Elmo Karjalainen Discusses Why He’s One Of Finland’s Top Axe Players

By Andrew Catania

Elmo Karjalainen is a Finnish guitar player, who plays in Kilpi, Seagrave and Helena & Kalevi. In the past, Elmo has played with the band Deathlike Silence. On top of that, he has released three solo albums and a live album. In 2015 Elmo won the Finnish Tilu & Lilu competition, a competition which looked for the best Finnish shred guitarist. In 2016 Elmo got into the top 8 in Yngwie Malmsteen’s Guitar Gods competition and performed with Yngwie, Steve Vai, Nicko McBrain and others in Miami. The same year he was also a runner up in Lee Ritenour’s Six String Theory Competition.

What made you decide to pick up the guitar? Did anyone influence you? Schooled or self-taught?

EK:  I was 11 when my parents bought me a guitar and a crummy little Aria transistor amp. It took me a while to get going though. I almost quit after the first year. I wasn’t progressing, and my teacher didn’t inspire me. The second year my teacher was ill one day, and he had a substitute. He seemed actually to take an interest and asked me to play something. I was into Gary Moore, so I played something of his. The teacher then proceeded to correct how I held the pick. That made an impression. Shortly after I changed teachers completely (the regular guy was back, he’s a good man, just not a good teacher for me).

My new teacher started by asking what I wanted to play. The previous guy had never actually asked me that, or if he had it hadn’t shown in the lessons. I said, Gary Moore. My new teacher, Sasa, taught me proper bends and vibrato, plus some finger exercises to coordinate the left and right hands. Other than that his method involved getting rid of me as quickly as possible. He gave me all the tools I needed to be able to study on my own. The other great thing about him was that he was such a good guitar player that every time I listened to him back, then I just got a silly grin on my face. He was that good. We’re still good friends these days, and he builds and repairs my guitars for me.

Elmo Karjalainen Discusses Why He's One Of Finland's Top Axe Players

Sasa’s question has been the guiding light for me when dealing with my students. I try to dig for what they want to play (some of them don’t know when they’re beginners). I find that’s key to learning. If you’re forced to play something you’re not into, then interest fades quite quickly, especially as the beginning can be quite difficult. I also try to apply that to my online lesson site, although that’s a bit more challenging, as it’s a site that consists of videos, not of one on one teaching. The good thing is that I have an idea of how to do that. For anyone who’s interested, you can find the site at http://ejkguitaracademy.com

Who’s influenced your playing?

EK:  I’ve been influenced by a whole bunch of guitarists and bands. Yngwie is probably my biggest influence along with maybe Vai. Satriani had an impact, as did Steve Lukather, SRV, Hendrix, Danny Gatton and some others. I was also heavily influenced by Genesis and Devin Townsend. Later influences include Mattias IA Eklundh, Fredrik Thordendahl, and Pat Metheny. Oh, and then there’s Jeff Beck. He’s amazing. And Zappa. A couple of other notable influences have been Sasa, of course, and a guy called Masi Hukari, who’s a Finnish guitarist I used to play with. He’s one of the nicest guys on the planet, and also one who has an incredible amount of knowledge about music. He’s also a man who likes to have fun with music and made me realize that you can laugh at your music while still be serious about making it. You don’t have to think it’s the be all and end all of the music, and that there can be loads of fun to be had when you ditch certain conventions. That, in turn, leads to a surprising amount of people connecting with the music, probably because it has a human element that’s often missing (which is not to say that other music lacks a human element, just that this is one more human element you can add).

Elmo Karjalainen Discusses Why He's One Of Finland's Top Axe Players

How have you evolved as a guitarist?

EK:  Tough question. I think I’ve been all over the place a bit, but then again that’s what I’m like. I like so many different kinds of music that it sometimes makes it difficult when making an album. There’s a risk of it just becoming a mishmash of stuff. I went from shred to blues, to jazz and fusion, to a bit of country, and back to shred again. I also played evergreen stuff, and Finnish dance music (waltz, tango, etc.), and at some point, I had a significant phase of learning odd meters, mostly because I liked some Balkan music (Vlatko Stefanovski most of all). There was a constant undercurrent of shred there, and when I got back into shred mode, all of the other stuff was there.

