Interview with Billy Martin—the Serendipitous Life

This interview was first published in 2010. Good Charlotte came together in 1996, when five high school friends from Maryland picked up instruments for the first time and joined forces to form a band, while still learning how to play. Led by twin brothers Joel and Benji Madden serving as vocalist and guitarist, bassist Paul […]

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This interview was first published in 2010.

Good Charlotte came together in 1996, when five high school friends from Maryland picked up instruments for the first time and joined forces to form a band, while still learning how to play. Led by twin brothers Joel and Benji Madden serving as vocalist and guitarist, bassist Paul Thomas, original drummer Aaron, and rounded out by guitarist Billy Martin, the group quickly rose in popularity by playing countless gigs within the Washington, D.C. area. By 2000, Good Charlotte had landed a deal with Epic records and scored its first hit with Little Things, which swiftly grew into an anthem among high school kids. However, the tune had already been gaining momentum long before the band was signed as a demo version made its way across East Coast local radio stations and began creating a buzz. Good Charlotte later expanded its audience through relentless touring and appearances on MTV.

Guitar.com met with Good Charlottes guitarist Billy Martin at the tail end of the groups marathon tour supporting The Young And The Hopeless. Though he was evidently tired from the endless trek spanning the globe, Martin was quite eager to talk shop. He briefed us on his beginnings as a player, and described his role as Good Charlottes procurer of weird sounds, which he conveniently delivers via a collection of ordinary stompboxes. Martin explained the ways in which he uses creepy movie soundtracks as inspiration to craft unusual sounds and create effective parts that seamlessly slip from one mood into another. He also detailed his live rig and amp settings, and told us why he was drawn to the sounds of Paul Reed Smith guitars and Mesa/Boogie amps.

Currently at work in the studio, Good Charlotte looks forward to delivering a new record later this year, and getting back onstage to rock!

Guitar.com: Who were your main influences when you first started playing and what inspired you to play guitar?

Martin: When I first started playing guitar, I was 15 and I was really into the grunge era. Nirvana was my favorite band around then, but Silverchair was the band that made me want to be in a band because they were so young, and like the same age as me. I thought that if Silverchair could do it at 15, then I could do it, too. That really pushed me to play a lot, and to start a band, rather than just playing guitar on my own. A lot of people start playing young, but I wanted to start a band right away.

I had known a couple of kids at school who played guitar. One time we had to do a Spanish project in middle school. Everybody did some kind of poster, but one kid asked if he could write a song for it. The teacher said he could, so he came in and played his guitar in the class and started yelling stuff like tacos and burritos over the top of the guitar chords. It was pretty funny. Then the teacher said that as long as he brought the guitar in, he might as well play for a little bit. So we were asking him to play Nirvana, and the kid would play Nirvana. I thought it was so cool that this kid could play these other bands songs. Then it kind of clicked in my head that if I had a guitar, I could play these other bands songs. So that was sort of the first time I had the idea that I would want to try and play guitar. But the day I got a guitar, I said I was starting a band. I think Silverchair gave me the idea to really want to be in a band, but Id say the first time it really hit me was when that kid came into school and played guitar in the class.

Guitar.com: Did you take lessons or teach yourself to play?

Martin: I took lessons. My parents got me a guitar for Christmas. It was this $100 J.C. Penny guitar called the Terminator with a built-in speaker. My parents were so adamant about that if they were going to get this guitar for me, then I was going to have to take lessons. They really didn’t understand the point of teaching yourself, but I was trying to tell them that its not cool to take lessons. I wanted to teach myself, but they really wanted me to go for lessons. I ended up meeting this guitar teacher who was so awesome. He wouldn’t force me to learn theory and he would teach me songs. I would just go in and jam with him for a half an hour every week, so I got used to playing with other people. Then it ended up that they couldnt make me leave the lessons because I’d want someone else to play with. So it wasn’t really like your typical lessons. I really respected him as a guitar player and I definitely learned a lot from him.

Guitar.com: Which player’s influenced you most as you were developing your style and tone?

Martin: To me, its really strange, because were kind of in the midst of this punk-pop world and I grew up not listening to anything like that. As I got more into guitar, my favorite bands were the Deftones, the early Korn records, and Helmet. There were also a lot of bands like that who were really my big influences. I really wanted to get a Paul Reed Smith because Daniel Johns from Silverchair, Mike Einziger from Incubus, and Page Hamilton from Helmet used them. That was always my dream guitar, and I wanted Mesa/Boogie amps because that was what Korn used. I pretty much would just look at my favorite bands and just not even know what this gear sounded like, but I knew thats what I wanted because my favorite bands played them. Then as I learned more about the gear and what sounds I wanted, I still played Mesa/Boogie and Paul Reed Smith.

Guitar.com: Which model Mesa/Boogie amps are you using?

