Dear Guitar Hero: Joan Jett Talks Gibson Melody Makers, the Runaways, Pre-Show Jitters and More

by Brad Angle
Posted Nov 25, 2013 at 10:22am

She was a founding guitarist of Seventies teen girl group the Runaways and rose to stardom fronting the long-running rock act the Blackhearts. But what Guitar World readers really want to know is ...

The new Joan Jett and the Blackhearts album [Unvarnished, released in October] deals with some really personal themes. Did writing these songs help you gain a new or different perspective on life? — Mikey Nichols

Absolutely. It’s like do-it-yourself psychology. [laughs] This is my most personal album in the sense that it directly points to events or things I’ve gone through. This last decade I’ve lost a lot of people, including my parents, who I was very close to. It’s been a really formative, eye-opening and hard time for me.

The song “Fragile” is specifically about my mother, and losing love. You think love is so strong—and it can be—but it also can be so fragile and broken just like a stick. Our music always focused on personal things like falling in love, falling out of love, having sex, not having sex and partying. I’m not saying nothing was ever serious or had messages. But this album’s subject matter is certainly more diverse and these news songs have a deeper personal relationship to me than my other albums.

You’ve had an amazing career. What is the one piece of advice you wish you were given back when you first got into the business with the Runaways? — Hank Tomesco

Wow… I guess my only advice is to pay attention, because everything goes so fast. Nobody gave me that advice. The Runaways was three and a half years, but it seemed to go very quickly. Just really embrace the moment, especially the special ones. And even the bad ones, because things always change. The bad will get better and the good will get worse. [laughs] Things cycle around. There’s no other way, man. It’s the way of life.

I have really bad performance anxiety. Did you ever experience that? Any tips on how to get over it? — Amanda Hoffman

I’m always nervous before I go onstage…and I want to be nervous. If I’m not nervous, something is wrong. When I start performing my anxiety goes away, and I think that’s true for a lot of people. I would also say don’t think while you’re onstage. When I’m thinking, What are the chords? What are the words? then I definitely f--- up.

I have to be an empty vessel. If I don’t know the words, if it’s a new song or whatever, I’ll have the lyrics down on the stage. I’ll make it part of the show that the audience is seeing me learn a new song. Some people might think it’s stupid to be scared, but it’s a very natural thing and I think it can be a good motivator. Just keep it channeled and you can use it for a better performance. Oh, and I’d also say don’t party to get over it. It will affect your performance in a bad way. I know that from experience, too.

I read that one of the songs on Unvarnished was about living through Hurricane Sandy. Can you talk about that experience? — Paul

“Make It Back” is about how people come back after a tragedy. Specifically for me it was Hurricane Sandy. I live on the beach in a town called Long Beach [New York], and we got whacked. I was home for the hurricane, because I wanted to protect my house and what was in it. I had animals there.

It was really scary. It was also scary to see how little it was covered in the press. I travel a lot and there was no coverage, but the devastation was so severe. So that song was about seeing people be devastated and lose everything and collectively go, “What are we gonna do?” Then somebody or something changes the energy. And then it’s like you have to rebuild…or die. And then you see that spirit go through everybody, and everyone starts helping. It was a beautiful thing to see. And I saw it first-hand.

You’ve had great success with cover songs. How do you choose songs, and what’s the key to making them your own? — Tanya

Well, some of them have been suggestions. I trust my songwriting partner Kenny Laguna’s instinct a lot. Early on he suggested “Wooly Bully,” which was an obscure fun song that went over great live. But the songs come from all over. Like AC/DC [“Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap”]. That’s a song I used to dance to at a club called Rodney [Bingenheimer’s] English Disco [in Los Angeles] before the Runaways even started.

They used to play British glitter music from the Seventies. And that’s where I got turned on to bands like the Sweet. Making it your own? I try and not change much as far as the arrangements go, because that’s what made me fall in love with the song in the first place. I think me singing and playing them is change enough.

