George Marinelli Onstage

George Marinelli: Evolution of a Journeyman Session Pro

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The longtime Bonnie Raitt sideman dishes on his history and gear, then talks about cutting with Ray Charles.

George Marinelli has been playing guitar professionally onstage and in the studio for more than 30 years. Born on Staten Island into a working class Italian-American family, George moved with his family to Los Angeles when he was 14. He got his first guitar on his 15th birthday and then spent most of his time indoors learning from records, although he did get out to see The Beatles at Dodger Stadium. Lots of roadwork with various bands in the ’70s led to the Hollywood session scene. He played with Billy and the Beaters until 1982 when George met Bruce Hornsby and formed Bruce Hornsby and the Range. They recorded three albums and toured extensively until 1991 when George relocated to Nashville. He joined Bonnie Raitt’s band in 1993 and he still records and tours with them. George operates WingDing Recording Studio in Nashville where he produces what he calls "low budget indie records."

Musician’s Friend spoke with George at a gig at the Wiltern Theater in L.A.

Musician’s Friend: Moving to Nashville doesn’t seem to have hurt your job prospects.

George Marinelli: No, no, it hasn’t, actually it helped. I had a lot of friends there already before I moved. My wife Kathy and I were thinking about moving for five years before that. When we got pregnant, that sealed it and we said "Let’s get out of L.A." And all my friends kept saying "Man, you’ll clean up if you come down here, you can work steadily," and it worked out so I’m happy to be there.

MF: You got your first guitar on your 15th birthday. What kind of guitar was it?

GM: It was just a little cheap acoustic guitar that my mom saved trading stamps for... it was one of the worst guitars ever made and the strings were in one area code and the guitar was in another area code-that’s how far off the neck they were. We didn’t have a lot of money so she saved up stamps and got me a guitar.

MF: So presumably, you didn’t really learn to play on that guitar.

GM: I actually did! Yeah, I was real motivated. I would come home from school and punish myself all afternoon and into the evening playing that thing and, hence, my grades went right downhill.

MF: Were you taking lessons?

GM: A couple or three maybe.

MF: What about theory, did you have theory from anywhere else?

GM: I actually took a music appreciation class in school and failed it. [laughter] I shouldn’t be telling you that, but no, I just basically would come home from school every day and play along with records.

MF: And who were you playing along with?

GM: The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix, you know. That’s what was hot when I first started.

MF: That’s a pretty good pedigree.

GM: Yeah, not bad. I was very lucky that all that stuff was coming out when I was learning how to play so it was a really good time. I’ve got to say, L.A. during that time was really a hotbed of new music so I was very fortunate, all of the timing was right.

MF: How did you finally start getting into the studio?

George Marinelli with Stratocaster

GM: When I was growing up here in L.A., I just started getting in bands and I would do anything I could do, it wasn’t a conscious effort. I just wanted to play, so I was usually in two or three bands, and at times five at the same time playing at different places. None of them were working very much, so there was never a conflict. And then I got in a couple of bands that got signed to record deals. A producer who I worked with would say "Hey, come in and play on something." So then all of a sudden in the mid ’70s I found myself playing recording sessions and starting to make a living.

MF: Were you doing a lot of sessions?

GM: At the beginning, not a lot but enough here and there. Yeah, a lot of demos, a lot of publishing demos and stuff like that and even today in Nashville there’s a ton of publishing demos. You can stay busy without necessarily playing on anything that anybody’s going to hear.

MF: Lately, I keep running into people who talk about making commercials as a way of making a living. Is that a whole different universe from real studio work?

GM: Yeah, it’s different. When I was in L.A. I used to do some of it and they’re totally unsatisfying because you’re basically playing 15 second chunks of music, 30 second chunks, 45...a minute at the most.

So it’s not really playing a song and it’s not really lending much to the arrangement. I don’t read very well so I never got very deep into that. I did it for a couple of years for one guy who was stupid enough to keep hiring me [laughter] and that was it. But I know a lot of guys actually try to get the accounts themselves and they put together ads in their home studios and stuff like that. I guess if you’re really good at networking and getting on the phone and schmoozing, you can get into those little accounts. I’m not into it. I don’t like it.

