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Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready looks back on 30 years of Ten: “It was the first time I was in a situation where everybody was firing on all cylinders“

Mike McCready
(Image credit: Steve Eichner/WireImage)

Pearl Jam aren't exactly a band prone to nostalgia. That said, lead guitarist Mike McCready does acknowledge, when asked about the origins of the band’s debut album, Ten – which, given the incredible speed at which they moved in the early days also dovetails with the origin of Pearl Jam itself – that he looks back at that time and marvels at how it all went down. 

“I go, ‘How did that all happen? And why did it happen?,’ ” he tells Guitar World. “And I still don’t have answers for that, other than, you know, fate or time or luck or talent.”

Likely, it’s a combination of all those things. But however it came together, the fact remains that Ten, released August 27, 1991, and celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, was not only an unequivocal smash – 13 million copies sold in the U.S., and counting – but is also one of the defining pillars of '90s rock, with a reach and influence that has loomed large for decades. 

Indeed, you’d be hard pressed to find a rock fan, um, alive today that isn’t intimately familiar with the record. From the slippery riffs and deep-in-the-pocket groove of Even Flow, to the chest-beating lick that opens Alive and the explosive, extended McCready solo that closes it, to Eddie’s Vedder’s commanding bellow in Jeremy (not to mention the indelible accompanying video), the musical moments on Ten soundtracked a generation and continue to resonate today. 

I had kind of quit playing guitar about a year before Pearl Jam happened, because I was so disillusioned with trying to make it

Thirty years on, they feel almost foundational. And beyond these grand sonic gestures, a deeper dive into Ten uncovered more aggressive, tightly coiled fare like Why Go, Porch and the wah-drenched Deep, while moody, esoteric tracks like Release, Oceans and the much-beloved Black revealed a band adept at crafting subtly textured and swelling soundscapes, and working with a wider palette of sounds than the hit singles let on, or that peers and the press often acknowledged.

Given how seasoned and fully formed Ten sounds, it’s amazing to think that Pearl Jam existed for only a few months prior to its recording.

The five-piece we hear on the record – McCready, Vedder, guitarist Stone Gossard, bassist Jeff Ament and drummer Dave Krusen – played their first show, billed as Mookie Blaylock, in October 1990. Roughly six months later, they were in Seattle’s London Bridge Studio laying down songs with producer Rick Parashar. And yet, even if the band was in its infancy, their roots ran deep.

Gossard and Ament had already logged years in the Seattle scene, first with proto-grungers Green River, and then with the more glam- and hard rock-leaning Mother Love Bone, among the first of the Seattle groups to land a major-label record deal. But when Love Bone front man Andrew Wood died in 1990 of a heroin overdose, the band split.

Ament and Gossard, devastated, went their separate ways – the former playing with local band War Babies and the latter continuing to write and demo songs. Gossard eventually drafted an old childhood friend, McCready – himself picking up the pieces from the wreckage of his own failed band, Shadow – and together they began jamming on the embryonic tunes.

“I was working at a restaurant called Julia’s, and I got a call from Stone basically out of the blue,” McCready recalls. “Stone and I started playing in his parents’ attic, and he had the riffs for stuff like Alive and [Ten opening track] Once. Mother Love Bone had just broken up, and I wanted to get Jeff in the band. And things just kind of went from there.”

The three began playing together and cut a demo that eventually made its way (via a mutual friend, one-time Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons) to a San Diego-based singer and gas station attendant named Eddie Vedder. Vedder, as the story goes, listened to the tape, came up with lyrics while surfing, recorded vocals for three of the songs – Alive, Once and the eventual non-album track Footsteps – and sent it back up north. 

Impressed with what they heard, Ament, McCready and Gossard asked Vedder to come to Seattle, and Pearl Jam – or, as it were, Mookie Blaylock – was born. (At the same time, the guitarists and bassist hooked up with Soundgarden members Chris Cornell and Matt Cameron for the Andrew Wood tribute album, Temple of the Dog; Vedder also appeared on one song, the eventual MTV hit Hunger Strike).  

