This interview took place on January 29, 1981. At the time, James was living in Flat 1, Westside, 55 Priory Road, West Hampstead, London
What do you prefer to be called?
Let’s start at the beginning. When and where were you born?
I was born in Hereford. Let’s see – 1956. November the 4th.
When did you start playing guitar?
My brother – he was in the Navy – brought one back from Africa when I was ten years old. That’s right. And then I graduated to a better model when I was 11. That was an f-hole guitar, and the neck fell off. And then when I went to high school, I got a guitar called a Rossetti Airstream. And the next guitar after that was a Gibson three-three-five [ES-335]. I got that when I was 16.
Which musicians were you listening to back then?
Eric Clapton with Cream and Derek & The Dominos. The Allman Brothers, and Yes. Those are the main ones I was listening to at that time.
Did you take lessons?
No, never. I always wanted to play. There was a group in England called the Shadows, with Hank Marvin. He was the real one – that was it. I’ve met him a couple of times, but I’ve never seen them play live. I met him at TV studios and things.
What did you think was most important to learn?
Originally, I thought it was Eric Clapton guitar lines and guitar licks. But chords turned out to be the most important – chords and rhythm work, definitely.
Did certain records say a lot to you?
Oh, “Badge,” by Cream – Jesus! “Crossroads,” by Cream. Really, it was anything by Cream for important guitar work. And then came the Allman Brothers after that.
Like Live at Fillmore?
Yeah! “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” – that was really important.
When did you start playing keyboards?
I had piano lessons when I was seven, for only about two years, at the most.
Do you know formal music?
No, I don’t read a thing, man. I forgot it all. Everything I do now is done by ear. I could never follow the theory of it. I always found it very distant. I used to pretend I could read it, but in fact, I’d learned this little number by ear, you know, to fool the piano teacher [laughs].
When did you join your first band?
I used to play youth clubs when I was 11. I turned out to be a bass player for a while. I borrowed this Hofner bass, and we were playing “Sunshine of Your Love,” “Hey Joe,” and “Sabre Dance” by Love Sculpture. So I was 11 when I had my first band. But it had no name, from what I can remember. It was probably something blues band [laughs]. It turned out to be a blues band – this was 1968.
Was Mott the Hoople happening yet?
Yeah! Mott the Hoople were just taking big then. They came from a group called Silence that was around the Hereford scene for quite a while. Yeah, Mott happened in the early part of ’69.
Were you into their music?
No, not at first. What happened was me and Martin, the drummer of the Pretenders, joined up with Mott the Hoople’s keyboard player, Verden Allen, in 1974. That was with a band called the Cheeks. Then I got into Mott the Hoople. It’s a very weird process, but I love Mott the Hoople. I really started to understand them and thought they were a great group then. But at first I don’t think anybody in the Hereford really dug Mott the Hoople.
What about another of your hometown bands, Bad Company?
Bad Company! Yeah, I love them. They were great.
Did you know the guitarist for Mott and Bad Company, Mick Ralphs?
Yeah, yeah. Mick lent me a guitar for over a year, a little Les Paul Junior, when I ended up not having a guitar for a while with the Cheeks. He came to the rescue and let me use his 1957 Junior. It was beautiful, a beautiful guitar. And Mick Ralphs became a hell of a fucking big influence because I started to steal a lot of his lead lines and things. I always liked the way he did finger vibrato. So I stole a lot from Mick like that.
Did other guitar players back then teach you specific things?
No. I don’t think so. The ones I’ve started to pick up on have been recent. In the past year or two, I’ve learned a lot from playing with people like Chris Spedding, and Billy Bremner showed me a few things. Billy’s from Rockpile. And Nils Lofgren. I was jamming for a while with Nils at his house, and he did a few dates with the Pretenders, joining us onstage. He showed me a lot of little tricks.
What bands you were in between the Cheeks and the Pretenders?
There were only two other groups in Hereford. One was called the Hawks, and the other was named after Emmylou Harris’ band, The Hot Band. And we were called the something “Hot Band” – after some village in Herefordshire. It was like 10 or 12 guys, accordion and all manner of guitars and things. This is pretty sweet, because I’ve met up with [Emmylou Harris’ pedal steeler] Hank DeVito, and we’ve become really good friends, man. But I’ve never told him that. I must tell him I named a group after his group.
What were you doing prior to co-founding the Pretenders?
