Via PFA Media

Marty Friedman on Making His Guitar Sing

Marty Friedman opens for Queensrÿche on April 10, touching down in his home country alongside the hard rock band to bring his own unique metal sound to the fans that missed him.

To know Marty Friedman is to love him. An orchestral instrumentalist at times and a thrash guitarist at others, he has lived quite a lot of lives in his 40-plus-year-long career. There are tens of records to his name, and even between his solo career and the bands he has been part of, every endeavor has given him a chance to shine… and shred… and shine some more. We were happy to catch up with him recently to talk about supporting an album a few years old now, supporting a band like Queensrÿche, and supporting himself as a cross-generational, internationally-recognized guitar player.

Did returning to America involve a lot of logistics?

I’ve always wanted to come back to the States, and it’s a lot harder to get back into Japan then it is for a lot of other countries. Bands based in Japan pretty much didn’t leave the country for three years because it’s such an incredible hassle getting back in. As soon as it started to look like it would lighten up, I got a hold of my agent here in America. I said, “Just book the first place we can go that would be a way to play to play in America.”

My Tokyo Jukebox 3 album came out in the end of 2020 worldwide, so that’s the most recent thing I’ve got out, so we wanted to come here right away. This tour with Queensrÿche is great. I think it’s a really cool way to get back here. There are a lot of Queensrÿche fans who have absolutely no idea who I am – or they know who I am but they wouldn’t leave the house to come see me. This gives us new people to play in front of and that’s great. They’re an awesome band; they just got off tour with Judas Priest and have their own following. They’re really quite different from my music, so it’s a perfect chance to play in front of new people and get back in America. This my Tokyo Jukebox 3 Tour even though that album came out a little while ago.

You’ve got so much material spanning your career. How is the setlist shaping up?

We’re playing some of the Tokyo Jukebox stuff, but I’ve also got 14 solo albums, so we’re kind of doing whatever we think the fan favorites are. We’ve got a lot fixed up our sleeve, a lot of the things we do at my shows. The great thing about having an all instrumental set is the impromptu jams that you can’t really do so easily with vocal songs, so we just have a lot of fun and there’s nothing on purpose. We do all kinds of different arrangements so people get something different every night. We just finished soundcheck and we just did a whole new section to a song that people want to hear. They’re not going to recognize it from the record but a lot of people don’t know our music here so we’re treading into new territory and having an absolute blast. 

You have made Japan your home for the past 20 years and the country took to you very quickly. Why do you think that is? 

I’m sure it’s because of the music. The reason I moved to Japan in the first place was because I fell head over heels with Japanese mainstream music. It’s such a different musical climate and much more conducive to my musical taste. In Japan the mainstream music includes the heaviest of heavy metal to the poppiest of pop music. It’s just so incredibly diverse. The melodic sense in Japan is different from the melodic sense in America, and for whatever reason that really appeals to me. I’m really a big fan of the music of Japan, past and present. 

Tell us about Japanese culture and what it’s like living there as a musician?

I’ve pretty much insulated myself completely within a Japanese society over there. There are some foreign people that come to Japan and they kind of ensconce themselves with some kind of foreign community. I never did that. Actually, no one that I work with speaks any English if you can believe that. A couple people sort of know English, but I’ve never heard them speak English. I completely fit right in? Well, I don’t want to say I belong because I don’t think foreign people will ever belong in where the society is like that… and I think there’s too much of an emphasis on do you belong or not belong.

The goal is not necessarily to belong. I’m completely happy and satisfied with the existence that I have there, in a culture that I wasn’t born in. I’m doing exactly what I want to do, so I don’t want to say that I belong, but that’s where I feel most comfortable. I think musically, my head is in Japanese music, so it makes it very easy for me to communicate with the Japanese musicians and artists, producers, everyone that I work with in that sense.

Tell us about your role as a Japanese cultural ambassador, even though you are not originally from the country. 

