Modern-Day Knight

DragonForce’s Herman Li is mastering guitar, BJJ, and knife fighting.


Herman Li isn’t slaying dragons, but the musician is learning the proper techniques to stab one. The co-founder and guitarist of power metal band DragonForce has trained in various martial arts for the past 15 years, including Wing Chun, judo, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Recently, the 35-year-old ventured into Kali—a Filipino martial art system centered on hand-to-hand combat with weapons such as knives and sticks.

Li is making up for lost time. As a child growing up in Hong Kong, his parents forbade him from learning any combat discipline, because, as the musician puts it, his parents thought, “Every guy who was doing martial arts was some kind of thug.”

Li soon branched out on his own, and he followed in the footsteps of his childhood idol Bruce Lee, trying his hand at Wing Chun in 1997.

“Wing Chun was just the starting point because I knew a few guys who did it,” Li says, “I didn’t even care what martial art it was, I just wanted to do something.”

Li trained in the art for seven years and earned a brown belt. However, according to the powerhouse guitarist, it’s fairly meaningless. “There’s not really an official ranking for those types of martial arts,” he says. “There’s just no grading and no structure, but they gave me a brown belt. Every school has their own grading, so it means nothing at all.”

But that was okay. After all, Wing Chun was just his starting point. Like many of today’s mixed martial artists, the musician expanded his repertoire. While in college in 1998 in his new home of London, England, Li took a handful of classes in both judo and Japanese Jiu-Jitsu, both of which were offered as elective classes. Although Li jumped at the chance to learn the new disciplines, he was more impressed with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu after watching Royce Gracie at UFC 3.

“After watching Royce, I had to go to a Gracie place to see what BJJ was all about is about,” he says.

Li began training at a Carlson Gracie affiliate school in London in 2005. A year later, Li found a permanent home at the Roger Gracie Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Academy where he currently holds a second stripe blue belt. The musician has even entered a few grappling competitions.

“I did some BJJ competitions two years ago,” says Li. “Unfortunately, I didn’t do as well as I hoped, but it was a good experience. I haven’t trained for five months. I need to get back into it.”

Li hasn’t been to the gym much lately because of DragonForce’s intense schedule. Formed in 1999, the London-based sextet (also comprised of vocalist Marc Hudson, co-founding guitarist Sam Totman, bassist Frederic Leclercq, keyboardist Vadim Pruzhanov, and drummer Dave Mackintosh) spent years establishing their presence before releasing their debut album Valley Of The Damned in 2003. The power metal six-piece made up for lost time; however, as they dropped three albums, including 2004’s Sonic Firestorm, 2006’s Inhuman Rampage, and 2008’s Ultra Beatdown.

Although DragonForce took a break from recording for the next four years, they’ve returned with their recently released fifth studio album The Power Within. Throughout the 10-track collection, the group displays stellar musicianship, epic vocalism, and well-rounded song composition. Some of the highlights include “Cry Thunder,” “Holding On,” and “Seasons,” which was also included on the full-length in acoustic form.

Perhaps the biggest difference of all is the messages within each individual record. “A lot of the lyrics on this album are really talking about what’s happening these days—the current events of the world, people needing to believe in themselves, and to stand up, never give up, and fight through the end in whatever they believe in,” Li says. “That’s the general message of the lyrics on this album, which is actually different from previous ones. We didn’t get that deep lyrically until this album.”

DragonForce will bring that warrior spirit on the road as they support The Power Within across the globe.

THE ROAD LIFE

Few rock stars train in the martial arts, and even fewer train while touring the country with their respective bands. Herman Li joins a select group of musicians, including Zoltan Bathory of Five Finger Death Punch, Maynard James Keenan of Tool, and Dez Fafara of DevilDriver, who are dedicated to sharpening their combat skills in between sets. “I have a crew working for me that’s done martial arts for many years, so I get to train on tour with my technicians,” Li says. “My drum technician used to teach Muay Thai and Taekwondo back in Scotland, so I get to do striking with him, and I get to grapple with others. I’ve got padded mats on the tour bus and in the storage trailer. I’ve got all the gear and everything. Sometimes, my friends will come out and train with me before the show. They try to break my arms, but I make sure to tap. I’m a guitar player.”

“I did some BJJ competitions two years ago,” says Li. “Unfortunately, I didn’t do as well as I hoped, but it was a good experience.”

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