Jim Barraza of CIRITH UNGOL talks skydiving, heroes, hauling concrete, fist-fighting fans and the person who persuaded him to learn guitar….

Jim Barraza has played guitar for cult epic heavy metal outfit CIRITH UNGOL since the late ’80s, and as lives go, that’s probably achievement enough for most of us. But how did he get there? How about the journey? In this interview Jim talks about joining the band, what he got up to during the ’90s after the band split, how he’s coping with the renewed interest and ups and downs of band touring schedules now he is a little older and wiser, and how does he feel, looking back at life? Well, in this exclusive interview for oldmansmettle.com he has a lot to say, so get yourself a suitable beverage! Oh, and did you know they have a new EP coming out tomorrow 28th May 2021, that we reviewed here? It’s damn good, so check it out. And lastly, those of you learning guitar right now might be surprised to know the tricks Jim used to get good at playing those great solos – necessity being the mother of invention and all – and also, who was it who gave him the nudge to pick up the instrument in the first place?

‘I’ve seen people with such a heavy emotion to see us, that they are in tears of joy. And of course, watched some fistfights unfold….’

Jim barazza 2021

Hi Jim. It’s an honour to have you here. How has this last year been? I hear you had Covid?

Hello Scott and thank you for inviting me to share a little bit of my life.  I will try to stay relevant to CIRITH UNGOL. Forgive me if my answers are too long. I’ll try to tell the story as briefly as I can. 

Well, 2020 started out OK at first, after a lengthy holiday break, the band was starting to rehearse 3 nights per week in preparation for the Keep it True festival in Lauda Konigshofen, Germany on April 24th & 25th, 2020. Headlining both nights with two completely different sets was going to see what we are made of, and test our mettle.  We were getting our stamina built up by playing alternating full sets…non-stop, start to finish, just as we would do it live. Then around Feb. / March all of a sudden Covid cases were on the rise in California, which triggered stay-at-home orders and shutting down restaurants, bars, etc.

We had planned to make a music video for the song Forever Black at that time. It was called off along with streaming a live performance on Facebook, and band practice was suspended. Once we saw a period of Covid calmness in the summer months, we were able to record some basic tracks for new songs, and also had plenty of time to work on the “Half Past Human” EP which was recorded in the fall of 2020 and finished up in time for the Thanksgiving / Christmas holiday break. So, we all remained home ever since, although Rob has the band room all to himself to practice on his drum kit, and work out parts for new songs. Luckily, I am fully set up to record at home. So, we’ve emailed files back and forth to continue progress on our next full-length LP. 

In Jan 2021 Covid cases soared to the highest per day, as deaths were now tracked and reported statistically. Rob said that, behind his house, which looks over the hospital’s parking lot, [they had] added a refrigerator truck to store the expected increase in the body count.

But then, on Jan. 20th, 2021 I suddenly lost taste and smell. I immediately submitted a test and the results came back Covid-Positive within a few days. I hunkered down, had some supplies dropped off and I dragged my mattress to the living room and camped out watching some movies and drank a few beers, and ate chicken vegetable soup that I made in a large crockpot.  I didn’t get much sleep. For a total of 10 days I felt ill, each day it ramped up and then levelled off in the middle for two days straight of feeling the worst. I kept thinking about bats in Wuhan China. It was the flu with no fever and after that, every day seemed to get a little better. My sense of taste and smell didn’t fully come back for a few weeks. All is well now, and I’ve had my 2nd shot of vaccine (Moderna). Completed May 5th, 2021. The other guys are fully vaccinated, and we are just now starting to get back into a workflow starting with demo recording for new songs. 

I guess your journey all started with a guitar? What did you start with, and what do you use now?

Currently, I own and play ESP/ LTD VipersI have a Viper 256 Black/ mahogany body (an entry-level model which I modified heavily). My Most recent guitar is a  Viper 1000 deluxe which I have left stock. I like the push/pull coil tap for a single coil sound once in a while. 

I started with the violin in the 4th grade. It was a take-home instrument and I was supposed to practice with a sheet of music. I didn’t receive any instructions. The teacher was more into wind chimes, bells and xylophone and I guess not knowledgeable in the strings section of our class band. Since I didn’t know what I was doing, I lost interest quickly. And I think for our assembly I played the triangle and crash cymbals instead. A very brief moment.  

