An Interview with Marty Friedman

Feature image courtesy of martyfriedman.com


By Andrew Daly
andrew@vinylwriter.com

Image courtesy of martyfriedman.com

Be it a perfect storm, a meeting of the minds, or simply a matter of sheer chance, the late 80s brought forth a wave of guitar heroics once thought improbable, if not impossible.

While many guitarists’ focus veered toward commercial viability and general public interest, Marty Friedman wanted more, instead centering his talents on what drove his passions. In doing so, the fire-breathing six-stringer anchored his work toward intent-driven music, which fed the multi-layered soundscapes perpetually rolling through the East Coast native’s mind.

Friedman’s take-no-prisoners approach, coupled with his refusal to conform to the standards of the zeitgeist, allowed the Jackson MF1-wielding polymath to untether his aerodynamic leads unto the masses, hot wiring the brains of a generation to come through his work in both the instrumental guitar and thrash metal arenas.

Be it cruising down the fretboard in a fit of unbridled, torrential glory, or laying back in the shadows, gently skimming the six strings at his talents disposal, one this is certain – the stylings of Marty Friedman are like to others, and are one’s which define him not only as a musician but as a man.

From his home in Japan, Friedman and I recently ran through his opinions on what makes a guitar solo enjoyable, his creative process, the inspiration and recording of Scenes thirty years on, how his environment has shaped his music, and a whole lot more.

Andrew:
Thanks for setting aside some time with me, Marty. The first thing I wanted to hit on was an interesting quote where you mentioned that a lot of people seem to be skipping tracks, or turning them off altogether during the guitar solo. Some people are calling it “the death of lead guitar.” Can you expand on that for me?

Marty:
Sure! I think what happened was, a couple of weeks ago, for some reason, the words “guitar solo” were trending on Twitter here in Japan, and I thought that was kind of interesting. So I looked at what it said, and it said something to the effect that with subscription services like Spotify, they’re finding that people have been skipping guitar solos when they listen to the songs. The data shows that when it gets to the guitar solo, listeners are passing it and going on to other songs. I don’t know how this data got collected, or even if it was just a made-up sound bite, but I thought it was interesting. Moreso, I thought it was really interesting that so many people were talking about it. I put my own two cents on it, and it seems to have gotten people talking to the point that a lot of people asked me about it here in Japan since then. It’s interesting that it got all the way to you.

I don’t think it’s the death of lead guitar, so to speak. But I think if that data is true, and even if it’s fake, it shines a light on the importance of why guitar solos have to be good in the first place. I mean, I don’t think if anything was good, it would be passed over. I think what happens here in Japan, definitely not so much in the States, but in Japan, the guitar is very much alive in pop music, rock music, metal music, dance music, everything, really. In Japan at least, the guitar is a staple, so much so that it’s almost like an obligation to have a guitar solo in the song. What happens is a lot of times, producers and music creators are kind of on autopilot. It’s like, “Okay, the solo goes here. Let’s just put a solo in here. That’ll be a chance for people to take a break while singing karaoke.” [Laughs]. While it’s good for the overall balance of the song, and it’s just an important tool, what they seem to forget, or what they seem to skimp on is the quality, the purpose, and the meaningfulness of the guitar solo’s content. It’s more like, “Well, it’s time for a solo, let’s just put anything in there.”

With all the costs that are involved in making a song or making any kind of music, that’s where they get shipped out to anybody with a guitar, where you can lay down some kind of distorted solo, or any kind of thing that fits in this space, or that makes the song construction work, and that’s the end of it. It’s funny though, people are getting wise to that because musical time is valuable. We’re talking about valuable real estate within a song, so if the guitar solo is a weak point in the song, normal people are just going to just skip over it. And I could see that happening, as I do the exact same thing if I don’t like anything. I mean, I’ll know, within the first couple of notes whether or not I want to continue listening to what any guitar player has to say. If the entrance to the solo is interesting, I’m in there for the whole trip, but if not, I’m like, “Well, I’ll probably find a different song to listen to.”

Andrew:
How do you craft a memorable solo that listeners won’t want to skip?

