Maroon 5 guitarist James Valentine plays some of the funkiest riffs you've ever heard. Valentine has brought the funk ever since the band recorded "Songs About Jane", their first album released a decade ago. There you can hear his trademark right-hand on many of the classic tracks from that debut including "Harder to Breathe", "Sunday Morning" and "She Will Be Loved". Though the Lincoln, Nebraska native is a fan of the funk, when you scratch beneath the surface you'll find him hanging out with close friend John Mayer and digging on jazz and fusion.
The 10th Anniversary Edition of "Songs About Jane" was recently released. You can hear Valentine blending funky grooves with more intricate solos and riffs and creating a unique tandem guitar attack with singer Adam Levine
. The group also released their fourth studio album titled "Overexposed
" recently so there was a lot to talk about.
UG: You originally joined Maroon 5 to free up Adam Levine more as a singer and front man. Did you immediately understand what your role was going to be in the band?
James Valentine: I understood before I even knew the guys how I was gonna fit it. Because the very first time I saw them play, it was clear at certain times that Adam was putting the guitar behind him Bruce Springsteen-style. Where he like hangs it back there? But also and it wasn't just that when Jesse was in the band when they formed originally in high school, he was playing guitar exclusively. Then as their sound was sort of changing more towards the soul and contemporary influences, he was playing more keyboards.
"I played with all these sort of rock sort of bands but I brought a different sort of sound."
It was kind of obvious that they need someone who just played guitar?
The very first show I saw, Kara's Flowers, which was their name before they changed it to Maroon 5, Jesse was also switching and throwing the guitar behind his back Bruce Springsteen-style and then playing keyboards and then rushing back to throw it on within the same song. He'd play like the guitar on the chorus and he was playing piano on the verses. So from the very first time I saw exactly how I was gonna fit it. They actually needed somebody else to cover those parts so they wouldn't have been so frantic.
Maroon 5 has this reputation as a funk and pop band but on "Songs About Jane" there were elements of jazz and even fusion.
Yeah, that was the direction they were headed in before I joined and a lot of that comes from Jesse Carmichael's sort of harmonic explorations. I think as he was really getting into keyboard and learning jazz a lot of those chord progressions came out.
As a graduate from Berklee you were certainly a well-rounded player when you joined the band.
Oh, it should be clarified I'm not a Berklee grad. I actually went to Berklee for one week.
A dropout? No wonder you've never achieved success.
I dropped out of the University of Nebraska but I just went there for a summer guitar session back in '96 and it was a week long thing. I think there are some places on the Internet where it's written I actually graduated or actually went there. I would have loved to have gone there; I just couldn't afford it. It was so expensive.
You were more into jazz than rock when you joined the band?
Well when I was in high school I guess the Holy Trinity for me was Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell and John Scofield. Those were really my guys. Early on I really saw myself pursuing instrumental music. I mean that was mostly what I listened to and that's what I was into. But I just kept on getting recruited into rock bands and more pop leaning sort of stuff. So I at least brought something different when I coming up playing in Lincoln, Nebraska. I was kind of known as the jazz sort of guy.
With the 10th Anniversary Edition re-release of "Songs About Jane", you listen to some of those tracks like "Shiver" and the solos on some of those songs are hard to pin down stylistically.
I believe that's mostly Adam but on some of those songs we actually comped together like Adam and my solos. I think because Adam is such a great singer and front man, I don't think people understand what a great guitar player he is. He's an amazing lead player and if it wasn't for the fact that he just didn't want to be always holding a guitar so that he could focus on his singing, he's more than capable. And a lot of those solos like the solo on "Shiver" is Adam. Yeah, that's his thing. He does that bluesy sort of shred metal blues thing really well.
"When I started my main guitar I had been playing since I was a teenager was a Gibson ES346, which I still have and it’s a great guitar."
Live do you and Adam get a chance to pull out some twin guitar stuff?
If you see us live you get to see him sort of flex those muscles. We'll do different sections where we're sort of like doing guitar battles and stuff. It's a lot of fun and he's a great guitar player. We sort of initially bonded when I saw them play. Another one of my early influences was Trey Anastasio from Phish and Adam and I bonded over the fact. 'Cause when I heard him play the very first thing I said to him was, "Oh, you must listen to a lot of Trey, right?" He was like, "Yeah" and that was our very first conversation.
