Marty Friedman on Making Guitar Music

During the ’90s, he was a thrash-metal star in Megadeth. More recently, he has been a popular TV host and J-pop collaborator in Tokyo.
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During the ’90s, he was a thrash-metal star in Megadeth. More recently, he has been a popular TV host and J-pop collaborator in Tokyo. But the lion’s share of Marty Friedman’s notoriety still stems from his work in the field of shred-guitar instrumental music, starting with his two-album partnership with Jason Becker in Cacophony during the late ’80s, and continuing with a series of solo records the Washington, D.C., native has released since relocating to Japan in 2003. Interestingly, Friedman has no idea who his guitar instrumental contemporaries might be, and he doesn’t care to find out.

“That kind of music isn’t something I’m a big fan of,” he says, “so I don’t really know what everybody else is doing. “I know that sounds strange, because it’s something I do a lot of, but I do it in the spirit of trying to make instrumental music that isn’t instrumental—if that makes any sense. But make no mistake—I pour everything I have into my records. Even though I don’t listen to guitar instrumentals, I try to make my music the best it can possibly be. If you liked the last record, I want you to love the new one. I spent a lot of time trying to outdo myself on it.”

The new album Friedman refers to—Wall of Sound [Prosthetic]—is his 13th solo offering, and in terms of turbo-charged fretboard aerobics, it outpaces its predecessor, 2014’s Inferno, by a country mile. The guitarist’s studio band was comprised of bassist Kiyoshi, veteran drummer Gregg Bissonette, and newbie sticksman Anup Sastry, and their aggressive brio amply supports Friedman, who transcends his more thrashy material. But it is on the album’s softer moments, such as the heartstring-tugging symphonic rock of “Streetlight” and “For a Friend,” where Friedman’s compositional skills match his widescreen vibrato, and he scores emotional bullseyes each time.

“If it’s romantic or ultra-sad, I’ll go for it,” he says. “I love those moments when a tear comes to your eye. Some people think that’s cheesy, but I don’t care. You gotta have heart.”

Is Wall of Sound a sort of homage to Phil Spector?

It’s not a tribute to Phil. I just love that phrase—it’s so powerful. A lot of people who know my music have never heard it before, so I could just say I made it up [laughs]. I love Phil Spector, though. I love girl groups and doo-wop and music from the ’50s and ’60s—my influences are all over the place. My music doesn’t sound like Phil Spector’s, obviously, but I would say I’m influenced by him in that I want my music to have a dramatic impact on the listener.

Are there any other influences of yours that are lurking below the surface in your music?

Absolutely. They’re all there. But you’re not going to hear rippin’ rockabilly from me, even though I’m influenced by ’50s stuff. Where my influences come out is in the melodies and harmonies. For example, doo-wop has a lot of interesting chord voicings—as does Beach Boys music—and I try to weave those elements into my material. I don’t think a lot of people like me listen to romantic, old-school vocal harmonies. Musically, that turns me on. Here’s another example: You never hear “on” chords—that’s what they call them in Japan—in heavy music. This is where you’ll have a B bass note, but the chord is F. You hear it in pop songs all the time. It’s a very basic substitution that I like to do, but I do it with full-on distortion.

You’re quite critical of guitar instrumental music. Have you ever gotten flack from fans because of that?

I don’t know where that flack would come from. I don’t think “this is good” or “this isn’t good”—it’s just not something I’m interested in. In that way, I’m not influenced by anybody. I could never play what these other guys play, so I don’t even try to copy it.

But can you pinpoint why that music doesn’t interest you? It is interesting, because it’s something you do.

It’s hard to say. I don’t think anybody does anything wrong, and I don’t think I do it right. I just do my thing, and I do it exactly the way I want it to be. To me, labeling it as “instrumental music” cuts down on the possibilities of people listening to it—myself included. I try to make listeners not miss the vocals by playing a lot of melodies—like a singer would. I don’t fill everything up with guitar accoutrements, so to speak. There are strategic points where that fits, but I’ll play a whole verse-bridge-chorus where it’s all melodies. I don’t know anybody else who does that.

