Artist Collection: Maxi Jazz

Faithless vocalist turned E-Type Boys band leader Maxi Jazz has built up a collection of fine guitars, gathered from all corners of the globe. Gary Walker gets a private tour.

You’ll know him best as the loose-limbed, mesmeric-voiced rap poet and globally recognisable force of nature that fronts Faithless. But away from the 15 million album sales, 20 years of world tours and hits such as God Is A DJ and Insomnia that shot the band into the heart of the mass consciousness, Maxi Jazz has been living a secret life as a guitar collector.

As Faithless strode across the globe, playing to packed stadiums, arenas and festivals, Maxi – a 59-year-old Buddhist who was raised in Croydon – would use his down time to slip away and trawl the guitar shops of the world and indulge his enduring passion for the instrument he first played as a teenager.

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Maxi’s pedalboard, featuring a Strymon TimeLine

For the past year, Jazz has been combining touring with Faithless with guitar and vocal duties in his new funk and blues band, Maxi Jazz & The E-Type Boys. The collection, divided between his home in London and a second house in Jamaica, now stretches to several dozen guitars. A 1954 Gretsch Country Club, a Gretsch Brian Setzer Hot Rod, a Telecaster bought from none other than John Squire of The Stone Roses, a Galloup S-type, several Strats, four Les Pauls, four ES-335s and a pair of Firebirds are among the highlights.

Maxi Jazz

Maxi at home with his 1954 Gretsch Country Club

When we meet Maxi for a guided tour of the London division of his guitar arsenal, he’s fresh from the airport, having returned from what he confirms was the final Faithless gig – a headline show at Ibiza Rocks, two decades after the band’s first appearance on the Balearic party island. He tells us that the E-Type Boys are now his sole focus, and talks us proudly through the main guitars in his life – and how they shaped his new band’s debut album, Simple… Not Easy.

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Gibson Joe Bonamassa ES-335

“I started playing the guitar around about age 14,” remembers Maxi. “My mum bought my brother a guitar. Only God knows why. He messed about on it for all of three weeks and then it sat in the corner. About two years later, when it had about four inches of dust on it, I thought, ‘Right, I’m liberating that’. By then, it only had three strings on it, but I taught myself to play Greensleeves on one string.

“Eventually, my mum bought me an electric guitar for Christmas when I was 17, which was great. It was an imitation Strat, I don’t remember what make it was, and the next one was an Ibanez LP-type. Cherry Sunburst. It was a very nice guitar, but I had quite a difficult relationship at the time, and both those guitars got broke – not by me…

Maxi Jazz

Gibson E2 Explorer

“The next one was my Tokai, which I bought in a pet shop! It was a bright red Strat right in the window, £125, so I went in there and bought it. This was 1984. I started to write little riffs and funky things, four-chords riffs and little progressions, but that was pretty much it. All I would do is jam along to the radio, I never really learnt too many chords. Various guitar players would say, ‘Maxi have you tried this chord, or do you know about this one?’ and I just taught myself over the years, and I never really took it seriously until maybe 10 years ago.”

The seeds of what would become the E-Type Boys were sewn during a stay at Maxi’s Jamaican house in 2005, when he was struck down by a severe case of flu. It was there, in the middle of a feverish sleepless night that he penned the first composition for Simple… Not Easy, although it would be another 11 years before it saw the light of day.

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’54 Gretsch Country Club

“I got ill and as a result wrote my very first song,” he recalls. “I’d wake up in the middle of the night covered in sweat, feeling like death. It’s not nice being ill in a tropical country. I decided to do something that would cause me to stay awake long enough that when I did go to bed I would sleep through.

I’d just bought a 50th Anniversary Strat in Kingston, and I took it into my room with a piece of paper and a pen, with the intention of turning one of these four-chord riffs into a song – and I wrote the whole thing in an hour and a half. That song was Back To The Bottle. It was odd because I wrote it so fast, and every chord I tried seemed to work.
“I spent two hours learning how to play and sing the song at the same time, because clearly you’re going to want to play the song to your mum in the morning. The next song didn’t come along for another three years, but after that one came along, I thought, ‘Okay, let me try and do some more’, and I wrote another three that year.

