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Guitarist Marty Friedman on the making of "Inferno"

Marty Friedman
Courtesy of Prosthetic Records

Marty Friedman had very clear goals when he began working on Inferno, his first album of original material in four years: he wanted to make a heavy, aggressive recording — exactly what his fans wanted from him.

He also had personal goals, which he has always held to when making music. “My personal goal was the same as any other album I’ve done, which is to create waves of emotion, new feelings that no one else has ever done, including myself,” he says. “Everyone uses guitars, so what can I do that has never been done before? That’s where it always starts.”

Friedman’s career history is well documented: his work with Jason Becker in Cacophony, ten years with Megadeth, relocation to Tokyo, and ongoing solo career. Over the years, he has released albums and explored a wealth of other musical avenues, from writing and playing on numerous Japanese Top 10 singles to hosting Japanese television programs, over 600 network television appearances, and three televised sold-out performances with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra.

In 2012, U.S. independent label Prosthetic Records approached him about releasing four of his Japanese studio albums and reissuing another. That led to Inferno, which Friedman recorded in Los Angeles. The project features collaborations with Alexi Laiho of Children of Bodom, Revocation guitarist David Davidson, flamenco/metal acoustic duo Rodrigo y Gabriela, and rock vocalist/guitarist Danko Jones, as well as a songwriting collaboration with Jason Becker.

Marty Friedman recently took some time for an e-mail interview while on tour in Europe.

Inferno is your first album of original material in four years. During that time, while busy with your other projects and interests, were you also rediscovering yourself as a songwriter and guitarist?

Every single day. I find that non-musical experiences tend to make me a more interesting musician than musical experiences. This is because I come back to playing the guitar, and it always seems easier than anything else I may do.

What is the key to making instrumental guitar music interesting, both for the audience and for yourself, especially knowing that you’re going to tour and perform those songs night after night?

The key is listening — a lot. Without the "weapon" of a lyric and meanings of words, you’re left with just music, so I listen to the rough stages of a song’s development so much and am constantly asking myself, "What can I do to make this melody give me goosebumps?" It’s a long process. Knowing when you’re onto something good or when something honestly sucks regardless of how fun it is to play.

When you do so many takes per section and per song during the recording process, how do you (a) avoid burnout and (b) know when it’s done, it’s finished, it’s time to stop?

There is no burnout. If it’s worth getting right, then it’s a given that it may get done in one take or a hundred takes, so I roll up my sleeves and just get it done. It’s like searching for magic — you know it’s there and you just have to keep playing until you hear the magic come out.

Do you always know where you’re going with a song? Does the end result sometimes surprise you live, in the studio, and during the writing process?

On Inferno, there were no surprises because I did literally hundreds of demos and versions of the songs and constantly kept updating them to make them better, or threw them away. I got to know the ins and outs of the songs all too well.

Can you play everything you hear in your head?

And then some. The growth comes from being able to hear cooler things as you go.

Is the music visual? Does it evoke a mental picture while you write and/or play it, or is the experience purely technical?

I hope that it gives a different visual for each person. But I can probably tell you the points where most people get the same goosebumps as they listen.

Within the studio environment, what are some of the techniques that you’ve found to be tried and true in terms of getting your sound?

Hire a great tech and a great engineer to get good sound from the equipment. That allows my natural sound to flow from me. I know squat about gear.

How do those techniques translate to the stage? Do they carry over at all, or does performing live call for an entirely different skill set?

Actually, exactly the same! Surround yourself with great people so all I have to do is play my guitar.

You collaborated with a number of artists on Inferno, albeit not necessarily in the same room at the same time. How did each of them push you creatively and what did each bring out in your playing and approach?

For example, I had Alexi Laiho write a song from scratch that I was to arrange and add to. He did, and after I added to it, he was like, "Whoa, I really need to up my game now ..." So after he did that and did a new demo, I did my thing again and we kept snowballing like this for a while. We kept pushing ourselves after hearing the cool stuff the other guy did. This actually happened with all the guests.

In an interview many years ago, you stated that you had to work as hard or harder than most people to become an accomplished musician. You said, “I had to work for every little thing, which I didn’t mind.” Is that willingness to “work for every little thing” part of the reason for your longevity and ongoing ability to create and experiment?

Yes, I’m used to it. I may work harder than many to do my thing, but I know what I’m capable of if I just don’t cheese out and get lazy, so usually I just get on with what needs to be done. Inferno is the biggest case of that for me. I wanted to outdo anything I had ever even come close to before.