Many of the people we today consider “guitar heroes” – Eddie Van Halen and Stevie Ray Vaughan, to name a couple – spent more than their fair share of time stowed away in their bedrooms, playing guitar while other kids in the neighborhood played baseball, kick the can, or spin the bottle.
Rock guitarist Mark Tremonti is another member of that “lone wolf” club. After his parents moved the family from suburban Detroit to Orlando just prior to his sophomore year, he became the “new kid” at school. Sans friends (for awhile) and with older brothers who’d gone off to college, Tremonti, fully impassioned with the guitar, spent much of his free time with just a Les Paul Studio Lite and a four-track.
After a year of college in South Carolina, Tremonti moved closer to home and enrolled at Florida State. More-accomplished as a player and having honed his skills as a songwriter, one night in 1995 he ran into Scott Stapp, an acquaintance from high school, and soon after, they formed a band that would eventually be called Creed.
Within two years, the group had recorded its debut album, My Own Prison, using $6,000 borrowed from manager Jeff Hanson. Initially, they distributed the disc themselves to regional radio while plying it to major labels (14 of which told them “Thanks, but no thanks!”). Eventually, Wind Up Records, a startup with a distribution deal through Sony, took the bait and, with its help, the album spawned four Top 10 hits (a first for a debut album by a band). It went on to sell six million copies.
The band followed in 1999 with Human Clay, which entered Billboard’s Top 200 album chart at number one, helped by its first single, “Higher,” and the fact songs from the first album were still getting heavy airplay. Within two years, Clay had sold 12 million units and the single “With Arms Wide Open” had won Tremonti and Stapp a Grammy for Best Rock Song. In late 2001, the band released what would be its final album for nearly a decade; Weathered also debuted at number one on the Billboard Top 200, and it stayed there for eight weeks, tying a Soundscan-era record set by The Beatles. The band eventually released five singles from the disc, which in turn also sold six million copies.
After Creed disbanded in 2004, Tremonti grabbed his guitar and rig, then gathered friends including Creed drummer Scott Phillips, original bassist Brian Marshall, and singer Myles Kennedy to form Alter Bridge, a band with a heavier-rock attitude. Though it never achieved Creed’s astronomic level of album sales or gate receipts, its music was well-received by critics – and it scratched Tremonti’s itch to write and play heavy guitar licks.
This month, Tremonti begins guiding a solo project that bears his name and will release All I Was, which marks his debut as lead vocalist. With Eric Friedman on rhythm guitar, Garrett Whitlock on drums, and Marshall on bass, the group will tour this fall.
We caught up with him fresh off a spring reunion tour with Creed.
As a kid, what first caught your ear, musically?
Gutar-wise, it was when I heard songs like “Smoke On The Water,” “Love Stinks,” and “More Than A Feeling.” The parts where it was just guitar made me want to pick one up and play.
How old were you when you finally grabbed a guitar?
I was 11, and it was an imitation Les Paul called a Tara. I didn’t take formal lessons or anything with it, so I didn’t play it all that well.
Which guitars came along next?
I got a double-cut Tokai, and from the point when I started really learning to play, I wanted a Gibson Les Paul. So, in the mid ’80s, my dad got me a Les Paul Studio Lite, which was my first real, good guitar. I had it until Creed started touring, when it was stolen – one of my big heartbreaks was losing one of my childhood guitars.
And of course your tone now starts with your signature model PRS guitars, right?
Yeah, I don’t stray too much from them. I mean, I’ll play some Fenders at home… Martins and Taylors. But for the most part, I play the PRS.
What sort of tunes did you play in the early days?
The first melody I learned was probably just a 12-bar blues. The first lead sort of thing was Paganini’s “24th Caprice.”
What was the attraction of a challenging piece of classical music?
It was just fun.
Sounds like you wanted to show off a bit…
Well, nobody was impressed for quite some time (laughs)! It took a while.
What trained your ear to the differences in guitar tones?
It took awhile to develop. When I was young, I only really listened to the heaviest stuff I could find. And since my first amp cost me 50 bucks, my early tones were terrible! My first “big” amp, which I loved, was a Crate G1500 half-stack. For me that was just the epitome of cool tone back when I was a kid (laughs)!
What was your first “pretty good” amp?
The first decent amp I had was a Hughes and Kettner Attax 100, which I thought was pretty cool. After that, I got into Mesa Boogies, then I fell in love with Bogners. Fender Twins have been with me for a long time – I love Twins, and still use them today. From there, I branched out to all the high-end boutique stuff that I love. I buy all sorts of high-end amps for their different characters.
Any vintage amps in the collection?
