Dear Guitar Hero: Mick Mars
He’s survived prescription drug addiction, inflammatory arthritis and 30 years with Mötley Crüe. But what Guitar World readers really want to know is …
Mick, your riffs have set you apart and placed you in a class of your own. Could you shed some light on what goes into making a killer riff? — Tyler Cleroux
Thanks, Tyler. As far as making up killer riffs, I don’t have any special tricks or techniques. Everything I play comes right from my soul. I do try to have a plan in mind; I try to hear something in my head, and I go for it. That’s about it, though. When I started out on the guitar, I was influenced by people like Michael Bloomfield, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. Those guys sort of taught me how to play “real” guitar. But again, with riffs, you have to look into your soul and see what comes out.
It’s been well documented, often by all the other guys in the band, that Mötley Crüe epitomized Eighties rock decadence. As the one guy in the band who’s had his head on straight, what stands out for you as the craziest moment on the road? — Brian
I don’t know. They’ve all been crazy! [laughs] I guess it depends on what era and what tour — there’s been different levels to Mötley’s craziness. One thing that stands out in my mind is the night in Vegas when everybody in the band got arrested, except me. The rest of the guys were pushing cops around, but I had the sense not to get involved. I had already been in jail once when I was a teenager, and no way was I going to go back. Getting into fights with cops? That’s pretty bad. I knew that was only going to lead to big-time trouble. I told the guys, “Don’t do it. Don’t go messin’ with cops.” They didn’t listen. I’ll tell you, so much of being on tour is kind of a haze. Getting drunk, doing drugs, falling off the stage — sure, I’ve done all of that. But I always kept playing, no matter what.
I heard that when you were in the studio for Dr. Feelgood, you used so many amps that your guitar leaked onto the Aerosmith album being recorded in the same building [1989’s Pump]. Is this true? And what happened to the Garnet amp from those sessions? — Justin Hachey
That’s right. Steven Tyler was doing vocals with producer Bruce Fairbairn next door, and I remember them yelling at me, “You’ve gotta turn your stuff down, Mick! It’s leaking into our vocals.” I didn’t turn down, though. I just told them, “Hey, that’s the way I play — loud.” [laughs] So yeah, I’m all over the record they were doing. Somewhere in the mix, you’ll hear me.
The Garnet amp was something [producer] Bob Rock brought in for me to use. I said, “This sounds like crap!” But Bob liked it because it sounded real trashy. I used it mostly for low-end stuff. Originally, I was using Mesa/Boogie amps for most of the low-end stuff, and that’s all I wanted to use, but Bob thought the Garnet would make for a nice blend. At first, I didn’t think so — I really didn’t like its sound at all; it was just so horrid. But in the end, Bob was right. The Mesa and the Garnet work well when mixed together. I never owned the amp, though. It was always Bob’s.
I love that distressed Fender HSH Strat that you’ve been playing for the last couple of years. Any chance that you would do a signature version with Fender? — Matt Liddelow
I think they were talking about doing a line of guitars like that at one time. I’m a Fender endorser, but I’m pretty uncomfortable with the whole idea of doing a signature Mick Mars guitar. To me, it’s kind of egotistical. Put it this way: as much as I love Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan, I would never play their signature models onstage. That’s just the way I feel. The whole thing is weird to me. Like, I can’t picture Slash playing a Mick Mars guitar. It just seems odd. I’m not trying to put down guitar players who put out signature guitars. But, nope, it’s not for me.
I’ve always seen you as a mellow character, and I just want to know, what’s the secret to surviving 30 years of Nikki Sixx, Vince Neil and Tommy Lee? — Justin Michael Hughes
I have my own bus! [laughs] Personal space — my own bus, my own hotel room, my own dressing room, my own private time … That’s the secret. A lot of the times, the rest of the guys will fly from one gig to the next. It takes them an hour to go from one city to another, whereas it might take me a day and a half on the bus. But the payoff is I’m rested, I’m in a good place mentally, and nobody’s driven me crazy. [laughs] In the early days, I couldn’t do that, so I had to deal with Nikki blasting his music all the time, Tommy running around with no clothes on, Vince doing whatever he was doing … all sorts of behavior. I’m glad to travel with a little sanity now.
