Widely regarded as one of the world’s finest neoclassical players since original ‘80s shredders like Yngwie Malmsteen and Jason Becker, Symphony X’s Michael Romeo is the kind of guitarist who has clearly put in the hours honing his craft.
It shows on every release he’s put his name to, including this year’s third solo full-length War Of The Worlds, Pt. 2 – which features the same rhythm section as its predecessor (bassist John DeServio and drummer John Macaluso) as well as new singer Dino Jelusick.
While the new music largely looms within the same sonic footprint he created with his main band in the mid-90s, there are also moments that feel more experimental and cinematic, taking his remarkable talents to new limits…
“That’s a good word for it, it’s definitely more cinematic,” he tells MusicRadar on a Zoom call from his home studio, where at least 20 guitars are lined up on stands or hung up on the walls behind him, many of which his white Caparison Dellinger Prominence-MJR signature guitar.
“I tried to do something different to what I’d done before, with some different instruments. The orchestral sections ended up being more filmscore, with a modern hybrid kind of sound that incorporated electronics. To be honest, I just sat down here in my studio and tried to come up with stuff that sounded more out there for me.”
The first single, titled Divide & Conquer and released in January, was certainly an impressive statement of intent – thanks to its weighty biker riffs and ear-catching rhythmic ideas using open strings.
And the guitar solos were nothing short of stunning, with exquisite phrasing and breath-taking technicality paired in perfect harmony. It’s one thing to be technically proficient, he explains, but there really needs to be a musical purpose for it…
“The intro definitely takes advantage of those open strings,” nods Romeo. “They’re great because they’re easy (laughs)! You can still make them sound cool and twist them into something interesting.
“When I’m trying to come up with riffs, I’ll keep noodling around until I find one that’s extra special, then I like to build the song from there. As guitarists, we all know the same things at the end of the day, so it’s down to you to make your ideas sound more unusual and different to everyone else’s.”
When it comes to the gear heard on the album, it was very much a case of business as usual for Romeo – who has stuck with Caparison guitars and Engl guitar amps for a large portion of his career. There was no need for any extra drive for his rhythm sounds, he adds, given how much the amp already has on tap.
For solos, he’d occasionally pull out “an old Tube Screamer set low to retain clarity while adding attack” though he generally prefers to keep very little in between his instrument and amplifier. There was, however, a new seven-string guitar – which can be heard on a handful of tracks, most notably the song Destroyer, marking his first foray into the world of extended range instruments.
“Most of this record was written around the same time as [2018’s] War Of The Worlds, Pt. 1,” continues the Symphony X virtuoso. “Coming back later, it felt a little short, like I needed a couple more songs. So I went back to another bank of ideas, with other tracks that were almost done.
“One of those songs was Destroyer, which was done on a six-string. The riff felt cool but I knew I could make it way darker. I thought about tuning down, and I was already down to D, but I also knew if I went any lower my strings would feel like rubber bands…
“So I reached out to the Caparison guys to try a seven-string. They were awesome enough to send one over. It took me a minute to get used to it and figure out which note I was on. A couple of songs ended up with some seven-string parts, but Destroyer is the one where it feels most dominant.
“There was some other background stuff, like the song Metamorphosis has some clean guitar parts for which I used a Strat on a clean Fender Twin tone on my Kemper, just to get that twangy thing. But 90 per cent of it was the Engl and Caparison.”
Here, Michael Romeo offers up five tips to get playing like him, explaining how he got to grips with different styles of picking and what helped him most when it came to learning music theory…
1. Learn from the masters and remember there are no shortcuts
“Just like any player, I have my influences. Whatever I play can be traced back to my heroes. With Divide & Conquer, it’s kinda riffy – so I’m thinking Sabbath, Priest, Maiden and Pantera. Anything that’s progressive-sounding, it will be more along the lines of Rush, Kansas or ELP. And for my solos, a lot of it comes down to that Randy Rhoads thing. His phrasing was especially great, so that’s the one thing I really took away from him.
“With Yngwie, it was his fantastic technique. It’s really impeccable. When I first heard him, it blew me away. I was always into classical music too, and just like with guitar players, I had my influences like Stravinsky, Ravel or older stuff like Beethoven. Then there’s the filmscore guys like John Williams, Bernard Herrmann or Hans Zimmer. I try to absorb some of that and maybe put a Slayer riff behind it, mixed with some fast arpeggios. I just try to mix it all together; it’s all stuff I love so for me it works!
“To get faster, keep speeding up those patterns you’re working on. That’s the way to build up speed… there are no shortcuts. Listening to more players would help me pick up more things – from Uli Jon Roth to Allan Holdsworth, who had a totally different thing going on. I’d come up with some minor seventh chords or dominant thing and try to figure out some of those weird licks.
“Then I might add in some tapping to make them sound more like me and more unique. Jamming along to players you like the sound of will help you develop your own thing. Taking the melodic style of one player and mixing it with the technique of another can bring some pretty interesting results! But if you’re after shortcuts… there ain’t any!”
