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QRD #41 - Guitarist Interview Series Part I - June 2010
about this issue
Guitarist Interviews with:
Jason LaFarge
Aidan Baker
Jamie Stewart
Brian John Mitchell
Martin Newman
Mat Sweet
Robin Crutchfield
Darren Hayman
Anna-Lynne Williams
Larry Marotta
Mike Cosper
Sibyll Kalff
Jamie Barnes
Nathan Amundson
Jenks Miller
Chris Olley
Don Campau
Colin Newman
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Guitarist Interview with Larry Marotta
June 2010

Name: Larry Marotta
Bands: mostly solo, but sometimes with Starlight Fleecing, La Caja, & Honk, Wail, & Moan.
Websites: www.larrymarotta.com
Listen to Live at Legion ov Doom excerpt
Listen to "Trouble" from the Balloonatic Soundtrack

QRD – What was your first guitar & what happened to it?

Larry – My first guitar was a Sears acoustic I got for Christmas when I was five years old. I think it cost $19.95. I treated it as a toy for the first five years that I owned it. Then when I was 10, I decided I wanted to learn to play Kiss songs on it — that’s where it all started. I suspect my parents got rid of it at some point. I don’t have it now. 

QRD – What’s your typical set-up from guitar to effects to amplifier?

Larry – I use a Fender Telecaster through a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe. I’m not anti effects, but I really don’t rely on them — never have. Lately, however, I almost always use a volume pedal. If I need distortion, I use my amp’s master volume & overdrive switch, although I may be in the market for a basic stompbox distortion in the near future. Sometimes I use a DOD Flanger. I have a very cool Zvex Fuzz Factory that I’m still learning to use. I’ve also been using an eBow a lot on my acoustic.

QRD – What’s the most important part of your rig – guitar, amplifier, or effects?

Larry – The guitar is always the most important element, but the wrong amp can really make a guitar miserable to play. I hate gigs where there is a communal amp everyone is expected to use. Nothing is worse that when you know your sound is lousy from the moment you first plug in, but you’re going to be using that unknown amp for the next 90 minutes. Effects, although I use them from time to time, are not that important to me. 

QRD – What’s your main amplifier & why?

Larry – A Fender Hot Rod Deluxe is my current main amp. It makes my Tele sound good, which my other amp, a Mesa Boogie Mark II, didn’t. 

QRD – What’s your main guitar & what are the features that make it such?

Larry – My main electric guitar is a 1988 Fender American Vintage ‘52 Telecaster Reissue. It’s one of the coolest-looking electric guitars ever, & appearances are important to me. The utter simplicity of the Tele fits in with my less-is-more aesthetic—a chunk of wood with two pickups, volume & tone knobs, & a pickup selector. No other buttons or switches or gizmos. You can pretty much play any style on a Tele. My main acoustic guitar is a Guild M20. It’s concert-size (smaller), so it is easy to hold & play. It has a very unique midrange tone. No pickup—I really hate the way pickups make acoustic guitars sound. Luckily it’s also super loud, which is good because I frequently improvise with other musicians without having a microphone on it 

QRD – If you had a signature guitar, what would it look like & what would some of its features be? 

Larry – I don’t know—if I were successful enough to warrant a signature model, I’d probably have several different off-the-rack guitars to get different sounds. If I did have a signature guitar, it would have to accommodate all of the styles I play. The volume & tone controls would be useful through their entire range of motion. Electronically, it would have to be quiet, since I often play at low volumes where buzzing could be intrusive. It would have to keep its tune. I also tend to like smaller guitars that fit my body well.

QRD – If you had a signature pedal, what would it be & what would some of its features be? 

Larry – People don’t usually associate my playing with effects, but a distortion box that ran the gamut from a decent blues tone to horrible oscillating feedback would be useful. 

QRD – How many guitars do you own?

Larry – Four electrics, one acoustic, & one lap steel. I would not consider myself a guitar collector, though.

QRD – How & where do you store your guitars? In their cases in the basement, in the dining room, upstairs: I’m totally not uptight about storing my guitars, maybe to my own disadvantage at times.

QRD – What features do you look for when buying a guitar?