But you did play with various rock bands?
So I played with all these sort of rock sort of bands but I brought a different sort of sound. I was coming at it by playing Pat Metheny and John Scofield licks and doing weird Bill Frisell atmospherics. But doing that in like a different context. If anything that's what allowed me to stand out.
So you both connected through Phish?
At that time he was even doing the Trey Anastasio move. He was playing a 335 through a Marshall but he had the two Tube Screamers the same way Trey did so he had the kinda dirty sound and then having both on at the same time for the sort of crazy lead sounds. And he does a lot of those Trey sort of mannerisms.
What kind of guitar were you playing when you joined the band?
When I started my main guitar I had been playing since I was a teenager was a Gibson ES346, which I still have and it's a great guitar. But as I got into the band it ended up kind of being a little dark for what we were doing and especially as we were doing more of the funk sort of stuff. After kind of going around and experimenting with a lot of different stuff, I kind of ended up on the Telly. The Telecaster is kind of amazing because it can do so many different sorts of things and it cuts really well through the mix. So really for the quintessential Maroon 5 sound, most of that is Telecasters. On the recordings we're using lots of different stuff but if you come to see us live most of the time it's the Telly that's the signature sound.
Were Kara's Flowers playing a style of music that appealed to you?
Stylistically I understood they were right on the same page and I knew I could really help them fill out their sound. I mean my background was playing jazz but also kind of fusion and funk sort of stuff. They were leaning towards some of that stuff but coming at it more from like a rock sort of perspective. I wasn't really as much of a rock player. I sort of got into jazz, funk and fusion pretty early on and didn't really know as much of that end as they did. So we sort of complemented each other in that way.
What was that like recording the first album "Songs About Jane" and working with producer Matt Wallace?
I mean it was a great experience. Matt Wallace is a great guy and he had great input in terms of the arrangements of the songs and stuff. And also we spent time really dialing in those sounds and especially the guitar sounds and Matt had a great sonic sort of perspective that really helped us out.
There was some unseen video footage included as part of the 10th Anniversary reissue of "Songs About Jane". Have you seen any of that?
I was watching the "Songs About Jane" the 10th Anniversary video footage, the thing that struck me most seeing some of that stuff was listening to us tracking the individual parts. We really dialed in those sounds and it takes like the sort of perspective of being 10 years away but it was like, "Wow, I think we actually really sort of got it right." And we had no idea what we were doing but Matt did and also the engineer on that record, Mike Landolt. People still really love the sound of that record and they were really instrumental in shaping that.
From watching the video you remembered that there was a lot of trial and error stuff happening in terms of looking for unique guitar sounds?
We were experimenting and try a lot of different guitar/amp combos and we would sort of mess around until it was right. We definitely had a vision of what we wanted to sound like, which was classic but contemporary.
How did you see the guitars as part of that concept?
I think a lot of the guitars on the record sort of add more of the classic part of the sound. Whereas the contemporary elements come from the beats and the contemporary influences on the writing in terms of the syncopated melodies and sort of hip-hop influenced riffs. But yeah, I'm really pleased when I hear those sounds back.
Who's playing on "Sweetest Goodbye"?
That's Adam on that one. I love that song. That was written before I joined the band and it was one of the very first songs I learned with them in rehearsal. It's got a very Lauryn Hill sort of influence; very strong. The "Miseducation of Lauryn Hill", if you listen back to that record, you can really hear the influence that had on the songwriting of Maroon 5. It was a very important record.
[Note: At this point the manager broke in the conversation and said, "We've got another minute or two here and we've got to wrap it up." James kindly mentioned that we could continue the conversation and we reconnected about four hours later. James mentioned he had his '65 Deluxe and his '65 335 and was ready to go. Here is part two.]
In experimenting with guitar sounds on "Songs About Jane" were you searching for the right guitar tone to match up with the lyrical and emotional content of a song?
