"We've got maybe another 10, 15 years? Playing a Dragonforce set is not easy": Guitar hero Herman Li talks technique, helping popularise power metal and the next generation of shredders

Dragonforce 2024
(Image credit: Travis Shinn)

When Dragonforce unveiled their hypersonic, digit-damaging vision of power metal back in 2003, nobody could have predicted that they’d kickstart a generational shift in the genre as young fans discovered the joys of cheesy, bombastic tales of swords’n’sorcery. Nor could they have predicted that Dragonforce would become a household name thanks to the inclusion of Through The Fire And Flames on Guitar Hero

Two decades on, the Dragonforce legions have been summoned to battle once more on jubilant new album Warp Speed Warriors. We tracked down founding axe hero Herman Li to a studio in LA to answer your burning questions. 

Metal Hammer line break

Should or shouldn’t one flex the thumb and forefinger while playing solo or lead?
Sepsiss, Facebook 

“I’m not sure what that means! But if you want to pretend that you’re a good guitar player, or at least look confident, your fingers have to be nicely angled and bent into kind of a circle. People who aren’t so confident technically will have kind of flappy fingers when they’re doing a lead. Usually, a really good guitarist will use that technique if they need to, but not all the time.” 

Could [Polyphia guitarist] Tim Henson play for Dragonforce?
Nick Harmer, Twitter 

“I did a livestream a couple of years ago for RazerCon, a gaming accessory company showcase, and I had Tim Henson do Cry Thunder and Through The Fire And Flames as a three-way guitar battle with me and [Animals As Leaders’] Tosin Abasi. I’d love to have Tim come in and do a tour with Dragonforce, wouldn’t that be fun! He’s totally capable of doing it, and he’s a really great guy.” 

What do you find the hardest part about touring?
Nobody_Guitar, Instagram 

“Now, the hardest part of touring is having the time to not do anything! I’m not a musician who just sits around waiting to be fed. I’m busy the whole day. I wake up and see what’s going on, talk to all the crew, check out the guitars. I’m involved with the stage production, the audio… I want to make sure the show looks and sounds as good as possible. We do livestreaming with nine cameras, so I check out the computers, the video screens and Sam [Totman, guitars] builds the stage props. It’s a full-on show.” 

Hammer: Dragonforce used to be renowned for a bit of boozing before a show – does that still happen? 

“That’s all gone now. We just don’t have time! We meet the fans for the VIP package, and it’s not just like ‘sign, bye, ignore’, we actually like to have a little conversation and a laugh with them. We still enjoy hanging out with friends at the party after the show, but before the show we’re busy all the time.” 

How important were games like Guitar Hero for getting people into metal?
Ed Timms, email 

“Guitar Hero was very important for metal - not just for Dragonforce, but all guitar-driven music. With guitar music, the waves come and go; it’s popular, then it’s not popular, it’s hard to say why. But Guitar Hero definitely got a young generation to hear guitars, and gave them a choice actually, between what they hear on the radio and what they don’t hear on the radio. Tim Henson is an example from that generation; he played Guitar Hero as a kid, now he’s a guitar hero himself!” 

Why haven’t Dragonforce hired a new keyboardist?
Jonathan Carr, Facebook 

“Because having someone in the band is almost like a marriage. You’re seeing them all the time on tour, you’re living with them, you’re in the same room every day. It’s not that easy to find someone who fits the music, who has the drive, and who can handle all this touring. Being away from home for so long, that’s a lot to ask of someone. 

They have to really want to do it. Sometimes people think they want it, but when they get on tour, they’re like, ‘Shit, this isn’t what I expected!’ That’s why you see so many people quitting bands and deciding to do something else. I’m happy to have a full-time keyboard player back in the band when we have found someone special, but until then we had Coen Janssen from Epica playing keyboards on our album, so…”

How many scars are on those fingers from going so damned fast?
Down The Nails, Twitter 

“None on my fingers, but I fell offstage on our last tour of America; I really hurt my leg and my teeth. I’m having to go to physiotherapy for my left leg. I fucked it up mid-tour, and kept doing the shows like nothing was happening because the show must go on. Now I’m doing therapy to get this leg ready for the next tour – it’s been going on for months. But that’s the danger of a Dragonforce show – we don’t do boring shows!” 