Larry – A guitar has got to fit my body well. I like guitars with a variety of tones since I play a lot of different styles. I like volume & tone controls that actually affect the sound throughout their range of motion. Probably most important, though, is that the guitar has to look cool. I have to want to play it.

QRD – How much do you think a good guitar should cost?

Larry – Good guitars should be affordable by good musicians, but they’re often not. With a few exceptions, the best guitarists I know can’t afford expensive instruments since they’re making only semi-adequate livings playing or teaching guitar, often without the medical & retirement benefits afforded those in “legitimate” fields. It’s usually the hobbyist — a professional from a non-musical field who was in a band when they were younger — who has the money to buy a top-of-the line instrument. The rest of us do our best to get the best instrument we can afford.

QRD – Do you upgrade & customize your guitars or just stick with what you get?

Larry – I tend to work with what I have, although I do correct problems like bad intonation or fret buzzes. The idiosyncrasies of different guitars can make your playing go in interesting directions. I sometimes think about putting Barden pickups in my Tele because that’s what Danny Gatton used. 

QRD – How thoroughly do you research or test a piece of equipment before buying it?

Larry – A lot. Since I don’t have a ton of disposable income to buy stuff, & I have two other people in the house who rely on my paycheck, I have to really justify a purchase to myself. Sometimes, I might think about a piece of equipment for years before I buy it. Oddly enough, even when I do buy a new piece of equipment, I might not really start using it until months after I buy it. You really need to practice with it first. All of your stuff — guitar, amp, pedals — is your instrument, & you should know it all well before you start playing out with them.

QRD – Do you change your rig around often?

Larry – Not really. If I made more money from music & didn’t have a mortgage & a car payment & I was single, maybe I would change things around often. Then again, I’ve never been an equipment junkie.

QRD – Are you after one particular guitar tone & locking into it, or do you like to change your tone around a lot?

Larry – I think I’m still looking for THE tone. I’m almost always dissatisfied with my tone in some way. I do find my tone a lot easier to control on acoustic, which is why I play acoustic more these days. 

QRD – What are some guitars, amps, & pedals you particularly lust after?

Larry – I’ve always lusted after that two-tone green Gretsch Anniversary Model 6125 — that’s probably the coolest-looking electric guitar there ever was. I wouldn’t mind owning a Gibson Pat Martino Signature Guitar or a really nice archtop acoustic like the old 1930s Epiphone Derek Bailey used to play. I’d like a 12-string electric at some point. Amp-wise, I’d love a good-sounding vintage Fender Vibrolux amp, although a vintage Twin or Champ would be cool, too. On my pedal wish list these days are a Keeley Compressor, Boss RT20 (rotating speaker effect), TC Electronics Flanger, an Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man, Klon Centaur Overdrive, Mid-Fi Electronics Glitch Computer. Quite a list for someone who claims not to rely on effects, right?

QRD – What do you think are some important features to be on a person’s first guitar that aren’t always there?

Larry – It should be cool & you should feel cool playing it. It’s hard to feel inspired & focused playing an ugly piece of crap. Beyond that, the intonation should be good & you should be comfortable with the action & the shape of the neck.

QRD – What have been the best & worst guitar related purchases you’ve made?

Larry – I’d say the Steinberger I bought in the early 90s was a great purchase. It’s an amazing guitar, but I bought it after their 80s heyday, so I got a first-rate instrument ridiculously cheap. It was my main guitar for about 15 years until I got sick of people asking about why it didn’t have a headstock. Worst: I traded in a Music Man 130 watt head & a 60s Epiphone Coronet for a crappy Mustang at a guitar show. I was hoping to use the Mustang to trade with a guy there who had an old Gretsch hollow body with an actual bullet hole in it that I just had to have. By the time I showed up with the Mustang, the guy changed his mind. Those dudes who got the Coronet & Music Man are still probably talking about that rube at that one guitar show.

QRD – What are some effect, amp, & guitar brands you particularly like or dis-like & why?

Larry – Dislikes: In general, I don’t like looping pedals since 99% of the people who use them employ them in totally obvious ways. Also, in an improvised setting, no matter what anyone else is playing, the loop ends up dominating the music. Although I don’t hate them, I would never really care whether I owned a Strat or an SG. Likes: I like Teles — I could see having several since they all sound so different. I could see having several Gibson hollow bodies (335, 175, etc.). Effects: I always like Electro Harmonix stuff since it is so goofy. 

