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. Our interview with Machacek resulted in far more material than could be included in his upcoming May 2010 feature. Here are some outtakes:You studied classical guitar as a child in Vienna during your formative years. In what ways did that establish a foundation for your later development as a player?Studying classical guitar didn’t affect me too much because when my real interest in music came it was in jazz and rock—in electric guitar—though it probably didn’t hurt to have learned the note names on the fretboard and to read music a little bit. My right-hand fingering technique was very much better back then, whereas nowadays if I don’t have a pick I can barely play, so that’s long gone [laughs]. As for my left hand, I’m sure that just trying to keep my wrist flexible was beneficial, and something of that probably remains in motor memory.
You also studied classical percussion. In what ways has that aspect of your education influenced your compositions?That influenced me in general quite a bit. I already had a degree in jazz guitar, and when I returned to school I had to take a secondary instrument. So I went into my first snare drum lesson and had to read something. It was not a technical issue. It was really easy. I read it and I played it and it was okay, and then the teacher asked me, “Did you play a lot of jazz recently?” I said, “No, why?” And he said, “Because it was super sloppy” [laughs]. That kind of opened my eyes rhythmically. Those classical percussion players are really on top of their game. It has to be 100 percent. So, I got introduced to that precision, phrasing, and dynamics on drums. I had to learn quite difficult snare drum pieces. Once you decipher all that stuff you think, “Hey, that’s cool. I might use something like that in my own music.” So yeah, it did definitely influence me and opened a new door. It was a good mirror for my rhythmical skills. I had some self-reflection process going on.
Given how freely musical styles are intermingled these days by yourself and others, what role does tradition play within the modern compositional environment?It’s really important to know what has been done, in order to take from it or just to avoid it. Let’s say I’m a painting student and I have the brilliant idea in 2010 to put up an empty canvas. Well, that has been done before, so it might have been really beneficial if I’d done my homework before contacting the gallery. It also helps to hone your personal tastes. For example, how can I take a concept that has been there for centuries—let’s say counterpoint voice leading—and apply it to my own music?
Do you think that because music has been becoming more eclectic, or composition has anyway, is that entirely a positive or is there something lost by maybe losing some of the purity of particular traditions?In Austria, for instance, I played in a couple of contemporary ensembles where the only goal was to do something new no matter what—but just because it’s new or hasn’t been done, that doesn’t make it automatically good, it just makes it new. Maybe it hasn’t been done for a reason—because it doesn’t sound that great for instance [laughs]. The same thing would apply to your guitar sound. Everyone is looking for his own voice. Let’s say I put a phaser, a chorus, a whammy, another phaser, a slapback delay, and then a reverb with one day of pre delay on my sounds. Maybe that’s a very original sound, and maybe nobody has done it before, but…
Have you spent a lot of time analyzing Zappa’s compositions?Not necessarily analyzing, but just listening. I listened and picked out what was interesting to me—there’s counterpoint there, or certain instrumentation. And there’s also finding out where Zappa stole it from, actually. Just because Zappa used marimba— and unison lines with any melody instrument—doesn’t mean he invented that. You can look back and hear that in orchestral music quite a bit. But if you put marimba on your music, and if there’s distorted guitar, “Oh it’s Zappa.” Yeah, in a way it’s true, but not entirely true.
What tips could you offer to budding young improvisers?Go back to square one and listen to music. You should know what has been done so you have a picture of who’s doing what in which style of music—what note choices are there for each style of music—because it totally depends on the style. And transcribing is never a bad idea—it’s good for your ear, and it might make you play something you wouldn’t have normally. Also, sometimes I’ll come up with a concept and then build on it by imposing some restriction. For example, I’ll take a prticular set of notes and then just milk them and see what comes out. And it doesn’t hurt to have a little bit of music theory—this note fits over this chord—just so you know the ABCs of the music language. Know your fretboard really well if you want to improvise well.
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