ALEX MACHACEK HAS GARNERED HIGH PRAISE from the likes of
John McLaughlin and Allan Holdsworth, and pundits have routinely
compared his guitar playing to Holdsworth’s and his
compositions to those of his posthumous mentor Frank Zappa.
(Machacek even reprised Holdsworth’s role in UK while performing
with Eddie Jobson’s UKZ project.) While such comparisons are
valid as far as they go, Machacek is as adept at Mahavishnu-grade
single-note picking as he is at Holdsworthian legato pull-offs and
hammer-ons, and his writing draws on myriad influences while
increasingly transcending them.
The Austrian-born musician studied
classical guitar for six years as a child,
then switched to electric when he
became interested in rock and jazz during
his teens. Machacek earned a degree
in Jazz Guitar from the Conservatory of
Vienna, and in 1995 he attended the
Berklee College of Music on a scholarship.
Currently he is an instructor at the
Guitar Institute of Technology in Los
Machacek’s critically acclaimed 2006
U.S. debut, [sic]—which included contributions
from frequent collaborator
drummer Terry Bozzio—was rife with
mind-bending guitar work and raised
more than a few eyebrows within the
jazz-fusion community. It was followed
by 2007’s Improvision, which further
showcased Machacek’s extraordinary
improvisational skills, this time in a
power trio alongside bassist Matt Garrison
and former Shawn Lane drummer
Machacek’s latest release, 24 Tales
[Abstract Logix], is a compositional tour
de force based on a 52-minute drum solo
by Marco Minnemann. Its 24 pieces flow
uninterrupted from beginning to end,
navigating the ever-changing rhythmic
structure which includes time signatures
such as 15/16 and 9/16. (“At the end of
‘Sweet Torture,’” says Machacek, “Marco
interprets the 9/16 ostinato as a nontuplet
and superimposes 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and
8 over it.”) Intense metallic chunks, shimmering
clusters of layered harmonics,
subtle EBow orchestrations, acoustic slide
figures, ripping runs and counterpoint
lines, funky breakdowns, and searing virtuosic
solos are just a few of the guitar
highlights along the way.
Machacek had composed to drum
solos previously—including two by
Bozzio on [sic]—but that only partially
prepared him for this endeavor. “After
working with Terry I thought I was really
good at it, but I discovered the hard way
that I wasn’t,” he says. “Terry’s approach
was very melodic and textural, and he
rarely laid down a groove, whereas Marco
routinely hit me with one odd meter
against another, sometimes at very, um,
How did you come to record 24 Tales?
I was considering doing an album of
compositions using different drummers,
so I asked Marco if he had anything, and
he said, “Yeah, I have a solo.” And then he
gave me this. I was originally going to just
use a section of it, but then he decided to
have several composers write for the entire
thing as part of his Normalizer project.
Marco’s playing is so intricate and complex
and the more you listen to it the more
you realize that he’s doing things like playing
in 5, but the high-hat is playing in 7,
and it doesn’t throw him off. That, to me,
was overwhelming. I knew about his facility,
but you know about stuff and then you
work on it and you really know.
Briefly describe your compositional
process for the album.
The first step was to beat map the
entire 52-minute composition in Logic
Pro, because I wanted to sequence some
sounds using MIDI. Otherwise, I would
have had to play everything perfectly in
real time, and I’m not a piano player or
a bass player or whatever. Beat mapping
allowed me to enter notes one at a time
using the mouse. Also, if you know that
you have a certain number of bars in a
section, that helps with the structure.
The next step was to lay down markers
and write descriptions for every section,
such as, “Lots of kick drum insanity.”
Then, I’d try to establish a groove, a
melody, a harmonic motif, etc., and
develop a section from there.
About 45 seconds into the opening track
there’s what sounds like super-complex tapping.
What’s going on there?
That’s not tapping. I got that effect
by layering four of five clean guitar parts
and four or five artificial harmonic guitar
parts, with each note cut tight so
there’s almost a gating effect, and in
some cases delay synced to the tempo.
Typically, I’ll record a scratch piano track,
and then replace the piano parts with
guitars. In this case I orchestrated parts
that doubled Marco’s high-hat accents, and that also established the harmonic
motive that reappears throughout the album.
The harmonics on “Tour de France” are similar,
though, with what sounds like filtered delays.
Those are sped-up, right?
Yes, those are filtered delays. And, again,
every harmonic is recorded individually. I
wish I could play that fast, because the right
arm movement would be incredible. I also
created a chord pad at the beginning by
recording four individual EBow-guitar tracks.
