Read the full article
This article was originally published in issue #6
To read the article in its entirety, view the digital magazine
Michael Angelo Batio - who joins Gi this month as a guest columnist - is one of shred's founding fathers and leading exponents.
Michael Angelo Batio - who joins Gi this month as a guest columnist - is one of shred's founding fathers and leading exponents. Guitar Interactive celebrates a remarkable career, as Stuart Bull talks technique on video with MAB and Gary Cooper discovers there's a lot more to Michael than just fast guitar!
When a player has won awards ranging from "the fastest guitarist of all time" (Guitar World magazine) to "No. 1 shredder of all time" (Guitar One) you wonder what you might be up against when you set out to interview him. It's not that you automatically expect shredders to be Neanderthals, but there's the look, the obsession with speed and... well, you don't necessarily expect a thoughtful interview with an articulate, educated man who has piloted his career with considerable skill, over and above displaying virtuoso talents with his musical weapon of choice.
But Batio is a million miles from the stereotypical metalhead and he has had a pretty remarkable career. Not so very long ago to make your life as a major league professional player you usually had to have been in a top band for a long time. Some broke free - Eric Clapton springs to mind, Jeff Beck, too - but many guitarists, even household names, have been associated with just one or two bands in their careers and more than a few have seen their careers dwindle when they have left those bands. Hence so many of reformed '70s giants, trying to revive their fortunes. But Batio - known just as MAB to many of his fans - is known in his own right and for what he does best - playing guitar.
Stuart Bull's video interview in this issue covers Batio's technique far better than I ever could in words, so instead of asking about his playing, I began by asking him about his early days. Batio started guitar at 10 and took to it quickly, he recalls.
"A musical epiphany to me was when I listened to the radio - AM and mono in those days - and I remember hearing a song and I knew the chords to it. I was only 10 or 11 and I could picture those chords in my head. That's when I felt I had talent for it. Music seemed very easy for me to grasp. I'll never forget my first guitar lesson. My teacher showed me four chords: G, G7, C and D7 and then I made a song from them. I played a measure of G, G7, then C then back to D7 cadencing back to G - I tried to make it musical. I didn't know, he just showed me the four chords and I put it into a song. He also showed me exercises using my fourth finger, so I've always used my four fingers, right from the very beginning."
Batio had taken to music like a duck to water and he comes from a school of players for whom theory is more or less second nature. But this isn't universally the case for Rock guitarists, even if it is more common now than it once was. In fact his musical knowledge goes deeper than most, as he has a BA in music theory and composition from Northeastern Illinois University. But does he believe such a background is actually necessary to be a great guitarist?
"To be honest, no. If you take someone like Yngwie Malmsteen, I probably know a hundred times more about the theory of music but that doesn't mean he's not an incredible guitar player and I really think at the end of the day that all the knowledge in the world isn't going to help you if you don't have any talent. But it does help if you have. For example, just yesterday I had the radio on and the song Killer Queen came on. I remembered that song from when I heard it for the first time in the 1970s when it absolutely blew my mind. I couldn't comprehend it. I couldn't comprehend the chords and what I did was what I always do when I hear something that sounds foreign or different to me - I switch on my theoretical brain and analyse what I'm listening to. I find that I understand it much better as a result and that Queen song taught me that. It was so radically different from anything that I'd ever heard."
And so to shredding. 2012 will be the 25th anniversary of Batio's ground breaking 1987 DVD Speed Kills. Some credit him with almost having invented the shredding genre and it's here too that Batio says his training come into play.
"Yes, that and my piano playing," he says, perhaps surprisingly. "Ever since I was a kid, I was always fascinated by really good playing - especially in Rock. I loved bands like Zeppelin and Deep Purple but I soon became influenced by people like Steve Howe from Yes and King Crimson's Robert Fripp. In fact there's a song I wrote when I was 16 called A New Day - you can find it on the Internet - and I wrote it in the style of Steve Howe.
