Toomas Vanem
(EESTI Music)


Estonian electric guitarist Toomas Vanem has a winner on his hands with the 2014 CD release of his self-titled album. The Toomas Vanem CD features eleven hard hitting rock instrumentals that expertly combines both heavy metal rock and electric jazz-rock fusion to a great effect. Rockers with a penchant for jazz-fusion will love this CD. To these ears anyway, there’s also a slight influence from the late great Finnish fusion maestro Pekka Pohjola on some of the more melodic tracks. Clearly, Toomas isn’t hesitant about being melodic and romantic while setting his guitars on fire. With Toomas handling the guitars and music composition, he gets excellent back up from his band including Henno Kelp (bass) and Andrus Lillepea (drums). Bass legend Stu Hamm also appears on a track here. Another neat thing here is the packaging of the CD, which is first rate and features track by track stories of each cut here, some of which are quite amusing. Words are nonessential on an album that speaks a six string lingo that transcends borders and nationalities. With his guitars ablaze and a group of instrumental tracks which flow gracefully into each other, Toomas Vanem redefines the essence of 21st century instrumental rock fusion. Hard rock fans and fusioneers, give a good listen to Estonian guitarist Toomas Vanem. presents an interview with

: Where are from originally and where do you live now and what do you like best about it?

Toomas Vanem: I am an Estonian and from Estonia. It’s a very small country located by the Baltic Sea, near Finland. People have been lived here since the end of the last ice age. Estonia is very comfortable country with beautiful nature and special silentness. I was born in a small town called Rapla. It’s located in the middle part of Estonia. I spent my childhood in an even smaller place, Kohila which is a nice place that has a river and a paper mill and my parents still live there. When I turned 16 I moved to our capital city Tallinn and started learning guitar seriously. I still live in Tallinn and have my own property, a house with a little studio in it. What I like most about Estonia is the people. We have lived here in Estonia about 10,000 years, we have survived many difficult times, and maintained our language. So we are survivors and achievers!

mwe3: Who were your main musical influences and what guitarists and bands are among your favorites, both vintage and current?

Toomas Vanem: The first guitar player that impressed me was Richie Blackmore. Back then I was into hard rock kind of music, AC/DC, Zeppelin, Van Halen, Black Sabbath, etc... During my music studies in the late 1980s somebody gave me a tape of a Larry Carlton record and I was totally blown away. I tried to learn every tune from that tape and discovered all the new possibilities for guitar soloing, endless jazzy lines and nice phrasing, but Larry did it with a nice overdriven guitar sound. Those days all the hard rock guitar players playing was mostly minor pentatonic scales or blues scales oriented and I was bored with that.

When I heard Allan Holdsworth’s music, I was blown away again. At that point I decided that I wanted to combine musical styles, heavy metal and jazz cause I dig the rock music energy and jazz musicians note choices and harmonic thinking. There are lot of great guitar players out there who experiment and combine the same principle such as Mike Stern, John McLaughlin, Frank Gambale...etc.. Today we have a lot of great modern players out there; Paul Gilbert, Steve Vai, John Petrucci, Mattias IA Eklundh, and all the younger generation guitar players who are fantastic, and I listen to all of them, but I’m trying to stay true to myself and create my own sound.

mwe3: You are from Estonia. Can you tell the readers in other countries something about Estonia and how did rock music become more popular there. Did and do Estonians listen much to music from the U.S. and the U.K.? Is there a big influence on Estonia’s music from Russia and other Eastern European countries?

Toomas Vanem: Estonia is a very small country, population about 1.1 million. Estonia is mostly covered with nice big forests with a lot of wild nature with beautiful views. Estonia is located near the sea, so in summer time we have also a lot of sea activities going on here like swimming, surfing and sailing and stuff. Our capital city Tallinn has a nice old town city area which is very old, from the twelfth century. And there are many other cities, islands, villages and other nice places.

