Marty Friedman sets the record straight on guitar solos

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In October of 2023, I interviewed Marty Friedman from his home in Tokyo – and not for the first time. It was a wide-ranging conversation typical of our exchanges, spanning his latest collaboration with jazz fusion outfit Fusion Syndicate to his eternal quest to take his playing in new directions – and of particular note, the state of the modern guitar solo.

The interview was featured in the March 2024 issue of Guitar World, and included a powerful declaration of intent from the former Megadeth guitarist when I posed the question, ‘Is there hope for guitar solos?’, to which he responded, “I hope the traditional guitar solo dies a slow and painful death.”

“Guitar solos need to be inventive,” he stressed. “They need something to keep listeners involved, especially those who are not learning to play and only listen.

“All that other eight-bar and tapping stuff; that’s got to be over. There must be something melodically unique that connects us on a higher level. That’s what I’m looking for from guitar today, and I hope it’s what young players are searching for, too.”

While Friedman’s comments were forthright, they echoed previous statements he had made on social media and the words of Polyphia’s Tim Henson, who has shared similar sentiments in the past.

As one of today’s most respected virtuosos, Friedman’s comments were newsworthy to the GW audience, and the site ran an article on his vision for the future of guitar solos – a vision, it should be said, that the team found inspiring.

Friedman felt differently. He believed his words were misconstrued, leading him to disavow the original feature via X (formerly Twitter) and the accompanying news article.

Combined with an initial error that briefly identified him as an Ibanez artist, he went as far as to label it the work of AI – and let me assure you, Guitar World categorically does not use AI to write articles [this is actually a fireable offence at Guitar World, so we take these accusations very seriously – Ed]. None of us would have jobs if we did (and the Ibanez slip-up was, ironically, very much a human error).

In response, I sent Friedman the original transcripts of our conversation that included these comments as an aide-memoire. But rather than issue a formal, public dismissal of Friedman’s claims, we here at GW sought to clear the air and move on from the misconceptions. So, on March 5, 2024, I beamed in once again with Marty Friedman to dig into his thoughts.

Over the course of a half-hour interview, he presented a manifesto for what the guitar solo should be in the 21st century, expounded on the true meaning of self-indulgence, what separates a guitar player from a musician and an artist, and a whole lot more.

What follows is my entire, unedited conversation with Marty Friedman on the subject of the modern guitar solo, with accompanying video.

Marty Friedman on the state of the modern guitar solo

First and foremost, recently there was some misconstruing of your comments on solos. So, on the state of the modern solo, to clarify what you meant, can you clarify those comments? So we understand where you're coming from.

“Yeah, I mean, I don’t know exactly how what I said before got turned into whatever got printed. But regardless, I will say, to give you my opinion on solos, as clear as I possibly can, solos are the most fun, expressive – or, one of the most expressive – parts of playing any instrument. And I think it’s everyone’s responsibility to try to have their own voice and their own particular way of expressing themselves when they play solos. And since solos have been around since forever, there’s gotta be new ways to interpret the existence of a solo.

“You know, for the longest time, the guitar solo came right after the second chorus of any pop song. In the ‘50s, it was sax solos; in the ‘60s, it started to be these twangy electric guitar solos; and in the ‘70s, it was like these distorted guitar solos, but they all kind of came in the same place of the song, they all lasted around the same amount of time.

“And it was basically just a break from when people were singing, you know. Sing for a while, and then you get a little guitar solo, and then you move on in the song, which is wonderful to that end. But thankfully, music has grown and become a lot more adventurous over the years. And I think it’s every artist’s and every musician’s kind of quest to find an interesting way to bring people in to listen to whatever solo it is you’re going to play.

“So, whether that be putting it in a different part of the song, or making it an unusual length, or playing something that is completely unrelated to any other part of the song – or, conversely, completely related to something in the song, like following a snare pattern or following a vocal melody, or any kind of tag that you can bring your own artistic sense to – whatever it is you’re playing, the solo is gonna be one step further than just your obligatory eight-bar solo, which happens a lot.

“So this has been a constant quest in my career. Probably since I was a teen, I always thought, you know, ‘Why does the solo have to be here? Why does the solo have to be in the same key as the art that was before it? And why does it have to end in this key?’ And every single thing has always been a question of, ‘How can I do something with this slab of music that hasn't been done before?’

The content of the solo is one thing, but how it hits you, where it hits you, in what context it hits you, gives you much more bang for the buck

“So, when I do play, whatever solo it is I play, it kind of stands out. You know, a lot of times, the content of the solo is one thing, but how it hits you, where it hits you, in what context it hits you, gives you much more bang for the buck, so to speak.

