Updated: Nov 26
By Brett Hoag Photography: Chris and James (except where noted)
Hail, Metal Heads! Today, I am sitting in the dining room of James Pulli, a long-time member of the band Impellitteri. Impellitteri has sold millions of records worldwide and was inducted into the Metal Hall of Fame in January 2023. I have Giles Lavery to thank for presenting me with this extraordinary opportunity to talk with James and the legendary guitarist Chris Impellitteri. I also have to thank Mrs. Pulli for opening her lovely home to me.
Thank you so much for this, gentlemen. It is an honor to meet both of you.
Chris- You're welcome.
James- My pleasure.
First, congratulations on your induction into the Metal Hall of Fame. I was there that night and y'all played a face-melting set. So, thank you for that!
Both- Thank you!
James, you play bass in Impellitteri, correct?
How long have you been in the band?
James-30 plus years!
Dang! That's a long time, LOL Chris is on the level of the other "shred masters," such as Yngwie Malmsteen, Tony MacAlpine, Steve Vai and Ritchie Blackmore. Were you on that level before you started playing with him?
James- No. Being in the band made me that good. When I started, I felt I was solid with a good tone. But, as things progressed and I learned and wrote more of the songs, it became more and more challenging, which was great because that's what really molded me over the years to be a better player. So, at first, I was doing just like bluesy-hard rock, so I wasn't really on this level we're all on now when I started 30 years ago.
Mr. Impellitteri, Sir, I know you picked up a guitar at an early age. Did you have any formal training, or are you self-taught?
Chris- I had formal training. I think I started at 12 and religiously took guitar lessons for four or five years. I had this great guitar instructor. His name is Mark Mandell (sp?), and he is from Connecticut, where I grew up. This guy was great at fusion, like Pat Metheny and Al Di Meola, but he also loved Ritchie Blackmore. He was a great inspiration. He was like a local guitar hero, so I watched him play live as a little kid. I was lucky because...well, take James here. He went to M.I. (Musicians Institute in L.A.) So, I kind of wish I would have been able to do that because it would have given me a foundation in music theory, which is important because when you hear things in your head, you have to be able to convey that on the instrument. It's almost like learning to speak a language; once you know how to speak the language, you can fully converse.
Mark was my version of M.I. He had a music school, and it helped me understand how to write music. I wouldn't say I mastered music theory, but I certainly have a strong foundation. So, I understood there is not just a minor or a major scale. I learned that I can put in a harmonic minor or a melodic minor-diminish. How do I apply these in various sequences to achieve a certain sound I hear in my head? I love the guitar, so it was easy to take lessons and practice.
Obviously, you don't get to your level without a sheer love of playing the instrument.
Chris-You know, I don't believe I'm better than anybody else. For me, I express myself with the instrument. I've learned how to use the instrument to speak the way I feel. It doesn't mean I'm good. It doesn't mean I'm bad at it. It's just me.
I assure you, Sir, you are very good at it. We all hear you loud and clear.
Chris- LOL Well, thank you.
You have sold millions of records worldwide, mainly in Europe and Japan. Why, in your opinion, are you more popular overseas than in your native country?
Chris- That was probably the direction of music I went initially. When we did our first EP, if you don't know the band's history, we did a four-song EP that ended up being called the "Black EP" due to the cover in 1987. The recording was done in 1986. At that time, I loved all the great guitar players. Ritchie Blackmoore and Randy Rhoads were huge influences on me. I love Uli Jon Roth and Michael Schenker. Then Yngwie came out and made us all up our game. So, I went down that road with the soloing, but I was still a metal kid at heart. That EP was my attempt to cross between Judas Priest and Iron Maiden on steroids.
We were one of the first bands to use a fast double-kick bass drum, but then I got thrust into that guitar player thing. I'm not in any way trying to be condescending or negative towards that label. But it was a double-edged sword because I wouldn't be in a band. As I said, I envisioned a more technically proficient band than Maiden or Priest, but that kind of music, just faster. So, I got thrust in with the guitar players and the fact that it was a band got overshadowed. Of course, part of that is my fault, as we called it Impellitteri, which we probably should have devised a different name, and that wouldn't have happened. Because of that, it made it a little more challenging to be embraced by the metal community.
