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, 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.

GW How did you get involved in Japanese television?

FRIEDMAN When I started working with Aikawa, I was doing exactly what I wanted to do—playing, touring and making records with a J-pop band. Then I got an offer to do a brandnew TV show called Hebimetasan, which means “Mr. Heavy Metal.” The subject of the program didn’t interest me at all. They wanted to expose the secret heavy metal fantasies of people like actors, soap opera stars and celebrities who you wouldn’t think were into rock or metal. The idea was to get them on the show and see how much they knew or didn’t know about heavy metal. At that point heavy metal felt really old to me and I wasn’t that into it any more. But I did the show, and when we actually got down to doing it, it was such a cute idea. The show was only supposed to go one season, which is a quarter of a year, but it became a big hit and ended up going six seasons. Through that I got picked up by the biggest television production company in Japan, which is now my management. Thanks to them I’ve probably been on 300 TV shows since I’ve been here.

GW What was the biggest adjustment you had to make living in Japan?

FRIEDMAN The way of making music here is totally different than it is in America. Songwriting and the structure or architecture of making music is totally different. I adjusted to that right away, though. A lot of metal in America is based around the riff and the vibe of the song. After you’ve got that down you put a melody on top of it. Here [in Japan], it doesn’t matter how heavy or hard the rock is—the song is based around the melody. That is decided upon before you even start to make rough demos, which is a very interesting and good way to write music. If you don’t have a melody, it doesn’t matter how bitchin’ your riff is, because the tune won’t have the ups and downs and the excitement and memorable elements that you get from a great melody.

GW Your own music has become more melodic as a result of that.

FRIEDMAN Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always wanted to get deeper and improve my music even the slightest bit. I always want to get better as a musician, and that doesn’t always necessarily mean practice. It’s also about being able to open your mind and interpret what you’re feeling that much clearer than one day before. When I listen to stuff that I’ve done in the past I’m truly proud of it and know that it was the best that I could have done at that time. But there’s no way I would have done the same thing, even under the same circumstances, now. There’s a depth that wasn’t there before. A lot of it comes from life experience. I’m much more pleased with the way I’ve been playing over the last three or four years. I feel good about letting people listen to what I’ve done. I’m happy about that, and I’m happy that I haven’t gone backward.

GW Your playing, especially on the live album, seems more confident now.

FRIEDMAN There’s no question. A lot of that has to do with the television influence. You never know what you’re going to end up having to do on the spot, especially on live TV. All the people I work with on television are professionals—they don’t kiss anyone’s ass—and they expect me to get stuff done right away, even if it’s the strangest request. That gives me the confidence of knowing I’ll be fine, no matter what comes up.

One time I had this session where I had to play a guitar solo. I never heard the song before, and I told them to play the song and just let me play. I had no idea what key the song was in or what type of song it was. I ended playing just one take, and it was fine. The more you get put in situations where you have to adapt your ear, the sharper it becomes, until you reach a point where what you play will always fit the situation. That’s much better than having the same type of experiences all of the time. I might have been able to do that five or 10 years ago, but as a guitar player I’m so much happier with my ability to play than I was before. Hopefully that shows up on the live record. It’s probably the kind of thing that guitarists who analyze other players’ performances will notice.

GW Your playing sounds very comfortable, like it’s easy for you even though what you’re playing is not very easy at all.

FRIEDMAN It is easy for me, but if I were to play someone else’s music it would be extremely hard. My music might be extremely difficult for another musician to play, but if I were to play that musician’s music I’d probably have a hard time playing it their way and I’d wind up doing it my own way by default. I always like playing with a little bit of headroom. I like to have room to spare instead of being at the edge of my capabilities. I strive to perform like that instead of barely being able to eke by.

GW Your tone has a very fluid midrange with great definition. Is that coming more from your amp or guitar?

FRIEDMAN To me, tone has so little to do with gear. Guitar players put a whole lot of thought into their gear, but that’s a big misconception. If Eddie Van Halen and Brian May played through anything else they’d still sound like themselves. I honestly couldn’t tell you what gear I’m using. I know what brand of gear I’m using. Right now I have Engl amps. My guitar tech put together a rig for me with a bunch of stuff in it, but I have no idea what it is. I think there are a couple of Boss pedals in there.

