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Troy Van Leeuwen: "People think you need all this extra distortion – if your amp’s loud and you get the speakers to move, that’s how you sound huge"

Troy Van Leeuwen
(Image credit: Fender)

“The name of the finish is a reference to the band – when I play this guitar I’m the queen of the Copper Age!” smiles Troy Van Leeuwen, for this GW exclusive on his new signature Jazzmaster

The new electric guitar will have the same hardware and features as his previous signature Jazzmaster in Candy Oxblood, such as the Pure Vintage ’65 single coils and single-locking tremolo, but this time with a block inlay maple fretboard and Copper Age finish.

Looking at the maverick alt-rock guitarist’s CV, it couldn’t be more well-deserved – as well as being a long-serving member of Queens Of The Stone Age, he’s been a part of A Perfect Circle, Failure, Sweethead, Puscifer, Eagles Of Death Metal, Mark Lanegan Band and The Desert Sessions, with production credits on plenty more besides. 

In truth, it’s a signature that looks every bit as iconic as the man himself...

“About 15 years ago I had a model with Yamaha, it was completely different, a 335- style hollowbody with three P-90s and a Bigsby,” continues the sharp-dressed multi-instrumentalist, speaking to GW via Zoom conference. 

“But with Fender, this is my second model and it’s like a continuation of the first one with a different color and fingerboard material. They got back in touch suggesting we could try new things, so it looks and sounds a little different. The first was a real stunning looking guitar and I got a lot of great feedback about it. So why try fixing something that’s not broken?”

Tell us more about that lavish Copper Age finish...

“I guess it represents the brighter side of me. It’s also a homage to California, which is where I grew up. Before I was playing music and being a dark teenager, I was a kid that was always at the beach. It’s a homage to my innocence… and also the beginnings of my time in QOTSA, spending a lot of time in the desert. 

“I have a kindred spirit for Joshua Tree and how it relates to Palm Desert, the sound of the band and where it all started.

“I have a couple of Custom shop Telecasters, one is a six-string and the other is a 12- string, which have a Copper finish but it’s aged. When I saw this finish new, it had a little too much of a pink hue in it. So I asked if we could change it a bit and end up adding a little more gold, so it’s now in between copper and gold. 

I play this guitar right out of the box on stage, it’s a real deal signature model

“I see it more like a Restomod color. Guitars and cars share from the same color book. A ‘55 Bel Air usually came in a Sea Foam Green! So I found this ‘58 Corvette copper that I used as a reference. It’s a 180 from the Oxblood, but it’s still basically a ‘65 Jazzmaster with my own touches...”

Like what?

“I have a switch for the top selector instead of the black slider. That’s just a performance thing – because I play other instruments on stage, I need to switch between things – so I tend to turn that circuit off and use it like a killswitch. 

“That way I can go straight to keys or lap steel, flip one switch and be right back in the game. That feature ended up being really important. I play this guitar right out of the box on stage, it’s a real deal signature model. Occasionally I’ve tried other bridges and tremolos, but it comes ready to stay in tune and take pedals well.”

There’s a live intro you play for Go With The Flow which really makes use that vibrato arm...

“Yeah, there’s like a vibe kind of sound on that with some spring reverb. I swell in chords using my volume pedal and the way it floats make it sound like you are on a beach somewhere having a piña colada. 

“That’s why I love this tremolo – it not only stays in tune live but makes you feel like you’re floating on the water. They’re very dependable, I’ve never had to change one out, and tend to have them floating up a little bit.”

It’s a similar warble to what you dial in for those arpeggio lines on I Appear Missing...

I swell in chords using my volume pedal and the way it floats make it sound like you are on a beach somewhere having a piña colada

“That’s a Uni-Vibe with a spring reverb that I use for a lot of things. There’s something about notes up there ringing out, getting just the right amount of feedback for it all to take off. It’s that searing, flying in the air kinda sound – at least for me! 

“I use that tone for the breaks in If I Had A Tail and quite a few others.”

The Pure Vintage ’65 single-coil pickups will certainly bring the spank for songs like Domesticated Animals...

