“The only thing going into this project that I wanted to do was show a different side of me that I haven’t been able to show before,” says Mark Tremonti about the heavier elements of his debut solo album, All I Was. “That’s where I started, that’s my roots.” Known for his tasteful, melodic work with Creed and Alter Bridge, the award-winning guitarist brought his metal influences to the table on his latest project, but he never shied away from his love for the art of songwriting.
Shortly before the start of his U.S. tour, Tremonti spoke about the hard work and discipline that he applies to every note he writes and records, his working relationship with PRS Guitars, and of course his passion for all things gear.
Going into this album, or any project, do you feel the weight of expectations from fans to do this or play that way?
A lot of the metal I grew up with I couldn’t get into with my other bands as much as I would have liked to in the past. I had ideas that never made it, and I put them into this record. I wanted to be satisfied with the record; that’s how I look at every record. I think if you satisfy yourself artistically, that’s the main thing, and if people are fans, that usually works for them as well.
Is songwriting in the metal format often overlooked? This is still a very song-oriented, melodic album.
My approach to the record was to merge my influences, the metal music side of me and the love of melodies as well. I like speed metal and ’70s soft rock the most, those are my two favorites, and I like soul and R&B. As a kid, in the back of my mom’s car on the way to school, I listened to Rod Stewart, Journey and Gerry Rafferty, that style of music. I still love that big, melodic stuff. At the same time, I really got into metal, so I tried to merge those two worlds.
You came up during the time when radio was king and it was possible to get an across-the-board musical education. Today, music is reduced to ringtones, and people buy songs instead of entire albums. What happened?
I think the Internet happened and it completely changed the landscape of music and business and everything. It’s had the most impact on music probably of anything ever, and I think nowadays kids are only exposed to things that they’re interested in in the first place. You have things like Pandora, where you put in your favorite bands and it plays you stuff that’s like that. You’re not even exposed to stuff that’s randomly on the radio as you’re going through stations. I don’t know if kids today are exposed to it as much unless they have XM radio, where they still get to scroll through stations and hear different kinds of music. If I’m scrolling through YouTube and I’m looking up some old metal bands, I see more and more metal bands.
What are the odds that you’ll look and listen?
I enjoy doing that, but I don’t know where a kid’s head is at these days, if they take the same approach to scroll when they’re looking for music. I guess they go to iTunes and look at what’s familiar to what they’re buying. I’m not sure. I think people are just exposed to what they already like.
It’s been fifteen years since Creed’s debut. Have you been able to live “in the moment” throughout your career?
I’ve never been able to sit back and enjoy it. It’s always been a battle, it seems, like it’s always been a fight. I love doing what I do and I don’t want to lose the opportunity to keep doing it, so with every album you’re just trying to write the best thing you can possibly write, because at any given moment there’s going to be some other band that’s working hard and that’s going to take your place. With Creed, when it started out, you have your first successful record and then people tell you you’re going to have your sophomore slump. A lot of bands, if they can get through their second record, they’ll be successful, so that second record’s the hard one. You’re worried about your second record, and by the time our third record came out, and this goes for every single as well, people were saying that we weren’t relevant anymore. Then the third record did well. So it’s like every time you step forward and have success, you have people telling you that you’re not going to have success and how hard it is. Now I’ve launched three different bands, I’ve been through it all and I know how hard it is. It’s never just been, “Oh, I’m going to casually release this album and see how it does.” It’s always a battle and it’s always tough.
You’re a band member and a bandleader. What’s the key to being good at both and how did one prepare you for the next?
Being a band member, you have to be open-minded to everybody’s quirks and everybody’s different personalities. I think my main role has been I just constantly write and write, and I never want to be behind schedule on going to the studio and recording albums. I’m always working and preparing for the next album. I think every band has to have somebody doing that. Scott and I write the music for Creed, Myles and I write the music for Alter Bridge, and I write for the solo stuff, but I think if you want to be that bandleader and really shape the way the band sounds, you have to work harder than the next guy and write the ideas that are going to make the album.
Where does your work ethic come from?
I just have a passion for music and I’ve always had it. I feel there’s so much room to grow, and especially as a guitar player, there’s always an endless amount of things to learn. There are so many guitar players that blow my mind and every time I find one it inspires me to try and learn some of their tricks. As a songwriter, that’s where most of my passion is — in songwriting and writing vocal melodies — and as I write I don’t want to see those melodies and ideas go to waste, so I have to work hard to make sure that I finish off these ideas and get them on CD. It’s good to have three different outlets to get all these ideas out.
Can you play everything you hear in your head?