Sure yeah, that's always the goal and that's what you're always trying to do. As the base of it, I think we had an idea of what we thought was a good guitar sound. And that to us is hard to describe but sometimes you don't know really where you're going but you just start throwing up sounds because you have to start somewhere. Because a lot of times you'll have an idea of how you maybe like the tone that would serve the song the best and you have an idea in your head. But then when you actually try to execute it it doesn't sound right in the track. So a lot of times you have to do a lot of adjustment there and that's a mysterious thing and mostly it ends up being about trial and error. We would go through each song and talk about what we were hoping to accomplish and I think most of the time we were successful.
What about a song like "Must Get Out"?
I think we had the idea of when we do a clean sort of muted sound, I think we're always emulating Andy Summers and The Police. I think there's that sort of delay on there. There wasn't a lot of chorus on "Songs About Jane" but then we really went full Andy Summers using chorus textures on "It Won't Be Soon Before Long" and "Hands All Over" even. On songs like "Not Coming Home" and "Through With You" we wanted a straight-ahead, overdriven, aggressive sort of vibe that I think complements the darker lyrics of those songs. We wanted to be aggressive and slam hard and certainly that's the case on "Harder to Breathe."
"Adam is such a great singer and front man, I don't think people understand what a great guitar player he is."
"Harder to Breathe" was the first single released from Songs About Jane and became sort of the de facto introduction to Maroon 5.
That was a pretty straight-ahead riff and we went the Jimmy Page route on recording that. I believe it was one of Matt Wallace's little Gibson Supros, which is pretty ironic because it's probably the biggest guitar sound on the record and it's probably from the smallest amp. We actually used the Supro a lot and we also used the Champ a lot and those were from Matt Wallace's personal collection. Those always ended up doing the trick most of the time.
Jimmy Page's philosophy was distance makes depth and it was all about miking. You sort of adopted that philosophy in creating big guitar tones?
Yeah, we didn't know how to do that and Matt showed us. I guess there's a lot of Fender amps and the sort of classic Fendery sort of sound especially for a lot of the funk stuff. For the riff stuff that was always a different combination of pedals and amps. I think for recording generally we always prefer to get the gain from the amp itself and to make the amp break up itself. That sort of gives it a warmer sound that's more appealing. That's not to say that we didn't also probably throw a lot of pedals in there.
Any particular pedals?
I know at the time we were very fond of the Tube Screamer so that was probably utilized especially for some of those leads. There's some other effects at the end of "The Sun" and we were experimenting with a lot of different stuff. We ended up throwing an envelope filter on there and we have the guitar going through a Leslie throughout the song, which was kind of a cool thing. In general most of the stuff is pretty straight-ahead in a classic rock sort of way regarding the guitar effects.
Did you actually sit with Adam and talking about specific guitar sounds for each track?
In terms of Adam's approach to guitar, it's a very yin and yang sort of situation. He's very impulsive and he's not very patient though he has a general sort of idea. He's not gonna sit around and fiddle with the amp forever you know. He wants go to and he's ready to fly. So he has more of a general idea and then we figure out how to actually execute it and that takes a little more time. It's like we have to almost conspire ahead of time to get a good sound before he's there. 'Cause his mind works so fast and he's got so many ideas coming in that he's ready to go on and he's already singing background vocals in his head while we're still tracking guitars. It's that sort of situation.
By the time you get to the "It Won't Be Soon Before Long" album are you experimenting even more with guitar sounds?
Yeah sure, I think that would be a fair thing to say. We were also working with some new producers so trying some new stuff. For me when I hear that record I also hear some specific influences coming through more obviously. To me those influences are like The Police and Prince in terms of the guitar approach; that seemed to be where we kept on going back to on that.
What was that like working with different producers?
One of my favorite tracks on that second record is "Can't Stop" and we worked with Eric Valentine and he's got a really, really meticulous approach to sounds-to whole tracks—but to guitars as well. It was really cool to see his process. I really like the sound of guitars that came from that. That was actually like to me with that groove and the guitar sound we were going for was really influenced by Queens Of The Stone Age even though it sounds nothing like that of course as it comes through our filter. But that was a kind of starting off point.
Eric Valentine produced the Queens of the Stone Age albums so that makes sense.
Yeah, he's definitely a mad scientist.
You also worked with Mike Elizondo who produced Mastodon's last album "The Hunter".
