Musician, producer, music publisher and impresario Mike Varney has been instrumental in launching the careers of some of the finest rock guitarists of the past 30 years.
Varney, who founded Shrapnel Records in 1980, was responsible for the success for some of the biggest names in shred, including Paul Gilbert, Marty Friedman and Jason Becker — to name just a few.
In the '80s, readers religiously checked out his "Spotlight" column in Guitar Player magazine to see which new, undiscovered guitarists he had found each month.
Today, Varney is the co-owner of Magna Carta Records, home of another hot new talent, Ethan Brosh. The young guitarist combines a deep musical knowledge, the ability to seduce listeners with catchy melodies and a style that makes this up-and-coming talent shine.
We recently spoke to Brosh about his background, touring with Yngwie Malmsteen and his desire to play for his favorite '80s metal bands.
GUITAR WORLD: You have quite an extensive resume that includes being a graduate and faculty member of Berklee College of Music. Can you talk about how studying and teaching have influenced your development as a player?
Thank you! Berklee is the best place to go to college. I had such a great time there. All the teachers are incredible musicians, as are as most of the students. One of the things that make it such a great experience is the fact that everyone is a serious musician, and that creates an environment where you experience and breathe music 24/7. Whenever I go back to teach at Berklee in the summers, I get back to that state of mind of focusing on music all the time, trying to learn new things and growing as a musician. I love that!
During the year I'm usually preoccupied with everything that has to do with my music career at this point. So going back to the Berklee state of mind keeps me sane as a musician. The great thing about teaching is you get to look closely at what you're actually doing and come up with explanations of what the true concept of music is. You learn a lot from that. Also, you get to watch a lot of students play and get lots of ideas from many other players. I don't ever underestimate any player. You can learn something valuable from anyone.
You have some really cool retro guitars in your arsenal. Is there one in particular that is your favorite?
I love guitars! It's hard to pick a favorite because they're all my babies. I also no longer believe in a perfect guitar being out there. There are lots of different types of tones and different neck feels that make sense for particular situations. If I had to pick one, I'd say it's my Japanese Strat with a Kahler. That guitar sounds and feels so good. I just love it.
Can you discuss how you came to Magna Carta Records?
I've known Mike Varney, co-owner of Magna Carta, for years. He's a good friend of mine and a guy I have a great deal of respect for. He's responsible for many of my favorite albums and the fame of many of my favorite players. Knowing that Mike appreciates my playing and released my first record means a lot to me.
Out of Oblivion took me two and a half years to create. I put everything I had into that record and wanted to make an album they couldn't refuse. I've gotten a great reaction for it and I'm looking forward to seeing what people will think about my soon-to-be-released second record, Live The Dream, which I think is better.
How did you come to work with George Lynch on "Downward Spiral"?
I got to know George through his Dojo lessons program he had a few years ago. He had a competition there the first month of it. It was about writing a good melodic hook. I submitted my tune, “The Hit Man,” and won the competition. After that I got to know George and had the pleasure of having him participate in Out of Oblivion on the tune "Downward Spiral." Some months back, we shot a video for it and that was a blast.
In 20 years I'm sure this will be an incredible memory. Actually, it already is. George is a great friend and will forever be one of my top influences. I absolutely love him. I'm trying to bring some of that guitar approach of those great players to the new generation of guitar playing. There are a lot of fast shredders out there, but I think we are missing some players with great phrasing, tone, originality, stage presence, etc.
Can you tell us a little about your band Burning Heat?
Burning Heat is my other original band, which I'll be putting a lot of my focus into at this point. We are a rock/hard rock band. Again, since the very early '90s, I can't even point out one rock and roll band. I think people still love that style and crave that kind of music, but they're just not getting it because record labels and the media are focusing on different things. We are sticking to our guns and we just want to be out there bringing the fun back to rock music. We try to write songs that are very melodic with catchy singalong choruses and great riffs and solos, of course.
We have a song called "What The Hell Happened to Rock N Roll?" that goes straight to the point, and it's a reminder of how cool rock music used to be and what we hope will get noticed again.
You have a solo album, Live The Dream. Can you talk about how you approach writing an instrumental?
Generally I look at instrumentals as songs. It's very important to have different sections and have the form make sense. The sections have to relate to one another and work together just like a hit song would. I focus a lot on melody and harmony. I don't think about it in terms of guitar licks or speed or anything of that nature.
Another thing I always keep in mind is to have every tune different than the others. It's really easy to bore a listener with instrumental music. That's why I try to keep it short and sweet and have a variety of moods and sounds throughout an album. Experiencing with different modes, keys, grooves, etc., will help keep it fresh and not redundant.
You're spending a month on the road with Yngwie Malmsteen. That has to be a trip for a player. How do you approach that?
It sure is a great honor and a dream come true. I approach it musically in a similar way to writing an album, having a variety of different tunes, bringing out the very best and keeping it interesting for people hearing my music for the first time. Stage presence and performance are also very important, and I'm constantly trying to get our shows more and more fun for everyone. I have a band with such great players, which enables me to focus on my playing and not on what would usually go wrong with players who are not very experienced.
I have John Anthony on drums, and he's as solid as it gets! Perfect tempo that never changes. My band is made up of my Berklee buddy, Giorgio Mongelli, on bass, who came from Italy to do the tour with us. And then my little sister, Nili Brosh, playing guitar along with me doing the harmonies and all. I've never felt better about a band.
Our crew guys, Nat Montalvo and Shane Quintilo, are also great guitar players and have our backs 100 percent, which makes it all possible. Of course, I want to thank Yngwie and April Malmsteen for giving us the chance to be there with them and expose our music to new people.
What's next for Ethan Brosh?
What's next for me is the official release of my second record, Live The Dream, plus more touring and probably some shows playing guitar for Michael Sweet from Stryper. The full-length debut album of Burning Heat, some instructional DVDs and many other things I'm sure are on the horizon.
One thing I would love to have happen next in my career is being the guitar player of one of the biggest '80s metal bands who are still out there playing huge venues. I would love to do that, and I'm ready to go. I don't want to step on anyone's toes or take anyone's job, but changes sometimes happen for many different reasons, and I'm looking to be in one of my favorite bands that got me into rock music in the first place.
To all my fans or the people who are just discovering my music, I'd like to take the opportunity to thank you for your time and support. It means everything to me and I'm always going to be grateful to you. Please keep in touch and live the dream!
John Katic is a writer and podcaster who founded the Iron City Rocks Podcast in 2009. It features interviews with countless rock, hard rock, metal and blues artists. In 2013, he started Heavy Metal Bookclub, a podcast and website devoted to hard rock and metal books.