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Through the f-hole of the Country Club

I’m a Gemini and I get bored super-fast, so if I’ve written a song that I like and continue to like… I thought, ‘There must be something to this, I’ll give it a go’.” Although Maxi recovered from the flu, the guitar-buying bug took a permanent hold, and he happily recalls the six-string shopping trips he would embark on while touring the world with Faithless.

“That’s when it all really started, particularly on tour, because you get dumped in the middle of a city for a day or two, and you generally have two or three hours to kill before a soundcheck,” he says. “Me and the guys would have a wander around – God forbid we’d pass a guitar shop, because I’ve got to go in and have a look, and before you know it there’s a guitar in a case and it’s coming out of the shop with me – liberated forever.

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A Rickenbacker 360 bought on a shopping trip to Guitar Classics in Clapham

“I’ve got a purple Gretsch, a Brian Setzer Hot Rod, a lovely guitar with a really beautiful tone, and it looks amazing. I remember walking down Denmark Street and seeing this amazing flash of purple. It’s very rare I buy a guitar just because of the way it looks, but I saw this flash of purple and thought, ‘What’s that?’.

I went into the shop and said, ‘Can I have a go on that please?’. The guy got it down, tuned it up for me and played a chord, and I said, ‘I’ll have it!’. It sounded so nice!
“The store owner was wrapping the guitar up and getting the case, and he said, ‘I always ask my customers what made them leave the house to go and buy a guitar’, and I said the truth was I’d sent quite a few of my guitars over to Jamaica, where I have a studio, and I had an empty guitar hook on my wall in my bedroom. It used to bug me every morning when I woke up, so I thought I’d better fill it with something… he loved that!

“I’ve got a Gretsch Country Club, which is three years older than me. It was made in 1954 and it sounds amazing, but I dare not take it out of the house because if anything happened to it I’d be gutted. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing and I use it for recording. My mate Jake [Libretto], who plays guitar in my band, has a friend, Graham, who runs the Guitar Classics shop in Clapham and he took me round there. Oh my God… I must have bought four guitars off him!

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The 360’s Rick-O-Sound and Standard outputs

“I bought a Gibson J-45, a Brook Bros, that Gretsch, and also I was stood there thinking, ‘I don’t have a Rickenbacker’, so I bought a 360 off him. It’s 18 years old and absolutely lovely – it looks brand new. It plays like a dream.

“I’ve got a Gretsch Electromatic [Pro Jet], too. My other guitar player, Chris Dover, has got one and it’s so nice looking and sounds so good. They’re really lovely, and cheap as chips, too.

“On the album, I essentially used Strats, Les Pauls and the Brian Setzer Gretsch. I’ve got a black Les Paul Classic 1960 Reissue, and if you put it on the treble position and crank your amp up, you will sound like Jimmy Page. It sounds awesome. I used that on Homesick Blues because it needs a bit of a swampy feel to it. I don’t even know why I brought it. I just picked it up, took it along to the studio and thought, ‘Let me try it on that’ and it really worked. It’s got such a grimy, melancholy sound.

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The Fender Thinline Telecaster Maxi bought from John Squire

“On Change Our Destiny, I used the Country Club, and on Seize Your Power it was the Setzer Hot Rod. On Chasin’ Shadows, I played Jake’s Strat and he played the Country Club. It’s really mellow, but Jake’s got a really attacking style so he brought the funk out of it and I played the Strat in a more mellow way, and the two guitars just sit down beautifully with each other.”

Another favourite from Maxi’s collection is his Galloup S-type, with pickups wound by one of the Fender Custom Shop’s best-known employees.