“That’s a great example because you can really hear the guitar ringing. I have an Aztec Gold ‘65 reissue Jazzmaster that I use in the studio all the time… it has the same exact pickups. I actually fit my circuit into that guitar, so I’ve ended up turning all my Jazzmasters into what this signature model is.”

You’ve just released a new song, Everything Is Wonderfall, with Gone Is Gone. Your guitar tones sound extra gnarly on that one...

“Yeah! That’s also this guitar, just tuned down to C. When you play this Jazzmaster through a big amp, there is such a clarity to it. You overdrive the amp and it sounds massive. A lot of people think you need all this extra distortion on there and I’m just not that way. 

“If it’s loud and you get the speakers to move, that’s how you sound huge. That was the big test for Gone Is Gone, I was just getting into playing Jazzmasters and Jaguars when the project started in 2013.

“Obviously schedules are impossible to coordinate with the guys in the band… it always take a few years to get things going but it’s such a cool project. Everyone comes from a live background – Tony [Hajjar] on drums, Troy [Sanders] who sings and plays bass phenomenally and the other guy Mike [Zarin] is a composer. 

“So when we get in a room, things happen really quick. We’re able to move fast. It took us two year to get this newest collection of songs together. It’s one of those cool and fun projects you get to focus on every couple of years. If you play one or two shows, you’re doing alright [laughs]! There’s more to come…”

My pedal collection could be described as nuts, stupid or insane [laughs]! But I need stuff, you know?

You’ve had some pretty sizable pedalboards out in front of you over the years. Are there any new favorite additions?

“I’ve just been sent a few things from Death By Audio, which is Oliver from A Place To Bury Strangers’ company. I love his band and have seen him play a bunch. I’ve had stuff of his before but there’s some new stuff that’s super-cool. There’s a pedal called Rooms which is interesting, it does exactly what you think, changing the size and shape and colors of rooms. 

“The Eventide H9 is very versatile for me and I use it all the time. It’s a digital pedal but I use it for reverbs and delays, stuff like that. It sounds great and has so many functions for one small pedal with two buttons.

“There’s just something about the way it sounds in front of an amp, with a little bit of dirt dialed in. I don’t like using an amp’s effects loop, I prefer it all in front. A big dark reverb will all of a sudden sound that much more menacing… so that’s a great pedal! 

“There’s a pedal company called Dr. No that I did an Octavia Fuzz with, it came out super killer. I’m checking stuff out all day every day, my pedal collection could be described as nuts, stupid or insane [laughs]! But I need stuff, you know?”

You’ve been pretty loyal to that fourth-gen DigiTech Whammy that’s been heard on tracks like If I Had A Tail...

“Yup, it’s the fourth generation one when they went back to the red housing and it has a MIDI in as well, which I use sometimes depending on the gig. I’ve been using that pedal since it came out in 1995 and I still have my original one from 1995. It’s one of those pedals that does that thing. You can hear it all over the QOTSA records now, it’s very much in the game!

“Josh has used it a bunch too, on tracks like I Appear Missing. Whenever we go off on a jam live, we’re both like, ‘Who is gonna go for the Whammy first?’ I let him take it because I’ve had my time with that pedal. I say, ‘Go ahead man, Whammy away!’ And I like the way he uses it too – everyone uses that pedal differently, which is why I think it’s a pedal everyone should have.”

There’s also that Burns 12-string you bring out for songs like The Way You Used To Do...

“I started playing that guitar around Songs For The Deaf – it ended up on Another Love Song, I think we both used it. I ended up integrating it into older tracks like Monsters In The Parasol

It’s funny, when I started talking to Fender about the new signature, I told them I didn’t want money, I wanted Custom Shop stuff. And in particular a one-of-a-kind double neck

“To be honest, that 12-string came back into play for ...Like Clockwork. It’s on I Appear Missing, My God Is The Sun and more. 

“It’s funny, when I started talking to Fender about the new signature, I told them I didn’t want money, I wanted Custom Shop stuff. And in particular a one-of-a-kind double neck, it’s basically an electric 12 on top with a Tele pickup and a Jazzmaster on the bottom.