How old can you get while still playing at this speed?
Clan X (The Clanx), email 

“I don’t know… Maybe another 10, 15 years? I’m being realistic. Playing a Dragonforce set is not easy, it asks a lot of you. It’s not like we can pace ourselves – you know, some bands can play forever, right? But if you want to see Dragonforce live, you better come now, I’m telling you. This is not forever.” Where does the creativity for the extensively long guitar solos come from? Igjournalism, Instagram “I don’t think I’m the smartest guy in the room. I’m definitely not the best guitar player – I’m not in the top thousand in this world. But I want to get better. That’s how the creativity came around, because the amount of knowledge in the guitar world is unlimited – so I’m always learning.”

Considering your origins, how does it feel seeing power metal bands playing massive venues these days?
Elliot Rouse, email 

“It is a great thing. When we started, we thought we’d already missed the boat. I can remember what it was like back then in the UK. I remember going to see Stratovarius - one of the biggest PM bands of the time - at the [500-capacity] Camden Underworld. But we’ve just had our biggest US tour ever in our career, I never thought this could happen – this was bigger than the Through The Fire And Flames era in America. And to see other bands doing so great, friends of ours like Sabaton and Powerwolf, it’s awesome.” 

What Dragonforce album are you most proud of?
Jerseypiper77, Twitter 

“I’d say I had the same feeling when we finished [2019’s] Extreme Power Metal as I did when we finished [2004’s] Sonic Firestorm. I felt really good about it, like we’d done something that I could really be proud of, something we could go out there and tour for a long time. There was no pressure, and it was a great album.” 

Who were your biggest inspirations in the development of your melodic, shredding, neo-classical style?
Septamus2000, Instagram 

“If you listen to just one guitar player you end up sounding like them, so it’s got to be a collective of as many guitar players as possible. Obviously, I love lead players, so Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Tony MacAlpine, those are my top favourites, along with Marty Friedman – you can’t go wrong with those guys. The solos that got me into guitars were Richie Sambora’s on Bon Jovi songs, because they’re so memorable and so melodic. 

There are not many stadium concerts where you hear people singing the guitar solos. I saw Bon Jovi at Wembley Stadium, and every time he played a solo people would sing it or hum along to it. Even Vai and Satriani can’t make that happen!”

What’s the most starstruck you’ve ever been?
Phil Walker, email 

“I went to see Mr. Big at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in 2011, and Brian May was there. Everyone wanted to speak to him, everyone was onto him, and I was like, ‘Obviously I don’t want to annoy Brian May.’ I know what it’s like to be a guitar player at a show, people pulling your ear off. Then, suddenly, he came up to me and said, ‘Hey Herman, how’s it going?’ What the fuck?! Brian May came and spoke to me! He likes Dragonforce! That was a shocker for me!” 

What is your quest?
Christopher Lee Seaman, Facebook 

“To be true to myself, and keep doing what I love for as long as possible. I will stop if I no longer enjoy it, I won’t fake it. Sam and I said it since the beginning: when we don’t want to do this anymore, we’ll hang it up, we won’t do it forever. So everything we do, we love.”

Dragonforce's latest album Warp Speed Warriors is out now via Napalm

Chris Chantler

Chris has been writing about heavy metal since 2000, specialising in true/cult/epic/power/trad/NWOBHM and doom metal at now-defunct extreme music magazine Terrorizer. Since joining the Metal Hammer famileh in 2010 he developed a parallel career in kids' TV, winning a Writer's Guild of Great Britain Award for BBC1 series Little Howard's Big Question as well as writing episodes of Danger Mouse, Horrible Histories, Dennis & Gnasher Unleashed and The Furchester Hotel. His hobbies include drumming (slowly), exploring ancient woodland and watching ancient sitcoms.