I mean, back then, we actually started bigger in the US than overseas. Everyone was covering the Black EP. We were in Circus magazine, which was the biggest one then, and Guitar Player, Guitar World, Cream, and even Kerrang magazine in England gave it a 5/5 rating. A lot of people started taking an interest in us, but at the same time, it was all Hair bands. I don't mean to dismiss that genre, but we were never a hair band. I get it; we had the hair but were much heavier. So, the crowd did not embrace us. You know, I was just another "wanking" guitar player who was tasteless and played too many notes. I get it. At some point, we go too far, or I go too far. But, having said that, we couldn't break through.
However, we got lucky when Grahm Bonnet did [our first album] Stand in Line with us. I always jokingly say, "We got our 15 minutes of fame." We were on MTV with heavy rotation and I guest hosted Headbanger's Ball. The record sold a lot and it gave us a lot of credibility in other places. Markets in Japan at that point exploded. I can't explain it. I mean, we have never been that big since. We still do very well in Japan, but at that time, we would leave the hotel and a thousand kids would be standing outside waiting for us. It was insane. I hadn't entirely experienced anything like that before.
You've played with many incredible drummers, the late Pat Torpey, Ken Mary, Glen Sobel, and Stet Howland, to name a few. I don't want to diss anyone, so I won't ask you who your favorite to play with was, but I will ask who you would like to play with that you haven't.
Chris- Oh, come on! There are too many! LOL I would love to do something with Alex Van Halen because of how he plays. If I could only choose one guitar player to get the credit for how I play, it would be Eddie Van Halen on the first Van Halen record and all the live performances from that time. I heard him in the clubs; he was on fire! Alex was a huge part of that sound. So, probably Alex.
I listen to you when I do chores around the house or drive somewhere. When you are doing those things, what are you listening to?
Chris- It's hard to say around the house because you usually listen to music in the car. USC has a classical radio station, KUSC, and it's great. It's exposed me to so much music, especially here in L.A., as you are always stuck in traffic LOL It's really turned me on to amazing composers and soloists. After all these years, I discovered that my absolute favorite is Vivaldi. I don't know what it is about him, but wow. There's Brahm's, Bach--
No, it's Vivaldi.
Chris-It really is. His violin concertos, the Four Seasons. All of his work is brilliant. I love classical music and this might take people by surprise; well, maybe not other guitar players, but I absolutely love Country music as well—especially the guitar players. Vince Gill and Brad Paisley, for example, are great players.
I'll give you the guitar playing as they are phenomenal, but it's not my cup of music.
Chris- It depends on what kind of Country we are talking about. I am talking about the great guitar players. I love that stuff.
Would you say you are more into Country Blues?
You hesitated a bit there. Would you call it that?
Chris- I don't know. I don't know if it would be Country Blues; it's more chicken-pickin'. It's almost rocking in some way. I do like it a lot. It's not something I play with in our band, but they have such an amazing palette and virtuosity. I love listening to the guitar playing. I mean, those guys who play in Nashville? They are not slugs! These guys are great players. I don't care what instrument they're playing. Check out a guy named Johnny Hiland. He's one of the session cats in Nashville. He's insane. Just insane. I mean, insane. LOL
Thank you, I will. James? What do you have on in the background?
James- It depends on what I'm doing. If you were here yesterday morning, you would have heard classical.
Do you have a favorite composer?
James- I don't. I love Itzhak Perlman as far as violin players. He is fantastic. But, I tell you, a lot of time when I'm cooking, it's Louis Prima and Dean Martin. I also like Yacht Rock, or soft rock, like the mellow 70s stuff when we're doing mellow stuff around the house. It depends on the mood. I listen to Chris Whitley quite a bit.
I don't know who that is.
James- A lot of people don't. But look him up. He's a slide player with a real twangy voice. He plays a strange-sounding slide, like really dissonant sounds. Cool songs that really invoke different emotions. I highly recommend him.
Right on. Thank you, I will check him out. Chris, when did you start listening to classical music?
Chris- Oh, early on. We've constantly been exposed to classical music through film, radio, etc. I don't know if people realize it, but growing up in the US with our pop culture, cinema and all of that. What are the themes? The soundtracks? It's always classically based. Certain things turn me on about it. One of the first things that turned me on was Beethoven. There's a song called Rage Over a Lost Penny and people think I play too many notes! LOL It's very powerful.
This concludes Part I of my interview. Look for Part II, where Chris and James discuss Tony Iommi, writing music and chicken pickin'!
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