Mick Mars

A Piece of His Action
Mick Mars
Mick mars Vintage Guitar magazine
All Photos by Neil Zlozower.

Since emerging from Hollywood’s Sunset Strip in the early 1980s, Mötley Crue has defined the Los Angeles metal scene. Fueled by the catchy powerhouse riffage of guitarist Mick Mars, the group dominated the rock charts throughout the ’80s, producing a stream of anthemic albums and hits that have echoed through the decades. Crüe soldiered through the grunge era, and during that time, frontman Vince Neil and drummer Tommy Lee left for personal reasons before finding their way back to re-join Mars and bassist Nikki Sixx.

While on a recent tour break, Mars invited Vintage Guitar to check out some of the cool instruments that share his abode. An astute fan and collector of vintage guitars – particularly ’60s Fender Stratocasters – he offered a look at an alluring dose of eye candy that stands as testament to his appreciation for the guitar.

Are the guitars we see the top choice instruments from your collection?
Not all of them. These are the ones I have at home to beat around on, with the exception of the ’51 Esquire.

What characteristics do you look for when buying guitars?
When I buy a guitar, I look for something I can play. I don’t buy pristine guitars, because I like to play them. If I drop them, I don’t care. So I’m a collector of “player” guitars – those I’m not afraid to pick up and bang on. I typically don’t buy guitars for looks; I buy them for tone – the sound, the output, and that kind of thing is most important. I’m a tone freak.

So you really don’t gravitate to collector pieces?
No. They seem to have no soul. I prefer guitars that have life to them.

Have you owned most of your guitars for a long time?
I’ve had quite a few of them for a while. I recently picked up a few ’66 Stratocasters, including a Dakota Red one and a green one. My Fiesta Red Strat is a ’62 with a small headstock and spaghetti logo; ’64 was the transition, when Fender went to the bigger logo, and ’66 was the first year of the bigger headstocks. I picked up a couple of those. They sound good, too!

Is there anything you’re still on the hunt for?
Well, if the price is right. I always enjoy looking around, but there really isn’t anything in particular. But for every collector… I hate to say it, but I think everybody should have a really cool Les Paul, and I actually do have one. What I mean is an older one – a ’57, ’58, ’59 or ’60, just to have it. I used to have a tobaccoburst ’60, but it didn’t sound very good. It had a broken headstock, so it didn’t cost me very much. And then I had a ’59 for about 10 minutes, and I got rid of it because it didn’t sound very good, either. But the last time I looked at them, they were over $250,000. It’s crazy! I had a Zemaitis I bought for $4,500 and then sold it for what I paid. It’s now worth $98,000. That broke my heart because it wasn’t very fun to let that one go. That was six to eight years ago.

The guitar market is always fluctuating, but prices did jump up quickly on certain guitars over a short time. It was typically affected by supply and demand and trends, but is now affected by the economy, which is good for buyers with money, but bad for sellers. In many ways, it’s just like real estate.

Some of your Strats have one string tree, while some have two. Do you usually take off the second one?
No, that’s the way I got them. Some people just take off string trees for some reason. I don’t know why they would, because it creates a weird upper-tone thing.

I’m figuring the bigger-headstock Fenders from ’66 to the early ’70s are going to be the next to skyrocket in price.

Does it seem strange that late-’70s guitars are now considered vintage?
It does sound weird. I suppose I’m vintage!

1962 Fender Stratocaster in Fiesta Red.

1962 Fender Stratocaster in Fiesta Red.

Late-'64/mid-'65 Fender Stratocaster in black.

Late-’64/mid-’65 Fender Stratocaster in black.

Mid-'70s Fender Stratocaster in Candy Apple Red.

Mid-’70s Fender Stratocaster in Candy Apple Red.

Mid 1970/'71 Fender Stratocaster in Olympic White.

Mid 1970/’71 Fender Stratocaster in Olympic White.

Your main stage guitar is a white Strat with a big headstock, maple fingerboard, two humbuckers, a single-coil in the middle, and a Floyd Rose. What year was that one made?
That one was built for me by Fender in ’96. I like to beat them up, so it looks older than it is. My three main guitars are that one, a beat up black one Fender also built for me, and a ’65 sunburst that was pieced together for me from ’63, ’64, and ’65 parts. I put humbuckers and a Floyd on it and started playing that one. Mötley Crüe with John Corabi was the first album I played it on, and I used it in the videos, too. For what I do, I need to have bridge and neck humbuckers and a single-coil in the center. The pickups are high-output, but not high-distortion. I think normal output is 7.5k to 8k, and mine are around 16k. It’s not for the purpose of increasing distortion, it’s part of my tone; it resonates better. I don’t know exactly how to explain it, but if I put a different pickup in it, it’s like night and day. It’s not so much distortion as it is a higher-output guitar.