2. Get your picking hand used to the motion of sweeping
“I’m trying to think of the very first time I became aware of sweep picking… it was probably Randy Rhoads on [Ozzy Osbourne track] Over The Mountain. It’s only three notes but I remember thinking it sounded different.
“When I tried learning, alternate picking felt weird. It had this natural sense of falling down. Then by the time I heard Yngwie or Gambale, I was like, ‘Okay, here we go!’ And then I heard Marty Friedman and Jason Becker’s Cacophony stuff and it was all over the place.
“To get the motion right, I started by focusing on my picking hand first, getting used to the falling and lifting. Once I had that down, I knew it was time to address my fretting hand because there were notes ringing out. I forced myself to carry on until it didn’t sound like a mess.
“It’s easy to start off with the A-minor and C-major shapes. Once those sound cool, it’s time to try other things and make it more complicated by sweeping half a sequence, coming back a little and then finishing it off. I’m sure I learned some of this stuff from Vinnie Moore, who covered this kind of playing in his instructionals.
“The more you do it, the more your fingers remember it. Again, there are no shortcuts! If it’s not working for you, slow it down, get it down and then build up from there. I actually like finding stuff I can’t do.
“The first time I heard Shawn Lane I was like, ‘What the fuck is he doing?!’ Because it was so mind-boggling. But after slowing it down, I got closer and closer in tiny steps – and it was the same for neoclassical stuff and even bluesy stuff I’d picked up from Ace Frehley.
“By the time you get into Holdsworth, with all those chromatic notes and whole tone scales, it gets pretty out there… but I still like to sneak it in for moments that require something really wacky. Mixing all of this stuff and putting them together is what gave me my sound. But it has to make sense; it can’t just be a mess of shit.”
3. Learn theory through improvisation
“I was always into theory, because I played piano and classical guitar too. I was always listening to that stuff and reading a bunch of sheet music and scores. I’ve got a library of orchestration books in my house.
“It made sense to me as a guitarist probably because of the players I liked early on, like Randy Rhoads or Yngwie. I could see how it all worked. I would then put down a rhythm track with a drum machine and chords moving from E to F. And I would just work out different things, like diminished runs or jumping a string here and there for wide intervals.
“I’d do the same using different chords for all modes of the major scales, plus the harmonic minor and melodic minor modes too. I would keep practising scales and learning all the shapes, patterns or arpeggios. Diminished was always easier because it mirrors itself across the fretboard. But mainly I learned all of this stuff by just playing along to various loops I’d set up.
“Once I learned the scales, I’d come up with my own phrases and patterns, making a note of things that sound cool to me. We can all learn the harmonic minor scale, all of its modes, positions and sequences… but you have to try and put them to use.
“The metronome is just there for building up speed, while a backing track can be so much more helpful for your phrasing. I’d just play and play for hours, with a whole list of cool-sounding patterns and string skipping. That way I wouldn’t be sat there for two hours doing the same shit. Even now, I play to practise rather than get the metronome out.”
4. Embrace both alternate and economy picking
“Looking back to what made me aware of fast alternate picking, I guess it was Al Di Meola. His picking is insane! So I started with the normal up and down the scale alternate runs. But I also saw a Frank Gambale clinic when I was quite young. I was hearing a billion notes but his hand was moving like nothing.
“Yngwie has that too, his picking hand is very relaxed. It’s like he’s not even trying. So that stuck with me, staying comfortable and letting it flow naturally.
“I decided to practise both styles of picking. Usually, if it’s a really precise-sounding thing in one area of the neck, I’ll use alternate. For the really fast runs that move quick and stretch out, I’ll do that thing where it’s down, up and then two downs. And I don’t really do it on purpose, it’s just what I fell into.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about whatever works... as long as the notes are there and they are played clearly, I don’t give a shit about how I’m picking them. Just go with whatever’s most comfortable. If things don’t feel natural or easy, you might have to start on an upstroke or come at it differently. Growing up listening to all these great pickers, I ended up practising my ass off and eventually figuring out what works best in different situations.
“Every note Shawn Lane played made me realise I needed to practise and get my shit together. So I worked at it and started to combine these different techniques, developing my own ways of doing things.”
5. Broaden your horizons beyond the guitar
“Looking back on the arpeggio section of the Symphony X song Sea Of Lies, I think it was me and [keyboard player] Michael Pinnella just noodling around. I wanted to do some unison type of thing. And I think it started on the keyboard, because for him it’s pretty easy! When I tried playing it on guitar I thought, ‘Oh shit!’ I tried picking it but it didn’t make any sense.
“Then I came up with the idea of tapping at the top and jumping back down using string skipping. I had to practise it a bunch of times and eventually it was no big thing. It was so long ago that to play it now doesn’t even require thinking about.
“Sometimes a keyboard or violin player might come up with something really cool that isn’t that natural on guitar. If you want to learn it properly, you might have to find ways around that, and this was one of those things. We went back and forth when writing it – mixing together what he could do with what I could do.”
- War Of The Worlds Pt. 2 (opens in new tab) is out now via Inside Out Music.