Kiko Loureiro’s journey from Brazil to the biggest stages in the world is a tale of talent, passion, and a lifetime of hard work. After decades of international acclaim with Angra, Kiko moved to Los Angeles to find new opportunities, and as the lead guitarist of Megadeth he’s done just that. Not just a virtuoso of one style, Loureiro’s mastery of the instrument is the mark of a true musician, not just a guitar player. We caught up with Kiko between legs of Megadeth’s world tour in support of their Grammy-winning disc Dystopia.
[CG] I understand that you started on a nylon-string classical when you were eleven, and then switched over to electric a couple of years later. There’s a funny story about how you got started, care to share that with us?
[Kiko Loureiro] My sister was taking lessons, the teacher was coming to our house, and one day she just decided that she didn’t want to any longer. My mother had already paid for the lessons, so she said, “Hey Kiko, do you want to try?” It just kind of happened, but then I loved it! I started learning the first chords and then the first few classical pieces from some of the Spanish composers, like Tárrega and some of the other easy Classical pieces for the first few years of acoustic guitar.
At the same time, I was discovering Iron Maiden, Kiss, and Led Zeppelin. I was getting vinyl albums of Rock bands from the library at school, and I was discovering all of the Classic Rock music. Then in 1985, they had Rock in Rio and it was a big event! They had The Scorpions, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Ozzy Osbourne, Queen, Yes, Whitesnake, and so many other cool bands. I was watching it on TV and I thought, “I want to play guitar!” so my mother bought me a black SG copy. I was thirteen or fourteen.
[CG] There’s a video on YouTube of you tracking the solo for “Temple of the Shadows” back in 2004. You were clearly an accomplished shredder by that point – not the kind of stuff you would learn from a traditional Classical teacher. What resources did you turn to back then to develop your technique? Did you have any of the Greg Howe and Richie Kotzen videos, or did you do it all by ear and elbow grease?
[Kiko] I did listen a lot to Greg Howe and to Richie Kotzen in the early days. At that time, we didn’t have everything being officially released in Brazil, so we were always relying on friends who went to the U.S. to bring back albums. But the mainstream players were being released in Brazil, so that’s who I was mostly listening to. Van Halen and other mainstream bands with great guitar players.
But the shredders, like on the Shrapnel records were more of a niche. We didn’t have those records in Brazil and they were hard to get. I remember when a label in Brazil released all of those albums, with Richie Kotzen, Jason Becker, Greg Howe, and others from the late 80’s. Joe Satriani and Steve Vai were on bigger labels, so they were easier to get. But suddenly I was listening to all of those players and it was a big thing for me. Racer X, Vinnie Moore, and others. At the same time, I was getting the instructional videos too. Richie Kotzen, Vinnie Moore, Paul Gilbert, Frank Gambale, and this is all in the late 80’s, when I was sixteen years old. I had passed through the first chords and scales, I was already improvising some stuff, and I was trying my best to play like those guys. It was very motivating for me. I was fifteen or sixteen and suddenly I had these albums from Jason Becker when he was seventeen or eighteen, Yngwie Malmsteen, and Paul Gilbert – they were so young.
Of course, nowadays it’s a different game because you just turn on YouTube and you see a kid who is five years old (laughs). But, back then when I was fifteen or sixteen, seeing a guy with an album that had been released when he was seventeen or eighteen was a big motivation. Some people think, “I’m never going to be able to do that,” and they just give up. But for me it was more like, “This is going to motivate me to practice more because I want to compose songs like that! I want to do an album like that!”
I was not a fan of any specific one of them, it was more like the whole thing. But, of course, Greg Howe was a big deal for me. And then I started listening to all of the fusion guys too, like Scott Henderson, or Stanley Jordan with his tapping technique. And I listened to the metal bands as well. I remember, in ’91, going to see Megadeth at Rock in Rio with Marty Friedman on the Rest in Peace tour – amazing!
I remember, in ’91, going to see Megadeth at Rock in Rio with Marty Friedman on the Rest in Peace tour – amazing!