Back in those times, Estonia was a part of the Soviet Union. Soviet Union was a very closed society and a politically restricting country. All the music and art making generally was strongly and politically controlled by the government. So rock music become popular mostly through foreign radio and pirate tapes. Sometimes somebody was lucky enough to get an LP record from foreign countries, so everybody was recording that LP to their tape recorders, and that is how the music spread.

Nowadays of course situation is totally different and I think Estonians listen to a lot of US and UK music. Estonian rock music is not really influenced that much from Russian music because of our language and cultural differences but it is more influenced by maybe Finnish and UK and US music I guess. All Estonian musicians were mostly looking towards the west those days. At the present time there is much more freedom of choices.

mwe3: How did your new solo album take shape? How long did it take to write, record and finish the album and who plays with you on the CD? What’s the chemistry like there musically for you?

Toomas Vanem: At one point of my career as a guitar player, I discovered that I have performed and recorded a lot of great music by other artists, but have released nothing under my own name. I decided to change that, and started to write my own tunes. And I discovered, that it was not a really hard thing to do, actually is was pretty natural and fun. I was lucky to have some friends, the great musicians to dig my tunes, so at one point we started to do gigs with my instrumental stuff.

At the same time I started to record those tunes at my little home studio, where I also later finished all the material. With the help from my dear friend in the local musical industry, Mati Vaarman, I had the luxury to record live drums at a big studio with a great drummer and a friend of mine Andrus Lillepea. Some of the bass by a fantastic player, Henno Kelp was also recorded during those recording sessions. Then I transferred all the recorded material back to my home studio, and finished all the guitar parts there. I also played keyboard stuff.

There is also quest artist: Mr. Stuart Hamm featured on my album. The story behind that is that Stu visited Estonia back 2010 and we did two live shows together with my band. We played 3 - 4 songs from Stu’s albums, Stu played his solo stuff, and we played some of my music. I asked Stuart if he could play on my CD and, as the fantastic person he is, he agreed. There is also wonderful Rhodes solo in tune called “Summer Samba” from our great old man, jazz legend Mr. Sergey Pedersen.

As a composer I tried to develop strong melodies and phrases as they appear in vocal music. So almost every tune has its own verse and chorus parts, sometimes a bridge part, and solo parts. I tried to stay away from constant shredding and create beautiful music and strong tunes instead.

On the chemistry side, every tune is grounded on a particular personal philosophy that inspired me to create my music. You can get familiar with them from the inside cover of my album. Each tune has its own written legend.

mwe3: Your guitar playing sounds very influenced by both heavy metal, jazz-rock and a spacier kind of prog- rock instrumental. How do you balance such a wide range of musical styles and how do you feel that comes out in your music?

Toomas Vanem: Thank you! As I mentioned earlier I like mixing music styles, be it metal with jazz or country with whatever. At the moment I am really into Indian Carnatic music that comes from the south part of India. I don’t think I have to carefully balance styles. On the contrary! I take some metal riff, mix it with Indian rhythmic structures, and just go crazy with it and then suddenly – boom! I’ve got something completely different. The same is with jazzy stuff. Of course I need to use my ears and trust them to remain certain, to some reasonable extent, that the music I create does not end up like a big mess or noise. I think musical taste and preferences has something to say here as well.

mwe3: You have played with a number of artists over the years. Who were some of the other musicians you played with and recorded with in Estonia and elsewhere? What were the most memorable sessions or gigs?

Toomas Vanem: I think the most memorable gig was actually with Stu Hamm. We did the songs as the set list says, and suddenly Stu started playing some bass groove and walked to me and said, “show me what you have”. I was kind of nervous too, because of my respect for the man but realized that he wants to jam on stage with me. I started immediately playing something, from the note where my finger accidentally was, not realizing really in what key Stu was playing! I was like in some weird space really, like someone else was playing my guitar, and I resolved everything like unconsciously into the right ending of our jam. And when I listened to it back, it was not bad at all, what I played.

