Blending Neoclassical, Thrash, and Progressive Rock in the Land of the Rising Sun
By Paul Hanson
Perhaps it was the influence of grunge music or a backlash against corporate rock, but in the decade of the ’90s, few platinum-selling bands possessed lead guitarists who’d mastered their craft like Megadeth’s Marty Friedman. Along with Dave Mustaine’s powerful rhythm playing, Megadeth had one killer guitar team, and I bought every one of their albums from that era, along with millions of others fans.
After Marty’s departure from Megadeth in 2000, a fascination with Japan led him east and he’s resided there ever since. Over the years, Marty has become quite a celebrity in Japan—he’s a regular on national TV and a writer for newspapers and magazines. Still, Marty’s main thing is playing great guitar on his many music projects and solo albums, including Loudspeaker, which debuted at number 33 on the Japanese national album charts.
Recently, I bought an international phone card, typed in the necessary 74 or so digits, and called Marty one evening (actually morning over there in Tokyo). You can listen to a podcast of the full conversation at BossUS.com/podcasts.
Here are some highlights from that phone conversation.
Let’s go back to the ‘80s and the Shrapnel Records days. Were you living in Hawaii then?
Yeah, I lived in Hawaii for a while and put out an album on Shrapnel called One Nation Underground in a band called “Hawaii”. That was maybe the sixth record that Shrapnel ever put out.
Did Mike Varney [Shrapnel’s founder] discover you?
Yeah. I sent him a demo of what I was doing in Hawaii, and he really liked it. So that’s kind of how that started back then.
When you got together with Jason Becker and formed Cacophony, was the twin-guitar approach your idea or Mike’s?
Actually, I was just about to record a solo album of my own stuff at the time, and Mike said, “You know, you’ve got to hear this guy, he’s really good.” Then, Jason came to over to my house and he was such a friendly, cool dude. I thought, this guy has so much talent. He was like a sponge, anything that I could do, he could pretty much mimic it right away. At that time, he was just loaded with technique, but he hadn’t really developed his own voice so much. But it was perfect for what I wanted to do.
I do a lot of layering of guitars when I record, but I rarely did any of my solo stuff live without another guitar player. But nobody could ever play the really intricate stuff until I found Jason, this guy could do everything. Once he started to improve and become his own character, he became a genius completely on his own. He was just overflowing with ideas and beautiful melodies, he was absolutely amazing. I’m so glad that I decided to put a band together with him instead of saying, “No, I just want to do my own solo album.”
You were in Megadeth for about ten years. How did you get that gig?
A friend of mine was a friend of Megadeth’s manager at the time, and he told me that they had been auditioning guitar players for quite a while without much luck. I went over there and auditioned. It’s kind of a boring story: I auditioned, we got along together, and next thing you know, boom, let’s rock!
We got along great, it was like our personalities really clicked. It seemed like our musical direction and aggressiveness towards music was very, very similar, so it was a very natural, obvious thing. Of course, I was really, really happy to get that gig. At the time, I was just one step above homeless, if that. I was happy to get any gig, especially a gig that I was so well-suited for.
You guys were on top of the world. You must have had first-class tour buses and beautiful hotels.
Yeah, it was a drastic, drastic change from what I had been doing before. But musically, it wasn’t that drastic of a change. Actually, it was very comfortable and natural.
Maybe it was more relaxing because you could play rhythm a bit?
Actually, I wound up playing a lot less rhythm than I thought. Dave Mustaine is a rhythm master.
He really is.
I think when we really came into our own was on Countdown to Extinction. I don’t remember playing any rhythms on that record. I remember playing a lot solos and a lot of clean guitars and textures.
Man, you and Dave Mustaine made a great guitar team.
When you’re in a band with another guitar player, you try to find out what’s different about each player and bring that out, rather than trying to both do the same thing. Neither of us plays the same at all, so we filled the whole gap of what should be in a band pretty well. We kind of found our niche, so to speak.
