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Joan Jett and the Hunt for the ‘Perfect’ Guitar (The Interview)

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“(Joan) Jett is always the coolest person in the room, and an inspiration to anyone who feels like an outsider or misfit,” the rock and roll firebrand’s biography reads on her Hall of Fame inductee page. It’s a great line, but it also sums up Joan Jett perfectly.

Jett and her band the Blackhearts fused punk and glam with old school rock and roll — the kind that used to pepper the AM airwaves in the 1960s — making her a household name in the process.

Jett had absorbed every Black Sabbath, Suzi Quatro, T. Rex, and New York Dolls record she could get her hands on as a kid growing up in suburban Pennsylvania. By her late teens, she was never without a guitar, and had co-founded the pioneering all-female band the Runaways.

While the Runaways didn’t last long, Jett soon joined forces with manager Kenny Laguna, who would go on to become of a member (and producer) of her group the Blackhearts. On the heels of a 1980 solo album –which took more than a bit of its swgger from early Ramones records — Jett and the Blackhearts had a template for chart domination.

“Bad Reputation,” “Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah),” and 1982’s breakthrough album I Love Rock ‘n Roll soon followed, with the then-nascent MTV giving the charismatic Jett and company just the edge they needed in the competitive post-punk era.

A cover of Tommy James and The Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover” soon hit the Top 10, as did the brash power-pop “I Hate Myself For Loving You”, ensuring that Jett would be a household name for years to come.

Soon after, Jett became a tireless advocate for young artists, as the recent Bad Reputation documentary chronicled, and she built personal and artistic relationships across the generations, with Miley Cyrus, who inducted her into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, as well as Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong and the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl.

Today Jett remains a model to younger artists, as the standard- bearer for the old school belief that uncompromising independence is the only way to survive — and succeed — in rock and roll.

Jett, currently on a tour that will run at least until the early autumn, along with her longtime manager (and collaborator) Kenny Laguna, recently sat down with Rock Cellar to talk about what makes the perfect guitar, especially when you’re traversing a big stage, trying to connect with 10,000 rabid fans.

Rock Cellar: I saw you recently when you opened for The Who. It was amazing to watch you win over the crowd of young people who were there — who might not have known you walking in — and see you making new fans, especially the new teenage fans, and the young girls, especially.

Kenny Laguna: That was a great show!

Joan Jett: Awesome. It’s important. In that show we gave Roger [Daltrey] a signature guitar, the first one. And we gave Pete [Townshend] the second one. We heard he was using a Fender because the Les Paul was too heavy, and the Melody Makers were light.

Rock Cellar: You love those Gibson Melody Makers. And you’re so synonymous with them. Everybody started out — and I’m sure you did too — as a fan, looking at liner notes and looking at photos of their heroes. How did you originally choose your equipment?

Joan Jett: We’re talking about the Runaways, mid-seventies. I’d gone to a Sears Silvertone guitar, and my first real guitar was a blonde Gibson Les Paul. It’s called a Deluxe model. I’m not sure what makes it deluxe or anything, but I hadn’t seen a lot of them. And it’s blonde, so that means it’s a natural wood finish.

And I would get really offended if someone called it Goldtop. “It’s not a Goldtop!” Anyway, it was a very heavy guitar. I still have it, but when I was in the Runaways, I was always kind of on the lookout for another guitar. Something a little lighter; because it was a lot to carry around.

We had a road crew that was based in Ohio. One of my roadies said that he could get me a Gibson Melody Maker that he bought off a band that he worked for. And it turns out, this guitar was one he’d bought from Eric Carmen, from the Raspberries. So this guitar had been played on “Go All the Way” and a lot of those hits.

I bought this guitar, and I put some special pickups in it that I had found in Los Angeles. There was a guitar store, where a guy named Red Rhodes, who invented the Rhodes piano, worked. He and his son used to make pickups. They’d hand-wind the coils. And at some point, he got tired of making them. It was too intensive. But he had seven left, and he knew that I had put one in my Les Paul.

He asked me if I wanted to buy the rest of them. I did! I scooped them up, and put one into that white Melody Maker that I’d bought. That Melody Maker became my major guitar, because I loved the sound of it. It was lightweight, so I could really maneuver with it well. It was just so simple, too! It just had a volume knob, a tone knob, and an on/off toggle switch. That’s really all I needed. That was the initial guitar that I became known for and eventually became a signature guitar.

