Considered to be one of the fastest guitarists in the world, Michael Angelo Batio is a highly unique individual and gifted guitarist. And when speaking about his playing in interviews, Michael comes across passionate, intelligent and excited about his instrument.
His iconic Double Guitar is known to millions of players the world over, while his jaw dropping technique is admired and studied by countless guitarists. On a recent trip to Australia to perform a series of clinics cum performances, Joe Matera caught up with Michael Angelo Batio during sound check on a sunny Melbourne afternoon in this interview for Ultimate-Guitar.
UG: You’re very passionate about your Dean guitars, what made you choose the Dean over the normal standard choices such as Fender or Gibson guitars that a lot of other guitarists tend to use?
Michael Angelo Batio: I have always wanted my guitars to be different and to be unique. And not necessarily, because of that, was I, also wanting to be better than other guitar players too. But I naturally play differently and have come up with different things live, and so I always have wanted to be unique and have my own voice. And when Dean guitars came up with the ML shaped guitar, it was one badass guitar. I do like Gibson Les Pauls and Fender Strats, but I mean, you have already got Angus Young playing a Gibson SG, Jimmy Page playing a Les Paul, and Hendrix playing a Strat, so I wanted to play something totally different. And Dimebag thought the same way too. So that is why I started using Deans. Their shapes are really cool, and they’re high quality USA. When they came up with the Blue Burst guitar, when I first saw it, it freaked me out. I used to see it hanging on the music store wall where I was teaching guitar in my hometown of Chicago. And every time I saw it, I’d say 'I have to have that guitar’. And that is how it all started.
Are your guitars set-up with a low action to help with your speed playing?
No, my action is set pretty high and it doesn’t stop me from playing fast at all.
You started playing piano and composing at age five and then started playing guitar at age ten. How much did you early piano skills influence your approach towards the guitar?
A lot because first up, I’m left handed and so I played piano right-handed as there were no left handed pianos. And since I played guitar right handed too, that’s what gave me the ability to do all this stuff because my left hand, the fret board hand, became the stronger hand. And it served me well really early on when I started playing shows at the age of ten, where I developed this whole show of playing over and under. But as I went on, I came to the realization that my right hand was very deficient. When I got to 14 years of age, it suddenly dawned on me that I had this super fast left hand but my right hand just sucked. So I spent two years developing my picking technique, with strict alternate picking. Literally, I’d play hour after hour to get my right hand to equal the left hand. But the piano playing helped a lot when it came to develop my technique on the double guitar as it enabled me to play two different parts at the same time.
A lot of your playing particularly the speed side of things still has a lot of melodic-ism in it rather than you are just trying to fit in as many notes as possible. Did that sense of melody come from your piano background too?
|"I always have wanted to be unique and have my own voice."|
Yes. But also it came from my first band Holland. We got signed to a major label, Atlantic Records and though we were never big outside of the US, we did do really well in the U.S. And we wrote three and half minute kick your ass pop songs! But it was also really good melodic metal. I didn’t play really fast but I wrote all the songs with the singer as I had come from a more songwriting background. And the solos always had a melody. But what happened was, because I had the ability to play really fast, people seemed to take more notice of that instead.
What about when guys like Yngwie Malmsteen came onto the scene doing a somewhat similar thing with the fast playing, what did you think of their playing at the time?
I liked it. But you have to understand that when we were coming up in the '80s nobody was calling it shred guitar back then. We all just wanted to be good. But then during the '90s, the critics, especially in the States were part of this whole anti-guitar movement, where you couldn’t play solos. And so they tried to make people who could play, like me, not feel good about it. When grunge came in, all the shred type guitar players either ran away or they went on to become blues players. But I thought to myself, 'why should I change just because some guy in a suit says that what I’m doing is unpopular?’ In my career, I’ve always tried to do things that were different. For example, I came up with the double-guitar, and I had a different sound. While everybody was doing the scooped mids thing, I was doing the exact opposite. And so, I started finding out about the internet, as I knew back then what the way of where records were going to go. Because records had gone to cassette, and then cassettes went to CDs, I knew CDs had to go somewhere else too. And once I realized that CDs were digital and that the internet was a way to transfer digital data, I knew I had to jump on it. So I got on to that horse and rode it. I got the URL angelo.com and with my previous record industry experience of being on a major label under my belt, I began marketing myself and my playing in a different way. And then soon after, it [the net] exploded.