At the same time, I was always a big fan of Brazilian music. Growing up, my mother was always listening to Bossa Nova and other traditional Brazilian music, which has a lot in common with Jazz. Not really on the improvisation side, but more the chords and the harmonies. I was trying figure out how to improvise those harmonies and play over those chords. I was practicing and learning the Brazilian standards and the Bossa Nova composers. I say “Bossa Nova” because most people see Brazilian music as Bossa Nova, but Bossa Nova is more like the music of the 50’s and 60’s, so I was also learning the Brazilian music of the 70’s and 80’s. Nowadays, I try to combine all of those elements somehow. The Brazilian traditional music with the shredders and the Metal and everything.
[CG] As you look at the theory, technique, harmonic and rhythmic framework, Brazilian music and Metal are kind of at opposite ends of the universe. Do you kind of put on a Heavy Metal hat and think, “Alright, now I’m thinking like a Metal player. I’m thinking harmonically and rhythmically and melodically like a Metal player. And now I’m wearing another hat playing Brazilian music, playing Jazz?” Or do you just see it as all being music and you just think the same way about all music?
[Kiko] That’s a good question. It is different, you know, I think of it like wearing different hats. You could take a Megadeth song, and you’re basically in a certain mode most of the time. It’s almost always Minor and Phrygian. And then you take a song from Brazilian music, and it’s going to be completely different. You’re talking about Brazilian music as 500 years of culture, and it’s a big country, so you cannot compare it to one band, or one or two composers. When I’m playing Megadeth songs I tend to look at Metal, which is a style of music, and also how Megadeth has inspired this style of music. Dave (Mustaine) has his own style and legacy and elements to define the musical concept. When you’re talking about Brazilian music, it’s huge, you know? But if you take one composer from Brazil, then it’s easier to focus on playing more like that particular person.
When you’re performing on stage, it’s a completely different mindset. The Rock mindset is like you’re going to make a speech. You prepare, you practice what you’re going to say, you go over it again and again and really memorize it, and then you go on stage and deliver it the best that you can. The Brazilian music, or Jazz, or just improvisational music in general is more like you practice the speed of thought. You practice the reaction of any action that is happening in the music. It’s like a conversation that is happening between four or five friends on a subject. You decided the subject, like you decide a harmony for a sixteen-bar section, and then you decide to have a conversation, but you don’t know what’s going to happen. So, the mindset is completely different. Having a conversation in a bar with some friends versus giving a prepared speech.
With Megadeth, you have the lights, you have your position on stage, like for that song you need to be in position number one, but for the next song you’re in position two because the lighting guy has to know where everyone is going to be on stage. But when playing and improvising in a jazz club it’s completely different, so the mindset is different. And this goes for the performance as well as the way you approach the harmony. You can experiment and be willing to make mistakes because the mistake is going to take you to a different place. Maybe the other players, because of your mistake, are going to play something different and try to create something different in that moment. But in a Rock concert, if you play something wrong, you just have to correct it and pretend that nothing happened and just keep playing the right notes.
[CG] I read somewhere that you don’t consider yourself a sideman. As I understand, you moved to Los Angeles to find some new opportunities, and ended up in Megadeth. What about this experience is different from being a sideman for you?
[Kiko] Yeah, the “sideman” comment was from an interview somewhere, but actually I think it’s great. I’ve worked as a side-man many times. What I meant was more about the mindset of a side-man where you go to a gig, play correctly, and get your money and leave. In the very beginning of my career, I did a tour with a singer from Finland that invited me, so it was like sideman work. But I played with Angra for twenty years, and I was the guy that was there from the beginning. So all the things when you’re developing a new band, getting together with your friends and rehearsing, developing ideas for the band regarding the shows, the albums, the artwork, the merchandising, or whatever – I had twenty years of experience doing that. When I joined Megadeth, I could have just been the guy who just comes in and plays the riffs and solos correctly and then goes back home, but I’m more about being there and adding to anything that I can. If I see something that I think is great for Megadeth, I call David and I tell him about it. I feel more like a regular band member, not just a sideman. I’m willing to contribute ideas for merchandising, or lights, or gear, or song ideas, or anything that could contribute to the band, not just things specific to my instrument. I just like to be like that, even though sometimes it’s extra work and not even work that I need to do. Megadeth has a lot of professional people working for them and great management. I actually don’t need to think about those things because there are a lot of professionals who are doing it, but I just like to be like that and to bring ideas and contribute. My entire life I had to do that because I had my own band.