MF: Are you still the major studio ace? Are a lot of people calling you all the time for that stuff?

GM: Yeah, I still work a lot in Nashville, if I’m there, which I’m not.

MF: What are the three most important things for somebody who wants to get into studio work to keep in mind, or to build up his studio work?

GM: Beyond the obvious, being able to play and all that stuff, you’ve got to have your gear in really great shape, your guitars intonated, be able to get a good sound, have your amps and your rigs set up so the engineer doesn’t have to bend over backwards to get his sound. Especially nowadays, people want to work fast. They don’t want to spend 45 minutes getting a guitar sound; they want to stick an [Shure] SM57 in front of it and have it up and going immediately. You’ve just got to have enough instruments to get different tones and different sounds. Another thing for me anyway, I’ve always been a real song guy. I’m not a chops guy; I can’t play fast and I can’t do all that stuff but I really like songs and I think I have good "arrangemental" ideas. You need to enhance and add to the song and be smart enough to lay out if you don’t come up with anything that’s improving the situation. Just play tasty and listen, keep your ears open for what’s going on. Try and play something that’s complementary to what’s going down and have a good attitude and don’t be a sourpuss in the studio. Nobody wants to hire somebody who has a crappy attitude. Have fun.

MF: Well, those sound like three very useful things for people to keep in mind.

GM: How to get the work, I don’t know. I can’t help with that [laughter], but once you get in there, there’s things to do to make sure you get called back and I think those are the things that are pretty important.

MF: We were talking about other people you’ve played with. I’m a big Robert Earl Keen fan and I saw that you’d played some with him. What was that like?

GM: Yeah, that was when I first moved to Nashville. That was a trip. He’s hilarious, so they were just funny sessions. It’s hard to not laugh listening to him sing his lyrics, but it was great, it was really fun. When I first got down there, that was one of the first things I did and it was neat. I got to sing along with him. I got to sing harmonies on the record. The last time I saw him actually was here in L.A. I landed at the airport and I was on the shuttle to the rent-a-car place and I looked up and he was sitting opposite me. So yeah, we’ve crossed paths a few times but I did two records with him and so...it was great.

MF: You did two records?

GM: Yeah.

MF: Which two?

GM: Bigger Piece of the Sky (1993) and Gringo Honeymoon (1994). [Marinelli is also listed as playing on Party Never Ends: Songs You Know From The Times You Can’t Remember from 2003.]

MF: What about Willie Nelson? You played with him, what was that like?

GM: That was when I was still playing with Bruce Hornsby and the Range. We played with him a couple of times but the first time was when he hired us basically as a band to come in and play on his album. I think it was just one song, and it was really neat. We hadn’t even met him ahead of time. I hadn’t, maybe Bruce had. So we’re in his very dark studio outside of Austin and he starts singing this song. We had a very basic chart of it and I started playing some volume pedal bendy stuff and all of a sudden I hear his voice in the headphones going, "Who’s playing that steel, that’s really good." [laughter] And I was thrilled because there was no steel player, he was just talking about what I was playing. He’s the nicest guy. Then he came on a TV show...I don’t even remember the name of it or what it was but we somehow had some kind of a little TV show, it was VH1 or something and he was one of the guests and he was just terrific.

MF: You played with Ray Charles.

GM: I played on that last record! Is it called Genius Loves Company? Anyway, Bonnie Raitt was doing a duet with him and we were here in L.A. for something and she calls and says, "I’m going to record tomorrow with Ray. Would you want to come down and play guitar?" [laughter] Ah nah, I’m busy, I’ve got to go [laughter]...of course I want to come and play with Ray Charles! So that was a total gas. I mean, once again, I didn’t meet him until we were done. Yeah, he walks in and starts singing and playing and he wasn’t feeling well at the time. It was less than a year before he passed and he had to split for a couple of hours and he came back in again and he basically said, "Here’s how I’d like..." We’d already done a cut and he kind of liked it and he said, "That’s great. Here’s how I’d like the intro." and he sits down at the piano and Phil Ramone immediately presses "Record". He plays the intro and we all fall in and that was the record, vocals and everything.

