The Guitar Interview: Jim Root on Slipknot, Jazzmasters and standing shoulder to shoulder with his heroes

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 lightsabers 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’.”

Jim Root's Jazzmaster

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.”

Jim Root's Mask

Classic vibes

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.”

Jim Root's Jazzmaster w EVH Amp

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.”

Jim Root's Jazzmaster

Opportunity knocks

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.”

Anyone who has seen Root blaze over the past 20 years would probably raise an eyebrow at his assertion that he didn’t think he was good enough to cut it in Slipknot. But, as with most players, how good you are is a matter of perspective.

“I like to think of myself as a songwriter more than a guitar player. I don’t write lyrics or vocals though, so I’m more of an arranger,” says Root. “I try to dip into that technical world. I know all those three-note-per-string scales and stuff like that but I never took it to the Yngwie level. I would learn bits and pieces here and there but it’s just not that interesting to me. It’s kind of like, ‘Hey, check out what I can do on the fretboard…’ and that’s cool but, for me, it’s more about attitude. I like The Eagles and The Who, The Beatles and stuff like that – songs.

“I got to the point where my scales, my picking and my legato got so good that I could play really fluidly. But it’s only in the past few years that I started learning, ‘Oh, you can move these shapes around on the neck to keep things in key’. I’ve always tried to play for the song but, because I was never moving the shapes around, there’s a lot of stuff I’ll do that – I suppose if you’re really technical guitar player, you could justify how I played it – is not necessarily in key. But I was always like, ‘Well, it sounds good to me so fuck it!’

Jim Root's Jazzmaster

“I’m not the type of guitar player who sits and woodsheds, y’know? I’ve never been that way. I’ve always treated it like a hobby and I want to keep it that way. I want to keep the fun and never want it to feel like work. When you’re touring, it does feel like work. In the past year, other than recording the album and playing shows, I’ve never really picked up a guitar. I need to give it a rest for a while so I can rekindle the romance with it.”

Two’s company

One guitarist who seems in no hurry to give the guitar a rest is Root’s guitar partner in Slipknot, Mick Thomson. The Jackson-toting shredder’s style is more overtly technical and studied than Root’s and it’s this contrast that, over the two decades of Slipknot’s existence, has helped the pair forge a symbiotic relationship.

“I like to think of myself as a songwriter more than a guitar player”

“We’re both very individual guitar players,” says Jim. “He’s definitely a lot more technical than I am at heart. He understands theory and he understands what notes mean and why they’re there, all the modes and all that kind of stuff. I could never really wrap my brain around that. I’m more of an ear player – a behind-the-beat bluesy kind of guy. I think that works really well with us.

“We try to be diplomatic – so if one of us takes the solo in a song, there’s at least something in there for the other to do that makes sense. We’re both guitar players, so we’re competitive. And we both respect each other’s playing styles and all that. But we both want to be able to put ourselves out there too.”

Jim Root's Jazzmaster Body

Speaking of solos, one of the most striking developments on We Are Not Your Kind – Slipknot’s sixth and most recent studio album – was the relative absence of them. For a band with two lights-out guitar players, we have to wonder, what gives?

“I think that was a direct result of me focusing on the arrangements and on the songs – I didn’t even think about guitar solos,” says Root. “It wasn’t intentional. It just worked out that way. On the next album there might be guitar solos on every song!

“Guitar solos are stressful. I love to do them. They’re a lot of fun and, of course, you want to showcase your skills. But if the song doesn’t need a guitar solo, why put one in there? I always find myself overthinking solos to the point where they don’t feel natural. I want to showcase my skills but I also want to play for the song. It makes me fucking crazy!”

Jazz club

While Jim’s signature Telecaster and Stratocaster earned plenty of fans upon their respective releases in 2008 and 2012, it’s his radical take on the Jazzmaster, with its mahogany body, twin EMGs and nothing but the barest control necessities, that has really hit home with players since its launch in 2014. Root barely plays anything else these days. But, if not for a moment of happenstance, things could have been very different.

