Martin Miller: “Guitar players need to talk about intonation a lot more. We don’t tune our ears towards it because it is never a topic that is brought up in tuition”

Martin Miller with his signature Ibanez
(Image credit: Press)

Martin Miller occupies himself with all kinds of adventures with the electric guitar. He’s an educator, YouTuber, Ibanez signature artist, session player and a solo artist – and perhaps most famously is the six-string impresario behind some of the most audacious medleys you’ll find on the internet.

The Martin Miller Session Band has convened on feature-length medleys spanning the catalogues of Toto, Genesis, Deep Purple, the Police, mining the breadth of ‘80s pop-culture for a pair of epic jams featuring the decade’s biggest hits from A-Ha, Tears For Fears and more. 

Miller has jammed with the likes of Andy Timmons, Paul Gilbert and Tom Quayle. He gets around. When we catch up with him he’s enjoying a rare moment of downtime, and the chance to write. “I come up with the best stuff when I have some real quality time to put aside,” he says. “I don’t like to be creative when I am on a super-tight schedule, like, ‘Oh, I have to get this video out next week, but today I have six hours to write something.’”

Miller has put what time he has on a new solo album, Maze Of My Mind, out at the end of the month, with its first single, Somewhere New, now available on all platforms. Somewhere New is exactly what this album is; it features Miller on the lead vocals for the first time, and that’s a change that has had him reconsidering once more what he needs from the guitar.

Unless you play the guitar as a solo instrument, the guitar will always be part of a greater something

“Unless you play the guitar as a solo instrument, the guitar will always be part of a greater something,” he says. “When I make music, if I am the vocalist, I think like the vocalist. If I am the guitarist, then I think like the  guitar player. But I can also think like the composer and the producer, and the guitar player in me might want to be doing all kinds of widdly stuff but then the composer in me, I ask myself, ‘Does the song really need a guitar in here? Or am I just wanting to put a guitar here because that is my first instrument?’ That’s the question I have to answer myself a lot of times. And more often than not, the guitar has to take a backseat.”

It won’t stay there for long. Maze Of My Mind is driven by guitars pitched at the boundaries of progressive rock and metal, a style that carries with it certain risks. 

Here Miller identifies some of them and the thinking he uses to stay clear of them. He’ll also explain why he has taken to the True Temperament fretboard and EverTune bridge – and why we should all at least be open-minded about such things – and reveals just how much work goes into those blockbuster medleys we’ve all seen on YouTube

Martin Miller with his signature Ibanez MM1

(Image credit: Press)

Let’s start with the record, because it’s been a long time coming. What can you tell us?

One of the pitfalls of making a progressive rock record is to be meandering for ages, to stretch things out for too long, to put too many things in there that don’t really belong

“It’s got five tracks on it. Long tracks. It’s over 40 minutes – 42 minutes long – and it’s my first vocal record, and I initially had an instrumental piece on it but I cut that out towards the end of the creative process because, first of all, it’s a progressive rock, progressive metal record, and think of a more modern, cutting-edge version of bands like Toto, Genesis, Queen, Dream Theater, Muse. There’s a bit of Michael Jackson in there too but all with a bit more of a cutting edge. 

“One of the pitfalls of making a progressive rock record is to be meandering for ages, to stretch things out for too long, to put too many things in there that don’t really belong, so one of my absolute goals from the very start was, ‘I’m going to make a progressive rock or progressive metal record but I am going to avoid the typical pitfalls. I want to cut all the fat.’ 

“Everything was already mixed, was just getting mastered and out the door, and I was listening to the record on repeat while I was jogging, and I had the urge to skip the instrumental track.”

That’s the tell, isn’t it? You can't cheat gut instinct.

“Yeah, and it’s funny because I put a lot into that track, and I think it’s a very good track. I just think it doesn’t belong on the record. I’m kind of an old-fashioned soul, and I make music for people with an appreciation for conceptual music for albums even though that isn’t a big thing right now due to the way we consume music. 

“I still want to make a record as a conceptual piece of art, one that is intended to be listened to from the first track all the way through to the last track, and I want people to have that experience with this record.

“That’s why I kept it to 42 minutes. It was going to be 50 minutes long if I kept the instrumental piece on there but it didn’t feel right. I might release it as a single one day, but as a piece of this album it didn’t feel right.”

The album is a snapshot of the artist’s life. And we can’t really talk about their life, their development, their growth, without some sort of marker like that. We need the context.