MF: Really!

GM: Yeah, Bonnie added the guitar after the fact but she sang live and I mean, I’ve been playing with her since 1993 and I never get sick of hearing her sing. Hearing her and Ray in my headphones left and right...I was getting chills. It was amazing.

MF: That’s cool. Tell us something funny that happened on the road with Bonnie.

GM: There’s nothing totally whacked. We always have fun up there and a lot of times, you know because she’s so loose and she’s more comfortable and happy onstage. It’s the happiest time of her life and we all have such a good time playing with her and she lets us go. It’s more like a jazz band than a rock band because it’s never the same two nights in a row. She never insists on anybody playing it by the rules or by the numbers. She wouldn’t even consider it, and that’s why I like playing in this band. So every night is pretty hilarious. There will be all kinds of goofball things going on and we try and hide it from the audience but half the time I think they’re getting it. She started making some of these disco sounds the other night on "Something To Talk About." We might selectively leave out background parts to leave somebody hanging by themselves [laughter] just for laughs. Things like that, little things like that just to loosen it up.

George Marinelli Playing Guitar

MF: And she gets into it rather than gets irritated, huh?

GM: Oh God! Yeah, we did that one night and she was laughing so hard she actually didn’t sing the last chorus (laughter). She knows how to have fun and the thing about it is, she sings her butt off every night.

MF: When you’re touring are you on a bus or how does that work out?

GM: Our road manager and assistant road manager are on one bus and then the crew is on the other bus because they have to get places before we do. Besides, we wouldn’t want to be on the bus with them anyway [laughter]. Honest to God, we wouldn’t fit. There’s like 12 or 14 crew people so...

MF: Does Bonnie travel on the bus or does she fly around?

GM: Oh no, she travels on the bus. She’s one of us. She’s a band member. She doesn’t ride first class unless we do, things like that.

MF: Well that’s neat.

GM: Yeah, she’s a regular guy.

MF: She’s pretty down home.

GM: She takes care of us, she takes care of the crew, she takes care of strangers. She’s the most generous person I’ve ever met. She’s amazing.

MF: I’ve seen Bonnie a handful of times. She was here with Jackson Browne at the Britt Festivals in Jacksonville a few years ago. Loggers came out and set up log trucks to block the roads because they considered she and Browne environmentalists so they had chainsaws running outside the amphitheater trying to drown out the music.

GM: Get out! Really?

MF: Oh yeah, and Bonnie said, "Hold it! I think that’s like a C#!" [laughter] And she starts playing this song with the chainsaws.

GM: Oh, that’s great!

MF: It was hilarious! She was so cool.

GM: Yeah, she does so much of that stuff that a lot of people don’t even hear about. I heard her dad got arrested once with her. Her dad was like 81 years old at the time and he went up with her and they both got thrown in jail.

MF: Let’s talk about your gear.

GM: At home and in the studio I have a ’62 Strat that I’ve had since 1971. It’s fabulous. I have a couple of early ’70s Teles, an old Gibson mandolin, a neat Suzuki mandolin, a ’64 Gretsch Tennessean, an early ’60’s Epiphone Cortez, an old Marshall 50 watt, a brown-faced Fender Bandmaster, and my Dr. Z Maz Jr. and various other stuff... And out here on the road I’m usually using two AC30s.

MF: Are those modern-day AC30s or old ones?

GM: No, one’s an original and one’s a reissue from the early ‘90s I think. But this, believe it or not, belonged to Bonnie, and she hates them and I like them, so I use them. My Dr. Z amp, my old Bandmaster, and my Marshall stay home. Most of the time in the studio I use my Dr. Z. It’s a great little amp. He makes incredible stuff.

MF: So what guitars do you play on the road?

GM: On the road, I’m using a $300 Mexican Strat, believe it or not, and it plays every bit as good as my ’62.

MF: What year is your Strat?

GM: The one on the road?