Like you, I’ve had ankylosing spondylitis [a.k.a. AS, an inflammatory form of arthritis Mars has battled since age 19] since my early twenties. It’s tough, I but gotta keep going. I’m wondering this: do you approach the instrument and performing differently than before the disease really took hold? Any advice for guitarists with health challenges? — Charles Potter
My approach hasn’t changed, really. My posture, yes; my playing, no. AS gets into your hands, wrists, feet, your ankles. It rarely, rarely gets anywhere else, like into your spine, but in my case, yes, it did spread there. My case is pretty severe in that it’s traveled all the way up to my brain stem. My posture has changed pretty drastically. I’ve shrunk about five inches. There’s a way I could’ve not shrunk, and that would’ve been to lay flat when sleeping. The only problem with that, though, would be that I couldn’t look down at my guitar — I’d be standing totally straight and unable to bend my neck. Luckily, the doctors didn’t tell me this, so I’m kind of bent now, a little hunched over, but at least I can look down at my guitar when I play. AS hurts, but I don’t use steroids or anything like that. Sometimes I have really good days, sometimes I don’t.
My advice would be this: don’t take the quick fix. Don’t just go to a doctor and start taking all the drugs he pushes on you. I got hooked on pills and didn’t play guitar for two years. Play through the pain if you can.
Out of all your recordings with Mötley Crüe, which guitar solo is your personal favorite, and why? — Blake Burleson
Probably the solo on the song “Primal Scream” [from 1991’s Decade of Decadence], because it’s very bluesy and it’s a lot of fun for me to play. The solo just screams the blues. I put a lot of different guitar players’ styles in it, everyone from Jimmy Page to Johnny Winter to Michael Bloomfield. I took all of those influences and used them to create that solo.
I once read that you consider yourself a blues-based player. If you had to pick three of your biggest blues guitar influences, who would they be, and why? — Billy Boy
Mike Bloomfield is number one. Not only did he play over the top well — and I mean stupidly well — but he also played what I call “real” guitar. If you’ve ever heard Mike Bloomfield, then you know what I’m talking about. It just came from his heart. I never got a chance to see him because he died at an early age, but he was a big influence on me as to the way I learned to bend strings and get everything I could out of a note. One of the best players ever.
Jeff Beck is great, but he’s not really blues. I’d call him more of a rocker. Eric Clapton…now there’s a blues player. What’s interesting about him is he had multiple tones. In John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers his tone was much different than when he was in Cream. He was constantly changing and reinventing himself, but it was always blues based.
My third guy would be Jimi Hendrix, because he actually changed the whole face of blues. “Voodoo Child,” “Hear My Train A-Comin,” "Purple Haze”— it’s all blues, but man, he took it all to another level and beyond.
What pickups do you use to get your heavy sound that stays clear and sweet? — Greg Meisenzahl
My pickups are mostly custom-wound. The first Gibson humbuckers are known as PAFs — that stands for “Patent Applied For.” A few years after they were introduced, Gibson came out with another kind of pickup called the “T” humbucker — you can see the letter T on them if you remove the cover. I like those a lot, but I like the PAFs a whole lot more. So I had a bunch of those early pickups, but I had them rewound to make them hotter. I guess the reason that they sound so good is because I have Alnico magnets in them instead of ceramic.
Have you ever thought about releasing a solo album so you could stretch your legs a little further beyond Mötley? — Larry Kelly
Yes. I’m working on some things right now. I probably have about seven or eight songs, but I’m not totally happy with them yet. I want to go in a totally different direction from Mötley. Not in some weird and wacky way that will alienate friends and family and fans, but more in the way that Hendrix did Electric Ladyland, the Beatles did Sgt. Pepper’s and the Beach Boys did Pet Sounds. Those records were still them, but they were really removed from what those artists had done before. You went, “Wow! Now that’s a record.” The [Beatles’] White Album — that’s where I’m going. I’m not saying I’m going to play like them, but I want to do something … see, I don’t want to use the word landmark, because people will think that’s really stupid and egotistical. But I want people to say, “Wow! I didn’t know Mick Mars could do that.” Think Eric Clapton with the Layla album or Hendrix with Electric Ladyland … something you can listen to for hours.