyed it much more without the added pressure.”
Ironically Rodrigo was the aspiring drummer as a child, whereas Gab became the percussive player of the duo and only ever wanted to play guitar. “It’s interesting and that was an accident in a way,” he explains. “We wondered the best way to cover the sounds we wanted to make. Coming from a metal background we wanted a big sound but we didn’t want a full band. So we developed a technique by accident. But I think we complement each other.”
Reflecting, what does Rodrigo think has been his biggest challenge over the last 20 years he’s played with Gabriela?
“Going from electric to acoustic was difficult. It’s a different world for any player to make that switch. To learn how to do the right palm mutings but make it still sound heavy took a while, and I know how hard it is for other electric players to switch over and make acoustic heavy. Growing up I listened to everyone from Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield of Metallica to Paco de Lucia and Vicente Amigo, even Argentine tango music,” he says, “so my influences are varied.”
When Gabriela was a child she was drawn to the acoustic guitar because of its “sound, and portability” and although she worked tirelessly to get to the point she’s at today, there was never any question about her ability to play guitar.
“That technique was almost completely inspired by flamenco music,” she explains. “I’ve always been thrilled by the way flamenco players play rhythms with their right hand – it’s so incredible. I didn’t have any clue how to do it at all. Eventually, I met a flamenco player who taught me one movement, and that was it. I practised it a lot and tried to copy what other flamenco players did, but I never got it right. Nowadays, I still don’t know how they do it. I’m very rocky in comparison, much more aggressive.”
Both are Yamaha players with signature guitars designed for their unique needs. Although Rodrigo is fluent in both acoustic and electric, he has always leant more towards rhythm playing and players. “I have many electrics at home and have my big amps and Marshalls. But as an electric guitarist I’m more of a rhythm player and I always preferred riffing rather than lead.”
“Metal music is the only real music that unites the world and the only music that even in Islamic countries you will find that unifies so many types of people young and old,” says Gabriela.
The pair are currently developing music for what will become their sixth studio album. Rodrigo recognises the maturation of himself as a person and a songwriter: “You have to get more life experience and become mature to do that better and I think we’re in a good place in our career and we hope that the next album will show that.”
On the topic of their next album, Gabriela explains that they will be stepping out of their comfort zone a bit, “We plan to have people from different backgrounds on the new album,” she says. “Most of our albums have been a concept but this will be more about a variety: instrumentals, cover versions, thrash metal versions, and four songs with vocals. So it’s very eclectic.”
Rodrigo and Gabriela have been singing a song or two live at each show of late and there will be vocals from them as well as guests on the next album too. “In the past, singing didn’t feel comfortable, but now we are ready,” Rodrigo says. “I’m not a singer but I can sing on the album, plus we will have guests singing too. For the last two years we’ve both sung a bit at every show and that has given us the confidence to do that. We finally found the stuff we feel is cool enough to release. We don’t want to sound super different than before though. We’re not gonna sing every song we release but maybe if our audience likes it we can include vocals on every album.”
“We wanted to really take our time with this album because in the past, we were rushing things,” says Gabriela. “I think we started the process of the next one about a year ago with all the music we demoed. And maybe we won’t record any of the music we made but we want to have those choices. We want to have a good selection of music to choose from.”
The duo contributed music for mainstream films – including instalments in the Shrek and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises – so are there pressures for them to become more commercial to gain wider acceptance?
“I think if we go commercial we will lose our core audience,” Rodrigo replies. “We recently rejected songs from a big name producer, which undoubtedly would have been very commercial for us. We have a beautiful career, though: we travel all over the world and play big venues so why should we look for commerciality? We don’t want to spoil this.”
They both reside in Ixtapa, Mexico, where, when not touring, Gabriela runs a vegan-friendly co-operative for local people to live and eat more sustainably (www.ecovegana.com) and Rodrigo plays football with a local team. Ironically, they are not as famous in their homeland as they are outside of it. “We don’t have huge media attention there,” says Rodrigo. “We play 5,000 seaters elsewhere but in Mexico play smaller places.”
A couple of years ago Gabriela suffered a shoulder injury which sidelined her for a bit. “It came from my shoulder/back muscle after playing 190 gigs a year, and it may have come from anxiety. So I went to a physiotherapist and he said ‘You need to rest.’ which I resisted. So I went to around 17 different physios who all agreed I needed rest. I finally realised I needed to rest! We had to cancel a whole tour but I needed to rest. The muscles were very tense. Sometimes it’s stressful being in airports and on planes where you feel tense in your muscles. Now I’m OK.”
Travelling may be tiring at times but being on the road is Rodrigo’s favourite aspect of music-making. “I think touring is my favourite thing. It’s a challenge at times and that’s when I play my best and I have to work hard and really bring my best to the shows so that’s never boring.”
And Gabriela’s career highlights? “Most everything,” she replies. “We didn’t expect such great success so it feels out of the blue until I review all the work we put in to get to this point. We started to create this style, started travelling, and the highlight has been being able to do this for 20 years. We have loved touring, playing the White House, and sharing the stage with friends like Robert Trujillo [Metallica]. So the career we’ve had is one big highlight.”
It’s no secret that for several years the duo were involved romantically. They have now separated and Rodrigo tells me their artistic pairing is on better ground than ever before. Gabriela is optimistic about the future prospects of her creative partnership with Rodrigo: “There are a lot of things that are still pouring out naturally from our hearts,” she adds. “Guitar is a whole world of its own and I think it’s really limitless.”