From Megadeth to Japanese make-up tutorials: the bizarre life of guitarist Marty Friedman

From Megadeth to Japanese make-up tutorials: the bizarre life of guitarist Marty Friedman

It’s one of the most perplexing questions in heavy metal history: how does a bullet-wearing guitarist for Megadeth end up critiquing beauty products on Japanese daytime TV? “I started getting addicted to the challenge of: can I really do this?”, laughs Marty Friedman. “And the hardest one was being a judge on a show where these girls were doing makeup makeovers. I can’t think of anything I care less about in the entire world. ‘Well, she looked better with the foundation on after the blush!’”

Marty Friedman joined Megadeth in 1990 and helped the thrash band become a platinum-selling mainstream force that decade – one of the genre’s “Big Four” alongside Metallica, Slayer and Anthrax – but he walked away in 2000, and three years later he left the US altogether to start a new life in Japan, where as well as making music as a solo artist, he has established himself as an improbable but sizeable pop-cultural marvel.

Not only has he been called on to opine on blusher, he became the first foreigner appointed as an ambassador of Japan heritage, and the government also commissioned him to compose the Japan heritage theme song, which is played at state events. He has appeared in hundreds of adverts and TV shows, including Hebi Meta-San (Mr Heavy Metal) – championing the genre in millions of Japanese living rooms by way of Wayne’s World-flavoured satire.

“Having been broke and homeless at one point, I can appreciate the security of where I was,” he says of his jump from Megadeth into this unfamiliar world. “I don’t wanna say it was courageous – and some people might think it was stupid, because making a living in music is like winning the lottery. But I knew I had so much more to offer musically than being the lead guitarist in a great metal band.”

Megadeth in 1991. L-R: Nick Menza, David Ellefson, Marty Friedman and Dave Mustaine.View image in fullscreen

Friedman is speaking on a video call from Los Angeles, where he’s shooting a music video for his 18th solo album, Drama. He now makes melodic, instrumental soundscapes, what he calls “musical emotions that bring tears and chills out of people”. There’s no shortage of aggression in his solo catalogue – prior to Megadeth, he played with Jason Becker in the similarly shred-heavy Cacophony – but there’s joy in his eyes when he talks about experimenting with key modulations and unorthodox techniques. “I never want to be one of those guys where people say he started phoning it in,” he says. “I’ve had success and lack of success, but in a way I’m thankful that I’ve never had a huge hit that defined me – I guess it’s kept my music pure. When that happens, the motivation to better yourself can stop.”

And even after 20 years, Friedman is still entranced by Japanese society. “[Tokyo] is like New York on steroids,” he says. “It’s bustling, colourful and there’s a million things to do, but the thing I love the most is that it’s completely safe. I’ve never seen anything or felt the slightest fear in 20 years. There’s just no crime, and I live next to the red-light district! Once you get used to that, man …”

He first fell in love with the country on tour, and “out of respect for the fans and staff who treated me so well, I wanted to learn the language and I was close to fluent by the time I left Megadeth. But I was already listening to Japanese music exclusively two or three years earlier – I wanted to play that and immerse myself in the Japanese scene. I just followed my musical dreams.” His status as a domestic TV personality then snowballed after a chance encounter with a production company. “It really took off and I was doing television programmes of all kinds – variety shows, comedies, politics, gameshows, movies, major commercials. All things I never intended to do.”

Friedman has poured it all into an autobiography, Dreaming Japanese, which will be published later this year with a focus on what he calls his “transformation to Japanese society. So many people have asked me about it over the years, saying no one else has done what I’ve done. Maybe some see me as this guitar guy who fucked off to Japan to do TV shows and that’s where it ends for a lot of people, but even my hardcore fans don’t know anything that I’m putting in this book – like first love, first sexual experiences, marriage, divorce.”

There’ll certainly be stories of strife – before landing the Megadeth gig in 1990, Friedman auditioned unsuccessfully for Madonna, Kiss and Ozzy Osbourne amid periods of homelessness – but it won’t contain the typical tales of excess you might normally find in a rock’n’roll memoir: “I was the only one in Megadeth who was completely sober throughout my time in the band, so I have an outlook that’s accurate and from a different standpoint.” To write a compelling rock memoir, he says, you don’t necessarily need “the tragic, near-death experiences or drug overdoses. I think a lot of people wanna do crazy shit, take risks and leave a comfortable situation to chase a dream – it sounds cliche but it’s exactly what I did, and hopefully that part is inspiring.”

No other rock band in history has enjoyed a greater wealth of lead guitarist talent than Megadeth. Seven different players have performed across their 16 studio albums and, given the constantly revolving door, speculation around a Friedman return has endured for two decades. Last year, the stars briefly aligned as Friedman joined Megadeth live to perform a trio of songs at Tokyo’s illustrious Budokan arena – including Tornado of Souls, which features a famously intoxicating guitar solo. “People were crying and screaming and smiling from ear to ear. It was just a different kind of night!”, he says. “The show couldn’t have been any better, and to be completely honest, the band sounded better than when I was in it.”

Performing with Megadeth in 1992.View image in fullscreen

He calls it the “perfect reunion”, although only half of the band’s classic lineup was present. Former drummer Nick Menza died from heart failure aged 51 in 2016 after collapsing during a gig in Los Angeles. Long-serving bassist David Ellefson was fired in 2021 after a sex scandal. But Friedman suggests that it was more about him and Dave Mustaine – Megadeth’s ever-present leader – coming full circle.

“[Mustaine and I] love each other but it was time for me to leave the band when I did. The only piece of unfinished business that we had was Budokan. It was equally important for both of us because we’re both rock fans at heart – growing up with Cheap Trick at Budokan, and all our heroes who played there, we both wanted to play it together. Dave got hold of me and said ‘Dude, have you ever played Budokan?’ I said yeah, and he said: ‘Do you wanna play it again?’ It was the sweetest exchange.”

Friedman points out that he’s still just a resident of Japan rather than a citizen, but that he feels at home in both the US and Tokyo. He visits his mother and other family and friends when he’s back in Los Angeles, and says he “misses them terribly”, but says his wife, cellist Hiyori Okuda, is central to his “complete life” in the bustling Shinjuku area. “What I’ve learned is that home is where you make it. I feel at home in Japan but as an American it doesn’t necessarily mean that I belong. It’s about coexisting and both sides getting something good out of it. You can live anywhere once you grasp that. And,” he laughs, “there’s no better way to learn a language than by being on the frontline of a TV show and having to come up with something interesting about something that you don’t care about.”