Being a pop-rock guitarist is hard work—just ask Maroon 5’s James Valentine. Sure, Valentine and his Maroon 5 bandmates have enjoyed commercial success with both Songs About Jane
and It Won’t Be Soon Before Long
going multi-platinum. Their recent release, Hands All Over¬
—Maroon 5’s most musically adventurous album yet courtesy of iconic producer Mutt Lange—entered the Billboard charts at number two in September. They’ve garnered critical acclaim with seven Grammy nominations—including their just-announced nod for Best Pop Performance on Hands All Over
’s “Misery”—and captured three gilded gramophone statuettes. And like any other huge pop-rock act, they are welcomed with screaming girls and women nearing asthmatic-seizure hysteria when they go onstage. But benefits aside, it’s not easy being Maroon 5’s guitarist—Valentine wouldn’t have it any other way.
“When I started out I just wanted to play guitar,” says Valentine. However, despite the success he’s already achieved, Valentine doesn’t look to just set cruise control on his career. “I just feel so privileged to be able to play guitar for a living, so I want to make sure that I continue to get better.” He just wants to play—not just simple pop licks and chord progressions that helped craft mega-singles like “Harder to Breathe,” “Sunday Morning,” and “Misery,” but the jazz compositions and instrumental works of Valentine’s personal heroes like Kurt Rosenwinkel, Bill Frissell, and Nels Cline. On top of having a diverse ear for music and tones, Valentine is a big advocate of practicing and lessons, jamming with teachers and recording the lessons so he can revisit them while in hotel rooms on the road. “A lot of players might have an innate talent that doesn’t require them to think of these things… [laughs
] I am not one of these people—I need to work at it.”
While Valentine has been focusing on honing his skills and branching out musically, his lust for gear is still rampant as ever. An avid follower in the religion of Telecasters, Valentine has recently drifted to the realm of handbuilder Dennis Fano and his JM6 Jazzmaster-style models. As icing on the cake, his touring pedalboard is one of the more expansive boutique rigs we’ve encountered, packed with nearly 20 stompboxes.
recently caught up with Valentine and talked about working in Switzerland with Back in Black
producer Mutt Lange, using Divided by 13 and Matchless amps, and what aspiring career-minded guitarists should do.
What was it like to work with producer Robert “Mutt” Lange on Hands All Over?
Don't miss James' gearbox with photos on page 4!
We were definitely intimidated and unaware of what to expect because he was the guy that worked on Back in Black
, but he’s such a warm, accommodating person to be around. It made us comfortable right from the start. As a producer, he’s extremely patient for the right idea to come about—definitely more time than anyone else probably would permit just to make sure songs were totally right and on-target. I think you can really tell that with this record because there are no throwaway lines or instrumentation, which makes it a very tight album.
And how did the freedom affect your guitar parts and playing on the album?
He’s a very musical producer and artist, so he came to the table with a lot of his own ideas. There would be points where he would just hear something that was needed in a track and he’d pick up a guitar and say ‘play something like this’ [mimics guitar parts
] or he’d sing me things and then I’d pick up a guitar and let him lead me in a new direction of a song or solo. Also, he would focus on our idea for a riff, a chorus, or a song, and then we would just rehearse the part or song over and over again—doing a lot of different takes in all sorts of directions. He would kind of direct us when things were off or a bit lost, and then when we were in a groove he’d really push us to finalize the idea and come full-circle with the organic evolution of the song or riff.
We would work on things hundreds of times, which I really like because you often end up in a completely different spot than when you started. The result would’ve never been reached without that kind of a process. If you’re hurried, you can dig into your bag of tricks and pull out something that will work to get the idea out, but when you spend so much time exploring, developing, and organically going new places you tend to push yourself outside your comfort zone and repetitious ways to create something new and fresh.
What’s the best example of that organic exploration on the album?
The best example of that is probably “Stutter.” The opening riff carrying the song was the last thing we figured out for it. The riff starts the song and it’s the whole intro, which seems like where the song’s foundation, but the track was already there with Adam’s [Levine, Maroon 5’s lead singer] vocals and some power chords and Mutt tells me [attempted English accent
] ‘just try something different, ya know.’ And I’m thinking, ‘what the hell does he want me to do?’[laughs
], but we kept on going and I just did a goofy riff and he says ‘yeah, yeah, something more like that.’ A lot of the songs don’t have such a strong intro or takeoff point, so for “Stutter” to jump off like it does—it was a pretty amazing way to get there.
That sort of thing happened a lot on the record where I would tend to fall into my old ways and play different versions of already recorded riffs, but Mutt’s persistence often lead me down a new and unfamiliar path that forced me to come up with new ideas and riffs that otherwise wouldn’t have happened—it was a long process, but it was well worth it in the end. And in songs like “Just a Feeling” and “Never Gonna Leave This Bed” my guitar parts were composed and mainly derived from long sessions of working out my parts until we finished with a track that was completely different and original from where it started, which created this cool, lush, soundscape.
Talk to me about the stadium-rock title track “Hands All Over.”
] Oh yeah, it’s full-on cock-rock, which is funny for us because you’d assume Mutt would’ve shepherded us in that direction, but that wasn’t really the case. Adam came up with the concept for the song and he was kind of writing it like ‘Here Mutt, I’m going to show you what I think a Mutt Lange rock song would sound like’ [laughs
]. It was kind of something you’d expect from a Maroon 5-Mutt Lange collaboration—real provocative and full of bravado. When we were finished recording the album we looked back at this track and we were like, ‘holy shit, does this song even fit in with the others’ just because its audaciously ’80s… [laughs
] but ultimately we just decided not to take ourselves too seriously and include it on the album.
How did that song come about?
With its guitar riff, you’d think that it was first, but it started with this weird looping keyboard part Adam had come up with. He took this drum machine and put a rhythmic beat through a mini Korg processor-thing, and Mutt heard it and said “You guys should take that and turn it into a song.”
When I was coming up with that main riff I was trying different things over and over and I kept going back to that starting keyboard track as a take-off point. The notes I use are different than the keyboard part, but the pattern and rhythm of my riff flows with the keyboard giving both tracks a lot more room in the song. When we’ve played that track live it’s gone in a different direction—more like a Red Hot Chili Peppers song because we speed it up and it goes near this funk-metal range that’s really fun to play live by just digging into the main riff on the sixth string.