MF: Yeah.

GM: I bought it two years ago.

MF: Two years ago. Did you buy it from us?

GM: No, I bought it from Nashville Used Music [laughter]. I just walked in, and I went through about 15 rosewood neck Strats, and 14 of them were just okay and one of them was killer; it felt like my old guitar. So I bought it and that’s what I use on the road. If anything happens to it, it’s not going to break my heart. It cost $300, you know, and it’s a nice guitar. I have another old Tele...you know I lied, I do have one old guitar out here but it’s a cheap-o. It’s an early ’70s Tele that is all beat up and not original or anything, but it has EMG pickups. I have a guitar by a company called Tradition who I’m working with and they make really neat stuff and they’ve laid a couple of guitars on me and one of their Teles is out here. I really like it a lot. Plus a Strat-style with an amazing new bridge called the Trem-King. Too simple to describe but it works incredibly.

George Marinelli in Studio

MF: Aren’t you endorsing Elixir strings? You like them because they last or what?

GM: I like them because they last. They always have, but I don’t like brittle-sounding high end. I don’t like new strings and theirs—when they’re new—they don’t sound like regular old strings that you put on that you have to play for three days before they sound right. They sound the same when they’re new or when they’re old, and I’m not a new string guy and I don’t like changing them, so I usually don’t mess with them until they break, and they don’t break very often.

MF: Do you have your own personal tech?

GM: Yeah, yeah. We have two guitar techs out with us. One of them takes care of Bonnie and one of them takes care of myself and Hutch Hutchison, our bass player. And he’s really good, his name is Mark Scaggs. He’s Boz Scaggs’ brother. Yeah, and he’s a monster. And so is Manny Alvarez who takes care of Bonnie. They’re both monster guitar techs. They’re really great and great guys on top of that.

MF: So you were going to talk about your amps, something else about some amps you’ve been trying?

GM: Oh yeah, and real quick, Floyd Rose, they laid a guitar on me too. You know, one of their new ones.

MF: The ones with the hole in the neck?

GM: Yeah, exactly. I use it on two or three songs sometimes and it’s a pretty cool guitar. It’s not as fat-sounding as my Strat, but it does sound different. You don’t want them all to sound the same because then what would be the point? If you want to have a lot of colors on the palette. So this thing cuts through on certain songs that the Strat doesn’t. So I’ll use it on certain songs and Mark Scaggs stuck a big eyeball in the hole of the headstock just to...[laughter]. He got a golf ball and painted an eye on it or something.

MF: That’s the weirdest thing about that guitar is that hole in the head.

GM: It’s very strange, yeah. I wish they didn’t do that.

MF: So you were going to talk about your amps? What were you going to say?

GM: Oh yeah, well we try to bring the stage volume down and I like using two amps and I really am mad for the AC30s but...you know Ted Kornblum?

MF: Oh yeah, real well.

GM: From St. Louis Music. So he said, "Let me send you a couple of smaller amps out." So he sent out these new little Crate...this new 30-watt and they’re based on EL84s. And I’ve been using them for about a week now and I really like them. I’m not a gear snob, so I don’t care if it’s an old Marshall or if it’s brand new. I’ve played solid state amps and if you can get a sound you like, I’m fine with that.

MF: Do you remember the model name of those Crates?

GM: Yeah, I think it’s called...it didn’t even say "Crate" on the front, it’s just a big "V." It looks like an old Chevy insignia and it’s a 30-watt and it’s got the hemp speakers on it.

MF: Yeah, the V30 head.

GM: Yeah, ZZ Top’s using them too, they’re using the V50s.

MF: Right. That’s cool.

GM: I’ve tried one in Nashville. I sat in with somebody at the Exit Inn and the tech there knows me and he says, "Hey man, I picked this amp out for you, try this, I think you’ll like it." And coincidentally, that’s the amp Ted Kornblum told me about. He said, "Do you want to try them? I’ll send you out a couple." and I said, "Sure man, why not?" I was pretty impressed by it in Nashville, even though I only played ten minutes on it but, it’s nice. They’re way warmer than the boxes are. And we tilt the amps back so I don’t obliterate the people in the front row, you know, because I don’t play real quiet. [laughter] When we tilt the boxes back all the low end goes away, don’t ask me why. But anyway, I’m really happy with these little guys and we’re going to keep trying them.