Rock Cellar: But early on you’re buying a bunch of pickups, so you’re already into the sound. And you’re thinking about the playability and it being light for you, because you moved around a lot onstage. You were already thinking of your guitar as a tool. David Gilmour, who recently auctioned a bunch of his guitars, told me he doesn’t mind that he’s auctioning his Black Strat, and a bunch of other guitars, and he said he’d come to terms with it, because, really, he just sees them as tools. But you were already, in 1978, ’76, whatever, thinking about your guitars in terms of them being a tool of your trade.

Joan Jett: Oh, definitely. I mean, I figured, “I will get more guitars, and I want to make them each have my sound, so that when someone hears my guitar, it will be like a voice imprint.” I wanted people to recognize that voice. I wanted it to sound the same, no matter what guitar I played through. And, of course, it wouldn’t sound the same if somebody else played my guitar. My guitar wouldn’t sound like my guitar unless my hands were playing it. It’s very weird, when you think about it.

Rock Cellar: But if you’re a kid and you see that guitar, part of wanting to play a similar guitar is that you want a connection to that artist. But part of it too is that you love that sound. You don’t know, maybe, as a 15-year-old, that you love the sound of the Melody Maker on those records, but as soon as you pick it up and you plug it into an amp, you do know it’s the sound, even if you’re not ever going to sound like Joan Jett.

Talk a little bit about the 339 and that guitar, and how your connection to that model came about.

Joan Jett: That came about really because I was in Memphis, and I went to the Gibson factory there, which has now just closed and moved everything to Nashville. They had two separate facilities. The one in Nashville made the solid bodies, the Melody Makers and Les Pauls and such.

But this factory in Memphis made all the hollow bodies. I hadn’t owned a hollow body, though I actually owned a big 335 when I was in the Runaways. But I went on this tour, because I’m a Gibson person, and I wanted to see how they made these guitars. I was just fascinated. There were about, I don’t know, 10 to 20 different stations where each section of the guitar was created and put together. I can’t even explain it.

I mean, right from little thin pieces of wood that were cemented together to make the top, down to polishing up the final product. It was just fascinating to me, and it was all handmade. I was just really taken with the love and attention these guitar-makers put into each guitar. And I quickly realized that each guitar is its own unique thing, because it is made by hand. So even though they are basically the same, each one has got its own life to it. So being on that tour really moved me.

And I think the Gibson people were watching me watch them, and they were very moved by how much I was into it, because I guess apparently a lot of musicians will come in and give a cursory nod to the tour, then take three guitars or whatever, and leave. I guess they really liked the fact that I cared about the whole process and was really into it. And at the end of the tour, there was a little gift shop with some guitars in it and stuff, and I was just having a look at a red guitar on the wall. I think it was a 339. But I was just looking at this really cool guitar, and one of the guys at Gibson asked if I would be interested in having a 339 signature model made for myself. I didn’t know quite what to think about it, because I had not really played one much, and I didn’t want to, say, “Sure, make me a guitar!” Because then it could turn into something that I didn’t feel comfortable using.

Kenny Laguna: Initially Joan left the place and they called, and they said they wanted to make her a guitar. It wasn’t for a signature guitar, though. It was just to make Joan a custom guitar. And they made two. And apparently, they didn’t think they were good enough! But they were amazing. They’d put in features they never put in a 339, and they’d worked on the balance, and cut the weight down a little bit, with Joan specifically in mind.

Joan Jett: They baked the insides. I don’t really know what that means, but it made the guitars unlike any 339s I’d ever played. They did things to this guitar that they had not ever done on a guitar before, because they were using these as a test run, on some level.

So yeah, I went to the store, and they wanted to make me a guitar, so they did. And I started using them on stage, and it was then, after that, that they came to me with the idea of, “Hey, what do you think about doing a 339 signature line?” This was besides the Melody Maker models, because we’d done two Melody Maker models; a white Melody Maker, and a black Melody Maker. Now there was this red 339.

Rock Cellar: Am I correct or not that there’s another one coming?

Kenny Laguna: Number three is not out yet. It’s based on the 339. Joan worked with Gibson and put in features that were designed especially for her, like a unique way of changing the volume, because she changed the knobs and the toggle. And they made other modifications to do with the inside of the guitar.

Joan Jett: They made it really basic for me to be able to take my hands of the guitar so I can talk to the audience and not worry about feedback. The toggle switch — the on/off switch — has to be in an exact spot so I can kick it on and off with my pinkie. A lot of these placements are very important. We’re also using speed knobs for my volume knobs — because 339s have witch hats on the knobs, which are tougher to get a grip on — so for the volume knob, which I use it a lot, because I want to be able to get a good grip on that, I have a different knob on my volume knob.

Kenny Laguna: Mostly up. [Laughter.]

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