J Mascis and Lou Barlow Explain the Dinosaur Jr Sound

When I first heard Dinosaur Jr's You're Living All Over Me, I knew how I wanted my future bands to sound. This was my music. It combined the power and noise of punk with the pop-hook sensibilities of '80s indie, all peppered with classic rock guitar-solo heroism. It was loud but not angry, with lush chords and honest-to-goodness melody throughout.

At the center of it all was J Mascis, the stompbox wizard who wrote the spellbook on how to conjure splendid, gorgeous noise. Decades before the boutique pedal revolution, J demonstrated how an array of pedals could transform the guitar into a whole new instrument. J's solos gave license for the guitar to return to the forefront of rock music, combining chops with pedals in a way that no guitarist had before.

When I recently learned that J and the band were going swing by the Reverb video studio, I was more than a little giddy. Like some of you reading this, J was the guitarist who showed me how to use gear whether it was combining fuzz and flanger or flicking the whammy bar on a Jazzmaster.

Take a look at the video below for J's explanation of how he uses pedal to achieve his signature sounds.

As you can see from the video, J's sound is not just about volume and chaos. It's about rich fuzz-laden, frequency canvassing tone that occupies every inch of a sonic spectrum. It's an approach that predicted shoegaze and noise rock and one that has become more common as the popularity of full pedalboards has grown.

This embrace of wide, saturating guitar sounds creates a challenge for bass players who need to contend with it. Where earlier guitar-bass duos used the logical formula of guitar on top and bass on bottom in the mix, many alternative and indie rock bassists from the '80s onward have found the need to puncture through these ever-expanding guitar tonescapes.

Lou Barlow — the original and current bassist for Dinosaur Jr — has been working in this paradigm for decades. Watch our video with Lou here for his explanation on the style he developed to contend, conform, and ultimately complement J's guitar architecture.

As Lou explains, for him, breaking through the wall of noise is less about gear and more about playing style. Lou plays with a pick and furiously pummels his strings to wring out as much definition and attack as possible. He tours with a guitar amp in his rig for that extra treble bite and prefers basses like vintage Gibsons that really let you dig in.

It's a forumla that works, and there's an undeniable musical affinity between the two guys from central Massachusetts. Yet — as has been reported and observed by fans and in interviewers — J and Lou do not have a very good relationship. Interpersonal tensions led to Lou's departure from the band in 1989 (he rejoined in 2006), and today, the pair barely speak to each other even while on tour together.

For the band, though, their profound musical compatibility seems to outweigh any social consideration. It's an awkward dynamic, sure. But viewed in a certain way, it reflects how they play together: J leads the action and Lou finds ways to break through with his bass. This interplay of punching bass and loud guitar is the tonal story of Dinosaur Jr and one that countless modern bands can relate to and learn from.

Pedals used in these videos:

Stomp Under Foot Ram's Head
EHX Deluxe Electric Mistress
Boss DM-2W
Zvex Double Rock
Jext Telez Range Lord
British Pedal Company Union White Tone Bender

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