I T’S A VEXING QUESTION, BUT ONE WE
always seem to ask metal guitarists in GP interviews:
What is the future of the genre? Is
anyone raising the bar, taking things to the
next level, or flying a new kind of metal freak
flag? Frequently, the response is uncertain, or
more cynical musicians will lament the fact
that many guitarists are simply recycling the
same old stuff we’ve heard one hundred times
before (“I liked it the first time—when it was
As ObZen has been out for a while now, and you’ve
had a chance to sit with it, do you still feel good about
But Sweden’s Meshuggah (the band name
means “crazy” in Yiddish) seems to perk up
the tired ears of the most jaded metal players.
Blending a headache-inducing barrage of drums
with bombastic riffs, atonal leads, odd time
signatures, and rapid key and tempo changes,
Meshuggah defies being pigeonholed. In fact,
the band has been called everything from experimental
jazz to grindcore to hi-tech metal.
Amidst the tumult, guitarists Märten Hagström
and Fredrik Thordendahl further defy convention
by deftly phrasing their riffs against
polyrhythmic beats and launching legato, jazz-inspired
leads. Meshuggah was still riding the
success of its sixth studio release last year,
ObZen [Nuclear Blast], when GP caught up with
Hagström at his forest home in Sweden as he
prepared for the band’s North American tour.
It’s starting to sink in, and it’s still the solid
album we thought it was, but it is becoming
very clear what works—and what doesn’t—in
a live situation. Some of the stuff we thought
were the strong points when we were making
the album don’t really hold up live, and some
other parts that we didn’t think much of have
grown to be quite wonderful.
What has been the response of your fans?
When someone tells you their opinions
about your music, or how it makes them feel,
it’s still kind of weird to me. The privilege of
the listener is that he or she has a first-hand
experience that’s not polluted by any preconceptions.
It’s quite a different thing to have
been through the process of writing and producing
an album, and then having to adjust to
what you created, and how it makes you feel
now. I find that our music might affect someone
tremendously, but not in the way I would
have anticipated. But, regardless, I’m happy
that there are good feelings about the album
An interesting Meshuggah feature is how you
typically play such rhythmically complex riffs over
a basic 4/4 beat.
Yeah. Sometimes, it feels like there’s more
focus about what stands out technically—
and how strange it sounds—rather than what
we’ve actually tried to achieve in each song.
I’ve heard people say that what we do is not
even music. It’s weird. Comparisons to Allan
Holdsworth tend to come up because he is
a big influence on Fredrik, but my approach
is pretty melodic, and I don’t get as involved
in the complex solos as Fredrik does. So, is
it really an issue? Perhaps it was more so in
the past, but I believe we have integrated
that fusion style of playing so much into our
sound now that it’s seamless. It has become
our own form of expression.
How did you develop such a varied rhythmic
emphasis? The complexity really informs the
We all grew up listening to thrash metal—
which is a very percussive style of music. As
a result, the drums are a big part of our
music, and, basically, we consider that all of
us play percussion. Even when Jens [Kidman,
vocals] sings or screams, his voice is
a percussive instrument. Our sound is based
in this bombardment of combined rhythms
Do you carry equal responsibilities for songwriting?
Whoever comes up with a song part—
whether it’s a complete idea or just a piece
of the entire arrangement—finishes the
whole thing. I think we’re a little different
this way. We record our ideas on Cubase
SX—which is an excellent tool for outlining
rough song structures—and present them
to the band as completely as possible with
programmed drums. There are drawbacks
and benefits to doing it this way, but in terms
of arranging a song, it’s a pretty smooth work
environment. It’s rare that we find ourselves
jamming in a basement these days. The
brainstorming part is different now—it’s
more like sitting around and just talking. It’s
definitely faster if I come up with a clear idea
about what I want to record, and, as long as
it’s not too tricky, we can complete a song
very quickly. On the other hand, it can make
things slower if you sit in front of the computer
for hours with stuff you already
recorded, because you’ll recycle and overwork
the same part 20 million times. You
try to proceed, but the monotony makes you
over-think everything, and you work slower.There’s a spontaneity and liberty to recording
with a computer, but you can also get
What’s your playing background?