“The Master Builder, Paul Waller, had just done the Jimmy Page Dragon Tele which was pretty awesome. I was playing the Burns and he said to me, ‘Dude, you gotta let me make you something… I love that guitar but you gotta play a Fender!’ So I handed him the Burns and told him to copy it, and he measured it all out and everything.

“Now the only time I play the Burns is when I tune down to D for The Way You Used To Do. Which is funny, because I’m still using it and he must be thinking, ‘Dude, get rid of that thing already!’”

Joining A Perfect Circle for the debut album must have been a truly amazing experience for a guitar player...

“In Failure we used to open up for Tool all the time. So, knowing Maynard for as long as I have, watching them progress over the years – I say progress, that doesn’t even suit it because they’re so far beyond that – has been great. They would use time signatures as a feel. 

“On Mer de Noms there’s a song called Thomas where I think the count is 11/13 or something like that. Why bother even counting it… it’s more of a feel thing than math rock. I love the way Billy and Maynard approach progressive music, there’s always a tension behind it.”

Bubblegum by Mark Lanegan is another cult album you are connected to...

Lanegan basically got everybody he knew to play on that record for free because people were such big fans of his

“Lanegan basically got everybody he knew to play on that record for free because people were such big fans of his. There was PJ Harvey, Duff McKagan and Izzy Stradlin singing backups, Josh playing a lot of the drums and bass, Dave Catching, Dean Ween… I mean, everybody played on that album. And it came out great!”

Outside of your main bands, you guested on a handful of tracks for Chelsea Wolfe’s 2017 record, Hiss Spun...

“I did five or six songs I believe. They toured with us on the ...Like Clockwork tour and I would watch them every night because her voice is really haunting. She’s an amazing singer and takes her craft very seriously. 

“Her partner Ben Chisholm can do pretty much anything and everything all the time, he’s a producer but he can also edit videos - he’s just an all-round talented guy. 

“We hit it off and they approached me about playing on the record, I did some of it at my studio and then I flew out to Kurt Ballou’s studio in Salem, God City, to play the rest. I love those guys and I love that record, it came out really cool.”

Troy Van Leeuwen's signature Fender Jazzmaster

Troy Van Leeuwen's signature Fender Jazzmaster (Image credit: Fender)

There’s also another side to you, a bluesiness which stems back to some of the classic rock players of the '60s and '70s...

“I’m a kid from the '70s, so FM Radio was on all the time, and it was Zeppelin, Bowie, Pink Floyd and Hendrix. It’s the kind of thing you want to take with you, because it’s classic. You don’t want to shake it off. 

“Anyone can play those pentatonic scales or whatever they’re called, but it’s what you do with it. Beyond note choice, it comes down to how you bend it or how you shake it. For me, it tends to be blues-based.

“Listening to Sabbath and AC/DC taught me so much. I love playing rhythm guitar. When you’re a kid learning the guitar, it’s all about being the fastest or most agile! I learned really quick, after listening to all those AC/DC records, that Malcolm was the balls of the band. He was holding it down. Without him, it wouldn’t have been powerful. Angus could have run around and done his thing all day, but if Malcolm wasn’t there it wouldn’t have been as good.”

You tend to use lap steels instead of slides on guitars held normally. What is it about having the fretboard face up horizontally that inspires you?

You learn that playing music with your friends, even if it’s just two notes played really well, is the most important thing. For me, it always comes down to having a good time!

“It actually makes you play a bit different. You will feel things differently when it’s laid out in front. When you play guitar with a slide the normal way, you’re still kinda playing guitar. Having it on your lap is almost like somewhere in between synthesizer and guitar. I tend to prefer it that way. 

“A lot of people might not realize it, but lap steel is a bit part of our history. From Hawaiian music to country to rock ’n’ roll, it’s become part of our psyche almost. It can make you feel like you’re back on the beach having that piña colada. 

“That’s what I’m going for these days… people think I’m this really dark gothy guy and I just want to put my toes in the sand and chill [laughs]!

“I enjoy playing different instruments in one set. When you learn that playing music with people is more important than anything you can do yourself, you understand your role within a group and embrace it. Sometimes me being in QOTSA means playing maracas and that’s cool too! 

“You learn that playing music with your friends, even if it’s just two notes played really well, is the most important thing. For me, it always comes down to having a good time!”