King of the Keys: Derek Sherinian

By Joe Lalaina

“The music in my head encompasses such a variety of ground,” says ex–Dream Theater keyboardist Derek Sherinian. “I don’t think there is one guitarist who can cover all the styles featured on my albums. I’m very much a purist in that I go right to the source for whatever particular sound I want, whether it’s metal, jazz-fusion or progressive rock. I can’t help it if most of the guitarists who’ve played on my albums happen to be really famous.”

Sherinian has played with an astonishing array of players since his departure from Dream Theater in 1999, following the release of Once in a Livetime, his third album with the progressive supernova. Those guitarists include Slash, Zakk Wylde, Yngwie Malmsteen, Allan Holdsworth, Al Di Meola, Tony MacAlpine, John Sykes, Steve Stevens and Steve Lukather, not to mention his former DT cohort John Petrucci as well as playing a one-off gig with Eddie Van Halen. Pretty impressive for the Santa Cruz, California–born keyboardist, whose stellar résumé also includes touring and recording with Kiss, Alice Cooper and Billy Idol.

Sherinian is living a life most keyboardists only dream about. “You have to think big and not be afraid to pick up the phone to get people to participate in your music,” says Sherinian, now a solo artist as well as a founding member of Planet X. “Unless you’re a lead singer/keyboardist, it’s not easy for keyboardists to make a name for themselves. We have to surround ourselves with other types of musicians because we can’t survive on our own. I’ve been fortunate that some of the world’s greatest artists have played on my albums. Whenever I’ve wanted a certain musician, I tried to get a hold of them even if I didn’t know them. I knew it was worth a shot and I had nothing to lose. I mean, the worst they can say is no.”

Evidently, people have been saying yes to Sherinian. Judging by the potpourri of guitarists who have played on his five solo albums, there’s something about his affable charm, talent and heartfelt passion for music which attracts world-class players far and wide (we didn’t even mention that some of the other musicians on his albums include bassists Jimmy Johnson, Tony Franklin and Billy Sheehan, drummer Simon Phillips, and violin virtuoso/ex-Mahavishnu Orchestra member Jerry Goodman).

Sherinian takes great pride in teaming up world-renowned musicians on individual tracks. Both the title track and “The Monsoon” from his most recent solo album, 2006’s Blood of the Snake, feature Zakk Wylde and Yngwie Malmsteen. Among the highlights of 2004’s Black Utopia are “The Sons of Anu,” which brings together Malmsteen, Di Meola, Goodman, Sheehan, Franklin and Phillips—wow—and “Axis of Evil,” which presents that same lineup but with Wylde instead of Di Meola. Another chops-intensive tour de force is “Day of the Dead,” from 2003’s Mythology, which features Wylde with Allan Holdsworth.

"Why scratch with the turkeys when you can soar with the eagles,” Sherinian laughs. “I handpick musicians for my albums like a casting agent picks actors for a movie—they are each ideally suited for the role. I write material that is true to my influences and from the perspective of a listener. Once I come up with the structure or vibe of a song, I then try to imagine who the ultimate team of players would be for it. If I know in advance who will be on the track, I always try to compose with them in mind. I have my core players like Zakk Wylde, Steve Lukather, Simon Phillips and Tony Franklin, but I like to bring in new people to spice things up. I put tremendous effort into writing and arranging my music; it deserves only the world’s best musicians to make it come alive.”

Whenever Sherinian wants a crushing heavy metal groove, he knows he can always count on Zakk Wylde to deliver the goods. The two met for the first time in 1989, when Sherinian was playing London’s Wembley Arena with Alice Cooper. “Zakk showed up backstage with Ozzy,” the keyboardist recalls. “I congratulated him on getting the Ozzy gig, and then, in the early Nineties, Zakk and I often ran into each other in Los Angeles.”

Since then, the two have forged an everlasting friendship. It’s no surprise that Wylde has played on Sherinian’s last four albums. “Zakk is the heaviest-sounding guitarist around,” says Sherinian. “His guitar licks just smolder and pop out of any track. My goal with Zakk is to always capture his heaviness but have him shred over a different musical backdrop than you’d hear him in Black Label Society or with Ozzy. I always leave room for Zakk to interpret his own parts because he comes up with great ideas.”