When I’m writing, I’ll kind of just not think about my guitar playing. I float around and record voicings. I sing melodies that when I hit a chord I just change the melody to whatever that chord dictates. From there, if I hit two notes with a cool chord progression, sometimes it will spark an idea that I’ll just have to chase down. A lot of times I’ll be in a different tuning, so I’ll hear guitar lines and melody lines in my head that I kind of have to chase down. That’s how I write. A couple of notes will inspire a whole melody or a whole guitar line and you hear it in your head before you play it.
Does it ever take a completely different direction from the initial idea?
I try to get them pretty dead-on and that’s the reason I use so many guitar tunings. It was never my intention to play with different tunings until I was writing a guitar line one day and said, “I really wish this B string that sounds so bad with this chord, I wish I could use that open string. I’m going to tune this B string to sound good in this chord voicing.” As I learned that I could do that I came up with all kinds of different tunings —and realized after the fact that people have been using these tunings for years and they probably found them the same way: “My fingers can only reach this far, but I really wish that note was in this voicing, so I’m going to tune that note to this chord and relearn how to play the guitar in this tuning.” By doing that, it’s like you’re playing a whole new instrument. You’re not regurgitating the things you’ve been playing for years. You’ve got a whole other landscape, a whole other set of options for all your voicings, and for me, that’s been a lifesaver as a songwriter.
Is it visual?
No. With me, the guitar is whatever sounds best, wherever my fingers can reach. I was never big in the beginning on theory and didn’t really know what I was playing. I wasn’t very good at learning other people’s stuff. I was just good at inventing my own style. As years went by, I started learning more about other people’s styles, but I’m glad I did it the way I did it, because I think it helps you create your own sound when you just create on your guitar without learning a bunch of other people’s stuff. I think you create your own sound, and then after the fact you go back and learn some cool techniques from other players that just add to your sound that you developed.
What is your definition of tone and does that definition change?
I’m an amp fanatic and a tone fanatic. Pedals, amps — one of the most fun things in the world for me to do is to go to the NAMM convention and go to every booth and try out everything and try to get free stuff! And get quotes for stuff that I like and send back the stuff I don’t like. Right now I’ve got six amplifiers up on my rig and I only use two or three of them. I’m always finding stuff, plugging it into my rig, but no matter what I play through, my sound is always probably within 15 percent of where it is with other amps. It’s mostly in your fingers and in your style. I’ve played other guitar players’ rigs and I don’t sound anything like them. We were playing a show with Whitesnake and Reb Beach’s tech said, “Do you want to play his rig?” I said, “Absolutely.” The tone wasn’t what I was used to and it was tough for me to get what I wanted to hear out of it, then when I heard them play, it was just amazing.
A year and a half for a Bludotone. You’re Mark Tremonti! What are you doing on a waiting list?
Now I have three Bludotones! I respect when people hold their ground on something like that. It doesn’t matter if you’re Obama; you have to wait just like everybody else. It’s a one-man shop and he makes great stuff. The only time somebody’s going to get something sooner than anybody else is if somebody says, “Here, I’m going to pay you twice as much as you normally get paid to get me this amp out this week.” I wasn’t wiling to do that. I wanted to wait like everybody else and it was worth the wait. I have three now. My most prized possession in the world is my Dumble, and I’ve got that hidden in my closet, buried, so the kids won’t get near it and nothing will happen to it. I love amplifiers. That’s where all my money gets spent.
When did you discover the appeal of amps?
Since I was really young. My first amplifier cost me forty dollars. It was plastic and I don’t even know the brand, but it was terrible. After that, my parents bought me a Gorilla or something, and after that, when they knew I was serious after about three years, I went to a local guitar store and bought a Crate, of all styles. Crates aren’t really thought of as good amplifiers, but when you’re a 13-year-old kid and you have a big half stack that’s loud as hell, I thought it was the best thing in the world! From that point on I kept searching for new amps. I got into Boston and their tones were cool, so I got into the Rockman stuff; that was cool in the ’80s when I was in a band that played Motley Crue kind of style. I always wanted a Mesa Boogie, but they were too expensive. Finally, I got my first Mesa Boogie, and that’s the only amp in my career that’s been along for the entire ride. All the other amps have come and gone. I think the other amp most familiar for me is the Bogner Uberschall. Finding those two amps has been the core of my sound for many years, and now I just experiment with plug-in amps. The Uberschall has come and gone with a few other amps and the Boogie has always been in the mix. As far as lead stuff, the Bludotone is in there, and the Bogner Uberschall that has been modded by Reinhold Bogner. Just yesterday I tried to plug a new amp into my rig and it didn’t work out. So I just wait until the next amp comes along.
You’re a PRS guy. How long did it take you to find the right guitar?