Then the following two years I lived up in Anchorage Alaska (5th & 6th grade). That’s when I got my vinyl copy of KISS Alive 2. I was infatuated with KISS, and at the same time listening to the Beatles White Album and Led Zepplin 3 & 4.  

A friend gave me an acoustic guitar with a soft case as a present when I left Alaska in 1979 to move back to Missouri with my mom, and we would be closer to my grandmother.

My 7th-grade year was very busy and kids were deciding on which sports….my grandmother tried to encourage me to get into sports, football or basketball. But hockey was really the only organized sport I have been involved with, and it would be a bit expensive to continue, plus the ice rink where they had a hockey program was too far away.  So, my grandmother said, “How about that guitar in the closet, are you interested in learning how to play it? If not you can sell it at our next garage sale”. Since it was a gift to me, it kind of made me feel obligated to at least try, plus I liked KISS, and LED ZEPPELIN. and they played guitars. So, Why not?

That’s crazy! Did you ever study music, formally or otherwise? Were your parents from a musical background? Did they support you to be a musician?

The first experience I had was a group lesson at the YMCA – about 12 people sitting in a circle trying to tune up to each other. I walked out to the car afterward and grandma said, “Well, how was it?”.  I just shook my head…

So, grandma contacted our local music store and set me up with private lessons, one on one with a Hawaiian guy that played a beautiful Black Les Paul with 3 pickups. He let me check it out…the feel of how low the action was, and how heavy the guitar was. The store had some Les Paul copies for sale and I eyeballed them every week before heading into lessons with my high-action acoustic guitar. I still have the book. Only made it halfway through the book and moved on, playing by ear. 

All of a sudden a lot of things started to happen real fast. A couple of months into the book I had learned all the notes and started playing lame exercises/ songs while struggling to read music. It was a slow process. By then I’m in 8th grade and I met a kid at school that said he played and had a white Les Paul. He invited me over and sure enough, had a white Les Paul copy. and a slew of Peavey amps chained together. I watched him play and noticed he kept his fingers almost the same and just moved up and down the neck playing stuff like Iron Man, Wasted (Def Leppard), and then he breaks into some Flying Turkey Trot and some Stranglehold. I said “Show me how are you holding your fingers and sliding back and forth”….he showed me, and a light bulb came on. “Damn, that opens up the possibilities to maybe play more songs and maybe I can listen and just imitate songs I like and hear on the Radio”. I saw where he was playing Wasted. I went home and tried to imitate. So, every day at school we’d talk guitar and then I meet the other guys in school that had a full rock band with a drummer that sang. 

My birthday or something was coming up and my mom bought me the “Memphis” Tobacco Sunburst Les Paul copy and a small practice amp that had distortion built-in. So, six months into lessons, and I’m showing up unrehearsed for “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. I wasn’t interested in the lesson book anymore.  I wanna play Smoke on the Water or Stranglehold and ask my teacher if he knows it, and will he show me? Soon my teacher realized what I wanted to do, and he stressed that knowing the notes on all strings up and down the neck would be my best foundation. He showed me how octaves played out on the neck and how a sequence of notes repeats with a higher pitch. Also picking and some strumming tricks, basic open chords, and the standard bar chords. He was not up on the rock songs of the day and before a year was up, he told my grandmother not to waste any more money on lessons. He suggested that I just go for it and play by ear and find some other kids to jam with and to find a teacher that could show me how to solo. Eventually, I took a few lessons from the lead guitarist from a hard rock band in KC named Art. His band played a SAMMY HAGAR song This Planet’s on Fire. And my lessons were sort of built around the solos in that song. I also learned examples or exercises of how to solo using pull-offs and hammer-ons, repetitive fast licks, and trills.

….using a turntable that had a 16 speed. I would tune the guitar down to match and learn these solos at a really slow speed at first….once I got it, then tune up and speed it up.