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Maxi’s Galloup S-type

“It’s an awesome guitar. Bryan Galloup makes acoustic guitars, so it’s quite interesting that he’s made this Strat,” says Maxi. “It’s absolutely gorgeous and plays like a dream. The pickups were apparently wired by one Abigail Ybarra, who used to be the main pickup lady for Fender from 1958 until she retired a few years ago.

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The Gibson Les Paul Classic 1960 Reissue used on the album

“It sounds like a bell when you play it, it’s absolutely beautiful. It’s another one I got off Graham. I’d just written a song called Long Time Gone about Jimi Hendrix, so naturally it had to have a Strat on it. Graham walked me past three old Fenders and pointed at the Galloup and I picked it up immediately, it’s an amazing guitar.”

Maxi has a taste for Teles, too, and he’s most proud of the one he bought from Squire – another guitar he didn’t have to think too long or hard about acquiring. “I’ve got three Teles,” he says. “I have a Thinline that belonged to John Squire. Martin Herbert, our guitar tech, does a lot of work with The Stone Roses and John was selling a few guitars.

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Maxi’s Gretsch Brian Setzer Hot Rod: “a lovely guitar with a really beautiful tone”

I said, ‘Let me have a go with that one… I’ll have it!’. It’s very nice and worn in. It sounds great.” As Maxi continues to pull out desirable examples from his collection, we ask whether he has such a thing as a ‘number one’ guitar or, whisper it, a favourite. It’s a notion he scotches quickly.

“If I said anything like that, their necks would start to fall off,” he says with a hearty laugh. “Machines have a way of listening to what you’re saying. There isn’t a number one and I wouldn’t dream of parting with any of them.

“I’ve got a Gibson Joe Bonamassa ES-335, which is incredible. It’s really easy to play and sounds great. I have another 335, from 1974 – I’ve put a Stetsbar on it, and it’s really good, too. I’m a big Johnny Winter fan, and he always used Firebirds, so I decided I would get – in the fullness of time – a white Firebird like Johnny Winter’s. I found one in Dublin and it had a sister that was like a kind of Chocolate Sunburst.

Maxi Jazz

A Gretsch Electromatic Pro Jet with gold hardware

I bought the white one, then woke up the next morning and thought, ‘I can’t leave that other guitar in the shop’, so I took that one as well, and it’s now in Jamaica, along with my Strat and another Tele I bought in San Francisco. I’ve also got a non-reverse Firebird. I was amazed by that because it’s got P-90s on and it sounds exactly like a Strat, a fat Strat.”

While his new band is very much a collective rather than simply a group of enlisted sessioneers, when it came to demoing the album Maxi played everything, and that meant having some basses to hand, too.

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The Tokai S-type Maxi found for sale in the window of a London pet shop

“I’ve got a Precision Bass and a really nice Jazz Bass, dark red, I’ve never quite seen one like it before,” he says. “My mate, who’s a trauma surgeon, just walked into my house one day with it and a bottle of champagne and gave me both. I played bass on the demos in Jamaica. I was there for the whole of the winter three years running and once I’d finished my studio, I’d go down and play all the instruments and knock the demos up, then I brought them home and played them to other people and got them to play their parts.

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Maxi playing his Gretsch Brian Setzer Hot Rod

“All of the basslines on the record, I wrote, with the exception of the amazing intro on Change Our Destiny, which our bass player came up with and we all went, ‘Oh my God!’ and jumped on it immediately. I wrote pretty much the whole album for guitar, bass and drums, and once I got back to England it was just a matter of giving the other guys the CD, and they learnt the songs and came back.

“I’m quite a good boss in so far as I’m not going to say, ‘Here is what you must play’. My view is: ‘Here’s a bassline, I’m happy to use it. If you come up with something better, that’s just fine’.”

Having completed our tour of his favourite guitars, we ask Maxi whether, now he’s become a self-confessed guitar addict, his collection will continue to grow.

“Oh, there’s nothing to be done about that,” he replies without a moment’s contemplation. “Absolutely nothing! As soon as I see something nice, it’s always been my modus operandi to get it immediately because otherwise you might never see it again. I’ll need a bigger house…”