I grew up on a Les Paul and I got a call from PRS asking me if I’d like to play their guitars. I said, “Absolutely.” Before they called we had all of our equipment stolen in Boston and I lost all my guitars that I grew up with. I got a check for the insurance claim, where I had something like $11,000 to spend on new gear. That was the most money I ever had in my life to spend on gear, so I went to the guitar store and bought the coolest PRS they had, because when I worked in a guitar shop the PRS’s were the best guitars. I bought it and I tried to play it onstage, but I couldn’t because the knobs were all in the wrong spots. I could play it in my room and in my dressing room, but onstage it just didn’t work, so I stopped playing it. Eleven years later, when they called, they sent me a McCarty model and I said, “I love it, but I can’t play it onstage.” So they sent me another model with switches in different spots and I said, “It’s not heavy enough, the tone is a little too blues-rock kind of sound, it’s just not working for me.” So they said, “Why don’t we create something that you love and we’ll make a signature model.” At the time it was just Carlos Santana and myself and it was probably one of the biggest moments in my career. We went back and forth with four or five designs and I think they wired about ten different pickups and combinations. We came up with this model, and to this day it’s my favorite guitar on Earth. I must have about fifteen or twenty of them.
How did you know? What was the a-ha moment?
I think the sound and the neck. The neck was a big one for me. PRS just had their one neck style that they used for most of their styles that Paul loved. I grew up on a Les Paul studio light neck that was not as baseball-bat round. It was a little narrower and somewhere between the shred guitars and the big baseball bat, somewhere real comfortable in the middle of it, so when they made mine, they made it with that neck and I absolutely loved it. They still sold it in stores with the neck that they built for their other guitars, but I was happy with mine. Another year went by and people would play my guitar and say they loved it and they liked it more than the one that people were buying in the stores, so they were convinced to change the neck style and since then it’s been the perfect guitar. The pickups had a lot to do with it as well. The pickups sound much different than normal PRS pickups. They definitely have more bite to them. They’re much better for when you’re doing fast, muted, metal kind of playing, much better for just the articulation. It’s not as spongy as their other stuff. Another thing, when we were designing the guitar, they wanted to stay away from the guitar looking like a Les Paul. The first one looked kind of like a blue whale, with a big top and a tiny lip on the bottom. It looked funny and didn’t look good to me, so I think they finally gave in and said, “All right, we’ll do it like it you want it. We’ll do the PRS contours and the lip and the cutaway and of course the PRS headstock,” so we came up with the design and I love it.
Could you do it all with one guitar and one amp, and if so, which ones would you choose?
I’d have my Charcoal Burst PRS, and my main sound is usually the Mesa Boogie, but if I had to only use one amp onstage I’d probably use the Uberschall because I think it’s better for lead stuff as well and it still holds up on the rhythm end. I do it for my solo project shows, the shows I’ve done. Guitar-wise we have lots of different tunings, so I have to use four or five guitars, but amp-wise I just use a Mesa Boogie, a Bogner, two cabinets and a couple of pedals on the floor. It’s very simple.
The instrument keeps changing: seven strings, scalloped necks, more frets, robotics and so on. Your thoughts?
The thing that I’m most excited to see happen is the robot tuning guitars. The pieces, all the mechanisms, keep getting smaller. There are companies in Germany that have come up with really good technology that just blows my mind. If I had that in my guitars, and it didn’t change the tone and it didn’t get in the way and didn’t make it bulky, it would be the best writing tool and the best thing to take on tour. You’d have to have two or three guitars at most to do a show, because you could back up a guitar with a push of a button. It’s an amazing thing when you see it in person. When that technology really gets to be flawless, I think that’s going to be an amazing thing.
How far can you take a song onstage without losing the audience?
With Alter Bridge we’ll have sections of songs where we get the crowd involved and do things differently, but with the solos I got in the habit … if we added a song into the set last-minute, I didn’t have the time to really go back and master the solo again. I would just improvise the solos live. It’s easier and more fun. Being a musician, you want to challenge yourself and see what happens. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t, but you can usually cover it up. I’ve only seen a couple of times when people will say, “Thank you for playing so-and-so song, and I wish you had played the solo from the record.” You hardly ever see that, so I think if you’re playing 90 percent of your set straight, you can experiment and have fun as an artist and mess around a little bit.
Do hardcore fans sometimes become too consumed with the minutiae of what you do and how you do it?
I know exactly where they’re coming from. When I was a little younger, say I was learning a Steve Vai song, I’d want to go out and buy one of his guitars, find out what amp he was playing through and what cables, picks, and what strings and what string gauges. You just felt you couldn’t play that song — because it was so magical-sounding — unless you had his gear, and that’s not the case. People come up to me and ask what kind of picks I use. I tell them that’s not what makes the difference. If you practice something all day long, you’re going to get it. If you practice one idea for six months, you’re going to get it no matter what amp you’re playing through. You’re going to sound good doing it if you’re doing it right, and your fingers really dictate your tone. The main source of your tone is how your fingers connect with the string and how your pick attack is. I think it’s just practice. Practice is the most important thing, not all the minor details.
