(Feature article in the November 2012 issue of Guitar Player magazine.)
Maroon 5's James Valentine on the Art of Pop/Funk Guitar
BY JUDE GOLD
WITH A VINTAGE STEINWAY IN HIS LIVING room, a view of downtown Los Angeles, a veritable Noah’s Ark of music gear in his home studio, and his band, Maroon 5, enjoying multi-platinum album sales, James Valentine is living many a guitarist’s Hollywood dream. But all this success didn’t just happen for Valentine. Beneath his humble, happy-go-lucky demeanor is a guy more “alpha dog” than meets the eye.
“As much as I hide it, there’s a lot of ambition inside me,” says Valentine, who credits his parents for instilling in him a tireless work ethic, laser-like focus, and the ability to set clear goals. “And if you want to make music work, it goes beyond a relationship with your guitar. You also have to figure out how to network, how to market your music to the right people, and how to use all this new tech- nology to get good sounds.”
Not surprisingly, Valentine isn’t coasting on the success of Maroon 5’s latest release, Overexposed [A&M/Octone]. In fact, while the band’s frontman Adam Levine was taping some segments of The Voice—where he serves as a celebrity judge— Valentine tracked, released, and toured in support of Suicide Pact [Dangerbird], the debut album from his new rock band, JJAMZ.
Jude Gold: Maroon 5’s debut, Songs About Jane, was released a couple of years before it blew up on radio. You guys must have slugged it out doing van tours for quite awhile until it all paid off.
James Valentine: Van tours are definitely not for the weak, and we did a ton of them before the second single, “This Love,” exploded in 2004. Even- tually, we “upgraded” to an RV, but that turned out to be a nightmare, because the thing was built for Grandma and Grandpa go to Tahoe for the weekend—not to keep up with a rigorous rock and roll tour. It always broke down and it always smelled like piss, so we went back to the van. Of all the barometers of success we’ve known, I think the biggest game changer was getting our first tour bus, because it meant we could cover hundreds of miles after shows and still get a full night’s rest.
“Moves Like Jagger” is still played often. Is it a thrill to hear your funky guitar intro each time it comes on?
Yeah, but most of the credit should go to [producer] Shellback. He put that track together for us in advance, played the scratch guitar part, sampled it, and chopped it up. Then I re-did the part my way, and it was chopped up again. You put a lot of trust in the producer, because music has become more of a producer-driven medium. For years, Maroon 5 would just get in a room, jam, and put together every song on our own. Now, it’s a different ballgame.
What are some of the things pop producers are doing to guitars these days?
I used to be so interested in getting the biggest, roundest guitar tone—and I still am when I play live—but in the studio it often gets squashed down. Radio has changed, and big walls of guitars are not often what they’re looking for now. Clever use of plug-ins such as FilterFreak or CamelPhat can make a guitar fit the mix in a new way by crushing it and f**king it up so it’s a completely different thing. You can play guitar chords into CamelPhat, and it splits things up and adds overtones, and, all of a sudden, you’ve created a cool sound that never existed before. One recurring thing in dance music—a sound that is on the verge of being overused—is to build tension using a gradual filter sweep in a lo-fi way, like on the verse guitar of “Jagger.” Another thing pop guys are doing is recording guitars straight into the board, which is an old Nile Rodgers funk technique. One of [Overexposed executive producer] Max Mar- tin’s favorite techniques is to push a channel strip on the Neve 88R console at Conway Recording Studios and get distortion from that. That’s also an old-school approach.
What’s your go-to studio amp?
It’s a Divided By 13 FTR 37—which has kind of become the “L.A. guitar guy” amp. It has plenty of vintage vibe, yet it breaks up in this modern-sounding way. I originally bought the amp as a gift for John Mayer, who had given me a couple of Two-Rock heads after we did a tour together. I even had a plaque put on the back of it for John that says, “Thanks for the memories! Have a kick-ass summer.” But the amp happened to be delivered to the studio while we were recording, so I plugged it in. It sounded so amazing that I never gave it to John. I’m such a dick [laughs].
How about your onstage rig?
Live, I play Fender Telecasters and Fano guitars—often their Alt de Facto JM6 model—into an FTR 37 run in parallel with a Matchless Independence. I keep the amps’ footswitches side-by-side so I can switch to both dirty channels with one stomp. I also use a semi-hollow Collings I-35 Deluxe and a Martin Performer Series acoustic with an onboard Fishman preamp. If I have to rent backline amps, I get Mesa/Boogie Lone Stars. I have been using Ernie Ball strings forever—but not just because they’re great strings. Square, my band from Nebraska, won the Ernie Ball Battle of the Bands in 1999, which brought me out to L.A. I’ll be forever thankful for that.
Adam Levine plays a fair amount of guitar onstage.
He’s an amazing guitar player—our secret weapon. Luckily, he writes ambitious vocal melodies, and he doesn’t want to be held back by the guitar, or else I might not have this gig [laughs].
JJAMZ has a hypnotic, Blondie-meets-MGMT sound that is strikingly different from Maroon 5.
I definitely do a different sort of guitar thing in that band. I’m often cranking up ’60s Fender combos, because spring reverb is such an important part of the JJAMZ sonic land- scape. JJAMZ came together totally organi- cally. We’re all best friends.
There are some great fuzz guitar tones on the record.
Alex Greenwald from Phantom Planet is the other guitarist in JJAMZ, and [Suicide Pact engineer] Shawn Everett did a cool thing to his fuzz solo on “Heartbeat.” He threw the solo into Melodyne, which he used to analyze the notes and create a MIDI file. Then, he used the MIDI file to have a synth double the solo. The fuzz solo on “LAX” was the Boost channel of my Fulltone Full-Drive kicked in through a Vibrolux.
Who is your favorite pop guitar player around town?
Blake Mills. He’s incredible. I would say he’s an inspiration, but what he inspires me to do is throw all my guitars into the L.A. River. While I may never be able to play like him, it’s always immensely fun to learn a new lick or voicing and incorporate it into my onstage vocabulary. Whenever I can, I take a guitar lesson from Jean-Marc Belkadi or other guys around town—not just to learn new things, but because lessons keep me playing guitar. I went to a Berklee summer session right after high school in 1996, just to learn more guitar. That’s where I met John Mayer. He won the big scholarship prize—the son of a bitch. That’s why I didn’t give him that amp [laughs].