Wylde’s playing is ferocious on “Axis of Evil,” on which his fretboard-burning hot licks and Malmsteen’s trademark neoclassical runs leap from the mix. “On ‘Axis of Evil’ I wanted to have the contrast of American shredding versus European shredding,” Sherinian explains. “I figured Zakk would be the best guitarist to represent America, and Yngwie for Europe. I initially envisioned Zakk starting the song because it’s very Ozzy influenced, but ultimately it was Yngwie who played the intro rhythm.” Sherinian would’ve liked to have had both Malmsteen and Wylde in the same room doing the lead battle, but it wasn’t logistically possible at the time of the recording. “I had Zakk lay his solos first. He knew Yngwie was going to be playing on ‘Axis of Evil’ so I could tell that he was extra fired up. Zakk has the utmost respect for Yngwie and rates him the world’s greatest guitarist.”

Zakk Wylde concurs: “It’s a great honor to play on the same tracks as Yngwie,” he says. “Yngwie’s a living legend! I’m surprised I’m still around to talk about him because the first time I heard his playing I thought my head was gonna explode. A buddy of mine played one of his tracks on Steeler [1983] to me over the phone, and my brain almost popped out of my head! I said, ‘Holy shit—is that guitarist from Mars?’ Yngwie doesn’t play fast just for the sake of it; his playing has blues, groove, soul and feel. That’s the true mark of any phenomenal musician; you don’t hear them, you feel them. Yngwie will go down in history with people like Hendrix, Bach, Paganini and Beethoven. Derek and I worship Yngwie’s playing.”

“I must say that Yngwie is the most exciting guitarist I’ve produced,” says Sherinian. “He listens to a track once and lays his solo in just one take. It’s mindboggling to witness such unbridled fluidity from a musician. Most have to work at it, but Yngwie is a natural. After the main lead guitar war on ‘Axis of Evil,’ there’s a three-way trade-off among Zakk, Yngwie and myself. It’s the first time we ever hear Yngwie shredding in mixolydian mode, and it’s something to behold.”

The pairing of Malmsteen and Wylde on “Axis of Evil” was Sherinian’s impetus to reunite the two guitarists last year on “The Monsoon” and Blood of the Snake’s title track. “‘The Monsoon’ sounds like ‘Children of the Grave’ on steroids, in Yngwie Spanish-phrygian mode,” says Sherinian. “Again, Zakk laid his tracks down first. He usually brings a couple of Marshall heads and cabinets, his signature bullseye Les Paul, two polka-dot Flying Vs and an acoustic. Zakk never brings a guitar tech—he loads everything himself.

“Before Zakk records a solo, he’ll listen to the track very closely. Then he’ll turn down the guitar volume very low, so there’s no distortion, and start working out his licks. Once he decides what he wants to play, he’ll increase the volume, play his solo and then double it the way Randy Rhoads did. I always spike Zakk’s pings and fills up 1 to 1-1/2 dbs in the mix so they pop out of the track.”

Sherinian then brought a hard drive of his ProTools files to Yngwie’s home studio in Miami to complete the recording. “Yngwie just whipped out two first-take solos in no time, and we were done. I call him ‘one-take’ Malmsteen. When Yngwie does long notes or bends, I always spike the delays a bit and then roll them off when he starts burning.”

Malmsteen himself explains the thoughts behind his ability to unleash blinding one-take solos without blinking an eye. “It’s like this,” he says. “You develop a language comprised of scales, keys and modes. When you have a thorough grasp of that language, playing becomes second nature. Once you know where things go, you just burn it up. If you had less command of your instrument, you’d have to think more about what you’re playing. To me, it’s far more exciting to improvise, but to improvise well one’s level of musicianship has to be pretty high. It takes years of dedication and practice to get to the point where you can just wing it. Basically, you spend all these years figuring things out; then you just forget about it and let loose. It’s totally cosmic. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. If the stars are not aligned, I don’t even bother.”