The oldest I’ve had was a Marshall plexi, from ’69 or ’71, but I gave it to someone who was going to sell it for me, but I never got it back or got any money for it. That was a bummer.
Was it some kid in your neighborhood?
No, it was a shop in Detroit, and they took a bunch of my gear and never gave me any money for it. They lost it or sold it and never paid me.
When did that happen?
It was four or five years ago, when I had a house full of gear and I wanted to get rid of the stuff I wasn’t using. We loaded up their truck with tons of stuff, then they became impossible to get hold of.
What all did you give them to sell?
A ’59 reissue flametop Les Paul that I used throughout the early Creed days, the first PRS I ever owned – an Artist Series – and maybe 100 pedals. I can’t remember all the amps, but it was everything I had sitting around.
When you were a kid, who were your guitar heroes?
Early on, I used to sit with Paul Gilbert’s videos and learn his stuff. I also listened to a lot of Vinnie Moore, who I talk to now and then. Otherwise, Vai, Satriani – all the pure shred guys.
Were you drawn to their playing because they were fast, or was there something about their melodic sensibilities?
It was more the technique. Satriani has always had great melodic sense, I think. I still dig a lot of his stuff. Vai is very inventive and very cool and off-the-wall. I kind of stay away from the Yngwie-Malmsteen-type nowadays – those who play all that neoclassical stuff. That’s not as expressive, to me. I like the guys who can rip and play nice bluesy lines.
Who amongst your peers do you admire as a player?
Right now, Derek Trucks is number one for me. I’ve totally switched gears since I was a kid; I used to want to play as fast as possible, I wanted to play as heavy as possible. But now I just wanna express as much as possible. So it’s Derek Trucks, Warren Hayes, Doyle Bramhall, Jr., that kind of vibe.
As a kid, you didn’t have much use for the old blues guys…
No, I was too immature, I think. I grew up on heavy metal. I wanted my stuff to be heavy, and when I got into my first band, they weren’t into the same music as me, so my heavy-metal stuff got thrown out of the window and I had to kind of reinvent myself as a songwriter. That’s when I started transforming a bit.
Which element had the most impact on how you write a melody or how a song comes together for you?
There were certain things that helped develop my playing style. Songs like “The Call Of Ktulu” by Metallica, and playing that old classical stuff; Bach’s “Bourre in E Minor” was something I learned real early on. Those few things helped develop my right-hand style.
Songwriting-wise, it just happened for me. I didn’t have any tricks or influences to really push me along, I just naturally started doing it when I was really young.
Do you start composing a song with a melody that pops in your head when you’re playing guitar, or do lyrics come to you first?
I’ll just start strumming and singing over the top of it, waiting for something to catch. I’ll strum around and sing nonsense words, and sometimes they stick.
How long did it take to do the new album, from the time you started writing songs to actually getting into the studio?
It took about three months to get it all ready to go, but a lot of the ideas had been written years prior; there’s one song I wrote in eighth grade – “I Wish You Well.” The verses, melodies, and the chorus were written back then; the guitar solos and stuff weren’t.
Three months isn’t very long…
We had a window. It took about a month to figure out what the song structures were going to be, and then it took another month of playing the songs, moving from one-take demos until we started tracking the drums, then we started getting through most of the guitars. Then I would go on tour, where I’d put together ideas for solos, come back, knock those out, then go back on tour and work on the lyrics, go back on tour, listen to what I’d done before, then fix whatever I didn’t dig. We had a lot of parts going back and forth, making sure it was just right.
Which parts did you leave to Eric Friedman?
He played rhythm guitars and bass on the album. I tracked the main rhythms, then he’d go and add any guitar parts that had effects. I’d hold down the rhythm and do leads.
The album has you doing lead vocals for the first time. How easy was the transition from backup/harmony vocals?
Well, as long as I’ve been writing songs and adding my ideas to various other songs, I’ve had to kind of sing them. Before, I just didn’t feel I had the voice to deliver my ideas in the proper way. But I’m comfortable doing it now. It just took awhile to step up.
How do you describe the songs on the new album?
It’s definitely a heavier record than either Creed or Alter Bridge. But there are three big, melodic, mid-tempo songs. Mostly, it’s something I wanted to be different from both bands.
You didn’t feel the need to throw a bone to fans of either of those bands…
No, this is purely a solo record – a chance to do whatever, no holds barred.
What do we hear on it in terms of rigs, effects, and amps?
I used a Mesa Boogie Triple Rectifier and a Cornford RK100 for the rhythm tones, the Cornford for the lead tones, and when Eric tracked his rhythms, he used my Bogner Shiva. And then for the other rhythm amp he used a Bogner Shiva with KT88 tubes – the 20th Anniversary model. They blend very well.