Have you reached a level of technical proficiency where you don’t have to push yourself?

Not at all. It’s the opposite. Maintaining what I’ve got would be really easy. Pushing myself is my top priority. On every single album—including this one—I have to do something I’ve never done. It’s just a natural instinct I have. When I finished my last record, Inferno, I thought, “There’s no way I’m gonna be able to top this.”

So what would be an example of where you outdid yourself on the new record?

The whole thing is a breakthrough. Pick a moment—it’s all new territory for me. But I can point to the last song, “Last Lament,” where I go from point A to point Z without repeating any melodies. I’m so proud of that. I’m also playing melodies over chords in new ways. I’m not falling into any crutch patterns or licks. A lot of well-known guitarists play certain licks so they don’t let their fans down. That’s kind of the opposite of what I do. Every album for me is a new era and a new challenge.

Your rhythm and lead tones on the record are fairly consistent. Do you worry about listeners getting ear fatigue?

I don’t think they’ll be sitting there going, “Man, this song sounds like the last one.” If anybody gets ear fatigue from this record, it’ll probably be from data overload. There’s a lot of information to take in.

But regarding the tones, when I’m doing the demos, I don’t think about sounds other than what needs to be clean, and what needs distortion. Once I’ve gone through the demo 1000 times and I’m recording for real, then I’ll tell the engineer to dial up sounds. You hear a lot about guys who are inspired by tones, but I’m more into composing. I would get so bored tweaking frequencies. It’s just not me.

You do a guitar/violin duet with Jinxx from Black Veil Brides on “Sorrow and Madness.” Did you have a hard time matching his vibrato?

In my formative years, I spent a lot of time studying the vibrato of stringed instruments, but I didn’t try to match Jinxx’s vibrato. I just love how the song starts as a guitar/violin duet, and then it turns into this mad monster. It’s a world of insanity that I’ve never experienced before. I commend Jinxx for his openness to writing a violin part that I could counter. Our fans are pretty diverse, and they’re probably going to think this is pretty off the hook.

Did you use your new Jackson signature guitars—the USA and X Series MF-1—on Wall of Sound?

Oh, yeah. During the making of the album, I was tweaking prototypes of the signature models. I had the people with Jackson in the studio several times, so that was great, because we had instant feedback. The record was a real chance for me to get the prototypes just right. By the end of the record, things were absolutely perfect.

What about amps?

Fancy that—I’ve got a signature Engl amp coming out, too. I’ve been working on this amp since the Inferno record, so I’m calling it the Inferno. It’s basically a Frankenstein of all the Engl amps I’ve been using for the past ten years. The goal was to include all the things I really use, and leave out the things that just drive the price up. It’s kind of a stripped-down and streamlined version of Engl’s Steve Morse amp, but with a few extra things. What you hear on Wall of Sound is the approved Engl Marty Friedman Inferno amp.

I know you’re not a big sound tweaker, but what about effects?

I’m not a big effects guy at all. I have a Boss chorus, and I use a Maxon Auto Filter very subtly. Everything is set to zero. If you use too much of it, it makes it sound like you’re using a wah. I simply try to color the sound with the way I fret notes or pick the strings. That’s about it. Oh, wait—I did use this rad pedal. It’s a Mooer Ocean Machine, and that thing is killer. I don’t know everything it does, but I use it as a half-speed and double-speed looper. It’s great for creating a sonic landscape that sounds unique.

Is there anything you can’t do on the guitar, but you wish you could?

If I wished I could do it, I’d be doing it [laughs]. I think a lot of young guitar players think they need to be proficient at everything. That kind of thinking creates a lot of great guitar teachers, but it doesn’t make for people who are lifers in the music business. Look at the people who you think are really great—there’s a ton of stuff they can’t do. But go to a music store in any town, and ask for a guitar teacher, and I’ll bet that person can play anything. Being able to play everything isn’t necessary—you need to get good at your own thing.