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Interview: James Valentine (Maroon 5) - Hands All Over

Interview: James Valentine (Maroon 5) - Hands All Over

Maroon 5 guitarist James Valentine breaks down the recording process and gear for the group''s latest, Hands All Over, and discusses playing in a pop band and jazz ambitions.

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.

Premier Guitar recently caught up with Valentine and talked about working in Switzerland with Back in Black and Pyromania producer Mutt Lange, using Divided by 13 and Matchless amps, and what aspiring career-minded guitarists should do.

Valentine's Gear
Don't miss James' gearbox with photos on page 4!
What was it like to work with producer Robert “Mutt” Lange on Hands All Over?

We were definitely intimidated and unaware of what to expect because he was the guy that worked on Back in Black, Pyromania, 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.”

[laughs] 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.

Valentine onstage with Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine

What about the track’s numerous guitar fills and leads?

Adam actually did the various lead fills in the post-chorus spots with one of his various First Act Custom Shop guitars and I improvised the solos in the verses by doing this David Gilmour-thing where you’re sliding up a triad minor [makes chord noise… laughs].

What kind of gear did you use when recording “Hands All Over?”

Ironically enough, for this track I mainly used one of Mutt’s guitars—a model from Saint Blues Guitars, which was a gift from Def Leppard’s guitarist Phil Collen—that went through one of his high-gain, ballsy rock amps like the Mesa/Boogie. I generally don’t go to the modern, high-gain territories too often because I like keeping things a little bit more controlled [laughs], but doing that was fun.

“Get Out of My Life” has these two opposite jangly guitar riffs—each one panned in a separate direction—that work together in an unusual way for a Maroon 5 setting. How did the idea for recording the guitar tracks for this song come about?

That one is interesting because Adam’s demo featured a clean, chorused guitar part that sounded really cool, but it still sounded empty. We tried a whole bunch of riffs and filler chords and finally Jesse [Carmichael, Maroon 5 keyboardist/guitarist] suggested I do a Keith Richards thing, so that’s how I came up with main riff that sounds like the Stones’ “Miss You.” And again, Mutt worked his magic with this song because a lot of these parts—on their own—sounded like shit and didn’t seem to fit, but he would just EQ everything so they sit in the right pocket and didn’t overwhelm each other.

Adam has been playing more and more guitar live and on recordings over the years, how does his development as a guitarist change or affect your duties as the band’s lead guitarist?

More than any of our previous records, Adam came in with the songs and song ideas more fully formed in terms of lyrics and basic song structures. For instance, he’ll make a demo with one guitar part or a riff and it’s my job to either take those parts and flesh them out or simply fill in the space of the song’s spectrum. The classic Maroon 5 setup is like with “Misery,” where you have a guitar playing a repeated funk chord progression on top and then a crunchier, thicker guitar that’s doubling the bass line. On Hands All Over, each song was a totally different package and Adam’s demos had a lot of room to fill in, so in that sense, I work with Jesse because we need to find out where the keyboards and guitars are going to coexist in a song.

Does working within a song skeleton or box become frustrating as a guitarist?

It can be frustrating sometimes because you hear Adam’s lyrics and idea and just say “Well, what the hell am I supposed to put in there?” but that’s my role within the band. My job is to find where I can logically weave my guitar parts around the dancing keyboards and rolling bass lines so that it helps and complements the song rather than take away from it because I’m the guitarist. I take those situations, when they occur, as a challenge more than a negative thing. But that dynamic of the band and our creative process makes us unique because we avoid the obvious arrangements and setups.

One of Valentine's Fano Alt de Facto JM6 guitars
Let’s talk gear. In the past you’ve been a big user of the Fender Telecaster Deluxe. Why was that?

That black Tele Deluxe was actually Jesse’s and the headstock cracked all the way down to the neck… [laughs] It was an old guitar and I’ve been looking for a good Deluxe since we retired that one from the road. I just really like the Deluxe because it has the best of both worlds—it cuts through the mix and it is so warm. But lately the guitars I’ve been playing are these old, original ’70s Teles with single-coils and these new handbuilt guitars loaded with Lindy Fralin custom-wound P-90s.

Those must be the distressed guitars built by Dennis Fano. How did you come across his guitars?

My friend from back in Nebraska, Mike Mogis [multi-instrumentalist for Bright Eyes], was using one and I really dug the guitar’s vibe and feel when I was messing around with it. After that, I was in New York City at 30th Street Guitars to buy the Jazzmaster-esque model [Alt de Facto JM6], but all they had at the time was the Telecaster-esque model so my first one was the TC6, which became one of my favorite go-to guitars. A few months had passed since I bought my first one, and I got into contact with Dennis and we talked a bit—he ended up building me a JM6… [laughs] but I had to wait anxiously for a few months because he builds everything himself.

During live performances you often blend the Matchless Independence 35 head and the Divided by 13 FTR 37 head, why is that?

First off, they’re really great amps in their own regards, but when they work together they complement each other in a very dynamic way. Generally, I have them both on—running through their own matching 2x12 extension cabs—and I have their channel switchers next to each other on my pedalboard so that I can switch them both to their dirty channels for a huge, stadium-rock overdriven sound or I can keep one clean and one dirty. I like keeping each amp different—one set to clean and the other dirty—because you get this really big, stereo effect where each amp’s tone is independent, but when they’re combined in this setup you can cover so much more ground tonally. Plus, it just sounds huge!

