Interview with 311's Guitarist Tim Mahoney
Originally published in Guitar International 2011
By: Brad Conroy
Tim Mahoney has had the kind of career that every aspiring musician dreams of, as the lead guitarist for the popular rock band 311, he has no doubt been inspiring fans to pick up the instrument since their first album Music came out in 1993. There is very little reason to wonder why Mahoney is such a popular player with legions of fans, or why he has a signature PRS model either. Tim's groove is incredible, he has a very melodic soloing style, he plays clean, he plays dirty, and he might even have more riffs than Jimmy Page.
311 have established a very loyal fan base over the past twenty years, and it is their mix of rock, reggae, funk, and fusion which offers a little something for most fans of music to enjoy. 311 have kept up an intense touring schedule, they spread positivity, and their live shows tend to sound just as good, if not better than their studio albums. 311 have worked hard to outdo themselves over the past two decades, and are about to release a 10th studio album; Universal Pulse on July 19, 2011.
Mahoney’s unique and personal guitar style has really helped to define the 311 sound. His bouncy, yet grooving riffs, jazzy sounding guitar solos, use of the Mint Green PRS guitar, and intense head banging antics have all help to make him an iconic figure for fans.
Mahoney recently sat down with Guitar International Magazine to discuss the guitar, his love for Phish, the new album Universal Pulse, 311 day, this summer’s Unity Tour with Sublime, and more..
Brad Conroy: How did you get started playing the guitar?
Tim Mahoney: The first instrument I played was the trombone, and that is how I learned how to read, even though it was in the bass clef, but this really inspired me and taught me a lot about music. When I got to junior high, all of the music I was listening to was like punk rock and rock, which didn’t have any trombone in it, so I switched to the guitar.
I didn’t take too many formal lessons other than a few in the very beginning with the local teacher in Omaha, but it wasn’t a good fit. I began to learn a lot of different things from some good friends who were a little bit older and more experienced with the guitar, and I just started that way, and didn’t start to take lessons until later in life.
Brad: Who were some of your early influences and what aspects of their playing have you incorporated?
Tim Mahoney: Back then, it was Randy Rhodes, who was the guitar player for Ozzy. I always loved his playing, but at the time I could never really play any of that stuff, and I still can’t. So people like that and Van Halen, and the classic rock that was on the radio in Omaha, and a lot of punk rock bands like Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Black Flag, that’s where I started out as a kid. As my playing developed, my tastes developed and through Bad Brains I got into reggae. When I met Nick [Hexum] in high school he was way into reggae. I have just been into many different styles of music.
In my soloing style, I would say my first and biggest influence would be Jerry Garcia, just because I love him so much. When I first saw them in the late ’80s, I never really saw live music like that, improvisational and in the moment all the time kind of thing, it really struck a chord with me.
I also really love John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, but that stuff is so far beyond me in terms of being able to play it and to be on that level of musicianship. But to me, it is an inspiration of music and what music can be and achieve and make you feel. Chad Sexton was always into jazz so he hit me with some of those giants like McLaughlin and Scofield. I think listening to those kind of guys is really inspiring and makes me want to be a better player.
Another huge inspiration for me is Trey [Anastasio] from Phish. I mean he can really do it all; his tone, his playing, and he can sing too. I’m inspired almost every morning when I download their concerts the day after the performance from their website. To be able to hear something fresh every day is amazing, and Phish is the kind of band where the songs are different every time they play them. They are so amazing at what they do that they can pull it off.
Brad: Has there ever been talk of doing an instrumental album?
Tim Mahoney: Not with the band, but over the years we have written quite a few instrumentals and little song ideas, so I suppose we could, which would be cool because I love instrumental music. That is what I listen to primarily other than Jerry and Phish.
Brad: What inspires you now to pick up the guitar and practice it?
Tim Mahoney: I just really enjoy playing, so I spend a lot of time with the looper pedal. It is weird, I just leave the guitar out around the house and at various times throughout the day, I will just pick it up and start noodling with the looper. Once I pick it up, I have a hard time putting it down.
