We rounded up three of the finest metal guitarists around today - Marty Friedman, Michael Amott and Jeff Loomis - to find out their thoughts on the state of metal lead playing in 2015.
Shred. It’s a double-edged sword of sorts. On one hand, you think of the greats who took music to its furthest limits, and on the other those YouTube ‘shreds’ videos ripping those who dared to take themselves so seriously.
Three players who have long proved to be doing it right are ex-Megadeth gunslinger Marty Friedman, Arch Enemy legend Michael Amott, and former Nevermore axeman Jeff Loomis, who has recently signed up to co- handle guitars on Arch Enemy’s live dates.
We sat down with the metal masters to find out why there’s more to music than just playing fast...
Can you tell us more about the shared history between you three - how long have you all known each other?
Marty: "Me and Michael literally just met! But we worked together on a project a few years ago, that’s how we first got talking. Of course, I’ve heard Arch Enemy and read about them."
Michael: "If I’m remembering correctly, I wrote the song, you produced it and donated a solo, and a Japanese band played it!"
Jeff: "With Michael, we met about 15 years ago at a festival that both Arch Enemy and Nevermore were playing. So quite a history there! And I met Marty once in 1988 when he played at The Thirsty Whale in Chicago..."
Marty: "You were at that show in Chicago?"
Jeff: "Yeah! I said hi briefly, but it was a long time ago now. I was actually on my way back from auditioning for Megadeth..."
Marty: "You auditioned for Megadeth? No kidding! When was that?"
Jeff: "Yeah! Then two weeks later you were in the band."
Marty: "That’s crazy! I don’t think I even knew about it at that point."
Jeff: "I sent an audition tape and they loved it. But when I turned up they weren’t aware of how young I was, which was about 16. So they said, ‘Thanks for coming, but you’re too young and too green. You don’t belong in this band.’"
Marty: "Bummer, dude!"
What elements of style and technique do you admire in each other’s playing?
Marty: "I was just listening to Arch Enemy’s War Eternal earlier. It’s all about the touch and that real metal tone. If you want an example of modern metal guitar playing, just go there! It’s something you really can’t fake. Michael oozes metal."
Jeff: "I’ve been a fan of Arch Enemy since the very beginning, so playing in the band has been great. I love Michael’s music - he’s got awesome feel and is a brilliant riff writer. So I’m really happy to be here. And as for Marty, I just can’t say enough about his playing..."
So what are the chances of Jeff joining Arch Enemy on a permanent basis, Michael?
Michael: "I’m trying to make him sign a big 20-year contract [laughs]! I’ve actually asked him twice before, but he turned me down due to other commitments. I love Nevermore, so I knew how talented he was.
"But it’s not just about that, he’s a great personality. I went round his house, we had a jam, drank a lot of coffee and decided right there and then. Third time lucky! I think we’d both like to continue working together, it’d be a lot of fun. I want this to be it, really."
What are your thoughts on shred guitar playing in 2015? Is it in a good place?
Marty: "I wanna just go on record and say I fuckin’ hate that word [laughs]! Can I get a witness from you guys?"
Jeff: "Yes! The whole melting faces shred thing is so over-used. Is that where guitar has gone? The shred factor? I myself have tried to stay diverse in what I listen to."
Marty: "It seems there’s more of an interest in guitar, more than there was eight years ago. If that brings more attention to us or guitar music, or rock, call it whatever you want, that’s good. But when I grew up, shred meant ‘guys who sucked’.
"I was always of the mindset that you play fast when you have nothing interesting to say. I can tell even with me - if I’m nervous or don’t really know what I’m doing, I just play fast. It has nothing to do with music, it’s shredded cheese, man!
"A lot of people reading guitar mags will get annoyed about not being able to play as fast as their heroes, but after a few years anyone can play fast. Once you’ve learned the motor skills, you need to find something to say."
Tools for the job
So it definitely comes down to how you use technique rather than just ripping scales at 400bpm?
Michael: "In metal, two of my favourite bands are Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. But the guitar players in those bands aren’t really the best in the world, or even what I’d call shredders. They just play great songs with great solos and great melodies. That’s where I see Arch Enemy - instead of being a circus or a freak show, it’s about the songs.
"When I was younger, I bought Marty’s Cacophony albums, Jason Becker’s Perpetual Burn, Racer X... the extremity factor really appealed to me. It was those Cacophony riffs for me, they were sick!"
Marty: "Hearing that makes me feel really good. I think the reason it appealed, if I may say, was because the content was really interesting. It was stuff that on the surface might feel like wanking - and there was plenty of wanking on there - but the content was enough to make people find something beyond speed: not just playing exercises fast. Not that many people listened to it, anyway... that’s why we dressed up like Poison!"
Jeff: "Music is the ultimate way of expressing yourself. Each guitar player I like has the tools to do what they want, and it’s all about how they utilise those tools."
How have your rigs and approach to tone changed over the years?
Michael: "I like a simple setup, really. I tour most of the year with just my preamp and my guitars. I just want something simple to get my sound out of, especially with rental backlines. We tour all the continents and don’t always ship our own equipment. In places like Latin America, you never know what’s in store for you there.
