When it comes to one-liner quips and bite-size pearls of wisdom, Michael Angelo Batio certainly has a way of explaining his approach to guitar. The man who famously - and quite rightly - appropriated Kafka to explain sweep-picking (“It’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it”) has long been revered as one of the fastest guitar players in history.
Though he grins when we list some of our favorites in his long list of catchphrases, he also explains they are very much still to this day the essence of his life code...
“I must have a gift for those quotes,” he laughs, talking to Guitar World via video chat from his home studio. “I have a habit of coming up with soundbites like ‘I’m going to give you the keys to my Lamborghini!’ but, you know, I live by them.
"The way I look at it, I’m still a student myself. Even [Grammy-winning cellist] Yo-Yo Ma said that at one point, admitting he’s only ever making progress. Nobody is so good they can’t learn something new...
“That’s one of the main things about being a good teacher. In my humble opinion, it’s about showing someone things in a way they can grasp and understand rather than trying to impress someone with how much you know and how wonderful you are.”
The American guitar legend has a new album out, More Machine Than Man - a title which playfully celebrates a life dedicated to mind-boggling dexterity and mechanical precision. Its cover art depicts the musician in cyborg form, wielding his famous dual guitar an arm made of human tissue and another forged from metal.
Musically, it follows a similar concept, with down-tuned seven-string guitars warring with drum machines and a handful of guest contributions from ex-Lamb Of God drummer Chris Adler, bass virtuoso Victor Wooten and Arthemis’s Andrea Martongelli...
“It was actually Guitar World who gave me the quote that became the title,” smiles MAB. “There was an article on me a while ago and it was written that I was more machine than man. I know it might also be a Star Wars reference. But the idea stuck with me and I wanted to make a different kind of album.
"Whenever people say they’ve learned something in the style of MAB and they nail it, I say those are the riffs I will no longer play on my new album. I really tried to mix it up and make this one raw and powerful. "
“I’ve always played keys on my albums and layered them out. But this time I wanted just two rhythm guitars, sometimes leads moving in and out, yet you can hear everything really well.
"I didn’t want a lot of other players either - I’ve had so many greats over the years, like Guthrie Govan, Jeff Loomis and Michael Romeo. This time I felt like I had something to say and I was the guy to say it. It had to be heavy in ways unlike anything I’d done before…”
Given what you said about software, did you track using amps or through plug-ins?
“I made a radical career change a few years ago and switched amp companies. I’d never actually endorsed anyone until a few years ago, it wasn’t in my best interest doing workshops all over the world. You have to go to different stores and venues, playing their amps. But I knew Jim Marshall personally and used to use his amps. I got taken on a tour of the factory a long time ago and we were friends.
“I still love Marshalls, but I’ve been using a new company called Sawtooth who make tube amps. I just want to play real amps. Kemper and Fractal systems are amazing, I like them. But I ask myself ‘Does Joe Bonamassa play a Fractal? Does Mark Tremonti? Does Brad Paisley?’ All my favorite guitar players use real amps.”
What else felt different about the new recordings?
“This time, the rhythms are right in your face. Before, I used to track a live amp on each side and then use a direct sound underneath so there would always be four rhythm tracks. It can blend together and make its own chorus. I didn’t do that this time.
"Working with Chris Adler was amazing, he’s a great drummer – the king of that super fast drum style, a bit like Dave Lombardo. He only got to play on a couple of songs because he was in a really bad motorcycle accident…
“I had Victor Wooten guesting too, though I ended up playing five-string bass on a lot of songs. My friend Andrea Martongelli from Arthemis played on a track too, The Countdown Is On. I really liked his solo, he’s very technical but he’s wild.
"Then there’s Josh Wilbur, who is an amazing producer - he won a Grammy for Megadeth’s last album, he’s done Trivium, a lot of Lamb Of God’s stuff. He ended up arranging the two longest songs on the record.”
What ended up being your main pedals?
“I’ve been kind of a minimalist for the most of my career with pedals. That started back in my Nitro days. I guess I made career choices that were a lot different to other artists. I’ve been signed to Warner Bros Records twice, which is two times more than most people, and I’m very grateful.
"Gene Simmons told me many years ago, ‘If you didn’t know who you are, no-one will!’ I asked myself what kind of guitar player I wanted to be and decided the effects are right here in my hands. So I would only use an amp, a cable and one overdrive.
