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 great guitarists.
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 success.