For most pro musicians, this is what it’s all about.
While a collection of classic guitars can be respected or admired by lovers of the instrument, most musicians earn their living using road instruments. They may indeed be vintage, but often they’re modified for the sake of sound.
Veteran guitarist/vocalist Frank Marino sprang into prominence fronting the Canadian band Mahogany Rush in the early ’70s. The band’s music evoked comparisons to Jimi Hendrix, but the guitarist had numerous other influences, and in the ensuing decades, he forged a career that gained the respect of players and fans worldwide.
In the fall of 2006, Marino and the current incarnation of Mahogany Rush (Dave Goode on drums, Remi-Jean Leblanc on bass, and Avi Ludmer on guitar and violin) embarked on a 35th Anniversary tour. At one stop, we sat with Marino to visit about his road gear, as well as his perspective on instruments and tone.
Marino’s arsenal consists of two 1960s SG Specials, two early-’60s Gibson SG/Les Paul Standards, and two custom-made Glynn guitars, which are also shaped like SGs.
“All of my SGs have lacquered necks,” he noted. “And they’ve been modified to be even thinner and smaller than the standard (neck).” All four Gibsons have a Vibrola tailpiece, and Marino’s manipulation of it, along with the tone he gets from the instruments, can make it sound like he’s playing slide.
“I’m always compensating,” he stated. “I’m used to Vibrolas, but they’re getting harder to find. We bought some aftermarket ones a couple of months ago, and stuck ‘em on some guitars, but the angle was completely different.”
To say that Marino’s primary concert guitar is “highly modified” would be an understatement. It began life as a ’65 SG Special (serial number 329660), and now has three DiMarzio Virtual Vintage pickups in a semi-Stratocaster configuration. The neck-position pickup is mounted almost flush against the end of the neck – right where Marino’s pick usually strikes the strings.
“Ninety percent of what I do is on the neck pickup,” he said. “I’ve always liked that tone. I go to the treble pickup once in a while, but I’ve found that on that one, it’s a lot harder to hear the notes. It just sounds like a sizzle, especially if I play fast. I like to pick near the neck because you get more of a full-bodied tone – warm, but bright, from the pick, as well.”
As for the pickups in the frontline SG Special, Marino noted, “We’re not crazy about fancy pickups; I like pickups that imitate originals.” And there’s a reason the bridge pickup sits at a funky angle.
“When I play a Stratocaster, to me the treble pickup is too trebly, which I hate. I realized that when Hendrix was playing a Stratocaster left-handed, his bridge pickup was a lot less trebly because the strings were backward. So I moved the pickup. I hardly ever use it, anyway, and I’m thinking about putting a DiMarzio version of a Gibson in the bridge position. The closer the pickup is to the bridge, the more treble you get, and it can sound more out of tune.”
Marino also has a similarly modified instrument he doesn’t take on tour because of stability problems with the neck. Because of the thin body on the SG and the routing that had to be done for the three single-coil layout, the instruments have been filled with epoxy, he said, and while the SG he uses on tour has held up, he described the one he leaves in Montreal as “a lost cause.”
The serial number on the other touring SG Special, (serial number 126669), indicates it was made in 1963, and it now sports two P.A.F. humbucking pickups that Marino removed from an SG Standard.
One of the two early-’60s SG/Les Pauls Marino takes on tour (SN 80431) doesn’t get played much, but it is what he termed his “historical” SG/Les Paul.
“That’s ‘Old Faithful’,” he explained. “It’s been with me since Maxoom (Mahogany Rush’s early-’70s debut album). I’ve done 90 percent of my career with it. I never even changed guitars in the old days – it was this one guitar, all the time, every album, every show. I played it at (the 1978 rock festival) California Jam 2. It’s been beaten, bashed, and fixed, and it’s pretty much been put to bed. But I still bring it along. It still has its original P.A.F.s. Some people have offered me a lot of money for that guitar.
“Later, the other one (SN 20961) came along,” he continued. “And you don’t often see these for a reasonable price, so I bought that one. It was a twin, and is actually older than the one I’ve had all along. When I played it, I liked the sound of it better than Old Faithful, but by then it was the ’80s, so it became my main guitar until I built these guitars with the different pickups.”
The two custom-made guitars were made by luthier Jim Glynn, and Marino noted that because they’re hollow, they weigh even less than his Gibsons, but are very balanced and resonant.
The template for the body of Glynn number one was drawn from Marino’s “historical” SG/Les Paul Standard, but Marino noted that the Glynn’s body is slightly smaller, has a single f-hole, and a mahogany body with a maple cap that gives the guitar a unique sound. It’s powered by two DiMarzio humbuckers. The 24-fret neck, which has an ebony fretboard, has sometimes caused a bit of minor disorientation for the guitarist.
“I do play it in the show,” Marino said. “But I have to think a little more when I’m playing up high because of the extra two frets. I usually know where I am by my hand touching the horn on the guitar. I’ve been playing 22 frets all my life, so I guess it’s like a trombone player – you just get used to putting your hands in certain places.”
Glynn number one can be heard opening up the second CD on RealLIVE! on “Let There Be…” and its tone is noticeably different from that on the first CD.
