NIPPONIA No. 41 June 15, 2007


Living in Japan

Virtuoso Guitarist Influenced by Japanese Songs and Music

Marty Friedman

Written by Takahashi Hidemine
Photos by Akagi Koichi


Above left: Near a recording studio in Tokyo.
Above right: Two albums released in 2006:
Rock Fujiyama (top) was a collaborative effort with musicians from different musical backgrounds; Loudspeaker (bottom) is an up-beat sample of Marty Friedman's feisty guitar playing.

Marty Friedman used to play guitar for the world-famous rock band Megadeth, and fans consider him a living legend. He moved to Japan in 2003 and his star is still rising, as a rock musician and as “that fascinating foreigner” on TV, including programs for students learning English.

“I've been interested in Japan since my teens. When I first heard Japanese enka1 on the radio I was swept away. I thought it was the best ever.”

Friedman was born in the United States, in Washington D.C., and started his own heavy metal band when he was in junior high school.

“Most guitarists begin by studying jazz or progressive rock, but I started out with enka. I could feel the passion in the voices of the singers, especially Misora Hibari and Yashiro Aki.2 The most important thing in music is feeling, and enka has plenty of that. I listened carefully to the vibrating kobushi notes3 that enka is famous for, studied them and tried them out with my guitar.” His dynamic yet sensitive guitar playing is actually strongly influenced by Japanese enka.

After becoming acquainted with enka, he set about learning Japanese on his own. He took correspondence courses and studied with the textbook at any spare moment, even when on the move during a concert tour. When he performed in Japan on tour, he made a point of being interviewed in Japanese without an interpreter. “In those days I could hardly say anything in Japanese, but I knew I wouldn't learn if I didn't go out of my way to do so, especially under pressure.”

“The most interesting thing about the Japanese language is the kanji characters. When we Americans see them, they look like writing from Mars. It still feels weird being able to read many of them now. I remember being really excited when I learned how to read my first one! Once you get that feeling, you're hooked for life!”

This guitar practically explodes into shards of music influenced by Japanese instrumentation, the Chinese fiddle and the Indian sitar.

He is also very interested in J-Pop (Japanese pop music),4 and says singers like Aikawa Nanase, Amuro Namie and ZARD5 press all the right buttons for him.

“In the U.S., most heavy metal musicians play only heavy metal. On the other hand, Japanese singers are into everything from hard rock to pops to rhythm and blues. They straddle a number of genres, and I kind of envied that.”

So he ended up making Japan his base, and is now teaming up with Japanese musicians to perform live and make albums. He has made a name for himself as a solo guitarist and produced a CD called Rock Fujiyama, released in 2006. He has also performed as a guitarist in NHK's year-end TV extravaganza, Kohaku Uta Gassen, which pits Japan's best male and female singers against each other.

“When it comes to music I'm a perfectionist. I expect a lot from myself and others, and I know I can depend on Japanese backup performers to be serious about their music and do their best. They can read music, and they are ready before rehearsal time. You couldn't expect that from an American rock band,” he grins.

Friedman now lives in Shinjuku, one of the main centers of Tokyo. His hobby? “Eating spicy food. On my days off I like to go to restaurants and ramen noodle shops in the city for the hottest meal on the menu.”

His favorite expression in Japanese is the slang, Sore, ii jan! (non-slang version: Sore wa ii ja nai ka!, meaning “Hey, I like that!”). If there is something he likes, he is one of the first to praise it. With his open-minded, sensitive spirit, he is sure to continue giving music lovers his new style of borderless music.