Jason Mraz gets so much love for his songwriting and his amazing pop vocals that people sometimes overlook the fact that he’s a great guitarist. Although Mraz was featured in GP’s acoustic sister, Frets, back in the day, he’s never been in Guitar Player proper. That’s just plain wrong, so we sat down for the first of two interviews with Mr. A-Z on a sunny Bay Area afternoon.
Any doubts about the fact that Mraz is a big-time pop star were dispelled by the throngs of fans lining up a full six hours before show time. There was no rock star attitude from Mraz, however, who was punctual and in a great mood for our brief chat. As he ate what appeared to be a very healthy lunch we talked about his latest record, his technique, how he is able to play and sing so well at the same time, and what spurred his interest in nylon-string over steel-string acoustics.
He was not only cool, but very humble about his own abilities, as well. “I’ve got a lot of bad habits as a guitarist,” he confessed. “For instance, I always anchor my right-hand pinky on the guitar. That’s why I’ll never be able to fingerpick with all five fingers. I’ve just resigned myself to it now. You can see that I have acrylic nails on my thumb and first three fingers, but I keep my pinky nail short because I know that as soon as I start playing I’m going to plunk it right down on the top of the guitar and I don’t want it to make noise.”
After the interview, Mraz’s band began filtering out onto the stage for sound check. Plenty of singers skip sound check (as well as pre-show interviews) in an attempt to save their voice for the gig, and I figured it would be the same with Mraz. His guitarist of many years Bill Bell checked his Strat and got a whole plethora of great tones—shimmery delayed clean sounds, gritty overdrive, funky wah, silky neck pickup clang—pretty much everything you would need to be a state-of-the-art pop sideman. He also casually mentioned that he had played on Alex Lifeson’s solo record, Victor. For a Canadian guitarist, that would seem to be about the coolest thing imaginable.
When Bell picked up Mraz’s Taylor and played the riff from the latest single, “I Won’t Give Up,” I figured that was that and the singer guy wouldn’t be making sound check. But then Mraz walked onstage (wearing a hat with an arrow through it) and proceeded to not just run through a few tunes but conduct a full-blown rehearsal with the band. They tweaked intros and outros, rearranged the set, modified breakdowns, and auditioned parts. Mraz was very egalitarian as a bandleader, soliciting opinions about changes and approaches. After trying an intro two different ways, both of which were slamming, he admitted that he couldn’t decide between the two. “There’s always the coin toss,” offered Bell. “Okay, let’s flip for it,” responded Mraz. Sure enough, Bell flipped a quarter, it came up tails, and they went with intro #2, agreeing to do intro #1 the following night. Sound check wrapped after nearly two hours and I’ve never seen one like it. This was as far removed from the whole “Testing, 1, 2, 3,” thing as I’ve ever seen and it showed in part why this band is as tight as it is.
The show that night was all that, plus a great light show and a wildly enthusiastic crowd. Mraz and Bell both played beautifully, with Mraz’s “bad habits” serving him and the songs really well. The guy is unquestionably one of the best singers of his generation and for anyone who is interested in how well-crafted guitar parts can support a great vocalist—with an absolutely kick-ass band accompanying—needs to see Jason Mraz when he comes to town. Stay tuned for more pop guitar knowledge from Mr. A-Z in an upcoming issue of GP.