Not long after, Mookie Blaylock, with Krusen on drums, played that debut October 1990 show, at the Off Ramp Café in Seattle. Two months later they supported Alice in Chains on a handful of West Coast dates. Soon after that, they signed to Epic Records and changed their name to Pearl Jam. The rest, as they say, is history.  

For the most part, it’s a history that has been oft-told. The band members themselves, however, haven’t lingered on it too much in interviews, and musically they’ve been plowing forward ever since, culminating in their most recent studio album, 2020’s expansive and rather excellent Gigaton

Which made it all the more special that McCready was game to hop on Zoom with Guitar World for a look back at Ten in acknowledgement of its three-decade anniversary. He also had something else up his sleeve (or, more accurately, in his lap): the 1959 (or, um, 1960) Stratocaster that has been his steady companion for the majority of Pearl Jam’s career, and that Fender recently recreated as a limited-edition Custom Shop model. 

In a wide-ranging conversation, McCready discussed the making of that new guitar, as well as reminisced about the record that started it all. Want to know what artists influenced McCready’s playing style on Ten, or why he doesn’t use any two-handed tapping in his solos? 

How about which lead he wishes he could redo, the song that Pearl Jam just couldn’t nail in the studio, or what it was like heading out on their first tour, alongside the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana? It’s all here, and more. Read on.

Mike McCready

(Image credit: Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Let’s begin by looking at the musical makeup of Pearl Jam in the earliest days. Given that Eddie came into the band a bit later, it was you, Jeff and Stone who more or less formed the musical core of the group for Ten. And while the songs are certainly rooted in a classic rock sensibility, you each brought your own individual style and taste to the mix. Where did you differ and where did you intersect? 

“Well, I had been playing in bands since I was 11. And my band before Pearl Jam, which was called Shadow, we were kind of a punk-metal thing. So I went through a metal phase, and I lived in California for a year, from ’86 to ’87, trying to make it. And actually, I had kind of quit playing guitar about a year before Pearl Jam happened, because I was so disillusioned with trying to make it. 

I was also coming out of all that '80s stuff and getting into Stevie Ray Vaughan and B.B. King and the blues. I was into it very deeply and very earnestly

“But I had known Stone since, like, sixth or seventh grade. We went to Judas Priest concerts together. We learned how to headbang at Iron Maiden shows. So there was a metal thing between us. Whereas Jeff came from more of a straight-edge, Minor Threat, Ramones, punk-rock kind of thing. Stone had a little bit of that, too, but I was more Iron Maiden and Judas Priest and Kiss. And I also liked the Rolling Stones and that stuff. So there was a classic rock thing, a metal thing and a punk thing in those three personalities right there.

“And then at the same time, I was also coming out of all that '80s stuff and getting into Stevie Ray Vaughan and B.B. King and the blues. I was into it very deeply and very earnestly. So you had that in there, too. But that being said, we all had our similar influences. We loved old Alice Cooper. We loved Aerosmith.

“I feel like Stone had a groove to him and a real kind of Aerosmith vibe. And if you look at the Mother Love Bone-era stuff, you can see how he and Jeff would groove when they wrote those songs. I also recall Stone, when we started playing together, he wanted to play something darker than what he had been doing previously. I remember him saying that, and I didn’t know exactly what that meant at the time.“

You mention that you had started to really immerse yourself in the blues around the time you joined Pearl Jam. You can certainly hear that influence in your lead work on Ten

“About a year prior to playing with Stone I got way into the blues. I saw The Last Waltz on TV, and I watched the part with Muddy Waters and it just blew my mind. There was something about his music that changed me from doing this stuff [grabs his Strat and plays a tapping lick], which I was pretty good at, to playing in a way that was like… less is more, I guess. 