QRD – What’s the first thing you play when you pick up a guitar?

Larry – I probably play something to make sure is in tune, like a first-position E chord. 

QRD – How old were you when you started playing guitar?

Larry – Ten.

QRD – At what age do you think you leveled up to your best guitar playing?

Larry – I like to think I get better & better with age, but I’d say that I probably started playing well only in my mid-20s. I was not a natural on the guitar. I genuinely sucked pretty bad for a really long time.

QRD – Why do you think a guitar fits you more so than other instruments?

Larry – Mostly because I’ve played it for over 30 years. Also, when I started playing, I was such a geeky nerd & a weakling & lame at sports, but the guitar made me instantly cooler. I’ve always maintained that playing an instrument to attract potential sex partners is perfectly reasonable. In any event, playing guitar is still a huge part of my self-identity. Physically, though, even if I’m not holding a guitar but hold my hands as if I were, I instantly feel centered & comfortable. No other instrument makes me feel as safe & centered & complete.

QRD – Do you think guitar should be people’s first instrument as often as it is?

Larry – You should play whatever instrument grabs you. However, I think guitar can be a discouraging instrument for small kids (5-9 years old). Unless you’re willing to lock yourself in your room for a few weeks & woodshed, you’re not really going to learn chords. You definitely have to go through a total obsession phase sometime early in your development, which a lot of young kids may not be ready to do (& I don’t believe in forcing someone to play). There is no slow, steady, & systematic way to learn chords. In that regard, piano is probably easier since you can immediately play in tune & pick out chords & melodies. 

QRD – Do you see your guitar as your ally or adversary in making music?

Larry – An ally. But like a good friend, it should be honest in telling when you’re being lame.

QRD – Who are the guitarists that most influenced your playing & sound?

Larry – I listen to a lot of people, but I could probably narrow it down to a few key people. One, Ace Frehley from Kiss, who made me want to play guitar in the first place. Ace’s talent was & is still using all of the cliché licks & putting them together in completely surprising ways, sort of what Ringo Starr does with drums. Two, Robert Fripp from King Crimson who showed me that there can was more to rock playing than pentatonic & blues scales in 4/4 time, that you can be intelligent & still enormously heavy (the Red album, the solo on Bowie’s “Fashion”). Three, Eugene Chadbourne, who opened my ears to the world of free improvisation, the value of a good cover, humor in music, taking chances, & that a good guitarist can make any instrument sound good. After that, I’d have to site Bill Orcutt (Harry Pussy) & Jim Hensley, two guitar playing friends of mine from the late 80s in Miami who had no qualms about brutalizing guitars to get the sounds they were imagining. They taught me how to forget what I know, go for it, & not care.

QRD – Do you think people anthropomorphizing their guitars is natural or silly?

Larry – Like in thinking a guitar is really just a big penis, or that someone is so good at guitar that they can make it “talk?” It’s probably natural but silly. Comparing guitars to penises is ultimately pretty sexist to our community of female players. & the human voice is still ultimately the greatest melodic instrument. No one says that someone makes her voice sound like a guitar.

QRD – What’s the most physical damage you’ve done to a guitar & how did you do it?

Larry – I set fire to one once onstage using rubbing alcohol & a match. Twenty years later, people I know still talk about this, how that mild-mannered guy would do such a thing. Oddly enough, it has given me some clout with my younger noise colleagues, although I don’t do stuff like that anymore. You don’t need to make that statement too many times or it becomes boring shtick.

QRD – What do you do to practice other than simply playing?

Larry – I play along with CDs or YouTube or with those Jamey Aebersold records jazzers use to woodshed. I try to transcribe or at least learn parts of solos that I like. I learn tunes & try to play them in all positions & transpose them to different keys on sight. When learning tunes, I’ll play each chord as an arpeggio & then play the appropriate scale for that chord. I very rarely practice scales by themselves since I think that doing so teaches overreliance on muscle-memory rather than being musical. I like using either Ted Greene’s or Joe Pass’s guitar books for practice ideas. Lately, I’ve been working on a hybrid picking technique for country playing: using a flatpick plus middle & ring fingers on my picking hand. The most important thing to me is that I am mindful of whatever I’m practicing, not just developing mechanical tricks. If you’re not actively listening to what you’re practicing, don’t bother. 

