10 Things We Learned from Maroon 5’s James Valentine
The chart-topping lead guitarist opens up about singing in front of Beatles, failing at guitar design, and why he suffers from G.A.S. just like you.
Valentine performing with his beloved Fender Telecaster with Arcane pickups during a Maroon 5 gig at the Target Center in Minneapolis, MN, on October 28, 2010. Photo by Chris Kies.
James Valentine is no stranger to Premier Guitar: He’s joined us for a Rig Rundown, and we interviewed him about Maroon 5’s platinum album Hands All Over. He even cited his favorite Halloween-themed album in Staff Picks. (Spoiler: he choose Naked City’s Naked City because of Bill Frisell.) Then, just prior to his band’s big 2015 World Tour in support of V, Valentine let his fans ask the questions when he took over our Facebook account for 90 minutes. Here are a few nuggets about Valentine’s personal and professional life that were previously under wraps.
1. Singing to the Beatles and falling onstage mark the extremes of Valentine’s career.
So many memories and oh-my-god moments, but earlier this year playing at that Grammy tribute to the Beatles was pretty amazing. Singing in front of Paul and Ringo, and hanging with Joe Walsh and Jeff Lynne—that night wasn’t too bad! As for embarrassing, just Google “James Valentine falls off stage.” [Don’t bother—we’ve got the video right here.]
2. The way to Valentine’s musical heart is via Mixolydian hooks, funny lyrics, and guitars.
“Any Major Dude” by Steely Dan is probably my favorite song right now. Lyrically it’s funny and serious at the same time: “Any major dude with half a heart surely would tell you my friend, that any minor world that breaks apart falls together again.” While making fun of this narrator’s stoner-speak, they still impart a positive affirmation. The symmetry of the “major dude/minor world” lines is so clever! That balance of funny but meaningful is so hard to achieve with lyrics—Randy Newman can do it too. These days Father John Misty, Benji Hughes, and Blake Mills do it effectively as well. It’s a little different for the Dan in that it has some country tinges to it. And what a great little Mixolydian instrumental hook at the beginning!
And my current favorite song to play live is “Animals,” because it’s driven by that main guitar pattern, and it’s just so fun to play that part. It’s strummy in a ‘90s/Red Hot Chili Peppers sort of way. A lot of the newer songs are driven by synths or beats, but the guitar is the main focal point in “Animals,” at least to me. We also do a big cock-rock ending when we play it live, and I really like it when we mix up the live arrangements.
3. A few things Valentine never leaves behind…
I’ll do anything to have a stash of Smokehouse almonds. As for gear, right now my favorite pieces are probably one of my old ES-335s, a Matchless Independence 35, and either my Line 6 DL4 or Fulltone OCD… that was hard! And I’ve been bonding with my Martin 000-18 at home and on the road because I’ve really enjoyed playing “Secret” as an acoustic song.
4. Hello, my name is James, and I have G.A.S.
Despite my best efforts, I do suffer from G.A.S. I’ve been enjoying some amazing amps and speaker cabinets from the amp guru Austen Hooks of Hook Amps. He also made a Leslie speaker that’s the bee’s knees. I’ve been digging some amazing new pedals from TC Electronic, including the Flashback X4 Delay. The Eventide H9 is pretty amazing in all of the things it can do—and overwhelming! I have yet to buy a pedal from Strymon that hasn’t blown my mind, especially the Timeline, Big Sky, and Deco. The Kilobyte from Caroline Guitar is sick too. I have another custom T-style guitar coming from Bill Asher, which I can’t wait to play on the upcoming tour. I got a Strat-style Suhr that I have really enjoyed playing, as well as the Pete Thorn Custom 100-watt amp that just screams! I call Pete from time to time to bug him with questions about gear. He’s always so gracious.
5. The Silver Surfer convinced the Nebraska native to pick up the guitar.
After hearing Joe Satriani’s Surfing With The Alien as a teenager, I knew I had to play guitar. I was instantly drawn to the instrument because of that album. And now I continuously draw inspiration from heroes like Kurt Rosenwinkel, John Scofield, Pat Metheny, and Bill Frisell because they’re masters of their craft, but they keep reinventing their sound, style, and approach. So refreshing!
6. Write songs—even crappy ones.
My best advice to any aspiring guitarist or musician is to write songs. Then write more songs. After that, write even more songs, because from my experience as a musician and as a part of Maroon 5, I’ve realized you only get better at writing songs from writing songs—no matter the quality, because you need repetition. I have been guilty, especially when I was younger, of spending more time trying to “learn to write” rather than just writing, because that is how you learn to write! Be bold and write shitty songs, and maybe some good ones will come out every once in a while.
7. Don’t make him design his own guitar.
You know, whenever I’ve tried to build or design a guitar with specific appointments, the guitar has never really worked out. I’ve realized that I’m better off playing a bunch of different guitars—whether in a store or a builder’s shop—to see which ones come with the desired mojo. As for my favorite T-style guitar, it’d have to be my solid black Fender Tele that now has Arcane pickups in it, with a rosewood fretboard and a vintage-style bridge with three brass saddles.
8. Where, oh where has the guitar gone? (Valentine knows how to work within a pop/synth landscape.)
I’m sure you’ve heard or read the phrase “serve the song,” so you have to realize—no matter how difficult it is to resist the urge to add more to a song or mix—that you can’t do everything on every song. Some guitarists or musicians want to cram every single idea into every song, and it usually flops or feels crowded.
In the earlier days with Songs About Jane and It Won’t Be Soon Before Long, the guitar filled out most of the mix, so it was easier to lay stuff down and have it work. I have to be cleverer now and usually play less and figure out the little holes where I can situate my guitar. It’s hard to find the right spots, and finding that nook usually comes from a lot of experimentation. I’ve come to learn that a confident musician or guitarist can be okay with playing less—you just have to be impactful in what you do deliver. Plus, there’s still plenty of rock in the live show—our records have always been a bit more slick than onstage.
9. While attending Berklee in Boston, Valentine befriended a fellow guitar phenom called John Mayer.
I met John in 1996. We hit it off and eventually wrote a bunch of weird instrumentals while at school. There is a tape of them somewhere—I don’t really know what type of music it is other than being out there. A while ago John left me a voicemail playing one of the melodies that he still remembered—it was great! Thankfully our friendship has already created some real music, as I contributed some guitar parts on his songs “Stop This Train” and “In Repair” off of 2006’s Continuum.
10. More jams from JJAMZ—just less James.
The new album is being mixed now and will be coming out on Warner Brothers in 2015. It is being produced by the great Mike Elizondo, who Maroon also had the pleasure of working with on It Won’t Be Soon Before Long. Unfortunately, I am not as involved this time around, as my Maroon 5 duties took over this past year. You could say it’s just JAMZ now. (JJAMZ stands for Jason, James, Alex, Michael and Z—the band’s members). But I still cowrote a few of the songs and played on a few tracks. It started out as a side project for all of us, but as everyone else’s bands broke up, it’s grown up into a real band. I’m real proud of them!
BONUS: 11. James’s beard holds all of the mysteries of the Universe.
To check out the rest of the Valentine's takeover of PG's Facebook page, click here.