“That got me into Stevie Ray Vaughan, and that’s when I went straight into the blues. And actually, one of the things that led Stone to call me was that he had heard me playing at a party at a friend’s house – I was playing Couldn’t Stand the Weather, just jamming along with the record in one of the rooms, having a Heineken, whatever.“

Stone will think out a part and play it over and over. Like, we have this joke that if you’re in a hotel and you’re in the room under his room, you’ll just hear him above you playing guitar for five hours straight, doing one riff

You use the phrase “less is more,” which I take to mean a shift away from the shreddy, '80s style of playing to something less focused on how many notes you could cram into a bar of music. But I’d venture to say the lead guitar approach on Ten could also be characterized as “more is more”, in the sense that there’s a lot of soloing going on. 

“You make a good point. There is a lot of lead playing on that album. But I always look at it as, I was still playing less on Ten than I was five years before that, if that makes sense. Because five years earlier I was doing a lot of pyrotechnics and Kramer dive bombs and things like that. Which is all fine. 

“But when I started to get more interested in the blues I tried to consciously or subconsciously pull it back a little bit and feel it more. But yeah, you’re still hearing a lot of playing on those songs. I was kind of given free rein, like, 'Hey, just go for it, do your thing.' But you know, something like Even Flow, there’s a lot of notes on there, but I wanted it to be like Stevie. I wanted it to be like Hendrix. There’s a note that Hendrix hits in Machine Gun…“

That high, sustained note at the beginning of his solo. 

“You know the note! Yeah. You can hear the Uni-Vibe oscillating, and it’s just the most glorious, beautiful, tension-filled, sad, disruptive, amazing, beautiful sound I’ve ever heard. I’ve been trying to hit that note my entire career. So if you hear me hold some of those notes in Alive or whatever, I’m going for that. I know I’m never going to get there, but in terms of feeling, to me that’s the height.“

Mike McCready

(Image credit: Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

You mention Alive, which, if you’re talking about a guitar solo that really elevates the mood, that’s a great example of one. And there are so many dynamic, explosive leads on the record – Once, Why Go, Even Flow. I’ve heard you say in the past that some of your solos on the record were comped, as you were more concerned with just being in the moment as opposed to making sure you were hitting all the notes. 

“Yeah. Back then I was just kind of going for it. So parts of Alive were comped. I think Even Flow was comped, too. But to this day, I’ll play one or two or three takes and then it starts getting not as good. It has to be captured as this sort of 'lightning in a bottle' thing. And it’s usually the first or second take that’s the best, because I’m not thinking about it. 

“If I start thinking about what I’m going to do, I just math it all up and it doesn’t work. But that’s just me. Stone is more… he’ll think out a part and play it over and over. Like, we have this joke that if you’re in a hotel and you’re in the room under his room, you’ll just hear him above you playing guitar for five hours straight, doing one riff. [Laughs] I can’t do that. That would make me insane. So my point is, yes, there was some comping going on with the solos, but it was also comps of just the first or second take.”

I loved Randy Rhoads. I totally loved Eddie Van Halen. I saw Eddie four times with David Lee Roth back in the day

Also, you’re really ripping on a lot of those leads. But again, you’re doing it in a very bluesy, expressive sort of way. Given your background and the musical climate in Seattle at the time, did you have to consciously tamp down your shredder tendencies? 

”You know, that’s a good question. The truth is it just felt like that stuff didn’t work. And honestly, we were so sarcastic and mocking of a lot of that stuff back then, for better or for worse. But I loved Randy Rhoads. I totally loved Eddie Van Halen. I saw Eddie four times with David Lee Roth back in the day. Stone did too – we went together. But it just didn’t seem like that stuff worked. And at that time I had kind of gotten away from it anyway.”