That must have been an awesome time. When I was a kid, I imagined doing those huge gigs. Was it the way you imagined?
Yeah, it was great. Musically it was really fun and tours were awesome. I think what I liked the best about being in Megadeth is that I knew every single night we were going to kick ass. It wasn’t like we were going to suck one night and the next night we were going to be good. Whenever we pulled into a town, whatever venue it was, we knew that the show was just going to be amazing and blow people’s minds, and we were going to have a lot of good times. And I knew that every night. It was awesome.
To be honest with you, it was a wonderful, wonderful experience and I wouldn’t trade it, but I’m about 1000 times happier now then back then. I mean, I was happy back then, I’m very proud of all my Megadeth experiences. But I think, at the end of the day, I really needed to be more adventurous musically and get deeper into playing, deeper into what my potential is as a musician, player, producer, writer, guitarist, solo player, and all-around musician.
In Megadeth, we had all the perks and stuff, great venues and all of that, but I found that that’s just a side thing. I think at the end of the day the music has to really grow.
Let’s talk about gear. You’re playing Ibanez guitars now?
Ibanez is a fabulous company. Actually, in the studio today I’ll be using one. But I’m also playing Gibsons and PRSs, and there are a couple of new Japanese boutique brands that I’ve got in my arsenal here. I kind of like different guitars for different occasions. Actually, I do a wide range of activities over here in Japan that require different kinds of guitars.
Do you find it easy to pick up a completely different guitar?
Oh, absolutely, I’m not one of those guys that has to have this one guitar or this one setup. I could totally care less.
Really? So, if you go from a guitar with a flat fingerboard and 6100 frets and then you pick up a Strat…
I don’t even notice any of that stuff. I could honestly care less. I don’t notice gauges of strings, I don’t notice thickness of necks. The only thing I notice is if the volume knob is in the way of my picking, I hate it!
You have an interesting way of picking, coming from underneath the strings.
Well, I don’t really come underneath the strings, but it kind of looks like that. The way I pick, my right hand doesn’t mute the strings when I’m playing melodies and solos, because I don’t like the sound of muted strings when playing solos. That sound, I freaking hate it! I want to hear the notes ring out. I don’t even think about it. Subconsciously, I do not want those strings to be muted when I’m playing melodies, I want to hear stuff clearly. I think I’ve been doing that ever since I started playing guitar.
Sometimes on rhythms—especially when you’re playing metal-type stuff—you mute the rhythms. Sometimes I do that. But even then, I prefer not to mute as much as most metal players do. I like to let most notes ring out louder and bigger and stronger.
Do you use a little less gain then some other players might use?
No, I don’t even pay attention to that. I like a sound that is absolutely aggressive and in-your-face.
So, how do you keep those low strings from vibrating?
I get that question a lot, and it’s probably a very unorthodox way of keeping them from vibrating. I don’t really think about it, but I know naturally that if a string is about to vibrate, I’ll quickly mute it just after I’ve picked the note, if it’s a single note thing. But if it’s a passage of notes, you just have to play accurately. If you play accurately, then you won’t have that ringing out problem.
Back to your gear—what kind of amps do you use?
I’m using Engl amps now. I guess it’s a boutique Marshall-type of sound, but with a lot more consistency. Everywhere you go it sounds the same, I really like that.
Do you have any favorite pedals from over the years?
Actually, BOSS had a thing call Slow Gear [Ed. Note: one of the earliest BOSS compact pedal effects, now available in multi-effects units like the ME-70 and GT-10], and they have an auto wah [Ed. Note: the AW-3] that I like very much.
For the basics in pedals, I really love the BOSS stuff. I mean, you cannot beat a BOSS Chorus, that’s the sound. If you want a chorus, it’s a BOSS Chorus, period. And anything having to do with basic overdrive and distortion, you go straight to those BOSS pedals, they are just the go-to pedals.
I think I saw you using a GT-8 multi-effects unit once.
