It’s not every day an international guitar hero replies to our cold call with a resounding yes! But Marty Friedman, formerly of the “big four” GRAMMY-nominated thrash metal legend Megadeth, emphatically welcomed a conversation with JROCK NEWS.
Since moving to Japan in 2003, Marty has further risen as a household name in the country. Diving head-first into the Jpop world, he has successfully established a decades-long career with record maker Avex Trax. Marty is even fluent in Japanese and makes hundreds of appearances on Japanese TV, sharing his musical expertise and insatiable appetite for Japanese artistry and musical history.
2023 marked Marty’s sixth year as Ambassador of Japan Heritage, a milestone he commemorated by writing the official theme song for Japan’s Agency of Cultural Affairs. In July, he performed live at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, welcoming travelers from around the world.
Marty joins us from his studio in Tokyo to describe what makes music in Japan so special and how it can help bridge listeners regardless of age, gender, or cultural background.
Welcome to the next chapter of our Breaking Barriers interview series.
What spurred you to pivot from Megadeth lead guitarist to Japanese music icon? Was Jpop the impetus for your relocation to Japan?
I was coming to Japan very often while I was in Megadeth to do tours and promotions. Anytime we’d do a big tour, we were asked which band members wanted to go to promote it. I’d be the first one to say, “Send me to Japan! Send me to Japan”, so I always wound up going, not only for the tour, but for a promo trip beforehand.
Every time I came here, I’d hear lots of Jpop. Japanese music is everywhere, and there’s so little Western music. It’s like 10%, maybe? That really messed with my mind. A lot of times in America, you think, “Oh, Japan. They love American music”, and they do. But they love Japanese music much, much more.
It’s prevalent, and you hear it everywhere you go. I just got hooked on it while I was coming here for touring. I’d buy CDs and bring them home and listen to them on the plane, on the tour bus, in the airport, and backstage.
Was there any specific band that got you hooked?
When I first started getting into it, it was things like [the all-female idol collective] Hello! Project. If you were to say bands, then X JAPAN, B’z, and visual kei. I liked everything on the pop charts. Amuro Namie was very popular. Hamasaki Ayumi. Late 90s to early 2000s—the “golden era” of Jpop. Idol music started to evolve and become really interesting. Everything that [electronic dance composer] Komuro Tetsuya produced, like Kahala Tomomi. Everywhere you’d go, you’d hear his sound at that time.
I just got very excited by the sound. It was so different from the Western sound that it was new and fresh, always evolving and always interesting.
What was the reaction from your colleagues when you told them you wanted to find out more about Japan based on your discovery of Japanese music? Did people find your decision odd?
You had already achieved so much fame in America, which is viewed as the institution for musical success.
Not over here! Not in Japan, that’s for sure [laughs]. After living in Japan and in America for a long time and touring everywhere, I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that every single country—rightfully so—believes it’s the center of the universe.
When I would play Japanese music for American or European musicians, yes, they would think I was weird. After two or three listens though, especially for good musicians, they would think this stuff is genius! I remember playing some Hello! Project that [rock band Sharam Q singer] Tsunku produced, like early Matsuura Aya stuff. There are a lot of interesting production things going on, and musically, it’s very deep.
When you hear it at first, it just sounds really cute. At second listen, the good musicians would always say, “Man, this is so inventive! So creative. I can totally see why you like it”, but the first listen just goes over people’s heads. It’s just too much of an overload.
Do you know what “heta-uma” is? It’s a concept that’s pretty much Japanese in nature. “Heta” means “it sucks”, and “uma” means “it’s great”. It’s like finding this magical sound of a voice that’s not based on vocal technique or technical training or talent. It’s just a natural voice that people can enjoy. And I think Japanese people not only embrace this but as fans want to support it. It’s like, “Just a little bit harder! Do your best”.
That’s kind of the appeal of idol music, right?
Yes, especially idol music, but also in regular pop music. If you’re looking at a singer like Celine Dion or Adele, they don’t need anybody’s help. They’re going to kick ass singing on their own. But in Japanese music, there’s a whole new dimension, and heta-uma is a big part of that.
Around the heta-uma voice, there are producers, arrangers, and songwriters who shine it like a diamond. Take a producer like Tsunku or Hyadain. They’re not working with these superstar singers. They’re working with singers that have just a little magic in their voice, and they’re creating these little pop symphonies. Once you get into that, then I think you can discover more about Japanese music that’s really great.
