Few keyboardists can boast a résumé as impressive and diverse as Derek Sherinian’s. He’s toured and recorded with a plethora of iconic acts such as Alice Cooper, Kiss and Billy Idol, as well as some of the world’s most renowned musicians, including Allan Holdsworth, Yngwie Malmsteen, Billy Sheehan, Al Di Meola, Steve Lukather, Zakk Wylde and Slash, to name a few. In addition, Sherinian was a member of Dream Theater from 1994 to 1999, having played on three of the prog-metal titans releases. More recently, Sherinian was a member of Black Country Communion, which co-featured bassist/vocalist Glenn Hughes, guitarist Joe Bonamassa and drummer Jason Bonham, releasing three albums with that formidable band. Most recently, he’s played with another monster batch of musicians in yet another stellar band entitled Portnoy, Sheehan, MacAlpine, Sherinian. An all-instrumental supergroup, PSMS issued a fantastic, chops-intensive album entitled Live In Tokyo, which was released in 2013 on CD and DVD/Blu-ray. There has never been a keyboardist in the hard rock realm as prolific and sought after as Sherinian.  

“I always go directly to the source of my inspiration,” he says. “I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with many of my musical heroes. My solo records have always been my slices of creative freedom within the music industry. Looking back at the list of guests that have played on my solo records, I think it’s fair to say that I have worked with more great guitarists than any keyboardist on the planet.” 

Sherinian is, without a doubt, a chameleon. He has an uncanny flexibility to work with the very best musicians in various genres while maintaining a signature voice on his instrument, alternating with ease from Yngwie-style neoclassical shred to Dream Theater’s signature progressive metal to Joe Bonamassa’s blues-based rock without missing a beat. 

"My musical tastes are very wide,” Sherinian says. “I like exploring different styles, and I always strive to work with the very best in each genre that I choose to play in. I am constantly absorbing what I learn from all of these great artists and incorporating it into my playing and compositions. It’s a never-ending process." 

Sherinian has come a long way, indeed, since first discovering the piano more than 40 years ago. “There was an upright piano in my house when I was a kid,” explains Sherinian, who was raised in Santa Cruz, California. “I started my first private lessons at age five. Elton John was my first keyboard hero. I was able to learn his songs and solos by ear by the time I was 10.” 

After completing high school, Sherinian received a scholarship at the esteemed Berklee College of Music in Boston. Upon graduating, Sherinian garnered his first professional gig with Jimi Hendrix Band of Gypsys’ drummer Buddy Miles. “I was 21 at the time,” Sherinian recalls. “We toured throughout the U.S., especially the Chitlin’ Circuit in the south. We played mostly Hendrix songs and R&B classics. Buddy’s nickname for me was Mortimer—I don’t know why. Miles would say to me, ‘Mortimer, you always have to listen for the train in the music to find the groove. You aIways have to feel the train.’ I carry that with me, to this day.” 

When the Miles gig ended, Sherinian was out of work. Before long, though, Sherinian got a call from his former Berklee roommate, guitarist Al Pitrelli, who was Alice Cooper’s musical director. Alice was hiring a brand-new band to tour in support of the shock rocker’s platinum-selling Trash album, and a slot was open for a keyboardist. “Pitrelli hooked me up with an audition,” Sherinian remarks. “I got the gig—a big break for me—and I was on top of the world!” Sherinian toured with Alice Cooper for roughly three years, playing more than 250 shows.

Following Alice's Hey Stoopid tour, Cooper’s drummer, Eric Singer, was hired to play drums for Kiss. “Kiss needed an offstage keyboardist for their Revenge tour in 1992,” Sherinian recollects. “Eric gave Gene Simmons my phone number. I vividly remember getting the call: ‘Hi Derek, this is Gene Simmons of Kiss—we need a keyboardist now.’ I auditioned the next day and was hired. It was quite surreal working with Paul Stanley and Gene. They are pioneers in many aspects of the music industry.”  

Unfortunately, when the Revenge tour came to a close, hard rock was pretty much dead in the U.S., as the advent of grunge reared its ugly head and unequivocally ruled the rock music industry in the early Nineties. “Kiss was playing to nearly empty arenas in 1992,” Sherinian recounts. “Hard rock was no longer alive, and 1993 was an unproductive year for me career wise.” 

The following year, however, luck was on Sherinian’s side. “Sometime in 1994 I heard about a band from New York called Dream Theater auditioning keyboardists,” he explains. “An audition was set up for me, and I went in and acquired the gig.” Little did Sherinian know at the time that Dream Theater would ultimately become world’s most beloved progressive hard rock band since Rush. 

Sherinian was a key member of Dream Theater for four years in the Nineties. His expansive playing is integral to his three releases with the group—A Change of Seasons (1995), Falling Into Infinity (1997) and Once in a LIVEtime (1998)—yet he left the band in 1999 due to creative differences and turmoil within the group. “I was midway through recording my first solo album, Planet X,” recalls Sherinian, who ultimately decided to turn the Planet X concept into a band, “when I got a phone call from Dream Theater telling me I was being let go. It was a bit shocking because I didn't see it coming, but I was also relieved because I was very unhappy playing in that band. It wasn’t my style of music—I’m more into metal fusion.”

An extreme fusion outfit that pushed serious rhythmic and melodic ground, Planet X also featured drummer Virgil Donati and guitar virtuoso Tony MacAlpine; the trio would go on to record another four albums following Planet X’s 1999 debut. From 2000 and throughout much of the next 10 years, Sherinian also recorded several solo albums under his own name. “This was an important creative period for me,” he says, “because it was the first time I was putting out music as a solo artist and as Planet X’s band leader.”

In 2001, Sherinian got a phone call from Billy Idol’s guitarist, Steve Stevens, who asked Sherinian to audition for Idol’s band, and Sherinian snagged the gig, which he continues to hold today. “Billy Idol is a bona fide star frontman,” says the keyboardist. “I remember watching MTV when it first came out in the Eighties. I always thought Billy had a great image, and his songs are great. It’s such a joy to go onstage and play the big hits that I liked as a kid.”

Nearly a decade after joining Idol’s band, in 2010 producer Kevin Shirley asked Sherinian if he would record an album with Glenn Hughes, Jason Bonham and Joe Bonamassa. Thus, Black Country Communion was born. “We ended up recording the first BCC album in just five days,” Sherinian remarks, “and it sold surprisingly well. We released another three studio albums, and toured Europe, Japan and the U.S. before the group disbanded.” Sherinian went on to join Bonamassa’s solo band in July 2013.

In 2011, Portnoy, Sheehan, MacAlpine, Sherinian was formed by drummer Mike Portnoy, whom Sherinian played with in Dream Theater. This super-duper lineup was initially assembled to play a one-off drum event at the National Association of Music Merchants convention, commonly called NAMM, in California. “The response to that gig was overwhelming,” says Sherinian. “We went on to do a five-week tour in the U.S., Europe and Japan. I’m blessed to be living a life that most musicians can only dream about.”

—Joe Lalaina

December 2013
 


Derek and Alice Cooper

Dream Theater

Derek and Zakk Wylde

Derek and Steve Lukather

Derek and Billy Idol

Derek with Planet X & Billy Sheehan

Derek with Al DiMeola

Derek and Yngwie Malmsteen

Derek with Alan Holdsworth