Interview by Robbie Gennet
Story by Lori Kennedy
In the ’70s and part of the ’80s, demigods like Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, and Jon Lord topped the charts and battled each other (or, perhaps, we fans imagined that they battled) for rock supremacy. Today, the archetype of the keyboard hero is elusive amidst guitar-heavy alternative rock, not to mention the varieties of electronic music that are more about groove and sonics than about raw virtuosity.
The most intentional and outspoken exception to this state of affairs has to be Derek Sherinian, the man Alice Cooper once dubbed “the Caligula of keyboards.” From straight rock gigs with Cooper and Billy Idol (with whom Derek still tours) to the calisthenics of Dream Theater from 1994 to 1999, Yngwie Malmsteen, and his own prog outfit Planet X, one thing is clear: Where you find heavy, you’ll probably find Derek, who’s thick sounds and guitaristic approach to soloing stand as tall as the baddest of six-string slingers.
Need proof? Sherinian’s newest solo album Oceana matches his chops with those of legendary guitarists such as Steve Lukather, Joe Bonamassa, Steve Stevens, Tony MacAlpine, and Doug Aldrich. In addition, supergroup Black Country Communion—Sherinian, Bonamassa, Deep Purple bassist and vocalist Glenn Hughes, and drummer Jason Bonham—has been the surprise critical and commercial success of the year. With each new chapter in his career, Sherinian has risen ever higher into the rare pantheon of keyboard legends. We got the scoop on his approach, influences, gear, and the state of keyboards in rock ’n’ roll.
I was just listening to Oceana, and there are so many influences: fusion, rock, progressive time signatures, and even a little funk. Did it come out how you envisioned it or did it morph into something as you worked with different people?
The end product is pretty much what we decided on. At the outset, I knew I wanted to play again with [drummer] Simon Phillips as I did on my Inertia album. I’ve covered a lot of different musical ground between my last release and this one. I did some honest evaluating, listening to everything, and there’s just a certain quality factor when Simon is involved—not only in the writing but in the producing and mixing as well. Put Steve Lukather in the mix, and it’s just a whole other level—one that I aspire to be at one day. I’ve always wanted people around me that would make me a better player—why scratch with the turkeys when you can soar with the eagles? And I’ve always had a very strong rock and fusion influence. When I was younger, before I went to Berklee College of Music, I was very into Jeff Beck, Al DiMeola, and Allan Holdsworth.
So, guitar players were influencing you as a keyboardist?
Yes, moreso from the rock side of things. Eddie Van Halen was huge because he was the very first musician through which I saw that you could really express your personality through an instrument and have an individual sound. When you hear it, you go, “Wow, that’s him.” It really stands out from some guys who just play fast or have distortion on their guitars. I’ve always made that my main priority as a keyboard player—when I took a solo, I wanted to be identified as having a signature sound, no matter the style of music.
Can you describe that sound?
As you pointed out, it’s influenced by various guitar players—Van Halen, Holdsworth, Jeff Beck, and a bit of Yngwie Malmsteen, from playing in his band. That’s the thing—I’ve worked intimately with some great guitarists, on tour and recording and producing, and I feel like after working with them, a part of them becomes a part of me. I’m just a sponge, taking it all in and trying to incorporate it into my ever-evolving voice.
More specifically, Jeff Beck influences me because he’s pretty much a rock player who loved the harmonies of jazz, so he surrounded himself with these jazz guys on his fusion records and came up with this beautiful sound. As opposed to a jazz-trained guy, who might get a distortion box and a Charvel guitar and all of a sudden he’s a rock player. That doesn’t translate in the right way. I’m coming from rock and going into the other worlds, so it always has a level of balls—it has to have balls—and that goes not only for the arrangement and composition but the keyboard sounds.
So the big difference between rock and jazz is “balls”?
Yeah, man. If you didn’t have Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin or Van Halen posters on your wall as a kid, you’re not gonna have that in your blood when you solo or in the riffs that you write.
On the other hand, you have a lot of sensitivity in your arsenal.
It depends on whom I’m playing with. It’s like, I wanna be able to go in with Lukather, who plays more of the ballad Jeff Beck-type stuff, and still be able to play the cool “’Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers” Rhodes parts, but then be able to go into Yngwie’s world and play choir sounds and double his riffs. I wanna be that chameleon guy while maintaining my own sound. I think a lot of the reason why all of these great people are making themselves available to play on my records is that I’m letting them shine, but over a different backdrop than they might on their own records.
Which keyboardists are among your main influences?
Jan Hammer was the first keyboardist that I heard where when he soloed, I thought “Okay, that’s different.” It was more aggressive than, like, those video-game Minimoog solos that didn’t have cool pitch-bends. It was more guitar-like. He overdrove his Minimoog, and the way he bent it was very original. He was a role model to me as a kid. To a lesser extent, I was influenced by Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson, and Jon Lord. I loved their heaviness, and with the Hammond B-3 organ I use in the band Black Country Communion, I’m constantly telling producer Kevin Shirley, “Listen to how loud Jon Lord’s keyboards were in Deep Purple. Don’t be shy, crank it up!”