Marty:
Well, if it’s your craft, it should be inherent. I look at myself as a lead guitarist over anything else. Of course, I do everything from producing, to songwriting, to arranging, to every possible thing involved in music, but what comes easiest and best for me, is being a lead guitar player. By nature, my process is to listen, but of course, as I’m playing, after I’ve played, and after I listen to it completely, I say to myself, “From a non-musician standpoint, instead from Joe Public’s standpoint, does this make me excited? Does it make me feel something?” I have to be honest, sometimes it’s easy to play something that’s challenging, where you get it done, you feel great about doing it, “Wow. I’ve got this amazing solo here,” and that kind of blinds you from whether or not it’s enjoyable or not for the listener. The thing is, the listener doesn’t know the feeling of achievement that you get from playing something difficult, and they really don’t care. So when you can listen to a song with without those musical biases in mind, that’s when you can really judge your work. And when that happens, when you reach that point, you often throw away things that you worked really, really, really hard on, because you’re being honest with yourself saying, “Well, maybe a guitar nerd might like this, but Joe Public is not going to care about it, and neither is his girlfriend.” So that’s when you’ve got to go back to the drawing board, and I think that’s where the process of listening comes in.

Image courtesy of martyfriedman.com

Andrew:
How did you apply those principles best during the recording of Tokyo Jukebox 3?

Marty:
Oh, wow, so that’s just my complete nature. I would say I spend much more time listening than actually recording. I make tons of demos and live with them, and during the demos, I just pretty much play natural, as in what I feel at that moment. After that, I live with those demos for a while. The upside is that it doesn’t take a lot of work to do the actual demo, but the downside is I make thousands of demos. [Laughs]. So it winds up being a lot of work, and a lot of listening time. I think living with stuff is important though, because when you’re recording something, and you put it out, it’s easy to say, “Well, it’s perfect. It’s just the best I can do. Let’s let it go.” But I think as a music fan, as I’m sure you are, and I definitely am, throughout your life, you listen to a lot of songs many times over. The true test of whether something is going to work for me or not is whether I can keep listening to the same demo several times over a long period because that’s when I can really critique it. Not so much the actual playing, but the overall recording.

Andrew:
This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of Scenes. At the time, what did recording as a solo artist provide for you that being in a band did not?

Marty:
Thank you for mentioning that, I love that album. Well, at the time, I was really enjoying playing full-on thrash metal every single night. I was getting my complete fill of that, and I was completely satisfied with that. So, as a solo artist, to go into the studio and write more of that stuff would kind of be redundant. If you’re doing something at the top level, such as thrash metal, there’s really nothing more that you want to add to it because you’re already doing it. At the same time, I had a lot of other things that I wanted to say musically, and I think pretty much anything on Scenes would be something that wouldn’t necessarily fit into the Megadeth framework. Now, I put the same amount of love and energy into pretty much any project that I’ve ever done, but my work with Megadeth and my work on Scenes were like polar opposites. So, it was kind of also fun to do a complete polar opposite type of thing in that way, where what I was doing at night was different from what I was doing during the day. Scenes was a very fresh, and really fun thing to do for me at the time for that reason alone.

Andrew:
Going into the recording of Scenes, what would you say your approach was to the recordings and the songwriting?

Marty:
Luckily, I had a wonderful keyboard/synth player named Brian BecVar, who can pretty much read my mind as I was coming up with a lot of stuff. I actually wrote a lot of Scenes before I joined Megadeth, so a lot of that material was in a different style, more what I was working on before I joined the band. Obviously, after I joined Megadeth, the material went on the back burner for a couple of years. So when I revisited it to do Scenes, I was like, “Well, that’s pretty cool. I like the melodies, but there’s really no reason to make it so rock and metal-oriented anymore.” So I took the same melodies and I played them with this keyboard player, Brian BecVar, and suddenly, I just started hearing the songs in a different way. Brian adapted to what I was doing really well and gave me a lot of different palettes of sounds to build tracks off of. He helped me lay them out in such a way without having the full thrash band interpretation. Having a good, solid keyboard player with me as I was recreating these melodies was essential to making taking Scenes in the direction that it went. I had never really done anything that mellow and romantic before, so it was really great to have someone who wasn’t afraid to tone down the arrangement.

Image courtesy of martyfriedman.com

Andrew:
Dragon’s Kiss came out in the “shred era,” and featured some really energetic guitars. Scenes features a notable stylistic shift. Was there any pushback from Shrapnel Records, or did Mike Varney give you total freedom?

Marty:
That’s a really good question. I haven’t thought back that far in a while, actually. I had total freedom by the time Scenes happened. When I was doing Dragon’s Kiss, I was in a drastically different situation from Scenes. During the making of Dragon’s Kiss, I was pretty much homeless and broke, so if the record company said anything, or asked me to do anything, I would definitely have listened to it. Thankfully, [Mike] Varney was pretty cool about letting me do whatever I wanted. Now, by the time I did Scenes, I was in a platinum-selling band, so I didn’t have to do a record at all. I did it because I wanted to do it, and because I loved it, so my outlook and freedom had totally changed. Honestly, if Varney didn’t release it, another label would have probably released it. So I was in a much stronger position as far as creative control and by the time Scenes came out.