“Yngwie’s tracks are always insane,” Wylde states. “It’s like he can do them without even thinking. Yngwie and I share a similar obsession with the guitar. Music chose us; we didn’t choose it. Music should be all about having fun, not about making tons of money or getting laid. And it shouldn’t be clinical like a dental appointment where you’re getting three root canals. The sky’s the limit in the studio, and you should make the most of it.”

“There’s always a three- to five-day party whenever Zakk plays on my tracks, which he calls his ‘fusion getaway,’” Sherinian explains. “My house looks like a beer garden by the end of the sessions! Zakk works in flows, which is usually between his storytelling and comedy acts. He gets in front of the microphone and sings hilarious impressions of Axl Rose, Paul Stanley and David Lee Roth. I just tell my engineer to be ready to hit record whenever Zakk is ready to track.”

“We always have a flat-out goof when we record,” Wylde says. “It’s amazing we even get any work done because we’re in stitches constantly. Derek just says, ‘Dude, I want you to play a solo over here.’ He tells me he’s got all these amazing musicians coming in, and tells me to just do my thing. Life is easy—we just play, drink beer and laugh our balls off. I’m usually passed out on the floor or his couch by the end of the sessions.”

One of Sherinian’s finest tracks is “The Sons of Anu,” which features an all-star cast of musicians. “My intent was to write the ultimate Yngwie song,” he enthuses. “The song is strongly reminiscent of his early-Eighties records, but more progressive. When I first played the demo for him—the scratch guitar was played by Brian Tichy, with whom I wrote the song—I could tell Yngwie was excited. In the middle section he plays this unbelievably wicked solo over my keyboard chords. Again, Yngwie laid it down in one pass, without having to work anything out. Moments like these are truly magical to watch.”

“The Sons of Anu” turned out far better than Sherinian could have anticipated. “The original plan was to have Yngwie on the whole song,” he continues, “but we were running short of time and I came up with the idea of having Al Di Meola, who also lives in Miami, play the acoustic part. I’ve always felt that Yngwie was Di Meola influenced and it would be exciting to have the two of them on the same track. I intended the song to be an ultimate showcase for musicianship, so I also wanted the bass playing to be fantastic. Tony Franklin plays fretless bass on the majority of the track, but there were sections where I thought Billy Sheehan would sound great, so I had him come in and play too.”

Working with Di Meola in particular, says Sherinian, was immensely gratifying. “One of the most memorable moments of my career was producing Di Meola for ‘The Sons of Anu,’” the keyboardist says. “When I showed him the lines I wanted played, he transcribed them on manuscript paper before playing them. I’d never seen anyone do that before. I vividly remember looking at Di Meola through the control-room glass while he was recording his parts. I was talking to him through the talkback mic and saying, ‘Al, give it one more take.’ It was so surreal!”

If there’s any song in Sherinian’s repertoire that outshines “The Sons of Anu,” it’s “Day of the Dead,” which the keyboardist wrote specifically for Holdsworth and Wylde. “Holdsworth’s guitar solo on ‘Day of the Dead’ is the most amazing guitar performance on any of my records,” Sherinian says. “The song starts off with a heavy Ozzyish guitar riff and three minutes later goes into a spacey Led Zeppelin–like section where Holdsworth solos for more than two minutes. Then it returns to the heaviness, with Holdsworth soloing over Zakk’s metal rhythms. There’s nothing like it! I mean, where else are you going to hear this combination of players?”

Sherinian first became aware of Allan Holdsworth years ago from reading an Eddie Van Halen interview in a guitar magazine. “Van Halen mentioned that Holdsworth was the world’s greatest guitarist, bar none,” Sherinian recalls, “so I went out and bought every Holdsworth record I could find and immediately started digging his work. Holdsworth’s phrasing and improvisational skills are second to none. I couldn’t believe that I actually got him to guest on my album because he doesn’t usually play on other people’s records.”