On the live album I used an Ibanez signature model guitar, but my contract with Ibanez has lapsed, and I decided to not continue with them even though they’re a fabulous company. On the subsequent tour I used other guitars—a Gibson Les Paul, a PRS and lots of others. I started to think that other guitars looked better or held their tuning better. I didn’t want to limit myself to one guitar unless it was the absolute best. The Ibanez Marty Friedman model was a great guitar, especially for the price range it was in. It sounds pretty good on the live record, but I found that there were other guitars that I enjoyed playing as much if not more. I’ve had two signature model guitars in my career. The Ibanez was a good one and the Jackson was good, too, but I figured if I’m going to put my name on a guitar it has to be the absolute ultimate.

GW Guitar World interviewed Dave Mustaine about a year ago, and he said one of the funniest things about working with you was that he had to show you how to play rhythm. He said that not knowing how to play rhythm was like being able to use a knife but not knowing how to use a fork.

FRIEDMAN Saying that I didn’t know how to play rhythm is a broad statement. Of course I could play rhythm fine before, but Dave isn’t someone who would listen to my playing and say, “Wow. That’s a really unique rhythm style.” You could say that I was not familiar with his way of rhythm playing, which is quite unique, just like my style of lead playing is unique. It did take me some time to adjust to it. His style of playing rhythm was completely alien to me, but it was great for me to expand and learn to play another person’s rhythm style. I get really detailed and picky about my solo playing, and he’s exactly the same way about his rhythm playing, paying a lot of attention to details like where a part should be up-picked or needs to be muted.

GW Dave isn’t shy about letting people know that Megadeth is his band and the other guitarists in the band play a supporting role.

FRIEDMAN Absolutely. And he always knows how to get good weapons in his arsenal. He has a good vision of what’s going on. I’ve always respected that about him, and that’s why I was in the band more than 10 years. We had great chemistry, and we made a lot of great music. You couldn’t ask for two more different guitar players. As strange as my lead playing might be, his rhythm playing was equally strange. Dave really has a sound. The second you hear it, you know it’s him. I love that. He was one of the first guys to play thrash like that.

GW You recently collaborated with Jason Becker for the first time in years on a track that appears on his new album, Collection. How did that go?

FRIEDMAN It was awesome. I’m so ecstatic that he put out a record with some new material. When he asked me to play a solo on one of his songs, I flew at the opportunity to do it. He has me and Steve Vai playing on the same song. It’s always nice to be in good company.

GW What was the inspiration for your 99 Secret Lead Guitar Phrases DVD?

FRIEDMAN My whole idea of playing isn’t necessarily theoretical. A lot of players think you need to use a particular scale or mode when you play a certain chord. I think that if you have something interesting to say, it doesn’t matter when you say it. A lot of guitarists know the rules but they don’t have anything interesting to say. What the hell is interesting about a mode? Nothing. Music should be like a conversation, and you need to have a lot of interesting things to say. I’m not talking about note sequences and patterns; I’m talking about distinct musical phrases. Phrases—not scales, exercises, arpeggios, or techniques—are like a musician’s vocabulary. Any musician should have the ability to play an infinite number of phrases, and you should steer clear of anything that has a name for it, like “string-skipping Mixolydian exercises.”

A lot of guys will explain how they play their songs or show you some guitar tricks or scales, but nobody ever gives you a bunch of phrases. The idea behind the DVD is to give guitarists 100 phrases to learn. Once you know all of them, your mind should be capable of creating your own phrases. It’s about getting your mind and fingers to react in a way they don’t normally respond. I think that the DVD will help advanced guitarists more than it will help beginners.

GW Do you think you’ll ever return to America or join another band like Megadeth?

FRIEDMAN Right now Japan is my top priority. Ideally, I’d like to continue doing exactly what I’m doing right now, although I’d also like to do more touring outside of Japan as well. It would be nice to tour Europe and America more, but it is so hard to get away from the commitments I have here for more than a week. It’s also hard for me to promote anything outside of Japan. I get complete press coverage in Japan but absolutely zero outside of Japan.

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