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Every Saturday night on VH1 Classic That Metal Show brings you interviews with the biggest names in heavy metal and hard rock. And each week That Metal Gear interviews your favorite TMS guests to find out how some of the genre’s most accomplished musicians got their start playing their instruments and what guitars and amps they’re using to get their sounds. This week we caught up with Mark Tremonti, formerly of Creed, and currently holding things down for Alter Bridge and Tremonti. Mark is at heart a true metalhead who cut his teeth as a teenage thrash metal fanatic and also a true gear nerd when it comes to guitars and amps. Find out what he’s using, what he’s listening to and how he crafts those giant hooks while staying true to his metal roots.
What was your first guitar and where did you get it?
My first guitar was an imitation Les Paul. It was a Tara. I think it was a Japanese guitar or something. I bought it for $10 from my buddy at school. Then I sold it for $100 to upgrade to a Tokai which was a double cut-away pointy headstock kind of ‘80s looking thing. That was my second guitar and then my third was a Les Paul.
So the Les Paul was probably your first good guitar, right?
Yeah. I got that at Music Quarters in Detroit. It was actually a Les Paul Studio Lite. I grew up with that thing. And then it got stolen when Creed played Boston. Somebody stole our trailer with that guitar in it.
Who was the first guitarist that made you want to play guitar?
Watching the movie Back to the Future, and Michael J. Fox got to play guitar and do the Chuck Berry thing. And then, I remember watching Crossroads with Ralph Macchio and Steve Vai. And I loved that. When I would hear songs on the radio, like Boston or the J. Geils Band, where they would just break down to the guitar riff, that would always be my favorite part. My older brother Mike would listen to Kiss and Nugent, and I always thought Ace Frehley was the cool guy in Kiss so I wanted that black Les Paul. I was always just really drawn to the guitar.
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What was the first song you mastered on guitar?
I think, “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” was one of the first songs I learned to play start to finish. So that was probably it. It was a good one. I was a huge Metallica fan growing up. That was the band that really made me a huge monster music fan.
What gear are you using these days?
What kind of gear am I not using these days? My rig is always changing, but Mesa Boogie Rectifiers are my favorite rhythm amplifier. It’s kind of been in my rig since day one. And then the new PRS Archon amp made it into my rig for both rhythm and lead. I also use Fender Twins, the ‘65 Twin Reverb Reissue with the open back. That’s kind of my live rig. For effects I use my signature Morley Wah and a hand wired (Ibanez) Tube Screamer. And I use a G-Lab delay and the effects loop for a little atmosphere on the leads. That’s about it.
And for guitars you’re still using the Tremonti signature Paul Reed Smith?
Yeah. I’ve been using those ever since they came out. And it’s still my favorite guitar in the world. If I don’t use that guitar, it’s because I’m at home learning a Stevie Ray Vaughan song with my Strat or something. But, usually I’m always just playing my guitar.
Do you have one favorite guitar?
Yeah, it’s a PRS charcoal-burst single cutaway. I think it was the second single cut they ever made with the bar on it. It’s just a beautiful guitar. Mine was the very first single cutaway style PRS. And then they got sued over it and had to take it off the shelves for quite some time, I think about 3 years. Once they won the lawsuit they released another version but it was pretty devastating for me. It was a tough, tough thing to hear. It just took the wind out of our sails for a little while there, because it was one of their top selling signature models and it’s still the number one selling signature model to this day. But for all those years it was off the shelf, it kind of lost a little of its steam.
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What is your favorite song to play live, and why?
With Altar Bridge, “Blackbird” is. It’s funny because it’s both the most fun song to play but it can also be the hardest song to play at some times. It’s a song that, if I’m not feeling comfortable for some reason or the other, it’s the toughest song to get through. But it’s got the best pay off. “Wish You Well” is my favorite Tremonti song to play. It’s just balls out fun, real high energy, and it’s just real enjoyment. It’s really a joy to play.
Is there one piece of guitar or musical equipment that you wished you own, but don’t?
Yeah, there’s a few things. I’d like a ’59 (Gibson) Les Paul. That would set me back a quarter of a million dollars. But I’ve heard they’re just magical. I’ve never gotten to play one. And then I actually have a deposit down on a Trainwreck amplifier, which is a beautiful sounding amp. I’ve already played it up in New York. I’m selling off a bunch of gear so I can finally get it. Other than that, I’d like a Dumble 112 Combo (amplifier). I have a 100 watt Dumble head but not the combo, which just sounds fantastic. There’s a magic to them. Every company and their brother will tell you that they make an amp that sounds like it and there are so many clone amps out there that I’ve bought home and been disappointed with. The closest I’ve seen and heard is the Bludotone. To me, it sounds like if it was just broken in a little more, it would get really close to the Dumble. There’s just a certain magic that the Dumbles and the Trainwrecks have that just can’t be reproduced. It’s only these guys, these geniuses who voiced them, that can really get that sound. A lot of people hate on them because they’re so expensive but if you’ve ever sat down with one played it all day, you realize those amps are just magical.
Who was the last guitar player you heard that blew you away?
It’s tough to say. Right now, Derek Trucks is my favorite living guitar player on earth. I think he’s the most emotive and fluid. It’s like he was born with a guitar in his hand. But he’s not the type of guitar player that I try and learn all his stuff. I just enjoy it, because he plays light most of the time. I actually learned a couple of his leads, without the slide, to try and take a different approach to it, and came up with some cool stuff. But it’s so different than what I do that it’s kind of hard to justify the hours and hours and hours of learning. Joe Bonamassa is blowing my mind these days too. He’s definitely the total package. Carl Verheyen is another a guy I’ve gotten into recently that comes up with some really cool, different, out-of-the-box intervallic licks that I really dig. But for the shred stuff, which is kind of the world that when I’m writing solos, I try to phrase stuff melodically as much as I can, but then some of the times the songs just call for more aggressive leads. I learned a lot from (Outworld and solo artist) Rusty Cooley. He’s just a freak of nature when it comes to the over-the-top technique. There’s a guitar player named Emil Werstler that plays in Chimaira right now that used to play for Dååth that I sat down with a few times. He’s one of those guys where we’ll sit down and play and I’ll be like “What the hell was that you just did? Show me that. Show me this.” It’s good when you meet people like that. Him and Rusty, they’re both really great teachers as well as great players, which is hard to find.