Sherinian met Holdsworth through a mutual friend in 2004, and the two hit it off. “I was elated when he agreed to play on my record,” Sherinian continues. “A few weeks after meeting him, I received a phone message from Holdsworth, saying, ‘Derek, I just did this solo for you—I hope you like it. I’m not sure if it’s any good.’ He played it into my answering machine. It sounded so good it spun my head around! Holdsworth doesn’t think he’s a hotshot at all. He’s just on a different plane musically and not caught up in himself at all, which I think frees him to improvise brilliantly. He’s never satisfied with his playing, but the world’s greatest guitarists revere it.”

“Holdsworth’s agility is beyond comprehension,” says Malmsteen. “I’ve been a major fan of his for many years. He and I have something in common in that our biggest influence is an instrument other than guitar: in my case, it’s classical violin; in Allan’s, it’s jazz saxophone. Somehow, he can get the fluid, legato phrasing of a sax with his guitar. Fuckin’ amazing! There aren’t many guitarists who can play the way Allan does. No matter what he plays, my jaw drops every time. I have this old, unreleased Swedish recording of him just ripping it up. I got it from a guy who was working in some studio in Stockholm, and let me tell you, I’ve never heard anything like it.”

Malmsteen holds Al Di Meola in high regard, as well. “Holdsworth and Di Meola are two of my favorite guitarists,” says Malmsteen. “It’s cool how Derek got both of them to play on his albums. Di Meola’s technique is the polar opposite of Holdsworth’s: Di Meola picks every note, whereas Holdsworth picks sparingly. Di Meola plays staccato—very choppy—whereas Holdsworth plays legato—very fluid. Growing up as a guitar player it was very inspirational to be exposed to these two different styles of guitar playing.”

“My legato style was not deliberate, at least not initially,” says Holdsworth, speaking in a rare interview. “It just started to go that way as my technique developed. And I don’t deliberately mimic sax lines on the guitar. It sometimes sounds that way because I’ve always wanted to play saxophone. Unconsciously I’m striving for that less-percussive sound, I guess. I like the way that horns play longer notes and linearly, sort of like you play on a violin, where you can make a note louder or softer. Unfortunately, you need to use some distortion to achieve that on guitar. If it weren’t for the way the electric guitar developed, I probably wouldn’t play guitar. I really don’t enjoy playing acoustic guitar at all, even though I love listening to other people play it. It’s just not for me; it’s more of a percussive instrument. I’d much rather play an instrument where you can change the shape of the note after you’ve played it.”

In addition to “Day of the Dead,” Holdsworth’s ethereal playing is featured on two tracks—“Desert Girl” and “The Thinking Stone”—on Sherinian’s new album with Planet X, Quantum, which also showcases Australian guitar phenom Brett Garsed. “I originally wanted to have Holdsworth play on the whole record,” says Sherinian, “but he ultimately wound up on just two tracks because of a looming deadline. As usual, Holdsworth’s performance is incredible.”

Sherinian’s ability to get the world’s finest musicians to play on his albums is admirable, to say the least. “People like to play with Derek because he’s easygoing and a good keyboardist,” says Malmsteen. “He gets inspired and excited playing with other cats. Derek is well-connected and likes to socialize. Me, I don’t hang out with anybody.”

“Derek doesn’t have to kiss anyone’s ass to get them to play on his records,” Wylde adds. “People want to play with him because he’s that good. He can play everything from the easiest licks on a piano to the most complex Beethoven sonatas with ease.”

Malmsteen elaborates, “When I was auditioning keyboardists for my band in the late Nineties, Derek and I hit it off immediately. But for whatever reason, he didn’t join my band until 2001.” For the past six years Sherinian has been playing on and off in Malmsteen’s band. The keyboardist played on the guitarist’s 2002 album Attack!! and will be playing on his next album, which is currently in the works.

If there’s one guitarist who knows Sherinian well, it’s John Petrucci. Sherinian was a member of Dream Theater from 1994 to 1998, replaced by Jordan Rudess. “Derek and I worked really well together,” says Petrucci. “Yet after working with Jordan on two Liquid Tension Experiment albums in ’98 and ’99, I felt that Jordan was more compatible for Dream Theater. Derek has done well for himself since he left the band.”

“In January 1999 I got a conference call from the members of Dream Theater saying that I was going to be replaced by Rudess,” remembers Sherinian, “which came as a total shock. Overnight, I went from being a member of the biggest progressive rock band of my generation to a solo artist.”

