GP Flashback: Jennifer Batten, July 1989

September 16, 2011
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“Women are the weaker sex. A woman’s place is in the home. Women can’t be president because they’re too emotional. It’s a man’s world. I remember hearing phrases like these when I was growing up,” recalls Jennifer Batten. “But when I was a teenager, my sister told me that there were no differences between men and women apart from the physical, and I held that statement in the back of my mind whenever self-doubt would arise.”
 
Listen up, guys—and, most likely, you are a guy. Ninety-eight percent of Guitar Player subscribers are male, a higher figure than for Playboy or Penthouse. You may be less likely to hear blanket statements about women’s aptitude for guitar playing than in the past—although such Cro-Magnon attitudes persist in some quarters—but there are still “No Girls Allowed” signs posted outside the rock-guitar clubhouse. Record labels that can’t comprehend female musicians unless they fall into one of a few permissible categories,rock videos that are more likely to feature men who look like women than actual women, music ads designed to cater to the sex and power fantasies of teenaged boys—they’re all part of the cock-eyed world of rock guitar.
 
Sure, the music business is tough for everybody. But for a female instrumentalist to succeed, she must have all the requisite talent and persistence, plus the strength to go against the thousands of little signals that mediate against that success. Jennifer Batten is just such a musician.
 
As a lead guitarist for Michael Jackson’s latest world tour, Batten performed before literally millions of listeners. She has taught at Hollywood’s Guitar Institute Of Technology (GIT), and authored a number of instructional books and columns. Her unique approach to two-handed tapping technique integrates elements of blues, metal, classical, and jazz, but she’s no slouch at conventional-style playing, either.
 
Born in upstate New York, Batten took up the guitar at eight.
 
“I remember seeing the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show and thinking they were the coolest thing in the world,” she says. “My dad played a little, so there was already a guitar in the house. My sister got a guitar before I did, and I was jealous. I was determined to get one real quick.”
 
A year later, her family moved to California. Jennifer has played continuously since then, but she didn’t start working with bands until she graduated from GIT in 1979.
 
“My mother wouldn’t let me go to strange places at night,” she recalls, “so I had to play along with records at home.”
 
She soon made up for lost time, however, playing for dozens of musical projects in an unlikely array of styles, and administering guitar lessons to a small army of would-be shredding machines.
 
You’ve done quite a bit of genre jumping in your career.
 
Yeah, I guess you could say I’m pretty schizophrenic. But a lot of it had to do with my teachers. I had lessons since I started. At first, I was into pop, like the Monkees and the Dave Clark Five. Then, I hooked up with a folk teacher, so that’s what I learned. Later, he went on tour, so I ended up studying with a guy who was into blues, so I got into that bag—Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, and John Lee Hooker. When I was 12 or 13, my father took me to see Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and it was great. And my dad played some guitar, so he turned me on to Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian. I thought it was great stuff. When I enrolled in GIT, my favorite guitarists were Duane Allman and B.B. King. But then I started studying with Joe Diorio and Ron Eschete, and I turned into a little jazz snob. I got to the point where I hated rock. I thought it was really moronic. I put on records that I used to love, and I just hated them. It was really a strange space to be in. Later, I joined my first full-time band, Purl. They had been doing a fusion thing, but right after I joined, they decided to go rock. So I eventually got back into it, and put my rock hating days behind me.
 
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. But 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 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 in order to develop your own sound?
 
Yeah. A lot of people started doing those repeated triplet figures like Eddie plays on “Eruption,” so I tried to stay away from that. One way I avoided it was by experimenting with using all four right-hand fingers.
 
You often generate unusual harmonies by tapping with two or three fingers simultaneously. What are the relative merits of tapping technique and conventional technique for improvising?
 
Tapping lets you get chord clusters that you couldn’t get otherwise. It’s like Allan Holdsworth for short fingers! You can play all those chords that hurt.
 
For me, it’s a bit easier to pick over changes than to tap. But a lot of rock stuff is based in one key, anyway.
 
Can being perceived as a “two-handed player” be a limitation?
 
I’m sure people do categorize me like that 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.
 
You’ve done quite a bit of teaching yourself. What did that bring to your playing?
 
It paid the rent! But teaching can enhance what you know, and make it more solid in your mind. I’ve had students who would really push me or force me to get into bags that I might otherwise not have gotten into.
 
Did you work on reading with all your students?
 
