Pearl Jam's Mike McCready is far from a one-guitar man, but of all the axes he has employed over the years in various musical situations, his 1960 Fender Stratocaster is by far the instrument most closely associated with him.
Fender and Mike partnered to celebrate his favorite guitar's grungy legacy, unveiling the Mike McCready Stratocaster last month — a professional grade yet accessible vintage-style Strat inspired by a guitar that's been proven onstage and in-studio over multiple decades.
As Mike tells Q104.3 New York's QN'A, he purchased his iconic sunburst Strat in the wake of the success of Pearl Jam's debut album, Ten. It's remained close to his side ever since.
"It was in kind of beat up shape [when I got it], but that’s how I liked them, you know?" he tells QN'A. "Historically, that guitar was the first expensive guitar I ever bought. It was when I first came into some money, and I was like, ‘Wow, I’m actually going to buy a really nice guitar.’ And that was the first one I bought."
The investment has paid off. Mike has used the guitar on every Pearl Jam record from Vs. onward and at thousands of live shows since. He still vouches for its superior sound and playability.
Though it came with a few scratches and dents when he bought it, most of the wear we see today on the guitar has been delivered by Mike's own hands through years of furious live performances that have weathered it into a tangible artifact of Pearl Jam's longevity.
In the below QN'A, Mike dives into his experience with his favorite guitar — both the original and the new version — he shares his thoughts on becoming a lead guitarist and recalls one of his formative moments in a recording studio, with Chris Cornell during the 1990 Temple of the Dog sessions.
Go here for more details on the Mike McCready Stratocaster.
Go here for a full list of Pearl Jam's tour dates.
It's cool that I get to talk to you about this guitar; I actually saw it — or an early prototype — hanging up in the Fender Custom Shop a couple years ago. For how long has the new version of the Mike McCready Stratocaster been part of your live rig?
On the tour in Europe last summer, they had sent out two or three models. I was playing all three of those back-to-back, trying to see which one was best. The neck on one I liked better than the neck on the others, so we ended up kind of putting one together out of those three, and that’s the one I’m playing now.
So I’ve used it on this latest Pearl Jam tour — I’m currently in Dallas. I’ve played it on every show, different songs. I’ve used it on “Indifference,” “Daughter” and about six other songs because I knew I was going to talk to you and I wanted to be able to say that I’m using it, and that it’s working great live.
Has it supplanted the original 1960 Stratocaster in your rig? If not, do you think it will?
It hasn’t replaced it or anything, but my original one is the best sounding one — I’m not going to lie; it sounds the best. I’ve played it for thousands of shows, it’s a part of me. But this one is right next to that.
The lead in “Daughter” sounds like the lead in “Daughter” should, in my mind. The rhythm part of “Indifference” sounds like it should, in my mind, on a Strat on this new one. It’s doing what it needs to do live — I haven’t used it on a recording yet, but I’ve used it on the last shows that we’ve played.
So the audience gets to watch you switch from one beat up Strat to another that looks exactly the same.
Exactly! And hopefully [they get] them mixed up.
I wanted to use the one that I’m putting out today on this tour, so people would know that I’m actually using it. We did a lot of work with Fender to get to that level. They did a fantastic job, as you saw [during your visit to the Fender Custom Shop].
Going back and forth with Fender on this guitar — was that with the intention of making the replica feel closer to the original? Or were you thinking, ‘If I had this guitar custom built in 1960, this is what I would have wanted'?
I don’t have the technical ability to go, ‘This is what I want.’ I wanted it to be as close to the original as possible. The original 1960 — which I thought was a 1959 for many years — is the iconic one; it’s the one I’ve used on every record, except for our first record. And it’s the one I’ve used for over 1,000 shows, and on other people’s records and Mad Season and stuff like that.
I wanted this model to be as close to that one I love and cherish, and it is.
In what sort of condition was this guitar when you first got it in 1992? Are most of the scratches from you playing it?
Yeah, most of [the scratches are from me]. On the top of the body, there’s an area where when I’m strumming fast, I’m knocking off the finish. There was like … half and inch [of wear] and now there’s a whole five inches or whatever.
It was in kind of beat up shape [when I got it], but that’s how I liked them, you know? Historically, that guitar was the first expensive guitar I ever bought. It was when I first came into some money, and I was like, ‘Wow, I’m actually going to buy a really nice guitar.’ And that was the first one I bought.
I bought it also wanting it to be beat up and played in. And it had to play perfectly the first time I played it. It just never gets better.
Because it was the first expensive guitar that you got, were you precious at all with it at the beginning? Do you remember the first time you added a scratch or a dent to it? Were you like, ‘Oh, no! My baby!’
[Laughs] I probably was pretty precious with it, and then I wasn’t. A guitar is meant to be played. I want to play all my guitars, I can’t just put them away and never play them again, as an investment or anything. I want to play them to the best of my ability ‘cause they do things.
You have guitars and basses, you know that they do things for certain songs. I think the first time I actually played it live was on a song called “Going Down” with Keith Richards in 1992 when we opened up for the X-pensive Winos in New York.