We tracked with just those amps because they were right there in the studio. At first, we were planning to re-amp some stuff, but at the end of the day, we thought it turned out just right, so we didn’t mess with re-amping.
And the guitar parts are all signature PRS models?
Right, I used just two – one of my earlier stoptail PRS Singlecuts and a U.S.-made baritone, which stays in tune perfectly and was very easy to track.
What about vintage amps?
I don’t have a lot of vintage stuff, but I have a lot of boutique stuff. A Dumble ODS 100 is my flagship amp.
Where did you get it?
A friend who worked at a guitar shop in Nashville knew a guy who had two of them, so I bought one of his about a year and a half ago.
Did you seek it out because you were looking for a specific recording amp?
Years ago, I played Paul Reed Smith’s Dumble, and I fell in love with it. Ever since, I’d been watching youtube clips of Dumbles being played, thinking over how Paul’s sounded… I was just beyond obsessed with wanting one! So I hunted for about a year before I found the right one, and I just love it. On my stage rig, I use a Bludotone, which are kind of replacing Dumbles among the guys who made Dumble famous – Carlos Santana, Larry Carlton, Robben Ford – they’re all using Bludotones. I’ve got two of them and another on the way.
My first one was the Universal Tone, then I got a Bludo-Drive, which I use on tour for my lead tone, and I’ve got an Osiris coming, which is their answer to the Mesa-Boogie Triple Rectifier/Bogner Uberschall kind of sound.
Have you ever A/B’d the Dumble with one of your Bludotones?
Yeah, definitely. They’re different; the Universal Tone wasn’t supposed to be his Dumble clone – it was just something all on its own that he loved. The Bludo-Drive is more along the lines of the Dumble, but I haven’t been able to A/B those because as soon as the Bludo-Drive came, it was shipped out to go on tour.
I have a couple amps that are right up there with the Dumble in terms of quality of tone – the Cornford, if you really dig into it, has such great pick response – it’s amazing. I’ve got a Frantzen, which aren’t being made anymore, but compares very closely to a Dumble. I absolutely love that one.
Which tube complement do the Bludotones use?
He’s making me one with 6L6s, and he has a tube I’d never heard of – a 6250, which is, I guess, the English version of the KT88, and he uses it to get more power out of the Osiris. I think he makes each amp according to whatever the customer digs. And there’s a two-year waiting list.
Have you always leaned toward a 6L6 amp?
Yeah, 6L6s are a big part of my tone. I have a Two Rock Custom signature amp that I had as my lead tone on tour and had 6L6s in it. But for lead tone, I prefer EL34s, just because they’ve got a little more “sing” to them – they’re a little squishier. Just like the way in which a player’s fingers help make their tone, I think fingers react to different tubes. Some amps, you’d never guess in a million years are running 6L6s because they’re so singy and spongy.
When you’re assembling a road rig, how important is reliability?
I always carry backups for each amp, because I never know how an amp’s going to be when I take it out there. But I’ve never had many reliability problems.
What other boutique amps do you have?
Well, I don’t know if you’d call it a boutique amp, but I’ve got the newest Diezel Hagan, which is a great rhythm head. I can’t say enough about that Cornford, that amp is just incredible. I’ve got a Bruno Underground 30, which is like the perfect AC30 kind of tone – incredible amounts of super-clean headroom and amazing reverb. I’ve got a Bruno S100, which is a great amp that kind of lives in that same world as the Dumble. I’ve got my eye on a Marshall Super Lead, and I’d also like to get a Soldano SL-100. Recently, I’ve been using a VooDoo Amps V-Rock; Trace Davis’ amps sound great. But now I’ve got the Bludotone Osiris coming, and it’s going to be competing for the same spot.
One day, I’ll have all the amps I want. But of course then another 100 will come out that I’ll have to chase down!
Are there certain amps that just don’t cut it for you?
I guess as I’ve gotten more into boutique stuff, I’ve started to realize that certain mass-produced amps sound, to me, like there’s a blanket over the speaker compared to how clear and dynamic my boutique amps are. You pay an extra couple grand for them, but if you’re doing this professionally and need three or four amps that do everything for you, it’s worth it.
In other words you’re now a total amp snob…
You know… once you go boutique, you can never go back (laughs)! My stage rig rhythm stuff is pretty straightforward; there’s nothing fancy about a Mesa Boogie Triple Rec or a Bogner Uberschall. They’re great amps. And they’re the bulk of my big, heavy tones. It’s just when it gets to the lead stuff, and when I’m practicing at home, I prefer to use boutique amps.
This article originally appeared in VG September 2012 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.