About Black Country Communion, had you played with Joe Bonamassa or the other musicians before?
Glenn Hughes has been an acquaintance for the past 15 years or so. I’d never played with Jason Bonham, and I hadn’t really heard much about Joe Bonamassa until I started playing with him. Then I became aware of the tremendous impact he’s making on the blues guitar world.
Black Country Communion is a formidable but perhaps unlikely combination of talents. How did you four get together?
The way it happened was, Joe Bonamassa was playing House of Blues in Los Angeles and Glenn Hughes sat in on a few songs. Kevin Shirley was in the audience and he had the epiphany that somebody should put together a group around those two guys. The next two people he called were Jason and myself. The whole idea was to go into the studio to learn a few songs and record them. It turned into a week-long session and we got a whole album in the can. I didn’t even meet Jason or have a conversation with him until four days into the session—we were moving that fast. We were all so focused, and Kevin Shirley is great at what he does, harnessing everything.
We put out the self-titled album and it resonated great in Europe. No one was expecting that. Then we decided to play a couple of shows in the U.K. during the holidays in 2010, and we sold out venues with 3,000 to 4,000 seats. It was like, “Wow, this could be something.” So then, the plan was to go back into the studio and record Black Country Communion 2 in January  and release it in June, then do a full summer of European touring. I just got back from the tour last week, and it went great. People are digging it, and sometimes in this crazy business you stumble into something that just works and you don’t question it—it’s organic.
How has Black Country Communion impacted you musically?
It really gave me a chance to get to know the B-3. I’ve been a purist in using real instruments on my records, but on all my tours, I’ve never taken a B-3 out; I’ve always taken clonewheels instead. I’d brought the real Leslie, but this is the first time where I’ve gone on tour with the B-3. I purchased a gorgeous 1962 fruitwood B-3 and had it modified by Ken Rich. The Leslie is cherry and I love it; I’ll never play live again without it. I’m doing some shows with Billy Idol this October, and I’m bringing the B-3. Once you have the real thing, why mess around? I feel almost embarrassed that I didn’t insist on one years ago. As long as I don’t have to lift it, I’m bringing it!
What other keyboards are staples in your rig?
If I wasn’t bringing the B-3, my favorite clone is the Nord Electro 3. There are a bunch of new ones that I haven’t played yet, but thus far the Electro 3 through a Leslie 122 is what I’ve used. There’s a lot of Rhodes on my record, and the Rhodes samples in the Electro 3 are pretty awesome—you can tweak and overdrive ’em. Also, the Mellotrons are fantastic. On the last Billy Idol tour, I didn’t run just the B-3 sounds from the Electro through the Leslie; I also ran the Wurly sounds and the Mellotrons through it and rolled off the overdrive a little bit. [Billy Idol guitarist] Steve Stevens turned around and said, “Man, that sounds amazing!”
Have you done a lot with modular synths? It seems they’d work with your signature sound.
Not much, but I just got a Minimoog Voyager XL, which is pretty massive. I’m using probably five percent of its capacity. I really need to just sit with the manual and dig in. There’s gonna be a learning curve, but it sounds so massive. I used it all over Oceana for bass sounds and for doubling the guitar melodies to get that thick analog sound. I run it through a guitar amp or a Tech 21 SansAmp to give it a little teeth. [See our full review of the Voyager XL here. —Ed.]
While we’re talking gear, I have to give a shout-out. Arlan Schierbaum is someone that I met this year that has been very helpful. He helped find my B-3. He loaned me his ‘74 Rhodes, which sounds great, for the record. He’s a great player that hasn’t gotten his due credit.
Tell us about your custom-tilted keyboard stands.
Whenever you see pictures of keyboard players—unless you’re behind the rigs shooting from an aerial view—every shot is of a person standing behind a box. One of the great things about guitar is that you see the player’s hands on the instrument, and there’s something that resonates there. So I came up with the idea—and I’m not saying I’m the first to do it—to tilt the keyboards away from me a bit, so no matter where you are in the venue, you can see my hands moving on the keys instead of just me making stupid faces and moving my shoulder.
Was it hard to adapt your playing to the tilt?
Actually, I found that having the hand tilted is better ergonomically. I was always taught that the correct technique in piano is to let your hands just fall on the keyboard so there’s no tension between the tip of the finger and the shoulder, keeping as loose as possible. The forward tilt achieves that looseness when I’m standing up. I now see metal keyboardists all over the world doing the tilt.
As to the audience seeing the keyboardist’s hands, what about the keytar?
As early in my career as 20 years ago, I’d instructed my closest friends that if they ever saw a keytar around my neck, they should rip it off and bludgeon me with it!