Yeah, the GT-8. I use that for events and stuff. It’s wonderful, because you don’t need amps and you get all of these great tones, and I can use it in the studio. But my favorite thing is the GS-10. There are two speakers in it, and it’s got tons of tones in it.
BOSS doesn’t make the GS-10 anymore, but it’s like an earlier version of our current GT-10 technology. It had a computer interface and those built-in speakers you mentioned.
It’s the best thing ever. I’ve used that on so many TV shows. It’s not like you have to play a big musical piece [on TV]; they just want you to have a guitar there to chime in if you need to play something. It’s perfect for those casual types of things.
Lets talk about Japan. I hear you’re pretty famous over there.
It’s kind of insane. I came over here literally just to play music, because I really got infatuated with Japanese pop music in the mid-1990s. I was listening to it all the time, and I wanted to play it for real and get into the scene over here. 90 percent of the music scene here is Japanese, and the remaining 10 percent is all international music. It’s a big misconception outside of Japan that American music and foreign music is popular here, but it’s really not the case. Japanese music is by far the staple here.
I just fell in love with it and wanted to play it, so I got into a band with one of my favorite singers as soon as I moved here. Then, out of a strange turn of events I started doing some TV, had a hit show right out of the box, and that got me into a lot of insane TV stuff. I’ve probably been in 300 TV shows and movies since I’ve been here. The whole thing really brings attention to my music, which is really what I do. It’s a hoot, it’s fun and all that, but the main purpose of what I do is music, so if I can bring attention to my music, whether it’s a TV show or a movie, I’ll do it, and it’s really been a wonderful experience.
Your album Loudspeaker did really well on the charts.
Yeah, that was the first chart record I’ve ever had for a solo album. [Laughs.]
Do people recognize you when you go out?
All the time, yeah.
Are people more polite in Japan? They don’t run up and ask for autographs, do they?
Yeah, they do, but they’re polite about it. Like Elvis said, you should never turn down someone who asks for an autograph, because one day they’ll stop asking. I’m very happy to meet fans, and it’s always interesting to find out what the fans know me from over here. Before I moved over here, fans knew me from Megadeth and stuff like that, and they still do. But the majority of people that come up to me here know me from a TV show I’ve been on or something like that. I also have a lot of columns in magazines and newspapers. It’s always interesting to find out why they know me, and I’m always appreciative of anybody who cares to say hello.
Do you have any last advice for guitarists, things that helped you?
Keep stuff simple—get a simple rig. It’s perfect that we’re talking about BOSS, because BOSS is simple gear. There’s a lot of really cool gear out there that’s complicated, but it’s just going to bum you out. Get stuff that’s basic, tried-and-true, quality stuff, and it will give you more energy to play. If you spend all your time twiddling knobs and stuff, that’s energy taken away from creating music, so keep your gear simple and keep your guitar simple. There’s nothing lamer than some guitar with a bunch of knobs on it and 50 toggle switches and all this useless stuff. All the time you spend learning how to work all that stuff should be time you’re dedicating to making music and creating something new.
And play all the time, play music at any possible chance that you have. Anytime you’re invited to play something, do it. Anytime you have a chance to jam with another musician, do it. Especially if you think that musician is good, because then you’ll hopefully learn something by jamming with them. Always be jamming—don’t sit around noodling in front of the TV. If you’re playing, have a purpose. But always play, and play with other people as much as possible. That’s the best advice I can give you.
Obviously, you have to do some practicing by yourself, but it should be playing along with a CD or a backing track or along with something. If you play by yourself all the time, you’re not going to develop an ear for tuning, you’re not going to develop an ear for ad-libbing and reacting to other musicians. You always want to keep the other musicians in mind—it’s an ensemble, and how your guitar fits in with everything else, you know what I mean? If you can’t jam with another musician, then jam with your favorite CDs. That’s my advice.
Check out the podcast of this interview on BOSS Tone Radio to hear more from Marty, along with many audio clips of his music.