Updated: Jan 5
Photo credit: Joe Navas
How old were you when you started playing guitar?
I started fooling around with guitar in high school, but it took me hours to change from one chord to the next. I didn’t get serious about learning the instrument until I was in college. I cut the nylon strings off a classical guitar I borrowed from a friend, put steel strings on, and banged away on it in the back stairwell of my dorm on weekend nights. The extra tension from the steel strings broke that guitar’s neck, so it was time for me to get one of my own.
What was your first guitar? Did you buy it yourself? Do you still have it?
My first guitar was actually a black Ovation, the ones with the plastic rounded, bowl-shaped backs. For some reason, I just had it in my head that black guitars were cooler, so that’s all I really cared about. My parents bought it for me, but it’s long gone and I don't remember what happened to it. My first real guitar was a 1995 Martin HD-28 that my folks bought for me when I graduated college. I still have it and use it occasionally today.
Did your parents or grandparents play any instruments? If so, what did they play? Did you ever get a chance to play with them?
My parents don’t play any instruments but my grandfather, who lived with us, played a little piano. He only really played on the black keys, for some reason I never quite understood. I took piano lessons for a bit in middle school, but they were something to be endured alone and it unfortunately never really occurred to me to play with my grandfather.
What are the guitars that you play? Do you have a favorite? If so, why is it your favorite?
My primary electrics are a 60’s Gibson ES-330 and a custom Creston Telecaster, both of which have only P90 pickups in them. My main acoustic guitars are a 1947 Martin 0-17 that I keep primarily in open D tuning, and a 00-30-sized acoustic that was made for me by noted Boston-area luthier TJ Thompson. It’s a magical instrument, with koa back and sides and an Adirondack spruce top from the 1920s. It’s got an old soul in a teenager’s body, and it’s somehow both a consummate tool and work of art. It’s a one-of-a-kind and the only material possession I would run back into a burning building to rescue.
Photo credit: Spindrift Guitars
What strings do you use (brands and gauges)? How often do you change your strings?
I use D’Addario phosphor bronze lights (0.012-0.053) for acoustics and D’Addario nickel wound XL lights (0.010-0.046) for electrics.
Do you use a pick? If so, what brand and thickness?
I use a BlueChip TAD40 pick. I scoffed at the expense, but someone gifted one to me, and it really feels superior to me in terms of maneuverability and durability. They last forever.
Do you use any effect pedals? If so, what are your favorites?
I do use effects pedals, mainly for my electrics. I love the Fairfield Barbershop Millenium Overdrive and the AnalogMan King Of Tone, as well the Strymon Flint dual tremolo/reverb and the AnalogMan dual delay (one side set to longer tails, the other to slap back).
Do you work on your own guitars or do you bring them to a guitar tech? Are there any guitar techs that you would like to recommend?
I don’t do a ton of work on my guitars beyond normal regular maintenance like string or battery changes, and proper humidification. I do have a tech I trust with all my stuff, but I can’t name him because he doesn’t want any more work!
Do you have a favorite guitar shop? What makes it a good shop?
I don’t have a favorite guitar shop, though I like Carter Vintage Guitars and Fanny’s in Nashville. I have never been, but someday I hope to visit Folkway Music in Ontario, as almost every guitar they list on their Instagram site seems like something I want! Good shops are the ones where they don’t make you feel like a criminal for taking guitars down off the wall and spending a little time with them. They are not museum pieces, they are tools that are meant to be played, and respected, but mostly played. I should also give a shoutout to Fanny’s for being particularly female-friendly. I have so many amazing friends, women songwriters and players, who have had negative, demoralizing experiences in guitar stores. It’d be nice to see more stores doing a better job of being welcoming and supportive.
Carter Vintage Guitars
Fanny's House of Music
At what age did you start writing songs?
I wrote my first song at the tail end of high school, and it was called “Hell In The Sky.” I think that’s maybe my best title, ever! I didn’t start writing in earnest until college.
What is your songwriting process? Is it the music or the lyrics that usually come to you first? Do you write old school on paper, or electronically?
