Fans recognize the first three albums by Dinosaur Jr. – Dinosaur, You’re Living All Over Me, and Bug – as alternative-rock touchstones. Propelled by J Mascis’ dynamic, alternating clean/distorted guitar sounds, their art was more than simply trendsetting.
Written and recorded with bassist Lou Barlow and drummer Patrick “Murph” Murphy from 1985 through ’88, the music merged bits of folk and country with ’70s metal, goth, punk, and garage rock in ways attempted by no other artist or group. Each album was incrementally refined and affected by the edgy chemistry sewn by personality clashes between Mascis and Barlow; in 1989, the bassist was “dismissed” from the band.
From 1991 onward, Mascis put the Dinosaur Jr. name on four more studio albums, at times tracking bass in addition to the guitar parts and adding drums to his duties after Murph quit prior to the recording of 1994’s Without a Sound. In the gaps between latter-day “Dino” albums, he was a side-hustler, working with cohorts to make music as J and Friends, J Mascis + The Fog, Witch, Sweet Apple, Heavy Blanket, and Unknown Instructors. On solo work, he accompanied himself with truly deft playing, typically on acoustic guitar, often with dubbed electric leads. In 2005, he reunited with Barlow and Murphy.
The youngest of four kids in their family, Mascis gravitated to siblings’ record collections, keying on the Beach Boys’ 15 Big Ones and Endless Summer, followed by Deep Purple, Aerosmith, Rolling Stones, and finally, punk. His first run at an instrument came in grade school.
“I tried to play guitar in our fifth-grade talent show,” he said. “I had a band and we played the first song I ever wrote (laughs)! It was ‘Barbara Ann’ but with different lyrics… about Jimmy Carter.”
Despite the turn onstage, guitar didn’t stick. Two years later, though, came his first whack at a drum kit.
“I really liked pounding on the drums; I got obsessed with it. I think it was a primal urge,” he said. “I practiced a lot, took lessons, and even played in the school band.”
His first garage-band experience came in high school, hammering the kit in a hardcore punk group. When it flamed out, Mascis shifted course.
“I wanted to write songs and decided I might as well play guitar because I didn’t really like the style of any of the guitarists in town,” he said. “So, I figured I’d show someone else how to play drums.”
Thus went the first steps toward Dinosaur Jr.
Like many groups, they were creating new music and planning a tour when the pandemic applied the clamps. With a bit of help, though, Mascis pushed a new album, Sweep It Into Space, to completion and oversaw the release of Fed Up and Feeling Strange (Live And In Person 1993-1998), derived from solo acoustic gigs played back in the day.
The alt-rock guitar legend recently sat to discuss the classic guitars and amps that have helped shape his music for three decades.
What kind of music did you want to make when you first formed a band?
Initially, I had a concept of being really loud country – like ear-bleeding. I thought, “No one has done that.” Then I tried to mix all the things I was listening to at the time – Nick Cave’s old band, Birthday Party, The Stooges, the Wipers, Jesus and Mary Chain. I was mixing all these influences. It was really noisy, but with pop-y songs.
You couldn’t find a local guitarist who shared your vision?
No, they were too technical and none were doing the kind of music I wanted to make. They were all trying to sound like Jeff Beck, and that just wasn’t my interest.
So you had to buy a guitar?
Yeah, I painted the house next door and made enough money to buy a sunburst ’65 Jazzmaster that had big Grover tuners on it, which I liked because I’d seen them on the cover of Frampton Comes Alive. That was the selling point. The neck was really worn, which I liked. I wanted a Strat, but when I went to the store – Slimy Bob’s Guitar Rip-Off – they were asking $450 for a used one, and I didn’t have enough. But they had a Jazzmaster for $300 and a Jaguar for $200, and I liked the way the Jaguar looked, but the Jazzmaster felt better.
You’ve said guitar felt “wimpy” when you first started seriously playing it.
Yeah, after playing drums, it felt that way. That’s why I tried to go for volume, to get more impact out of it.
That was key to your sound, which has always employed a solid dose of effects.