I still haven't heard it but he told me he had been working on it and I was like, "What? That's gonna be amazing." I'm actually gonna go download that now. I can't believe I still haven't checked that out. Mike Elizondo had an amazing guitar, amp and effects pedals collection so we definitely went crazy in that candy shop.
What other producers worked on that album?
Mark Endert that we worked with has a great ear for sort of placing stuff in and for making guitar parts and overdubs work together that I wouldn't have thought would. But he had cool ideas about how they would work together in the final mix. They would not stand alone by themselves but together the sum of the parts made for some interesting stuff. Especially on "Makes Me Wonder" like if you could hear the individual tracks and separate 'em, I don't think they'd make a lot of sense. But he's sort of got a kitchen sink approach and I think it makes me wonder. Off the second record, I think that's my favorite recording we've ever done.
You mentioned Queens Of The Stone Age as a source of inspiration. Any other contemporary metal bands like Mastodon or Metallica interest you?
All music interests me for sure but out of that school for whatever reason I was really drawn to Queens Of The Stone Age. I don't know if you put them in that category but just because their approach to that or like heavy music or whatever you want to call it really appealed to me. I mean it's a combination of his voice and their sort of grooves and his approach. I think he's got such a cool way of playing the guitar that involves hitting those harmonics and his sound seems so unique and so heavy to me.
What about Metallica?
Of course the Metallica stuff like everybody else who's my age was of course really important for me. That initial exposure to that when I was a kid and we all know that feeling of hearing "Master of Puppets" for the first time. But there's not a lot of metal bands I'm into right now. In general I'm curious as to where the next generation of innovation will come in with that type of guitar-oriented music. We're about due for a major sea change and I don't know what it is but I'm really excited.
"There's not a lot of metal bands I'm into right now. In general I'm curious as to where the next generation of innovation will come in with that type of guitar-oriented music."
You mentioned Jimmy Page earlier and we're still talking about him decades after he first started playing. Where is the next Jimmy Page coming from?
Yeah, I don't know. In pop music it's like guitar plays less and less of a role. I'd love to get it back as part of the dialog. But it's hard because those guys were so great and where do you really go from there? I think in our generation, Tom Morello is really one of the last guys to do some truly innovative and new things with the guitar. There's lots of guys doing amazing things but it's usually referencing those heroes of the past like you were talking about. So I don't know. I've talked about it before but it probably will involve new technologies.
When you think about classic guitarists from the past, they were all pushing the limits of what guitars and amplifiers were previously able to do.
Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page were always kind of on the cutting edge in terms of technology. There's gonna be-there is-amazing technology I think is underutilized because I think we're at a point where we've gotten trapped in this weird sort of loop where we just keep on referencing the past. 'Cause it's all right there and it's all available. With the Internet you can go on YouTube and watch those guys and it's hard not to just wanna emulate them directly. But those guys weren't doing that; they were kinda going off into unknown territory. And I worry that a lot of bands right now and specifically guitar bands don't really explore that territory. Because I don't know what it is and nobody does. I guess it's wide open.
On "Hands All Over" you worked with Mutt Lange.
Working with Mutt was incredible. He's obviously a legend and it was really cool to see his attention to detail and his approach to things. It's very much whatever works for the track and try everything and don’t rest until you have tried every possible option. That was really cool to go through it and sort of see it.
You had once described "It Won't Be Soon Before Long" and "Hands All Over" as being a "bit unbalanced" as albums. What did you mean?
I think in terms of the focus what we said about "Overexposed" is there was no shame in that we decided to really make a full-on pop record. I think before in terms of the imbalance that I was referring to had to do with the fact we were trying to make some songs that we were thinking more about maybe our live show and how we were gonna be performing these as a rock band.
On "Overexposed" you brought in outside writers for the first time and various producers and created a very different kind of album.
On "Overexposed" we just sort of abandoned that and were like, "Let's just make these as radio-ready as they could ever be. We'll worry about how we'll play 'em later. But let's just sort of swing for the fences in terms of trying new stuff with production that will involve these outside sort of production ideas." It's not just gone be the five of us sitting in a room and playing. So it was a different sort of approach for us. In terms of the last record I think there were some songs that were trying to be that but we were still trying to do something that would still have the organic quality of "Songs About Jane". I think at the end of the day we just decided, "We gotta try something new because we know how to do records like that." It's a little more exciting in the unknown territory.