Martin: I use a Dual Rectifier. I have one Dual Rectifier head through four Dual Rectifier cabinets. I also use two Bad Cat combos. Im not sure exactly which models the Bad Cats are, but theyre two different ones, and I use one for clean and one for dirty. They had sent them to me at the beginning of the tour and said I could check them out. I mix the one Bad Cat with the Mesa/Boogie for my heavy sound, and I use just one Bad Cat combo by itself for the clean sound.

Guitar.com: How do you typically dial in the controls on your amps?

Martin: For the Mesa, I usually ride the mids and bass pretty full on. I put them up to about 8, and the treble back to about 6. I put the gain up pretty high, at about 8 or 9, and the presence is at about 6. I put the output right about in the middle, and I keep the master volume kind of low.

On the Bad Cat, I have it set at about half gain a lot less distorted and with a little more treble. Everything is sort of back a couple of levels from the settings on the Mesa/Boogie. I lose a lot of the clarity on the Mesa when its really bassy and heavy, but I like that. So the Bad Cat is sort of my less gainy distortion sound to make up for clarity. The second Bad Cat is just for my clean tone and that one is set with bass on 6, mids at 6, treble at about 6 or 7, then volume at 3.

Guitar.com: What effects do you have in your rig?

Martin: I have quite a lot of effects. I love playing with effects. I know Im not this crazy shredder guitar player guy. I’m not a bad ass. I like being slightly innovative and I’d rather make a bunch of weird sounds. I have a lot of Boss stuff like the PH-2 Super Phaser, DD-5 Delay, and the RV-3 Reverb/Delay. I also have a Voodoo Lab Tremolo, Voodoo Lab Analog Chorus, Dunlop Crybaby wah wah pedal, Digitech Whammy pedal, and Digitech Overdrive.

Guitar.com: How many guitars do you usually take out on tour?

Martin: I usually bring three or four. I have a couple different PRS guitars. I have a Custom 24, a McCarty, a Singlecut, and a McCarty Hollowbody.

Guitar.com: How do they differ in tone? What do you use each one of them for?

Martin: The Custom 24 is sort of like my baby. I bought it when I was 17 and I had to make payments on it to afford it. That one was always my main guitar, but its getting so beat up right now that I’m going to retire it and take it home. I don’t want it to get all beat up. But the McCarty one is my new favorite. It’s pretty heavy sounding. I think the Singlecut is a lot more midrangey and a lot fuller sounding. It’s not as bassy as the McCarty. So I kind of just rotate between the Singlecut and the McCarty as my main guitars. Then when we do an acoustic part of the set, I use the Hollowbody for those quieter songs.

Guitar.com: What kind of strings and picks do you use?

Martin: I use DAddario XL strings. They’re really good strings. I believe I’m using .013s now, but Ive also used .012s for a while and kind of switch between them. I keep going up to a higher gauge. For picks, I have Dunlop Tortex. I have custom ones that are black with a little red bat on them, but they’re the same gauge as the yellow ones youd get in the store [.73 mm].

Guitar.com: How do you like your guitars set up? Do you prefer the action to be set higher or lower?

Martin: I guess I like it sort of in the middle. I definitely like to be able to feel the strings pressing down on the neck. I don’t like it when they’re so close to the neck that you can barely tell youre pressing on it. But since I’m not a really fast guitar player, I can’t have it too high or its too hard to play. So I like it somewhere in the middle. But I do like to feel a little bit of tension.

Guitar.com: Do you tune your guitars down from standard pitch?

Martin: Yes. I tune a half-step down, and on a lot of songs I have a dropped-D.

Guitar.com: What do you do to warm up for a gig?

Martin: I’m really bad at warming up, although I know I should. Sometimes I will, but lately weve been demoing songs for the new record and I have a little Digidesign Mbox and Pro Tools set up, and I’ve been locking myself into a room every day and just recording demos all day long. So I guess I get a lot of practice that way, and also just playing guitar at soundchecks. So pretty much, thats been my warm up for this tour. But normally, I’d probably just go out there and play.

Guitar.com: Do you practice much when you arent touring? Do you work on anything in particular?

Martin: I don’t practice practice, but I play my guitar all the time. If I see a guitar, I just have to pick it up. I can’t not pick it up. If I’m cleaning my house and I see a guitar, I’ll pick it up and play it for a minute, then I’ll put it down. Then I’ll leave the room and I’ll see another guitar, and I’ll just want to pick it up and play it. So I’m just messing around all the time, but I don’t just sit and make myself do scales, like I should. But sometimes I do. Sometimes I’ll get in practice mode where I’ll buy a book of scales and sit and play them over and over while I watch TV.

Guitar.com: What advice would you give to other players on developing their style and improving their tone?

