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Melissa Etheridge On Vintage Guitars and Today’s LGBTQ Musicians

November 12, 2019
Written by
Cynthia Schemmer
Written by
Cynthia Schemmer
Photos Courtesy of Melissa Etheridge

From learning how to play lead guitar to what the world needs now, Melissa Etheridge spoke with She Shreds ahead of her LA show on November 16th.

What can I say—Melissa Etheridge fueled a very specific and special part of my younger years as a burgeoning songwriter and very confused adolescent. During a time when I was struggling to find strength in both my voice and identity, Etheridge came through mainstream radio with hits like, “I’m the Only One,” “The Way I Do,” and of course, the queer anthem that spans generations since it’s 1993 release, “Come to My Window.”

Since the release of her self-titled debut album in 1988, Etheridge’s commanding voice and unparalleled songwriting has earned her numerous awards, including two Grammys for Best Rock Vocal Performance for songs “Ain’t It Heavy” (1993)  and “Come to my Window” (1995). She also won an Academy Award for Best Original Song for “I Need to Wake Up” that she wrote for the documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Amongst other accolades, she won the Gibson Guitar Award for Best Rock Guitarist in 2001, received an Honorary Doctor of Music Degree from Berklee College of Music in 2006, and received her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2007.

Across the board, Etheridge is a passionate and hopeful icon—including both personal and political accomplishments, too. From coming out publicly as a lesbian in 1993, followed by the release of the confessional album, Yes I Am, to being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004 and making a return to the stage to perform at the 2005 Grammy Awards while bald from chemotherapy, Etheridge has always spoke her truth. And with the release of her latest album, The Medicine Show, she continues to do so by addressing the 2016 election, the pain that followed, and the collective need for healing. 

Ahead of her LA show this week at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, I spoke with Etheridge about learning how to play leads, her love for vintage guitars, and what the world needs now.

During the last 10 years, you’ve been working on playing guitar leads, including all the leads on The Medicine Show. In an interview with Guitar Player, you mentioned that you had held back from learning.  Why do you think you held back for so long? 

When I first started, I had a great guitar teacher in Leavenworth [Kansas]. He was this jazz guy, and he started teaching me some interesting stuff at the end of high school, because I felt like I needed to know more—I was gonna go to Berklee College of Music where I would major in guitar. In 1979 at Berklee, I was one of two female  guitar players there. The classroom had 60 guitar players, and I kind of felt lost. And then I got a job down at the seafood restaurant, where I would play five nights a week, four hours a night, and I would make $50. And so I dropped out of Berklee. I was playing solo from 1979 to 1988, and there’s not a whole lot of opportunities to wail on a good guitar lead. I really leaned heavily on my acoustic, and my 12-string because it filled everything up and was more percussive. So when I got to the first album [self-titled], we recorded it as a trio—just me, the bass player, and drummer—and we had all the tracks, but it was like, “Okay, we should put some leads in there.” I was scared, and we called in Waddy Wachtel. And then when I put my first band together—John Shanks is my guitar player, [who is] another outstanding guitar player. So I settled into the rhythm and enjoyed it. I just had these amazing guitar players, and I thought, “Well, I kind of missed the boat on lead guitar.” 

And then I went out on a solo tour in 2009 and started using a looper. I laid down a little drum track, and a little guitar, and then by myself I would pick up some leads. I was solo, I could work on it. So by the time I got back in with a band, around 2010, I was like, “I’m gonna step out and do more solos.” And that’s when Pete Thorn, another great guitar player who was playing lead in my band then, started teaching me. He’s got a great website and YouTube channel, and he really put me in the right direction with pedals, technique, guitars… So that’s when I said, “All right, I’m going to go all in on this.” And now I’m the lead guitar player! [Laughs.]

So having the Medicine Show be your first album you play all the leads on, what was that like for you?

Coming into it, I had done enough on the last three or four albums. I had really inserted myself here and there, and so I felt very confident. And John Shanks produced this one—and there’s a lot of his guitars on there—but everytime it came to a solo, I’d look at him and go, “Nope! I’m playing it!” [Laughs.] He helped me with the sounds, but I said, “These are all mine, I’m taking these solos.”

What is your go-to guitar when writing and working out ideas? And what are your preferred guitars for recording and performing?

Don’t I love these questions! At home, when I write, I enjoy playing on acoustic guitar. I’ve got a beautiful mid-’60s Gibson Hummingbird—it’s got that lovely thin neck. I have a ‘64 J45 that has a deep sound that I love writing with. Sometimes I’ll pick out an old guitar just to shake up the inspiration. And sometimes I’ll buy a guitar and say, “Ah, there’s a couple of songs in there.” And once you start getting into vintage guitar world, it’s hard to get out. [Laughs.] I went down that hole, and I have some amazing guitars that I really, really, really love. I’ve got a ‘75 blonde Fender Starcaster, and it’s just one of my favorites. I keep it at home, I don’t really tour with it, because it’s a little fragile. 