The only consistent part of the process is that I tend to write songs when I actually sit down and try to write songs. If I just go about my days and wait for a bolt of inspiration to strike, it’s going to be awhile until I write something. It’s just an endeavor that you have to be actively engaged with, there’s no real secret to it that’s deeper than just making yourself sit in a chair with your instrument and some paper and pen nearby. I usually write old school on paper, though I find co-writing to be easier on a computer. Maybe that’s because the speed at which I type is more akin to the speed at which ideas are exchanged in a co-writing situation.
Who are the top three musicians or bands that have had a major influence on you?
If you could jam with one person, living or dead, who would it be?
I bet it would be fun to play with Derek Trucks, that guy is a monster.
What are your top three “desert island” albums?
Emmylou Harris’s Wrecking Ball, Joni Mitchell’s Blue and The Band’s self-titled second album.
What was the first concert you attended? What was the last concert you attended?
First concert: Aerosmith
Most recent concert: Vance Gilbert
The Beatles or the Stones?
Where and when was your first paid gig? How much did you make?
You’d think I’d remember something like this, but I can’t recall. Wherever it was, it couldn’t have been that great or paid very much.
What has been the highlight of your musical career so far?
I got to sing a song I wrote with Shawn Colvin, Ondara, Josh Ritter, and Lori McKenna at The Ryman Auditorium in Nashville at the 2019 Americana Music Awards show. That was a good night.
What has been your worst gig so far and why? (You don’t have to name names).
I had a particularly bad night in Portland OR many years ago. I was playing a movie theater that had been converted into a concert venue with two rooms. There was another show in the other room, and the audience from that show kept coming into my show because it was quiet and they thought it was a better place to have a conversation. I unplugged my guitar in the middle of a song and walked out to the front of the stage, continuing to perform totally acoustically. The interlopers from the other show kept right on talking over me as I stared laser beams at them. Finally, a fan that had come to see my show went over to them, had some words, and they left. But I just felt very disrespected, very far from home, and made very little money that night. Not a high point.
What are some of the venues you enjoy performing at the most? What things make the venue enjoyable for the performer (location, equipment, setup, organizers)?
Venues that are enjoyable to perform in are run by kind, caring, conscientious people. It has nothing to do with the sound or location or anything, it’s all down to the sense of partnership and respect that the promoter invests in each night. It makes you feel like you’re building something together, investing in a relationship that will strengthen over time. Passim in Cambridge MA, The Parlor Room in Northampton MA, Stone Mountain Arts Center in Brownfield ME, The Word Barn in Exeter NH…these are just a handful of examples of this sort of venue.
How do you work out your setlist?
It’s different for every show, but not radically. I’ll work the same group of songs for awhile, then rest a handful for awhile so I don’t get tired of them, and I’ll focus instead on different ones. I don’t have any hits, so there’s no song that I particularly have to do every night, lest people feel disappointed. I do like to try and take the audience on a journey of sorts, and I guarantee that they’ll leave feeling better than they did when they came to the show as long as they stay until the end of the show. I am not afraid to take them to some dark places, and if they leave before I am able to lead them to a more hopeful place, then that’s on them!
Is there any advice you wish someone had given you when you were first starting out in the music business?
Focus on enjoying the process of becoming a better singer, songwriter, and musician. Unless you hit the rarest of lotteries, you never really arrive at a place of complete contentment with a huge economic windfall, you can almost always go further in. If you don’t enjoy the process, you’re going to have a lot of frustrating years that you can’t get back.
Do you have any suggestions for a guitarist or songwriter who might be stuck in a musical rut?
Try to focus on something other than music. In order to have something worth communicating artistically, you have to commit to a life worth living. That’s not music 1000% of the time. Get out in nature, become a part of a community, find someone to love, learn to cook a really great meal, try teaching what you know to younger students, learn a new instrument, read a great book, go see live music.
If you weren’t a singer-songwriter, what would you be doing for work?
I would be a biology teacher. I’d be the bio professor at the New England liberal arts college who shows up at the student coffeehouses and plays a couple of his songs every now and then.
Please list some of your upcoming shows, plug your music and provide links to your merchandise.
My thirteenth studio album Lay Your Darkness Down comes out on Feb 3, 2023 and is available for pre-order at https://markerelli.fanlink.to/LYDDa.
Mark's website: https://www.markerelli.com