You’ve certainly developed a deep fascination with Japanese music. Beyond your appreciation of Jpop as a listener, what are some things that were eye-opening about how the music industry works in Japan?
Before I lived here, I had never worked in an actual Japanese environment. When I moved here and found myself in the middle of the Jpop world, the first thing I noticed was that all the rock musicians read music. I’ve been a professional musician since my early teens in America, and no one I knew read music except the keyboard players. Here, even the punk bands and noisy grunge rock bands all read music. It helps because Japanese music is quite complex with many chords, even when it sounds simple.
Reading music was something I scrambled to get good at. Luckily, my ear is the best part of my playing. I can pretty much play anything immediately after I hear it, so I could kind of fake my way without reading music too well in the beginning. After years and years of doing it, it’s very normal to have sheet music in front of me now.
I also noticed in the studio this little Casio keyboard. I’ve never seen one in an American studio, but every Japanese studio has it. Most Japanese pop songs have melodies that you can play with one finger on this Casio. The melody of the song, or “uta-melo” as we say here, is the most important part and is usually decided at the very beginning of the process. A great melody should be able to be played with one finger. So, there’s always this little keyboard to do adjustments to the melody or to explain the melody to whoever is singing it. It’s a very valuable part of every music session.
And of course, the language of music. You can’t just do translations of the English word and use it in Japan. They have different words for everything, and musical terminology is a whole new language.
When I first moved here, it was like making music on a different planet, and it was refreshing to see all these new things and play with these talented people with different upbringings.
Let’s dive into the different ways a piece of music is composed in Japan versus America. American music is often built around a four-chord progression, like the one in Pachabel’s Canon, but Japanese pop songs follow a longer journey until their resolution. Is this part of the appeal?
Also, there are still chord progressions that appear frequently in Japanese songs, such as how the chorus plays out in Gurenge by LiSA. Can you explain how this progression contrasts with the use of the other familiar chords in American music?
Oh, it’s every song! In the third line of the chorus, it’s very common to have that chord progression. That’s been happening in Japanese music for decades and decades. “Hazusenai”: You can’t get rid of it [smiles]!
A lot of Western pop, rock, and dance music is based on four chords: the “Let It Be-chords”. This is no secret. There’s not a lot of melodic development compared to Japanese music. I’m not saying one is better than the other at all. Chord progressions are basically simpler in Western music, which makes them easier to improvise over. In America, vocal ability trumps the melody of the song. If you’ve got a great singer, they’re going to do a lot of improvising, and if you’ve got a busy chord progression, there’s no improvising going on over that.
In Japan, just like in the culture, they don’t like leaving a lot of things to chance. They don’t like leaving things to be improvised spontaneously. They like the melody to be worked out. And so long as they’re working it out, they’re going to make it long, interesting, and involved, with a lot of chord progressions.
This being said, these chord progressions are often very familiar “clichéd” progressions. Anything from an old Carpenters song will find its way into Japanese music. Now, what’s interesting is they use key modulations and time changes and breaks with genius innovation.
Take a group like Official HIGE DANdism. If you break down 10 seconds of a song, it’s a very familiar motif, melody, and chord progression. But then, if you look at the next 10 seconds, they completely stab you in the back with a different cliché. The way the sections are connected is so unique and fresh that it just makes the listener think there’s an endless well of innovation. And that’s what I just continue to be marveled at with Japanese music.
It’s just a different cultural format. If you like all that information coming in, it’s great. But for some people, it’s just an overload. It blows my mind how Japanese people, especially young kids, not only accept all this information but also love it. It takes a lot of brain power to accept that much data in a song.
I really love it. I can understand why some people think, “Well, this is too much”, but I’m an over-the-top kind of guy, especially when it comes to music.
There’s that song Idol by YOASOBI. Toward the end of the song, it changes keys and even slows down. But then, as we approach the final chorus, the tempo kicks back in, and the pitch rises again, this time going past the original key! If you’re not actively dissecting the song, it’s really dizzying.
But at the same time, it’s entertainment. That’s the thing. Non-musicians are enjoying this deep musical stuff. It’s like a utopia. It’s dense. It’s challenging. It’s interesting. Yet, people who don’t care about those details are loving it.
When you talk about dense in the West, you’ve got progressive rock and technical djent music. It goes over the mainstream’s head. What you’re talking about is number one on the pop charts in Japan! It’s a very different dynamic, and if you dig it, Japanese music is fantastic for that.