On the road, early ‘80s guitars are some of my favorites. My Les Paul custom—that never lets me down, it’s such a perfect concert guitar. I sort of take a guitar, get the best sound out of it, and then I use that guitar just for that sound. So I have about… [laughs] 10 guitars out on the road. I’ve got a ‘79 Gibson 347, a ‘79 Jaguar, an early ’80s Chet Atkins Country Gentleman, and then I’ve got a Jerry Jones 12-string from the mid-’90s that he made for me. It’s ridiculously consistent. When I still want that 12-string jangle, but I want electric, I’ll pick that up—it never lets me down. 

You said something about seeing guitars at shops and knowing they have some songs in them for you. It’s so interesting to think of a guitar having a personality that way, as if you can hear the potential songs by just holding it.

Years ago, I was in New York City at Matt Umanov vintage guitars, and he had this—I think it was a ‘56—Gibson cutaway, and it’s just a little old guitar that looked like it had been loved and played. I touched it, and just felt, well, so many songs from This Is Me and 4th Street Feeling were written on that guitar, because it felt so inspirational. I don’t know, something about guitars… I feel inspired by them. 

What’s the one pedal you don’t think you could live without?

I’d say the Suhr Koko boost. I put it on every single guitar I have because it just boosts the part that gives you muscle—it cuts through. It’s one of those pedals that you don’t know that it’s there, but when it’s gone you miss it. 

What other gear do you feel is essential to your recent touring?

When I first started playing lead guitar 10 years ago and up until about two or three years ago, I used Suhr amps. I had two of them, and a pedal board that was growing and growing—[laughs] you know how that is. And I did that for a while, and it worked, but the thing that frustrated me was that it sounded completely different at every gig, and we had to dial it in every night. My sound crew would say, “Have you heard of fractal?” And we ended up doing a couple of gigs in Alaska about three years ago, and it was so painful that they looked at me and said, “Look, you really need to look in fractal.”

Can you explain what fractal is?

[Fractal Audio] digitizes every single amplifier, and also pedals sounds, but instead of just making it digital with no dynamics to it, it’s live. [The Axe-Fx III] is a pedalboard, it’s a rack, it’s a computer, and there’s no amplifiers or pedals—it’s all in the board. I’ve dialed in pedals to how I want them to sound, I have a different amplifier for every guitar. To the purest, it’s like, “Nooo!” But I’m like, “Yes.” In the studio, no—but on the road, night after night, it has made such a difference, and we’re able to really dial it in. It solved so many problems.

Let’s switch gears a bit here—The Medicine Show is very much about 2016, the election, and events that followed. There’s an undercurrent of a need for healing, which music lends itself so well to. I’m wondering what other art you turn to when you’re in need of some healing?

I get a lot of healing from reading books. I just think that the written word is so important for our minds, to open up to other possibilities and be inspired. And of course, other music. I love that there’s so much music out nowadays, you can’t even keep track of it all. Like Maggie Rogers, and these new young women coming out now… King Princess—what the hell?! I love this attitude that they all have, this sort of, “Oh no, I got this.” I feel like they’re all my little evil spawns. [Laughs.]

We’re seeing so much of that right now, and it’s incredible—especially the LGBTQ presence lately, more than ever. What are your feelings on when you started to where the music industry is at right now? 

The fact that you can have an out artist—whether it’s a man or a woman—have a hit song… It’s just another color in their crayon box; it doesn’t define them. Some really go all the way—girls singing about girls—and I’m like, “Woo! You go!” It still crosses all the boundaries, everybody likes it. Just because there was a girl singing about a guy didn’t mean I didn’t like the song. It just works both ways now, and I love that. 

To me, rock ‘n’ roll was always that insightful edge. That’s why I had always felt, “Wow, I’m so rock ‘n’ roll because I’m gay.” And that’s where it is now, and I dig that.

Credit: Lauren Dukoff

When you look back on your career, from 1988 until now, what feels like one of the most formative moments?   

It depends on how I look at it. Personally, it was when I had cancer—that really changed me. But as an artist, probably playing my MTV Unplugged that Bruce Springsteen came out and played with me. Getting to perform with your idol, someone who’s inspired you so much… It put me in a place where [I thought], “Well, I’ve arrived. And I better start acting like I’ve arrived.”

As somebody who is very vocal about politics and activism, what do you think this country needs now more than ever?

We need to understand and stop fearing each other so much. It’s that fear of each other that have led us down some really dark roads. And really understand that as human beings, we all want the same thing—we really do—and this thought that there isn’t enough, and we have to keep it away from someone else who’s different. The best thing you could do is put yourself in a situation that is uncomfortable, and start to see everyone’s the same. We laugh, we cry, we love. 

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