Sometimes I will work on my ear with listening and playing along to whatever music has my interest that day, but it is funny, the older I get the more I seem to enjoy playing. I guess that comes with knowing more about the guitar and being able to do more. I always try to learn something new each day, but I play guitar mostly because I love it and am drawn to it. I am so thankful that I get to play the guitar, and a lot of time I feel it is a way of soul searching.
Brad: Rumor has it that you are taking lessons? Can we ask with who?
Tim Mahoney: It has been a little while since I’ve had a lesson because sometimes I get so busy, but Nick and P-nut have also taken lessons with this guy, John Ziegler. John is a super awesome guitar player and he plays in a group Volto amongst a few others.
We work on a lot of improvisational concepts, how to use the modes, theory, ways of communicating, and a lot of time we just hang out and talk about guitar all night. I learn so much just hanging out with him, and I wish I had time for a steady diet of lessons, but John leaves me with plenty to work on and think about in between lessons.
Brad: How has the music industry changed since you first started out?
Tim Mahoney: The good side is how easy it is to download music and how available music is. I wouldn’t change it because I love the technology and it is what it is. I don’t know because the industry has changed so much since we first started. I guess one of the downsides is that while recording no one uses tape anymore, and the whole analog end of recording and how things actually sound.
We do it as much as we can, and some of the records have been printed onto tape and mixed down on to tape and all of this stuff, but now you basically have to use a computer, and there is no real substitute for some things like that. I wish it was the days when everyone listened to records. It is such a different time and you are just bombarded and the attention span of everybody seems so short. It is rare that anyone sits down and smokes a joint and listens to a record. Maybe you listen to music in your car or in your earphones or whatever.
It seemed like it used to be more of like hanging out listening to music and you listen to the whole record and now people just buy the songs they like, which is cool, hopefully it will make us all write better songs. So it goes back and forth, it is strange to see from our first record where the music industry was so big, it has just changed 180 degrees. It is great too though because now we can just do everything out of our own studio, which is cost effective and easy to do.
Brad: How do you explain 311’s longevity and loyal fans?
Tim Mahoney: I am just really thankful for that. I don’t know, but it has been the same group of us for the past 20 years and we have had the same kind of attitude toward music, and trying to grow and hopefully the people that listen to us follow that and appreciate that. It seems our fans like a lot of different types of music and it is hard to explain.
I look at it in the way that I like music. I am just so glad Phish is out there, and there are our fans that are just so glad 311 is out there. It is amazing though and we are really thankful for our fans. When we are making a record we are very critical and think about whether or not these are good songs and will this music translate to our fans.
I try not to think about it and when we play shows I think about being in the moment, do a good job of playing, presenting the music at that time, and I am just really thankful that I get to do this.
Brad: Can you tell us some of the highlights of your career?
Tim Mahoney: It is funny that you ask me that, because I was just thinking about this. Shaquille O’Neal is retiring and he is one of my all time favorite basketball players, and he was in our music video for the song “You Wouldn’t Believe”. We have a mutual friend and our good buddy was able to get him to come down and do the video.
Right after they won the championship, we were one of the bands at the KROC Weenie Roast, which is their big summer festival. [Shaq] came because he had a new record coming out, where Chad Sexton our drummer produced one of the tracks, and so we did that song with him right after they had won the championship in Los Angeles. It was pretty amazing and a lot of fun. Shaq did an interview after the set with Entertainment Tonight and he was all sweaty and his lip was bleeding because he was rocking so hard on stage that the mic hit him in the face, and he goes “Yeah, I just want to thank 311 for making my rock ‘n’ roll dreams come true.”
So there are so many things like that. We just got back from South America, and it is so amazing that I get to go to cool places like that, and see the world with a great group of people. Having Trey mention us on Charlie Rose was an awesome moment for me, and there are so many highlights and little things. I am just so thankful for all this.
Brad: Quickly tell us a few favorites:
Favorite 311 Album?
