Michael Romeo is one of the most renowned shredders of the 21st Century. After putting out an instrumental EP called "The Dark Chapter" he formed the famous progressive metal band Symphony X in the States and started putting out albums and building up a huge fanbase. Michael has also done an instructional DVD with Young Guitar Magazine in Japan called "The Guitar Chapter". We caught up with him in London at the "La Scala" venue where Symphony X had an amazing show.
You are one of the greatest shredders of the 21st century. What made you pick up the guitar? Tell us some things about your studies.
I think when I bought the Kiss "alive!" album. That was the point that I wanted to play the guitar. Not too long after that I bought an acoustic guitar but I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t able to sound like the Kiss album, put two and two together. Then when I was 12, I got an electric guitar. By then I was listening to Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Black Sabbath. Those where all my all time favourite bands. I played a little bit and took some lessons earlier on learning some chords and the pentatonic scale. I used to take piano lessons when I was about 10 years old for a couple of years and that taught me how to read music and a bit of the music theory stuff. I kind of picked up on the guitar quickly. I picked it up and it felt right to me. Over the years I learnt how to play some AC/DC and some Judas Priest songs and then Randy Roads came along and I was so into him. He became my first big hero. I loved that he incorporated the classical influence, heavy, his sound was great, very good phrasing. I really started practicing a lot and learning things, I started reading a lot about theory and so on. I learnt "Blizzard of Ozz" and "Diary of a Madman" note for note. From that point on I was listening to Van Halen as well and I started picking up on some tapping things, Al di Meola was another guy using alternate picking, I saw Frank Gambale once in a clinic and he had that sweep picking thing and you know at that time a lot of the Shrapnel Records guys where around and of course Yngwie Malmsteen, Uli Jon Roth, Marty Friedman, Jason Becker and a lot of these guys. I just picked up a little bit from everyone of what I liked and I developed my own type of voice through it. I took classical guitar lessons again for a for a year or so and tried to figure out how to play some violin stuff on the guitar. Maybe somebody had an arpeggio that was cool and I would re-finger it, just making it your my type of thing and built my bag of tricks and stuff.
When and how did Symphony X form up?
It was 1994 when we all got together. The original bass player, Thomas Miller, and me we were in bands in high school playing ballad bands and stuff. He liked all the same stuff that I liked, he was a player, and we started doing something heavier, a little bit progressive with some other players. I also was in this other band at the time called “Phantom's Opera” which was more commercial rock. It was cool, they were friends of mine, the guitar parts where kind of simple but it was cool. At the same time I had an 8 track recorder at home and I started recording this little thing which ended up being the Dark Chapter, which it was really me noodling around, with a drum machine. Just getting some things out. I made some tapes of that and sent them out to different people. There were some magazines that wrote little reviews and some stuff started building up around that. A label in Japan called my house and they asked if I had a band with a singer? And I lied I said “Yes I do” and after that me and Thomas went all around looking for guys who liked all that stuff. We met Michael Pinella ,the keyboard player, that was teaching at a music store. One of my students was teaching guitar there so he introduced us and that’s how we met. I met our original singer, Rod Tyler, through a band we were playing years earlier and he knew Jason Rullo, the drummer. So it got somehow naturally together. We made our first album, Symphony X, which is not really good, I don’t think. But it was one of those things, we really needed to start somewhere. We didn’t really know each other that well; we had an idea of the direction we wanted to go so it was like getting a bunch of new guys together. So we took it from there.
There was a gap of quite a long time between the release of The Odyssey (2002) and Paradise Lost (2007) and now with the new album coming out. Why did it take that long?
Every album is taking us longer and longer. That’s because of various reasons. For example I don’t like writing whilst on tour because I can’t concentrate. You know, you get tired and everything. So as we usually tour for one year to two years, you come back, you have to unwind a little, I got family, things to do in the house etc. Even the writing process is taking us kind of long. We always want to do something new, fresh, cool and it takes as a while. It’s just us and the way we work. We record everything in my studio so as we are recording we are still writing and changing parts and experimenting.
You have released “The Dark Chapter”. Tell us some things about it. Is there going to be a 2nd Michael Romeo album?
Oh man, everybody always asks me that and I really want to do it but it’s hard as I mentioned before. The band is always the priority and when the band stops I have the bulk of the writing with the band and getting all the songs together. So it’s tough. Actually the past couple of years I made a couple of folders with all these riffs that we don’t use and stuff and they are pretty good. It’s just finding that time to do it.
You have released The Guitar Chapter DVD. Tell us some words about it and how it happened?
Young guitar magazine (Japan) approached me. I was a little nervous and I wasn’t sure, actually after we’ve done the shooting and everything, the day after I thought, oh man, I should have talked about this and that, having more theory involved like building a solo and not just demonstrating a solo with patterns and everything. I mean it’s still cool but taking it a bit more deeper than that would have been much better, more like analyzing. If I ever do another one, which I would love to, I would like to talk about these things like you a have a piece of software and you are making a loop and then spending a lot of time trying to get the right thing. You put something simple down with some easy chord changes and then maybe more complicated chord changes and you just practice on top of that and it builds your phrasing without you thinking about it. Even today I still do that. I hope I will find some time at some point to do a DVD or some online thing.
What is your advice to the guitarists out there who want to make a career in music?
Don’t do it (laughs). It is hard and even growing up my dad was like “oooh go to college etc.” But it’s just me. But if you really are motivated and you are passionate about it just do it. It depends what you want to do. If you want to be a great player just practice all day. If you want to write great songs and be in a band, form a band. One or the other, I think at least. Figure out really what you want to do and just do it man.
When did you sign for EMI (TOSHIBA). Making money out of records, making a living out of it? (Emir's question)
The first couple of albums where out by Zero records but they where always part of EMI. For every album we always had a better deal financially. There was always a bit more. It was different for us. I mean I invested in the Dark Chapter. To be honest it didn’t really cost me anything. I had an 8 track drum machine. The only thing that would cost me back then was to make the cassettes and mail them to magazines like a guitarist. At the start obviously we couldn’t make a living out of it but for example when “Divine wings of Tragedy” came out I would be still teaching guitar for some money but everything started falling in place when we started touring more. After the 4th album we went to Japan and then we came to Europe and we didn’t do anything in the States at all at that time. I mean back then there was no Internet and this entire thing you have today. Back then I’ve sent my cassettes to Guitar Player magazine, Mike Varney, who put up a little column, run to the post office myself in order to mail the tapes and so on. Today it’s kind of easy. If you have a good thing and you put it up, people can see you and listen to your music all around the world. Even with the piracy we still sell a lot more now. To be honest I feel that happens because we play metal and you know, it has all these guitar players involved etc. The metal guys respect each other and it’s like a huge family so they would go and buy the CD because they want to see the pictures and the book and all that. I mean if I listen a good guitar player or a good band I’ll go buy it man. I’m a fan of all that stuff. I want to hold the disc, see the artwork. I think that metal bands are a bit safer from piracy because they are real guys that they listen to this music because they love it and it becomes part of them so they would buy the albums. You also have digital downloads, there's a bit from there as well so you know, it’s good and I don’t think that piracy kills us so much, at least in this genre.
Thanks for reading
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