“Right, and I appreciate the bigger picture of music. An artist released Album X; how is he or she going to follow it? Where did they come from? Where did they end up? What did this band member change affect? How did this change in producer affect the artistic vision? 

“I’m always interested in the lineage of an artist, and I feel like – first of all – I haven’t released an original song under my own name in 10 years, and coming back with just a single is not big enough a statement, and especially since I had started to sing in that period, and completely shifted my musical focus from instrumental guitar to vocal music. 

“I still feel like the album, as outdated and non-zeitgeist-y as it might seem right now in this day and age, is still the strongest statement you can make. It still has a more significant impact on me emotionally both as a consumer and as an artist.”

Did singing make you think differently about how you played guitar?

“Singing changed everything for me. Looking back, it was really a bit of a set of lucky coincidences that led me to where I am now. I had the urge in early 2016, late 2015, I found myself a little bit, not bored with the guitar – that sounds so arrogant, ‘I’m so over this…’ – but there must be something else out there. 

“I lacked motivation, so I decided I was going to learn another instrument, and it was going to be between piano and the voice, because those are my other two favourite instruments. I thought I was going to try the voice for a couple of months and see how I do, and if I can’t do it, then I was going to go with the piano.

“I took vocal lessons, and I soon found myself absolutely passionate about the voice. In the same way that I had been passionate about the guitar – it had really, really ignited music in general for me. And then I needed a band! I needed something where I could actually sing, where I could apply my singing, so I started the Martin Miller Session Band, and was singing, testing myself. ‘Can I actually do this?’ I kept pushing, more and more. Then the Martin Miller Session Band gave me the public attention that I had never had before. It was all starting to work like clockwork, even though it wasn’t some big masterplan.”

You mentioned Toto earlier. That’s kind of like the Rosetta Stone for understanding where you are coming from as a guitar player. Steve Lukather and co were almost quite subversive in how they presented their virtuosity, all this musical progressiveness, but they kept it pop. 

“Excellent point. I like music that is complex but doesn’t show it off. Music that tries to hide its complexity from the listener is what I am into. I am not so much into music that has ‘Look at me – I am so smart’ written all over its forehead. I like when that is done in really, really smart ways, and I think that is harder than doing it in an obvious way. There are very few artists who get away with that. 

“Like you said, it’s subversive. My favourite type of media – television, literature, whatever – it always has this amazing blend of entertainment and information, a very specific ratio, and yeah, Toto is a band that hits that spot, and it’s something that I try to achieve with my own music.”

You must learn a lot from putting together the medleys. What’s the biggest challenge when arranging and performing them?

“Performing this kind of music is the greatest research and the greatest study. When you immerse yourself in this music? When I put a medley together, I first of all spend a lot of time listening to an artist’s catalogue, then I listen to various versions of that same set of tunes, then I learn it on my instrument, and then play it with my band, and at the end of all of that I mix it, so I listen to all the different parts in isolation. 

For an individual medley it is all about the pacing. How do you hold the attention for 25 minutes? How do you gauge an artist’s fanbase?

“That is just fantastic study material, and that informs my own music to such a large degree. I can’t imagine what my compositional skill would without that. I took so much away from that. Now, putting this stuff together, for an individual medley it is all about the pacing. How do you hold the attention for 25 minutes? How do you gauge an artist’s fanbase? 

“One of the most difficult medleys to put together was the Genesis medley, because that is a band that has such distinct eras. You have the original lineup. You have the lineup minus Peter Gabriel. And then you have the lineup minus Steve Hackett… Let’s forget about the very last lineup they had without Phil Collins! [Laughs] 

“They have a fanbase that is very much divided into camps, so I try to approach a medley not just like a Greatest Hits when it is a band medley. I like to have one or two deep cuts in there as well. With Queen, yeah, we played all the hits, but we put Innuendo in there.”

A medley like that tells a story in its own right, and that arrangement becomes an act of songwriting.

“For 25 minutes, it’s very difficult. I had a very tough decision to make in the Toto medley. I don’t have Hold The Line in there. Instead I have Dave’s Gone Skiing, which an instrumental off Tambu. But I want to show people who may only be familiar with songs like Africa and Hold The Line that there is more to this group – you should do some digging. 

“And at the same time, also, I think about my band. If I have an odd time signature in a song, I think about how could Felix [Lehrmann], our drummer, show off his skill there. How can we play to the strengths of our own band? And then also we always try to have different vocalists within the group, so we have to find songs that match everybody’s voices. It is a lot of fun. 