There’s pictures of me an Keith backstage, and I’m holding [the guitar] and looking up at him in awe. And he’s explaining the song to me. You can see the how the wear patterns on the Strat aren’t as big as they are now. That’s when I had had it for a couple of months. Cut to 1,000 shows later, there’s a lot [of wear] on it.
What, to you, is the quintessential Stratocaster sound — both for Mick McCready — and just in general?
The quintessential sound, in terms of projects of mine, I would go to the Mad Season record and put on “River of Deceit” — that’s exactly what I wanted it to sound like. [Pearl Jam’s] “Yellow Ledbetter” is another example of that, where it has to be a Strat — nothing else — it has to have that out-of-phase butteryness to it.
In the pantheon of guitar players, I look at “Machine Gun” from Jimi Hendrix, specifically from the Band of Gypsies record.
I love that record so much. I listen to it once or twice a year and it always blows me away.
Right? I grew up with that. It’s my favorite ever. It’s so intense.
Best band Jimi played with.
It is. [*Mimics Band of Gypsies’ “Who Knows”*]
On “Reach Down” I used a ’62 reissue for Temple of the Dog. It had to be a Strat for that ‘cause I had to have the five-position switch. It’s in the majority of my guitar work.
How did you manage the complications of single coil pickups in the old days, either from the 60 cycle hum or — and maybe this isn't unique to single-coil guitars — when the occasional radio signal would start coming through your amp?
My techs over the years were always aware of that stuff when we were in different towns. When you say radio frequencies, I totally remember that. When you have the wireless system and you’re in a different town, you pick up some radio station and it sounds really awful and they have to throw it on another frequency — however they fix that.
The single coil pickups, they can be hard to deal with sometimes. I have to kind of figure that out with the amp. Sometimes I kind of use that, so I can get the right feedback, sometimes I still struggle with it. I still like the sound of those pickups, though, so I stick with them.
Sometimes I feel like I want to get them a little bit more heavy sounding, so I may do something to them, I’m not sure.
How did you develop your voice as a lead guitar player and soloist?
I think it was playing in bands since I was a kid. I was a ‘rhythm guitar’ player originally in a band called Shadow, which was sort of a punk/metal band. We rehearsed all the time, and I just learned how to play in a band in that situation.
In terms of leads, when we moved to Los Angeles in 1986, we were just a three-piece band, I became a lead player at that time. That forced me to play leads, and I wanted to. It was the ‘80s, so I was into Randy Rhoads and Eddie Van Halen and all that kind of stuff.
Then I got into the blues. I saw Muddy Waters on The Band’s Last Waltz on TV one time. And it kind of changed everything. I was like, ‘Wait, what is this?!’ I had known about him, ‘cause of the Stones and everything, and them getting their name from his song “Rolling Stone,” but I had never heard him or watched him, really.
I watched him play guitar and I was like, ‘Oh, he’s doing a lot more with just one note than I’m doing with all these thousands of notes.’ That brought me into the world of Stevie Ray Vaughan and back to Hendrix.
So it was by doing it. By playing with a singer and knowing when to play and when not to play. When to emulate the vocal or support the vocal, and not playing over the top of it. You can only learn that stuff by playing in bands, I think. You’re with four or five different personalities, and you have to mesh with them; you learn it by doing it.
You mentioned Temple of the Dog’s “Reach Down." There's a really long guitar solo in that song — several minutes long. How do you approach a solo — a musical thought — that you know has to develop over several minutes because there’s that space in the arrangement in which it's supposed to fit?
That’s a good question because I was very nervous in that situation because it was a brand new situation for me to be in with Temple of the Dog.
Chris [Cornell] had invited Jeff [Ament] and Stone [Gossard] and Matt [Cameron] to play on these songs as a tribute to [Mother Love Bone's] Andy Wood.
I had just started playing with Stone, though I had known him for many years. I just started playing with these guys who were in big bands, relatively, in Seattle that had record contracts. It was like a dream come true for me. So I was approaching “Reach Down” very calmly and kind of reluctantly. Because I wanted to be careful and not overplay. I wanted to be reverential to it.
It was a first chance to show yourself to the world, kind of.
Yeah. So I didn’t want to go totally crazy. I did one pass of it, and I didn’t go totally crazy and Chris Cornell was like, ‘I’m gonna go back outside and have a cigarette. And when I come back in, I want to hear a different solo. And I want you to go crazy.’
When he said that, it gave me permission. We did another pass of it and I played whatever I was feeling, pulling out everything I knew, like the toggle switch stuff, stuff I saw Stevie Ray Vaughan do, like stuff at the top of the neck — I don’t really do that anymore… But I was doing everything that I had learned at that time. I was pulling out all the stops and trying to feel it, and I was feeling it. And at the end of the take, I was still playing and my headphones had come off. So something had happened towards the end of it, where I was still playing but I couldn’t hear the song.
That was a great example of having freedom to play whatever I wanted to play. The fun in that and the release of that. To this day, I’m so proud of that moment that Chris let me do that.
…Generally, 70 percent of the time — 80 percent of the time, those are the best takes where I’m just not thinking about it. And then we comp it from there.
It depends. If I’m in the mood to think of something and put harmonies on it, I can do that. Not as extensively as a lot of other guitar players. Initially, I just like to do it off the top of my head.