Do you still practice a lot?
I do. I practice more than anybody I know. I love to practice. It drives me crazy when I see smoking guitar players and they just don’t practice. How do you get there? I practice as much as I can. There’s guitar players that don’t practice and just play, and there’s guitarists that practice and don’t just play. Most of my life I’ve been one of those guitar players that plays to a metronome, plays scales, plays exercises. I’ve seen interviews with Matt Schofield, the great, brilliant blues player, who says he’s never practiced a day in his life. He knows all the scales, he knows all his stuff, but when he plays he’s enjoying himself the whole time, he’s singing with his guitar. I think the best guitar players are the ones that approach it that way. I’ve tried to deprogram myself away from that technical-driven, exercise-y type of guitar player to more of improving, learning other people’s licks but not obsessing about them, and just saying, “That’s a good idea, let me try to make it my own,” and not everything be exact and very clinical.
Is there a guitar album in your future, or is every album you make a guitar album in a sense?
One thing that I always say I want to do at some point in my career is to do an instrumental record, but I think that would be one of the hardest things to do, because even when I do a normal record, I’m running out of new ideas. Between each record, the reason I’m working so hard is I don’t want to play the same licks I played on the last record. That happens, but I want to come up with new licks and new ideas, and when you do an instrumental record it’s like jamming eight records of soloing into one record. Each one has at least six full-length solos throughout the songs. If I were going to do an album like that, I’d have to do it piece by piece because I wouldn’t have enough new ideas to make it work. When I sit down and work, I’m usually writing vocal melodies. I’m not writing guitar solo stuff. The time I practice most is when I’m at a gig. I’ll practice for hours and hours before the gig at night, but the bulk of when the guitar’s in my hand, I’m working on songwriting.
How does working with other guitarists push you creatively and influence your work?
Myles and Eric play so different from me and we don’t step on each other’s toes. In both bands, I’m the more metal-influenced guy and they’re bluesier-rock influenced. I hold down the main chunky rhythm stuff and they do more of all the stuff on top, all the effects and stuff that make it atmospheric. I think our styles complement each other. They soften my style and I add edge to their style at the same time.
You’re known as one of the best guitarists in the world. Who is the best in your world?
Derek Trucks, without a doubt, is the best guitar player on Earth. I know it’s a subjective, tough thing, but the guy blows my mind. I think he could be the best guitar player I’ve ever heard. His playing is just beautiful. His soul is pouring out on the guitar without anything in the way. It just amazes me. Every time I hear him play a solo, it gives me the chills. I’m intimidated by his playing. One day I sat down and tried to learn his riffs and I couldn’t get it. His style is so different. I guess it developed from when he was a young kid. His fingers were too small to reach around the neck, so he used a slide, he started with a slide, and his style is very slide-driven. Even when he’s playing without a slide, he still has that motion going on that’s so unique and so expressive. To me, he’s number one.
Why do so many people hate Creed — when they’re not hating Nickelback? When did writing good, melodic, catchy songs become a criminal act?
I think anybody who gets a lot of success and they’re shoved in people’s faces all day long … and our songs had a lot of serious, deep content that people maybe didn’t want to hear. People want to root for the underdog and they want to see the guy on top get crushed. But I’m fine with it. I’ve been fine with it for years. When we started Alter Bridge, we realized that with Creed, just like with bands like Nickelback and 3 Doors Down, the commercial rock bands that sold a lot of records and had a lot of success, sold a ton of records, thousands of people show up to the shows every night, but the critics like to bash you, and the bands that were critical darlings didn’t sell any records and played for 500 people a night and had short careers. So when we started Alter Bridge, it was the opposite — the critics were very complimentary of Alter Bridge, but we were that other band that wasn’t selling a lot of records and was playing for 500 people a night, so we had the best and worst of both worlds.
You were in your 20s when success hit, and now you are almost 40. You have children. You’ve been through a lot of life experiences. How do all of those things factor into your music and your career?
I still feel like that kid that started. In fact, I have more drive now because I feel like I’ve got more tools to work with and always something to prove to myself, not to anybody else. I want the next record to be better than the last. This solo record was a big step for me because I’ve always been a songwriter and vocal melodies are probably the most important thing to me. I think a lot of people expected a guitar instrumental record or a guitar-driven album, when I consider it a melody/song-driven, heavier-influenced record, but still showcasing the songwriting side of what I do. That’s the most important thing to me, and that’s me in a nutshell.
What is the difference between playing guitar and being a guitarist?
I think some people pick up a guitar because they think it’s something they might enjoy, but they don’t have the patience or the passion to stick with it. I think a guitarist is somebody who has enough patience and passion to stick with it enough to be able to express themselves personally on a guitar instead of just learning a lick from somebody else.