Marty Friedman: Big in Japan
Originally published in Guitar World, March 2009
It's been years since Marty Friedman left his high-profile position
with Megadeth. Now living in Tokyo, he's become "Mr. Heavy Metal" - a
superstar of Japanese TV and the country's multifaceted music scene.
To most westerners, Japan is a great place to visit but they wouldn’t want to live there. In Japan, even a familiar fast-food institution like Pizza Hut challenges homesick Americans with bizarre menu items like a shrimp-and-mayo stuffed-crust pie topped with corn, squid and potato, served with honey–maple syrup dipping sauce—mmmm! From alien-looking horizontal tategaki text that reads from right to left to high-tech toilets with sophisticated control panels that make the dashboard of a new BMW 750 look minimalist, Japan is about as foreign as it gets.
But for Marty Friedman, who constantly seeks unusual musical inspiration and challenges, Japan has always felt like home. “I found myself engulfed in the domestic Japanese music scene the moment I first came here with Megadeth in the Nineties,” he says. “The music seemed very challenging—like, there are no rules and you can pretty much do anything. It was always pushing the envelope on what sounds new.”
In 2003, several years after he quit playing with Megadeth, Friedman left America and became a permanent resident of Tokyo, where he started to explore new musical possibilities. Within months of his arrival he landed a gig with Aikawa Nanase, a massively popular female hard rock singer. That gig led to offers to host a new television program called Hebimetasan (Mr. Heavy Metal), which helped him introduce his music to a larger audience than he ever dreamed possible and opened nearly unlimited opportunities within the J-rock and J-pop music scene. Since then he’s hosted and appeared on several popular Japanese television shows, including Rock Fujiyama and Jukebox English.
Although Friedman’s TV career keeps him extremely busy, his musical career remains his top priority. Since his arrival in Japan, the guitarist’s musical output has been downright prolific. In 2006, he released the instrumental solo album Loudspeaker, which entered the Japanese album charts at No. 33, and made the unique instructional DVD, 99 Secret Lead Guitar Phrases (available through his web site, martyfriedman.com). The following year he put out the live album Exhibit A: Live in Europe, which was released in the U.S. last summer and is highly recommended listening for American fans who miss hearing his distinctive exotic, melodic solos. Last year his efforts included Future Addict, a solo album featuring new, reworked versions of material from Friedman’s past history, including songs he recorded with Jason Becker in Cacophony. Speaking of Becker, Friedman appears on his new album Collection playing alongside Steve Vai on one track. His latest project is a J-rock band called Lovefixer, featuring singer Shinichiro “Sin” Suzuki.
Friedman’s move to Japan has led to the fulfillment of a seemingly endless stream of musical dreams. A few hours after our interview, he joined his “absolute favorite guitar player,” Uli Jon Roth, onstage during Roth’s concert at Tokyo’s Nakano Sun Plaza. “I’m completely stoked beyond belief,” Friedman says. “He’s the only guitar player that I ever learned to play like. I love the work of a lot of guitar players, but when I was starting I didn’t want to play what everybody else was playing. He showed me that it’s cool to be different.”
Perhaps that’s the greatest appeal of living and pursuing a musical career in Japan for Friedman. By embracing Japanese rock and pop music and becoming an integral part of the scene there, he’s chosen a contrary path from other western musicians whose Japanese conquests are the cultural equivalent of a religious crusade.
GUITAR WORLD How did you end up living in Japan?
MARTY FRIEDMAN I was touring here a lot with Megadeth, and every time I came over I’d hear the music that was popular here. It wasn’t American music. A lot of people in the U.S. think that international music is big in Japan, but it’s probably only about 10 percent of what people buy over here. The majority of it is Japanese music, which has a very distinct sound. Every time I’d come over here I’d go, “What is this music I’m hearing?” I thought it was really cool, but I never had enough time to get into it because I’d go back home after a couple of weeks. I started buying CDs and listening to them while I was on tour. The music has classic, basic pop structures but the interpretation is very modern. I always wanted to make music like that, but it’s hard to change your lifestyle completely, especially if you’re in a really successful touring band.
I finally decided that the only way to do that was to move to Japan and make it happen. When I got here I was lucky. About three months after I arrived, I started playing in the band of one of my favorite singers, Aikawa Nanase. That opened up a lot of doors for me and made it a lot easier.
GW The Japanese seem very passionate about great guitar playing.
FRIEDMAN The funny thing is that super, ultrapop-ish songs will have guitar solos in them, whereas if that song was released in America they would never dream of including a guitar solo. In Japan everything has guitar. After you’ve lived here a while you learn why: Old traditional Japanese music features the koto and shamisen, which are like a guitar. Some shamisen players will press the strings down really hard so they distort. Because of that, even older people are used to the sound of distorted guitars. Even the music that old people listen to over here will have a distorted guitar solo, just like any heavy metal song, with the exact same tone. People who are 60 to 80 years old will listen to it and it won’t faze them, but back home you wouldn’t think of your grandmother listening to guitars that sound like Avenged Sevenfold. In America, distorted guitar tone really separates people. There are people who love it and people who get absolutely turned off by it. Over here it’s considered just another tone, which is very liberating for guitar players. Also, all of the salary men probably played guitar in a band in college, so they all can appreciate cool guitar playing. Almost everybody plays guitar, so they like to hear a lead guitar solo in a song.