Martin: I think that, obviously, playing as much as you can is the only way that youre ever going to get good. I think that kids should try to be creative, right off the bat. I think that theory is a good thing to know, but you cant write a song on theory. You’ve got to be able to be creative and really play what you like to play. If there’s a band that you really like, learn how to play some of their songs. Learn what kind of style they play guitar in and it will definitely help you shape the way you play guitar. Because if all youre learning is theory, then you’re really not going to learn any style and technique. And by learning other bands songs I think it definitely helps you to gain a better understanding of how song structure is put together, and why certain notes sound right over other chords. You’ll get more out of it than someone telling you because you’re in this key and its this scale. That really doesn’t do anything for you. I really think it’s good to pick apart songs that you like and to play guitar all the time not practice, just play.

Guitar.com: What do you listen to for inspiration?

Martin: For inspiration, I try to listen to my favorite bands, but I like a lot of other stuff, too. Aside from just music, I like a lot of movie soundtracks. I really like Danny Elfman who does all the music for Tim Burton movies. I think that he is absolutely genius. A lot of times Ill try to figure out what scale hes using because he sometimes makes up his own scale where hell take a major scale and drop two of the notes, and then use that strange made-up scale over certain songs. I really like creepy movie soundtracks. But its really hard to incorporate that kind of notation on top of a Good Charlotte song because most of the time, Benji will come up with a guitar part for a song and it will be really melodic and catchy. But then I instantly want to play something evil over the top of it because thats just the kind of music that I like. So I like to hear music in movies and just listen to where a part will go from a happy part to a sad part in the movie, and hear the way that the song transitions. For some reason, I pay attention to that stuff in movies all the time. Thats my sort of non-music influence a lot of scary movie soundtracks. But I still listen to Silverchair. They’ve got a record that came out just over a year and a half ago that nobody seemed to know about, and its amazing. And I really like this band from the UK called Muse. They have a lot of pianos and its really dark sounding with a lot of fast tremolo guitar parts with reverb on them, so it sounds all orchestral, and has lots of really strange sounds like that. I also like Glassjaw a lot, and the Deftones, and a lot of bands that make these weird ambient guitar sounds. I’d rather make up a cool ear candy part than like shred over a song.

Guitar.com: Describe Good Charlottes songwriting process. How do most of the songs come together and how do you develop your guitar parts?

Martin: Most of the time, Benji, the other guitar player, and his brother Joel [Good Charlotte frontman] will come up with something on an acoustic guitar. They’ll come up with a melody and say Hey guys, do you like this? And they’ll play it for us. Then if everybody likes it, well jam on it at soundcheck and try to arrange it a little bit. I try never to play what Benjis playing. I always like to try and play a different guitar part. Sometimes its cool to play the same thing, but well just kind of sit around and say, Let’s go to this chord instead or Let’s do a break here. But it always starts with the two of them having some kind of melody and a guitar part, and then we just kind of jam on it for a while. If we like the way its going, then well keep going with it. And if its not going anywhere, then maybe it wasn’t going to work.

Guitar.com: What were some of the highlights of the last tour?

Martin: We had a show in San Jose that was really surprising. I didn’t know how good it was going to be until we went out and played, and the show was just awesome. I couldn’t believe it! A lot of the regular places we play like Minneapolis and Philadelphia are always good, and the one Canadian show we did was really good, too.

Guitar.com: Does the band ever videotape its shows and later watch the footage to see whats working best?

Martin: On the last tour, we had a videographer, so we taped all the shows, and we would watch them all the time. But this tour, we’ve rarely done any taping.

Guitar.com: What do you consider to be the best part of touring?

Martin: I’d say the best part of touring is just getting to hang out, especially when you get to bring bands on tour that are your friends. That’s the best. We’ve been pretty lucky in that we have never gone on tour with a band that we haven’t gotten along with. It’s pretty convenient to always be able to hang out with your friends all day long and know that the only thing you have to do at the end of the day is play a show.

Guitar.com: What is the worst part about being out on the road?

Martin: After a while, everything is just going to catch up to you. On this record cycle, we said were young and excited, let’s do this until we fall down. We thought we were indestructible and we just kind of kept going and going, and never took a break. Then it finally kind of hits you one day and you become exhausted. The hardest thing is when you’re sick or if you’re really tired and you go outside and see theres a hundred kids yelling at you, but you just walk on the bus and dont go over to hang out with them. They’re all saying, Oh, what a dick! But they don’t have a clue as to what kind of day you’ve had or what you have to do again the next day. It’s so hard sometimes to have to smile when youre not in the best mood. But if thats the worst part of it, its fine with me.

Guitar.com: What are Good Charlottes plans for 2004?

Martin: Were going to take eight weeks off, which we havent done in two years! Were going to take a break and then get excited for doing a new record. We’re going to be recording sometime in March and will hopefully have the new record out by the end of the summer or early fall.

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