Marty Friedman: "I spend 80 percent of my time on the arrangement. If I have that beautiful frame, the notes I play inside it are going to really come through"

Marty Friedman
(Image credit: Susumu Miyawaki)

While most musicians' tour plans are still sidelined by COVID-19, Marty Friedman happily reports that he’s already played live dates – in Japan. “Gigs are happening here, and for a lot of people that’s a great thing,” says the guitarist, a Tokyo resident since 2003. 

However, he’s quick to point out that, for the time being, concerts in his adopted homeland have been a far cry from what he’s used to. “There are very strict guidelines everybody has to follow. We can’t go beyond 50 percent capacity at any venue. Don’t get me wrong – touring now requires 10 times the effort to achieve half the results, but if that’s what it takes to play, that’s what I’ll do. Everybody needs music. I mean, sure, there are other priorities in life, but music is really important. They need something that makes them happy, now more than ever. If I have the chance to play, I’m there.”

To some people, if they’ve heard the originals, they might go, 'What the hell is this? It’s overload. It’s too crazy.' I get it. But now you have two ways to enjoy these songs

Friedman’s dates in Japan have been his first live shows since 2019. For much of 2020, he was recording Tokyo Jukebox 3, the third album in a series he began with Tokyo Juke-box in 2009 and continued with – you guessed it – Tokyo Jukebox 2 in 2011. 

The new record finds the guitarist putting a crunching, metallic spin on his favorite hits from the Japanese pop charts. “If I can say anything positive about the past year, it’s that I was pretty much forced to work on this record – there was very little else I could do,” he says. “It was great to work without all the usual distractions. I don’t usually get so much time to focus on just one album.”

On Tokyo Jukebox 3, Friedman blitzes his way through instrumental versions of tracks such as Gurenge (a big hit for LiSA) and Skukumei (originally made famous by Official Hige Dandism) as well as other contemporary J-pop selections. 

The only exceptions are The Perfect World, a reworking of the guitarist’s own 2018 composition that now features vocals by the popular Japanese singer Alfakyun, and Japan Heritage Theme Song, which Friedman wrote and then recorded with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra.

“Those are the only two songs that don’t fit the rest of the format,” says Friedman, “although I guess you could call The Perfect World a self-cover. Everything else is me doing instrumentals of Japanese vocal songs. The guitar is a new element on these tracks, so that was fun for me. It’s pretty much straight-up J-pop that I put on steroids and made really heavy and emotional. I wanted to bring up the goosebumps and tear-jerking elements using the guitar. That was the big challenge.”

When recording covers, did you feel as if you were halfway home? You were starting with proven material. 

“Sure. That’s a total double-edged sword, though, especially with songs I really love. They don’t need anybody messing with them. But yeah, you’re already starting with something great. Some songs I know I can’t do anything with; they’re so perfect that I can’t make them my own. I don’t even deal with them. But when I have a song I know I want to cover, I start to do prep. There’s a lot of prep with these things.“

What kind of prep?

“It’s all stuff I have to do beforehand. In Japan, I have to get permission from the publisher to record my version, so I’ll work out an arrangement and record a demo, and that’s what I submit for clearance. 

“The only issue with that is, once permission is granted, I have to follow through; it would be rude to make these people work and get their OK only for me to say, 'I’ve changed my mind.' And I have to stay true to the version I sent them. So considering all that, I make extensive demos. That way, I know I’m going to like it, and it’s gonna kick ass.“

What you’re describing is different from how publishing works in other territories.

“This is how it is for a major-label situation in Japan. If you’re doing something on indies where it’s going to fly under the radar, you could probably do whatever you want. People wouldn’t notice. But in my case, my label is Avex here in Japan, and I’m dealing with Japanese songs. Not only do you need the permission of the publisher, but you need the permission of the person who wrote the song to actually release it and put it out. 

“On my first Tokyo Jukebox album, there was one artist called Mr. Children who’s notorious for not allowing anyone to cover their stuff. But I loved this song called Gift, and I just said, “What the hell? I’m going to do my cover.' If they hated it, so be it – I tried. But they loved it and gave me the OK. That was pretty cool.“

Marty Friedman

(Image credit: Susumu Miyawaki)

To many people, these will sound like new songs. You have a lot of leeway there; nobody will say, “Oh, he screwed this stuff up.”

“That’s an excellent point. There’s two meanings to that: one is that, for a lot of people, I’m introducing my interpretation of these songs, but it sounds like my music. I mean, it basically is my music. You could put this new album next to other records I’ve done, and you’re going to know it’s the same artist. The only difference is that I’m covering very well-known Japanese songs. 

