“I KNEW RIGHT AWAY WHEN I SAW THEM THAT I COULD be the guitar player this band needed,” says James Valentine. After moving to Los Angeles in the wake of his band Square winning the 2000 Ernie Ball/Vans Warped Tour Battle of the Bands, Valentine jumped ship to play the with the musicians that became Maroon 5. Kara’s Flowers singer/guitarist Adam Levine and keyboardist/guitarist Jesse Carmichael were onto something—but they needed a versatile player who could shoulder the bulk of the guitar parts and flesh out the sonic signature for their clever pop-rock songs. Valentine’s background—playing everything from Jobim to Michael Jackson to Pearl Jam—made him the right man to bring Maroon 5 to fruition.
In a decade dominated by pop and often short on guitar rock, Maroon 5 found its niche with a pop-heavy blend of both. On mainstream awards shows such as the Grammys, they were often one of a handful of acts that actually still played guitars onstage. Hits such as “This Love” and “She Will Be Loved” had such unavoidable hooks, and the Maroon 5 crew had such a fresh sound and look, that they were a welcome spike in the pop party punchbowl. Maroon 5 took home the Grammy for Best New Artist in 2005.
Maroon 5’s third studio release, Hands All Over [A&M/Octone], was pristinely produced by Robert John “Mutt” Lange, whose credits include artists ranging from Def Leppard to Shania Twain. On “Misery,” Valentine chunks away at good, clean funk parts that support what has to be the happiest vocal melody ever matched to a depressed lyric. “Give a Little More” brings Thriller-era Michael Jackson to mind. Valentine laces “Never Gonna Leave This Bed” with atmospheric touches. Whatever the context, Valentine always seems to have the right color crayon to complete the picture.
How would you describe the way you work within Maroon 5’s creative dynamic?
My role is to come up with guitar parts of all kinds. Adam might have an idea for how the main riff should be played or how the chords are voiced, but sometimes not, and I help figure out those kinds of things. In the studio, I also work out the ear candy, and track whatever needs to be laid down. Adam’s mind moves so fast in the studio that I’ll wind up developing one idea into a full take while he bounces on to the next. Adam writes all the lyrics and melodies, so we’re always feeding him chord progressions and riffs that will spark ideas. “She Will Be Loved,” from our first record, was born when Adam started hearing melodies over a Jobiminspired bossa nova riff I was plucking. We straightened out the rhythm for the record.
You play a lot of funky guitar parts within a pop-rock context. Where’d you get your funk?
Nile Rodgers is the best at that style, and he was a big influence. Maceo Parker’s live record with Rodney Jones on guitar, Life on Planet Groove, was also pretty big for me. Ultimately, that style suits these songs. We ended up exploring a lot of plucked, muted parts— the kind Dean Parks would play on a Michael Jackson session. That’s a huge influence.
“Give A Little More” reminds me of “Beat It.”
That intro is a good example of what I’m talking about, and it’s is a big part of our sound. In order to get that muted, almost metallic sound, I pick aggressively but evenly, and involve left-hand muting to make it more staccato. There’s a heavy, syrupy chorus as well as an octave effect on that part. We actually recorded it with the Pro Tools HD system we set up in Adam’s garage. We did demos there, and flew a lot of those tracks into the sessions with Mutt over in Switzerland. The best ones made the final cut.
What was your main signal path in the home studio, and what did you bring to Switzerland?
I used various guitars. The main signal path I used on the line for “Give A Little More” was a Fender Custom Shop Stratocaster Relic through a ’65 Fender Deluxe, close miked with either a Shure SM57 dynamic or a Royer R-121 ribbon mic. We used the Deluxe for practically everything.
At Mutt’s studio in Switzerland, we usually ended up using my ’70s Telecaster, or my Fano JM6, which I frequently use onstage. It’s got P-90 pickups, and is capable of producing a wide range of sounds. We miked up a few different amps to choose from, and we’d always run a direct signal that we could re-amp with Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig in case we wanted to complement the amp track with something else. In the end, we often wound up using the same amps that I use onstage—a Divided By 13 FTR 37 head with a Divided By 13 2x12 cabinet, and a Matchless Independent head with a Matchless 2x12 cabinet. We had the heads in the control room and the speakers isolated.
How do you use your amps in conjunction with one another, and what makes them a good combination?
I place them side-by-side, and I have the ability to run either of them clean or dirty, although most of the time they are both clean or both dirty. They are split up in stereo in my in-ear monitors, which makes it really nice when playing along. The Matchless has a sharper, more aggressive, slightly more modern sound. The Divided By 13 has more of a Neil Young-type of sound that breaks up like a Fender. The sharper sound combined with the more vintage sound creates a nice sonic picture.
What are your key effects?
I use a Fulltone OCD for leads, a Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler for delays, and a Dunlop Rotovibe for swirling sounds.
How did you create the cool sounds for the verses on “Never Going to Leave This Bed?”
Mutt put together the sonic landscapes on that tune. He created them from a lot of different guitar takes using various delays. It’s an amalgamation of ideas.
There’s an apparent harmonic signature on “This Love” and some of the newer songs. Is it a diminished tonality?
Diminished chords are an important part of the Maroon 5 sound. We use them in the verse and in the bridge on “This Love.” The diminished and half-diminished chords that we use in our songs add so much tension that by the time the chord progression resolves there is a sense of relief. That sort of harmonic movement is fun to solo over because there are a lot of possibilities. It’s informed by a jazz sensibility.
It’s not so apparent from listening to the records that you have an extensive background playing jazz. How is your playing different when you’re at home compared to what you bring to Maroon 5?
It’s definitely different, but I try to bring as much as I can into the Maroon 5 show. At home, I find myself leaning towards a Bill Frisell way of playing. He’s been my favorite for a while. The longer I play, the more I play in that kind of style. As soon as he starts playing—you’re in his universe—and it’s so elegantly simple. He just has a vibe that keeps me coming back. It sounds like he’s tapped into some kind of spiritual undercurrent that makes you want to ride on it with him. I wish I had more time to play jazz.
There aren’t any guitar solos on the tracks I had access to from the new record. Do you ever say, “Hey fellas, we’re rock band—let me rip for a minute?”
Yes. That’s an ongoing dialogue within the band. We take the time to explore things such as guitar solos in the live setting, and I would love to do more of that in the studio. But at the same time we ultimately decided to treat the records differently. The idea is to present the songs in a classic way, and trim any excess. Unfortunately, guitar solos usually wind up falling into that category. I’m always fighting for more guitar solos, so maybe on the next record. We’ll see.