So it wasn’t like you had some inner-dialogue going where you had to tell yourself, “If I start tapping, they’re gonna throw me out of Seattle…” 

”[Laughs] I didn’t think about it that way. But yeah, you’re probably right. It wouldn’t have been something that would have been accepted. Which is so pretentious when I think about it, this punk-rock ethic where we were not supposed to like certain things and whatever. That’s really stupid. But when you’re in your twenties, you’re just trying to make it happen. It’s a weird thing to look back on.”

Switching to the rhythm playing on the record, one thing that I’ve always felt about Ten is that while it’s a very “riffy” album, those riffs are trickier to play than you might imagine on first listen. If you look at the guitar lines in Once or Jeremy or especially Even Flow, the note patterns themselves aren’t that complicated, but the key to nailing them lies in riding the groove and staying in that tight-but-loose pocket. It’s not an easy thing to do. 

“You’re very perceptive in saying that. The pocket was always the point. In terms of Even Flow, I mean, we probably recorded that track 25 or 30 times, and we just never seemed to get it right. Jeff would fucking run outside because he was so mad about it. And Stone had these big charts… we just would make fun of the charts, [Laughs] but we were never able to record it right. 

“I think Stone heard something in it that we could never get. And I remember it wasn’t about the technique of it as much as it was about how it felt. That’s the only time we recorded a song that many times. But it was just this endless puzzle of trying to figure it out.“

We probably recorded Even Flow 25 or 30 times, and we just never seemed to get it right. Jeff would f**king run outside because he was so mad about it

Rhythmically, you and Stone would often be doing completely different things on your instruments. Ten is one of those albums where if you pan it hard left or right you sometimes get an entirely different guitar perspective. Did you guys work together on your parts, or did you come up with your accompaniments on your own?

“It was kind of both of those things. For instance, with Alive, Stone wrote the main riff and I just started doing these chords behind it. I knew I didn’t want to double what he was doing, so I was trying to do some Stevie Ray Vaughan chords, or the Hendrix thing where your thumb is on the bottom string.

“I came up with that while we were playing, he said, 'Oh, that sounds good,' and we stuck with it. Or, if you listen to the beginning of Black, Stone came up with that song and he did what he did, and then I just went underneath and did more of that Stevie/Hendrix stuff, those sort of watery chords. I was just trying to feel things out in those terms.“

What gear did you use on the record? 

“So, out of our advance, Stone and Jeff bought me a black 1962 Japanese reissue Stratocaster. It was just so cool. I was like, 'Oh my god…' Because I had always wanted one. I had a Telecaster prior to that, and before that I had an Ibanez Iceman and a Kramer. But that was my first Strat. 

“So I used that, thinking, you know, Stone plays mostly Les Paul, and I love Les Pauls too, but I always loved how in Aerosmith Joe Perry might be playing a Strat and then Brad Whitford would have a Les Paul. And then they’d switch or whatever. That’s what I grew up with, and Stone did too. So I felt I wanted a Strat to complement what Stone was doing. If we both played Les Pauls, the record might’ve sounded different.

I always loved how in Aerosmith Joe Perry might be playing a Strat and then Brad Whitford would have a Les Paul. And then they’d switch or whatever. That’s what I grew up with, and Stone did too

How about your amp? 

“I had a Marshall JCM800 with a 4x12 cabinet with, I think, 25-watt speakers in it. And I had a Fender Bassman for the clean tones. You can hear that on Black. And then if you want to get really into it, that sound on Black is me using the second pickup position on the Strat, for the out-of-phase thing. I was way into that because I had heard Jimi do it. 

“That was a big thing for me with the Strat. I wanted to have the five positions so I could be out of phase.“

Ten was quite obviously a massive, massive success. But it wasn’t a hit right out of the gate. It took some time. 

“You’re right. It took about a year before it started really going. But coming from the context of my mind back then it was like, 'I dropped out of college and I just got to quit my job at Julia’s. I’m in a van with guys and we’re touring across Texas!' That to me was such a success, because I had been trying to get to something like that since I was 15, 16 years old and I was in my band Shadow. I’d wanted to do this since I was a kid, trying to make it happen but never thinking it was actually going to happen.“

Mike McCready

(Image credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

Your first major tour after the album came out was supporting the Red Hot Chili Peppers on their Blood Sugar Sex Magik outing, alongside Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins. 

