PRODUCER'S DESK: Derek Sherinian On Black Utopia

June 1, 2003

LIKE MUCH OF THE NON-GUITAR-PLAYING WORLD, Derek Sherinian suffers from the incurable, but rarely fatal disease known as guitar envy. “It has been the struggle of my life,” confesses the keyboardist/producer. “Fortunately, I’m able to keep it under control by working with several master guitarists.”

If surrounding one’s self with star shredders helps alleviate the symptoms of this affliction, then Sherinian should be feeling particularly revitalized after recording Black Utopia [InsideOut Music]. Already known in prog-metal circles for his fusion group, Planet X (featuring guitar virtuoso Tony MacAlpine), and for his work with John Petrucci in Dream Theater, Sherinian invited several lethal lick-meisters to appear on his new album, including Yngwie Malmsteen, Al Di Meola, Steve Lukather, and Zakk Wylde. Here, like a lion tamer telling stories from the ring, Sherinian describes what it was like recording each of these ferocious talents.

“I recorded Yngwie at his mansion in Florida,” details Sherinian. “It’s a great place with suits of armor everywhere. He has a chamber underground that he calls the ‘room of doom,’ which has all of his Marshalls turned up to 10. All the mics down there are wired up to the control room, and that’s how he records his guitars. After spending some time learning all the parts, he stopped and said, ‘Man, can I just burn?’ And he did, and it was amazing—no punches, no fixes. The performances you hear are all first takes. I have never seen a guitarist with so much control of his instrument.

“I also wanted Yngwie to record this crazy nylon-string part I had written, but it was a bit awkward rhythmically for him. So I had to make a production decision—spend session time while he mastered the section, or assign it to somebody else. I ended up giving the part to Al Di Meola—not a bad consolation prize! What’s interesting about Al is he’s the only guitarist I’ve ever met who actually transcribes each line from the guide track before recording his parts. I also got him to pull out his black Les Paul—the one on the cover of Elegant Gypsy—for the first time in years and lay down some electric tracks.

“Zakk Wylde is a total pro, too, but in a different way. He brings all the gear that he’d bring to an Ozzy Osbourne concert—four Les Pauls, a couple of Marshall heads, a Marshall bottom, his stompboxes, and some Gibson acoustics—and three days and four cases of beer later, we’re done [laughs]. When he’s learning a part, he turns the volume on his guitar down really low, and practices it until he has the part under his hands. Then he cranks up and lays it down in one or two takes. It’s an awesome thing to watch because the way he digs into his guitar is so vicious. You really feel his rage.

“Steve Lukather came in, learned the parts one phrase at time—recording them as he went along—and played them a million times better than I could have ever hoped for. He did three songs in two hours.

“There are many great guitarists out there, but what makes these guys really special is that they have an extra something in their hands that comes through no matter what amp and guitar configuration they’re using, or even what music they’re playing. Somehow, they please both the artist and the producer without losing their identity.”    

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