The guitarguitar Interview: Derek Sherinian

Published on 18 September 2020

 
Guitar fans, do you like Zakk Wylde? Steve Vai? Joe Bonamassa? Bumblefoot? Kiko Loureiro?
 
We have a feeling you're going to get on well with Derek Sherinian...
 
 
(Photo: Greg Vorobiov)
 
 
The ex-Dream Theater keyboard master has a rather enviable contacts list indeed, and he has brought ALL of the above contacts together (and more!) on his latest solo effort, The Phoenix. It's an extraordinary listen, with rock, fusion and jazz influences blending effortlessly with advanced melodies, countermelodies and complicated rhythm parts (courtesy of co-writer and drummer Simon Phillips), all beautifully layered and then smashed together with a huge dose of hard rock!
 
Each contributing artist gets their moment to shine. Ron 'Bumblefoot' Thal (Guns 'n' Roses) plays on the most tracks, with his superb guitar skills mixing in with Sherinian's spectacular 'lead guitar'-style keyboard solos. Joe Bonamassa not only plays on a track: he also delivers a fantastic vocal, the only one on the album, in fact! Kiko Loureiro, Steve Vai and Zakk Wylde all add their creative genius to a track each, with 8 songs in total making up the album. If you like 'playing', you're gonna love it!
 
 
(Photo: Derek Sherinian Personal Archive)
 
 
Derek Sherinian is obviously a phenomenally talented player. You kind of have to be in order to join Dream Theater, right? Derek's story is bigger than that, though. His career has also seen him tour with Billy Idol and Alice Cooper, who famously referred to him as the 'Caligula of keyboards'! Derek is also a member of the supergroups Black Country Communion (with Glenn Hughes and Joe Bonamassa) and Sons of Apollo with ex-Dream Theater buddy Mike Portnoy and superstar bassist Billy Sheehan, who also appears on The Phoenix.
 
Like we said: this guy knows people!
 
With the release of The Phoenix just around the corner, we managed to grab a second of his time and sent some questions across to him via email. Read ahead to learn which keyboard he'd save from a fire, how he gets that amazingly expressive lead sound, and how he first met Zakk Wylde!
 
Guitarguitar: Derek, this is your 8th solo album, and your first since 2011’s Oceana. What is the overall concept to The Phoenix and why was now thew right time to release it?
 
Derek Sherinian: After nine years, I felt it was time. I got a new solo deal, and called up Simon Phillips. After a week of writing, we wrote the bulk of The Phoenix together.
 
GG: Listening to your playing, I often think I’m hearing a superbly played lead guitar instead of a keyboard! Is that part of your musical mission: to blur the edges between keyboard and guitar?
 
DS: Bumblefoot said that I am the best guitar player that he has ever been in a band with, except that he plays it through his keys!  When it comes to soloing, I have always been influenced and inspired by the great guitarists, specifically Edward Van Halen, Allan Holdsworth, Yngwie Malmsteen, Randy Rhoads, Jeff Beck, Michael Schenker. You can hear elements of all of these players in my DNA. I have managed to take my favorite qualities of all these great players, and process through my instrument, creating a totally unique signature style.
 
 
(Photo: Greg Vorobiov)
 
 
GG: Of course, you have some incredible guitarists playing on this record! Joe Bonamassa, Steve Vai, Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal, Zakk Wylde and Kiko Loureiro: you have some very talented friends! How did you decide which player would contribute to which song?
 
DS: It varies. For instance, I knew that I would be writing a song with Kiko Loureiro, so the song just developed organically. I treat my records like a movie, in that each song is a scene. I cast each song according to the composition. Fortunately, I am friends with a lot of great players.
 

"For me, the ultimate level to achieve in one's musicianship, is to be able to shine playing any style and with any musician, while maintaining your musical identity"

 
GG: Did you ‘direct’ each guitarist, in terms of what you wanted to from them? Or did you simply let them interpret your track however they wanted?
 
DS: I recorded and produced Zakk and Joe Bonamassa in person. With the others, I sent them a guide melody track and the basic song structure. I want all the soloists to do whatever they want during their solos. I try and create a soundscape behind them that allows them to shine, but in a different context than their fans are used to hearing them. I have done this throughout my solo records with Yngwie, DiMeola, Holdsworth, John Sykes, Steve Stevens, Steve Vai. 
 
GG: Zakk Wylde has appeared on a number of your recordings. Were you and he friends first, or did you meet through music? What’s it like working with him in the studio? 
 