What type of pickups do you use in your stage guitars?
They are by a guy that my guitar tech found. His name is J.M. Rolph. He’s from Melbourne, Kentucky. My guitar tech got in touch with him because my pickups were putting out 14k, and he told us he winds them to 16k. So I got a couple of them, and they screamed! So then I got a couple dozen of them. But my favorite pickups of all are the Gibson “T-top” humbuckers that were just after they got their patent. I can’t get enough of them.

Tell us about the other guitars.
The old Charvels are definitely players. The one with the erotica sticker used to belong to Bootsy Collins’ guitar player. It was originally yellow-and-black-striped. But its sound was being choked off because the paint was too think, so I had it taken off.

What’s the story behind the Harmony Rocket?
I got that for $500 or $600; it’s a 1960. Of course, I loved it because one knob was gone and one string was broken. And I left it exactly how it is. I haven’t changed the strings, I haven’t found a knob for it, or done anything. I play it, but I only play it with the plastic tab that comes on a bread wrapper. That’s what I use for a pick on that one. It’s the real blues to me, and that’s like the real thing. It’s just got some soul to it and I think it’s pretty cool.

When did you get the Gibson Chet Atkins 12-string acoustic? You don’t see many of those. Have you played it much?
Actually, I got that guitar when they were first coming out. Jerry Garcia wanted it, but I had asked Gibson first! I used it to record “Without You” and some of the other stuff on the Dr. Feelgood album.

Do you use many of your vintage guitars for recording or tend to rely on the stage guitars for a more consistent sound between the studio and stage?
I use my white stage Strat quite a bit, but sometimes I switch up and use a stock Stratocaster with the pickup output around 5.5k or so.

Are there any go-to guitars you use for specific sounds?
Yes, but I guess it really depends on what I’m looking for. If I want a brighter clean sound, like Mark Knopfler, I’d use a stock Strat or even the Esquire. Usually, I have the heavy over-the-top guitar sound, so I need the humbucker. I have an Olympic White ’70 Strat I use a lot. I have a bunch of black ones, too, and they all sound different. When I put them through a clean amp, you can tell which one has the tone that you want. So that’s how I choose them.

Which guitar in your collection has the most sentimental value?
I have a ’63 Strat that truly introduced me to what a Stratocaster is really capable of. I kind of stumbled onto it in ’89, while we were on the Feelgood tour. The Les Pauls and that kind of stuff were getting to be a little much, so I went looking and found that. I bought it for about $1,300; picked it up and plugged it into my rig at rehearsal. It was like, “Wow! This is really cool!” The only trouble I have is keeping it in tune the way I want. It’s a sunburst with the A-profile neck. It’s hard to play chords on, but it’s still one of my favorites.

Mid-'60s pre-CBS Fender Stratocaster in sunburst.

Mid-’60s pre-CBS Fender Stratocaster in sunburst.

Fender Stratocaster is pieced together with parts from '63, '64, and '65 Strats

Currently one of Mars’ main stage guitars, this Fender Stratocaster is pieced together with parts from ’63, ’64, and ’65 Strats with J.M. Rolph pickups and a Floyd Rose vibrato.

 Mars beat Jerry Garcia to the punch to get this Gibson Chet Atkins SST 12-string steel

Mars beat Jerry Garcia to the punch to get this Gibson Chet Atkins SST 12-string steel, which he used to record the band’s hit ballad “Without you” from the Dr. Feelgood album.

1951 Fender Esquire.

1951 Fender Esquire.

Of the Les Pauls, the only one we photographed is a TV Special.
That’s a ’56. I have a few other Les Pauls at the house. Here’s an interesting story… Back in ’89, on the Feelgood tour, a guy brought a black Les Paul from the Gibson Custom Shop to a meet-and-greet backstage. He said his mom got him the guitar but he didn’t like it, and wanted a guitar with a whammy on it. So I traded him a black Kramer for this black Custom Shop Les Paul. It has dot inlays and it’s made of alder. I took the paint off, like a bonehead, because I wasn’t using my head, and I put a Floyd on it and an EMG in it. It’s a beautiful-sounding guitar. I don’t think that one was photographed either.

I also have an early-’70s curly-maple-top Les Paul Standard. It looks really good. That’s about it for Les Pauls. I only have a few, but I don’t play them much, anyway.

