Maroon 5's James Valentine Talks Ernie Ball Music Man Signature Guitar

(Image credit: Ernie Ball Music Man)

When Guitar World catches up with James Valentine, the Maroon 5 guitarist is relaxing in a hotel room in London.

“I went to Stonehenge yesterday!” he says excitedly. Valentine’s pilgrimage to the Spinal Tap–ian landmark was a side trip during Maroon 5’s current European tour, on which they’ve been playing everywhere from Spain and France to Romania.

The latter two locales are spots where the band—which includes singer Adam Levine, keyboardist/guitarist Jesse Carmichael, bassist Mickey Madden, keyboardist PJ Morton and drummer Matt Flynn—had never performed previously. “And they were great shows,” Valentine says. “We find a lot of times when we go to these places we’ve never played before, there’s a lot of pent-up excitement that’s been building over the last 14 years. It’s just a very big world, you know?”

Along for the ride with Valentine on these gigs—and, it should be noted, every gig these days—is his new signature Ernie Ball Music Man James Valentine “Valentine” guitar. The instrument, which boasts a slab ash body, roasted maple neck and Music Man–designed pickups, among other features, is not only aesthetically stunning, but also incredible versatile in tone—a necessity for Valentine, who needs to be able to traverse rock, pop, funk and other styles with Maroon 5. “One of the original goals with this guitar was to create something that I could use for the entire set,” he explains.

“And initially I wasn’t sure we’d be able to do that. I told the guys at Ernie Ball, ‘We’re going to have to really hit a pretty high bar here.’ But when I saw what we were coming up with I thought, Okay, cool, we’re adding something to this world that I think is going to be useful, and that I’m also really going to enjoy playing.”

In the following interview, the 37-year-old guitarist goes in-depth about playing his new signature instrument, as well as the details that went into its design. Valentine was also happy to report that, in addition to how much he personally loves the guitar, he also got the seal of approval from his Maroon 5 bandmates. “Somehow after all these years I still really value their opinions on the sound and aesthetics of my instruments,” he says with a laugh. “And believe me, they have way more opinions about the aesthetics!”

How did you hook up with Ernie Ball?

I have a long relationship with them. Back in 1999 I was living in Lincoln, Nebraska, and giving guitar lessons, and one of the guys in my music store entered me in a Battle of the Bands competition that was sponsored by Ernie Ball. Long story short, my band ended up winning the entire competition—we won $25,000 and we used that money to move out to Los Angeles. And that’s what really kick-started my professional music career. Shortly after that we opened up for a band called Kara’s Flowers, and that band became Maroon 5.

So I’ve known the Ernie Ball guys for a long time and I’ve always admired what they do. Also, I’ve used a JP12 [Music Man John Petrucci model] onstage before and really dug it, even though it’s a very different kind of guitar from what I usually play. But I knew the company was making amazing stuff. And every once in a while I’d run into Brian Ball and he’d say to me, “Hey, we should think about doing a guitar together…” Finally I ran into him at Coachella, and maybe it was because I’d had a few margaritas or something, [laughs] but I said, “Okay, cool. I’ll come meet with you guys.” And I fully expected to go into the first meeting and say, “Thanks…but no thanks.”

But I was really amazed with the concept for the guitar, right from the beginning. And I love that the company is a smaller, family-run operation. They’re sort of the perfect “Goldilocks” size for an artist—not too big and not too small. They have an amazing amount of resources, but when you work with them you’re not one of a thousand other artists. I can call up [CEO] Sterling [Ball] at any time, about anything, and I know I’ll get him on the phone. It’s a really amazing relationship.

Can you tell us about some of the features on the Valentine?

I started using a prototype onstage at the end of last year, and since then we’ve changed a few things. When I first brought it out it had just a basic slab ash body, because I love Teles. But after the first couple of shows I said, “You know, I want to find a way to make this a little lighter.” And so Sterling and Dudley [Gimpel] came up with the idea for a wedge. That cut off some of the weight, and it had the added advantage of being more ergonomic. It was one of those things where you don’t really know if it’ll work until you take it out onstage and test-drive it.

Then in terms of the pickups, I have a Music Man humbucker in the neck position and a Music Man Tele-style pickup, with the staggered pole pieces, in the bridge. It’s nice and spanky, with a little P-90 in it too, which is cool. And there’s a coil tap on the tone knob. That’s something that, at first, I wasn’t sure how useful it would be. But it adds a nice different sort of color. Especially because with Maroon 5, most of the night I’m playing with a sort of Nile Rodgers funk sound. There’s also a preamp in there that you can tap on and off from the volume switch that adds up to 20dB of boost. And it’s adjustable too. With all 20dBs, it’s almost like having an overdrive pedal. But with my stage guitars I have it set at a five-to-six dB gain, for just a subtle little boost.

The pickups also have a hum canceling unit wired in, so they’re super quiet. Which was important to me, because we play all over the world, and there’s always a moment after soundcheck where my tech comes back to the dressing room and gives me the weather report, like, “It’s noisy on that part of the stage, maybe face this way…” It’s always different. But with these pickups you don’t have to worry about it.

The body design is very cool too—redolent of a Tele, but with the horns of a Gibson ES-335.

Yeah. The 335 was my other favorite guitar when I was coming up. And actually, when I was younger I wanted to play jazz and fusion, and when I first came out to L.A. my guitar was an ES-346. Those guitars don’t fit into the sonic landscape of Maroon 5 so much, but I’ve always loved how they look. So when we were talking about body shapes for my guitar I wanted to do something a little bit different. I said, “These things probably have nothing to do with each other, but what if we mixed a Telecaster with a 335?” We started playing around with it and then we hit on the right balance. What I like about the shape is that it looks classic to me, like it could be a guitar from the Seventies that you’d find in a pawn shop. But at the same time it’s also something that hasn’t really been done.

What does Maroon 5 have coming up?

We’re doing the last round of shows for this record cycle [for 2014’s V], because we’ve been touring it for a while. And then we’ve been in the studio a little bit—we recorded a song this spring that we might actually release as a one-off. And probably next year we’ll release another record. We’ve done five in a row so we might take our time with this one. We’ll see.

I imagine we’ll be hearing your Music Man Valentine on these recordings?

Yeah, absolutely! It’s made some appearances so far, and I can guarantee it’s going to make a lot more.

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Richard Bienstock

Rich is the co-author of the best-selling Nöthin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion. He is also a recording and performing musician, and a former editor of Guitar World magazine and executive editor of Guitar Aficionado magazine. He has authored several additional books, among them Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the companion to the documentary of the same name.