I’m about as American as you get. I’m from Washington D.C. – I’m just a rock dude from the East Coast. I feel very, very comfortable in Japan. Japanese people always seem to ask me about Japan from an outsider’s perspective. I especially think that’s why they appointed me as an ambassador to Japanese heritage. I think I can explain it in a way a Japanese person wouldn’t be able to explain it. A Japanese person might be hesitant to extoll the virtues of their own country. Everybody’s very, very humble over there, plus they see it through different eyes from what I’ve seen it. I’ve lived there 19 years and I’ve really assimilated. I can really speak to topics with some authority. That’s why they gave me, I think, such an honor. It blows my mind.

You recently recorded the Japan Heritage Official Theme Song. 

That was quitE a big process to get it done the way I wanted. I think one of the reasons they appointed me as an ambassador is because they wanted me to write a song for myself and for the harmonic orchestra to be used at government banquets and sporting events and other things. I wanted to make a video of it. To do that – to do anything with the government – takes a lot of red tape, a lot of patience, and official business approvals. It just takes a long process to do it correctly, but I was patient, and all the different areas of Japan were very cooperative. It took a couple years to make that video and make it done right; I was so incredibly pleased with it and I hope anyone who reads this will take a look at it. It will give you the idea of what Japan is like beyond what the stereotypes are. When people think of Japan they maybe think about sushi, samurais, ninjas, geishas, Godzilla and video games, and things like that. The real Japan is so incredibly, incredibly much more than that, so if you’re thinking of coming to Japan that video would be a wonderful introduction. 

How difficult is the challenge of writing memorable instrumental music?

The biggest thing that I might have in my favor is the fact that I don’t like instrumental music as a genre. I can’t listen to it. My attention fades away if there’s not something singing. I’m very, very aware of keeping the attention of someone who doesn’t want to know about someone without a vocal, so it’s my constant challenge to make my guitar sing – not like a guitarist but like a vocalist. I shape each note like a vocalist shapes a note and drag the note out like a vocalist would. It’s a constant effort and that’s why I think people enjoy the shows. When they walk away they feel satisfied and they don’t think “Oh, wow, there was no vocalist!” They don’t even notice it.

Your work on Tokyo Jukebox 3 is very anthemic. Is that something you set out to do?

I like anthemic things. I like anthems of countries. You may not know the lyrics, but they resound with the strength of a melody. I try to play with that kind of anthemic concept in mind. 

What was the experience of going from instrumental music to Megadeth and not having to carry the load, in a sense, because there was a frontman?

You have a singer and you have verses and bridges and choruses. It’s a more traditional songwriting concept. It was a lot easier. With instrumental music you have to shape the songs in a different way to get people excited and you have to do a lot more tricky transitions and tricky structures, flashy breaks. When you have a traditional band concept the solo comes up and that’s your time to really shine, but it’s a lot easier in a band context to flex out an arrangement. 

Do a lot of people in Japan recognize you from Megadeth, or more for your instrumental music?

It’s so weird. Depending on where I go people know me from different things and it’s all good. Crazily enough, in Japan, a lot of people know my solo music and my previous music. Of course I’ve got time with Megadeth touring everywhere, so it really doesn’t matter to me what they like that I’ve done. I’m just very, very pleased and appreciate the support. I’ve always done what I’ve wanted to do. There’s no part of my career that I’ve been ashamed of. 

You recently jammed with Megadeth at their show at the legendary Budokan. What was that like? You’ve hinted at wanting to do more appearances.

It was wonderful. What I think is great about Megadeth is that being a legacy act there’s also new kids discovering them and then they discover you and look to see what you’re doing now, so they get that experience of Marty Friedman as well. I’ve always been rooting for Megadeth and they really did great. A lot of the things that they did in my absence led them to a very, very good place, and a lot because of Dave’s effort and the band members’ efforts. When they made it to Budokan, I was just so glad to hear that. Then they offered me to play and it was just the cherry on top. I had such a great time playing with them. It was something that the fans enjoyed as much as I did.

What inspires your music?

I’ve just followed whatever my muse is at the time. I’ve been very lucky along the way to be able to do so many things and the places that my music has taken me. One thing turns out very well and it affords me to do the next thing. I’ve just been very lucky due to the support of the fans that have stuck with me. There’s really so much coming that I really can’t wait to share with everyone, and right now I’m just spreading the word in America.