Pearl Jam's Mike McCready - A Guitar Chat
By Team HC |
by Anne Erickson
Mike McCready’s career took an unexpected turn in the early 1990s when the Seattle-based guitarist joined what would become one of the biggest rock bands of all time, Pearl Jam. Throughout his years in Pearl Jam and beyond, McCready has relied on his prized 1959 Gibson Les Paul, a gem of a guitar he picked up near Seattle in the latter part of the ‘90s. Last year, Gibson Custom Nashville has released a limited edition Mike McCready 1959 Les Paul Standard, a replica of his guitar, that’s one of the coolest Les Paul models you’ll ever find.
“It's unreal to even think that I have a 1959 Les Paul model named after me,” McCready explains. “It's a huge honor. I never saw that coming, and I'm very happy that Gibson wanted to work with me.”
There’s a really interesting story behind the 1959 Les Paul that you acquired in the 1990s.
Yes—the Irish guitar player, Jim Armstrong, for Van Morrison's band Them bought that Les Paul around 1966 or ’67, and he apparently bought it at a pawnshop in Seattle while on tour. Cut to many years later, and his daughter was living here in Seattle in the ‘90s, and he needed to sell it, and his daughter said, “Hey, I know this guy Danny Mangold from Danny’s Music in Everett (Washington),” which is located north of Seattle. So, Danny got the guitar. He said to me, “Hey, I’ve got a 1959 Les Paul,” and this was probably around 1997 or ‘98, and I went out there and looked at it. It was expensive—it was $25,000 or something, and I had never spent that much money on a guitar before. I actually ended up trading in a couple of guitars for it. And I just loved it. I've used it on numerous tours and probably around five records. I use it all the time, and I love it.
You always use that guitar when playing “Alive,” right?
Always! That 1959 Les Paul plays like no other guitar I have. The neck is great, and the tones are versatile. “Alive” is the perfect song for that Les Paul. “Alive” is a big number for us, and I want to have the best guitar for that. I just like how it sounds.
What specifics did you ask for in the design of your replica?
I wanted it to feel like the original. There was a slight rounding that needed to happen along the fingerboard edges, which mine has from years of use, and that was important to me to be replicated. I wanted it to be playable and something that people wanted to play. I've played about six of these replicas so far, and they all play great. They're all very responsive, and they really give me what I need to have. They just feel right. It's got to feel right the first time I play it or it will never feel right to me, and these guitars feel right to me.
What makes your particular 1959 Les Paul special?
It's certainly the legend of the 1959 Les Paul and how it’s tied to many famous players over the years, whether it's Jimmy Page or Jeff Beck or Joe Perry or Slash—all the big guys that play this type of guitar. I bought into that legend when I bought my ’59 Les Paul. There’s something about that year, 1959, and they didn’t make a lot of them.
What is the best advice you could offer aspiring musicians?
Number one for me is that you’ve got to have fun. You've got to play music because you love it. You can't say, “I'm going to play music to be famous.” It doesn't work that way. Do what's in your heart and be original. Just keep going. And when people tell you “no,” keep going. Just do it because you love it.
Pearl Jam’s live show is epic. I saw you in Detroit in 2014, and you played for more than three hours. How do you guys keep it so fresh live?
With Pearl Jam, in terms of touring and how we keep it fresh, we do a different set list every night. That can be perplexing and amazing and exciting and nerve-racking for me, but I love it, and keeps me on my toes. It keeps the fans interested. People come back for multiple shows. I've met people who have gone to 100 shows. It's always different. Ed (Vedder) takes the time to look at the places we've played a few times, and look at every single set list that we've ever played at that place to make sure the first song isn't the same song that we've opened up with in that city before. He’ll do the same thing with the entire set list. I think that energizes the audience and keeps them wondering, “What are they going to play this time?” There's an excitement to that. It can also be kind of daunting, because he'll change it right in the middle of the set sometimes! So, it's a challenge, but it's a challenge that really keeps it fresh for us.
Switching gears a bit, Temple of the Dog is reuniting for their first ever tour. That’s exciting. What do you remember most about the Temple of the Dog era?
For me, it was a newness. I had been playing in bands since I was 11, and this was my dream coming true. I got a call from Stone (Gossard, of Pearl Jam), and, at the time I was just trying to figure out what I was going to do. I wasn't looking for it, and this opportunity came to me, and I had to take it. The feeling I recall was one of exhilaration and newness. Ed (Vedder) had just come up (from San Diego, CA.), and Temple of the Dog started a little bit before Pearl Jam, but we were doing them at the same time and they overlapped. For me, it was completely exciting to play with these two singers – Chris Cornell and Eddie Vedder – that were unbelievable. I had never been in a situation like that where everybody was firing on all cylinders. The door to my dreams opened up, and I had to walk through it. Prior to that, I had stopped playing in a band and was working at a restaurant and didn't really know what I was going to do, so this just kind of came out of the blue.
What makes that Temple of the Dog album special to you?
When I was asked to play guitar on Temple of the Dog’s album, I felt like I had to be really honorable and careful, because it was more of a healing from Andrew (Wood, of Mother Love Bone) passing away. It wasn't a record where it was like, “Let’s put this out and go on tour and make a bunch of money.” It was more of a record that came out because Chris (Cornell) wrote the songs, and Jeff (Ament) and Stone (Gossard) were playing music together again, and there was this new guy in town Eddie (Vedder), so it was more of a healing thing. At the same time, it was a big opportunity for me. So, there are a lot of emotions and feelings that go along with that record. I’m really proud of it.
Tell me about your work with the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America.
Thank you for asking! I have Crohn's disease, and I got that when I was 21 years old. It’s a scary and painful disease, and I never wanted to talk about it until I complained about it so much that my wife finally said, “Look, you have to do something about this. I'm tired of hearing you complain about this. You need to be proactive and get out there and shed some light on what you're going through.” So, about 14 years ago, I reached out to the local Northwest chapter of the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation, and I went to their luncheon and spoke. The band came and supported me. They had seen me struggle with it through the years. When I finally started talking about it, there was a lightness to it. This burden I was keeping quiet just dissipated for me, because I could talk about it, and I met other people that had it.
Then, I started meeting kids who had it, and I realized that they were really suffering. These kids had to have multiple surgeries and were missing school, and it just ripped my heart out. I started this band called Flight to Mars, which is a UFO tribute band. We do covers, and it's a bunch of my friends from Seattle, and all the money we raise sends kids without the money to attend, to Camp Oasis. The camp has doctors and nutritional things for the kids, but the kids also get to just be kids, and go play and have fun. Each year, we do the Flight to Mars show in Seattle, where we raise money to support this cause (see our Facebook Page). -HC-
Anne Erickson holds years of bylines in Gannett Media publications, as well as music magazines Premier Guitar, Guitar Edge and more. She also hosts radio shows with iHeartRadio and has been syndicated in Seattle, Dayton, Central Coast California and beyond. Anne is a loyal Spartan and holds a Master’s degree from MSU. She resides in Lansing, Michigan.