”Yeah. Before that we went out with Alice in Chains, down the West Coast. We were called Mookie Blaylock at the time, which I’ve always, like, ugh... [Laughs] But we didn’t have a name, and we had to have a name. But anyway, on that tour we played in Oakland to, like, 20 people. In Vancouver to maybe 100. But yeah, the Peppers tour was the first big one. And they were so cool to us. I’ll always remember that and love them for it. 

”It was a huge experience, an eye-opening experience. And you know, I was young and I thought our band was good. I was like, 'We’re going to play the best we can – follow that, Smashing Pumpkins!' But in a friendly competition sort of way. I just wanted to go out and tear it up as hard as we could for, you know, the 25-minute slot that we had. [Laughs] Because we only had one record’s worth of songs… and [a cover of the Beatles’ Let It Be track] I’ve Got a Feeling, which I think we used to do back then. And then maybe State of Love and Trust. That was kind of it.”

When did you start to notice things were blowing up? 

”When we got invited to do Lollapalooza – again, because of the Peppers. They asked us to be part of it. But that’s when it blew up. It’s like, we’re the second band, we’re playing at four o’clock in the afternoon, going on right after Lush, and there’s 30,000 people or whatever just running toward the stage. It was a mindfuck. But it was awesome. It was like my dream coming true in front of my face. And when that happens you just ride it, because you don’t have any control over it anyway.”

Ed was getting way more scrutiny than anybody. It was probably overwhelming for him. It was for all of us at the time. But I remember not wanting to pull back

That said, you guys actually did try to control it. In the years immediately following Ten it sometimes seemed from the outside as if Pearl Jam viewed its success as a curse as much as a blessing. The band continued to record and tour, but really pulled back from the public eye and MTV and the mainstream media. 

”The decision to pull back and to not do videos and to slow down interviews, it was all about Jeff and Stone and Ed thinking it was necessary. And you know, Ed was getting way more scrutiny than anybody. It was probably overwhelming for him. It was for all of us at the time. But I remember not wanting to pull back, saying, 'This is what we’ve wanted since we were kids. Let’s keep doing this. Let’s do videos, let’s keep going, let’s embrace this.' 

”But they weren’t into it. They said, 'No, we’ve got to, because this is all gonna fall apart if we don’t.' And I think they were right. I feel like we’re still around today maybe because of that first major decision to try to do it our own way. 

”We made a lot of decisions that were counter to what the record label wanted us to do: 'You’ve got to do a video for Black or you’ll never sell any more records.' Which I remember was a thing with them. But it’s like, yeah, that didn’t happen. So we were lucky, but it was our decision – pull back, five against one, let’s huddle in our stagecoaches and try to figure out what all this is.

That’s how you responded to the record at the time. What do you think when you look back on it now? 

“I have great memories of that time. You know, going to England for the first time to mix the record at Ridge Farm Studios… these were fun things. And just in general, recording an album and feeling the songs, knowing that we were a good band. It was the first time I was in a situation where everybody was firing on all cylinders. It was creative, it was exciting. 

“And it’s like, 'Oh my god, I’m making a record for a record label!' That’s what I would dream about. That’s why I had a room full of Kiss posters when I was a kid. And now I was a part of it. And I was grateful to Jeff and Stone because they had kind of been through this process before. They knew what was going on. So I felt lucky to be in that position.“

If you could go back, is there anything you would change about Ten?

“I’ve always wanted to do a better Even Flow solo than the one that’s on there. I shouldn’t say that, because I think some people like it the way it is. [Laughs] Although when we’re playing it live I always want to do it better. But I don’t think there’s any other aspects I would have changed on that record. I mean, it was a dream come true.“