So, that’s what I mean about not considering myself a sideman. It’s fine to be a sideman and to go, play, do your job correctly and wait for the next gig. Or you can feel that you’re part of a group and try to give ideas and participate as much as you can in any area, not only your own instrument. When you work for the band and try to do something for the band and think about what is best for the band, then it’s going to be about what’s best for everybody under that brand. That’s what I always have in mind, and I always try to be that guy in the system.
[CG] In Megadeth you are stepping into more than just the legacy of the other guitar players that have been in the band. I grew up in the San Francisco bay area and saw Dave when he was still in Metallica. There is a heritage and a history – the Thrash scene that started here has grown into a worldwide genre. As a player, what is it like to step into the legacy of the band and the music? How do you step into the shoes of those amazing guitarists while still remaining true to who you are?
[Kiko] Good question! That’s basically my work – to find that place. It starts with learning the songs and learning the solos and respecting the musical side of things. But the first thing I did when I met Dave was I bought his book and I started reading it, studying and watching him as I got more involved. I’m a Metal fan, and of course I knew Megadeth and was a fan. I grew up listening to their music. But it’s different now. Now I’m a part of the band and I need to really know everything about the band. I have to understand the personalities and understand the past history of the band. I had some great moments while talking to Marty Friedman, and Chris Broderick. I’m with Dave every day, but reading the books, getting to know the family, and talking with the other band members was really important.
When I went to the studio to record Dystopia, I remember that Dave invited me to stay at his house for a few days, and it was great! I got to know him as a person and met his wife and son and daughter. It helped a lot. For me, I can say I’m an experienced musician because I’ve been playing for almost 30 years. But it’s not just about the chords, scales, and notes. When I go on stage, all of those other elements help me to understand what I’m doing there and how to respect the legacy and how to react to the fans. I’ve been really cautious about that and doing a lot of research and study and learning and asking. A lot of guys from the crew have been there for ten or twenty years with Megadeth, so it’s great to talk with them as well. Brian, the lighting designer, did the Rust In Peace tour and the Countdown to Extinction tour over 20 years ago, so it’s great to talk with him.
We had the 3rd spot on the Billboard charts when the album was released. It was Justin Bieber, Adele, and Megadeth, which is just amazing!
All that information together helps me to find my place and to understand my role. I don’t want to copy anyone. I just want to be the 2016-17 guitar player who respects the legacy but still moves forward. I think that Dystopia shows the style and concept of the band, but at the same time sounds very modern and up to date. And that was our goal while we were recording – we wanted to respect the legacy and concept, but at the same time be fresh and up to date. And now we’re doing the tour and bringing a freshness to it, I think that we’re getting there! We had the 3rd spot on the Billboard charts when the album was released. It was Justin Bieber, Adele, and Megadeth, which is just amazing! This year we got the Grammy for Best Performance.
I think the fans are responding too. We are playing six songs from the new album, which is amazing from a legendary band that has so many albums and over 200 songs. We are playing half of the set off of the new album, and the people sing along and love to hear the new material. This is quite an achievement. I think it is a great lesson for any band where the members are getting older. Dave and David are fifty-something now, and we release a new album and are still making history. Not just by copying ourselves, but by doing fresh stuff and making history with new ideas. I’m very happy to be a part of that and to help bring the new freshness to the band.
[CG] Your signature Ibanez guitar features an “S Series” body that is made out of Alder instead of the traditional Mahogany. How did that come about?
[Kiko] Actually, I had a first prototype in Mahogany, and then another prototype in Alder. I wanted to have a kind of “super-Strat”, so after comparing the two prototypes the Alder was just better. It was clearer and sounded crisper. Also, the neck was something that we tried several different types before I found the one that I liked. We first tried something more like the Satriani neck, which is more round and smaller. It’s cool for the fusion music and the bluesy stuff, and a little more like a Strat. And then they have the Steve Vai neck, the Wizard neck, which is larger and thinner. It’s great for tapping and for the fast runs. In the end, I found something in between that was the best solution for me. It’s not super thin like the Wizard neck, but not as round and thick as a Strat. I think in the end it was a good compromise.
You have a little bit of this classic feeling, kind of like a super-Strat, but it can also be Metal, or Fusion, which is something that the “S” model brings. It can be fusion, but it can be metal too. It’s perfect for the kind of music that I do, because I play the metal with Megadeth, but I also have my solo stuff and the fusion stuff and the guitar is ready for that task as well. So, whenever I change “hats”, as we said before, the guitar is ready to change with me.
