Frank Marino Sets the Record Straight About His Career, the Music Industry and How the Guitar Saved His Life

“This is Guitar World magazine, not Fame World magazine, right?” asks Frank Marino, on the phone from his home in Montreal.

“Because let me tell you something about fame—there’s the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which is a giant building with lots of lights on it, and then there’s the Rock and Roll Hall of Talent—which might be a camper…with a bulb! And not because there’s not a lot of talent out there, it’s just that there’s not a lot of recognized talent.”

The 60-year-old Marino knows at least a little bit about fame—in the Seventies he had a string of successful albums on Columbia with his trio, Mahogany Rush, and spent years performing to packed arenas across the country (sometimes with up-and-coming acts like Judas Priest and AC/DC as openers) as well as alongside artists like Aerosmith, Santana and Ted Nugent at mega-festivals like 1978’s California Jam II.

He also knows a hell of a lot about talent. Beginning with Mahogany Rush’s 1972 debut, Maxoom—which Marino largely wrote, recorded and produced when he was just 16—the musician blazed a distinctive guitar path across the rock landscape with his incendiary, high-energy riffs and speedball solos, which he performed in a variety of styles. He was known primarily as a hard-rock axman, and his image—the mustachioed longhair in tight-fitting leather suits, whipping crowds into a frenzy through blazing extended solo runs on his 1961 Gibson SG/Les Paul—certainly backed that up.

But Marino, whose playing also encompassed elements of jazz, psychedelia, pop, prog, fusion and plenty of blues, never saw himself as a guitar god. In fact, he cringes at the mere utterance of the phrase.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” he says. “I used to tell people, ‘You can either be a guitar god or you can be a musician.’ And I always thought of myself as a musician who happened to play guitar.”

Which is not to say that plenty of other people—some of them now guitar gods themselves—see things differently. Serious players like Marty Friedman, Joe Bonamassa and Steve Vai have all sung his praises, and when Marino came out of a self-imposed musical exile in the early 2000s, one of the first artists to invite him on tour was former Scorpions shredder Uli Jon Roth.

Then there’s Zakk Wylde—who, with his scorching, neck-wringing pentatonic runs and long flowing mane of hair, is perhaps the closest modern approximation of Marino in his prime. Indeed, the Black Label Society and former Ozzy axman has gone to great lengths to champion Marino and espouse his greatness with Mahogany Rush.

“Frank is just an amazing combination of feel, taste, musicality and technique,” Wylde tells Guitar World.

“It’s all there, and in staggering degrees. I love the way he plays blues—it’s like, as opposed to being a Ford Model T of the blues he’s a Formula One racecar. And then you throw in the jazz element, and it’s just, wow. The way he can play bebop and jazz-type stuff with that much confidence…he’s not dicking around. He actually knows what he’s doing. Within the guitar community, he’s a god.”

These types of acknowledgements please Marino (there’s even a tribute album, Secondhand Smoke, with performances by George Lynch, Ronnie Montrose, Jennifer Batten and others), but he doesn’t spend much time thinking about them. “I’m told that a lot of guitarists have talked about my influence,” he says.

“Zakk in particular is a great guy and a great guitarist, and we even speak on occasion. I’m very flattered by that. With a lot of these guys I’m not always sure I hear it, but then again, I don’t listen to a lot of music. More than anything, I can’t believe these guys even know who I am!”

In fact, given his abilities and the heights to which he climbed with Mahogany Rush, it’s surprising how little Marino’s name seems to be in the guitar discussion these days. But it’s merely another quizzical piece in a career that is dotted with them.

Over the course of his musical life, Marino has been pegged—literally—as the second coming of Jimi Hendrix (a story which he always denied); pigeonholed as merely a hard rock/heavy metal shredder, which he wasn’t (though he could be at times); written off as a purveyor of lowest-common-denominator dope-smoker music (while being a religious man who hasn’t touched a drug in more than 40 years); and recognized mostly for his hot-rodded renditions of songs like “Johnny B. Goode,” “Purple Haze” and “I’m a King Bee,” even though, Marino says, “I probably only did about four or five covers in my entire career.”

