Tone Talk with Mean Mary

Photo by Johnny Giles
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As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 10 – Winter 2019 – Acoustic Artists

Mean Mary (Mary James) could read music before she could read words and wrote original songs at age 5. By age 7, she was proficient on vocals, guitar, banjo, and violin, and her life became one long roadshow of festivals, venues, TV, radio, and film.

Today, Mary plays 11 instruments, tours internationally, and has over 50k subscribers and 15 million views on her YouTube videos. She is also an award-winning musician, songwriter, and book author. Deering Banjos named her their Goodtime Ambassador, and Janet Deering describes her playing as giving her “chills.”

Cold is her newest release. The album features intimate, almost gothic songs with some lyrics taken straight from her journal entries. When not on tour, Mary is in her studio creating — songs, albums, videos, and books. Currently, she’s embracing her rock ‘n’ roll side by creating an album that features her and her band, Mean Mary and the Contrarys. This will mark her 17th album since her first original release when she was 6 years old.

What is your definition of tone, and how has it changed over the years?

Tone is like lipstick on a pig or a beautiful woman. It won’t help the pig, but it can change our perception of the beautiful woman. If you play horribly but with great tone, it’s still going to be pretty horrible. If you play an awesome blues solo and you smear purple lipstick and green eye shadow all over it, it might not sound quite so much like an awesome blues solo. Ultimately, the music decides the tone.

As someone who’s played acoustically most of their career, it’s hard for me not to crave the tone of the natural-sounding instrument. I always look for warmth and resonance first and then layer whatever else I want on top of that. I’m not a heavy distortion player. I’m more about clarity, but it really depends on the song. I’m currently recording a new album that requires me to experiment more than I ever have before.

Which banjos, guitars, amps, and pedals are you currently using and why?

When I play acoustically, my main instruments (guitar and banjo) are a Guild D-50CE and Deering Goodtime Midnight Special. I run them through LR Baggs Para DIs to keep them warm sounding. When I’m playing electric, it’s usually the semi-hollow body Guild Starfire V and Deering Electric Crossfire. I have an AB switch on my pedalboard and run them both through the same amp. Lately, I’ve been using a Roland JC-40 combo amp. It has a nice clean tone. I use a BOSS Compression and Ibanez Tube Screamer to fatten things up a little. My go-to pedal for fun on both the guitar and the banjo is the Ibanez Weeping Demon Wah Pedal. 

Are there certain recording techniques you prefer in the studio?

I record in my own studio, so I have the freedom to play around and try out ideas — that’s important to me. I must have choices, so I try a million different things until I feel I’ve done the best I can musically for that song. I do try to keep things as natural as possible in the studio and as close to how it will sound when I play it live on stage.

How do you keep your sound consistent onstage?

Honestly, it’s not always consistent. I’m a working indie musician and the venues are completely different from show to show. Sometimes I’m a slave to the venue and their equipment and sound engineer. All I can do is bring everything that I need to capture my sound and then just communicate with the sound engineer. My philosophy is to treat the sound engineer like your best friend and cross your fingers on the rest.

What does your practice consist of?

I rarely find time to practice off stage anymore. I think this is true with a lot of musicians that are touring full-time. My main practice time is when I’m writing a new song. When I have a new song, I spend time with it, work out ideas, and play it over and over. That’s practice! The rest of the time it’s just staying in shape by playing in front of an audience.

What is your advice for young women who hope to work in the music industry?

Love what you do. Everyone that starts playing an instrument has the fire of music inside them or they wouldn’t be drawn to it to begin with. I think we should remember that fire when we make music. Forget about your heroes or any other musician out there that you think might be more experienced. Just play from your heart. We are all unique.

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