Effects gave the guitar dynamics, which made it a more-satisfying experience, like playing drums. I could play quiet, then bash. It was more expressive.
Which pedals were you using early on?
First, I got an Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Big Muff, and shortly after a wah and an Electric Mistress at a flea market. I think I might’ve got a Tube Screamer, too, but I got rid of it because it wasn’t extreme enough.
Which amps were you using at the time?
I had an Ampeg V4 first, and it blew up three times the first month (laughs). I took it back to the store and got a 100-watt Yamaha solid state head just because I’d seen Hüsker Dü using one. I thought, “If it’s good enough for Hüsker Dü…” But it didn’t sound very good; I didn’t know much about guitar stuff.
At our first show, the best guitar player in town told me, “Your guitar sounds like s**t. You got to do something about that amp.” He had a Les Paul and a Marshall, but I didn’t have any money, so I had to stick with the Yamaha. That’s when I started wearing earplugs, because it was so painful with the fuzz.
Eventually, I got an Acoustic 60-watt head that was like a Mesa-Boogie copy. It wasn’t very trebly, but had a very nice sound. I think it had two 6L6GTs.
What set you down the path to amassing the guitars you have now?
Just wanting to get all the different sounds I heard from other players, different sounds to record with. I was trying to cover all the bases.
Since you chose that first Jazzmaster based on how it felt, is it safe to say you’ve never bought a guitar based on looks or originality?
I was definitely more interested in refins because I was looking for a sound and needed to play them more than collect them. When I buy a guitar, I always think there might be a couple of songs in it, which makes it worthwhile to buy. New guitars don’t have that, for me, so I never really looked at them.
Did you experiment with guitars from one album to the next?
A little bit. In 1990, I got a ’58 Tele top-loader, and ever since I’ve played almost every lead on that, on every album. I like what I play on it. Some guitars I get stuck in a rut with, but with that one I seem to play more stuff I like. For rhythm, I usually use a P-90 guitar through a tweed amp. My basic sound on a lot of the albums is a Les Paul Junior for rhythm and a Tele for lead.
How many Juniors do you have?
Five – two single-cuts, a double-cut, a three-quarter double-cut, and the ’61 SG Junior, which the best-sounding one – the nastiest – but it’s hard to keep in tune because it’s so light and there’s not much holding it together.
How did you find most of your guitars?
On tour, I used to go to all the guitar stores in different towns. I remember buying the first Junior – the SG Junior – for $450 in a pawn shop in Columbus, Ohio, in the early ’90s. I bought it because I really liked the sound of a Junior that I’d played at Fort Apache studios. An engineer there, Sean Slade, had the ’61 SG Junior I used there, and he had a TV Junior, but wasn’t as keen to let me use that one. I bought my ’58 Tele from the owner, Joe Harvard. They had a lot of cool guitars, and I developed a lot of my tastes from their guitars.
I remember getting a Les Paul in 1990 – a ’52, for $1,000. The store had a reissue that was $1,600, and I couldn’t figure out why. The ’52 was refinished and somebody had made a different bridge for it. It had the original tailpiece, and I ended up putting a Bigsby on it to make it more Neil-Young-esque.
I have a lot of vintage guitars and amps. They pile up after a while.
How many guitars do you have?
I haven’t counted, so I’m not sure, but definitely over 50; somewhere between 50 and 100.
Has it been a slow and steady build, or was there a time when you went a little crazy?
Yeah, both. They seem to come in waves. I’ve bought three or four guitars in week, then not for a year. In the early ’90s, when I was getting some money and wanted to find all these sounds, there was a lot of, “I need a 330 and a tweed Twin… and another Junior.”
Do you ever sell any?
Not often, but I have sold some. I’m not good at selling; I usually buy high and sell low. I wouldn’t be a good shop owner (laughs).
Having bought so many in the early ’90s, you’re probably money ahead since values didn’t go crazy until the mid/late ’90s and early 2000s.