JIM BARAZZA 2021

When soloing, can you hear the notes and phrases before you play them, and then your fingers follow? If so, was that something that came to you quite quickly, or did it take a lot of work? Not everyone can do that, of course…

Early on, like from 9th grade through 12th grade, I started playing with other people, I think it was 10th grade when a drummer that lived across the street started a band. We played stuff from TRIUMPH Allied Forces, RUSH Moving Pictures, BLACK SABBATH We Sold Our Souls for Rock and Roll, AEROSMITH, QUEEN, 38 SPECIAL, OZZY’S Blizzard of Oz, Elvis, and a Beatles tune….and then got with some other guys that played stuff like VAN HALEN Unchained, DOKKEN Tooth and Nail, MOTLEY CREW Shout at The Devil, RATT Out of The Cellar, QUIET RIOT Metal Health, AC/DC Hells Bells…. a few from OZZY’s Blizzard of Oz and Diary of a madman...Crazy train, Steal Away the Night, No Bone movies, Flying High Again, Over the Mountain. And I was getting good at nailing these solos pretty spot on for the most part….all by ear using a turntable that had a 16 speed. I would tune the guitar down to match and learn these solos at a really slow speed at first….once I got it, then tune up and speed it up.

I think of the lead run being like an additional lead vocalist that will hold down a melody/ harmony to accent or be like a duet with the music. If I can see the scales I intend to use, then usually I can hear the notes as I look at the chart and plot out a lick or run, or signature lead, or whatever you want to call it. 

I had purchased the first edition of The Guitar Grimoire: A Compendium of Formulas for Guitar Scales and Modes (GUITARE) Paperback – January 1, 1991. In a couple of instances, that book has opened up soloing ideas. 

Maybe readers would like to know how joining Cirith Ungol came about? Your first album was Paradise Lost, did you know the band before?

The first time I listened to Cirith Ungol was Back in 1987. I was given a vinyl copy of One Foot in Hell from Michael “Flint” Vujea, the bassist at the time.  We had become friends and he had helped my band PROPHECY at some gigs in Los Angeles California. I got to know Flint well as we traveled a bit and also lived in the same town and hung out to drink some beers once in a while. From that moment on, CIRITH UNGOL had impacted my life. I  got to see my one and only CIRITH UNGOL gig at a bar downtown Ventura, and went to a party in the bands’ rehearsal room. 

Flint had mentioned to Rob and Tim that I was available, and recommended I should try out for a second guitarist slot. And of course, Jerry would be the #1 lead guitar, I would just help with the double lead stuff as needed. I rehearsed with Jerry Fogle once (1 time maybe 3 hours max.. ?), and he didn’t seem happy about it. I was invited to come back and continue learning to play alongside Jerry, But Jerry was a no show, and he never came back. Rob and Tim tried to reach out to him, with no luck. Within a few weeks, they looked at me and said, ‘well.. I guess you’re our new guitarist, let’s get busy getting you up to speed on older songs. to build a setlist. and get some gigs booked’.    

I can’t pinpoint the exact date I became a group member, but It was something like mid ’87 and continued until December of 1991. During my time with the band we wrote material for Paradise Lost, some of the guitar parts were started by Jerry, but not completed. We played about a dozen gigs, and went through a few different personnel changes. In the end, Paradise Lost had been released a few months before our final concert on December 13, 1991, at Ventura Theater. During this time the music scene was shifting to Grunge or what was called the “Seattle Sound”. All of a sudden CIRITH UNGOL’s style of music seemed to be of no interest to our record label. Heavy Metal was dead around here. Soon my patience and faith had worn thin and I called it quits. I put the guitar down for the next 10 years. Life went on without playing in any officially organized bands ever again. Which may have been a good thing in regards to preserving my skills in a time capsule to later be opened. 

Do you know any favourite CIRITH UNGOL tabs that guitarists might try out?

One I would suggest as a link here…check it out. 

https://tabs.ultimate-guitar.com/tab/cirith-ungol/chaos-rising-guitar-pro-2232421

The first albums have a lot of sound effects; flangers and octave pedals and so on. Do you use effects live when playing those songs, or prefer to keep it simple?

Yes, I’ve used an Orbit flanger and MXR phase 90 to try and sound like the king of the dead tone. , but eventually just decided it wasn’t worth it and needed the space on my effects board for other things like a Cry baby wah (Jerry Cantrell model), EH Pitchfork, tech 21 Boost delay. And most recently Tried out a JHS 808 tube screamer which I like a lot. For clean sound, I use a hall of fame 2 reverb pedal and also a  channel switching unit to go from dirty to clean.