QRD – How many hours a week do you play guitar & how many hours would you like to?

Larry – I probably play anywhere from zero to 20 hours a week depending on my schedule or what I’m trying to accomplish. Right now I’m learning the Scelsi Ko-Tha I for a concert (in an actual concert hall!) I’m playing, & that requires that I break the 20-hour-a-week barrier. If I could have a year off from my day job where I could practice 8 hours a day & someone would pay me to do it, that would be great.

QRD – What type of pick do you use & why?

Larry – I like the Dunlop Tortex heavy or extra heavy picks. I loathe floppy picks. Lately, I’ve been experimenting with those little thick plastic jazz picks.

QRD – What gauge strings do you use & why?

Larry – I use sets with 10s on the high e-string on my electric. You need to have a thick enough string to have a good tone, but anything heavier & it is harder for me to bend strings. For my acoustic, I use 12s or 13s on the high-e. Anything heavier is hard on my hands. Again, you have to balance playability (light gauge) versus tone (heavy gauge).

QRD – How often do you change strings?

Larry – I change them based on their sound & feel, not according to any time schedule. 

QRD – How often do you break strings? 

Larry – Rarely. 

QRD – Which do you feel is more proficient, your strumming hand or fretting hand & how does that effect your style? 

Larry – I can move quicker with my fretting hand. As a result, I have to resist the temptation to do too many quick left-hand pull-offs & hammer-ons when my right hand runs out of power & my mind runs out of ideas. 

QRD – Do you set-up your guitar yourself or send it to a guitar tech (or not set it up at all) & why? 

Larry – I use a tech — I’m not really tech minded in any way. Again, I’m not that anal about how my guitar is set up, although I like the way it feels after it has been set up. Just like I don’t like cleaning my house, but certainly enjoy the house more right after it is cleaned. 

QRD – What tunings do you use & why?

Larry – I always use standard tuning on electric, although I’ll often detune my low E & A strings randomly during the course of a set when I’m improvising, mainly to get a nice rumble if I’m not working with a bassist. For acoustic, I sometimes use C—F—A#—D#—G—C, standard turning a major-third down. Also on acoustic, I’ll often use standard tuning with the low E tuned to D. I don’t tune to open chords very often unless I’m playing someone else’s music. My lap steel is tuned E—B—E—G#—B—E.

QRD – Do you prefer tablature, sheet music, or some other notation system for writing down your own ideas? 

Larry – If I’m writing down an idea, I use standard notation. I really don’t like tablature since it gives only half of the story. The only time I find tab useful is when learning a difficult fingerpicking piece. If you’re going to make the effort to learn tab, spend the extra few minutes to learn how to read standard notation. It really opens up the world of music.

QRD – How high do you hold your guitar when playing (strap length)? 

Larry – My guitar is usually over my stomach. Anything higher looks too geeky; anything lower makes it too hard to be accurate when playing. 

QRD – What’s a bad habit in your playing you wish you could break?

Larry – I need to relax more when I play. I tend to hold my breath or breathe too shallowly when I’m playing something difficult. This can become a real problem when I’m recording a quiet solo acoustic piece & you can hear my erratic breathing in the background (although I guess I could join the Keith Jarrett/Glenn Gould club of musicians who make annoying sounds when they play). Also, I’m not as anal about precise tuning as I should be. I could also stand to spend some time with the metronome.

QRD – Playing what other instrument do you think can most help someone’s guitar playing? 

Larry – Piano. Guitarists learn chords as shapes. With piano, you have to learn what notes you’re playing & why.

QRD – What’s a type of guitar playing you wish you could do that you can’t? 

Larry – I’d love to be able to do really fast banjo-style fingerpicking like Jerry Reed or Danny Gatton. I’m working on it, but it’s slow going (sigh). 

QRD – What’s a guitar goal you’ve never accomplished?

Larry – I’m not ashamed to admit that I’d still love to be a blow-the-audience-away virtuoso guitarist. I just have never put in the hours you need to do that. I’m interested in too many other things to do that much guitar. I’ve also always been a fan of things like No Wave, a music that relies on a lack of too much technique. I’m conflicted.