I remember when I was doing it, the engineer was Steve Fontanon, he was like Mike Varney’s main engineer. When Steve heard me do all this mellow stuff, he was beyond excited to get going. I mean, I’ve worked with him a ton, and I love him so much, but I’ve never seen him as excited on any of the projects I was on it as much as Scenes. So that gave me a little confidence boost, where even though I had to turn in this album in to Mike Varney, Fontanon was very much behind what I was doing. I remember as we were listening back, Steve said, “Marty, this is a masterpiece,” and he really gave me a big head about it. [Laughs]. I think having his support made me even more confident that I was doing something that someone other than myself might like.

Andrew:
If I recall, “Triumph” is a remake of “Thunder March.” How did your approach change as you were recording that track four years after the original was laid to tape?

Marty:
Good question. With the “Thunder March” thing, that song pretty much identifies with me, and I like it, but I don’t think it’s ever been done quite right. I actually did it for a Cacophony record too, but it didn’t work out. I did it again, for Dragon’s Kiss, and it was okay. I thought it might be better on Scenes, and the arrangement is really good. The issue was that the budget was so small, so instead of doing it with a real orchestra, it was just done with synths, and I can’t bear to listen to it, as I’m really not satisfied. I’ve played it on tour forever and done it in a billion different versions, and someday, I hope to give it the proper treatment that it deserves, and make it right. Actually, I’ve done a couple of different versions that have never been released. They’re kind of halfway new arrangements with orchestral instruments, and I’m pretty close – I’m pretty close to getting it right – and I wouldn’t be surprised if it shows up on one of my next records when it’s done in its final, proper form. I really like that song, but it’s an enigma. I really like what it is, but it’s like the one song of mine that I really haven’t gotten down correctly.

Andrew:
With Dragon’s Kiss and Scenes being two sides of the proverbial coin, which one do you identify with most?

Marty:
That’s tough because I haven’t heard either of them in so long. Having not listened to them through in a while, it would be hard to say. That being said, I identify with everything. I mean, every album that I do is kind of like a yearbook of what exactly was going on in my life at that time. Any album that I’ve released has always been the absolute best I could possibly have done given whatever circumstances I was in. I know with both of those records, I was completely committed and devoted to them at the time, and completely satisfied with them when I let them go. So, I have absolutely equal amounts of identification to any of the album’s that I’ve done. This all being said, I don’t think I really started getting into making my best work until about 2006 when I did Loudspeaker.

Andrew:
What was it about Loudspeaker where you feel things changed for you?

Marty:
That’s when I started to really grasp what I was starting to see as my possible potential. That’s when I learned how hard it is to make something that I’ll feel really strong about for many years to come. With Loudspeaker, I really started to get into my stride around that time and I’ve kept growing since then. So the newer stuff ever since then has just, in my own opinion, gotten better and better. But of course, listeners have their own experiences with each record, so they may like something from a different period much more, and that’s totally cool. In a way, I’m kind of afraid to go back and listen to that older stuff, because there are so many things that I would change if if I were doing it now. But at the time, I was certainly completely engrossed in those things. I have nothing but happy, and proud memories of all that stuff equally.

Image courtesy of martyfriedman.com

Andrew:
I’ve spoken to guitarists like Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Vinnie Moore, and Greg Howe, and one consistent thread is they all seem to dislike the term “shredder.” I’ve seen you mention that you feel the same. Considering that is the era where you came to prominence, if you could describe your general feeling of the era, would you call it ambivalence?

Marty:
Good question. You know, terminologies or stuff like that aren’t used by guys doing it as much as they are by the guys talking about it. But as long as they’re talking about it, and enjoying the music, I don’t really care what they call it. [Laughs]. Even if they’re not enjoying it, if they’re talking about it, then I’m still happy about it. When I started getting known as a guitarist during the Dragon’s Kiss, and Cacophony eras, there was a lot of great guitar playing going on, not only from myself, but from guys like you mentioned like Vai, and Satriani. Those guys really took it to the mainstream much more than me or Jason Becker did. Those guys knew how to appeal to Joe Sixpack more than I did, and I certainly applaud them for that, because that’s quite a feat. It’s not an easy thing to do, bringing innovative, exciting guitar-driven music to someone who doesn’t care about guitar. It’s a tough sell, man. But for me, I wasn’t really thinking so much on those terms, and it’s the same as now. For me, it’s more like, “This is my music, and I hope you like it.” That’s the best I can do.