“And the king of doing this is Brian May. His solos come in very, very unusual places. And they’re always attention-grabbing, and the content is often, you know, it’s very nice content.

“But it’s not the most flashy, it’s not the most difficult, it’s not the most trendy techniques, or any of that stuff. It’s just the care that went into putting it where it is and the character choosing the content that has some meaning to something prior to it, or some meaning to something after it. These are all things that, given a little thought, will extend the life of solos in pop and rock music. And if that’s not a long run-on sentence, I don’t know what it is [laughs].”

Obviously, you’re somebody that plays guitar solos for a living; its a big part of what you do. And you obviously wouldnt want to do away with them entirely.

My perception of your comments and I guess the way I took it was (and I would hope a lot of people took it) that, especially when you talk about traditional, isn't that solos would die or go away forever, but more so that they be inventive in that people push the envelope – that people do new things with it, rather than stagnate. 

Is that where you were going with it? Because, again, my perception was not that it was a negative or that guitar solos should go away and be dead forever.

“Oh, absolutely. I would never say anything like that. You’re spot on. I mean, I think I would prefer a song with no solo rather than a solo that’s just there for the obligation of putting a solo in there. And I think that there’s… what’s the English word – phenomenon, of just putting a flashy solo in the middle of a song. I think that might be something that turns off a lot of people, and mainstream music listeners.

“And that’s the type of thing that makes people think that the guitar solo, in general, is kind of a dated concept. And it really is. I mean, it’s been around for quite a long time. Like I said before, in the ‘50s, almost all the songs had sax solos in them. And then came a time where guitar solos became a little bit more in vogue – and who knows when the guitar solo’s lifespan is going to run out, you know what I mean?

“So, for us in the world of making music with a guitar, I think it would behoove all of us to try to really be clever about what we’re doing with them [solos]. Not only guitar solos but guitar parts, in general; there was a group called Garbage in the mid-’90s that probably extended the life of guitar decades with their inventive ways of presenting guitar and guitar harmonies and guitar lines within the context of interesting, modern pop music that made guitar cool for a lot of people who normally just thought guitar was something that you stick a flashy solo in the middle of the song about.

I think if you're just going to do something that has been done a million times over again, I would prefer no solo in a song to a solo that's just an obligation

“So, there’s endless ways. Guitar is just another instrument; there’s endless ways to be creative with it. And I think if you’re just going to do something that has been done a million times over again, I would prefer no solo in a song to a solo that’s just an obligation. You know, I never thought the Ramones needed any guitar solos, and it’s one of those things.

“An obligation is not really the greatest artistic statement, you know, so if you’re going to make the statement of putting something like a little guitar symphony inside of a song, it’s wonderful if you can do something that maybe comes from a different angle than what people are used to hearing and maybe surprises them. Maybe a song starts off with a guitar solo, like, ‘Hey, have you heard a song that actually starts off with a guitar solo? I've never heard anything like that.’

“Just any kind of simple angle, different angle. And then, of course, your content – the more unique your content is, the better. But you know what I’m saying? Let’s be creative here. I think everyone has a completely different set of influences and a different set of life experiences that influence what comes out of their instruments. So, the more interesting that is, the more people are going to enjoy the instrument of guitar for years to come.”

Players, artists and musicians

Marty Friedman
Marty Friedman

One of the things that cropped up in the recent piece on you was self-indulgence. And, again, I think my perception of that was not a negative thing, but sort of, maybe indulging your deepest fantasies as a guitarist rather than being self-indulgent to be flashy, or, you know what I mean. To clarify, what are your thoughts on self-indulgence as a guitar player, specifically with regards to solos and how you look at its place in the whole shebang?

“I think every single person who creates music for people to listen to has the distinct responsibility of making sure that every single thing they play represents their art, represents that person. So, if that person’s art is playing something that might seem self-indulgent to people, more power to them. You know, each person is their own complete entity, and I would never even dream of saying, ‘You should do this, or you should do that, or that's self-indulgent, so it sucks.’ I would never say that.

“You know, being an artist is self-indulgent, and you have to be true to the music that you want people to hear that says your name on it. So, when your name comes up, this particular image of music comes to that person’s mind. And self-indulgent, it’s just like, that’s a term that a listener might say when you hear something that just sounds like there wasn't too much thought, and maybe there was just a lot of something that they had practiced. You know, I always say that when you listen to someone playing melodies or playing solos, you can hear that person’s life.