“In my new rig, I use these nano pedals made by Tom’sline Engineering, who make my signature overdrive and delay. And more recently, I’ve started using a wah - though I’m not endorsed by anyone. I like it more for tonality, scooping back and forth rather than flapping away. It’s a Morley mini one.
"I’m a pretty tall guy but I have a pedalboard full of little mini things! My setup hasn’t changed too much, I have a delay around 20ms in the loop, a chorus I don’t use too much and occasional wah and overdrive. It’s more organic, just me playing.”
As we’ve grown to expect, there are some truly blazing runs all over the album. It must be almost comical to think that such serious musicianship was born out of faking illness to skip school…
“It’s a funny story. We had old-fashioned heaters, like a strip along the floor across the whole wall. It didn’t heat the room much but it was massive. So I was working on alternate picking and I wasn’t quite getting it down. I later realized I had been using a mix of that with economy picking, but I didn’t know at the time, I was teaching myself.
“So it was winter and I went up to the heater and heated up my face until it was all sweaty. I ended up literally grilling my face, it looked red and barbecued. I said, “I’m sick, mom, I can’t go to school today!’ and she was like, ‘Oh my god, son, you have a fever!’ So she left to go to work and I was like, ‘Thank you, mother!’ shredding away with a grin on my face.”
Now, of course, you’re considered a world authority on picking. What have you learned in all these years answering questions about pick slanting, anchoring and raking?
“You need to divide your energy through your arm. I have a very strange picking technique because I wasn’t tall as a boy - my younger sister was much taller. I only started to grow around 16 and my arm stretched out.
"I got lucky, I can move my wrist very naturally, while a lot of players go from side-to-side and look very rigid. I never tell people to pick like me, but if they want to understand how it works, there are two methodologies of it...
“One is to rest a finger or multiple fingers on the guitar, like I do, and two is to use a free-floating system, like Al Di Meola. Even watch Joe Bonamassa, he might start off with his fingers fanned out but when he kicks into gear, he closes his right hand and his fingers don’t touch the guitar.
"So the two disciplines are hands on or hands off! I like hands on and there are equally great players on each side. You have to find out for yourself which is best, that’s why I talk about the PPS (potential picking speed) to gauge what feels right for you. I made a real science of it!”
A lot of players feel they can easily tremolo pick on one string but hit serious hurdles and inconsistencies when crossing. Was it the same for you?
“I’m sure every player feels like that at some point. I would say start with two strings, you need to master a two-string pattern before applying it to more. Some people are against pattern playing but I disagree. When you learn piano, you are visualizing patterns. Think of patterns as technical tools to help you make music...
“Try any typical Paul Gilbert or MAB lick and see how far you go with alternate. It might be a case of needing to switch to the same, or slightly different, pattern in economy.
"You might be able to find combinations of alternate and economy that work for you. Memorize them and go up chromatically. That’s how you build the dexterity. You’ll find a way of making it musical later.”
Much like Frank Gambale, your instructionals inspired players to think more mathematically about their runs - using odd and even numbers to strike through or change direction...
“I know Frank Gambale... I’d be lying if I said we were best friends but we know each other by name. He said one thing that I found very interesting - and I truly believe this - he said that economy is like a fifth gear. I’m faster with economy than alternate, which feels more like fourth gear. So I worked on those techniques from the late '80s, when I knew Frank, but I didn’t get them down in the way I have now. It took years of working on it.
“And you’re right, it’s kind of mathematical. Frank doesn’t like alternate at all, but I think part of the reason was because he didn’t like Al Di Meola maybe, both of them were in Chick Corea and Al was usually very strict alternate. What I like about having both is that it adds to what you can play.
"If I told Frank to play my song No Boundaries using only alternate picking, he would say no. But the point is, there is no way of playing it with economy picking. That style means writing to find ways of moving around, it has to lend itself to the upstroke or downstroke for that next sweep. Alternate picking does not, it can go any way whenever you want.”
As you’ve so often pointed out, different techniques will feel easier for each player...
“You want the least resistance to play what you want to play, why make it harder when it could be easier? That’s the beauty of not sticking with one discipline or technique. I make jokes sometimes, because Marty Friedman was really into sweeping during his days with Jason Becker but he doesn’t really like it now.
"And a lot of people are down on those kinds of arpeggios, so I always ask them, ‘What did a sweep ever do to you? Were a dating a sweep and then it broke up with you?!’