I wondered as a guitarist and songwriter, how changes in technology in the recording studio have affected the ‘workflow’. With DAWs these days, sometimes it feels like you are making music with your eyes as much as your ears.

Things have changed for the better. More can be accomplished in regards to workflow. After we did our first Euro show I took some money and bought a computer that is made for gaming, and sorting a lot of data all at once, without hangs or glitches. So with recording software, and everything needed to connect and start recording the ideas asap…..once an idea is not lost and it has been documented, then I can create sample riff files to email to Rob and Tim for their approval. Once they dig it and feel it has potential, we go from there and start building the structure, with details and nuances constantly injected.

Back in the eighties, I recorded my ideas on a portable cassette player just so I wouldn’t lose an idea, and really wouldn’t be able to do much more, other than record demos with the band when the time would come, on a reel to reel tape machine. I had no clue how to run the machine myself.

How big a part has music played in your life?

Before the reunion 2000-2015 I pretty much gave up playing the guitar. I still maintained the ability to do some lead solos. But That was rare as the 2 guitars I had leftover would remain in their cases packed away in the garage, in 2000 I got my concrete contractor’s license and started my own business. 

I took up skydiving from 1992 -2011 and stayed current in the sport. I averaged 3 jumps per month, every month for almost 20 years. It was a getaway from the stress of running a business and sort of a drug of choice. I couldn’t go long ( a couple of weeks) and I was yearning to do it again. Until finally in 2011 I said to myself, ‘You already broke your leg on landing…had a few close near-misses’. 

Being in a band helped my mindset when I took up skydiving. The preparation before the jump was equal to soundcheck, where you should discover any problems, and the jump was equal to the feeling of being on stage, it’s “showtime” and you want everything to go as planned. And when I became a contractor, skydiving taught me a lot about risk-taking, fears, and just a sense that you’ve prepared the best you can – you are aware of what can go wrong and have knowledge of what things can be done to remedy a situation that needs to be fixed right away.

‘…at the beginning 0 -11 seconds, I have what looks like a smoke bomb on my arm.  That is me scattering my grandmother’s ashes (the one who encouraged me to play guitar). It was a very fitting memorial jump, and my mom and daughter watched from the ground. Since I was a concrete contractor I had a brick-red powder release agent for stamping concrete, I added some to her ashes so, people on the ground would see it. they said it was very vivid and spectacular as the sun lit it up, a 1000 foot long plume of pink ashes that just drifted and dissipated off into the sunset visible for about 15 minutes then gone. ‘

JIM BARAZZA 2021
Jim scattering his grandmother’s ashes. Check out Jim’s channel for more skydiving videos.

Growing up, did you have any heroes, and if so, did they teach you anything?

Gordy Howe – pro-Canadian hockey player

Randy Rhoads – A huge influence on me. I saw him play twice, The Blizzard of Oz and the Diary of a Madman tour. All I can say is that Randy made a huge, huge influence on me…. yet at the same time I wanted to find my own style, to stand out from the crowd. 

In Helsinki for BlowUp! in Oct 2019 it was amazing to see how many younger people are loving the band. Was that something you ever foresaw? In the 90s a lot of metal bands thought it was all over…

Cool, I’m glad you got to witness that show, It was our last show we’ve played before the Pandemic shut us down. So, It’s been about a year and a half (19 months or so?) since we’ve played. Damn, now that I think about it I’m pissed off at this whole covid ordeal and how much it has robbed everyone of things and opportunities in life that will never get back.

The last gig before the great plague of 2020…how good do they sound?

There must have been some ups and downs playing live? Any stories?

The Ups – Having the opportunity to travel the world and meet fans who have now become good friends and continue to see them at multiple shows in different countries is the greatest gift that playing music has ever given to me…but what first comes to mind is that for this reunion my daughter Alishea has traveled to many of our shows in the USA and Europe and we’ve had the chance to hang out in places like Ventura, Brooklyn, New York, Las Vegas, Seattle, Chicago, London, Hamburg, and Gelsenkirchen. It has been great to have that opportunity. And We shall have more of them hopefully soon. 