To me, the Divided FTR 37’s tone has a vintage vibe, while the Matchless Independence head is more modern sounding… [laughs] it’s not nearly as modern as lets say my Boogie Mark Five, but it tends to break up earlier and has a drastically different tonal vocabulary than the Divided. It took me a number of years and experimentations with several amp combinations before I reached my current rig. Just recently, I’ve been getting a lot of compliments and questions about my tone during the Hands All Over tour. A lot of that credit goes to my guitar tech Mike Buffa who has helped me really dial in my setup and overall stage sound because the four heads [each head has a backup] sit offstage with him and he controls the amps’ volumes and blends them directly offstage with an Ernie Ball Volume pedal. It’s nice having him offstage with my amps because if something sounds off or happens he can adjust things on the fly.

What’s currently on your pedalboard for the Hands All Over Tour?

Mike wired up my pedalboard and we experimented with the order of the signal path to avoid too much tone sucking. It has a Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler, a Boss FV-500H Volume Pedal, a Dunlop Rotovibe, a Fulltone Full-Drive 2, a Dunlop Zakk Wylde Signature wah, a Fulltone Octvafuzz, a Keeley Katana Clean Boost, a Keeley True Bypass Looper, Providence Anadime Chorus 2, an EHX Micro POG 2 (both the chorus and the POG 2 are in a separate effects loop for the intro and main riff on “Give A Little More”), a Z.Vez Effects Octane 3, a Fulltone OCD, a Menatone Blue Collar Overdrive (the Fulltone works as my ballsy, over-the-top gritty soaring solo tone, while the Blue Collar colors my tone for the crunchy rhythm parts), and a Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor.

Working in Maroon 5 you’re the lead guitarist, but when you worked with John Mayer on Continuum's "Stop This Train" and "In Repair," how did the working dynamic change when you were with another chop-heavy guitarist?

Working with John can be super intimidating because he’s just so good. I was really honored when he had asked me to come play on the record. It reminds me that even though some dudes have crazy chops, everyone has their own unique style that they can bring—we really are all special little snowflakes. That being said, sometimes when I hear John play, or someone like Blake Mills, I do have to fight the urge to not go throw my guitar into the LA river [laughs]. I usually just try not to embarrass myself and try to learn as much as I can those situations.

Most of your time is devoted to Maroon 5 and the pop/rock riffs in your songs, what type of music do you enjoy playing? And what type of music would you like to explore outside the realm of Maroon 5?

My favorite guitarist is probably Nels Cline. I love all the work he’s done as a sideman and as a bandleader. When I’m sitting at home I’m often emulating him. One of my other big favorites is Bill Frisell. I spend time playing through his compositions as well. I'd like to perhaps someday work on some instrumental music in that sort of vein. I really dig Ben Monder and Kurt Rosenwinkel, too, I would love to be able to play like them… [laughs] maybe in fifty or sixty years.

What about practicing and learning the craft of guitar playing?

Recently I started to get together with a great teacher in LA named Jean Marc Belkadi to work on a lot of different things: technique, harmony, chord melody, and different styles I hadn't really been exposed to. I record all of our lessons so in hotel rooms I can play along to certain routines. A lot of what I have been working on is very rudimentary—getting my picking and strumming really together, working with a metronome, and doing melodic sequences. I’ve been working lately on getting the melodic minor under my fingers. I try to keep on learning jazz tunes and on this tour I was working on “Stella by Starlight.” I’ve been going through the Beatles catalog trying to learn all their tunes, I figure that's not a bad way to study song craft.

There are some great books that I keep in my backpack that can always spawn ideas of things I could work on. A great guitarist, Dave Rawlings, gave me The Advancing Guitarist by Mick Goodrick—that alone could keep me busy for the rest of my life [laughs]. The last time we were in Boston I picked a book on hybrid picking that I have spent a lot of time with, too.

My obsession with learning this stuff might seem manic to some—they’re not totally wrong. 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. 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.

What is some advice for guitarists who are trying to make guitar-playing their career?

That's tough—it’s not a sensible career. You don't get into this because you are career minded. You come into this because you are so obsessed that you can’t or don’t want to do anything else. I’d suggest developing a personality that will compel others to want to be around you—it can make the difference of getting the gig or not just because you appear to be easy to hang with. Networking is something that helped me directly because I was lead into Maroon 5 by a series of seemingly unconnected events, so put yourself out there, but don't be annoying about it [laughs]. With laptops and their abilities, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be good at recording yourself. Also, when I started out I just wanted to play guitar so I really focused on my playing and not enough on the craft of writing songs. You really should challenge yourself to write a little bit every day—write a song a day, or a song a week. And if you are having trouble with creative blocks check out the book The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. And lastly, just listen… to everything. The key is to really actively listen. You don’t know where ideas will come from.

James Valentine's Gear Box

Valentine's Collings I-35 Deluxe, Fano Alt de Facto JM6, Custom Hamer Talladega Pro

Collings I-35 Deluxe
Two ’70s Fender Telecasters
Two Fano Alt de Facto JM6s
Custom Hamer Talladega Pro
Two Martin Performance Artist Series acoustics

Valentine's main amps and their backups: two Matchless Independence 35 heads
and two Divided by 13 RTF 37 heads.

Divided by 13 RTF 37
Matchless Independence 35

Keeley modded Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler
Boss FV-500H Volume Pedal
Dunlop Rotovibe
Fulltone Full-Drive 2
Dunlop Zakk Wylde Signature wah
Fulltone Octvafuzz
Keeley Katana Clean Boost
Keeley True Bypass Looper
Providence Anadime Chorus 2
EHX Micro POG 2
Z.Vez Effects Octane 3
Fulltone OCD
Menatone Blue Collar Overdrive
Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor
Divided by 13 Switchazel
Keeley Framptone A/B Amp Switcher
Three Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2 Plus boxes
Axess BS-2 Buffer
Korg Pitchblack Tuner