Guitar shredding Finnish style
Interview by C. F. Sheeler
Elmo Karjalainene is a guitar virtuoso that hales from Finland. He was considered the best shred guitarist in Finland after winning the Finnish based Tilu & Lilu guitar shredder competition in 2015. Elmo also entered other guitar competitions, such as Yngwie Malmsteen's Guitar God Competition held in Miami, Florida in 2016, where he placed in the top eight and had a chance to play with other guitar virtuosos such as Malmsteen himself and Steve Vai among others. Also in 2016 Elmo placed runner up in Lee Ritenour's Six String Theory Competition.
In edition to competing in guitar competitions, Elmo has played lead guitar in several Finnish based heavy metal bands such as, Deathlike Silence, Kilpi, Helena & Kalevi and the latest being the band, Seagrave. Elmo has released four solo albums, Unintelligence Designs in 2012, The Free Guitar Album in 2015, the totally acoustic, Where We Belong in 2015, and Age of Heroes in 2017. I first met Elmo through, what else, social media. He asked me if I liked guitar oriented instrumental music and then told me a way to download five sample songs from his four solo albums. I was blown away by what I heard. Elmo's music takes the listener on a journey supported by a guitar that plays Neo-Classical, Blues, Jazz, and heavy rock influenced instrumental pieces.
Although Elmo keeps pretty busy with his family, a wife and two kids, and his many musical projects, which includes recording, playing live and also his guitar school, I managed to get him to answer a few questions.
PSF: When did you start playing the guitar?
EK: I was 11. My dad bought me a guitar and a crummy amp, and I just turned the distortion on full and made strange, or annoying, noises with the whammy bar.
PSF: What age did you become serious about your playing?
EK: That was when I was 13. I changed teachers, and the new guy really motivated me. I was heavily into Gary Moore at the time, and Sasa (my teacher) told me what to work on if I wanted to play like Gary. So many hours of woodshedding ensued.
PSF: Who are your influences?
EK: Gary Moore, Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Vai, Jeff Beck, Joe Satriani, Danny Gatton, Brian May, Mark Knopfler, Mattias IA Eklundh, Pat Metheny, Devin Townsend, Meshuggah, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Genesis... I could go on and on.
PSF: I hear not only Neo-Classical in your playing, but also Jazz and blues influence, is this right?
EK: That's right. The blues is a really big thing for me. I don't play it as such, but there's a lot that us shredders can learn from that stuff. Musically, it's really simple, and often, it's just the same three chords. And still there are tons of people who can make that sound really good. You really have to be expressive to pull that off.
Jazz is a bit different for me. I like many kinds of jazz, but I'm not very good at playing the stuff. I do however improvise my solos, so I definitely have that in common with jazz guys.
PSF: What is your main focus in your music?
EK: I'm not sure I have a main focus. What I do is quite often heavy, but I also have the acoustic stuff. I'm a bit of a split personality when it comes to music. I like all kinds of stuff. I've also decided somewhere along the line not to limit myself to one particular style or sound, because that gets stifling after a while, and kills creativity (at least in my case).
PSF: Tell me about playing in Deathlike Silence.
EK: That was a band I played in what seems ages ago now. We managed to get one radio hit with the song "Six Feet Under the Ground." We labeled ourselves gravedigger metal. It was all really fun to begin with. We made an EP and two albums, and played a fair amount of shows.
Looking back at it, there were a ton of problems with the band, one being that we were so locked into a box with the music, that I was already beginning to become a bit bored with the whole thing. I didn't realize that at the time though. We were signed to a label after the first album, and things were looking really good, and then nothing happened. There were issues within the band even before the second album, and in hindsight I'm glad it ended, because it would have been worse if we'd gone on. Actually we never quit, we just kind of stopped staying in touch. As I'm not in the business of publicly placing blame on anyone, I don't want to go into detail. I can take some of the blame myself, as I didn't react very well to certain things. I learned a lot about the business, and about myself too.
PSF: You have also played in a band called Kilpi?
EK: Yes, I joined Kilpi just over a year ago, although I'd done quite a lot with them already by filling in. I have recorded some stuff with them, but not an entire album.
You can find one video here:
PSF: How about the band Helena & Kalevi?
EK: I joined Helena & Kalevi a long time ago, but the thing is that it's originally a duo, which then became the world's only three-man duo. It's also Janne Laaksonen's band she also plays in Kilpi. We've recorded an entire album, but that's sadly never been released. We also did one live show which was recorded.
You can find bits of that on Youtube:
PSF: You have recorded an album with the band Seagrave in 2015?
EK: The album is called The End of Silence. It's your fairly basic old school metal/hard rock, in the style of Iron Maiden and Yngwie Malmsteen (and everything in between). It's quite good, and we have a great group of guys together. I really enjoy playing with those guys.
