Currently living in the trendy Shinjuku district of Tokyo, Japan—near the hotel made famous by Lost in Translation—Friedman was one of Shrapnel Record’s best and brightest shredders during the mid ’80s. After a few years playing in Cacophony with comrade Jason Becker, he moved on to a ten-year stint in the hugely successful metal outfit Megadeth, exiting the band in 2000. Two years later, Friedman was, literally, in a whole other world. He moved to Japan, actively produced and performed with j-pop acts, and got a gig with one of his favorite Japanese singers, Aikawa Nanase. Although it’s likely most American ears won’t discern the Japanese influence amidst the roar of cascading guitars, Friedman’s latest release, Loudspeaker [Shrapnel], seamlessly blends his metal roots with j-pop’s climatic, melodically exuberant song structures.
What are the differences between metal and j-pop, and why has the j-pop style inspired so many of your recent creative endeavors?
Metal is limited in its sonic components. Without distorted guitars, riffs, and flashy solos, you cannot have metal. There are a few things you can add to that, but, basically, that is the crust, sauce, and cheese of the metal pizza. Although I love a good slice, I like to have an extremely varied musical diet, and it takes a very tricky blend of aggression, melody, power, and chops to keep my interest. In j-pop, there are two main goals. The first is to have an immediately memorable melody. The second is to create a feeling called merihari—which loosely means the exciting contrasts within a song that give you a rush. Think Dave Grohl’s drum fill before the chorus of Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit.” The merihari on that song is created by clever key modulations, tempo switches, and good songwriting. The most important thing is that it is not limited to rock interpretations. I love the unlimited sonic palette of j-pop, and the challenge of making great melodies.
Did you have to change up your gear to perform j-pop?
Not at all. I use my Ibanez MFM-1 signature guitar, which is basically an SZ model with stars on the frets and body. I asked for the strongest guitar possible, and they built a manly guitar that’s solid and never goes out of tune. I’m not very particular about picks, but I’ve used D’Adarrio strings gauged .010-.046 forever. I’m usually in standard tuning. I just started using Engl Amps from Germany. They’re rad, because it’s like playing a great-sounding Marshall with a very consistent rock tone. When I toured Europe recently, I used the Engl Special Edition Amp with Engl 4x12 cabinets, and it kicked ass! To record Loudspeaker, I used a Boss GT-8 multi-effects pedal and a 150-watt Crate Blue Voodoo amp, which sounds very similar to the Engl. I really don’t have any sound tricks in the studio. That’s about as long as I can talk about gear before falling asleep!
What are you doing on Japanese television?
Two years ago, I started doing a musical variety show called Rock Fujiyama. The idea is to bring in celebrities with no association with heavy metal, try to get them to see how cool it is, and bring out their musical selves. I did a lot of chatting with the guests, but I would often have to play some really tripped out guitar stuff. By doing that every week, I improved as a guitar player, because it forced me to think and create parts quickly. In Japan, so many more people know me from my television appearances than from my music career that it’s not even funny. It’s all good, though, because the exposure is getting my music into the mainstream. Loudspeaker debuted at number 20 on the Japanese charts, and that’s the first time my solo work has ever landed on any chart in the world. In fact, the first pressing sold out on day one.
How did you approach making the new album?
It took 13 months to complete, and making it was a wild roller coaster ride. The sudden plunge into Japanese TV was such a fresh and intense influence on my life, and it made a huge impact on the confidence and quality of my music-making abilities. I could only work on Loudspeaker in very small doses, but when I got into the studio, it was a total change of pace from the insane world of Japanese TV. It was a comfort zone that was so fun to return to, and the schedule made it possible for me to live with rough versions and early takes of songs to see how they held up over time. As a result, I feel Loudspeaker is my best album—the most aggressive yet.
What do you tell fans when they ask you for advice?
I tell them to stop practicing and start playing music. Play with your band, your buddies, and any other instrument you can. Play in the studio, play live—play all the time. The weakness is getting too hung up on technique. The strength is being able to play along with other musicians. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. In fact, make even more mistakes. When you do something cool, take note. And don’t do anything in the nature of practicing a technique.
But aren’t you considered a technical player?
Yes, but only if “technical” means that I have my own style—not that I’ve mastered “book” techniques. I can sit in with any musician in the world and nail something with them, because I’ve been playing music for so long. But if someone were to ask me to play the Mixolydian mode at a metronome setting of 200, I probably couldn’t. I never had the interest in doing such a thing, and, for the record, I dislike difficult-sounding guitar music. You’re not going to wind up in the studio with Paul McCartney one day, and hear him say, “Alright, mate, can you play some of those arpeggios a little faster?” There’s no reason to get stuck on stuff that won’t have any real-world application. I’d even go as far as to say that if any technique has a name on it—like “string skipping”—beware! You can do wonderful sweep picking in your bedroom, but if you play it inside a song, you can’t follow changes, and it’s absolutely useless. Learn to master rhythm. Rhythm guitar builds songs—not technical acrobatics. g