Artist Spotlight: Mike Wead (King Diamond/Mercyful Fate)

Hailing from northern Sweden, ESP player Mike Wead probably had a lot of time growing up to focus on his guitar playing. It must have paid off; going back to the early ‘90s, Mike has been a respected player via his association with a number of great metal bands including King Diamond and Mercyful Fate. We caught up with Mike around the start of the new year.

Do you recall how you first discovered ESP?
It was a long time ago. I was still living up in the north of Sweden. I spent my first 15 years living there. Over the years, I got to know a brilliant local guitar player named Lars Johansson. He’s still the lead guitarist of Candlemass, which is a classic Swedish metal band.

Lars ordered a guitar through the local music store, where he picked all components separately… the neck, the body, the pickups and so on. ESP Japan put it together.

When was this?
It was the early ‘80s. I would have been about 12 or 13 at the time.

So, I remember he got that guitar. It was really cool looking. There was no pickguard, a single humbucker and volume knob, a Floyd Rose. That was the first time I heard of the brand.

What was the first ESP of your own?
My first ESP, I got in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s. I still have that one, actually, and still use it from time to time.

What ESP models are you playing now?
I have a few different ones in addition to that very old one, which is still great. I’ve been playing the ST-1, but I really prefer the Horizons. That’s the main one I play with King Diamond. I have an E-II Horizon and also an ESP Horizon 27, the model with 27 frets.

Any more new ESPs in your future?
I'm curious about the new models getting presented at NAMM. Chris (Cannella, ESP artist relations manager) hinted about great things to come. Hopefully, I'll play one of those this year.

What about the Horizon makes it a good guitar for you?
It’s simply a great guitar. You can pick it up and right away feel that it’s the real deal. While they’re not cheap guitars, the value you get for the money is much more than the price tag.

This is a really good guitar. I like the neck profile. How the body is shaped. The headstock. The finish, the craftsmanship. Everything about it is just nice. I never have issues with any of my ESPs. I use them all the time with no problems. I haven’t even broken a string!

Ever? You never broke a string?
Never! The guitars work perfectly fine. Of course, they sound good too. That’s a given.

What kinds of things do you pay attention to when you first check out a new guitar?
First, I notice the fretwork. That’s most important to me. How the binding is placed, and the crowning of the frets. Everything with the frets is important to me. I love huge frets. I want railroad tracks on a guitar.

What else?
Intonation is extremely important to me. If I can’t make it stay in tune, it’s gone.

You’re both a recording and touring guitarist. We assume that reliability is important to you.
Yeah, of course. I’m lucky in that I have a good guitar tech who takes really good care of my guitars. Still, it’s like everything about ESP. They’re totally roadworthy.

You’re a busy player who works in multiple projects and bands. How do you juggle the responsibilities?
The trick is to not do everything at once. You need to relax, take a breath, and plan everything very carefully. King Diamond and Mercyful Fate is my main priority. With other stuff, I try and be good about planning ahead. I make sure nothing collides in the schedule. I sometimes get behind, but it’s like a lot musicians experience where at first there’s nothing on your schedule, and then everything comes in at the same time. Most of the time, I‘ve been lucky with that.

Does it ever get overwhelming?
Sometimes it’s a bit much. I have a good family who supports me. But especially when I was younger, I used to be very driven, I still am, don’t get me wrong. But when I was younger, before family had entered my life, the only thing that interested me from age 15 on was music. I didn’t do anything other than that. It’s easy to be on five albums a year if there’s nothing else in your life.

You’ve had an association with the Mercyful Fate/King Diamond team for well over 20 years now. Is it difficult to sustain passion for a band project over that length of time?
To be clear, it’s mostly with King Diamond, because we haven’t done any new Mercyful Fate projects for a long time.

But no, I don’t have any problems staying into it. To me, it still feels fresh the whole time. That's true even in the case of the old songs, and we have a few that are never cut out of the set. If we did, it would really upset the die-hard fans. Think about it: the Stones can never take out “Satisfaction” from their set. You’d never want to see Deep Purple without them playing “Smoke on the Water”. I still find those older King Diamond songs fun to play. It’s fun guitar playing. It never gets tedious, or boring, or repetitive as such.

Does your experience as an audio engineer and producer help when you’re creating guitar parts?
Yeah. It’s like a two-edged sword in some ways. When you work in a studio, you can get tired of music and songs in general. But it does help me in certain ways because I work so much with music that it’s improved my intonation, my ability to hear pitch, my sense of timing. I bring that with me while playing guitar. It’s like constant practice.

When you’re producing a client, or just helping a band, you’re sometimes telling them to retake a part, to do it better, do it tighter. You get to a point where you can also got detect that stuff in your own playing. That part I bring home with me. Learning Pro Tools and Cubase and so on has been good for myself. In that aspect, I’m self producing. I know how to use the tools.

What advice can you give guitarists who start out playing and then hit that plateau where it seems they’re not advancing as a player?
That is always a difficult question. It’s so different from guy to guy. It’s a personal level that’s different for each player.

I gave lessons for some time, to players of various qualities. When they got stuck, I advised them to always try to dig yourself out of the hole. If I get stuck, which has happened a few times, I try and learn something new to keep the inspiration going. You can learn licks from your favorite players. You can learn new songs. Anything you can do that keeps you practicing guitar and get out of the hole, get back on track.

But in any case, you have to keep going. That’s the most important part. You can also find inspiration elsewhere. You can look to another style. If you’re a rock player, for example, try to bring in some fusion. Listen to Allan Holdsworth or Scott Henderson, whatever. Find a new angle to make you happy, to keep working and keep trying, and you’ll get out of that hole. Keep up your inspiration and happiness and love for music.

What are you working on next?
With King Diamond, we have a DVD in post. It’s the first-ever DVD of a live King Diamond concert. That’s gonna be pretty cool.

Also, we’re setting up shows for this year. It’s early in the year right now, and we’re still planning. We do have one show confirmed. We’re headlining a huge festival in São Paulo, Brazil. There’s plenty of stuff going on.