I’ve never really tried to tailor my music into being mainstream, being trendy, or reaching this person or that demographic. I just don’t have that capacity, or the type of talent to be able to mix that into my own music very much. So my music is pretty much what it is. Thinking back, at that time, there was a whole lot of exciting guitar playing that everybody was doing, and hopefully, mine was quite different from what others were doing. I think it was. I think my plan was different from others. If you call it “shred,” and you like it, then then God bless you. But that term just reminded me of when I was a kid, and there was just always somebody in the basement of your friend’s house, who was just shredding away, and it looked really cool with their fingers flying around, but if you close your eyes and listen to it, it’s a hot mess. For that reason, I just never liked being identified with that. You know, it’s no big deal, I mean, worse things have been said about me or anyone else. [Laughs].

Andrew:
I like to simply call it “good guitar playing.”

Marty:
Yeah, I mean, it doesn’t even have to be “good.” I mean, I think you just have to take it at a musical face value. I think what happens is when you have as much guitar playing going on in music like mine, a lot of the listeners are also guitar players, and guitar players are a different breed. At each stage of our growth level, we go through all kinds of different phases, and one of those early phases is comparing the music you listen to on a guitar playing level, “This guy plays like this. This guy plays like that. This doesn’t happen in real life.” Now, maybe this only happens in guitar circles, and that’s a very narrow way to look at playing guitar. It’s where everybody gets really anal about listening to what the actual guitarist is doing, but in reality, what matters most is what you feel like when you listen to the music. So, I think it’s an interesting thing to note that guitar players are a different breed, and when you do something like my early Cacophony stuff or Dragon’s Kiss, a lot of my dear fans are guitar players, so it just comes with the territory that they might give it some terminology.

Image courtesy of martyfriedman.com

Andrew:
How has living in Japan influenced your work most?

Marty:
Japan, just like any place where any artist, musician, or guitar player lives, is going to influence you more than anything else. I mean, people talk about their influences, and then they list off a bunch of other guitar players, and I believe that’s kind of missing the point entirely. Of course, we all listen to other musicians and get influenced by a phrase here and there, but the biggest influence in any artist’s life is their surroundings, and life experiences. Good things and bad things that happen, emotions that you felt, all of these things factor into the outcome. I mean, what’s really happening when you’re making music is you’re taking those emotions, and you’re processing them into music that identifies you. It’s not just a random bunch of licks that you’ve taken from a bunch of people strung together your own way. It’s about that time that you had a girlfriend problem, or you had to move away from your family, or you were addicted to something, and you overcame it. Those are the things that come out in any artist’s music, and the literal influences you picked up from others players are almost inconsequential.

So, Japan has just been such a massive culture change from what I grew up with on the East Coast of America. It’s like a different planet from where I grew up, and assimilating into it has really been all-encompassing on a musical level. All the work I’ve done over here, it’s just been so alien to what I grew up doing, that it’s influenced my music across the board. From the first album that I released here when I moved to Japan, which was Loudspeaker, you can really hear the progression. Sure, you can definitely tell it’s the same guy who did Dragon’s Kiss and Megadeth, and all that stuff, But there are just so many different richer, deeper aspects to it that wouldn’t have existed had I stayed where I was living before.

Andrew:
Last one. What’s next for you, Marty?

Marty:
So what’s coming up is I’m finally going to be touring outside of Japan. Coming to the US and touring the rest of the world is something that everyone outside of the US has been waiting to do since the pandemic stuff. Now with Japan finally loosening its borders – Japan was one of the last countries to loosen them up – now it’s okay to go in and out compared to what it’s been for the last two and a half years. With all that being said, putting together tours outside of Japan takes time, and it will probably be the beginning of next year before I’m outside of Japan. I have a big tour of Japan coming up in August, where I’m touring more cities than I’ve ever toured before here in Japan, which is going to be exciting. I have a couple festivals in the summer, and I’m also going to be doing some touring overseas with this project that I’m working on where I’m doing a song for a movie. It’s part of a very unique project, and we’re going to be doing expos in Japan, Paris, Bangkok, Dubai, and a couple other cities around the world. I’ll probably do some solo shows connected with that too. So, I’m going to do a couple of things outside of Japan, but mostly Japan touring, and then feverishly putting together a US tour for the beginning of next year. I hope to see you all there.

Image courtesy of martyfriedman.com

Andrew Daly (@vwmusicrocks) is the Editor-in-Chief for www.vwmusicrocks.com and may be reached at andrew@vinylwriter.com

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