In the early 80's, when new wave was starting to sound pretty old, some musicians opted for a more rootsy approach to rock. One of those musicians was Marshall Crenshaw, and when Warner Brothers released his eponymous debut in 1982, which featured the shufflin hit single Someday, Someway, critics and the record-buying public began to take notice. Not prone to singing the praises of first releases, Rolling Stone magazine, nevertheless, gave Crenshaws debut a sterling four-and-a-half star rating. The fact is, there was plenty to rave about: catchy melodies, tight musicianship, hooks to die for and extremely cool, crisp guitar playing that brilliantly melded Memphis rockabilly with British power pop, Philly soul and Stax/Volt R&B.
Critical acclaim continued to follow Crenshaw with subsequent releases such as Field Day, Downtown, Mary Jean & 9 Others and Miracle of Science. He's also penned tunes for a variety of artists, including The Gin Blossoms, Bette Midler, Robert Gordon, Kelly Willis, Kirsty MacColl, Marti Jones, and Was (Not Was), among others. Not the type of guy who likes to get pigeon-holed in one genre, Crenshaw has also spread his wings into the acting world, starring in Peggy Sue Got Married, Nickelodeons Pete & Pete and La Bamba (in which he played Buddy Holly). In addition, he's written a book on music in the movies called Hollywood Rock. In celebration of Crenshaws 18-year career, Rhino Records released two collections: This Is Easy: The Best Of Marshall Crenshaw and an expanded edition of his critically acclaimed debut. In the following interview, Crenshaw discusses his influences, technique and gear.
Guitar.com: Marshall, what first prompted you to pick up a guitar?
Marshall Crenshaw: I fell in love with the instrument when I was a child. My father had a guitar and I'd always watch him play, and he'd let me mess around with it, too, because it was a cheap one. I'd drag it around the house. He then bought me one when I was about six or seven. But I really didn't start playing until I was 10. What finally pushed me to start learning was I had an older cousin named Chuck and he started really getting serious about playing, which motivated me because I wanted to hang around with my cousin. He was like an older brother to me. He had never seen a guitar before, but he invented a way of tuning it where the first string was E, the next two were A, the D string was E, and then the next two were A. It created this buzzing drone. Anyway, we'd sit the guitars on our laps and make these barre chords and play melodies to hits that were on the radio at the time.
Guitar.com: Who were some of your guitar-playing influences?
Crenshaw: Buddy Holly was the first. That sound he had was just magical to me, and still is. When I hear those ringing major chords on his records, it sounds like wide open spaces. It sounds so life-affirming. There were also a lot of great guitar players on Top 40 radio when I was starting out. I also got into Mike Bloomfield and that whole white-boy blues deal. I became a big fan of Eric Clapton with Cream, too, and also Jimi Hendrix especially Jimi Hendrix. But a real eye opener for me happened when my brother brought home some 78's that hed found in a trash pile. They included some Les Paul recordings, and I played those records and was dumbfounded by them.
Crenshaw: Starting in 1979 with the songs on my first album, I got real serious about writing songs and I had set these parameters as to how I wanted them to be structured. There was no wasted motion and everything was real concise, plus there was a minimalist approach to lyric writing. After I had 20 of those down, I started to kind of run out of juice. That formula began to get a little stale for me, so I had to abandon it and I started trying to do stuff that was aesthetically happening. I was trying to get as deep emotionally as I could with the melodies. And then right around that time I rediscovered the whole thing of cranking my amplifier all the way up. I was using these Vox AC30s and instead of keeping the volume down for mostly a clean sound, I just cranked it up and it put me in this other place with a different kind of energy happening where you can saturate the room with sound. Plus, I had a new Stratocaster that I was absolutely crazy about. I was playing my ass off all the time. But honestly, for me its always been about the guitar. Even the early records I did with those really poppy song structures and no guitar solos were still guitar-dominated records.
Guitar.com: How would you describe your guitar-playing technique?
Crenshaw: Basically I'm self-taught. I started out with barre chords and really simple rock music. About 10 years ago I learned to do Travis picking from a Danny Gatton video tape. I'd always wondered how to do it and I'd always loved Chet Atkins and Merle Travis and those cats and then finally I saw this video tape and it just blew me away. Danny laid it all out for me, and so now I play with the pick between my thumb and index finger and then I use the other three fingers. I've developed to a point where I use all my fingers independently. Right now, I'm totally away from barre chords. I also learned an exercise that classical players use. It's called The Rack. You start with your pinky on the first fret of the D string and then you gradually move each finger up. It's a hand-stretching thing that also builds independence in your right hand. That's always the first thing I do when I practice, which is every day. I go up the fretboard to the 12th fret, and then back. I also practice stuff from the two books on jazz guitar technique that Mickey Baker published in the 50s.
Guitar.com: What kinds of guitars are you using these days?
Crenshaw: Mainly Fender. I've been playing Fender Stratocasters since 1972 and I love them. I love the way they look. Plus, they have this cool history about them -- that whole West Coast, post-war, one-man, artist-entrepreneur thing. I also have some PRS guitars and a couple of old Gretsches. In the 12-string department, I have a Vox and an Epiphone. I also have a really wonderful 1960 Fender Esquire. It's as minimal as you can get. It's two slabs of wood and a single-coil pickup. But when you have just the right pieces of wood and the right amount of coil on the pickup, then you have something magical. That's my Fender Esquire. I also have some really great acoustic guitars, too. I have a Collings, a Bourgeois, and a couple of nice old Guilds.
Guitar.com: What's your string gauge preference?
Crenshaw: In 1987, when I was reconsidering all the aspects of my guitar playing, I switched to heavier gauge strings because I noticed I was bending the strings kind of sharp. So I put some heavier frets on my main Stratocaster and switched the strings to a .052 on the bottom and a .010 on the top. For a little while, I was also using these picks that were made out of stone, which gave my Fender guitars a really cool sound. I think I'm gonna go back to using those picks.
Guitar.com: What amplifiers are you favoring?
Crenshaw: For me, the Vox AC30 is about the only amp you need, although I have a bunch. I use different combinations of amps when I'm recording. I have an old Standell tube amplifier. It's got a great JBL 15-inch speaker in it, and a [Fender] Showman cabinet. I also have a nice 70's Marshall with a Super Lead head. But if I had to get rid of everything and keep just one amp, it would be the Vox. It has a magical sound. It's got a class A circuit. The high end is really gorgeous sounding. When you crank it up, it's just as slammin as anything, and then when you turn it down theres a lot of definition and a sort of fineness to the sound. And Voxes look cool, too. To me, a Vox AC30 is about as good as it gets. I have a Tony Bruno amplifier, too. I like to buy stuff from guys who are artist-entrepreneurs -- guys like Tony Bruno who make the stuff as a labor of love and who really pour over every detail.
Guitar.com: What about effects?
Crenshaw: For years I never used any, but when I discovered Les Paul sometime in the 70's, I realized that one of the things that made his sound so intriguing to me was his slap echo effect. It really fascinated me. It gives the sound an element of mystery. So I started adopting that and I use different style boxes to make that slap echo sound. I have a Boss analog delay and I have a Danelectro. I don't really have a good tape echo machine right now, but I wanna get one. Sometimes I use a Siegmund overdrive pedal, and I got this little tube compressor stomp box from a company called Guyatone. It tightens up the sound and gives it a little bit of punch. I also have a Boss tremolo pedal thats really good. And thats mainly it.