Can you talk about how some of those innovative Japanese elements might make their way into your own songs, for example, the clean melody in UNDERTOW?
UNDERTOW is a pretty good example of a very Japanese thing that I was just talking about. When you’re listening to it, you’re feeling very melancholic: “setsunai”. Kind of wistful. Makes you get chills, tears, or goosebumps. It’s based on somewhat of a familiarity with little motifs. But before you know it, there are a lot of interesting chord patterns, slight ritardandos, time changes, key modulations that don’t necessarily make normal musical sense, but they do in a certain context.
There are all kinds of challenging musical things that the listener will not notice unless they’re a deep musician. They’re just going to feel the sadness, the happiness, or whatever the emotion is. Those are the qualities that I got from making and listening to Japanese music for so long here. So, it comes out very naturally when I compose.
Speaking of rock and other guitar-driven melodies, why does rock music continue to resonate with the Japanese audience? Is it the structure of the pieces? The aggressively voiced harmonies?
This is a question I get quite often, so at some point I had to come up with an answer [laughs]. I don’t know if it’s the right answer, but this is my own theory: I think the guitar, more specifically the distorted electric guitar playing melodies and solos and riffs, is not too distant from the [Japanese three-stringed instrument] shamisen, which is many generations old doing the same thing. If you look at [the traditional musical genre] Tsugaru-jamisen, it’s basically like [Lynyrd Skynyrd’s epic] Free Bird. They’re playing all these solos in union.
The shamisen is actually even distorted. If you go to the top of the instrument, there’s a switch that makes the string snap against the body. It kind of makes it a dirty, noisy sound, so the shamisen has got different voicing, sounds, and interpretations. You can make it sound distorted and scratchy, or you can make it sound clear, almost like [the Japanese harp zither] koto.
Either way, for many, many generations, people’s grandmothers and great-grandmothers are already used to the sound of a distorted string being plucked aggressively by a very hard pick. When I grew up in America, even your mother hears a distorted guitar, and she runs out of the room. She can’t stand it! But here in Japan, grandmothers listen to enka, and these “older people’s music” always has distorted guitar solos. Sometimes there are harmonies. It’s just like [the English power metal band] Iron Maiden. People who are 100 years old listen to stuff like it’s normal.
So, what I’m proposing is that the sound of the electric guitar is a deep part of Japanese culture, and you can’t remove it from the current music either. It’s something that will always be welcome in Japanese music.
You don’t have to be a rebellious rock fan to enjoy it. When I play a show, there are people of every single age here in Japan. People in their teens and younger and people in their 80s and higher. I play really loud music, as you can expect, with a lot of guitar work. I think it’s more acceptable because it’s come down many generations and is just a part of the culture.
That wraps up part 1 of the interview! Stay tuned for part 2, in which Marty explores the advent of women-led Jrock, “doujin” productions, and the prominence of “live houses” in the Japanese music scene!
- MAKENAIDE / MARTY FRIEDMAN負けないで / MARTY FRIEDMAN
- SENBONZAKURA / MARTY FRIEDMAN千本桜 / MARTY FRIEDMAN
- GURENGE / MARTY FRIEDMAN紅蓮華 / MARTY FRIEDMAN
- KAZE GA FUITEIRU / MARTY FRIEDMAN風が吹いている / MARTY FRIEDMAN
- ECHO / MARTY FRIEDMANECHO / MARTY FRIEDMAN
- THE PERFECT WORLD / MARTY FRIEDMANThe Perfect World (feat.+α/あるふぁきゅん。) / MARTY FRIEDMAN
- U.S.A. / MARTY FRIEDMANU.S.A. / MARTY FRIEDMAN
- SHUKUMEI / MARTY FRIEDMAN宿命 / MARTY FRIEDMAN
- IKUZE! KAITOU-SHOUJO / MARTY FRIEDMAN行くぜっ!怪盗少女 / MARTY FRIEDMAN
- SAZANKA / MARTY FRIEDMANサザンカ / MARTY FRIEDMAN
- TIME GOES BY / MARTY FRIEDMANTime goes by / MARTY FRIEDMAN
- JAPAN HERITAGE OFFICIAL THEME SONG / MARTY FRIEDMANJAPAN HERITAGE OFFICIAL THEME SONG / MARTY FRIEDMAN