WHAT DO PAUL MCCARTNEY, JOHN FOGERTY, AND PAUL SIMON have in common? Well, for one thing, their amazing singing
and songwriting skills sometimes unfairly overshadow the fact
that they’re all great guitarists. Add to that storied list Mr. A-Z,
Jason Mraz. The pop superstar sings intricate melodies so effortlessly
over his chart-topping tunes that many people don’t even
consider him a guitarist, which is just plain wrong. For starters,
it’s Mraz’s propulsive steel- and nylon-string rhythms that
drive all of his tunes, and it’s those instruments that serve as
his exclusive songwriting engines. And while those full-band
arrangements have plenty of cool guitar in them, it’s in solo
or duo settings that Mraz’s 6-string chops truly shine. It’s not
just when he’s chording through uptown jazz changes, like on
“Be Honest,” off his latest, Love Is a Four Letter Word [Atlantic],
either. Even on a comparatively simple I-V-VIm-IV progression,
Mraz will fill up a ton of space with his clever inversions and
deft right-hand work, all the while throwing out the aforementioned
vocal lines like it’s nothing.
Although Mraz has played electric guitar on previous albums,
on Love he leaves those duties to Tim Pierce, and in concert he
delegates them to his longtime sideman Bill Bell. At a recent
sold-out show at Berkeley’s Greek Theater, Mraz showed himself
to be the consummate bandleader as he took his musicians
through a two-hour soundcheck, during which he tweaked the
setlist, arrangements, and segues up until the last minute, all
in the interest of making an already stellar concert just a little
bit better. “I don’t sleep well if I don’t give a good gig,” he says,
“so we spend a lot of time during soundcheck insuring that it’s
everything it can be.”
How do you view the roles of steel-string and nylon-string guitars
in your music?
On steel-string I’ll play differently, I’ll feel differently, and
ultimately I’ll emote differently. And it’s through emoting and
improvising over the guitar that songs are born. I’ve fallen in
love with vintage steels lately, but my go-to is always the nylonstring.
There’s something soft and smooth and buttery about
it that really sits with me in a beautiful way. Certain songs on
my latest album, like “93 Million Miles” or “Who’s Thinking
About You Now,” are all about the nylon. My last album, We
Sing, We Dance, We Steal Things, was all nylon-string. We may have
had overdubs with steel-strings, but every guitar I played was
nylon-string. For this album I really wanted to get away from
that and let the different textures help tell a more diverse story.
Your early work was primarily steel-string.
Was there something that drove you more
toward the nylon?
Early on, all I had was a steel-string so
that was my resource. But I really credit Raul
Midon with getting me into nylon-string. He’s
a brilliant guitar player. We toured together
for a summer and the way he approached
the guitar changed my whole attitude. By the
end of that summer I had switched entirely
to nylon-string, and had pretty much given
up on steel-string. During my second album,
Mr. A-Z, I acquired my first nylon-string, an
NS52 from Taylor.
You were credited with playing some electric
on Mr. A-Z but not for this album. Why?
I realized that when I play electric, I’m
really just doing my best to get a clean rhythm
sound. I haven’t spent time getting my electric
sound together, and my finger work isn’t
really strong enough to play the melodies that
I can sing, so I think it’s better for the listener
to hear a more established guitar player play
those parts. That way I can stick to acoustic
rhythms and my voicings. Tim Pierce did just
about all the electric stuff on my new album.
I’m touring with Bill Bell, who did all the electrics
on my second album. On the first was
Mike Andrews, a brilliant producer and multi-instrumentalist.
I’ve always been lucky that
friends of friends have turned me onto these
How will you play differently when you’re
doing a solo or duo gig as opposed to how you
play with a full band?
When I’m with the band, I have a specific
part in the song that I play, whether it’s rhythm
or a certain little pattern over and over again.
It’s one part, one ingredient, in a recipe that
calls for a lot of other human influences. So
my parts become very specific and if I don’t
play the right part, I feel it’s very noticeable.
However, when I’m playing solo or in a duo,
I go back to my former way of playing, which
is a little heavier overall, and it’s constant
playing. It’s also about trying to work in any
of the other parts that might be significant
to the song that the band usually adds to the
arrangements. I’m trying to compensate for
a lot of things. When I’m playing solo, even
though there’s a lot more pressure to provide
the accompaniment for the show, there’s also
a lot more freedom in how I choose to support
my singing and my storytelling with the
music. It’s a little more chaotic and free.
Live, you run your acoustics through Fender
Twin Reverbs and Deluxe Reverbs in addition
to a D.I. What is it you like about that sound?
It gives me a little bit more muscle, considering
the only thing I play in the show is
acoustic guitar, and mostly nylon-strings. I
like the spring reverb that I get out of the
Fender Twins and the Fender Deluxes. I also
like the ability to put a little crunch or edge
on my guitar and not just get volume through
electronics or boost pedals, but really push it
through a speaker. It gives my soundman the
option to choose whether my tone comes from
the speakers or the direct signal.
[Tech Adam O’Toole explains: “We use a
Fender Twin for his steel-string guitars and a
Fender Deluxe for the nylon-strings. We keep
the amps off to the side of the stage so we can
really get some balls out of them and make them
sound the way they’re supposed to. We use an
ADL tube D.I., which is a beautiful-sounding
D.I. That gets mixed with the amp sound, with
about a 50/50 blend, maybe a little more D.I.
We use Shure wireless units and a Radial JX44
to rout everything. This rig has made a world of
difference in how his guitars sound.”]
Do you write differently when you’re working
with a co-writer?
Certain things are the same. I sit down
with the instrument and try to go with the
first thing that happens with my hands. I’ll
just strum a chord and see how it feels, see
how the sounds resonate, and what they
bring up. With a co-writer, it works best
for me when that writer is a guitar player.
We’ll work together to find a progression
or a pattern that really inspires us in the
moment, and that other writer/player just
keeps a loop going. They will do what I
call hold space. They’ll keep playing a part,
over and over, and that allows me to take
risks, improvise, and experiment, for ten
minutes or two hours. Michael Natter, the
gentleman I worked with for “I Won’t Give
Up,” “93 Million Miles,” “Be Honest,” and
“5/6,” has this great thing of not saying a
word. He just loops the guitar for me and
he lets me sing, shout, dance, scream, and
try a million different lyric ideas.
Any songwriting advice?
The biggest thing, and I can’t stress it
enough, is you can’t be afraid to take risks.
When you pick up your instrument and start
singing, just keep singing. Just keep going.
Eventually, if you get a melody in your head
that you love, then I think it’s okay to pick
up the pen, because the melody is so strong
in your head that the pen will begin to move
at the same rhythm and the same syllable
count as that melody. But it takes a lot of
experimentation, a lot of improvisation, and
a lot of songs. You also can’t assume that
every song you’re going to write is going to
be amazing or is going to resonate with you
or someone else. You just have to write songs.
When I make an album, 12 out of 80 songs
are the ones that I put on the record—only
12. But I wouldn’t have 12 great songs if I
didn’t write 68 really terrible songs.
How can you sing such complicated melodies
and play guitar at the same time?
Most of the songs I write are difficult to
play and sing at the same time. During a
show, if I ever have to stop and think about
my fingering, I screw up the lyrics, I screw
up the melody, and I forget what city I’m in.
I lose it. I definitely have to get my guitar
parts down to the point where my body can
just do them naturally. Only then can I separate
and sing over it and just go for it. But
anyone who comes to my gigs will see that
as a guitarist, I have a lot of bad habits, so
I don’t recommend copying me. The only
thing you should copy is that I play from
the heart, and I think that’s why I’ve had