My Back Pages: Thirty Years Ago in Guitar Player (July 1989)
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The July, 1989 edition of Guitar Player was one that, on the whole, didn’t really yield much of interest upon revisiting it. The cover story on Jennifer Batten was very good, but that was about it (though an interview with Neal Schon right before he launched Bad English was interesting). The factory tour of the Paul Reed Smith facility was nice, but the pictures were in black and white, and nowadays with so many great factory tour videos out there, it’s pretty underwhelming–though I wonder if some of those people are still working for PRS? In July of 1989 I was home from my first year of college (I wouldn’t go back for any future summers), getting guitar lessons and working for UPS until I got heat stroke. I also made a road trip with friends to the Chicago Blues Festival, which was pretty awesome. So I can’t remember if I enjoyed this issue more at the time, but now it is about as dated as much of the music in this month’s playlist.
My collection of Guitar Player magazines consists of 284 issues from 1986-2010, and the number of women who made the cover can be counted on Django Reinhardt’s fingers:
- July 1987: Liona Boyd (along with Alex Lifeson, Ed Bickert and Rik Emmett)
- July, 1998: Bonnie Raitt
- November, 1998: Meredith Brooks
- March, 2003: Chrissie Hynde (with Adam Seymour)
- January, 2005: Allison Robertson
Now to be fair, 4 issues are missing their covers, but somehow I doubt that they have women musicians on the cover. Leaving aside the question of “who did they omit?”, there are at least three issues with Jimi Hendrix on the cover–the editors must have figured that a man who had been dead for decades would sell better at the newsstand than a real, live woman.
So the point is, Jennifer Batten being on the cover all by herself is a very special honor for a woman musician. I am not surprised that they tasked Joe Gore to write the article; he seemed to be the guy who wrote about “young” and/or “technique” artists at the time and of course for the last several years he has written for Premier Guitar, a periodical that seems to have no trouble finding a wide range of women guitarists to profile. The feature in this month’s issue kicked off with a unique, sideways, two-page spread:
and as you can see, Gore addressed the topic of how rare it was to see women instrumentalists in 1989. The picture comes from Batten’s time as lead guitarist for Michael Jackson’s world tour. The interview was comparatively short (only 7 partial pages), but there were some good bits, such as:
How did you get involved in two-handed tapping?
Steve Lynch was in my class at GIT in ’79. After he saw an Emmett Chapman seminar on the Stick, he started experimenting with the same technique on standard guitar. It sounded great to me. I had to follow him at the graduation performance, which was a drag because he whipped out all this stuff that just fried people’s minds. It was so fresh and new then, and nobody had seen it before. Eddie Van Halen was just coming on the scene, and I don’t think people in the class were even aware of what he was doing at the time.
I corresponded with Steve after school, and he gave me a demo tape of his two-handed stuff. I had trouble picking things out, because I was using only the index finger of my right hand. Buy when his book, The Right Touch came out, I tore through it and learned everything in it. Later, I started experimenting on my own, and eventually I took a completely different direction. But that book really helped me understand some of the things that could be done with the technique. By that point I was studying Eddie Van Halen’s stuff, and was showing it to the kids. Actually I was into everyone who was using the technique, so I learned solos by Eddie, Randy Rhoads, Jeff Watson and even Adrian Vandenberg, who played some two-handed background parts on one of his first solo albums.
Fairly or unfairly, tapping technique came to be identified with Eddie Van Halen. Did you ever feel that there were certain Eddie-isms that you had to avoid to develop your own sound?
Yeah. A lot of people started doing those repeated triplet figures like Eddie plays on “Eruption”. I tried to stay away from that. One way I avoided it was by experimenting with using all four right-hand fingers.
You’ve transcribed many jazz tunes and classical pieces for two-handed, tapped guitar. Were you consciously trying to move away from pentatonically based material?
I’m sure it’s because of my training. It was only logical to take the theory I’d learned and apply it to two-handed playing. But I had never really been interested in classical music before. I studied a little classical in school, but it just wasn’t the direction for me–I drink too much coffee! I guess I was inspired by the whole Yngwie Malmsteen thing, and how everybody was getting into Paganini.
Can being perceived as a two-handed player be a limitation?