What is it like co-writing a song like "Ladykiller" with Adam Levine?
It's always been different over the years. A lot of times it will be just a chord progression that will spark a melody for Adam or something like that. And that can come from a chord progression that Jesse played or I played or something like a riff we jammed on at a soundcheck. But the songs on the new record are probably more collaborative than they've been in the past in terms of the melodies themselves and the lyrics. One day I was talking to Mickey Madden and it was like, "Let's just come up with a couple song titles" and he came up with the titles "Ladykiller" and "Fortune Teller." He said, "Those sound like good sounding names." We were on the road and I’m always sort of tinkering around with riffs and ideas and track ideas in Logic Pro. I looked at "Ladykiller" and I ended up sort of writing a song with first-draft lyrics and then played it and Adam was into it and he added to the lyrics and tweaked a couple of the melodies to suit more of where he would sing it. But those ones on this record came a little more fully formed than the past, which was also different for us.
Did you hear "Sad" as simply a vocal and piano arrangement?
Yeah, lately for whatever reason I think it just goes cyclically, I've been more drawn to playing piano. I'm horrible at it. I had a dream last night that I was playing piano like in a Broadway show and I couldn't play. I'm not good at piano and my left hand is totally useless. But in the case of "Sad" that was one of those great moments in the studio that you hope for. I had woken up one morning and before I was even awake I was at my piano in my living room and I played this thing. It was kinda cool and like the chords to the verse and I just sang that melody. I sang that melody and there weren't any words; it was just kind of a melody. I recorded it on my phone and didn't even think about it. I went into the studio and Adam sort of had this concept for a song; he had a couple of the lines that would be the chorus. I almost didn't say anything 'cause you're always kinda like embarrassed to bring in ideas.
You do get a bit intimidated by Adam?
I'm always embarrassed especially to bring stuff that I've sung that have nonsense words. But I played this thing and it was like, "Oh, that's cool" so that became the basis for the verse. Then Adam and I actually sat at the piano and figured out the chorus for the rest of it while he wrote the lyrics and it turned out really cool. We kinda like decided, "Hey, this doesn't really need to be anything other than voice and piano." It was cool in the midst of this record that does have so much production just to have a moment like that that's just piano and voice. So we just kept it that way.
"I sort of got into jazz, funk and fusion pretty early on and didn't really know as much of that end as they [Maroon5] did. So we sort of complemented each other in that way."
You've talked about wanting to bring more guitar into the sort of pop music that Maroon 5 makes. Did you ever have the desire to be a sort of guitar hero?
Oh yeah-that was the dream. When I was a kid I did not care about the song. I was like waiting for the solo of course. It was about the riff and I still can't remember lyrics because I'm usually listening to that other part of the song. So it was almost like that part of me definitely needed to be tempered. It's been a great education playing with Adam and Jesse who are very much students of songs and songwriting. They really showed me and exposed me to the Beatles thing. I wasn't really familiar because I skipped over that one and went straight to Jeff Beck and stuff like that.
There definitely is a line between jerking off on the guitar and saying something worthwhile.
Maybe guys like us who do like the guitar solos get a bad rap. Maybe it's not just all self-aggrandizing wanking but that is a large part of it. But yes, I still would love to bring more of that somehow into pop music. Like I said I don't know; it's really hard. I'm gonna continue to try and figure out how to do that. But I'm sure there's probably some kid out there who's got a much better idea of it than I do. That will be the savior of guitars: the chosen one. He's out there somewhere.
It sounds like you’d be interested in recording some type of solo guitar album?
Yeah definitely. I mean I've never really talked about it but I have some out there compositions that are more sort of like Frank Zappaesque. Someday I hope to finish some sort of project that would definitely be guitar-oriented. It would definitely probably be one of those records-at least from the initial stuff I've worked on-that would probably appeal to other musicians and aspiring musicians and that's about it. [laughs] Which is great because those are the kind of records I really love. So look for that; it's a work-in-progress. Maroon 5 keeps me pretty busy but I hope to actually execute that someday.
Interview by Steven Rosen
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