“Alex Perez sent me the first Jazzmaster – a white one with a maple fretboard – but I was reluctant to really play with it,” says Root. “It made me think of Dinosaur Jr, Nirvana and stuff like that, and that’s not really my vibe. I appreciate those bands – they write great songs, But that’s just not really me.

“If the song doesn’t need a guitar solo, why put one in there? I always find myself overthinking solos to the point where they don’t feel natural”

“But then when I was in Stone Sour, we were doing rehearsals and getting ready to record Audio Secrecy and I was like, ‘You know what, I’m just going to grab that guitar and play it during rehearsals, and maybe it’ll give me something different?’ When we played the first song, I was immediately blown away by how well balanced it was. I was like, ‘Man, regardless of how it looks, this guitar feels so good hanging off my shoulder’. I fell in love almost instantaneously. I feel like I can move around fluidly and my guitar just stays put, you know? Also, I’m 6’6”, so the bigger the guitar, the more normal I look on stage!

Jim Root's Jazzmaster

“I always thought SGs were really big guitars, watching Angus Young play them. Then I bought one online, it arrived at my house and I was like, ‘Oh my god, this guitar is tiny!’ Angus Young must be very small. They look like jazzboxes on him!”

The success of that guitar, not to mention Jim falling in love with everything offset in the years since, led to discussions about a second version. Several iterations later, and he was determined that his fourth Fender signature model would be something different and more tailored to him than ever.

“I was like, ‘Okay if we’re gonna do another Jazzmaster, let’s really change it up’,” says Jim. “Let’s get my new pickups in there, and let’s mess with the neck shape and the fingerboard radius. Then let’s bring some more of the traditional Jazzmaster back into it but keep it stripped down in terms of the pickup selector and control knobs. They did some mock-ups and it just looked so good and classic with the binding on the fretboard and the big block inlays and a proper Jazzmaster headstock – I just thought it was beautiful.”

Jim Root's Jazzmaster Pickups

The aforementioned new pickups are Jim’s JR Daemonum signature models from EMG, developed from the company’s new RetroActive series, which are designed to mix the frequency range of passive pickups with the power of actives. They’re a far cry from the EMG 81/60 combo he’s used for his entire career – but with good reason.

“The 81/60s are so compressed – and that’s good,” he exclaims. “Because Slipknot is a wall-of-sound band and there’s so many people in it and with so many instruments, you need that so you don’t get lost in it. But you know, I never played active pickups until I joined Slipknot, and I missed the way the passive pickup rolls the volume back, and there are certain tonal qualities that passive pickups have that you just can’t get from an 81.”

Company man

So where do you go after you’ve made the Jazzmaster metal? A look at Root’s Instagram page shows off his affection for Fender’s left-field Parallel Universe series, in particular the striking new Meteora model. Might that be the next guitar to get the Jim Root treatment?

“I’d love to do a Meteora. They’re really cool,” he says. “But I feel like I’ve asked them for a lot already. I might be pushing my luck! Maybe we could even do a Coronado? I’d like to try it with one of those – it might make me approach guitar playing a little differently.”

Jim Root's Jazzmaster

With the mind-melting concept of an EMG-loaded flat-white thinline hollowbody still bouncing around heads, we loop back around to the start of our conversation, and Jim’s status as something of an elder statesman of Fender artists. Would the kid who pretty much gave up playing guitar even be able to contemplate that he’d one day be looking over a stable of four signature models?

“It blows my mind,” Root reiterates. “When we were working on The Subliminal Verses, I was with Charvel for a minute, before my signature Tele came out. Fender had just bought Charvel and I think they were trying to push me to use those.

“But around that time, I got sent a Custom Shop catalogue that I was in. I was looking through that and it was like, Ritchie Blackmore, David Gilmour, Jimi Hendrix… and it sent a chill up my spine. I was like, ‘I can’t believe I’m in a magazine from a company that endorses these people!’ Talk about that whole Wayne’s World ‘I’m not worthy’ thing. These are people I idolised. They were superheroes to me. To be in that company is literally a dream come true. And these are people that my parents loved – and you’re always trying to impress your parents!”

For more information on the Jim Root Jazzmaster V4, visit fender.com.