I was selling guitars for a living, for a shop in Hereford. I did gardening too – that was great! And it was during that time – I was out in the garden, you see, digging away, and the radio was on. Nick Lowe came on with [sings] “and so it goes, so it goes,” that number – Elvis Costello’s “Red Shoes.” And they had this big, jangly guitar sound, which is what I’d been wanting to get into for a long while. All of a sudden the radio’s on and there’s this huge guitar sound coming out, like sending out a big Rickenbacker 12-string or something. And I thought, “Ah, my time is here.” So that’s what happened. And then I hooked up with the Pretenders.
What did you use to get that sound?
At that time I was using an Ibanez Explorer that was fantastic – it was stolen. It was incredible. That went through a Marshall. And to get that sound, I was using the Clone Theory pedal made by Electro Harmonix. That’s how I go the sound. And I’m now using the old Boss pedals.
We’ll get your whole equipment set up later on.
Oh, Christ! There are tons.
With the Pretenders, how much does Chrissie play?
She plays quite a bit because her rhythm guitar – I don’t know anybody who plays rhythm guitar like that. So what happens is, because I can’t hear beats half the time – because I can’t count the rhythm – instead, I’ll just put a little guitar line over it. Do you know “Tattooed Love Boys,” that little lick on that? I put that because I couldn’t count the timing. I just happened to know that those notes in that order fitted rather well, so if I kept doing that, I wouldn’t go out of time. Because her time is so weird – that number is something crazy, like 7/13 or something.
What kind of demands do the strange meters put on you?
[Laughs.] Oh, quite a lot! I bluff a lot of it, and I’ve never told the rest of the group. When they read this, they’ll be amused, because I’ve never told them that I can’t work out those fucking times at all. I just do it my own way. If I come in a bar too late, they are used to me coming in a bar too late, and they think that’s how I play. But it’s because I’ve missed where she’s come in. That’s happened on the new album that’s coming out in April. We’ve done a track called “The Adultress” where I come in a beat too late because I cannot count the timing, and they think it’s great: “Oh, that’s Jimmy’s style.” And the fact is, I don’t know where she comes in with it. So I just bluff it and hope for the best.
On “Up the Neck,” who’s strumming and who’s picking?
Chrissie is doing the strumming, and I’m doing the single-note stuff.
Did she use a Telecaster on most of the tracks?
Yeah. The only cut she didn’t was on “Kid.” She borrowed my 335.
Did you use her Tele for the solo?
Yeah, I used her Tele for the solo. Very observant! Christ, you got that well. She’s got two Telecasters – a little white one and a metallic green one. And the white one is just one of the most fantastic guitars ever made. I love using that. I use it as much in the studio as possible.
The end of that tune almost sounds like a harpsichord.
Oh, yeah. That was done with a Gibson Dove guitar, and the bottom three strings were replaced with the top three strings again – a real high tuning, you know? It was high-strung. We laid all the picking down like that. Then we did it at half speed and doubled that to get the top notes again. That’s why it sounds like a harpsichord. It’s really difficult to do that when you’re playing half-speed on a number. It’s done very slowly and you have to get each note right on. It was very difficult, but it turned out great.
Before you recorded the album, how did the band work out the material?
Well, we’d been rehearsing for quite a while – about a year, I’d imagine. Chrissie had the material for a long while, and we just did lots and lots of rehearsing, seven days a week, all hours of the day and night. At first, a lot of the licks were very heavy – like “Up the Neck” started off as a reggae song. I said, “Let’s speed it up,” and I put in that little guitar run, and that’s how it all really started to come together, by me putting in these little melodic runs that I like doing. Because my main influence is the Beach Boys. That’s how the melodic parts of numbers came about. And then Chrissie really started to like pop music. That’s why she started writing things like “Kid.” I love playing “Kid”! There’s a number we did called “Talk of the Town,” and that’s great to play as well. Pop songs like that – I love ’em.
Chrissie is an American singer, and yet the band sounds English.
Yes! I think that is because she’s been living in England since 1973, and all of her favourite musicians of all time are English. Her favourite guitar player is Jeff Beck, and her favourite songwriters are John Lennon and Ray Davies. She has written that songwriting-wise, the English were always the best musicians.
How different was your style before you got into the Pretenders?
Oh, very different! I wanted to use the style I was using in the Pretenders, but I couldn’t because we had the band I was in if you get what I mean. I was more towards Keith Richards sort of stuff then. And then when I joined the band, I was able to start doing nicer guitar work, more melodic stuff. So yeah, it did change quite a bit. Dave Edmunds had a lot to do with that – I started listening to him and Nick Lowe a hell of a lot, and I liked what they were doing. They always seem to like to do nice little guitar sounds that you can sing along to. That’s what I started trying to do.
What’s your approach to soloing?