As for Glynn number two, Marino recalled, “We built number two because number one was close to what I wanted, but not exactly. Number one is a 24-fret guitar; number two is a 22-fret guitar. I told Jim that number one was great, and I used it on a specific song all the time, but I wanted one with 22 frets, like my SGs. This time, he used the template from the other Glynn, so number two is even smaller, and I’m just now getting used to it. One big difference is a plate in the middle, which lets me change pickup setups. I can try Virtual Vintages, Gibsons… just plug ‘em in. I designed a wiring system for it; when I pop the plate, the guitar is automatically re-wired; I don’t have to get in there and start soldering.”
When we photographed Glynn number two, the pickup layout on it included a Bill Lawrence installed in the neck position as an experiment. The guitar was built with korina and figured maple, and is hollow inside like number one, but does not have an f-hole. Marino noted that he hasn’t noticed any basic sonic differences in the two instruments.
The fretboard on number two is rosewood. Sharp-eyed observers will notice a Gibson ebony-and-pearl tailblock decoration, which was usually found on SG/Les Paul Standards and Customs. Marino admitted that he’s moved such items to other guitars over the years.
Guitarist/violinist Avi Ludmer has two guitars onstage. His Fender Stratocaster is a ’60s reissue made in ’82, and the pickup in the bridge is “…an old Gibson humbucker.”
Ludmer’s other guitar is an Ibanez Artist from the early ’70s with star-inlay fret markers. He also plays a Zeta electric violin, which on occasion he runs through a wah. In concert, he and Marino trade violin and guitar licks, or play harmony or note-for-note riffs.
“It’s been done before,” Marino detailed. “With people like John McLaughlin and Jerry Goodman in the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Avi hadn’t played violin in many years; he wanted to be a rock guitarist or bass player. But when I found out he’d played violin, I got him to pick it up again, and what we’ve worked up is very cool. The audiences love it. Where my other guitarist would normally have played lead-guitar solos, he plays violin solos. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between his violin and my guitar!”
Bassist Remi-Jean Leblanc relies on a modern Music Man Sting Ray 5 to hold down the low-end. Leblanc had the frets removed.
“I plucked him out of a jazz scene,” Marino said of Leblanc. “He usually plays upright, but he loves the rock and blues stuff we’re doing. He’s a monster player, and nobody in my band is told to sit back; everyone gets to work hard, and it’s almost like a fusion band at times.”
As for amplification, Marino uses a rack system that includes a preamp he built, a wireless receiver, another preamp, a Crown power amp with an Ashley backup, and a preamp/power amp/speaker-selector system.
“It’s a very large box, but everything in it is doubled,” Marino detailed.
On stage left, a Marshall amplifier modified by Tommy Folkesson sits atop a 4×12″ cabinet.
“Tommy has re-done three Marshalls for me. I like to say it’s the last Marshall you’ll ever need,” the guitarist chuckled. “And I do use it for recording.” But as much as Marino likes the amp, onstage it serves only as a backup; attached to a relay, kicks in if his main amp goes kaput.
On stage right, a cabinet with two 15″ speakers is powered by Marino’s primary amp, and a 4 x12″ cab (formerly owned by Aerosmith’s Joe Perry) works with his Marshall. The speakers have Fane baskets, and the voice coils and cones are built for Marino by a shop in Montreal.
Marino’s pedalboard is “…a miniaturized version of the one I was using in the days of California Jam 2. That one was six feet long, three feet wide, and it had two tiers on it – 22 pedals total. It took four crew guys to handle it, and it had a case the size of a coffin.
“Over the years, I’ve found ways to miniaturize things. Unfortunately, one of the things I couldn’t was my Echo-Plex. They’re the best, but they’re too much trouble. When I built this board, I had to settle for different delays, which I had to build myself. I wanted them to sound like Echo-Plexes, and I haven’t really succeeded. This board has a special Geoff Teese wah, an old DeArmond volume pedal. The black box has a fuzz, booster, octave divider, and delays, all homemade and based on Electro-Harmonix devices, all changed and modified by me.
“I always shoot for a clean sound,” Marino added. “Even if I’m playing distortion, it’s a clean distortion, and I’ve spent a long time trying to build a system that meets my needs. And I’m just about there! I have this thing about how music is for the ears – it’s about tone. If it doesn’t have good tone, it doesn’t matter how fast you can play, or what notes you can do. Even you have good ideas, if you don’t have good tone, it’s gonna sound awful.
“There are a few guitar players out there who are phenomenally talented,” he concluded. “And they’re amazing musicians, but they have lousy tone. You ask ‘em about their all-time favorite guitar players, and they’re gonna say ‘Jimi Hendrix’. Why? He couldn’t play one-tenth as good as they can, they can do anything he did. So why do they all like him so much? It’s because the guy had incredible tone.”
Borrowing heavily from RealLIVE! and dropping in chestnuts like “Dragonfly,” Mahogany Rush’s 35th Anniversary tour enthralled listeners – and the guitar vs. violin segments did indeed delight.
Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush may no longer be playing Cal Jam 2, but they’re a very competent aggregation with a professional attitude, led by a guitarist who, after decades of experience, is still intensely dedicated to his craft, and is still constructing his sound.
Special thanks to Denyse Marino.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s July 2007 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.
Fank Marino Mahogany Rush, Ottawa Bluesfest, Canada Day 1998