Can we blame the ’80s for that?
Yeah, all those disgusting digital Tinkerbell sounds that you heard in pop songs—it’s just cheesy. There’s just been a lot of cheese. It’s probably why I used minimal digital sounds on Oceana, though there are modern synths. There’s Rhodes, there’s B-3, there’s analog synth. It was before I got my Kronos, so I’m using a Korg M3 on a lot of the solos. I have some soft synths that I love, which I run on the [Muse Research] Receptor. I like Omnisphere, GForce M-Tron for some of the Mellotrons—those were the go-to sounds.
Can you recall an instance of a certain type of synth sound inspiring your playing in a new way?
A big breakthrough in my keyboard style was when I first joined Dream Theater in ’94. They gave me a Korg Trinity and connected me with Jack Hotop, the master sound designer at Korg. He asked me, “What would be your ultimate thing?” and I told him there was a factory patch called “Monster Lead” that I liked, but wanted to get more expressiveness out of. We put a delay on it, assigned the joystick so that down was wah-wah and up was vibrato, and put feedback on the ribbon controller. Jack helped me tweak that and other sounds.
You’ve played alongside Yngwie Malmsteen. How demanding was that?
Yngwie’s music may be more demanding than Alice Cooper but certainly not more so than Planet X or when I first played in Dream Theater—jumping into that was like being thrown in with the lions, learning all those songs I’d never heard before in such a short time. I knew that if I could get over that obstacle, I’d be able to tackle anything that was put in front of me musically.
Tell us about playing with Steve Lukather.
He has probably been on four of my solo records, and he’s great. As a kid, I wasn’t really a fan of Toto, but the outro solo he played on “Rosanna” was massive, and it’s obvious he’s one of the greats. I remember the first time on my Inertia album, ten years ago, Simon Phillips goes, “Why don’t we bring Lukather in?” and I go, “Why not?” It was a big landmark in my career. Simon is one of my heroes, and here’s Lukather, and they’re playing on my record, and I’m sitting there going, “Wow, these guys are the cream of the crop—you don’t get any higher than this.” I need to align myself with those guys because I wanna be one of those guys! I’ve structured my whole life to get good enough to be in that pantheon of players.
Do you have any influences that fans would be surprised to find out about?
I’d like to give credit to a couple of my teachers that were fantastic. I studied with Russell Ferrante [of the Yellowjackets] for a year or so when I was 19. You can hear his influence on my piano solo on the first song “Five Elements.” Another teacher of mine who is very underrated is Mitchel Forman. He’s a jazz guy, but he has some balls to him. He’s here in L.A. and I studied with him. I recorded some tracks on Inertia at his studio because he had a really cool Rhodes, and I liked him coaching me along because he’s a really sick player.
What was the first concert where you saw a keyboard player and it made you say, “Oh my gosh?”
I saw the Return To Forever reunion in ’81 or ’82, and Chick Corea was great.
What rock bands were you digging back then?
In 1980, Van Halen was my first rock concert, for the album Women and Children First. My son is named Halen . . . that’s how big of an impact they had, even though there was no keyboard until the 1984 album. Just the massiveness, the mightiness—I thought, “Man, this is what I wanna do for a living.” I actually got a chance to play with Eddie in 2006.
How did that happen?
There was a party at his house, and he hired a cover band my friend was in. My friend said, “Derek, you gotta be on this gig.” So we went to Eddie’s house for rehearsal. It wasn’t planned that Eddie would play, but he said, “I wanna play too.” And I’m all, “This is amazing!” So I’m up there jamming, and I took a solo on something, and Eddie says, “Wow, it sounds like you’ve listened to me a lot.” And I go, “Aw, yeah!” It was just surreal. I’ve met a lot of rock stars over the years, but that was a different level. So he brought me into his studio, and I ended up staying in there for two hours listening to stories, and I’m seeing the shark guitar from the Women and Children First cover, and vaults of master tapes that no one has ever heard. I was like, “Pinch me. This isn’t real.”
At that point, did he know who you were?
He probably had no idea! [Laughs.] At the end, I said, “Eddie, this has been a dream come true.” I had brought all my solo records, and I said, “Will you please give these a listen?” He took them and said, “Thank you so much.” It was pretty awesome to be able to do that.
Speaking of dreams, being on the cover of Keyboard is something I’ve wanted my whole life, and I hope seeing this inspires younger keyboard players to step up and not just be playing in the background. Really get into your instrument, get into your programming, learn as many styles as you can, but stick to the kind of music that inspires you the most.
Do you have any other rock ’n’ roll dreams?
If you’re reading this, Jeff Beck, you need me in your band. [Laughs.] Work with Simon Phillips and I on one of our records. Let us write produce and play. Let us go back to the roots. I want to be your keyboard player!
** Photos of Derek with assorted keyboards by William Hames.