I hate soloing, really. I like to do something that you’d end up whistling. Something short. There’s a solo on the reggae track – “Private Life.” And I really didn’t like doing that, because it’s a long solo, and I think long solos are a pain in the ass unless you can play them. I can’t play them, but I like watching Albert Lee and people like that play them. I went to see Albert the other week at the Palamino. I like watching people like that because they can do it. I simply cannot do it, but they can play for a long period of time and not get boring, as far as soloing goes. I like to play short solos. There’s a track, “Lovers of Today,” where there’s a big run in there, like a real long run, and that was influenced by [George] Harrison, if anybody – probably pinched off of the Beatles albums! But the solo is just three notes or something that I got from Neil Young.
“Lovers of Today” has that full, massive sound.
Oh, yeah! Now, that was the Les Paul through a 100-watt Marshall. And when it came to that solo, I hit the wrong chord in the beginning! That opening chord is a big mistake. But we kept it because it sounded good, and I just tracked that once, that little lick, loud, very loud, and just slightly distorted. And then we tracked it again and again and again and again. And then I did it up at the top of the guitar. And then we did it again and I think we slowed the machine down and used a Harmonizer, so there must be something like eight guitars playing that – all very loud!
Is there a fuzz effect in the little solo at the beginning of “Private Life”?
No, no. That would have just been the amp.
During “The Wait,” what are the strange chords that come right before the solo?
That’s Chrissie. I don’t know what it is. Chris Thomas, the producer, asked me to do a solo over that – no, Chrissie played it, that’s right, and it sounded really scruffy. He said, “Jimmy, you do it, but make it cleaner,” but I simply couldn’t because Chrissie plays that way and I don’t. So I tried playing as she did, and I just couldn’t. So I said, “Look, leave her to do it,” so we did. So that’s Chrissie’s baby, that one. The second part of the solo is mine.
Does Chrissie play any solos on the album?
Um, I don’t think so.
Who came up with the “Space Invader” lick?
Oh, Pete wrote the bass lick, and I wrote what people call the “Day Tripper” part of it and the chord run-ups, the major sevenths.
At the end of it you have that descending growl.
Oh! [Laughs.] Now that was done . . . I hit the bottom E string and put it right out of tune. Tuned it right down with the tuning peg. I remember I was really drunk when I did this. I said, “I’ve got this idea – just follow it!” And they go, “Yeah, yeah, sure.” And I said, “No, you must listen to me! Play that back and take this.” They played it back and I hit the G string and I tuned the G string up at the same time. So you have one guitar going down and one coming up.
What is the effect on “Precious”?
That would be the Clone Theory through a Harmonizer. I didn’t use a MuTron then.
How did you get the siren?
Oh, that is by playing – what key is it in, “Precious”? A. It’ll be an F# and a C, just hitting those notes like that.
At the end of the “Tattooed Love Boys” solo, did you start flipping your pickup selector switch?
That’s it, yeah, and putting the guitar out of tune at the same time as well.
One last question about guitar parts. On “Mystery Achievement,” how many tracks did you use for the solo bridge?
I used the 335 on that. I tracked it twice, and then I did a half-speed guitar. That gets the high notes.
To do the half-speed guitar, you record the part at half-speed and then play it back at normal speed.
Yeah, and of course, it’s an octave higher.
When you recorded the first album, was that pretty much your stage show too?
It has the feel of a live set.
Yeah, yeah. A lot of people have said that.
Which songs were recorded first?
“Stop Your Sobbing” was the first, and we did that with Nick Lowe back in October of 1978 or ’79.
How did you set up in the studio?
What we did was we set up a little stage setup. We set up a P.A. in there and everything, and we recorded the numbers live. We used speakers in the studio – big ambient – and we kind of recorded a lot live. That was with Chris Thomas. But with Nick Lowe on “Stop Your Sobbing,” there were loads of guitars. There were Rickenbackers, Ovations, everything, and it was just lay down track after track – “Track the guitar again,” and do different inversions, open tuning, everything. That’s how it works with Nick.
Did you overdub your solos?
Yeah. I would generally use two tracks. What Chris Thomas and I like to do is to lay down a solo and then track it again, note for note. So you lay down the guitar solo, okay, and then you do it again, exactly the same. That gives it a fuller sound. Sometimes we’ll slow the machine down, just slightly, so it sounds like a 12-string doing the solo.
Do you ever have trouble remembering your solos?
No, not really, because I like to have fixed-pattern solos. Something like “Tattooed Love Boys” was just straight off the wall – I couldn’t have done that again, because I just wanted to go turn nasty on that one, turn the amp up and not care. But in general, I like to track the solos note-for-note and remember them.