 
(Photo: Derek Sherinian Personal Archive)
 
 
DS: I first met Zakk Wylde in 1989 at Wembley Arena when I was playing with Alice Cooper. He was playing with Ozzy at the time, and they came to the show. Zakk and I have been great friends over 30 years now, and I am extremely proud of all of his successes. To me, Zakk is the last of the great guitar heroes in the vein of Edward Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, and Yngwie Malmsteen. When you are on stage with him, its like playing with Thor or Loki. It's a massive sound. He is very pro in the studio. Before he records a solo, he will listen to the track a couple times, play, turn his pickups super low, and work out a sketch of his routine. Then when he's ready to track, he gets what he wants within a few takes at the most.
 
GG: Steve Vai, who plays on Clouds of Ganymede, initially sought you out to join his Generation Axe project for a tour of Asia. Did you find your keyboard style was easy to fit in with all of the pyrotechnic guitar playing?
 
DS: I was very glad that Steve Vai is on this record. I knew that he would be perfect for Clouds Of Ganymede. For me, the ultimate level to achieve in one's musicianship, is to be able to shine playing any style and with any musician, while maintaining your musical identity.  I have zero problem playing with any of these mentioned guitar masters.You can line any of them up, I could wake from a deep sleep, and feel comfortable trading solos with any of them.
 
GG: In addition of touring with Generation Axe, you’ve also had a long professional life of touring, not only with the bands you’ve been in but with artists like Yngwie Malmsteen and Billy Idol. How does the touring life compare with studio life for you? 
 

To me, Zakk is the last of the great guitar heroes in the vein of Edward Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, and Yngwie Malmsteen. When you are on stage with him, its like playing with Thor or Loki.

 
DS: They are both different, but I love both equally. It gets harder to tour as you get older, but I still love it.
 
GG: Talking about touring, you were one of the first keyboard players to use a vertical keyboard stand. Does this help you to connect more with your audience?
 
DS: I have not used a vertical stand in awhile, but I think that it adds to the visual experience when the crowd can see your hands hit the keys, like a guitarist. 
 
GG: How do you approach sound design, particularly for your lead sounds?
 
DS: My main lead sound is my Nord Lead 3 running through a half stack, an overdrive pedal, and a delay. 
 
GG: Live, we’ve seen you use Korg Kronos keyboards. Are they still your main go-to for gigs? Do you prefer hammer action or synth-action for the actual keys?
 
DS: The KORG is like a swiss army knife to me. For piano parts, I like weighted action. For leads and other parts, I  like non weighted action. 
 
 
(Photo: Greg Vorobiov)
 
 
GG: What is your typical live set up? Do you prefer hardware over a computer and controller?
 
DS: I only use hardware. On my last Sons of Apollo tour, I used my 1959 Hammond C3 "Big Red", Two modified Leslie 147's loaded with vintage JBL monitors driven by Engl Steve Morse model head.  Mellotron M4000, Korg Kronos, and Nord Lead 3 thru Engl Invader head and Engl 4 x12 cabinet.
 
GG: You are also known to have a fantastic collection of vintage synths. Which one vintage synth would you rescue from the proverbial studio fire?
 
DS: The MemoryMoog LAMM modified by Rudi Linhard. My most expensive synth, or my Nord Lead 3.
 

I have zero problem playing with any of these mentioned guitar masters.You can line any of them up, I could wake from a deep sleep, and feel comfortable trading solos with any of them.

 
GG: And which vintage synth would you love to see reissued and released again?
 
DS: I would like to see the Nord Lead 3 reissued. The model is 20 years old, and the newer Nords just do not sound the same.
 
GG: Finally, what does the rest of 2020 have in store for you?
 
DS: I am doing keyboard sessions, I just played on Michael Schenker's new album, one of my heroes! I also recently played on some Whitesnake records for David Coverdale, who is calling me " The son of Jon Lord". Also solo records for Brad Gillis, and Joel Hoekstra. I play on records for people all over the world, famous and also up and coming artists. I love recording, and seeing how elated people are after I play on their tracks. If you ever wanted me to play on your music, I would love to hear what you are doing!  Send me your track to sheriniansessions@gmail.com
 
 
(Photo: Greg Vorobiov)
 
 
Well, there you go: it's not every day that a profesisonal musician at the top of his game puts out such an offer! Will you be up to the task? We think you may have what it takes, but only Derek will know when he hears something he likes!
 
The Phoenix is released today (September 16th) on Inside Out records. Have a listen wherever you get your music, and keep up with Derek via the Derek Sherinian official site. Clavia keyboards in Sweden should take note: Derek wants you to re-release the Nord Lead 3! (If Yamaha are listening, let's have a CS-80 reissue too please, yeah? Thanks)
 
We'd like to thank Derek for his time and for access to his personal photo archive. We'd also like to thank Simon Glacken for his help in setting this up.
 
As ever, thank you to you for clicking the link and reading our article. More interviews soon!
 
Until then,
 
Ray McClelland 
 
 

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