“It is a lot of fun to think about, and you wouldn’t believe how much time goes into putting it together. You would think, ‘Oh, they’re just playing a bunch of cover songs, and putting them together.’ There is actually a lot of thought that goes into it under the hood.”

That’s totally believable. But again, with music, it’s all preparation. The more work you do and the more thinking you do up front, the more you can just perform and feel it when it comes time to play.

“It’s funny; we don’t rehearse. We are scattered all over Germany, so we never rehearse. It is understood that the moment we enter the studio everybody knows what they have to play. It is just prep work, or in the case of somebody like Felix, he is just a genius. He can listen to it once or twice before recording and then he does it.

We are scattered all over Germany, so we never rehearse. It is understood that the moment we enter the studio everybody knows what they have to play

“There are so many logistical and technical factors that go into making a video production like we do. First of all, we’re an independent production. We don’t have a budget. Everything is like, ‘Oh, you have another camera lying around? Bring it. We’re gonna use it now.’ So we end up with 10, 12 cameras, and a crew of about 13 people or so including the band.

“There are so many problems that arise during a recording that, if the band is going to be struggling then this project would be impossible, because there are going to be a million other problems you are going to have to take care of during recording. Like you said, the performance almost needs to be an automatic thing.”

We have to pivot and ask about your Ibanez signature guitar. It’s a guitar for all styles, right? Compared to some of the Wizard necks on the RG series, yours has a slightly thicker neck profile. 

“It’s what I call a middle-of-the-road neck. I am a rock player. I have come full circle now. It is funny people still refer to me as a fusion player because that is how I started, because back then when I did the fusion thing my audience was very limited, and ever since I started playing rock music my audience has grown much bigger, but people still refer to me for [fusion]. It is very interesting to see how once you have a brand how hard it is to change that, and of course, the next record is going to help. 

Something I like about the MM1 and the AZ series especially, is I can play rock music on it but I can also do a weekend church gig

“But with the MM1 or the MM7, and possibly some future projects we have with Ibanez, it is about having a guitar that can do it all, which is really also expressed in the neck. A very thin neck immediately – even if just mentally – puts you into a shred world. It’s like the guitar pulls you towards that. 

“Something I like about the MM1 and the AZ series especially, is I can play rock music on it but I can also do a weekend church gig with it, or possibly show up at a country session or whatever and nobody would raise an eyebrow because it doesn’t have the pointy headstock or the shark inlays. It is a professional guitar player’s instrument.”

It’s a grown-up’s guitar. It’s still a hotrodded S-style, but you’ve got the Gotoh vibrato, which is a lot less bother. We need more of these high-performance electrics with no-fuss vibrato units.

“I fully get it! I get bored so unbelievable quickly of doing maintenance and setting up. I want to have something that works in an instant and sounds great.”

What about these True Temperament frets. You are a big advocate of them. Why should we be interested? 

“I went through a few phases. I had a custom guitar built by Ibanez with the EverTune bridge, and the True Temperament frets, and I felt that they worked better on their own that they did together. So I switched necks. I put the True Temperament neck onto a regular guitar and put a regular neck onto the EverTune guitar, and both guitars are better for it.

“With the True Temperament, it’s a studio thing. It’s a guitar that I’ll mostly be playing in the studio, especially when I am tracking chords, inversions, especially with distortion, you get all kinds of weird overtones clashing if you use a regular guitar. Like an inverted major triad just sounds weird on a regular instrument, and you forego that problem with a True Temperament neck.”

Martin Miller with his signature Ibanez MM1, a guitar for all seasons and styles.

(Image credit: Ibanez)

Why doesn’t everyone use them?

“I think it’s the same question as: Why doesn’t every guitar have locking tuners? It’s because guitar players like… old stuff! [Laughs] Guitar players are kind of oblivious of, or almost scared of change it seems, which is why a lot of guitar players are still attracted to designs from the ‘50s and ‘60s, which in my book are great, but I wish that they would coexist a bit better with modern innovations – especially ones that really make sense. 

