Polyphia’s most recent song and video, for their 2016 track “Lit,” kicks off in a manner similar to that of many instrumental shred bands—with the camera showing the group’s two guitarists, Tim Henson and Scott LePage, simultaneously picking out a twisty, fleet-fingered repeating harmony lick high up on the necks of their guitars.
But within seconds, the tune veers off into unusual territory—the percussion track lights up with electronic burbles, twinkling keyboards and sampled sounds poke through the mix, and the guitars are chopped and cut with EDM-style hiccups. Visually, meanwhile, a young man who is the focal point of the video dances along to the almost poppy rhythm as various shapes and colors radiate off his body.
All the while, Henson and LePage, who, in the clip at least, look like they’d be more at home in a new-millennium boy band than a metal-tinged instrumental act, rip out virtuosic runs and solos full of lightning-fast licks, whammy bar flutters and liquid harmony lines. It’s an unusual approach to shred, though one that has over the last few years led the Texas-based outfit to become one of the sub-genre’s brightest new stars.
To date, Polyphia, which also currently includes bassist Clay Gober and drummer Clay Aeschliman, have racked up millions of YouTube views for their various videos and guitar playthrough clips and shared stages with the likes of Periphery, Animals As Leaders, Between the Buried and Me and August Burns Red.
They’ve also released two full-length albums, 2014’s Muse and 2016’s Renaissance, that, in terms of the bright, often major-key melodies and slippery, cleanly picked shred lines, recall the sort of sound made famous by players like Joe Satriani and, at times, Steve Vai. At the same time, in the music’s incorporation of decidedly non-rock elements, in particular hip-hop, pop and EDM, it sounds not quite like anything else in the shred universe today.
As for how the very young band (Henson and LePage formed Polyphia in high school in 2010) came upon their sound, LePage says it’s merely a natural outgrowth of their musical interests.
“The main goal for us is just to have fun,” he explains. “We want to make music that sounds like the music we love, which is hip-hop and pop and all that stuff, and do it with the guitar. Tim’s main influences are Jimi Hendrix and stuff like that. And I’m super into Stevie Ray Vaughan. So we certainly have our pentatonic-scale guitar-player influences. And then we’re trying to put that together with the whole world of hip-hop and electronic-based music. Because we think both of those things are cool as fuck, you know?”
That said, Henson stresses, “It’s not that we’re consciously trying to bring this style of guitar playing into these other types of music. It’s more like, ‘This is what we do.’ This is the kind of music we want to make at this point in time, but we’ve been doing music all our lives.” Henson has in fact been doing music for more or less his whole life. Growing up in the Dallas suburb of Plano, Texas, he began playing violin at the age of three. “But I hated it,” he says with a laugh. “My mom forced it on me and I did not like it at all.”
At 10, his father introduced him to guitar. “My dad had played a little bit, and he pulled one out and I was like, ‘Wow, that’s really cool.’ I asked if I could try it. I’d thought since I could play violin I’d be really good at guitar, but I was terrible! But I decided that was what I wanted to do, because I thought rock music was way cooler than classical. And from there I pretty much spent every second, from 10 to 15 years old, doing nothing but playing guitar.”
LePage, who also grew up in Plano, started at the same age. “My dad also played guitar,” he recalls, “and when I was 10 I remember watching him one day, just shredding and making cool sounds, and thinking, I wanna do that. After that, I would wait for him to come home from work so he could teach me songs. After a while I would try to figure them out on my own, by ear.”
To this last point, both Henson and LePage are for the most part self-taught, a fact that, given how advanced their abilities were at such young ages, is unusual, to say the least. Both claim, however, that it just came down to spending a lot of time woodshedding. “I would just play CDs and click the rewind button and try to figure out the notes,” LePage says. “I started off with the Black Sabbath album Paranoid, learning every song off the album by ear. It’s an easier one to do that with because it’s mostly pentatonic. But it really helped me paint a picture in my head of the shapes that they use, and I was able to figure everything out a lot easier. That started me on the path of getting into this whole world.”
Henson, for his part, also had a particular non-musical impetus behind his guitar development. “I was a problem child, and I ended up on probation for most of high school for two possessions,” he says with a laugh. “Because we live in Texas, and weed is not cool there. So I had a strict curfew, and I had nothing to do but play guitar.” As for what led the two of them down the shred-guitar path?
“I don’t really know,” Henson admits. “It’s funny because that whole style, it’s not really the kind of music I enjoy listening to now. But at the time, I mean, every kid wants to play fast. It’s like, ‘Look at this skill I attained and all the things I can do!’ ” For Henson, his indoctrination into shred began with Paul Gilbert.
“I had one of his DVDs, the one where he’s dressed up like an astronaut [2006’s Spaceship Live]. I took a couple things from that. And then I got turned on to Steve Vai and the virtuosos. From there I discovered Guthrie Govan, and I became pretty much the biggest Guthrie fanboy. That I guess accounts for a lot of the things I started playing in Polyphia.”