I stopped practicing repetitive stuff at some point and just started jamming over cassettes and CDs. That was good for me because I’d gotten a bit bored with practicing, and that rekindled the spark. Also, it was perfect for my improvising. I also started transcribing stuff quite early, which I think is essential to any musician (although you don’t have to write it down).

Also playing with Masi (who I mentioned earlier) opened up new doors for me. We started out playing jazz standards and quite quickly realized we weren’t any good at it. So we started to play regularly well-known songs but making bizarre versions of those. For instance, we played Paranoid with a bossa nova feel and changed every chord to a maj7. That sounded strange and fun.

I started doing solo stuff in 2012. That’s when I released my debut album, Unintelligent Designs. In 2015 I released The Free Guitar Album, and an acoustic album, Where We Belong. In 2015 I also won the Finnish Tilu&Lilu shred contest. I guess that means I’m a Finnish shredding champion. In 2016 I made it into the top 8 of Yngwie Malmsteen’s Guitar Gods competition. That meant I got to go to Miami and play in the final, which also included performances by Gus G, Steve Vai, and Yngwie himself. I got to meet them, and Yngwie even said to me: “you’re excellent”. That was probably the most fun I’ve ever had.Elmo Karjalainen Discusses Why He's One Of Finland's Top Axe Players

That year I also released my latest album, “Age of Heroes.” I got some cool people to play on it, including Mattias IA Eklundh of Freak Kitchen and Derek Sherinian who’s played with basically everyone from Dream Theater to Yngwie to Billy Idol. At the moment I think he’s in Black Country Communion. Mattias played on two songs, and the solos he did were just crazy. He’s so good it made me feel nervous having to trade solos with him. In the end, it was fun, but that was kind of my reaction when I listened to what he’d done. Playing with Derek was a dream come true. I’ve been a fan for ages and hearing his tracks almost made me jump up and down with excitement. It turned out to be a perfect record, and one reviewer even called it the best instrumental album since Surfing with the Alien. That was some review.

Do you have any current projects other than your record you just released?

EK: I play in a band called Kilpi. It’s a Finnish hard rock band. We have a new video out (you can find it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sfn_609PDDg), and we’re about to release something soon. It’s remastered and a couple of new songs. The video is about a guy remembering the summer of ’86. It’s all in Finnish, so some of you people in internet land might have a tough time understanding what’s going on.

I also play in a band called Seagrave, but that’s been quiet for a while and in something called Helena & Kalevi. H&K is a band, but we also do gigs as an acoustic trio, two guitars, and vocals. I also do troubadour gigs occasionally.

On top of those I have a couple of other projects in the works, one called Rising Horse and one called Insomniac.

Elmo Karjalainen Discusses Why He's One Of Finland's Top Axe Players

What musicians do you want to play with?

EK:  How much room do you have for an answer? Devin Townsend, Mike Mangini, Dennis Chambers, Jorn Lande, Jens Johansson, Pat Metheny, Thomas Haake, Brad Mehldau, Vai, Satch, Yngwie, Tower of Power, the guys from Snarky Puppy, Gene Hoglan, Victor Wooten.  I could go on and on.

What does your current rig consist of?

EK: The main stuff is a Strat of some kind going into a Marshall 50W 1897X head, which goes into a Marshall cab with Celestion Greenbacks. The Strats are either Yngwie Strats or variations that Sasa has made. He did one version which has a mahogany body but is otherwise basically a Yngwie Strat, and it’s absolutely killer. Other guitars include a couple of Ibanez Universes for the heavy stuff, plus a Schechter 7 string. I also have one Jem copy which Sasa made.

Between the guitar and amp, I have an overdrive. These days it’s the Fender YJM overdrive. I also have a Proctavia which I’m trying to incorporate, plus a Morley Bad Horsie Wah. I also like lots of delays. I use the Axe FX II for that. For smaller gigs, I use the Axe FX with a monitor, but I’ve modeled my Marshall sound into that, and it’s quite close. So close that it’s great fun to play. I also have a Taylor acoustic that I play a lot. It’s the one I made my acoustic album with (should get around to recording the next one before summer ends).

