April 19, 2005

As the guitarist walks in, he points out a few of his favorite pieces—a roster that includes a mint Supro (“I used that on a lot of slide tracks”), a sweetly broken-in Guild Duane Eddy archtop, and a fully functioning antique rifle (the chambers of which the guitarist considerately empties before we get started). I select a battle-scarred, one-of-a-kind southpaw Stratocaster copy set up for righties that has been custom finished (“Or unfinished, actually—we took a propane torch to that thing”). Next, Perry pulls a weathered blond Telecaster off the wall and plugs in.

“Besides the ’59 Les Paul that Slash had for years—which I got back fairly recently—this old Tele is one of the only guitars I have left from the ’70s,” he confesses. He’s alluding to the big sell-off forced by his 1979 split with Aerosmith, his spiraling substance abuse problems at the time, and the staggering $80,000 room service tab he reportedly accrued—all of which nearly sank him personally and professionally. But, like his band, Perry proved his resilience with one of the most astounding recoveries in rock and roll history. Now, guitar in hand, he’s ready to show the world some of the flagship themes from his first solo album since he rejoined Aerosmith more than two decades ago.

Interestingly, when Perry picks up a guitar, he doesn’t warm up with anything remotely as geeky as a scale, a fretboard pattern, or a picking exercise. In fact, at first, his long, spidery fingers look too delicate to possibly produce the famous blues-rock roar that powers Aerosmith. And when you sit down with the rock legend face-to-face and trade a few licks, you’re instantly struck by how raw, bluesy, and honest his playing is. As flashy as he may seem on MTV or up on the Jumbotron, this veteran stadium rocker has far more in common with more humble guitar gods like, say, John Lee Hooker or Elmore James than he does his contemporaries on the arena circuit. But gradually, like the tubes in the old tweed-era Fender Champ at his feet, Perry’s platinum-selling hands crackle to life, and soon, the room fills with the warm, wailing mojo for which he is known.

“Here’s a sound I love,” offers Perry, getting into dropped-D tuning (by detuning his low-E string a whole-step) and playing the intriguing G/C voicing in Ex. 1. “A rich chord like this can be very inspiring, because a lot of different melodies will work over the top of it.”

The grip’s harmony is a standard tenth-position G barre chord with the 4, C, added in the bass (on the 6th string). As shown, starting in the third bar of Ex. 2, this chord drives the verse section to “Hold on Me,” a slammin’ rocker in D. (Notice the shape’s reappearance down a fourth as D/G.) The aggressive single-note blues line that opens the tune is shown in the first two bars of the example. Finally, banging away on the lowest three strings, Perry demonstrates that he has nothing against one-finger barre chords [Ex. 3]. But unlike, say, Disturbed or Linkin Park, Perry’s amp is tiny, the tone is only halfway dirty, and his 1st finger works this portable grip up and down the neck with long, slippery, bottleneck-inspired glissandos. Son House without the glass!

Back in standard tuning, Perry launches into the intro to “Dying to be Free”—a lick that is a great reminder of the immense power one can generate by pounding two wound strings with a visceral downstroke strumming attack [Ex. 4]. Dig the recurring half-step bend on the fifth string (and of beat one, bars 1 and 3). The trick here is to bend that string up towards the ceiling with your 2nd finger, without embarrassing yourself by pushing it clangorously off the fretboard. All the while, fret the fourth string with your 3rd finger.

Perry closes his lesson with two raging slide licks from the intro to “Shakin’ My Cage”—but not before getting into open-G tuning. If you’re new to open G (which is spelled D, G, D, G, B, D, low to high), simply drop your first, fifth, and sixth strings a whole-step and you’re there. Now, pop a ceramic slide on your finger and try Examples 5 and 6. Both phrases showcase Perry’s knack for pulling slide-held notes off to open strings—Ex. 5 with single notes, Ex. 6 with chords. If you’re having trouble keeping the low string from ringing, take a hint from Perry: Reach over the top of the neck and mute it with your thumb. Now your strumming/picking hand can relax and strike the strings with authority and grace.

“I keep about 8,000 slides around, because, like eyeglasses, they tend to disappear,” says Perry, who naturally favors his signature-series Dunlop Boneyard porcelain slides. “Glass slides are too smooth sounding, metal slides too harsh. But ceramic slides give you the best qualities of either. I like them because they create a tiny bit of friction, so when you do this [applies subtle vibrato to the strings] you get a little bit of that shimmering, violin-bow sustain.”

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