All of which adds up to an unconventional legacy, to say the least. It’s also a career that, despite Wylde’s insistence that Marino is god-like within guitar circles, has been underappreciated by the more mainstream music world. Which is not something that necessarily bothers Marino. “To this day I really don’t give a shit about commerciality,” he says. “I don’t give a shit about money. I don’t give a shit about business. I used to always tell people: Business has no business in the music business. That’s how I really, really was. I’m still that way.”

He continues. “For me, playing music has always just been about having fun with my friends. Beyond that, it’s not that important. The self-importance of rock and rollers—and particularly guitar players—I mean, we’re not curing cancer, we’re not saving the world. What are we doing? We’re a bunch of guys who play instruments and who are actually getting money to do it. That’s unbelievable! I’d do it for free!”

Initially, Marino didn’t only do it for free—he did it to save his life. Born on November 20, 1954, in Montreal, Marino came of age in the late Sixties and, as he says, “I got involved with what people got involved with in the Sixties.” Which meant music—he started off playing the drums—and also psychedelic drugs. In 1968, at the tender age of 13, he “blew his mind” on LSD, a journey that ended his school career at seventh grade, and also landed him in a mental hospital.

“In those days, people had no idea what to do with a kid who had dropped so much acid, so they sent me to the psychiatric ward of the Montreal Children’s Hospital,” he says. “They put me in there hoping it would help me, which, ultimately, it did not. But what did help is that while I was there I learned how to play music. They kept pianos and things around for the kids to use, and there was a guitar—a cheap Stella acoustic. So I said, ‘I’ll play this.’ It was really more a way to keep my mind off what was happening to me. Because what was going on in my head was terrifying.”

Marino spent a year going in and out of the hospital; during that time, he also became shockingly proficient on the guitar. “I progressed incredibly quickly,” he says. “At the time I didn’t understand why, but now I understand that, psychologically, if your mind is open enough and believing enough, what may take a few years to do can happen much faster. It’s not that strange if you actually think about it. It’s basically what people say when they say ‘Think positive,’ you know? Plus, in my state of mind, I hung onto that guitar the way a person would grab a piece of shipwreck if he was drowning in the ocean. It was a lifeboat for me.”

Not too long after Marino exited the hospital he began playing around Montreal with a three-piece.

He had a band name—Mahogany Rush—that, he says, wasn’t actually a band name at all. “It was the name of an experience,” he clarifies. “It was a description of the acid trip I was on—I told the doctors I was having ‘mahogany rushes.’ ”

What he also had was his first real guitar—which is still the model he plays to this day. “When I got out of the hospital, all I had been playing was that cheap Stella,” Marino recalls.

“And my mother said to my father, ‘If the instrument is helping him feel better, let’s get him one.’ There was a guy down the street that had a guitar—a ’61 SG, when it was still called a Les Paul. So my mom went down the street and spoke to him and he sold it to her for $75. And so that’s what I played. At first I didn’t even have an amp. I would put my teeth to the horn and play like that, listening to the sound in my head.”

Marino and Mahogany Rush—which, after cycling through members solidified around bassist Paul Harwood and drummer Jimmy Ayoub—began building up a following in the Montreal area. “In those days we would just go out and do free shows—you take your amps and a generator and you start playing,” he says. “We’d get a couple thousand people hanging around, smoking grass and listening to psychedelic music.”

Eventually a small American label was tipped off on the act and traveled to Montreal with the offer to have them record an album. “And I refused,” Marino says. “I didn’t want to make a record. Because coming from that hippie background, it was not cool to be commercial. I said, ‘That’s establishment shit!’ But how they convinced me to do it is they said, ‘We’ll allow you to go into this place called a studio and we’ll give you a lot of equipment to play with. And you can do whatever you want.’ I mean, they let a 16-year-old kid produce his first album! Who would say no to that?”