Tim Mahoney: Universal Pulse, [Laughs]. No, it is really hard to pick one, but I guess I will say Grassroots, just because of the time and place it was recorded and the house we were renting, so I am partial to that one, but I am really proud of this new one too.
Favorite Dead tune
“They Love Each Other”
Favorite Phish Tune
Favorite 90’s hip hop group
Tim Mahoney: Man that is so hard, so I have to give a shout to some reggae players because that has been such a big influence for me and I have been fortunate to play with so many greats likes Junior Marvin, Hal Anderson. The guys from Ziggy Marley’s band are awesome, but I’m going with the grand daddy Ernest Ranglin who is like THE Jamaican jazz player.
Favorite sushi roll
Baked crab handroll
Favorite character from Arrested Development
Oh man, I like that show but I don’t know the characters well enough.
Favorite city for groupies
Favorite place to play
Honestly Red Rocks is probably the nicest venue in the United States
Brad: If you could be in any band other than 311, what would it be?
Tim Mahoney: Other than being the trombonist for Phish, I would have to say Bob Marley’s band.
Brad: What are some aspects that you think make a good guitarist and a good musician?
Tim Mahoney: I would have to say your ears and listening skills. It is so important because you have to be aware of yourself and how you are fitting in with everything else that is going on around you.
Brad: How much rehearsing and practicing goes into preparation for 311 day?
Tim Mahoney: Well we don’t rehearse enough I know that. It is basically three shows in one night, and it comes out to about three 90 minute sets. We usually do a short run and try to cycle through the tunes just to get the cob webs out of them live. You can listen to all the tunes on the bus and get familiar with them again, but we need to go through them at least once before the show. I would say half of the tunes on 311 day we are totally familiar with and the other half are the ones that we really need to rehearse before the show.
It would be nice to be able to spread it out over a couple days or do something like that, because it can be kind of taxing being on stage that long. With our schedule though, we are only able to do it every other year and we concentrate on ways to make it special for us and especially for our fans. It seems like every time we do it, we are trying to out-do the previous years, but there are only so many songs we can do in one night because the venues have a time limit on how long you can be there.
Brad: Can you tell us what you like about the PRS guitars?
Tim Mahoney: I have always liked just having one guitar on stage with me and not having to switch guitars a lot in between songs. Before our first record I was using a Stratocaster, and when we got signed I had a little money so I went to buy a Les Paul. They had a PRS in the store and I just liked how it played more than the Les Paul, and it had humbucking pickups, which is what I was looking for too.
I chose the PRS and I have fallen in love with them because they are easy to play, and they do clean sounds really nice and they do dirty sounds really nice, too. The PRS has the feel of the Stratocaster, and is sort of in between these two, so with the PRS you get the best of both worlds.
The PRS signature model has come out, and the PRS SE is an affordable version of the Standard 24 that I have been using since the 90’s. It is really great too, because it has a mahogany body, maple fretboard, 24 frets, and is incredible to play.
Brad: Can you tell us about the new album that is coming out in July?
Tim Mahoney: The album is done, Bob Rock produced it and he also helped us engineer it. He was involved in the arrangements of all the songs and really helped us put it all together. Chad Sexton mixed the record at out own Hive Studio and it has turned out really good. There are eight songs, which is a short album, but there is a really nice flow. The album name comes from one of SA’s lyrics and we wanted to make people think about the interconnectedness of the universe and touch on that kind of vibe. The art work is really cool and was done by Sonny Kay, and it really captures the Universal Pulse vibe too.
Brad: Can you tell us about the Unity tour this summer?
Tim Mahoney: We start right after the 4th of July and it features 311, and a couple of our friends DJ Soulman and DJ Trichrome will be the opening act before Sublime. We were just in South America doing Lollapalooza, and everyone seemed stoked at how things were sounding, so it should be really cool.
Brad: What can we expect from Tim Mahoney in the future?
Tim Mahoney: We got the new pedal board in the works. It isn’t too crazy, but I am really excited about it, and I would love to get an interactive gear page going on the web where you can look at the gear, and I am really looking forward to playing some live shows again.