As you have mentioned and as many would know, you invented the Double-Guitar. A V-shaped, twin-neck guitar that is played both right and left-handed. What was the inspiration behind it?
When I was about 13 years old I was watching a jazz concert in Chicago being performed by jazz saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk. At the time I only had been playing guitar for a few years and was studying jazz. And this dude totally blew my mind. He also had this technique called circular breathing, where he could breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth at the same time while he was ripping. During the show he did this thing which freaked me out, he had taped two saxes together and began playing them both at the same time! And thought, 'here I am, a piano player, am left handed but playing a right handed guitar, so I’m going to do that too’. And that’s how I came up with the idea. It came from the saxophone. Even in the way I strap on the double-guitar with a strap around my neck, that idea came from the sax players.
It is a heavy guitar and with having to strap it around your neck, wouldn’t the weight of it become quite painful over time?
Hell yes, but I regularly go to a good chiropractor. But it’s never really hurt me.
When it comes to speed playing in general, what do you think are the integral elements a guitarist needs to be aware of?
I would say that in order to play fast, you have to first learn how to play slow. It is all about coordinating both of your hands so that they’re able to play together. I used to make my students play slow first. I learned this technique from having taken piano lessons and I used that to teach speed playing on the guitar. When you slow it down and force people to physically and mentally concentrate, it gets more ingrained in their heads and because of that, they can become a better and fast player. And only then would I show them other exercises. So it really comes down to the discipline of concentrating on what you’re doing really slowing and getting that right movement correctly. And I pick unusually too, because I’m left handed and I rest my hand on the guitar like this (demonstrates). I did a study of lot of different guitar players and found that though there are some that pick from the wrist or elbow, I found that its not that important. The majority of players like Yngwie Malmsteen, Paul Gilbert, John Petrucci, Vinnie Moore, myself and anybody who plays really fast and accurately, when they’re playing medium to fast speeds, they never move their thumb and index finger. So it doesn’t matter if you use your wrist or elbow, what matters is the motion of your thumb and index finger. It has got to stay stationary. There are exceptions to the rule though but 95% of all guitarists do use this common technique.
What about when it comes getting a guitar tone, what do you look for?
|"In order to play fast, you have to first learn how to play slow."|
For me I have to separate it into three sounds; distortion rhythm, distortion lead and, clean. Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifiers are cool for my distortion rhythms but because they don’t have the mid range that I like for lead playing, I usually gravitate towards Marshalls for my leads. And for clean sounds, you can’t beat any old Fender amp. So what I look for is a really good mid-range tone. My lead guitar tone doesn’t have a lot of bass and a lot of treble, but it does have a lot of mids which in the process creates a lot of presence. You know for humans, even if you’re hard of hearing you will always hear the mids. I have people say to me all the time how clean my guitar sound is and it is because there are so many mids in the tone, that when you play live it really becomes more present. I used to get so pissed at all these engineers, as whenever we would record and mix an album, they would then master it and add all this brightness to it. And it made my tone too bright. I was like, 'no that’s not my tone, I don’t want a bright guitar sound. I want bright drums and cymbals’. So ever since, I have not been a big fan of mastering.
If I asked you to choose a few guitarists that influenced your style and approach to playing, who would they be?
I listen to a lot of different guitar players so it is hard to choose a select a few. But early on, I listened to a lot of Django Reinhardt records. I loved his playing so much that on every CD I have recorded early in my career I always include, some Django riffs. Also, I loved George Benson and Al Di Meola especially some of those Di Meola albums like Elegant Gypsy. As for current guys, I like a country guitar player called Brad Paisley he recently released a new album [Play] that is almost all instrumental and he does a lot of Eric Johnson styled and Joe Satriani styled playing. That, I really like.
Jim Gillette recently commented that he would like to see a reunion of Nitro happen possibly in 2009.
Yeah he asked me but I’m not going to do it. And Jim and I are best friends. But Jim also doesn’t want to do any of the old songs. Jim’s idea is for a Nitro 2009, not the Nitro from the past. He doesn’t want to redo Nitro, he just wants to get back up onstage again and do what he’s doing now. It might be under the banner of Nitro though. But what he is doing now is an album with his wife, Lita Ford. And I’ve heard some of the music and it is really cool. But for me to do a Nitro reunion and not do any of the old songs, I don’t think it would be the same.
Interview by Joe Matera
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