QRD – What’s the last guitar trick you learned?

Larry – I was impressed when someone finally showed me the “James Bond” chord (low E, G on the fourth string, B-D#-F#). I never get tired of it. 

QRD – What’s a guitar technique you’d like to master, but haven’t?

Larry – I really want to be able to get the hybrid flatpick/fingers technique to work. I’m starting to play more country, but I don’t want to switch to a thumbpick for electric guitar playing.

QRD – Did you ever take guitar lessons & if so, what did you learn from them? 

Larry – I took lessons for a year & half when I was 13-14. My father, however, was a professional musician, so I picked up a lot from him. I guess the best thing I learned from lessons is how to read music. All guitarists should learn to read. It’s not that hard, & it makes the sheet music section of your local library a wellspring of new ideas & things to practice. In retrospect, I wish I would have had lessons with a first-rate guitar teacher. When I was a kid, Vincent Bredice, one of the best guitar teachers anywhere, had a studio in Miami. My father made the prospect of studying guitar with Bredice so scary that I never seriously considered it. Then again, I’ve also always been a little suspicious of people who have too much proper technique. Conflicted again.

QRD – What would you teach someone in a guitar lesson that you don’t think they would generally get from a guitar teacher? 

Larry – I would have a student spend a long time just very slowly playing scales & melodies on the high e-string & listening carefully & not worrying about “proper” technique. For some reason, the upper frets are kept a mystery to students for a long time, while I think learning all of the notes on one string is much easier than learning scales across several strings. I’d show them how the intervals on one string directly correspond to the layout of the piano keyboard. Once you learn one string, you can very quickly learn the five others since they all follow the same patterns. Teaching position-playing too early encourages making playing choices based on convenience rather than on what works for the music. Besides, the best players play vertically up the fretboard, not horizontally across. Even when non-musicians describe a good guitarist, they will probably mention that he/she plays all over the fretboard, especially high up on it. Intuitively, even the non-guitarist knows that is important for some reason.

QRD – What’s something someone would have to do to emulate your style?

Larry – I think what makes me unique as a player is that I’m comfortable in a wide range of settings & I’m not afraid to make mistakes on stage in pursuit of something I’m imagining. So if someone wanted to be able to do that, he/she should listen to a lot of different styles of music & not be afraid to put him-/herself in playing situations with people much better than you who totally kick your ass. That’s how I learned to play. Then do whatever you want & not care what people think.

QRD – What’s your take on tremolo systems?

Larry – Unless you actually practice with your tremolo, most players tend to overuse it, or use it in all of the most obvious ways. If you find yourself unable to live without your tremolo, you should think about why this is so. There’s a definite difference between employing something & relying on something.

QRD – What do you see as the difference between lead guitar & rhythm guitar players?

Larry – A good rhythm guitar player is usually a better musician than a strict lead player since rhythm players have to have a good understanding of harmony, tone, & rhythm. You also have to think a lot about how to play with bass players & keyboardists. They also have to listen to the entire band & to the song a lot more. 

QRD – If a band has good guitar work, can you ignore the rest of the band not being good?

Larry – No. Your band is only as good or interesting as the drummer. Try to imagine the Stones without Charlie, or even the White Stripes without Meg.

QRD – What famous musician’s guitar would you like to own & why? 

Larry – I’d love the Fender Esquire Jeff Beck used in the Yardbirds. Some of the most exciting solos ever played on an electric guitar were played on that instrument.

QRD – Who do you think is currently the most innovative guitar player & why?

Larry – I really love what the Campbell Brothers — Chuck & Darrick — have done with steel guitars. 

QRD – Where can people hear your best guitar work?

Larry – Probably not on recordings. I think I’m at my best when I’m playing on other people’s songs in a club setting. I love playing “session musician” & trying to add something unique & appropriate to someone else’s music. I’ve always been a fan of people like Andy Summers who have a wide background & great skills who don’t mind disappearing into the texture of a song.

QRD – Anything else? 

Larry – Never put down someone else’s music. It is probably important to him or her. & someone out there probably thinks your music totally blows. It’s hard enough to be a musician without all of us turning on each other. When we fight each other, the Man holds on to his power.