Petrucci’s participation on the Sherinian track “Czar of Steel” (Blood of the Snake) marked the first time the two worked together since Sherinian’s departure from Dream Theater. “Derek emailed me an MP-3 file of the track and asked me to play on it,” says Petrucci. “We decided that I’d lay down my parts at Derek’s home studio the morning of a Dream Theater show in Los Angeles. There’s a lot of cool trading off between keyboards and guitar on the track. I played an extended solo at the end of the song and all the rhythm guitar parts as well. It was a long day in L.A., but worth it.”

“‘Czar of Steel’ was written by Simon Phillips and myself with Steve Lukather in mind for the guitar parts,” explains Sherinian, “but due to scheduling conflicts it wasn’t to be. Petrucci was the next guitarist I considered for the track, and I felt it would be a good opportunity for us to work together again. Petrucci is the most meticulous of any guitarist I’ve worked with and can play pretty much anything you ask of him. When we were making Falling Into Infinity with Dream Theater, there were times when John would take a whole day to record just one guitar solo.”

“I am pretty meticulous about my playing,” Petrucci admits. “When I record I’ll play to a section over and over until it's exactly how I want it. I’ll improvise some things and eventually start building my ideas. I find the longer I improvise a solo, the more creative I become. I always strive to play something that’s musically interesting and that contributes to the song.”

“The level of musicianship was so high in Dream Theater, it impelled me to raise my chops,” Sherinian says. “While in that band I also became aware that many people want to hear musicians play their instruments and that it’s okay to overplay.”

“From collaborating with Derek in Dream Theater,” explains Petrucci, “I learned that some of his favorite musicians are guitarists. Keyboardists, in general, sound so wimpy. But Derek—considering the fact that he’s heavily into guitarists and rock music, his history, and the range of all the great guitarists he’s worked with—plays with a fire unheard of from most keyboardists.”

Actually, Sherinian harbored thoughts of playing guitar during his formative years as a keyboardist. “The notion of switching to guitar crossed my mind several times,” he says, “but it would’ve taken too long to get up to speed on guitar, so I decided to stick with keyboards. I was a big Elton John fan. My parents gave me Goodbye Yellow Brick Road for Christmas when I was eight years old. I played along to it and learned the songs by ear. I was intrigued by the fact that Elton was not just a pianist but the main guy in the band.”

Before long, Sherinian became a bona fide guitar fanatic: “When I was twelve years old I heard Angus Young, and he became the first guitar hero I admired. Then a friend turned me on to UFO and Michael Schenker became the next guy. When Van Halen was released in 1978, it was game over! It was all about Eddie Van Halen for the next few years until Blizzard of Ozz with Randy Rhoads in 1981.”

In 1982, at the tender age of sixteen, Sherinian received a scholarship to Boston’s Berklee College of Music. “Berklee was a musical paradise,” spurts Sherinian, now forty. “It was great to be in an environment where there were musicians my age from around the world studying their craft with the intent of having a career in music. I was jamming with people like guitarist Al Pitrelli, who would go on to play with me in Alice Cooper, and drummer William Calhoun, who later played in Living Colour. After my classes I’d spend hours in the practice room honing my chops, and at night we’d jam in the ensemble rooms. It was great.”

Although at Berklee Sherinian developed an appreciation for a variety of musical instruments and genres, he’s an avid guitar fan through and through. Says Sherinian, “Most of all I admire the heaviness of guitarists like Van Halen, Malmsteen and Rhoads, as well as fusion cats like Holdsworth, Di Meola and Jeff Beck. In my keyboard playing and compositions, I aspire to fuse the heaviness of metal with the technique of fusion. It’s a style I call ‘metal fusion.’”

Sherinian’s music is actually more expansive than that. His solo albums feature a myriad of styles, ranging from flamenco, jazz, metal, progressive rock, jazz-fusion and even pop. On Blood of the Snake there’s a hot rendition of Mungo Jerry’s 1970 Number One smash hit “In the Summertime” that features Billy Idol and Slash. Says Sherinian, “One day during soundcheck Billy Idol started singing it out of the blue. It was sounding really good, and he said, ‘We should cut this track one day.’”

