Melissa Etheridge's top 5 tips for guitarists
Melissa Etheridge has a little secret. "It's kind of funny to talk about," says the Oscar winner and two-time Grammy winner. "I used to kid other people about it, but the fact is, yep, I'm a guitar nerd." She lets out a throaty laugh and roars, "Put me in a room with a bunch of guitars and pedals, and that's it – I'm full-out geekin'!
"A lot of girls don’t geek out on guitars like guys do," Etheridge continues. "It takes a subtle understanding of the instrument. I think a woman playing the guitar is more right-brained; we’re more about feeling and emotion than technique. But when I finally crossed over into technique, I was like, ‘This is cool!’ And it is – it's the coolest thing."
And she's not shy about spreading the word. This past summer, prior to the release of her 13th studio album, This Is M.E., which, coincidentally, is the debut album on her new label, ME Records, Etheridge embarked on a solo tour in which she stood on stage with 10 or so of her beloved six- and 12-string friends behind her in a semi-circle. "It was like a guitar playland," she says. "On some songs I used a looper. I created these loops right there on the spot and played guitar over them – different rhythms or leads. It looked like magic to the audience. They thought I was some sort of guitar genius. That was a lot of fun."
As she has done on her other albums, Etheridge approached the recording of This Is M.E. with an ear toward capturing her full-band live sound. "I like records to sounds like records, but not to the point where I can't reproduce a song on stage," she explains. "I layer guitars, but I don't go overboard. On this record, I would either start with my 12-string acoustic, like on Take My Number, or on some numbers, like Ain’t That Bad, the bedrock sound is my ’82 Les Paul Custom. And we don't lose those main guitars, no matter what else we put on the tracks."
On the following pages, Etheridge runs down her top five tips for guitarists, two of which emphasize having confidence in developing one's sound. "It's so important," she stresses. "In addition to your words and melodies, your signature sound is all you really have as an artist. And even when you're giving a nod to one of your idols, you can still be yourself."
To wit, Etheridge points to the rousing rocker I Won't Be Alone Tonight. "It's total Bruce," she gushes. "When [producer] Jon Levine got together, we bonded over our love of Bruce Springsteen, so I said, ‘Hey, let’s create something that we wish Bruce would make’ – you know, that kind of song we’d love to hear from him again. I sat down with my guitar and wrote I Won’t Be Alone Tonight, which is unabashedly Bruce-love. It's not a rip, it's more like a tribute, but I couldn't have done that if I wasn't comfortable in my own sound and who I am.”
“First off, I have to give it up to my guitar techs. Over the years, they’ve helped me out so much and really taught me a lot. I’m really indebted to them for being so patient with me.
“So here’s a little story: A few years ago, I was a little embarrassed by how much I didn’t know, so I went to this little music store in Thousand Oaks, outside of LA, and I said, ‘I want to talk to somebody about pedals.’ They brought out their pedal expert. He didn’t know who I was, which was pretty cool, actually. I wasn’t a celebrity to him; I was more like a suburban mom who was strangely interested in guitars.[Laughs]
“I spent two hours in the store with him, just asking questions and having him go through everything for me. It was incredible. He helped me so much and really made me understand how things worked and why they worked. So to anybody who’s confused about gear, don’t be. Ask questions. A lot of times, it’s that person at your local music store who can help you out.”
Decide what you want your sound to be
“There are so many possibilities out there – it’s endless. Just in distortion alone, the options are overwhelming. But you need to decide what type of sound you want; you don’t want the sound to lead you around.
“Depending on what kind of band you’re in, you should think to yourself, ‘How can my sound help and define this music?’ Once you’ve arrived at that answer or that goal, then you can go out and figure out how to make that sound, whether it’s based around certain pedals or guitars or amps, or even the way you play.
“But you need to have that concept figured out first – ‘What’s my sound?’ Otherwise, you’ll be going down a million roads, and you could end up driving around forever.”
Be confident about your sound
“OK, you’ve figured out your sound. Now, be confident about it and stay with it. If you start chasing something else, you won’t really have your sound, your base.
“That’s the most beautiful thing, when you can hear a song and go, ‘Oh, well, that’s Brian May’ or ‘I know who that is – Keith Richards.’ Because they know their sound, and they believe it in. That kind of confidence allows them to concentrate on their playing and songwriting.”
“It depends on your guitar. There’s one guitar that I keep my old strings on because I just love the sound – I don’t want to mess with it. But generally, I prefer to have new strings on my guitars. Sometimes when I don’t get the sound I want, when something just isn’t feeling right about it, I know the reason – because my strings are old.
“My guitar tech changes my strings daily on the road, but I change them at home. Because I don’t play every day at home, I don’t need constant string changes like I do on tour. At home, I probably change strings once a month. I don’t really mind – if you’re a guitar player, it’s what you do. I feel a little sorry for my guitar tech when he has to change the 12-string models, though. I have at least three of them out on the road with me, so do the math – that’s a lot of strings.”
Pay attention to guitar placement
“A lot of times, if you’re playing punk rock or maybe metal, you wanna put your guitar down low. You want that sort of Ramones look. I get it – it totally looks cool, especially if you were one of the Ramones. [Laughs]
“The problem is, putting your guitar down that low, where it’s past your belt buckle, can take your wrist out of alignment with the instrument. You lose a lot of control that way. If you find that you’re having trouble getting a certain guitar lick out, try moving your instrument up a little bit.
“This happens with me all the time. I’ll have a problem with a certain part, or my wrist will get really tired and give out, and I’ll be like, ‘Oh, I know why – this is a different strap.’ I’ve become really aware of where the guitar is sitting on my body and how it can affect the way I play.
“Not that you want the guitar all the way up on your chest so it’s practically under your chin. Some jazz guys do that, and it looks super dorked-out. [Laughs] So somewhere in the middle is cool. Like most things, you have to experiment and see what feels right. Definitely pay attention to your picking wrist. If you can’t control it the way you want, your strap is adjusted wrong.”