In Estonia I have played with a bunch of people, actually almost with everybody, cause we are such a tiny country. As a session musician, which is how I make money for living, I have played shows with a lot of our famous singers: Ivo Linna, Anne Veski, pop artist INES, etc. I guess their names don’t mean much to you, because they are local stars. But I had gig with Nico Mc Brain, who is the drummer of Iron Maiden, Richie Kotzen came to Estonia and I supported him with my band. This year Mattias A Eklundh was here and I had a chance to play with the man. In Russia, I have played and recorded with the band Dialog in the early 1990's. This was a band that played progressive rock music, and we had gigs actually all over Europe. So I’ve been lucky enough to work with lot of great people.

mwe3: What guitars are your favorite to record with and what guitars work best in a live concert setting? Do you have a guitar endorsement deal in Europe or elsewhere?

Toomas Vanem: I don’t really have any endorsement deal with guitars because I am not a worldwide famous guy and I really don’t know any guitar player in Estonia who has an endorsement deal. I own lot of guitars, but nowadays I play mostly the Ibanez “Prestige” series guitars. I have different models, and each one of them sounds a little different. What I like about those guitars is that they are really good quality, the playability is super, the floating bridge stays in tune perfectly... What I don’t like about those guitars is that I don’t have an endorsement deal! (lol)... Just kidding, but talking seriously, my black one with basswood body and EVO pickups has something magical inside, it sort of sings and has a sustain from hell.

mwe3: Are you a gear head of sorts? As far as guitars go, what it like for guitarists in Estonia? Are there other bands playing instrumental jazz-rock and how about the influence of Finland which is very close to Estonia right? One of my Finnish friends used to go bird-watching in Tallinn! Have you listened to Pekka Pohjola? He sadly died at the end of 2008. I hear a little of him in your music!

Toomas Vanem: Yes I think I am a bit of a gear head. I like the technology and the new stuff that they come up with constantly.

I like most of the tube amps and I use them all the time for their warm sound. Actually, I have built one myself, the little Fender Champ. And they sound perfect with just a guitar plugged in. But for some strange reason I have also bought a lot of pedals and effects over the years. I just use a few of them I and the rest just stays on a shelf forever. Yeah, but it’s me, I could be so excited about some new super duper guitar product that they just came out with, then I have to buy it and later when I have it, all the excitement suddenly disappears. So why did I buy it? (lol)

As a guitar player for me living in Estonia is great actually. I make a living playing guitar in different bands and projects. Sometimes it is more fun, sometimes it is less, but it changes all the time and that’s what I like about it really. I produce my own music and do some guitar teaching. From time to time I write guitar lessons for local magazine called “KITARR” - guess what that means? (lol) There are actually quite a few bands playing also instrumental music in Estonia, but there is not really lots of places to play that kind of music.

So we reach for other parts of Europe and Finland is really close to us. Pekka Pohjola is one of my favorite instrumental music gurus. I dig a lot of his musical vibe. Too bad that he passed away. And you are right I guess my music has been influenced by him among other stuff that I listen. A couple summers back, I went to the Pori Jazz Festival, which is in Finland, to see Jeff Beck. One the same day, there was a Finnish band, who played a Pekka Pohjola tribute project. For me, that was an even bigger thing than Beck was! I dig Pekka's music a lot and my favorite album of his could be 1985's Space Waltz - what great music!

mwe3: What other amps, strings and sound effects do you use to color your guitar sound on your solo CD? What was involved in the post-production work done on your CD as far as overdubbing, mixing the tracks and then in mastering? Did you supervise all of those aspects and who else was involved in the making of the album?

Toomas Vanem: As I said, I am a big fan of tube amps, when it comes to my guitar tone. I have an old Laney 30W combo and Carvin Legacy. A 100W all tube head with a Legacy 4 x 12 cabinet. I recorded most of the material with those amps. But the trick that I did was that I recorded the direct signal from my guitar. This way I could have more control over my tone later on when I mixed. And it was good that I did that.