Sherinian made it happen. “After recording the track I mentioned to Brian Tichy that Slash would be perfect for this song because he’d have the perfect feel for it,” says Sherinian. “Brian knows Slash so I asked him to give him a call, and we got him.”

“The approach I used on ‘In the Summertime’ was a lot different than what I normally do,” says Slash. “I played with my fingers instead of a pick. Sometimes I do off-the-wall stuff like that on outside projects. I used a talkbox toward the end of the song, as well. Billy Idol sat and listened while I recorded my parts. His presence was definitely felt! I’m not used to having anyone in the control room when I’m laying down tracks. I got the impression that Billy is very particular about what goes on his recordings. I’ve played live with him a couple of times, but this was the first time I cut a record with him, which is something I’ve always wanted to do.”

When it comes to exploring his fusion and melodic side, Sherinian usually turns to Steve Lukather. Though best known as the guitarist in the Grammy-winning Toto, Lukather is among the most recorded session guitarists of our time, having played on nearly 600 albums since 1977, including the biggest-selling album ever, Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

“Lukather is a real pro,” says Sherinian. “He comes in, takes care of business, and plays with a lot of feel. He’d learn and record the melody line one phrase at a time. Lukather plays in the tradition of Jeff Beck in that his phrasing and nuances are so lyrical. Whereas Zakk would leisurely take three to five days to do three songs, Lukather will record three songs within a few hours.”

Some of Lukather’s most inspired playing is on Sherinian’s Inertia (2001), where the guitarist shines especially on the title track, “Mata Hari” and the Charles Mingus classic “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” an instrumental which Jeff Beck has also covered. “Inertia is among the best recorded work of my whole career,” Lukather says. “Simon [Phillips] got the best out of me. It's just me playing my Music Man guitar through a Marshall amp with no effects. It’s a great album! I'm very proud of it.”

Besides Inertia, Lukather has also played on Black Utopia and Mythology. “A lot of Derek’s music is very challenging to perform,” Lukather continues. “Playing some of the melodies he writes are really tough because they are not what they seem and they don’t repeat themselves. People don’t assume I’d play on music such as this because they have me bagged as the Toto dude or some anonymous session guy.”

Even after having played with several of his guitar idols, the biggest thrill of Sherinian’s career happened last September, when he played with Eddie Van Halen. “I performed a private party at his house,” the keyboardist explains. “The day before the gig after soundcheck Eddie gave me a private tour of his 5150 studio. On the wall hung a few of his most famous guitars I’d seen pictured in magazines, and in his vault were master tapes of unreleased material. He told me that his concept of music theory is, ‘There are only twelve notes—do what you want with them.’

“During the gig we played classic songs like ‘Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,’ ‘Jump,’ ‘You Really Got Me,’ and we had this long jam. I was in awe the entire time! Eddie’s guitar sounded so massive coming through the cabinets; his playing is so original that over the years it inspired me to push the envelope on my instrument. I gave him my CDs and told him it would be a dream to play with him again. Now I just have to convince him to play on my next solo album.”

Sherinian has come a long way since snatching his first big break in 1989, when he was hired for Alice Cooper’s world tour in support of Trash. A few years later Sherinian toured as an offstage keyboardist for Kiss. Kiss Alive III (1993) marked his first major-label release. “Being a Kiss fan since childhood, I was excited to get that gig,” he says. “During my audition Paul Stanley asked me to play the opening riff to ‘Love Gun’ on keyboards, and I nailed it. Luckily, I’ve heard that song since I was a teenager, so I knew it inside and out.”

Ah, what a life—playing with cream-of-the-crop musicians, going on major tours, and establishing a reputation as one of rock’s most sought-after keyboardists. What’s left for Sherinian? “I really want to work with Jeff Beck. Last year I met him briefly in the Lufthansa Business Class lounge in Frankfurt, Germany, when I was touring with Billy Idol. I gave him one of my CDs and told him I’d love to play with him someday. Hopefully, he didn’t use it as a coaster.”

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