The Guitar Interview: Jim Root on Slipknot, Jazzmasters and standing shoulder to shoulder with his heroes
Known as #4, Jim Root has formed half of Slipknot’s brutal six-string assault for 20 years. As he steps into the rarified air of his fourth signature model with Fender, we talk classic designs, playing with lightsabres and why he still finds guitar solos stressful.
Jim Root’s verdict on lockdown life is succinct and relatable. “I’m going mildly insane,” says the Slipknot guitarist, with a chuckle. But quarantine isn’t without its moments. This morning the 48-year-old took delivery of one of the first production versions of his brand-new Fender Jim Root Jazzmaster V4, his fourth Fender signature model, and an instrument that marks two decades of working with the world’s biggest guitar brand.
“It blows my mind,” says Root when we point out the long association. “I grew playing Charvels and Jacksons – I never really got into pointy ‘metal’ guitars. When we did Ozzfest in ’99, Fender had DeArmond guitars there. That was how I met [Fender Custom Shop Master Luthier] Alex Perez.
“I asked him, ‘Hey, man, can I get Strat with an EMG 81 in the bridge?’ Because I love the classics, y’know? Whether it’s jean jackets or Ray-Ban sunglasses, to me they’re timeless – and it’s the same with a Fender Strat or Tele. So I said to Alex, ‘Man, if I could just get you guys to make me a mahogany-bodied maple-necked Strat with either an ebony or maple fretboard, that would be the perfect storm for me’.”
Root got his EMG-loaded Strat – and there was something about twisting a golden-era design into a format that worked for his style of music that struck a chord. The pair continued to work together, eventually revealing the stripped-down Custom Shop Flat Head Telecaster a few years later. It certainly wasn’t what Leo had envisioned but then it wasn’t what metal fans were used to seeing at the time either – something that Root clearly enjoyed.
“I thought it was cool because no-one expects somebody to play music like Slipknot’s on a Telecaster – something you’d see Tom Petty with,” he reflects. “I thought that was a nice cool juxtaposition. At the time, I was like, ‘Well, I’m gonna go against this’. It’s sort of my anti-metal punk-rock mentality.”
The chance to work with Fender also stirred up something in Root that took him back to his earliest musical memories.
“When I was 10 or 12 years old, before I even started playing, MTV became a thing,” he says. “I’d see Deep Purple videos with Ritchie Blackmore playing a Strat – and it freaked me out. Something about that just grabbed me. In my parents’ record collection, there were so many album covers with people holding either a Tele or a Strat. I was just drawn to it and it was all downhill from there.”
“No-one expects somebody to play music like Slipknot’s on a Telecaster”
In truth, the guitar got its hooks into Jim even earlier than that, and not even George Lucas was going to stop him from chasing that rock star dream.
“I knew from a very young age that I would take tennis rackets and use them as guitars – and lightsaber,” says Root. “My mum has a picture of me on a picnic table with this wooden lightsaber that my grandpa had made me, but instead of playing Star Wars and trying to have sword fights with the neighbourhood kids, I was using the lightsaber as a guitar.”
When it came to the real thing, however, Root’s formative guitar journey was a stop-start affair, at least at first.
“When I was 14, my parents got me a Memphis guitar, which was like a Les Paul II knock-off with two single coils in it. The first thing I did was break a string on it,” he remembers. “I mainly taught myself by ear until I was about 15. Then this guy came into town that had learnt all the Paul Gilbert stuff out in LA. He was originally from Des Moines and he’d been out there on the Sunset Strip scene with a band but came back to Iowa because it didn’t work out. He brought back three-note-per-string scales, modes and all that stuff.”
Before long, the modal evangelist was putting a band together. Impressed with what he’d seen from Root while teaching him the “Paul Gilbert stuff”, he asked him to join his thrash act, Atomic Opera.
“There was a big music scene in Des Moines,” says Jim. “We’d play the shows, then spend all the money we’d made on recording studios. But we didn’t know what to do with the recordings. We’d sell music at our shows and try to make more money to go and record with, but we weren’t smart enough to go, ‘Hey, maybe we should shop this stuff to a label?’ But then, what label is gonna come to Iowa, y’know? It didn’t make any sense to us.”
In about 1993, Root’s band fell apart. He spent a few years playing around town, joining Stone Sour with his future Slipknot frontman Corey Taylor. Eventually, though, he began to drift away from guitar altogether, to such an extent that when fate came calling, he passed. Twice.
“After Atomic Opera ended, Slipknot was kind of kicking off but I’d given up on guitar and the whole ‘rock star dream’,” says Root. “I hadn’t even touched a guitar in years. Slipknot were getting label interest and they asked me to be in the band but I had to pass because I didn’t think my abilities were up to the task at that point.
“I said no to joining the band two times. Finally, a friend talked some sense into me. He was like, ‘What are you stupid!? You can always go back to what you were doing before! You should give this a try.’ So I quit my job. The next day, I was at Mick [Thompson]’s apartment and he was showing me all the tunes they’d recorded. Then we were rehearsing them at Sid [Wilson]’s house. A week later, I was in Malibu recording them.”