Doug Martsch on exploring the guitar: “I usually have no idea why I like something. Maybe it’s as simple as I like the shape of my fingers on the guitar when I’m making a certain sound.” Photo by Rene Gomez.
What about amps and effects?
I don’t use much—a couple of delays, one for tap-tempo and the other for slapback echo and the weird sound here and there. I once got an off-brand vibrato pedal for one song, and I now step on it for the occasional odd sound. The delays are a Memory Boy and a 16 Second [both by Electro-Harmonix].
I’ve pretty much always used Fender Bassman amps. I started out with a Twin Reverb, but it died, and after I got it fixed it never sounded the same. I’ve had many Bassmans over the years—that’s the one for me.
Why is that?
It’s pretty simple. It’s loud enough to play live. It breaks up in a nice way. I find that Deluxes are just a little too quiet to play live. I’m sure something like a Bandmaster would also make a great amp for me, but I’ve stuck with the Bassman out of habit. I’ve been getting vintage blackface ones, though I don’t know if that really matters—some silverface ones would probably work fine.
Who are some of your biggest guitar influences?
My chief influence is Scott Schmaljohn of Treepeople. He taught me a lot. Brent Mason and Bill Frisell—both guys are amazing, and are always coming up with the best ideas ever. J Mascis, Thurston Moore—people who play viscerally. And that guy from the Pixies [Joey Santiago]. I like his stuff a lot—such a distinctive sound, simple, sweet, and smart.I also love Neil Young.
I love how both he and J Mascis experiment with traditional styles, sometimes using the whammy bar to make everything sound a little fucked-up. Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page—I love their soloing and parts, and how incredibly creative they are. But in my own playing I lean more toward J and Neil, mainly because their styles are more reachable, and I can cop them a little.
On “When I’m Blind” you build a long solo with subtle variations in pitch and rhythm. What do you think about when you solo?
I don’t really have any process. I play completely viscerally and just go for it. It’s one of the things I feel most insecure about. Live, it can sometimes be horrible, playing a solo that ends up in a place with nowhere to go, and feeling like I don’t have the mind or chops to stop the train wreck. But sometimes things go incredibly well. For “When I’m Blind”I did a bunch of takes and pieced things together.
So the solo was made up on the spot?
It was totally improvised, as are pretty much all of my solos. The only thing I had in mind was picking super-fast and hovering around notes, sliding back and forth around them with my fret hand.
How did you get the animal-like tones on “Living Zoo?”
There wasn’t much to it. I just hit the chord of the key the song is in and ran it through a wah, probably a Dunlop. Sometimes the simplest approaches result in the coolest sounds.
Get an up-close look at Doug Martsch in soloing mode in this live performance of “Carry the Zero.”
You’ve expressed misgivings about your guitar abilities. What things exceed your grasp?
That’s an interesting question, and I don’t really know the answer. Maybe I wish I could do things a little more quickly. I might spend hours between takes trying to refine a part, and it takes a while because I don’t really know what I’m doing. It’s willful, though. I know a lot of people who grew up playing classical and feel that their creativity got stymied in the process. I have a little of that fear in me. But I’m not like Isaac [Brock] of Modest Mouse, who doesn’t even know the names of chords. I wouldn’t go that far.
I took some music theory in high school, so I know a little about keys. I know that for every major key there’s a minor. I know how to noodle around a bit in the different keys, and that’s about it. Sometimes the less you know, the better off you are.