The result was 1972’s Maxoom, a miasma of jammy rock, hard funk, blues, psychedelia and pop, all strung together by Marino’s fiery guitar playing. The music’s style, not to mention Marino’s guitar and vocal approach, reminded many of Jimi Hendrix—a comparison that was heightened by the fact that Marino not only dedicated the album to the late guitarist, but also wrote one of its tracks, the languid “Buddy,” about him.

“Here’s the thing,” Marino says. “Did I like Hendrix? Sure. But he wasn’t a huge guitar influence. I didn’t really have guitar influences when I was a kid, because I played drums—I was a fan of the Jimi Hendrix Experience because I liked Mitch Mitchell.

Once I blew my mind on acid, then all of a sudden I started noticing the rest of Jimi’s music, which was pretty freaky stuff! But I also liked Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Doors, the later, psychedelic Beatles. I was a child of that generation.”

Nevertheless, Marino’s style, as well as the Hendrix dedication on Maxoom, merged with his childhood experiences with LSD to forge a particular creation myth: That Frank Marino, after blowing his mind on acid, was visited by the spirit of Jimi Hendrix and had become the living reincarnation of the guitarist.

To this day the story makes him cringe. “Local writers, I like to say they put two and two together and came up with five,” Marino says. “Look, the kid went into the hospital and he came out playing guitar. And the style of music he was playing happened to be very much like the style of music Hendrix played. Of course it was—mentally, I was in that world of LSD and marijuana and all that stuff. What was I going to sound like? Bill Haley? The 1910 Fruitgum Company?

"But writers took these facts and they conflated them to mean, ‘Oh, Frank went into the hospital and had a near death experience and was visited by the spirit of Jimi Hendrix and was reincarnated.’ But, wait a second—Jimi Hendrix didn’t die until 1970. I was in the hospital in 1968. So where did they come up with this reincarnation thing?”

In the end, it didn’t matter. “The American magazines picked up on this story, and it became this ridiculous tale,” he continues. “And I’ve spent the better part of my career having to deny these stories. Which, by the way, also go against my religion—I’m a Christian! I don’t believe in this reincarnation crap. That’s why I say sometimes I wish I never heard the name Jimi Hendrix. I love the music, but not any more than I love a lot of other music. And he’s certainly not an idol for me.”

As for writing a song about, and dedicating his debut album to Hendrix? “Yeah,” Marino says with a laugh. “That certainly didn’t help me.”

Despite—or perhaps partly due to—the Hendrix comparisons that would dog him throughout his career, Marino’s star continued to rise. Mahogany Rush’s third album, 1975’s Strange Universe, which featured cuts like the proggy “Tales of the Spanish Warrior,” the psychedelic title track and the swirling, thudding metal of “Land of 1000 Nights,” helped the band to break through on a larger scale, as did touring that year as support for Queen on their Sheer Heart Attack North American jaunt.

By the time the band released their next album, Mahogany Rush IV, they were signed to Columbia and being managed by Steve Leber and David Krebs, the same team behind Aerosmith and Ted Nugent. But Marino says the relationship with Columbia was strained from the beginning. "I didn’t care about being on TV, I didn’t care about being on the radio,” he says. “They just humored me and did what they wanted. Because they figured, ‘Hey, whatever the kid thinks, he’s pulling in 20,000 people. Let’s just make some money off it.’ And they did.”

In fact, the band was pulling in very big numbers on the road, mostly on the strength of Marino’s guitar playing. This is nowhere better showcased then on Mahogany Rush’s 1978 concert document, simply titled Live, where, in addition to scorching takes on Mahogany Rush IV songs like “The Answer” and “Dragonfly,” Marino tears through covers like “Johnny B. Goode,” “Purple Haze” and “I’m a King Bee,” the last of which also features a jazzy segue into “Back Door Man.” For those who had never experienced Marino’s live power, the album was a revelation.

Recalls Zakk Wylde, “I remember the first time I heard Live—I always say it was like a John Coltrane experience. It was mind-altering. Because when I was a kid, all the guys down at the music store would say pentatonic scales were just for rock players that had no technique, that it was mindless drivel.