MF: What about pedals or effects, what do you use?

GM: For years I’d been using the Roland GT5 and I had two of them and obviously they stopped making them. They went on to the GT6, which to me, wasn’t even close. So I’ve been spending a fortune over the years doctoring my GT5s, trying to keep them going, but then when I saw the GT8 came out, I immediately got a couple of those. With the GT6 you couldn’t get compression and tremolo at the same time and I thought, "What in the world were they thinking?" So, [laughter] anyway, the GT8 is built like a tank. All the older ones, the input jacks and output jacks were chassis mount. You know what I’m talking about?

MF: Uh-huh.

GM: They’re part of the circuit board and if somebody comes by and steps on your input plug, there goes the circuit board. And I had that happen and it was a drag having a busted circuit board. So anyway, now the build quality of those things is incredible, I mean, they’re all just like the old days. The jacks are actually mounted on the chassis where they should be, and things like that, and they just sound great. I mean, they’ve always sounded great, but now they’re actually built well. I can’t say enough about those Roland pedals. In 1999 I bought my first GT5 and immediately all the stompboxes are gone; they’re either in the garage or on eBay. I just don’t mess with it, you know. You’ve got one cable in and one or two out and that’s it and those things are amazing. They just sound killer!

MF: It’s always a pleasure watching you play. I just watched that Bonnie tribute on TV where she had Norah Jones on...

GM: Well that was fun, yeah.

MF: That was a great show. At the end, you and Bonnie had a little fun there kicking off each other on the guitar.

GM: Yeah, yeah, yeah. We didn’t know what was going on. We actually arranged it at the sound check and rehearsals and all that went right out the window [laughter].

MF: Yeah, well, a lot of times you’re in a support role so you don’t step out and do a lot of solos...

GM: Well, if you see a whole show live, you will see a lot of that. I think I probably played more solos than she did last night to tell you the truth, but you know, I don’t really care. I mean, I like taking a solo now and then and certain ones of them are very conducive to the way I like to play but I’m not a blues guy and stuff like that so on a lot of that kind of stuff I don’t even want to solo. I’ll just stay back here and play some chunky chunkies and I’m happy.

MF: You have a great way of adding the right thing to the song.

GM: Well, she comes up with these great songs, you know? It’s fun playing them.

MF: It’s pretty neat to be in a band with Bonnie, I’m sure.

GM: It really is. Like I said, the level of the musicianship and then just the variety of songs. If I had to play just one kind of music all night long I’d go nuts; I wouldn’t be doing it. I mean, I don’t go on the road with many people you know. She’s it, basically. I did a James Taylor tour a couple of years ago and that was it, and that was a gas. She goes from reggae to Celtic music to African music to folk music to blues and R&B and pop music, I mean, nobody does that [laughter], not anybody. So it’s great.

MF: Is there anything you’ve got going on that you’d like to mention? Do you have any projects?

GM: Oh well, I have some albums out and I have a partner and I started a label, it’s just about a year ago now. It’s called WingDing Record...www.WingDingRecords.com. Basically we’ve released four EPs, one by me. Well I also have a full-length album called Necessary Evil on there and then I have an EP called "Postcard From Kuala Lumpur," Doug Hoekstra, who is my partner, has his EP called Six Songs, and then there’s another guy named Joe Coker who has an album called Candy World and Charlie Degenhardt's April’s Fool. You can find all this on the website. I have a studio at my house, WingDing Studios—so I’ve produced or co-produced all these records and engineered and played half the instruments on these things. It’s really fun; we have a good time.

MF: What’s your recording system?

GM: I use Pro Tools. It’s in my house you know. I’ve converted part of the house into a crazy studio [laughter]. I cut drums in the garage, which is great, so it really is a garage-sounding thing going on, we have a lot of fun.

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