The Downs – I’d have to say is jet-lag. When you have to play at a certain time, but you really could finally get some sleep. 

Stories? Well, I’m not sure if you witnessed the guy in the front row at the Helsinki show,  He grabbed onto Tim’s mic stand and refused to let go. As our crew came out on stage to kick him in the face. Still refusing to let go. Finally, security got him and hauled him away, We continued playing through the ordeal. But, it was a bit distracting. [ OMM – Ah so that’s what happened… ]

I have to remember this may be their second or third day of drinking and we are entertaining their burnout period late at night. I’ve seen people with such a heavy emotion to see us, that they are in tears of joy. And of course, watched some fistfights unfold as people try to push forward toward the stage and while they are pumping their fist in the air to the beat of the music. They usually hit someone while swinging their arms and piss people off enough to take a swing back at them. 

Is it difficult coming up with short setlists when you have so much material to draw from?

I have my ideas of what I would like to play. I will make it known if there is some song that I just don’t feel like playing.  But, i will back off and most of the time it is up to Rob, Tim, and Jarvis hashing it out. And of course, it’s all done with the Fans in mind. What are they going to want to hear, and what songs will satisfy them? 

Candlemass cancelled their KIT performance rather than travel for hours across land by car, saying something like ‘we ain’t teenagers anymore!’.  In your thirties, you feel indestructible, but getting older can have some nasty surprises up its sleeve. How has the physical challenge of getting older been for yourself, and would you have any advice for young ‘indestructibles’?

Me, personally, I would feel bad to cancel a show because i didn’t set my alarm, have my bags packed, or allow for rush hour traffic. Or even being sick with a cold or flu. As I get older, it is becoming more and more evident that I don’t move as quickly as I used to.  I am not looking forward to living into 70, or 80 years old. There will come a day when an indestructible attitude will be defeated and [ you’ll be ] reminded that some decisions in life come with payback later. Whether it’s aches and pains, damaged relationships, a hurt ego, or whatever.  

It strikes me that CIRITH UNGOL are better now than ever, in every department. Not every musical genre improves as the performers get older, but maybe just like classical musicians, heavy metal players mature nicely, would you agree?                                            

Yes, I  agree. Also given a second chance to re-experience the god-given talent of playing the guitar and not letting it go to waste. There is a level of maturity that seems to be evident and recognized by many fans and critics alike.

I am very pleased with the progress everyone in the band has made over the past 5 years

Anything you would have done differently over the years? 

Maybe go a little lighter on the drugs and alcohol.  And exercise. 

What would you say to the younger Jim?

Continue getting an education after high school.  Get into an apprenticeship program. Set yourself up in a career as a Union Electrician or any trade of interest that has high pay and great benefits.

Most important lesson you’ve learned in this life?

It’s guaranteed that you will be hurt or disappointed throughout life. Try to not hold onto grudges and let them go as soon as you can. Tomorrow is another day. And this too shall pass. 

Any favourite quotes?

“Other guys snort for it, jab a vein for it. All you gotta do is jump”. Point Break 1991 

To end then, what next for Jim? Plans for retirement?

Well, nowadays I consider myself semi-retired. I work about 20 hours a week in a warehouse. So, there are 4 days per week free to do other things. I hope that I can maintain a balance like that till the day I die. 

I want to keep some aspects of music in my life, maybe teach guitar, or work on song recording projects with friends. Time will tell.

For now, I look forward to getting back on the road with CIRITH UNGOL. I hope to meet many of you out there, and hopefully, we can make it to places we’ve never been.  We’ll also see how the pandemic has affected the industry and what effect that has on us. Hoping all turns out well and I get to meet many of you out at festivals in 2022/ 2023. 

Until then, be safe. And Listen to more CIRITH UNGOL at Maximum volume \”/ Cheers \”/

Jim Barraza

https://www.metalblade.com/cirithungol/

https://the-heavy-metal-store.myshopify.com/collections/cirith-ungol-official-us-merch-store


https://www.facebook.com/cirithungolofficial

https://www.instagram.com/cirithungolband

https://www.espguitars.com/products/21883-viper-1000

https://eyesoremerch.com/band-tshirts/c/cirith-ungol

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Can we all thank Jim Barazza’s grandma?

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