Which of the other guitars do you play now?
Mostly play Strats and sometimes a Paul Reed Smith, not live, but in the studio if I want certain sounds. A good example is the slide parts on “Primal Scream,” which were are all recorded with a Paul Reed Smith. The rest of it is a Charvel and Kramer mix. That’s what I used in there. Paul actually made me quite a few guitars. I got one of the McCartys, but I wanted one that was more faded, and not the more popular colors. I also had him use dot inlays instead of birds. He thought it wasn’t right, but it was right for me, and I now have a couple of those. I have another one he made out of korina. It’s blood red with P-90s. It’s a pretty guitar.

Tell us about the orange Gretsch Chet Atkins. Have you played that one live or used it for recording?
That’s a ’64. I never use that one, but I have used Gretsch White Falcons before. I used a White Falcon on the Dr. Feelgood album. It was Bob Rock’s, but it used to belong to Billy Duffy from the Cult.

This year on Crüe Fest, we’re going to play the whole Dr. Feelgood album live. There were, like, 79 guitar tracks on one song and I was doing a lot of guitar work on that entire album. It’s going to be really hard for me to pull that off so nothing is missed. I don’t want to cheat any of the people who come to hear us, whether they’re fans or skeptics or press – especially not the fans. But I’ll work things out so it all sounds right.

It’s difficult to cover all that ground when you’re the only guitar player in the band, if you recorded a variety of parts in the studio.
Yes, you have to pick the dominant parts and use the others when you can, even if you have another guitar on a stand. It’s obvious when you play an electric guitar part but there’s an acoustic guitar part going on in the background.

What type of amps are you using in your stage rig?
I use a lot of stuff – everything from Marshall to Soldano to Rivera to Crest and VHT. I use my stuff like a lot of people who bi-amp and slave out to this, that, and the other. I do mine in fives; I use Rivera, Marshall, and Soldano amplifiers, all going to different power amps to boost the signal. When I’m standing in front of my amp onstage, it’s putting out 124 dB, but it doesn’t hurt. It’s just a really fat, warm tone.

The Marshalls are 50- and 100-watt JCM 800s with mods in the preamp so they’re a three-stage instead of two-stage, with the master Volume and the Volume [on each channel], but there’s an extra knob on preamp stages, for Gain.

The Soldanos are SLO-100 Super Lead Overdrives. And I use the Rivera Bonehead to bring out low-end. I use the heads with VHT and Crest power amps. My cabinets are Marshalls with Celestion Vintage 30s. To my ear, I put them against the greenbacks, and the old greenbacks are cool for what they are, but for what I’m doing with my rig, these sound better.

So, you’re building tone from different components instead of relying on one amp to provide different elements and different tones…
That’s exactly right. It’s different elements of tone, and the combination makes this big tone. I’ve been doing the same thing in the studio for quite a while. I use a Vox AC30, a Hiwatt, a Marshall, and hook them all together. This is old-school, using all the tones from each different amp and using them with different combinations. Pro Tools plug-ins don’t sound the same.

'56 Gibson Les Paul Special.

’56 Gibson Les Paul Special.

'64 Gretsch Chet Atkins.

’64 Gretsch Chet Atkins.

1960 Harmony Rocket.

1960 Harmony Rocket.

Which effects are included in your live rig?
I use a Bradshaw rack with a lot of things in it. I have one of the very first Eventide H3000s, which probably sounds ancient now, but it has a lot to do with my sound. And I use a Yamaha SPX1000, an Alesis Quadraverb for some dry slapback echo, and for Leslie effect. There’s a certain sound in there I really like; it sounds like a half-mic’ed Leslie, which is a pretty cool effect.

I use the H3000 for my main sound and effects like the octave divider, chorus, and that’s about it. I use the Yamaha SPX1000 to make the sound a little wetter. I’m not much of an effects guy.

How do you have your guitars set up?
I set my action really low. When I’m recording in the studio, I can set it up exactly how I want it. On tour, it’s a bit different. I have the strings rattling against the fretboard because they’re so low. When we go through different climates and temperature changes, the neck goes back and forth. Sometimes the action has to stay set up a bit higher, which I don’t like too much. I’ve used Ernie Ball strings for as long as I can remember; .011, .014, .018, .030, .040, .050. I tune down to D and loosen the springs and tension to make it easier to play. I’m thinking about going up to .012-.052, but I’m afraid to see what it does to the neck when you go from hot to cold to cold to hot.

How many springs do you use on the vibrato blocks in your Strats?
I use three.