When I was 11 years old, I started on guitar
with some tutoring classes in a Swedish
public school, where you can see a guitar
teacher once a week as part of the normal
curriculum. My tutor was always trying to
teach me how to read, and I wanted to play
by ear, but she was tremendously helpful,
because she did sort of force me to consider
that approach. And when I wanted to go in
the direction of playing Rush and Iron
Maiden, I realized I needed to be able to read
music in order to write great songs like that.
I had a school guitar that was an acoustic,
but the first electric guitar I owned was a
Morris—some kind of Telecaster clone—and
it truly sucked. I smashed it. My second guitar
was a Greco copy of a Gibson Les Paul,
and I must have given it away.
How did you start using 8-string guitars?
For a while, we played guitars built by a
guy here in Sweden named Fredrik Nevborn.
He has a company named Nevborn Guitars
that builds custom 8-strings. They’re great
instruments. Then, Ibanez approached us to
build their version of the 8-string, and we
said, “Why not?” It’s a tricky instrument to
get right, and we hoped for the best, but they
came through and made us some killer custom
8-string guitars. We’re officially Ibanez
all the way through now.
How do you handle the two bottom strings that
the 8-string gives you? Does the tuning get complicated?
The 8-strings work in a very different way
than if you’re tuning down in the 7-string
universe. It becomes an entirely different
type of guitar. It’s very physical—like playing
a bass—in that your riff is often a
response to your hands and your body. In
addition, the 8-string has a lot more of a
tonal range. To me, a 7-string now feels so
little that it confuses me. A 6-strings feels
like a ukulele!
We play in standard tuning, but a halfstep
down, which makes the 7th string come
up as Bb, and that string is a .052. The 8th
string is an F, and it’s gauged 0.70. Those
are big, thick strings, but it works because
of the guitar’s extended 31" neck scale. We’ve
had different setups and shorter scales in
the past—anywhere from 27" to 30"—but
the 31" is the best as far as the tone you get.
So, a conventional 6-string has absolutely no
application to your music?
Not at this time, but it’s not that the
6-string is limiting, or that we’re all about
having more strings to play. These 8-strings
could have five strings. It’s simply how everything
works together. The thicker strings
work with the longer scale and the low tuning
to keep the tone consistent, and all of
this seems to make the overall sound of the
guitar so special. It’s one of those things
where the instrument actually helps create
inspiration. Sometimes, I can even hear in
my head how stuff will sound so unique
when played on the 8-string.
The guitar tones are punchy and distinctive—
what other gear are you using?
We’ve been using Line 6 Vetta II heads
for both live and recording for years, but we
mess around with a lot of stuff. We tend to
go for a Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier sound,
so if the Vetta sounds like one, it’s doing a
great job. We don’t use stompboxes right
now—we just use the digital effects in the
Vetta. Every effect we’d want to use is in that
amp. In the past, we stayed away from digital
amps, but now the sound is so
consistently good and roadworthy—hey, why
not? You always know what you’re going to
get, so there’s no reason not to go with it.
We use custom-wound pickups from a guy
here in Sweden named Johan Lundgren that
Ibanez buys and installs for us. I guess our
pickups are best described as a mix of a vintage
high-gain DiMarzio and an old Seymour
Duncan—I can‘t even remember which one.
We used to wax the coils on our DiMarzio
pickups because we ran into a little trouble
with all the power! I’m sure Steve Vai loves
it, but the full blast electric shock meant a
lot of trouble for us, playing as low down as
we do. There’s not much else, except we use
Dunlop 1mm nylon picks with the textured
surface. Any pick with print on it is too glossy
for us—we need to have a little grip. When
our guitar tech really wants to show us how
great he is at his job, he’ll put a lot of effort
into cutting some additional textures into
the picks by hand.