The Neighbourhood's Zach Abels talks Fender Jazzmasters, tones and writing hits

The Neighbourhood: (starting top left, clockwise) Jeremy Freedman, former drummer Bryan Sammis, Zach Abels, Jesse Rutherford and Mikey Margott
The Neighbourhood: (starting top left, clockwise) Jeremy Freedman, former drummer Bryan Sammis, Zach Abels, Jesse Rutherford and Mikey Margott

Some artists know they have a hit the second a melody pops into their heads. Others claim to be totally surprised when one of their songs catches the public's ear. Zach Abels, guitarist for the Southern California-based quintet The Neighbourhood, falls somewhere in the middle. When he and two of his bandmates, singer Jesse Rutherford and co-guitarist Jeremy Freedman, began piecing together the elements for a darkly pretty tune called Sweater Weather, he felt like it had more than a little potential.

"I didn't have any idea what it could do for our careers," Abels confesses. "But once I heard what we had, I was like, 'OK, this is something special. This could do really good things for us.' How far would it go? I had no idea."

That question was answered last year, when the track hit the top of Billboard's Alternative Songs chart and reached number four on the Pop chart. The Neighbourhood's debut album, I Love You, reached number 25 and has been a steady seller while the band (which also includes bassist Mikey Margott and new drummer Brandon Fried, who replaces original sticksman Bryan Sammis) makes the road their home - they toured throughout 2013 and are booked till mid-summer.

Abels sat down with MusicRadar recently to talk about his favorite guitars, '80s metal and what's up next for The Neighbourhood.

You're pretty much a Jazzmaster player.

"Yeah, that's my main guitar, a '78 Jazzmaster. We live in Thousand Oaks, and we know this guy in town - he's a lot older than us - and he was in a band called Mellowdrone. We really looked up to them, and I looked up to him as a guitarist. When Mellowdone broke up, he wound up selling the guitar to me. So that's the main Jazzmaster I use. It's pretty cool."

Jeremy plays Telecasters a lot. How do you two go about blending your guitar sounds?

"I'm kind of the more ambient guy with a more reverb style - I like lots of pedals and effects. Jeremy is kind of the rock-and-distortion guy in the band. So the way that we approach our playing and what we want to put into the music is pretty different to start with. We find ways to work around each other with parts and our tones. There's no plan to it, but it seems to fit."

I'm hearing a lot of cool atmospheric guitar sounds in the song Afraid. Are you a fan of bands like the Cocteau Twins or My Bloody Valentine?

"It's interesting that you ask that. Our producer, Justin Pilbrow, when we were making the record, he actually said that I played like the guitarists in My Bloody Valentine. Truthfully, I've heard of them, but I never really listened to their music. I take it as a compliment, though, because I know what a well-respected band they are."

Sweater Weather is filled with spiky guitar lines, parts that float in and out. Was that all there in the beginning?

"That was the first song we wrote together as a band. Those guitar parts developed over time. At first, I played them a little bit slower than what you hear on the record. When I showed the song to Jesse, he was like, 'Oh, my God, that's so great. Let me record that.' He made up a drumbeat, and it became the drumbeat that everybody knows, so I kind of had to play to that. That's kind of how it came about.

"Jeremy and I are really good at working out our parts and our styles. Sometimes there's a push and pull, but that can happen in any creative environment. You're always bound to run into an opposing view, and that can be cool, too - you wind up with something you never planned on."

What were some of the bands that you listened to when you started playing guitar?

"My dad kind of got me into it. I used to listen to his iPod when I was younger, and I was into bands like Motley Crue and '80s hair bands. I was big on the '80s. That got me into picking up a guitar and seeing what I could do with it. Old Metallica and early thrash metal, bands like Slayer and Megadeth - I loved that stuff. As I got older, I grew out of that. I still think that stuff is cool, but I sort of moved on."

The Neighbourhood: (starting bottom left, clockwise) Abels, former drummer Sammis, Freedman, Margott and Rutherford

It's funny to hear you mention those bands because your playing is so un-shred and un-shred-like.

"Yeah, well, believe it our not, we were also into hardcore bands. Nothing you might have heard of, just local hardcore bands. We live in Ventura County, which is pretty suburban. We were just like one of the bands in the area, and we were into checking out our friends. It was a super-fun time."

Aside from your main Jazzmaster, what else are you playing?

"I have a brand-new Fender Mustang that's pretty dope. And I just got a new Custom Jazzmaster, which Fender made for me. It looks kind of like my main Jazzmaster, but it's all black and it's really cool. I'm a huge Fender fan and a big Jazzmaster fan. They're great guitars. They feel really cool and the tones are pretty versatile. I love them."

The Neighbourhood is pretty much your first band. What was your blueprint? What other groups were you looking to when you formed?

"Yeah, this is my first band. We didn't really look at what other people were doing, whether they were classic groups or bands that newer. We were just feeling the music. We didn't even think, 'Oh, my God, what if this happens? What if that happens?' We just made our music and put it out. There was no game plan or formula."

Have you guys given much thought to the second album? How do you write on the road?

"We definitely have ideas. We haven't recorded anything yet, but we're working on things, sure. We all use Logic to put our ideas and demos down. That's basically how we do it. Things are starting to pick up overseas, so it might take a little while for us to get down to doing something."

You can purchase The Neighbourhood's I Love You at this link.

Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar WorldGuitar PlayerMusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.