I just find it a little bit difficult to believe that improving the intonation on one’s instrument would be a detriment to one’s music

“The True Temperament is not a digital solution. It is a mechanical, physical solution, and just like the EverTune bridge. I think they are both fantastic inventions. I wish people understood them better. There are so many negative prejudices that these products face. ‘You can’t bend on an EverTune. Your bending will be weird on a True Temperament instrument. That looks weird. That’s going to be difficult to play.’ Well, have you tried it? It takes a minute to adjust, and then you’ve got it, and you never feel it. You can close your eyes and you’ll never feel it.

“With the EverTune, bends work just fine if you know how to set it up. It’s like some time has to pass for people to understand that these innovations are great. They are not there to scare you. They are there to help you.”

It can be the same with vintage gear too. Some will say you can’t bend on a 7.25” radius fingerboard.

“People have been doing it for decades! In the same way you can fret chords on a very flat radius – you can still fret a barre chord! It can be done!”

Guitarists have a complex relationship with the idea of perfection. We can still love our Telecasters even if the three-saddle bridge design makes intonation difficult.

“It’s still not going to be perfect with True Temperament because you factor out the player in all of this. When you press down on a string, the string will go sharp the more you press on it. If your hand is slightly towards either side you either compress or expand the ringing part of the string, or you change the tempo of it. Kind of like the classic vibrato, you’ll stretch and release the string and that will alter the pitch, so there will still be that imperfection.

“I just find it a little bit difficult to believe that improving the intonation on one’s instrument would be a detriment to one’s music. I try to be open-minded towards these things.”

Intonation is the thing, isn’t it. It’s underrated. Look at Joe Satriani, he’s the exemplar of keeping notes in tune. But your is great, too. Is intonation something you really focus on?

“I love that you bring this up. I think us guitar players need to talk about this a lot more because never – either in my conservatory or my college years – has the topic of intonation been brought up. Whenever I, for example, told my professor, ‘My intonation is a little off here.’ ‘What do you mean, the bending?’ No, no, no, the pressure of your hand and the position of your hand affects the intonation. 

“The better the form of your left hand, the better your intonation will be. And you can tell. It doesn’t matter what instrument you give them, if someone is not a professional player, or is a player who is early on their discovery of the instrument, you can tell. They constantly sound out of tune. Then you hand that same instrument to a pro, and suddenly everything is in tune, and not just with the bends and the vibrato.

“Us guitar players, we don’t tune our ears towards it because it is never a topic that is brought up in tuition. It is something that is a big part of learning the violin but not a big part of learning the guitar.”

What are your go-to tones on the MM1? And what else do you have in heavy rotation?

“I do have a bunch of guitars here but I only use three or four on a regular basis, the first being the MM1. I have a few iterations of that now; with the EverTune, without the EverTune… Also the MM7, seven-string, of course. My favourite sounds with that would be the humbucker at the bridge and at the neck, my standard lead and heavy rhythm sounds.

“I use Position II for a lot of clean stuff, like sparkly clean sounds, and I use the neck humbucker for really warm clean sounds. And I use the tone knob on the neck humbucker a lot to get the fake Pat Metheny hollowbody going. I recently received an MM1 with an HSS configuration. That is my favourite guitar right now. 

“That’s at the prototype stage and I absolutely love it. I just absolutely love the neck humbucker – the neck single-coil humbucker is a sound that you cannot achieve with split coils on a humbucker. It’s different. It just sounds different. And then you also have Position IV of an HSS guitar, which is super awesome, that spanky, funky kind of sound. I love that as well. 

“Then I have an Ibanez Talman, which is a Tele-style guitar with one bridge single-coil and a liptstick pickup at the neck. It only has three positions but all three are completely unique, and completely useable in so many scenarios. Those are the sounds I use. 

“They’re quite varied, and especially with the new record, one of the typical metal things is that you have a clean sound, a rhythm sound, and a distortion sound, and that doesn’t change throughout the album. I was actually taking more liberties with tones. I was experimenting quite a bit with it.

“There is a lot of different stuff on there; I changed rhythm sounds for every song. Every song has a different mix and blend of amps as well.”

That is quite iconoclastic, but you're totally right. Those tones always seem to be set in stone at the start of a metal record. But different songs have different energies and that can call for different tones.

“I get inspired by a lot of guys like Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins, David Bowie, and even though my music is quite different – much more guitar-driven – I always liked with these types of artists the sonic variety that they have on their records. 

“There are so many different tones, so many different sounds going on at the same time. It is never the same set of sounds and you write different songs with them. We use the studio as an instrument in modern record making. I really want to play the studio like an instrument in that way.”

Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars and guitar culture since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitar World. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.