Then I heard Frank on that live album and I was blown away. Just hearing all the possibilities of what you could do with a pentatonic scale, that was huge for me in terms of my own playing. It’s funny—to this day I play that record for people, and they always go, ‘Oh, so this is where you get it from!’ ”

But if Marino was becoming a bona fide guitar hero, he never saw it that way.

When it came to how fast he played, he merely says, “This is the way I look at it—if you do something and you automatically know what you’re doing, you can’t help but be able to do it fast. Playing guitar to me is very much like speaking; you don’t have to think about forming the words, it just happens.”

Even in terms of his gear, Marino has always been something of a guitar iconoclast. “People seem to think I had a bunch of Marshalls, just like everybody else was using,” he says. “But for most of the Seventies I had an Acoustic 270, this big transistor amplifier. Early on I had built four big speaker cabinets to use onstage, and I had been powering them with small Fender combos. But I started to need something bigger. I went to a store and heard the Acoustic 270 and I said, ‘Well, that’s pretty loud and it’s pretty clear.’ So I bought it. I never even thought about the tone.”

By the late Seventies, Marino was also augmenting his sound with an array of pedals. At one point, he was carrying around a six-foot by three-foot two-tiered pedal board with 22 stompboxes on it.

“It had distortions, choruses, flangers, a few Echoplexes, a Rotosound…a bunch of things,” he says. “That was my whole setup—the SGs (he amassed several over the years), the Acoustic 270 and the pedals. And to this day I get people saying, ‘Oh, that live album you did in ’78, what a tone!’ And then I tell them, ‘Well, it was just a transistor amplifier and some pedals.’ And they’re like, ‘No way, man! That’s impossible!’ ”

But even as Marino was scaling even greater rock and roll heights, he wanted no part of it. “I was completely disillusioned,” he says. “The ‘Johnny B. Goode’ and ‘King Bee’ I-IV-V stuff, yes I did it and I loved it, but it wasn’t all that I did. One of the reasons my record company would get mad at me was I would give them these albums that had, like, nine or 10 songs on it that were all different from one another—one was jazzy and one was bluesy and one was a ballad and one was hard rock and one was psychedelic and one was metal and so on. And they were mad because they didn’t know how to sell it. They’d say, ‘Which one is the real you?’ But what they didn’t understand is that they were all the real me.”

Marino felt similarly disconnected from the hard rock acts that were perceived to be his peers. “Absolutely, completely, not the way I am. The only time I played with guys who exuded the kind of attitude that I do was when I played with Santana, or Kansas, or [Traffic guitarist] Dave Mason. I thought they were great. But I didn’t get a lot of that, because the manager I went with was the manager of Ted Nugent and Aerosmith and those kinds of bands. So that’s who they put me on shows with.”

One of those shows was 1978’s California Jam II, where Mahogany Rush closed the event after a day that saw Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, Santana, Foreigner, Heart and others play before more than a quarter-million fans. A high point of his career? “I thought it was the worst fucking experience of my life!” he exclaims. “Because it was so fake! The big Cal Jam, people were walking around crowing about the fact that this was the biggest crowd ever. Like that fucking means anything! You know, at some point concerts became shows. And that’s when the fucking music died.”

Despite his distaste for various aspects of the music business, Marino is hardly a curmudgeon. Far from it, in fact. In conversation, he is unusually easygoing—and incredibly honest. He is also generous with his time, and willing to expound on any number of topics. If anything, he is something of a music purist, a characteristic that made it difficult for him to function in the mega-rock world of the Seventies. “The guys who came of age in the Sixties, I feel that our reasons for doing it were different,” he says.

“We didn’t want to get rich. We didn’t want to be famous. We wanted to make music and jam with our friends and create and have a good time. That’s why I got into it.” And so, when it came to Mahogany Rush’s appearances on TV shows like The Midnight Special and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert? “Couldn’t stand it,” Marino says. “I thought it was ridiculous.” The whole sex and drugs ethos of the Seventies? “The last drug or drink I ever had was in 1968,” he says. “But because of the music I played everybody thought I was a drug-fueled crazed hippie. But they were wrong. I never touched dope because after I blew my mind on LSD I never came down.”