“So a lot of times, if you hear something that sounds really, really technically difficult and fancy and flashy, you can almost see that guy practicing in his bedroom with a metronome for hours and hours on end and not leaving the room. And that image is a very true image. But I think as a person who’s a fan of music and a fan of art, maybe a more colorful and interesting and emotional image might be more appealing for me as a listener than, ‘Wow, this guy spent a lot of hours in front of a metronome.’ You know what I mean?

“I like to feel, as myself anyway, as a fan, I like to see an interesting life coming out of those notes, and not just the result of working hard and practicing. Because, well, I could get into a really deep concept on this; I mean, I don't know how many hours you have on this. But I think there’s three ways to separate all of us as players of music, and they’re all good, and they’re all very necessary. But hear me out.”

I'm here for it!

“You’re here [laughs]. There’s players, alright? The guy can play the instrument very, very well, is versatile, can play a lot of different styles, can hang in a lot of different musical contexts. When you hear him play, you’re like, ‘Wow, this guy can play.’ Fantastic thing. That’s players.

“And then there’s musicians, and a musician can play. But this musician, what he has over the player is he understands the entire piece of music from the ground up, so he can create, let’s say, for example, a backing track to play over; he can create a full song from the bottom up.

“Whether that means programming drums himself, or some kind of a rhythm sequencer, or hiring a person to play drums, and having written out a part for a drummer. Or he can put the rhythm together; he can put the low-end, bass, or whatever instrument it is together. And he can understand the complete concepts of building a piece of music, from the beginning to the end: that’s a musician.

“Then there’s an artist. The artist is someone whose sole purpose is to find the music that represents that person and get that music to the listener [in] whatever way he can. And this has very little to do with developing techniques or getting better at your instrument. What this has to do with is how strong is this person’s artistic vision that it’s a must that he gets that exact sound out to the people who are listening to it. Whatever you hear coming from that artist, that’s exactly how he wants to be represented.

Marty Friedman
Marty Friedman

“So, it takes a very particular skill set for an artist to make all of the musical choices, that as a sum, that’s him in a musical context. When you hear that music, you’re hearing that person. Just like with a painter, if you see a Van Gogh painting, you know he did it. Why do you know he did it? Because he made different decisions than, for example, a Rembrandt did, who made different decisions. And those decisions are all very characteristic of that particular artist.

“The same exact thing goes with playing guitar or any other interpretive instrument, especially when it comes to improvising and creating your own melodies and creating a product, you know? Creating a product, that product has to have something that separates it from another product, or else you wouldn't know which product that you're choosing, and these are all very artistic decisions. So, there you have the player, you have the musician, and you have the artist, and they all are very important and very necessary, but they’re not mutually exclusive.

“Meaning that just because someone can play has absolutely no bearing on whether they are an artist or not. There are guys, and I remember – and this is something that readers should know because as a kid, we’ve all gone through this: you go into somebody’s basement, and it’s like, ‘There’s a dude on the block, who can play everything. He can play every solo I’ve ever heard put on the radio; he can copy it!’ This is the player. And it’s a huge person of admiration and inspiration, especially when you’re a beginner.

“Because when you see a guy doing something that you can’t do on the same friggin' instrument, it like really burns you up. So, for the first several years of your guitar journey, these guys who can play everything – difficult things, crazy things, things of different genres – these guys are like superstars to young beginners, who are just gathering knowledge, and they just want to get better on the instrument. But these are the players.

“And a lot of that time playing and developing the ability to play like everybody else is kind of shaving off the time that could have been spent deciding how you really want to represent your own music. And I dare say it’s a slight bit lazy; it’s probably easier to learn a bunch of other people’s techniques, learn a bunch of other people’s music, and practice like a madman and get it done, and impress people with that.

“It’s probably easier to do that than to commit to the things that define your own personal style and put those out on display, to be rejected, or to be liked, or to just be passed on, or to make big success with. So, these are the differences between players and artists. And I think a lot of young guitarists think, you ask them, ‘What is your goal?’ and [they say], ‘I just want to get better at guitar.’

“And as someone who’s been in music my entire life, I'm here to tell you that there’s not a whole lot of risk involved in that. All you have to do is go home and practice. There’s practice tools for free everywhere. But when are you going to put yourself on display? When are you going to really decide which notes are the ones that represent you? Which touch represents you? Which look represents you? Which people do you want to be associated with when you put some music out?

“Because no one does it by themselves, it’s always a group of people. How are you going to choose these people? So, becoming an artist and putting out a product is infinitely more personal and more challenging than the things that look impressive with fingers flying and things like that. Oftentimes, people develop from one thing to another; you start as a player, and then you’re a musician, then you’re an artist, and all those types of things happen.