"Even as a kid I'd listen to Hendrix and would think 'some of those notes are out of tune' or I'd hear timing issues. People used to think I was nuts, like when I told a drummer who was listening to an Emerson Lake and Palmer album that I thought Carl Palmer had rushed a particular part. I was an over-critical little bastard! But I'd hear these mistakes and they'd make me cringe. I didn't want to play that way and that's how I ended up doing what I did.
"Back in the early 1990s, nobody called it 'shred' - nobody used the word - I just wanted to be as good technically in Rock music as Jazz guitar players were in Jazz, or classical players were.
So how did the word 'shred' come into use? Batio isn't sure but says it's likely to have been the work of a critic on one of the US guitar magazines - and he doubts it was intended as a compliment! "There were critics who said all it was was just fast guitar - but what could I do? That's what I was playing."
Picked up by the fledgling Starlicks organisation when he was playing at the legendary Troubador Club in LA and working in analogue, which left no room for faking even if he had wanted to, Batio produced what became a landmark tuition video, which still stands up today for its speed an cleanness of style.
Batio says that, with hindsight. he feels that joining the newly formed band Nitro in the same year (1987) was a bit like being in a movie - the band was pretty much a fabrication and his heart wasn't in it musically.
"By the time I left and set up my own label, I'd seen both sides of being in a band. My first big signing was with Holland. We were with Atlantic Records, we made a phenomenal record, but we had terrible management and it flopped. But in Nitro we had music that I felt was freaky and weird but our label guaranteed us that if we did that kind of album they would ship 100,000 units, they would get us two MTV videos, major tour support and we'd be in the charts - and everything came true, I didn't like either of those situations - a great album that died, or putting out one that I wasn't happy with that did great. I knew I had to take control and if I sank or swum it was down to me."
What Batio doesn't say - but what we at Gi have seen for ourselves - is how hard he works at this. Everything MAB does is businesslike and professional. Photos arrive on time, copy appears, phones are answered, emails replied to. While a superstar can sometimes get away with erratic and unreliable behaviour (at least for a while), a solo performer who runs his own business cannot - and he understands that to a rare degree.
But does he ever feel pigeon-holed by his own success? "I did at first - especially when I was in Nitro. The president of our label said to me 'I want you to overplay all the time'. I got typecast by that but I realised something. I thought I could turn this into a business model and I did. McDonalds is known for hamburgers - not pizzas, so if I'm typecast, I'll go with it. If people call me a shredder and they mean it in a derogatory way, I don't care, It happened to Franz Liszt after all. They accused him of being a 'virtuoso' and they meant it as an insult!"
Another smart move was tying-up with Dean guitars, which has made a more creative commercial use of the MAB image than most guitar companies do with their endorsers. There are now eight Dean MAB guitars, a pickup, a T-Rex pedal and, of course, the legendary double V-shaped twin neck guitar, enabling him to make full use of his rare ability to play ambidextrously, producing two separate parts with each hand. Then, astonishingly, there is also the Quad guitar which had originally debuted with Nitro and which was recreated for him by Dean in 2007.
"You asked me about getting typecast and that connects with the guitars too. If somebody can make a parody of you, then you've created an image - you've created a brand - and that's what a lot of people miss. Having my own Dean guitars, having the double guitar - it's a brand. I was using a guitar that was different. I was playing over and under the neck and doing things that were different and they were getting me noticed."
Coming soon from the MAB is a 'Tribute to Rock' guitar show, recently premièred in Las Vegas - a historical timeline of Rock guitar starting with Clapton and even including a part where Batio, paying tribute to Jimi Hendrix, plays a left-handed guitar, left handed. "I've got that and I'm working on a new solo album, too. It will be all original material, apart from an arty, fusionish, version of Still of the Night - it's really cool. So I have that, I'm still very tight with Dean guitars and we've got confirmations for clinics up to October next year already. But the show will eventually supersede everything. We've already had offers to play in Russia, Italy, Slovenia - so we'll be doing more of these concerts as it grows."
Shred-fan or not, you have to admire Michael Angelo Batio's clear-headed understanding of how a guitarist can make a living in a dog eat dog industry, without succumbing to the record company machine. And if you actually pause to listen to what the man plays, beyond the image, MAB just happens to be a a very interesting musician, too.