I tried. Guitar players are probably the worst readers in the world. Most of them didn’t start out by reading, and guitar is just a tough instrument to read on, unlike, say, a saxophone, which only has one middle C. I’m not a Tommy Tedesco-type reader, but reading was always a part of my education since I was eight. But if a student really didn’t want to do it, that was cool, too. Some great players don’t read at all. Warren Di Martini says he plays completely by ear, but he sounds great. Same with Jeff Beck. Allan Holdsworth can’t read, and most guitarists would die for his chops. Art can’t be a regimented thing.
In general, are there some areas that students focus on too heavily?
 
Well, all the teenage boys who came in wanted one thing—to shred. They weren’t interested in getting the foundations together. I’d try to present it in little doses, so it wouldn’t hurt. Music teaching is totally a giving profession, and, sometimes, you don’t get anything back. With some students, I would give, give, give, and they would come back next week without using anything that I had shown them. But with some students, it’s very exciting to see how they progress, and to think that maybe someday they’ll be sharing a bill with you.
 
You’ve also played for a lot of musical projects, including some fairly weird ones.
 
I played with a gospel singer named Ella Ruth Piggee—that was her real name. I played in [singer] Lydia Van Houston’s heavy metal band. I never had to use a clean sound all night—it was just full-out blasting on 10. I think I damaged some ears. I played in Girlfriend, a straight-ahead R&B band put together by Narada Michael Walden. In Doc Tahri, we did some pretty fun experimental things, like playing random arpeggios over a stupid unison groove while the drummer sang “Roxanne.” We lost a few people, but at least I was entertained. And I toured the South Pacific with a hairdresser/Elvis impersonator. But that’s all history, as they say. Now I’m concentrating on preparing my record.
 
What will it be like?
 
It will be a mostly instrumental rock guitar album. You know, 24 tracks, 19 of them guitar [laughs]. There will be a minimum of vocals. It will be kind of a metallish thing. I wouldn’t want to do any lightweight Jacuzzi jazz. Michael Sembello is producing. A lot of people only know him from his hit song, “Maniac,” but he’s a very good guitarist. He played with Stevie Wonder for seven years. He has produced mainly R&B artists, like George Benson and Chaka Khan. My album won’t be like that, but there are a lot of things that I really like about R&B production, like the breakdowns, the different textures, and the giant drum sounds.
 
How much material will be original?
 
About half. I’d like to do Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and “Naima,” and I’d like to use “Flight Of The Bumblebee” as an intro or something. I might even do a metal ballad—even though I usually hate them. I wish I could find an electronic ballad remover for my records.
 
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 that things will be completely different in the 1990s. More girls are enrolling in GIT, for example, and you hear about women players all the time. And if I can influence people in that way, it’s great.
 
Some stereotypes die hard.
 
I don’t have much patience with 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 percent males in music and 98 percent women. A lot of downers like these are seeded into people’s minds. I’m sure I don’t even recognize half of the little seeds that were planted in my mind as I was growing up.
 
During the Michael Jackson tour, I thought about this a lot. I read The Cinderella Complex by Collette Dowling. She talks about how some women get trapped into thinking they should just get through school, and then they’ll meet Prince Charming. I have a lot of respect for women who raise a family—that can be tougher than any career, with years and years of sacrifice. But I think some women who might have gone into music went that way instead. Perhaps that’s one reason there aren’t so many women in the music workforce. I mean, it’s still 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.
 
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 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 really 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 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.
 
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 John 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 much attention to how I looked before. I’m not into that at all.
 
When I got the call saying that they wanted me, they asked me 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 for 12 hours a day. The choreographer, Vince Patterson, had worked out all the moves in advance, and he knew better than to try to make us dance while we played. [Keyboardist/arranger] 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. After the tour started, we hardly saw him at all. But a couple of times we all closed down amusement parks 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 original solo note-for-note?
 
Yeah. Backstage at Madison Square Garden, [bassist] 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, and 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.
 
Eventually, I got to play the solo for Eddie Van Halen. Eddie happened to be in the next room at a rehearsal studio, working on some stuff with his technicians. He’d heard that I played his solo on the tour, and he wanted me to play it for him. Not the most relaxed situation for me! He had me play his red and white 5150 guitar, and then he asked me to show the solo to him, because he’d forgotten it.
 
Excerpted from the July 1989 issue of Guitar Player

 
 
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