I think a lot of young people think, ‘If I develop this fantastic technique like I just saw on Instagram, everything’s just going to happen for me.’ And nothing could be farther from the truth

“But I think it’s very important for people to recognize as early as possible that whatever your goal is, you should try to get to that, you know what I mean? It’s like, when I was a kid, I wanted to be playing my music on stage in a cool band. I wanted to be playing music that I loved playing. And to that end, I made every single musical decision, every single personal decision, every single career decision, all those decisions were towards that end. And during the course of that, I developed my musical, whatever abilities I have, I developed that.

“But I think where a lot of young guitar players could learn is, I think a lot of young people think, ‘If I develop this fantastic technique like I just saw on Instagram, everything’s just going to happen for me.’ And nothing could be farther from the truth. Because as you see on Instagram, it will take you less than 30 seconds; it will take me less than 30 seconds to get on there and find somebody playing something that I couldn’t play in a million years.

“So, what does that tell you? To really reach your goals, you really gotta know what your goals are in the first place. Do you want to be that guy on Instagram? If so, that is frickin' great, more power to you. But to be an actual artist that is intending on creating something to put out there and let the chips fall where they may [where] people enjoy it, people hate it, whatever it is, this is my art.

“That’s a completely different animal. And the sooner you kind of decide where your goals are, the sooner you can get in the direction of making those things happen for you, rather than just believing that developing technique and becoming a versatile instrumentalist is the be all and end all.”

So, you gave me the three tiers there; I would opine that you are in the third tier, the artist tier. But how do you see yourself, Marty? Where do you think you fall on that spectrum?

“I don’t even really see it as tiers because I don’t think one thing is any better than the other. I just think that people need to know that there are different things. The sooner they realize that the sooner they can make their way out in the world of music. I’ve always tried to develop myself as a player, and just doing music forever develops me as a musician.

“And over the course of releasing my own music for decades, you know, the artist part far takes over all the other things. But for better or for worse, the music that I try to create always demands that I keep my musical chops to their peak. You know, sometimes I wish I was in the Ramones: three chords, and you’re done. It’s easy. But it’s not easy because you have to have an artistic vision, and it has to be your own.

“So, it’s really a wonderful world – music, it really is. So, my point is it’s not tiers; one thing is not better than the other. I’m inspired by these players all the time; I see players who do things that I can’t do. And I’ll, as an artist, choose the things that they’re doing and take those.

“I’ll say, ‘Wow, man, I've never seen somebody do that on guitar, I'm going to learn that.’ That's an artist’s decision. A player’s decision is, ‘I’m going to learn all that stuff, and I’m going to play all that stuff that guy does.’ But the artist picks and chooses the things that actually appeal to him because that's going to be a part of his music someday.”

What constitutes a ‘good’ guitar solo

Couple more for you on this particular topic. When you look at a guitar solo – you've written a lot of them, and you'll probably write a whole lot more of them – what constitutes a good guitar solo? Obviously, [with] “good” being subjective. Is there such a thing as a bad guitar solo in your mind?

“I don’t think there’s good and bad music at all. I definitely do not. Every single person has equally valid tastes, and each person has the exact same value. Each person who listens to music has the sole right to enjoy something or not, and it’s kind of a knee-jerk reaction. If you hear something and you like it, it’s good. That’s it. That’s the end of it. So, I can’t give you a guideline to what is a good guitar solo, or what’s not.

“I remember doing a session, one of my favorite sessions, for a singer named Nana Kitade in Japan, and I was playing… you know, my normal stuff. And she told me, and she's a female singer, and really creative singer, and she says, ‘You know what, that's really cool, but I like it when guys sound like they suck.’ That's interesting. And I relate to that. I relate to that because… some people want to hear certain things.

“And so, like, as the person playing on the session, I’m like, ‘Alright, how am I going to do something that's going to make her happy? So, what does she mean by 'suck?' Maybe she means someone who doesn't necessarily have the complete control over the instrument and is just kind of flailing away at something and just going crazy.’ Because that's a very valid thing, and people could enjoy listening to that.

“When I was a kid, I used to love the Dead Boys, and those guitar solos were just off the hook; it just sounded like the guy [had] never picked up a guitar before. But it made me feel so good, so maybe if I could tap into that... And it’s not the first time I’ve heard that from a producer either: ‘Could you kind of like tone down the guitar ability a little bit? Could you tone it down a little bit and just kind of like, go apeshit? Don’t make it sound like you're a master guitarist.’