“It’s great because I love these songs so much, and I really like the idea of opening up the wonderful world of this music to people outside of Japan. To some people, if they’ve heard the originals, they might go, 'What the hell is this? It’s overload. It’s too crazy.' I get it. But now you have two ways to enjoy these songs. You can hear my versions, and you can seek out the originals. I hear that from a lot of people: They were exposed to my version first, but then they write to me: “I found the original, and I love it, too!”

You concentrate on J-pop. Are you a fan of K-pop bands like BTS?

“I’m very familiar, but that’s a completely different genre from J-pop. Melodically, K-pop doesn’t do much for me. It’s very dance-oriented. To my ears, it sounds derivative of other music, whereas J-pop is an island unto itself; nothing else really sounds like it.“

How much do you listen to American rock? Are there any bands from the States that have had an impact on you lately? 

“I like Deafheaven. I’m sure there are some other cool things coming from the States, but they’re kind of escaping me right now. Oh, I did see this cool band… Starbenders. They’re pretty cool.“

I understand that in making this album you decided to remove reverb and delays from your guitar tracks. How did that affect your playing? 

“I removed reverb and delay for a lot of parts, but not for the entire record. It did affect my playing, though. I had to be more exact. What I found was, when I did that, there was an impact – an urgency or tightness – to certain lines. It was more aggressive. 

“Even if it was something I did record with delay, when it was mixed down I would try different interpretations, and I found that by taking the effects off, things sparkled more – they hit you in the face harder. I’ve been trying to play that way more. When I play something with a dryer sound, it can be more effective; the way phrases end sound sharper and brasher.“ 

You don’t want to harmonize Pavarotti, unless you’re in the Three Tenors

Senbonzakura exemplifies your rhythm sound; it’s very harmonized. Do you do a lot of multi-tracking?

“Absolutely. There’s a lot of multi-tracking on backgrounds, especially on that song. I’ve always been big on that approach, ever since I was a kid. It’s probably Brian May’s influence. I try to multi-track everything on backgrounds, but I don’t do the same with the main solos. Why, you ask?“

Well, I was about to…

“[Laughs] I mean, you don’t want to harmonize Pavarotti, unless you’re in the Three Tenors. You’ve got a picture frame, and if you can make that frame really gorgeous and ornate, what-ever you put inside it is going to look that much better. So I spend about 80 percent of my time on the arrangement of the music that’s going to be played under my solos and melodies. If I have that beautiful frame, the notes I play inside it are going to really come through.

You recorded Japan Heritage Theme Song with an orchestra. Is that as difficult as it sounds? 

“That song came about because I’m an ambassador of Japanese heritage here in Japan, appointed by the government. They asked me to create a Japan heritage theme song to be played at government events. It was a real honor, but it was also a huge responsibility. Government people had to OK it; they came to the studio to listen to what I was doing. 

“I wrote music that reflected day-to-day Japanese life, not the type of music a foreigner would typically consider. I wanted to really capture the music of today’s Japanese people – and yesterday’s Japanese people – and I wrote the entire thing for an orchestra. I had an orchestral arranger to separate the parts because the layout of an orchestra is very important, so it was great to have somebody who is versed in doing that.“ 

I work on everything all the time. If you’ve followed my career, you’ll know I’ve evolved as a player. I’m constantly renewing myself and working on my game

U.S.A. is a lot of fun. What was it like originally? Was it a Japanese tribute to the States?

“That song is hilarious. I think it was written by an Italian artist, and it became a viral hit in Japan by a group called the Da Pump. They had me come on TV and play it with them. It’s a disco song, but I thought, 'I could do a full-on rock version of this thing.' I thought it was ironic, me being an American in Japan playing a song called U.S.A. with a Japanese group. 

Is it safe to assume you used your Jackson signature guitars on the record?

“That’s it, really. There were a few parts where I used a Strat-type guitar, but it was mostly my Jackson signatures and a couple of Jackson signature prototypes.“

Last question: what do you feel you need to work on as a player? Anything you can pinpoint? 

“I work on everything all the time. If you’ve followed my career, you’ll know I’ve evolved as a player. I’m constantly renewing myself and working on my game. New phrases and motifs, new musical sentences and expressions – it’s never-ending, and it will never be mastered by me or anyone.“

  • Tokyo Jukebox 3 is out now via The Players Club.

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Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar World, Guitar Player, MusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.