You’re a big sports fan and also passionate about social and political causes. Do you have any thoughts about what’s going on in Russia right now? Many people want to boycott the [Sochi 2014 Winter] Olympics because of Russia’s recent legislation against gay rights. [Russia recently passed a law that prohibits propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations.] — Johnny

First of all, I think it’s ridiculous that Russia would do that and make those claims. That is just absurd, and it’s not reality based. But I’m not sure about the boycott. I totally understand, emotionally, why people would want to do that. But I think in the end you might hurt the athletes who have been working their whole lives to compete. Maybe there’s a better way to make a statement by going there, being gay and winning.

That’s not just for the United States, either. I’m sure there are many other nations that have gay athletes that will be going. I don’t know if anyone will end up making a statement like that. But to me that might be a better way to protest, and show that we’re all just people.

You’ve been associated with the Gibson Melody Maker for years. Can you tell us the story behind your guitar? — Donnie Halsey

In the Runaways I was using a blond Les Paul. It’s beautiful, and I still have it, but it’s heavy as s---. I jump and run around a lot onstage, and it was really getting to my shoulder, so I was looking for a lighter guitar. I heard from one of our road crew that Eric Carmen from the Raspberries was selling a Melody Maker, so I ended up buying it.

Now, this is the guitar that he played on “Go All the Way” and all those [Raspberries] hits. And then I played it on “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll,” “Crimson and Clover,” “Do You Want to Touch Me,” “Bad Reputation”…all those early records. Then I took it off the road because I got nervous that someone was gonna steal it or break it. It’s so beautiful. It’s white, has no stickers on it, and there are cracks in the paint and yellowing from age or club cigarettes.

It’s an unbelievable-looking guitar. I have it in a closet and I take it out occasionally to record. But I don’t even need to use it to record anymore, because I have a guitar that sounds pretty much like it. I’m actually kind of afraid to bring out the original. It’s got a great heritage. It’s a guitar full of hits.

Back in the Nineties there was a real active movement of female rock bands, like L7, Bikini Kill and Babes in Toyland, which you were associated with. Why did that scene fizzle out? — Katherine

It felt to me that we were on the cusp of the girls breaking out. We were one hit away from opening the door for everybody else. But there was always resistance from radio. Like, only one girl gets to be played at a time. But yeah, it felt powerful back then, and I don’t really know what happened. Nothing happened. Bands wound up breaking up. Some people realize that it’s not their life goal to wait for radio to see it their way. They want to do other things with their lives and move on.

I totally see that as being appropriate, too. You have to be really dedicated to this as a lifestyle. It’s hard to live a double life and hold down a nine-to-five job and be in a touring band. You’ve gotta choose, at least for a few years, if you wanna give your rock and roll dream a shot. You have to go full on. Go on tour, play every s---ty gig you can for no money and no people. It’s how you build character and experience and you learn a lot. Hopefully after a few years you get lucky and get a foothold, and you can decide if you want to continue this and keep fighting.

I think the rock scene has died down. It’s gone underground or something. But bands are out still there. Every town I go to there’s at least one all-girl rock band. You can be sure of that.