PSF: Are there any plans yet for a second album?
EK: We do have plans for another album, but there's no schedule set, so I can't say too much. What I do know is that I think the material is more solid than on our last one, so it should be great. See http://www.seagraveband.com.
PSF: You have recorded four solo albums, could you tell me about them?
EK: (Laughs) How much time do you have? I have four albums, plus an EP and a live album. The studio albums are Unintelligent Designs, The Free Guitar Album, Where We Belong and Age of Heroes.
Unintelligent Designs (2012) was a huge learning curve. It was the first time I did everything myself. I only had some help from my dad with recording and mixing. I'd recorded before, but never with that attention to detail, and I'd never really mixed anything properly.
The album was a mix of fairly new material, and older material. Even some of the recordings were old. I wanted to get rid of a lot of old material, while still making a good album. It did end up a bit uneven, but parts of the album are really good. In a way, it's a mishmash of all kinds of stuff, but I've since realised that my tastes are pretty much that way, so anything I make is bound to have very mixed influences.
When I had the album recorded, and I had rough mixes of everything, I listened to the whole thing and realized something was missing. I wanted something between some of the songs. That's when I came up with the idea of doing different characters talking between the songs. I had a guy based on Dr. Strangelove welcome people to the record, and I had someone who sounded a bit like Jacques Clouseau (Peter Sellers) say "until we meet again, and the case is solved."
The next album was The Free Guitar Album (2015). It was called that because I planned on giving the digital version for free. The idea was to use that to spread the word, and thus sell other stuff. Half of the plan worked. It did spread the word. The album also sounded better than the previous one. My dad mixed most of it, since I had a tight schedule. It was a whole lot shorter than the last one, with only 8 songs. It also had a few spoken bits. The CD version had three alternate takes on songs.
That same year I also released Where We Belong (2015). That was a therapy record for me. The year had been absolutely crazy and I recorded an album of acoustic music. It's extremely mellow, and most often its just two acoustic guitars, fairly simple melodies, and almost no fast playing. It's an album that's meant to take you away from the stress of everyday life. For me, it works.
All of my albums have received good reviews and feedback, but my last one got reviews that, for me, bordered on the surreal. The album is called Age of Heroes (2017), and it's been called the best instrumental album since Satriani's Surfing with the Alien, and the best shred album in the past 20 years. For me that's a bit overboard, but I couldn't be happier. Besides, I'm hardly objective about my own material. Not that anyone else is when it comes to music either. It kind of comes with the territory.
Age of Heroes also saw me realize a couple of dreams. I managed to get both Derek Sherinian (Black Country Communion, and ex Dream Theater, Yngwie Malasteen, Billy Idol, Alice Cooper) and Mattias IA Eklundh (of Freak Kitchen) to feature on the album. The played killer solos, and listening to them play on my album made me feel giddy. I've been a fan of both for ages. I also got Janne Nieminen and Emil Pohjalainen (the winners of Yngwie Malmsteen's Guitar Gods 2016) to play on one song. We traded solos on "A Meeting of the Gods (and this guy)" and it all turned out really crazy.
This album really is the best I've ever made, and it has all sorts of material on it. It has some extreme playing; some really mellow stuff, and everything in between.
PSF: Among your many projects, you also have an online guitar school?
EK: I have something called Elmo J. Karjalainen's Guitar Academy, where I teach guitar. At the moment, it's shaping up to be a complete course of guitar playing, as understood by me, which might mean guitar playing completely misunderstood. (Laughs) I do think I have to chop it up a bit and offer people the chance to buy bits of it instead of the whole thing.
PSF: Are you doing any session work at the moment?
EK: I haven't really been doing many sessions recently, but that's OK because I've been up to my neck in work anyway. I did play a guest solo on the upcoming Amberian Dawn album. That was fun.
PSF: Lastly, what kind of gear do you use?
EK: My gear is mostly pretty old school. I use a 50-watt Plexi type Marshall, the 1987X I think it's called. For guitars it's mostly Strats, but I do use 7-string guitars as well, mainly for heavy rhythm stuff. Actually what I'd really like is a 7-string version of the Strats I'm using. I have a Fender YJM overdrive, a Morley Bad Horsie wah, and I use a Fractal Audio Axe FX II for delays etc. live. I also use just the Axe FX when I play acoustic stuff live, and also for some smaller gigs. Most of my videos on YouTube have been done with the Axe FX. It's really close to the real thing, but the Marshalls are just more fun.
If you would like to learn more about Elmo Karjalainen and his music or purchase his albums, you can visit his website at http://elmojk.com.
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