J Mascis, with drummer Murph to his left and bassist Lou Barlow at right, was initially a drummer himself, but transitioned to guitar in order to capture his vision of Dinosaur Jr.’s sound. Photo by Levi Walton
J Mascis doesn’t say much, but he doesn’t have to. He’s an alternative rock icon—an awkward guitar hero from a music scene not usually interested in guitar heroes. He plays with grace, finesse, and stubborn self-confidence; churns out riffs with abandon; and writes artful but listenable songs. He plays loud, too. But volume isn’t a gimmick. It’s an aesthetic statement that’s also tuneful and tasteful.
Mascis has been around for a while. His band, Dinosaur Jr., started in Western Massachusetts in the mid-1980s and rose from the ashes of Deep Wound, a hardcore band that featured Mascis on drums. Dinosaur Jr.—with Mascis on guitar, Lou Barlow on bass, and Murph on drums—was loud, audacious, and influential, releasing three acclaimed albums, including their 1985 debut Dinosaur, You’re Living All Over Me (1987), and Bug (1988), before unraveling in 1989. Mascis soldiered on without his original mates, and the band signed with a major label, Sire, in the early ’90s. They got significant exposure and released a number of alternative anthems like “Out There” and “The Wagon.” But by decade’s end, Dinosaur Jr. had morphed into J Mascis and the Fog, and that seemed to be the end of the line.
But not so fast.
In 2005, the original Dinosaur Jr. reunited. It was no cheesy trip down memory lane. They picked up where they left off, toured, returned to the studio, and released three new albums hailed by critics as vital and relevant—an unusual feat for a middle-aged rock band. Their latest, Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not, is due on August 5 and is a testament to their tenacity and consistency.
Dinosaur Jr.’s core is, quite literally, Mascis’ wall of sound. Onstage, Mascis stands in front of six 4x12 cabinets—powered by two vintage Marshall heads and an ancient Hiwatt—and a blackface Fender Twin. He doesn’t switch between amps. He runs all four simultaneously and blasts them at full tilt. He uses pedals to create contrasts—his pedalboard is brimming with goodies—and he plays on an assortment of Fender Jazzmasters.
His idiosyncratic tastes have spawned a small industry of gear, including a high-end signature Jazzmaster, its more affordable Squier iteration, and the coveted and rare Fuzz Munchkin dirt box from Tym Guitars in Australia.
PG spoke with Mascis about his influences, capos, the different gear he uses in the studio, subliminal songwriting, his pedalboard philosophy, and how his playing has evolved over the last 30 years.
You started playing the guitar relatively late. Did it take time to get up to speed? Yeah. I played a lot. I wrote my own songs, so I only had to play what I wrote and vice versa. It wasn’t too bad because I wasn’t trying to play covers or anything.
Did it help that you knew music and already played drums? Yeah, for sure. And I fooled around on guitar—I’d written some songs already.
When you switched from drums to guitar, the type of music you were playing also transitioned—from hardcore to what you do now. Was that a natural transition for you? Yeah, that’s why I switched. We knew we were going to play a different style of music and I didn’t like any of the guitarists around town. I thought it would be easier to find a drummer, show him what to play, and figure out the guitar on my own. Nobody I knew really was playing guitar in a way that I wanted to hear.
You’ve said that two of your big influences were Mick Taylor and Keith Richards. How did they influence you? When I was learning, I liked playing solos more than rhythm—so Mick Taylor’s sound. Keith Richards had some cool leads, too, and recognizable rhythm sounds.
Did you experiment with open tunings, like Keith? Not at first. I did use the Keith tuning [open G] on the new album, on the song “Goin Down.”
Although Mascis, shown here with a Stratocaster, plays mostly Fender Jazzmasters onstage, including a signature model, he uses a wide range of guitars and amps to get his varied studio tones. Photo by Tim Bugbee/Tinnitus Photography
Did Richards inspire you to use a capo as well? No. That was just from trying to sing. The first song I used a capo on was “Little Fury Things” [from 1987’s You’re Living All Over Me] after realizing it wasn’t a good key for me to sing in. From then on I’ve been using it. I never really write songs in the right key to sing. I use a capo to get a little better range for my voice.
You write a song and then move the capo around until you find something that fits comfortably in your vocal range? Yeah. I end up singing falsetto a lot when I’m writing songs. But I don’t necessarily want to sing all the songs falsetto.
Does using the capo mess with your intonation, especially since your action is so high? I have to tune it every time I move the capo. I always wonder—when I see people play guitar, throw the capo on, and keep playing—“How is that possible?” That’s never worked for me.
Do you find it limiting when soloing since you’re cutting off a big chunk of the fretboard? I don’t mind soloing with the capo. It doesn’t bother me, but a lot of capos don’t seem to be able to hang on when you bend the strings. I’ve only been able to use the Shubb capos. They clamp down real tight.
Another influence you’ve mentioned is Ron Asheton from the Stooges. What did you learn from him? His sound on the first Stooges albums—I’ve always been chasing that as the ultimate guitar sound. Also, the way he soloed, it was more in my reach. I could figure out what he was doing—it wasn’t so hard. He was a good role model for learning how to play.
The Jazzmaster was your first good guitar. What were you playing on before you got one? I had Lou’s old guitar. It was, like, a Hondo Les Paul copy.
You’re known for using Jazzmasters live, but in that new clip from Later… with Jools Holland you’re playing a Tele with an f-hole. What’s up with that? I just thought I would try it because that song—that’s the Keith tuning—has kind of a heavier sound I was going for. I’m not sure if I’ll stick with it. It had a humbucker, a noise-canceling pickup, in it, too.
Talk about the different gear you use in the studio. I have a lot of guitars. I’ll use a lot of Gibsons for rhythm, and Teles I’ll use a lot for leads. I usually use a Vox AC-15 from 1959 or a Tweed Deluxe—the Tweed Deluxe maybe more with the Gibsons for rhythm and then the Vox with the Fenders for leads. That’s kind of my main thing. I usually play in the control room. I have the amp there and the speaker somewhere else.
Do you use your pedalboard in the studio? I’ll just use whatever pedal. I don’t use the pedalboard at all.