When the Kemper Profiling Amp came out I bought one for myself last year and I re-amped almost all of the rhythm guitar parts with the Kemper. Lead parts I did not touch that much, cause I was happy how they sounded. As far as effects, I used just a little bit of delay on my leads, and that’s all that was needed. During mixing I spent a lot of time to get the drums sound right. I did not want to use gates, because they sound unnatural to me, so
instead I edited all the drums by hand, to take that noise away, from especially the tom tom tracks. I cut the unwanted noise and made fade in and outs.

So I spent long hours doing that. And if you get the drums right, it is almost like half of the sound is there. Just add the bass, leads, keyboards and rhythm guitars in a right amount, and you are done. After I was happy with my mixes, I decided to have a second opinion for the sound. So I called on my good friend and collegue Indrek Patte who works at the big studio “Matrix Audio”. We listened to my mixes at the studio where Indrek works and did some minor tweaking and that was it for the mixing. I did not want to master the CD myself, so I did it in Finland at a mastering studio called “The Chartmakers”. It cost me a lot of money, but it was worth it and Mr. Svante Försbäck did an excellent job. With the DDP master my friend Johannes Lõhmus helped me out. He also has a great home studio, and he has great ears for mixing so I wanted his opinion also.

The artwork for the CD was done by Taavi Torim and we did great photo session with an absolutely talented photographer, Krõõt Tarkmeel. She happens also to be my relative, my cousin’s daughter, which is nice. There are more people who supported and helped me to release this CD and I thank you all from the bottom of my heart.

As for strings, I use a very regular set from ,009-042 and I play what gets into my hands, cause I am not endorsed or anything! (lol) Just kidding... I’ll try out the new D’Addario strings that are made with some new technology, and maybe I’ll start using those if they are good.

mwe3: Do you perform concerts in Estonia and other places or do you most play in the studio? Can you tell us what your concerts are like? What music did you play before live and what is a current show like? Where else do you like to play live?

Toomas Vanem: Well it is this and that. As a professional guitarist I need to get my income monthly, to pay the bills, taxes and so on. So sometimes I have to play the music that I don’t necessarily dig so much, like pop and dance music, but many people like it and are ready to pay for it. So it is okay for me, and it is one source of my income.

The other thing is studio work. As I mentioned I have my own studio, which has everything to produce and record good quality guitar tracks. So I do a lot of that too. If some producer needs a guitar track for their tunes, they send me a song, and for a reasonable amount of bucks, I produce guitar tracks for them and make my living from doing that also.

As a studio worker and session musician I also get hired on TV shows, with some other great studio musicians, and we do whatever is needed for the show. As I can read music, sometimes I get calls to do shows with the orchestra so it is really a lot going on with my musical career. With my own project, we have managed to play some great live shows also.

We opened for the Rock Summer 2013 festival in Tallinn on a big stage. For that show I also invited a percussion player and rhythm guitar player to join us and we had like an XXL band! Our normal live set is 4 people onstage. As I said earlier sometimes we do support gigs for big names that happen to come to our tiny country and it is always great experience to talk and communicate with other great musicians, share opinions and stuff. So the festivals are definitely the places where I want to play live with my own band.

mwe3: What plans do you have for your next album? Do you have early ideas of possible directions you might be going in? Any other news of other musical activities you’re involved with this year and going into 2015?

Toomas Vanem: I am writing music for my next album at the moment, doing demos, and half of the material is there. I will keep basically the same directions with my new album, maybe add some Carnatic Indian stuff because I am inspired to do that at the moment, because of its rhythmical possibilities. But we will see which way it turns. Another thing is that I decided is to work faster on this album, because the previous one took about 5-6 years. It is too much.

The other thing that I am involved with is that some producer, a good friend of mine is trying to put together a show on Tchaikovsky’s music played with guitar and big orchestra. I was invited to do the guitar parts. I am a big fan of Mr. Tchaikovsky’s music and it is a massive thing for me to do and of course we need to rearrange the music for guitar. So let's see how this one will turn out. But I will try to release my next album in 2015 and let's hope everything will work as I planned. Thanks for reading this, and good luck to everyone. Cheers!

Thanks to Toomas Vanem @


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