Herman Li of DragonForce: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview

Herman Li of DragonForce

Feature Photo: courtesy of Napalm Records

Since their classic song, “Through the Fire and Flames,” graced the soundtrack of Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock in 2007, DragonForce has been hailed as a power metal staple. At the crux of the thing has long been the twin-guitar duo of Herman Li and Sam Totman, whose rampaging six-string antics have inspired a generation of players to take their stylings to heights unknown. In the years since, DragonForce—led by Li—has forged on, making the over-the-top seem almost normal while filling arenas with pyro and boatloads of fist-to-your-face metal.

In 2024, they’re at it again, with their ninth studio release, Warp Speed Warriors, and an ensuring tour set to light the world on fire again. For Li and his mates in DragonForce, though, despite the inherent chaos, it’s business as usual, with a twist. “Preparing for a tour now differs from when we first started,” Li says. “When we started, for maybe the first ten years, it was simply a matter of learning the songs and playing them as well as possible.”

He continues, “These days, though, we do a big drawing for the shows, and there are a lot of audio-visual aspects. We’ve learned a lot from doing it all these years beyond the guitar. You’ve gotta bring everything, so it’s not just rehearsing; we spent a lot of time on special effects and production that will fit well with what you’re listening to.”

In support of DragonForce’s upcoming tour, Herman Li dialed in with ClassicRockHistory.com to give the rundown on setlists, style, gear, social media, and more.

Aside from the new songs, are you switching up the setlist for DragonForce’s world tour?

With every tour, we have a new setlist. We’ve been bringing back the old songs we haven’t played in over 12 years. So, we’re practicing those, and now, of course, we’ve got new songs. Each time out, you learn something, and you’ve gotta take things to another level. We always try to do better, so it never gets easier. When it comes to playing music in a band, you can’t keep playing the same stuff. You have to improve and push yourself to the limit. You can never settle, and you always have to want to get better.

What are some of your observations of yourself as a guitar player today versus the past?

I’m a much better player than I used to be. As you get older, you learn and become wiser. You learn to understand the instrument and are more connected to it. I’m more connected to the guitar than I’ve ever been before.

Do you give yourself more latitude to experiment when you play live now?

I’m excited about playing the old songs because I’m a much better player than I was back then. I feel like I can play them even better than the album versions now. We play them as authentically as possible because the fans remember them and want to hear them the way they know them. But I leave myself some room to improvise a little. My greatest challenge is playing the songs as they were on the records since I’m a better player now.

In ways specific ways are you better?

I can make the guitar sing better. That means my brain is more connected when I think of the notes or certain aspects of how I want the notes to go. I can make it happen much easier and more accurately now. Sometimes, when you’re playing live, there’s all these distractions, and it’s easy to say, “Oh, I’m not as good as I was at home.” So now, I have the skill to overcome that very quickly, which can only come through years of experience.

Most people consider you hyper-technical. How do you view yourself?

I’m definitely a freeform-thinking kind of player. I like to mix things up and move things around a little bit. Playing perfectly on the click is cool, but you can’t be afraid to take risks, get off that, and push time differently. The guitar is such an infinite instrument, and it can be very complex when approaching, finding your voice, and continuing to build that voice. That can take years; I look back on early albums and approach notes so differently, saying, “God, what was I doing there?”

You’ve been a big proponent of YouTube, Twitch, and social media, leveraging it to your advantage. Do you think the positives outweigh the negatives?

The positives are so great that they cancel out the negatives. There’s so much talent out there, and it’s much easier to learn about all these new ways of playing. A perfect example is Tim Henson from Polyphia and that generation of players. That generation has really benefited from social media. There’s a lot of opportunity there to take things to another level, and if you don’t take advantage of it, you’re missing out on that.

Where are you at in terms of gear that you’ll be taking on tour?

I’ve gotten away from my old Ibanez E-Gen guitar that I designed in 2007 and have been using a new Custom PRS. I built it from their private stock area, which has some special guitars. But with the Ibanez, 2007 was a long time ago, and my guitar knowledge has grown so much, so I needed to build something that reflected the next chapter of my understanding of the guitar. So, I have been and will be playing the PRS, and it’s incredible. It’s an insane guitar, and I’m very excited to have it.

Have you added any new effects to your signal chain?

I’ve been really enjoying using a Kember of late. I’ve been experimenting with software-based things and new plugins to go along with the Quad Cortex. It will be interesting if I can get all this new stuff going at the same time because it involves a computer interface and fusing that with my normal rig. I’ll see if I can get that going because it’s a rigorous thing to finish designing.

What are your thoughts on Rolling Stone’s list of 250 greatest guitarists? It’s been pretty polarizing since its release.

Whatever you do, people are going to complain. I think the list is great to pay homage to some of the amazing players who have inspired the world and influenced players. It’s not about having the fastest skills or being complicated, but also the influence. Obviously, you gotta have guys like Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix, but players will always be missing. People complaining about it should spend more time playing guitar than complaining about these types of things.

What are your observations of the guitar scene in 2024?

Honestly, there’s no better time than now to be playing guitar or listening to guitar music. There is so much content out there to learn and so many great musicians. And then, there’s all the gear you can get now, which is priced pretty good compared to the old days. I think prices have gotten better, and manufacturing has, too. So, there is no better time to start playing guitar. You’re never too old to start, and you’re never too young to start. If you want to play guitar, you should get one and start now.

Herman Li of DragonForce: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2024

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