Do you splice together parts of different takes of solos?
Oh, yeah. We do that sometimes.
Are any parts recorded directly into the board?
On “Kid,” one of the guitars on the guitar solo was, I think because I love doing that. Because you can wind up and get a lot of compression at the board. You can just make it sound slightly like a pedal steel or something. This is one of Edmunds’ favourite tricks because Dave Edmunds and the boys like to go straight to the board. I do as well. But Chris Thomas doesn’t like me to do it that way. He likes me out in the studio with the amp.
What’s the difference between your studio and live playing?
Live, I’m more wilder a whole lot. Because you play some of those songs . . . We did five tours this year. We did two American, two English, and European. And because you play those numbers night after night, you start to get a bit pissed off at them and then you start to put little things in to keep yourself amused. You start to find new things as well. So probably a couple of those tracks off the album would sound a little different onstage. Or some of the things that we’ve put in, like different steps and stuff, something clever to keep everybody on their toes.
Do you enjoy being on the road?
Oh, I love it!
Is it what you’d imagined it to be?
Oh, yeah! Non-stop partying, yes. Yes, it was exactly as I imagined it – it all happened.
Do you warm up before a show?
[Laughs.] We usually just drink a lot. No, not really.
Do you practice?
No. I haven’t picked up a guitar in a long while. I don’t. But when I do, I go overboard. I start to find new ideas and things.
Do you have a systematic way of doing it, or do you just play?
I guess I just play. There are new little things I’ve found. Like, some of the things Chris Spedding showed me – Chris has got a totally different style from everybody else – and I noticed it’s all built within two frets and using just two strings at one time. You can just play a complete solo like that, and it just never gets boring. Just play two strings within two frets, and you just elaborate over that.
So your fingers only land on four spaces?
That’s right! And it seems he’s built up a lot of his stuff from doing it like that. So I’ve been trying a lot of things like that lately, so I’m using the minimum amount of work possible.
Are you always learning?
Do you do much jamming?
Yes, I do quite a bit. I’ve spent a lot of the past couple of weeks in Austin, Texas, and they’ve got some of the best players in the world there. Oh, my God! And some of those guys have invited me up to play, and it’s been great. I’ve done a bit of recording here and there. I met Billy Gibbons there. Joe King Carrasco – I played with him there. He’s in L.A. at the moment, playing the Whiskey. But yeah, Joe King and the Austin All-Stars, and the Tennessee Hat Band – I played with those guys. I love it down there. It’s great.
Has success been hard to take?
Yeah, it was at first, but it’s fine now. It’s very weird at first when it happens. What you imagine as a kid, when you’re like eight years old and you see the Beatles at Shea Stadium on TV or in the film A Hard Day’s Night, you think, “My God. That is the answer to everything.” You know, having #1 records and gold disks. But when you get the #1 records and gold disks, you kind of think, “Whoa. Is this it? What happens next?” I think you tend to think the skies are going to open or something.
What advice would you give musicians wanting to make it in rock and roll?
You just have to stick with it. It just happens. It just turns up. Yeah, you just have to keep fucking sticking with it. It didn’t take me that long. I mean, I thought after a while I would sod it. I just went and started selling guitars and not really caring, although I knew one way or other I was going to get it done. I think you have to be completely determined, though. And I was. I thought “sod it” and then settled back a bit, and then I thought, “No, no.” I was determined, and you’ve got to make a bit of a fight for it. But it just turns up, I think. It just happens. You’ve either got it or you haven’t – style, luck, or whatever’s needed.
What would you like to accomplish in the future?
Well, I haven’t played with Ron Wood yet. I’d like to play with Ronnie Wood. I don’t know. Make successful albums, and I guess a little studio. What every player would want, I suppose.
Have you been on albums other than with the Pretenders?
Yeah. Nothing really to speak of. Nothing that’s been released in America. In England, an album called Place Your Bets by a guy called Tommy Morrison, and that was produced by Paul Rodgers. One by a guy called Robert John Godfrey, when I was 16. And I forget the title of that. That’s it, I think.
What are your main guitars?
[Tony] Zemaitis. He builds them for me now. I’ve got three of his at the moment, and the fourth will be ready soon. I’ve got two metal-front Zemaitis, like Ronnie Wood’s guitars. They’re all engraved metal, and Gibson humbuckers on them and ebony fingerboards. Oh, they are just the greatest. One’s a 22-fret, and one’s a 24. I’ve also got another 24-fret that he built for me, but all the front is a crushed mother of pearl, and it’s got three Mighty Mite Stratocaster pickups, and they’re inlaid in big silver blocks. I mean, these guitars just have to be seen. The one that he’s building for me at the moment has got three humbuckers set in a big silver map of the world. Also, it’s inlaid with mother-of-pearl scorpions and things like that. Pretty much, Tony will build you what you want built. I don’t go for active electronics or any of that, so I just have the normal controls – two pickups, two volume, two tones, and a toggle switch. I like the action pretty low. I use Ernie Ball Slinkies that go from .009 to .042.