Describe some of the highlights from the last leg of the tour, when you were mostly playing arenas?
It was pretty cool. One of the highlights was when Rick Nielsen from Cheap Trick came out to a show in Illinois. He jammed with Last Vegas (one of the opening bands), then came up and jammed with us on “Jailhouse Rock.” That was really fun. Afterward, he invited me to see his guitar collection. I was really too tired to go, but I was also jealous because he has more than 4,000 guitars! He’s got everything from what Jimi Hendrix played to all sorts of unusual stuff. That five-neck Hamer is pretty cool, but it weighs 80 pounds! The doubleneck shaped like him is pretty cool. For me, personally, doublenecks are weird to play. I’ve had a few, and I guess I’d rather have one guitar on the stand and one in my hands. To me, it sounds better to use two guitars, and doublenecks are just too heavy.

The summer tour starts overseas, right?
Yes. We’ll play Moscow, Bulgaria, Greece, and a bunch of places we never played before. Then, Crüe Fest II starts July 11. We bring out Godsmack, Drowning Pool, Theory of a Deadman, and a newer band called Charm City Devils. That’s going to be a good gig – a lot of fun.

Are you working on other projects outside of Mötley Crüe?
Yes. I’ve got to do a solo thing – it’s time for me to do something of my own. I don’t have to tour it, I just need to put it out just to say, “This is Mick. This is what I’m really about.” I am definitely going to do it. I don’t know when, but before I die, to leave my legacy!

Have you been writing material for a solo album?
I’ve been writing a lot for it, but I’m not happy with any of it so far, and I’m not going to put a record out just to have a solo album. It has to be completely right and every song has to make you go, “Wow!” – like a Beck album.

On tours supporting Motley Crue's most popular albums, Mars made extensive use of these '80s Charvels.

On tours supporting Motley Crue’s most popular albums, Mars made extensive use of these ’80s Charvels.

On tours supporting Motley Crue's most popular albums, Mars made extensive use of these '80s Charvels.

On tours supporting Motley Crue's most popular albums, Mars made extensive use of these '80s Charvels.

I’m trying to develop stuff I want to do. You know how Cajun music came about from mixing jazz and these other elements so it came to be Cajun and zydeco? I’m going to do something – not zydeco – but taking different elements of things and mish-mash them so people go, “That’s cool! That’s different!” I just don’t want to sound like everyone else. So I’ve got this thing and I’ve been developing it. But so far, I haven’t been satisfied with what I’ve done. So I’m experimenting with things to try to make it different from every other band. I don’t even know how to describe it, but I just know what I’m hearing and I can’t get it yet. I will get it! I’ve got many songs I’ve done in my studio; I have stacks of half-inch and two-inch tapes, and I’m looking for this thing. Eventually, I’ll get it.

Sometimes, ideas flow much better when you’re bouncing ideas off of other musicians who inspire you.
That’s exactly right. I’m probably going to have to have somebody come in, because I want a great rhythm section – a good bass player and a drummer like Josh Freese or Steve Perkins – a drummer who thinks outside the box and has a different approach to playing drums. I need to lay down a really good rhythm section so I can do what I need to do or hear what I need to hear, and experiment with it.

I guess in many ways we’re never really satisfied with what we do. I think that if you are, then you’ve reached your plateau and it’s time to hang it up. Never think that you’re the best you can ever be. It’s also not about how many notes you play, but the soul you put into your playing. Lots of people are more concerned by how fast they can play. They like sweeps and playing faster and faster, but there’s no time for the note to develop any soul. It sounds like an old machine gun.

It would be interesting if more players worked on developing unique styles instead of trying to be clones or just the fastest players around.
Yes! Like so many of those ’80s guitar players. There are a few who are really good, like Nuno Bettencourt. I really admire people like that. When I hear Randy Rhoads, I think, “That is a guitar player!” Then I hear some of the other guys who just play fast, do a lot of sweep picking, and sound like they must have gone to G.I.T. for a week. I’m not trying to be mean, because I don’t know how to do any of that stuff and my fingers don’t move that fast. But a lot of players came out of there sounding very much the same. It just isn’t my style of playing I never got into it.

They call Clapton “Slowhand” for a reason.
I’ll be “Slowhand Mars!” I definitely don’t mind being lumped in with guys like that! I think sometimes you lose sight of what you do because you are the guy. Even Hendrix. When he was on the “Dick Cavett Show,” Cavett asked how it felt to be the best guitar player in the world and Hendrix said something about how he wasn’t the best. He always seemed insecure and humble about his playing, which I thought was cool.

Slash is another guy who doesn’t do all of that speed playing. He plays from his heart, and he’s very humble. I think what really screws guitar players up is not being themselves. When players ask, I tell them, “Be true to yourself. Play what comes from inside of you, and keep working on being the best you can possibly be at what you do.”

This article originally appeared in VG‘s September 2009 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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