“So, I kind of tapped into that. And then I got something that she liked, and I understood it. And what I did was I just tried to not be as... I'm always subconsciously very, very, very conscious of pitch and playing in pitches that I like to hear. But I tried to play without that filter on, and I think that‘s what did it, you know? When you play with kind of bad pitch, or inaccurate pitch, it can give the illusion that you‘re just a punk rock guitar player going apeshit when you just picked up your guitar last week.

“And that’s not to disparage punk rock guitar players because there’s such a great art in playing really, really good, tight punk rock guitar, and I love it. But, you know, to answer your question, I don’t think there’s any good, [or] there’s any bad. The solos that turned me on personally are the ones that, like I told you before, come in an unusual place, or hit an unusual note on an unusual chord, happen on an unusual key modulation; something that I haven’t heard before.

“Because as you can imagine, I’ve heard a lot of guitar solos, so when I hear something that’s new, I love it so much, and I analyze it and steal it, and I put it in my own repertoire. So those are the things that make a good solo for me, something that; who’s that group I heard… Moon Tooth.

“There’s a group called Moon Tooth out there, and they just had this one song, I don't remember the title, but in the middle, it’s like a real brutal metal song. And then all of a sudden, in the middle of it, they’re playing these Lynyrd Skynyrd licks, but they’re, like, upside down, and I’m like, ‘This is the freshest thing I ever heard in this context.’ So, something like… weird and different, and that makes the song a better piece of music than it was without it. Those were the things that really turn me on.”

The future of the guitar solo

To that end, who are a couple new players out there that are keeping solos fresh and seeing to it that they [solos] stick around for a long time in a way that's inventive?

“That’s a good question. There’s a lot of great players and… guys like Ichika Nito, and I don’t really wanna categorize him as, like, someone who’s putting solos in mainstream songs, because he’s kind of like more of a… he creates these musical landscapes. So, the whole thing he’s doing is like one big guitar solo.

“Guys like him, and Matteo [Mancuso] plays some great solos in what I’ve heard him playing, but I haven’t heard enough of him in other musical contexts, so I really can’t wait to hear him play in more context because I think he’s going to just do some things that blow our minds. There’s a lot of super guys out there who play wonderfully.

What’s going to really turn me on the most is when I hear a guitar solo in a pop song context that brings guitar solos more into the mainstream again

“I think, for me, as a music fan, what’s going to really turn me on the most is when I hear a guitar solo in a pop song context that kind of brings guitar solos more into the mainstream again. In Japan, guitar is a big part of pop music, but I’m talking about the rest of the world.

“If you look in the top ten, there’s rarely guitar solos in there. But something’s going to change that. If I had a part in that, I would be thrilled to death. If someone else does that, I’m also going to be very thrilled for him. It’s just a matter of time until there’s some kind of collaboration between dance music and a guitar, rap music and a guitar, you know... country music has great relations with guitars.

“But I think it’s going to come from the other side, dance music or R&B, hip-hop, rap, which is, you know, the top of the charts and most of the world. When a guitar has a big existence in that type of music, the floodgates are gonna open, and a lot more people are going to be inspired with it.”

Last one on this. To your point, if I’m reading your point right, the guitar solo is, in some ways, in a period of transition. Were going to kind of see where it goes; we know where its been, and it is where it is right now. 

But once and for all, are guitar solos… are they dead? Do you hope the traditional solo dies? Is it on life support? What are your final thoughts on the matter, Marty?

“Im not going to give you any kind of sensational headline in this answer [laughs]. You know, as long as people exist, people are going to want to hear music that makes them feel good. So, whatever instruments it takes to get there, are what the instruments are going to be. And if guitar solos evolve into something that modern people can enjoy, then thats how it's going to be.

“And I try to do my best. In my music, if you listen to my music, they've [solos] always played a purpose of trying to make you feel something when youre listening to the entire piece of music. Thats all I can do.

It's our responsibility to do things that draw people to want to listen to our instrument

“At the end of the day, it’s the listeners who decide whether, you know, a particular instrument is in vogue or not. But for us as guitarists, we all hope that it continues to thrive; it lasted longer than the sax did, and that’s a good thing.

“But I love the sax solos of the ’50s, especially the sax solos of a guy named Jimmy Wright, who was just, like, the craziest sax player. And he was just like, I don’t know – like Eddie Van Halen of sax in the ’50s. I don't know how to describe it, but back then, sax was the guitar. And now, it’s still guitar, but it’s our responsibility to do things that draw people to want to listen to our instrument. And that’s really where I stand on this very, very important topic.”