You play acoustic slide in what sounds like
standard tuning on “Sit Back and Chillax.”
Yes, that’s my old Yamaha FG470SA in
standard tuning with some modulated delay
on it. I’ve never played slide before, and I’m
not good at it, but I wanted to introduce
some new colors on this album.
You play with great economy of movement.
What sorts of exercises would you recommend for
guitarists that are trying to become more efficient
in that regard?
I decided when I was really young that my
right-hand picking technique sucked, so for
ten minutes a day I just focused on reducing
my movements. Then I did the same thing with
my left hand, redoing each hammer-on and
pull-off to educate my fingers to stay in place
until I was ready to play the next note or notes,
rather than moving away from the fretboard.
What kind of pick do you use and how do you
I use the large 2.0mm purple Dunlop
picks. I like smaller picks for single-note
lines, but if I do any funk comping they fall
out of my hands. I hold the pick with my
index finger and thumb and I try not to
show too much tip, though sometimes
when strumming I hold it with my thumb
and middle and index fingers for additional
flexibility. I also have the habit—I don’t
know if it’s good or not—of circle picking,
where I move just the first joint of my
thumb a little bit, which appeals to me, but
doesn’t always work, depending on the
What guitars are you playing currently?
Right now I’m playing a headless hollowbody
guitar made by Bill Delap that is shaped
a little like an SG. I like headless guitars because
you can change the strings on them really
quickly, and also because they fit easily into
overhead compartments when flying. And I
really like the TransTrem, because I can lock
it just by putting the arm down, and if a string
breaks while I’m playing I can still finish the
song. I also have a Godin LGXT with Synth
Access, a Strat-type guitar with two humbuckers,
a single-coil, and MIDI capabilities.
What strings do you prefer?
I use D’Addario strings. The Delap and
Godin guitars are strung with .010 sets. I’d
use .011 sets if I could, because I like a thick
and well-defined tone, but I have to watch
my left hand. With the legato playing and
stretching, heavier strings take too much
effort and I don’t want to get tendonitis. I
use .012 sets on my Gibson ES-335 for playing
jazz, and .013 sets on my Yamaha acoustic.
What are your three favorite effects pedals
as of this moment?
I really like the Xotic Effects RC Booster because it can instantly breathe life into any
amp, and the Xotic BB Preamp, which I use
for a good distorted tone. The third one would
be a good delay, but I haven’t found the right
one yet, so I’ll say the Fractal Audio Axe-FX,
which is a good pedal, in a way, if you have a
What amps are you currently using?
I have a Mesa Boogie Rect-O-Verb and a
Port City 2x12 cabinet, though I also have a
Polytone Mini-Brute 1x12 combo that I use
on jazz gigs.
What do you look for in a solo tone and how do
you get it?
I look for a sound that doesn’t have too
much treble and just the right amount of
gain. If there isn’t enough gain, certain notes
will drop off when I play legato, but if there’s
too much, some clarity might be lost. When
I’m recording, I might run the BB Preamp
into the Boogie and mic it with a Shure SM57,
or use a different distortion pedal such as an
MI Audio Crunch Box. Other times I’ll use
the Axe-FX and go straight into the computer
What strategies would you suggest for learning
to improvise over odd time signatures?
The first thing is to learn the bass riff if there
is one, and if not, learn the bass drum and snare
drum figures so that you know how the time
is divided. Try playing an octave figure with the
bass drum on the low note and the snare on
the high note. There’s also an exercise where
I work with a grid of sixteenth- notes to establish
beginning and ending points. Using a
metronome, play a phrase that begins and ends
on the first sixteenth-note. Then, start and end
on the second sixteenth-note, etc., each time
shifting the entire phrase by a sixteenth-note.
And learn what each sixteenth-note really feels
like, so that you can actually use it.
You can also try dividing times differently.
For example, 15/16 may be thought of as 5
groups of 3, or 3 groups of 5—again, it’s just
learning to feel it. And practice over two unrelated
chords, so you have to change your notes,
because that really tells you where the 1 is.
You can also just play a chord every time the
1 comes around—or any given accent that you
choose—and improvise in between. Beyond
these things you can explore all of the permutations
of note combinations within five
notes, or seven notes, etc. Then you’ll have
a long grey beard, no audience, no friends,
and definitely no sex—but at least you’ll be
able to play those things [laughs].