What was the first band you played with?

EK: That was in school. We had a group that was first called “The Face,” but we quickly renamed it to Duck. We played what we liked. We also wrote some original material. I remember the first song we wrote. We’d just finished it, and it was just a chord progression with no melody, and one day I heard a song on the radio, and immediately thought, that’s our song! It was Sweet Home Alabama. We’d just written the same chord progression.

What are your plans for the rest of 2017?

EK: I’ve meant to record my next acoustic album. It’s already written, but it seems like stuff keeps getting in the way. I’d like to have a week where I wouldn’t have to think about anything else. That would create some flow. I like doing things quickly and not second guessing myself, and flow is essential to that for me.

I’ve also been meaning to get a couple of bands going. One is called Rising Horse, and it’s a tongue in cheek neo classical thing. Then there’s something called Insomniac (both bands have a great vocalist, called Maya Liittokivi, she’s brilliant), which is much more progressive and cumbersome. It’s also a bit more happy at times with primary keys. We’ve had trouble finding a drummer though. We found one, recorded an EP, and then he quit. He left to take up gardening. That was a seriously Spinal Tap moment. I’m also thinking of making some influences album, but we’ll see. Time is limited.

Has streaming hurt your ability to make money?

EK:  I honestly don’t know. I do know that what streaming pays is peanuts, and that needs to be fixed. I have read that music consumption is up, which is good. But it’s a hugely problematic thing. Spotify just made a huge loss again. It seems they don’t have enough paying customers. Aren’t people willing to pay for music? I’m having a hard time making money from music. That’s probably partly my fault, and I’m probably doing lots of stuff wrong, but I know I’m not the only one. Maybe there are too many musicians. Maybe people think players will just make music regardless of whether they get paid because they love music. That’s an attitude I bump into quite often that a musician is so lucky to be a musician because he/she gets to do something that he/she loves, while many people just come home from a job they hate and then lie on the sofa. I don’t know what the solution is, although I do know that people need to start treating music and musicians with more respect for it to change.

Think about the question players often get asked after they say they’re musicians. “Yeah, but what’s your real job?” I don’t know about over there, but over here it’s a common enough question or some variant of it. Streaming pays little, partly because so many people just use the free services (YouTube anyone?), but a few years ago it was piracy. Same thing there. Too many people don’t think it’s important to pay for music. They might pay for some. But you don’t walk into a supermarket and buy some of the stuff, and take the rest for free. The difference is of course that then it’s physical product. One thing remains the same, however. It all takes human work to produce, and if you’re just taking it without giving something back, then you’re stealing someone’s time, and time is money. Now I’m all for free music, but it has to be the musician’s choice if it’s free or not. But it’s gotten to the stage where it’s the norm that music is free, and you pay if you want to. You can get it all for free on YouTube or wherever, entirely legally, and it’s fine. No one blinks an eye. So maybe the short answer to your question would be “yes”… or “no.” I don’t know.

On the other hand, I was in a band once, and we were signed to a decent sized label. We sold some CD’s, but it all leads to absolutely nothing. So the label thing isn’t always what it’s sometimes cracked up to be. It’s a tough business. But then again, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it.

Are you endorsed by anyone?

EK: Other than Sasa making my guitars, no. And that’s not an endorsement, although I will bang on about his guitars, it’s more of a friendship thing. I also get great support from a local music store called Soitin Laine, but that’s mostly down to the fact that my father used to work there (he’s retired now). So to anyone reading this: give me gear!

Would consider putting vocals on your next record?

EK: Sure thing. I love a good vocal. If I get Devin Townsend to sing on my next album, I’ll even cut out most of the guitar solos to give him more room. Most of the stuff I’ve listened to has included vocals. Steve Vai usually has vocals on his records, and Malmsteen always does. Maybe I’ll even sing myself. Then I can kiss what little career I have goodbye…


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