"I like consistency, so I get that through a digital preamp. I don’t have the patience to program 99 different things. I have just five main tones and the rest comes down to how I play. I hear my guitar tech line-checking my guitar and think, ‘Holy shit, it doesn’t sound that great today’ and then I play and it’s fine!"
Marty: "It’s the other way round for me - my tech plays and it’s fine, then I do and it sounds shit [laughs]!"
Jeff: "I keep it simple - just a clean, rhythm and solo sound. I use Kemper stuff now: there’s a bunch of heads I have at home, which I profile. They’re all in there, it’s a little lunchbox of different flavours. I used to be old-school and just plug into any head, but now I’ve refined my tone. And because I usually run direct, it’s very consistent each night. There’s no backwash from any cabs."
Are you surprised by how far digital modelling technology has come in the last decade?
Michael: "We all idolise the guys that came before us, that had that classic setup. But what would Hendrix be playing if he was still around today? I don’t think he’d be playing Marshalls, who knows? That was the latest development back then. Now it’s probably some software.
"People are very forward-thinking and experimental, people utilise technology. I’m traditional in my approach but open to new things. It’s a constant thing with guitar players, always on the search! In the last few years, modelling technology like Kemper has become a lot more advanced. It used to sound shit and now you can’t even tell the difference."
Marty: "I use Engls and they have a lot of models, which all sound good to me. Whatever they send is fine - I don’t even know which it’ll be sometimes. I don’t like tweaking tones, that’s the last thing I want to do with my life. I’d rather sit around reading Viz, or whatever, than be dialling in!"
Are there any new players out there that have impressed you?
Marty: "I have a buddy called Keshav Dhar, from a band called Skyharbor, he’s worked on two my of my albums. Ambitious is a good word to describe them, what they do sounds really new and fresh.
"When you hear Keshav’s playing, there are so many beautiful nuances and so much conviction. He nails it so hard that it’s his thing. He’s gonna be a huge star."
Jeff: "I really like Nick Johnston, a Canadian blues-rock player. He has a couple of instrumental albums out and they sound killer."
Michael: "I don’t spend much time listening to electric guitar music because I’m always playing it. I almost find it more relaxing if there is no guitar player involved, ’cos otherwise I sit there thinking, ‘Oh, his vibrato sucks’, or ‘Those boring licks again!’"
So there’s an escapism in listening to guitar-free music, in a way?
Marty: "You don’t want to do it, but you always end up judging the guy, and sometimes I don’t want anything to judge!"
Jeff: "Sometimes, I prefer listening to music with no guitar in it, like Public Enemy, or Daft Punk. I like Goldfrapp, an English electronic group with this new-age sound. I love Olivia Newton John! And there’s no such thing as a bad ABBA song..."
Michael: "ABBA are one of my favourite bands of all time. Next to Black Sabbath!"
Marty: "When I was in Megadeth, there was an English band called Republica that I really liked. I said that in an interview once and the record company were like, ‘Dude, they’re not cool, don’t mention that again!’
"I’m not afraid of anything, I’m the biggest Britney Spears fan in the world, and I play with pop idols all the time in Japan. I couldn’t care less what anyone thinks!"
You all play signature model guitars. Is there anything else you’d like to release?
Marty: "I have my PRS signature model, it’s gorgeous and all I need. So that’s it for me with signature stuff."
Michael: "I have my signature Dean guitar, as well as my own signature Rotosound strings. That’s about it for me, too! I’m not that big on endorsements anymore, it’s like adding relationships you have to maintain.
"Once you sign up, you owe them and have to give something back. Which can be difficult when you tour as much we do. For me, I use the gear on the road and in the studio, and think that’s probably the best promotion you can give any company!"
Jeff: "I’ve been working with Schecter guitars for about eight years. I have my own seven-string model with them, and we’re just about to release a six-string version. It’s an awesome guitar! I absolutely love working with them, we have a great relationship and the instruments are affordable, too."
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Are guitar players guilty of being more judgemental than other musicians?
Marty: "There’s no competition in the real world of playing music. That’s simply in the minds of young people starting to learn the instrument. Guitarists should admire each other’s work, even if we don’t like the music, because we’re all doing the same job. People that say negative things are wasting time when they should be focusing on their own abilities.
"I think the best thing you can do is to just stay off the internet! I’ve realised there was no purpose in reading that stuff, especially with the guys that wank you off constantly."
Michael: "It’s the same with reviews. I don’t read them, especially now there’s so much online. If the label says it’s looking good, then great. But I don’t need to hear it’s good... I know it’s good!"
Jeff: "The internet has gotten a lot more negative over the last five years, from what I’ve seen. People in the metal community used to be really supportive, and it’s become a competition, a big pissing contest!"
Marty: "But I guess we were all like that when we were 14. You’d be like, ‘Fuck you! KISS is better than Aerosmith!’ with all your friends. So in some respect, some things haven’t changed. But the difference is that musicians shouldn’t be exposed. It’s not information that we need to know, or anything that will benefit us in any way."