[CG] The recessed “tilt-in” jack is a really clever idea. Was that your idea?
[Kiko] Actually, it was a suggestion from Ibanez and I liked it. We were trying to find something a little bit different, without being super weird. It’s basically an “S” model, but with a thicker body to get the sound we wanted, and then they had the idea for the jack.
[CG] The guitar ships with 10 – 46 gauge strings on it, and I saw that you’re using the NYXL’s. What do you prefer about NYXL 10-46s?
[Kiko] I love the NYXL strings. The intonation is perfect and they are very, very reliable. I can play the whole show without having to re-tune, even when using the tremolo. They are just really reliable with the combination between D’Addario and Ibanez. 10-46 is what I play normally. In the Megadeth shows we play while tuned a whole step down, so then I use 10-52. But when we were deciding on what type of strings to use for the signature model I put 10-46 on. Maybe 20 years ago I used a .009, but I prefer the sound of the .010 now. For fast picking I feel more tension on the strings and it feels more accurate to me, which can sometimes be a problem when I switch to the Megadeth sets with the strings tuned a whole step down. When I’m doing the fast picking parts it can feel like the strings are a little bit looser, but I don’t want to go to the 11, mostly because I want to save my arm (laughs), from the tendonitis problem. I’ve been playing with the guitar slung a bit lower than before, and it isn’t as good for your arm to play with the guitar lower. It looks nice in the pictures, but it’s not super healthy to play the kind of solos that I have to play while having the guitar really low.
[CG] That gets us to your signature DiMarzio pickups. I saw that the neck pickup is based, at least in part, on a PAF Pro. How did you end up working with DiMarzio, and what is the development history of your pickups?
[Kiko] I met Steve Blucher (DiMarzio pickup designer) a long time ago. I did my first solo album in 2004: No Gravity, and then another one in 2006: Universo Inverso, which is more of a Fusion/Brazilian/Jazz album, and Steve Blucher was into that kind of music. He was sending some gear to me back then.
I was using the PAF 36th Anniversary model, and when it came for my Ibanez signature model, I asked him, “Can you do something like that for me? You know my music. I need to play the Metal stuff, but I need to be able to do the Fusion stuff too.” And he developed the Kiko signature pickup for me. It is kind of based on the PAF, and if you’re playing in a metal band it will work great, but if you compare my pickups to Dave Mustaine’s active pickups, it’s completely different. His pickup is made for metal, and it’s hard to play anything else.
With my DiMarzio’s, even if you don’t have that much output and you add more gain in the amp, it will sound great and clear and have more control. If you don’t put a lot of distortion on your amp or your pedal, then you will have the fusion sound if you want. And that’s what Steve developed. My DiMarzio signature pickups for my Ibanez signature model.
[CG] Tell us about your relationship with DV Mark Amps.
[Kiko] I’m using the DV Mark Multi-amp now. I’m working with it at home and setting up all of my sounds, and then I’ll bring it on the road with Megadeth. I love Marco De Virgiliis, and it’s great gear.
[CG] How did you end up doing the Great Guitar Escape camp with Paul Gilbert? Did he reach out and invite you to come teach and play at his camp with Mimi Fox, Andy Timmons, and Bumblefoot?
[Kiko] Yeah, it was an amazing time. I met Paul years ago in Japan and we went to have some blowfish for dinner. Then I met him some other times through the years. I was lucky and blessed that he invited me. I’m a big fan of Andy Timmons and Bumblefoot as well. It was great to see Mimi Fox playing. I love to listen and see a real jazz player. Her improvisations were so amazing. And I just love guitar camps in general. It was the first time that I’ve done a guitar camp in the United States. I’ve done a few others in Europe, like in Germany with Greg Howe, and one in Italy with Allan Holdsworth that was great. But this was the first time in the U.S. and it was great! I’m a big fan of Paul Gilbert. I grew up listening and observing him, and I learned a lot of stuff from him, like fast runs and scales. My teacher back in Brazil was more into the fusion stuff, back when I was 18 or 19 years old. He wasn’t really into the fast runs. I watched a lot of the guitar videos, and Paul Gilbert was a big part of that learning process. So it was great to be at the guitar camp with him, and also with Andy Timmons.