Add a Comment

Similar Guitar News

Slash's live rig, Gibson Collector's Choice & NAMM 2015 launches in The Gear Show episode 6 (3/11/2015)
Read more about Slash's live rig, Gibson Collector's Choice & NAMM 2015 launches in The Gear Show episode 6 at The makers of Guitarist, Total Guitar and Guitar Techniques magazines and present The Gear Show, a m...
Les Paul's 1954 Gibson "Black Beauty" Guitar Sells for $335,500 at Auction (2/20/2015)
Last night, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay paid $335,500 for a controversial guitar, Les Paul's very own 1954 Les Paul Custom "Black Beauty." According to The New York Times, Irsay's guitar curator, Christopher McKinney, placed the bid at th...
Is Les Paul's Gibson Black Beauty Guitar the "Holy Grail"? Join the Debate (2/9/2015)
Guitar Player’s February 2015 issue features a cover feature about Les Paul’s 1954 Black Beauty. For those unfamiliar with the story, the Black Beauty is the very guitar on which Les performed many modifications over the years as he sought to i...
Old gold: 1972 Gibson Les Paul Deluxe (2/6/2015)
Read more about Old gold: 1972 Gibson Les Paul Deluxe at The chequered history of the Les Paul Deluxe model began with the demise of what is today regarded as the Holy Grail for collectors: the '58 to '60 Sunburst Les Paul Standar...
Dear Guitar Hero: Dave Davies Talks Kinks Reunion, His Kinks-Era Gibson Flying V, New Album and More (12/5/2014)
He’s a founding member of the Kinks whose new solo album is Rippin' Up Time. But what Guitar World readers really want to know is… You played a lot of different guitars in the early days of the Kinks. How many of them do you still own? — Antony ...
Gibson launches Explorer Blackout and '59 ES-225 TD (11/19/2014)
Read more about Gibson launches Explorer Blackout and '59 ES-225 TD at Gibson has unveiled its new Explorer Blackout and 1959 ES-225 TD guitars.ES-225The ES-225 was initially introduced in 1956 as a close relative of the ES-125, t...
Gibson announce new Dave Grohl signature model (11/13/2014)
Read more about Gibson announce new Dave Grohl signature model at In recognition of the Gibson-loving Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters' continuing massiveness with latest album / TV series Sonic Highways, Gibson has announced its r...
Gibson Introduces Robby Krieger 1954 Les Paul Custom Guitar (11/12/2014)
Robby Krieger’s 1954 Les Paul Custom became a constant writing companion, workhorse, performing partner, muse and musical soul mate all rolled into one right from the time he acquired it used in 1968. Nicknamed “L.A. Woman” after its use on tha...
Gibson Introduces Collector's Choice #26 1959 Les Paul "Whitford 'Burst" Guitar (11/12/2014)
In his unwavering pursuit of success, particularly through the challenges of Aerosmith’s early years, Brad Whitford displays a kinship to the ultimate tenacity of the Les Paul design: the time-will-prove qualities and heroic achievements of a gu...
Dear Guitar Hero: George Thorogood Talks Bo Diddley, Gibson Guitars, Beatles, Stones and Baseball (11/5/2014)
The “Bad to the Bone” blues rocker has sold more than 15 million albums worldwide. But what Guitar World readers really want to know is… You’ve just released the Live at Montreux DVD and Icon record, and you’re doing a 40th anniversary tour. You...
Wishlist: Gibson Custom Billy F Gibbons Goldtop (11/5/2014)
Read more about Wishlist: Gibson Custom Billy F Gibbons Goldtop at
Old gold: 1959 Gibson Les Paul Special (10/31/2014)
Read more about Old gold: 1959 Gibson Les Paul Special at Introduced in 1955 as a step up from the single-pickup Junior, the single-cutaway Les Paul Special was still considered a 'student' model, and priced accordingly. "Don't be...
For Sale: Nine Gibson Les Pauls Played by Warren Haynes at Final Allman Brothers Beacon Theatre Shows (10/20/2014)
Thanks to an arrangement between the Gibson Custom Shop, the Allman Brothers Band Museum at the Big House and Warren Haynes, a special selection of Gibson guitars is now available to the public. Each of the nine hand-selected Les Pauls will be ...
Gibson announces Bill Kelliher Halcyon Les Paul and Lzzy Hale Explorer (10/15/2014)
Read more about Gibson announces Bill Kelliher Halcyon Les Paul and Lzzy Hale Explorer at Hot on the tail of the 2015 line-up, Gibson has announced two brand new signature models for Mastodon's Bill Kelliher and Halestorm's Lzzy H...
Gibson Introduces Seven-String Les Paul Classic Guitar (10/13/2014)
Gibson has introduced its new Les Paul Classic 7 String — the first ever seven-string Les Paul. From the company: For too long the luthiers at Gibson have reserved the seven-string guitars for other popular models like the Flying V and Explorer,...
Gibson Les Paul 7-string announced (10/13/2014)
Read more about Gibson Les Paul 7-string announced at Who says an old classic can't learn new tricks? In an unexpected move, quite