Yeah, and I always buy refinished and recovered stuff. I don’t have anything too crazy-collectible; the most I ever spent was $6,800 for a ’59 Strat with a maple neck. I think I had money from a royalty check I wasn’t expecting. I’d been looking for awhile but they seemed to always be over 10 grand, and I didn’t want to spend that much. But mine isn’t original finish and it had new tuners and frets. I think it might have been a Mary Kaye because it had the original gold hardware.
Who were the guitarists you listened to most as you progressed as a player?
When I started, I liked Keith Richards and Mick Taylor, then Ron Asheton from the Stooges and Greg Sage from the Wipers. Through those four I was trying to create my own style. And then people would tell me about different players. I never liked Kiss until I started playing guitar; I thought they were kinda dopey or something, but a guitar player friend was like, “No, you have to listen to Ace.” So, I did and I really got into Ace’s playing. I liked some of the guitarists in punk bands – the guys who would actually play leads, like Bones (Anthony Roberts), from Discharge, and Fast Eddie Clarke, from Motörhead. I always played lead when I picked up guitar. I was never really into chords until I tried to write songs. I’d try to play leads along with records. Barre chords seemed difficult when I first started – holding all the strings down at once. So, I played a lot more open chords. But I was just more interested in playing lead.
What motivates you to create new music?
Wanting to make an album, I guess, as an excuse to keep touring and have new songs to play, more than anything.
Which guitars do we hear most on Sweep It Into Space?
It’s the Tele on most of the leads, and a TV Junior I played a bit. There’s also a St. Vincent guitar I got from Ernie Ball. I use a lot of capo and if I end up on the ninth fret, a lot of guitars won’t play in tune, but the Ernie Ball handles that pretty well. Plus, it has three mini-humbuckers, which I’d never played and I did end up liking that sound.
I used a ’72 Les Paul Deluxe with mini-humbuckers a bit, too. I was in a Thin Lizzy phase when I decided to get the Deluxe. It has the embossed pickups. I just got that from Black Book Guitars, in Portland. I was in there on tour when I first played it, and then bought it once I got home.
Did that Thin Lizzy binge influence any of the new songs?
I don’t know if it comes across, but there were a few times; “I Ran Away” has a few things where I tried a guitar harmony thing. It’s not blatant.
Do you often go on listening benders?
That happens all the time. I’m always going through phases where I listen to something a lot.
Which amps do we hear most on the album?
I stuck with the ’59 Vox AC15 I’ve used a lot for leads, and a tweed Bandmaster a lot for rhythm. That was my first tweed amp and I’ve used it a lot since I got it in ’91. I used to take it out on tour, but it’s not very loud for live, especially if I have a whole pile of amps.
I remember seeing Stevie Ray Vaughan when I was a kid and he had, like, 20 amps onstage and a big plexiglass shield in front, which I didn’t understand. For the encore, he knocked over the shield and you could finally hear all the amps, and I was like, “Why didn’t he do that at the beginning?”
Are there a few tracks on Sweep It that have become your favorites?
I like all of them, but on most albums my favorite is the first song. I’m excited to play “I Ain’t”; I’m trying to figure out which guitar to play it but I haven’t had a chance set up all my stuff with the guys. I have a few in mind to try – a Phantom Vox copy that I put a Tele neck on and a Mastery vibrato. That’s my favorite shape, and with the Tele neck it plays pretty cool. I’m hoping it works for that song. I also really like the next one, “I Met the Stones,” which is pretty rockin’ and should be fun to play.
Did you plan to have your friend Kurt Vile play on more than just “I Ran Away”?
Yeah, he was definitely going to come back, until the pandemic forced us to change plans. To finish the album, I had to figure out how to engineer, which I’m not too good at. That was interesting, but it ended up okay. I have Pro Tools, but I usually mix on half-inch tape, just to have it exist in reality. I didn’t do that this time because it wasn’t mixed at my house, but maybe I’ll put it on tape just to have it.
Are you planning a tour?
Yeah, we have lots of planned shows from this spring through next summer, but will we be able to do them?
Do you still dig touring?
Yeah, I like it more now than I used to. In my 20s I was kind of down on it, for some reason. But as I got older, I got more into it and learned to appreciate it more.
This article originally appeared in VG’s May 2021 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.