“At the end of the day, I realized economy was everything that it claimed to be – economical. I use it more and more, especially live, because it’s ridiculously fast. Frank was right. But alternate also has its place!”
You get a lot of mileage out of harmonic minor and more outside scales. How do you think of it all theoretically?
“I’m going to defer to a lot of the younger players now. This new generation is the best I’ve seen, they seem to love wider intervals - it’s like everyone is trying to find that lost arpeggio through tapping. They are starting where I was when I was in my 20s but at the ages of 10 or even five.
"They have the benefit of watching players up-close. I didn’t have that, I had to go to concerts and watch guys like Al Di Meola or George Benson. I feel music theory has changed drastically in the last 20 years. I learned the church modes of classical music - from Ionian through to Locrian...
“Today there’s thousands of scales out there, while when I was growing up I was told there were only 30 or so. Now you can learn a Hungarian minor that’s exclusive to only one tiny part of Hungary or the Spanish Phrygian from the South of Spain. Pretty soon we’ll have the Guinness Beer mode.
"Everyone has got a new scale! I think of it simplistically, every scale resolves. The five wants to go to the one, they call it the dominant chord because it forces you to go back to the start...”
So you look at the fretboard more like church modes with added chromatics?
“Yeah, I’m definitely thinking of chromatic passing tones rather than the hexatonic flatted fourth diminished third secondary dominant of the fifth entity! Even when I studied jazz, we looked at it as chromatic passages through the church modes.
“Some people say all I do is play scales up and down, but if you listen that’s not true. I use a lot of chromaticism to create flourishes that sound close together. I like that - it’s four notes per-string and I can use economy picking. Instead of just playing D and then B on the 15th and 12th frets of my B-string, I’ll play the notes in between, and then again on a different string.”
Jazz players like George Benson were the masters of that. Did you study his music much?
“George Benson was and still is one of the all-time greats. And he can sing equally as good he plays too. I’ve met him before and we ended up having a really nice talk about music. I love aggressive music like metal, but I listen to everything. I’m a fan of good music in general.
“I play the way I play because I know what I want to sound like, from listening to so much other music. Even listening to younger players like Andy James, Jason Richardson and Angel Vivaldi - I could name a whole bunch of them - reinforces that. It reminds me I have to be the best version of myself. I can’t be a 20 year-old. I can only be me.”
Do you find yourself needing to warm up any differently these days?
“I have to warm up a little longer now but 20 minutes into it, the engine goes just as fast. One of the great things about guitar is that your fingers have fast twitch muscles. Playing guitar is like typing on a word processor, imagine going super-fast, banging your head and screaming, ‘Shred!’
"It’s just a matter of skills. It’s not like European football, or what we call soccer, where they have to run around for two hours. That’s not something I’d care to do at my age.
"My picking has been analyzed so much over the years, for one it looks strange, plus I’ve never been hurt and thirdly I can still play just as fast as I did when I was younger...
“The playing field for guitar is more level, someone my age can compete with someone younger because the arena of competition is all within your grasp. I practiced my technique and it served me well. I’m living proof that when you get older you have a lot to look forward to.
"You don’t have to lose your skill like an athlete, ruling the world at 20 and then adjusting their game before 30. By the time they’re 40, it’s like ‘Whoa, I give up!’ It’s a hard thing. I don’t have much to worry about, I just need to keep my fingers in good shape.”
Finally, do you find much time for the quad and dual guitars these days or are they mainly just for live shows?
“I don’t play the quad anymore because I had to put it on a stand, but I play the double a lot, which I find more fun anyway. I use it live and it’s my version of KISS wearing makeup or Slipknot wearing masks.
"I have this solo where I play Bach’s Invention in D Minor, fretting the bass notes with one hand, a pattern that goes one five three five on the fretboard and on the other hand I play my own riff. It sounds very Mozart-like but it’s mine.
“People can say what they want but I always think inventing it and having someone like Steve Vai give me credit or The Pick Of Destiny film where Jack Black gave me credit is pretty cool. I created something that was realistically just a gimmick and used for live shows, but I’m really doing it and I’m good at it!
"I use all sorts of mixed meters and I think it’s really cool music. Some people can’t get passed what they see with their eyes. People ask me, ‘Don’t you ever change your clothes, man?’ I own 30 black jackets, sorry I just like to wear them and they’re not all the same. The same goes for my chromatics, people don’t always see the nuances. Thankfully, others do and that’s why I’m still here today.”