How To Get Joan Jett’s Bone Crunching Rhythm Guitar Sound
If there’s a king and a queen of six-string rhythm crunch, they are AC/DC’s Malcolm Young and, of course, Joan Jett. On Sunday, September 22, Jett celebrated her 55th birthday. And what better way for guitar players to celebrate than to take a shot at recreating her bone shattering Melody Maker-fired sound. Maybe If all of us hit one of the Godzilla-sized E chords she deploys in “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” at midnight on the 22nd, we’d actually be able to tilt the world on its axis. That’s how powerful Jett’s sound feels.
How did Jett get the King Kong tone on that 1982 smash? Her array of gear was simple and highly effective. Jett played her favorite double cutaway Melody Maker, which she purchased in 1977 and also deployed on the hits “Bad Reputation,” which established her solo career, and “Do You Wanna Touch Me.” Her amp was a Music Man 212, which were also favored by Aerosmith at the time, stocked with Electro-Voice speakers. No effects, just a straight signal from guitar to amp. However, there was a secret weapon involved — a pickup called the Velvet Hammer. These are no longer in production, but were hand built by steel guitarist Red Rhodes, who passed away in 1995 and took his secrets with him. Jett’s guitar became the model for Jett's signature Gibson Melody Maker, which went into production in 2008.
Jett was a charter member of the all-female seminal punk-pop outfit the Runaways before her solo career, and in that band she played a blond Gibson Les Paul Deluxe with the toggle switch positions reversed. Jett used only the guitar’s treble pickup, so she kept the switch in the “up” position. That way she could stutter or kill the pick up with a swift downward flip of the switch, for effect. That Les Paul appears on the group’s debut, 1976’s The Runaways. By that disc’s follow up, the same year’s Queens of Noise, Jett had switched to the Melody Maker, due to the Les Paul’s weight. This was before Gibson began building weight-relief chambered solid body Les Pauls.
So, back to playing that big E chord. Without a Velvet Hammer, the closest pickup to deliver Jett’s tone might be a Burstbucker or something else with plenty of hot drive. That still won’t cover the physical element of getting to the Jett sound. She has a pile driver right arm that she uses to smash out chords with great precision. But here are some settings that might get you close. Put a humbucker-equipped guitar on the treble setting and turn the volume open wide. Set an amp with gain up half-way, treble on seven or eight, the mids straight up and the bass a little past that, at six or seven. And fine tune from there, including a hair of reverb. Now go for those down-stroked chords, carefully choking them by resting your wrist where the strings and bridge connect, so they don’t ring out.
If you need a little ear candy to hone in on exactly the sound you’re looking for, check out these tunes:
• “Cherry Bomb,” from 1976’s The Runaways and 1984’s Glorious Results of a Misspent Youth: If you’re looking for the Les Paul snarl, listen to the Runaways version. If the Melody Maker bark is your goal, check out Jett’s solo career re-recording of the song on Misspent Youth.
• “Bad Reputation” and “Do You Wanna Touch Me,” from 1981’s Bad Reputation: Although the latter is classic down-stroke/muted Jett, you can hear the way she churns out chords with up and down strokes on “Bad Reputation,” the tune that established her as a solo artist.
• “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” from 1981’s I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll: This album embraces Jett’s ’60s pop roots and brings a fresh, snarling authority to its covers like the title track, Tommy James’ “Crimson and Clover” and the Dave Clark Five’s “Bits and Pieces.” The lesson here isn’t just in the title cut’s gnashing guitars. Jett shows how an artist with her own sound can put a distinctive brand on well-known classics by infusing the performances with that distinctive voice.
More Joan here and here.