Why did you choose Zemaitis?
Because Ronnie Wood used to use them, and I thought they looked so beautiful. Ron Wood’s a big hero of mine. Oh, yeah.
Who are your other heroes?
People like Spedding. Keith Richard, I guess. Eric Clapton, still. Albert Lee, the guys in Rockpile.
Have you other guitars?
I’ve got a Gibson Les Paul – that’s a newish one, a Standard. A 1962 cherry 335 that’s beautiful. Here’s the real killer: I’ve got a ’63 single-pickup Firebird – that’s a beaut – a three-pickup pink Gibson Firebird, a Fender Stratocaster with an Alembic Stratoblaster fitted to it and everything is brass on it. I’ve got a Rickenbacker 12-string, three Hamer guitars, and a Yamaha – I don’t know what model. My acoustic is a Martin D-28, and I’ve also got a Guild 12-string.
Did you collect these since forming the Pretenders?
Yeah. One of the great things about having the success, having a bit of cash, is I was able to pick up these guitars at various places. It was the one thing I always really wanted anyway.
Do you care for the guitars yourself?
No, I have a guy that looks after them for me. On the next American tour, I’m taking Ted Newman Jones, who works for Keith Richards. He wants to come with me. He builds beautiful guitars, fantastic guitars. He made some 5-strings for Keith. He’s great.
Do you use the same instruments onstage as in the studio?
In the studio, I tend just to use the Les Paul and the Telecaster. Onstage, I always use the Zemaitis. But sometimes I just feel like playing a completely off-the-wall different guitar, but I’ve got to yank it out of the case.
Do certain guitars inspire you to play differently?
Oh, yeah. Definitely! A Zemaitis definitely makes me play a bit more like Ron Wood, whereas the 335 would make me play a bit more like Dave Edmunds.
Are your guitars stock?
Yeah, yeah. When I get a guitar, I don’t like to fuck about with it, unless it’s a new one, where you can get another couple of million like it, like a new Stratocaster. I’ve had mine all re-sprayed black and the Alembic things put into it. But if it’s an old one, I wouldn’t touch it at all.
Trace your signal from the guitar to the amp.
It goes through three Boss pedals – the little ones that have got noiseless switches. They come in pretty colours. I’ve got a blue one, a green one [laughs]. I’ve got a chorus, an overdrive, and a compressor. I don’t have a harmonizer, but I think I’ll get one. I think I’ll try one onstage. Pete, the bass player, uses one. And then I go right to the amps. I’ve got three 100-watt Marshalls and three 4×12 cabs, but two of those are spare, I think. I just go through the one. They mike that, and what happens is, I always play with the guitar flat-out, and I set the level as it would be for a loud rhythm sound. And then if it comes to showing off and doing a solo, I just flip on an overdrive. That’s how I like to work it. I like a really loud rhythm sound.
What kind of picks do you use?
Uh, I think they’re Fender Heavy Medium. I hold them in between the thumb and the first finger, with the point sticking out, and I always tend to play down-strokes.
Do you have any unusual techniques?
[Laughs.] Only in bed. Let me think. I think there’s one thing that I do that’s unusual, but I can’t think of it at the bloody moment.
Do you rest your picking hand on the guitar?
Oh, yeah, on the bridge. Sometimes I use the edge of my hand to muffle the strings.
Do you use your left-hand little finger much?
Yeah, yeah. Probably not as much as I should, but I do.
Do you play slide?
Yeah, but I haven’t been able to do it on record. Yeah, I love playing slide. I’m very much into open tunings.
Did you use any on the album?
Yeah, I did. I used some of the strangest tunings. On “Kid,” there’s open tuning on one of the acoustic guitars. That would be tuned down to D, I think.
Do you play in any styles that aren’t on the LP?
Yeah, country. That’s why I spend a lot of time in Austin – I try to. The thing is, you’ve got to make a good fucking go for it down there because everyone is a better country guitarist than you. So you have to make a real good go for it.
Have you finished the second album?
No, we’ll be finishing it [Pretenders II] over the next couple of months, and the new album will be out in April. There’s an EP coming out in America very shortly. We’ll be back in America in June.
Taken from a blog by Jas Obrecht