Eventually, Marino’s differences with the industry became too much for him to bear. Throughout the late Seventies and early Eighties he continued to release successful albums, though by this time the band had undergone two name changes, first to Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush (during which time they added Marino’s brother, Vince, as a second guitarist), and then, after the departure of drummer Ayoub, to just Frank Marino.

Neither of these, Marino says, were by choice; rather, they were battles he ultimately lost to Columbia. Following 1983’s Juggernaut, credited solely to Frank Marino, “I said, ‘That’s it. I quit.’ I had one more album at my option but I refused. I said I would never again do anything with a major label, and I never did.” For the next 10 years, Marino continues, “I was trying to just survive in the business and do things my way.” He recorded and released a couple of solo albums through smaller indie labels, but then, he says, “the Nineties came, and all of a sudden you’ve got garage bands! I figured, Okay, this is not for me anymore. I’ve exceeded my ‘best before’ date. So in 1993 I went home and had children and built computers. And I was just as happy doing that.”

For the next four years, Marino says, he didn’t even touch a guitar. But he was pulled back into music when, after venturing online to do some family ancestry research for his father, he came across a Frank Marino fan site. “I said, ‘What’s this?’ ” he recalls.

“I click on the link and I find this web site created by Willy Parsons, who’s a fan. And there are all these people on the site, thousands of them, talking about me! So I got in touch and said, ‘I’m the guy you’re talking about!’ I started getting involved in chat rooms and became friends with everyone on the site. And they were like, ‘You think you could play again?’ So I said, ‘Okay.’ ” In 1997, he booked a performance at the Ottawa Bluesfest. “My first gig in four years,” Marino says. “I hadn’t even seen my band since then. We actually met at the show. As we were walking onstage I said, ‘Do you guys still remember the tunes?’ ”

Since then, he’s been playing again—there was the tour with Uli Jon Roth, the release of the album Eye of the Storm, and some scattered dates across the years—but only when he wants to. “It’s all about the fun,” Marino says. “It’s not about the fame, and it’s certainly not about the money. Because I never made a dime anyway. The record company would pay for this and they’d pay for that and then they’d say ‘You owe us this’ and ‘You owe us that.’ That’s basically how it worked.”

So even in his Seventies heyday, there was no money rolling in?

“Not in the Seventies, not in the Eighties, not in the Nineties or the 2000s,” Marino says. “I don’t own a house. I don’t own a car. I don’t have a savings account or investments. Whatever money I earn I spend it on what I need and that’s the end of that. Some people think I’m living up in a castle somewhere counting my royalty checks. That’s not me. Look, money’s wonderful, I’ll take it, I’ll use it. But I don’t love it. Money is the root of all evil. It never motivated me. But I grew up that way so it’s not a big deal to me.”

These days, Marino is content to spend his days at home with his family, and work on projects close to his heart—like the video from a 2010 live show at Cleveland’s Agora Theatre that he’s been editing for four years and hopes to release on DVD.

“People say to me, ‘How can you be in your house working on one project for four years? You should be out there touring.’ But I say, ‘Why? Why should I be out there touring?’ This is what I want to be doing right now, and I’m going to do it until it’s done.”

Marino continues. “Here’s the way I look at it: If somebody comes along and says, ‘Do you want to play?’ I’ll see if I feel like playing and I’ll say yes or no. If someone says, ‘Do you want to record?’ I’ll see if I feel like recording and I’ll say yes or no. And that’s how I do it. But I never plan. I used to plan, because I had to plan. And I hated it. Because I don’t like organization and I don’t like rules.

“So what are my plans? My plans are to finish what I’m working on and then see what happens. Would I like to play some more shows? Sure. I probably will at some point. Would I like to record another record? It’s been a long time since my last one, so, yeah, I’d like to do one. But I have no idea what would be on it. It would be interesting to see what comes out. But that’s my outlook on life, pretty much. I’m just a musician, man, doing whatever I’m doing.”

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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.