I’m sure people do categorize me like that, but I don’t think of it as a limitation. For me, two-handed playing is like going to another instrument. Some guitar players write at the piano because it’s a fresh approach. I think of the two-handed stuff the same way. It lets you see the neck differently, and you can come up with fresh ideas that you might not have otherwise. But people do have a tendency to categorize you. For example, at GIT I was known as a rocker. Once I mentioned Charlie Parker in class, and this guy looked at me like “You’re not supposed to know about jazz–you’re a rocker!”
The conversation then turned to address the issue of gender discrimination in music, and some of Batten’s observations still ring true today:
You’ve managed to succeed in a very male-dominated profession. Why do you think there are so few prominent women guitarists?
It’s partly because there’s no precedent. Maybe a lot of boys coming up can really identify with all the rockers they see on MTV or at concerts. When I was coming up, there were only a few women soloists, like Emily Remler. But I think things will be completely different in the 1990s….And if I can influence people that way, it’s great.
But there is still a lot of resistance, isn’t there? Haven’t you been in situations where you were discriminated against because of your gender?
Well, I heard that there was an audition for Ozzy Osbourne’s band. It was a big deal in town, and everybody knew about it–he even advertised on the radio asking for tapes. I know I got my promo packs into the right hands. I put so much time into learning all of Jake E. Lee’s and Randy Rhoads’ solos but I didn’t even get an audition. It would be one thing if they didn’t like my tone or the way I looked, but to not even get in was a real drag. The hard rock scene is completely dominated by white males with long hair….Considering what a creative art form music is, it’s amazing how bands clone themselves.
Some stereotypes die hard.
I don’t have much patience for stereotypes or generalizations of any kind. One of the biggest stereotypes about women is that they are “too emotional”. But isn’t music pure emotion? If that’s the case, there should be 2% males in music and 98% women.
…It’s a shock for some people to see a woman playing the guitar. All over the world, on the Michael Jackson tour, people would ask me whether I was a man or a woman. Just because I played guitar, they assumed I was a guy.
You mean it was easier for them to believe that the guitar player was a man who looked like a woman than that she was actually female?
Yeah. It was a drag. I’d stand there with my blonde hair, red lipstick, and caked on stage makeup and think “Thank you, Poison! Thank you, Cinderella! You’ve confused the children of the world.” People weren’t malicious about it–they didn’t realize that I wanted to deck them.
Is it possible that some of our concepts of “good guitar playing” are excessively male? What about the image of the guitar hero/gunslinger, or the excessive emphasis on technique?
Well, I’m still into chops–I can appreciate that as much as the next guy. I wouldn’t consider myself a shrapnel shredder, but I think that’s something important to have in your playing. But the gunslinger attitude is pretty jive. The whole competitive thing gets pretty old, because it gets so far away from the art of music. If you have chops, they’ll say you have no soul. If you play blues, they’ll say you have no chops. If you play jazz, you’re too old. If you play punk, you’re an idiot. I’ve been there myself, and I’ve done the slagging. When I was at GIT I was slagging the rockers. Being with Michael Jackson, I could really see what the slag scene was all about. He sold 40 million copies of Thriller and 20 million copies of Bad. He’s the most beloved entertainer in the world, yet reviewers constantly shredded him to bits.
Are you concerned about being able to get your music across, given the limited number of images that the music industry allows female artists to have?
I think about that, but I don’t really have an answer. Before the Jackson gig, I was totally into the music side, and I’d never thought about the image side. I’d go into a rage whenever a bandleader asked me what I was going to wear to the gig. I’d think, “What does it matter? Who cares?” But it does matter. But I will definitely not go for the slut-rocker look. I despise that and it would take away from any respect that I might get. When I see ads in the guitar mags with a girl in a bikini holding up a product, I read it as “Our product really sucks, so we have to do something else to get your attention.” It does nothing for raising the respect for women. Come on! Billy Sheehan doesn’t do those Yamaha ads wearing a jock strap!
Wow. It’s true that there was such a “glam” aspect of “hair metal” in the 1980s that most men in the scene had teased hair and wore makeup, but this is such a textbook example of what people don’t see, they can’t conceive of. Even with a woman playing in front of their eyes, their brains told them they must be looking at a man. Of course, this is why it’s a shame that Guitar Player couldn’t find a way to fit in more women cover artists over the years (and a credit to Gore for bringing that up, if obliquely). By the way, here is a video of Jennifer Batten playing “Dirty Diana” with Michael Jackson. The solo on the record was played by Steve Stevens, who definitely could have confused some people gender-wise when he and Billy Idol were on top of the charts. Anyway, this was the tune that she was able to “stretch out on” and you’ll get an idea of how much of a “rocker” Batten was:
The final quotes come from the part about the Michael Jackson tour. Even after reading what she said about MJ’s record sales, it may be hard for some to remember just how huge of a global star Jackson was, but Jennifer Batten’s role in his band was definitely high profile.
How did you land the audition for his band?
I heard about it from Steve Trovato, a guitarist friend of mine. I tried to set up the audition for the latest possible date so I could stay home and shred Michael Jackson tunes night and day. The actual audition was by myself in front of a video camera. They said they wanted to hear some funk rhythms, so that’s what I started out with. Then I went into solo land. I played my solo version of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”, and then I played the “Beat It” solo, which I’d been playing for years in Top-40 bands. I had heard they wanted a certain look, but I’d never paid attention to how I looked before–I’m not into that at all. This [indicating her mass of dyed blonde hair] was his idea.
When I got the call saying that they wanted me, they asked two questions: “Can you tour for a year?” and “Do you mind an image change?” I said, “Do what you want”, so when the tour started in Japan I had a three-foot Mohawk. Michael had hired a designer who made drawings of how everyone was supposed to look before we even started rehearsing. The drawings looked great, but in real life we were some ugly people onstage.
How long did you rehearse before the tour?
For six weeks. It was the most intense rehearsal I’ve ever done. Every nuance was worked out, mostly before we even met Michael. Sometimes we worked 12 hour days….Greg Phillinganes was the musical director, and he has the most incredible ears. We rehearsed at mega-DBs, and if just one vocal part was off for one note in the third bar he’d hear it and remember it. Michael had suggestions for people, and he was very cool to work with. He has unbelievable patience and a low stress level. He never raised his voice once during the entire tour, unlike some people who fire and rehire band members every weekend. After the tour started, we hardly saw him at all. But a couple of times we closed down amusement parks and all went together. That’s the only way to see Tokyo Disneyland, man.
One of your spotlights was the “Beat It” solo. Did you play Eddie Van Halen’s solo note for note?
Yeah. Backstage at Madison Square Garden, Will Lee asked me if it was on tape! I guess it was a back-handed compliment, but it made me wonder how many people thought it was on tape. As I played I was wearing a fiber-optic suit that changed colors, and so did the guitar. I had to put glow-in-the-dark tape on the neck to mark the frets so I wouldn’t get lost. Lights were flashing, so it was like moving through a strobe-lit disco. A few times somebody stepped on the cord that connected my suit to the computer–I almost got whiplash. I’d played the solo for years, but with Michael it was more challenging because the tempo was faster than the record and the guitars were tuned down two whole-steps to C for that song, so I had to use heavy-gauge strings. Plus I had to move around and jump up and down. I usually stand still when I solo.
This was a really good interview, and I enjoyed re-reading it. I remember being struck by the part where she said that “If Jeff Beck wanted a rhythm player, I’d jump on that in a second”, and then years later she ended up getting the gig to be in Beck’s band for a couple of years, which is really cool, and another great resume item. It’s funny, though, that I (and I’m sure lots more people) recognize Jennifer Batten as an exceptional guitarist from her having been on the cover of Guitar Player. I wonder how many other great instrumentalists I don’t know of because GP decided to do yet another Eric Clapton cover story instead?
I don’t have much to say about the PRS factory tour, but it might be nice to look at, and I’m sure that there are devoted Paul Reed Smith fans who have visited the factory who might be interested to see how things looked when the company was still an “upstart”.
That’s it for this month. The music selection is hit or miss, but it has Bonnie Raitt’s breakthrough Nick of Time, which is a highlight. The July ’89 issue with Jeff Healey and a tour of the Guitar Institute of Technology looks to be more interesting than this one was. Until then, keep on picking!