JACK WHITE IS NO SHREDMËISTER, AND HE’S NOT THE MOST
melodic guitarist on the planet, either. Yet despite being a less-than-obvious
extension of the guitar-god tradition, this scrapper from
Detroit has become the heavyweight champion of rock guitar over
the past decade. The gifted multi-instrumentalist has garnered an
astonishing track record of commercial and critical successes by landing
a succession of insanely catchy hooks, never compromising his
strategy, and matching a wild-eyed knack for sonic ingenuity with
“I always look at playing guitar as an attack,” says White. “It has
to be a fight. Every song, every guitar solo, every note that’s played or written has to be a struggle. It can’t be
this wimpy thing where you’re pushed
around by the idea, the characters, or the
song itself. It’s every player’s job to fight
against all of that.”
White has been a soldier for the cause
since at least 1997, when he formed the
White Stripes with drummer Meg White.
Actually, White’s original instrument was
the skins, as well. But when he traded his
sticks for a Ward’s Airline guitar, and pumped
it simultaneously through a vintage Silvertone
and a Fender Twin, the duo struck a
raw nerve. The White Stripes’ minimalist
garage blues was both original and traditional,
and the band’s unique sound spawned
myriad groups populated by players who
were sick of slick audio production and
homogenous guitar tones. White embraced
his twisted blues roots in a big way on Elephant,
which he dubbed his “guitar” album
in his June 2003 GP cover story. Elephant’s
first cut was a doozy. The bombastic “Seven
Nation Army” was an instant rock classic,
whose main riff ultimately became a sportsstadium
When the red, white, and black box that
White created for the Stripes got too limiting,
he proved he was more than a one-trick
pony by appearing in and contributing tracks
to the Civil War film, Cold Mountain, and producing—
as well as performing on—country
legend Loretta Lynn’s lauded comeback
album, Van Lear Rose. White enlisted Greenhornes
bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer
Patrick Keeler for the Lynn sessions, along
with fellow Motor City tunesmith Brendan
Benson to help engineer. When White and
Benson found themselves in need of a
rhythm section for a little song they had written
together called “Steady As She Goes,”
Lawrence and Keeler answered the call once
again. In 2006, that song became the debut
single from a band that would co-exist with
the White Stripes, the Raconteurs.
When the Stripes dropped Get Behind Me
Satan in 2005, the deep guitar riff and falsetto
vocal of “Blue Orchid” sounded downright
demonic, but much of the record featured
White on piano and marimba, and not playing
big guitar. But 2007’s Icky Thump was
aptly named. The title track’s Zeppelin-inspired
riffs and plodding bass drum
absolutely invited the masses to raise their
horned hands in head-banging approval.
White then found himself face-to-face with
riffmaster Jimmy Page when the two participated
in 2009’s It Might Get Loud—an
insightful, must-see film directed by Davis
Guggenheim (who also directed An Inconvenient
Truth) that documents the careers of
White, Page, and The Edge.
The White Stripes’ 2007 Canadian tour
is featured on Under Great White Northern
Lights—a DVD and CD release (also available
as a limited-edition box set that contains
the DVD and CD and other goodies for
die-hard fans) that celebrates the band’s
decade of live performing with rip-your-face-off
footage of the duo kicking out their most
signature jams, as well as impromptu performances
shot at unlikely venues such as a
bowling alley and a boat.
Meanwhile, White launched a dark and
heavy outfit called the Dead Weather. An allstar
affair featuring Alison Mosshart (the Kills)
out front, Dean Fertita (Queens of the Stone
Age) on guitar, and Jack Lawrence on bass,
the Dead Weather puts White back where he
began—on drums. GP caught up with White
before the Dead Weather took the stage for
a pair of sold-out shows at the venerable
Fillmore auditorium in San Francisco.
It’s unusual to interview you for a Guitar Player
cover story when you’re technically the drummer
for the Dead Weather tonight.
I’m more of a drummer now than ever
before. I play drums throughout the new
record, whereas I only played guitar on two
or three songs. Dean is the primary guitar
player in the Dead Weather, but we all switch
instruments regularly. Everybody in the band
plays guitar on one track or another.
Still, your sonic imprint is all over the
Well, I produced and recorded it in my
studio, so the Dead Weather is really part of
the Third Man Records sound that has
evolved over the last year-and-a-half, since
we opened the new headquarters in
Nashville. I’ve been attacking things not just
as a guitar player, but also as a drummer,
and by doing a lot of the production, as well.
You probably have the most identifiable
sound of any player over the last decade. Could
you talk about your sound, and how you capture
I feel as though I’m breaking through
something when I play the guitar onstage
or in the studio. Like punching through a
wall, or trying to climb on top of something,
and then destroying it. That’s the goal from
plugging in—even if I’m playing a gentle
song. Your tone alone can speak volumes
for you. You can also make a statement without
over-thinking it. It’s hard to relate that
to modern guitar players, though, because
they put too much gear between their fingers
and the amp. Too many players feel
their effects are supposed to craft their tone
for them. It really comes from the fingers,
of course. For example, the idea behind
using the Ward’s Airline in the White Stripes
was to prove that you don’t need a brand new
guitar to have character, to have tone,
and to be able to play what you want to play.
You can do it with a piece of plastic, or a
piece of wood. You see, you can buy a bunch
of fancy equipment, but if you don’t have
“it” inside you from the get-go, you’re not
going to impress anybody.
What’s constant about your approach, even
if you’re playing a gentle song?
I always think playing gently is a tactical
move. You’re sneaking up, and then you’re
going to attack. People are waiting for that.
Jeff Beck is a great example. I’m constantly
waiting for him to attack his instrument.
Blind Willie Johnson is another. I could care
less if he’s playing the right notes, or if his
guitar’s in tune. Attack and attitude speak
Can you break down your attack?
For years, I didn’t want to do any downstroking
at all. I always wanted to do
upstrokes because I got a more striking note
every time. I still revert to that technique
most of the time when I’m playing. In the
White Stripes, though, I started to develop
a subconscious style of playing lead and
rhythm at the same time—back and forth,
back and forth. I started hiding my pick under
my finger to switch quickly to fingerpicking,
and then back to playing with the pick. I
didn’t even realize I was doing it that way
for years, because form follows function. If
something needs to happen, your body and
brain will make it happen. If your pick ends
up in your ear, or underneath your eyelid or
something, it’s because it needed to happen.
What about your left-hand technique?
The first thing to know about my left
hand is that I had to relearn how to play with
these three fingers [holds up fingers two, three,
and four]. In 2004, I was in a car accident,
and the airbag shattered all the bones in my
index finger. It won’t close anymore—that’s
as far as I can go [makes a “c” shape].
So you can’t literally make a proper barre
I used to play A minor with my first three
fingers, but now I use fingers two through
four. My index finger hangs out doing nothing
most of the time. I can do barre chords
with it now, but I can’t play a C, or a D minor
with that finger. It’s become dead to me in
a lot of ways. The first couple of shows were
really rough. I was actually trying to play
right after the car crash. I was three blocks
from my house, and I went right back inside
and grabbed my guitar to see if I could play
well enough to tour. But I couldn’t. I had to
cancel all the shows to recover. It took many
months, and I had to have surgery.
How do you make that sliding sound without
using a slide?
I don’t really know what it could be.
Maybe I go up to attack the note. Also, I like
to manipulate my DigiTech Whammy pedal
starting with the low octave. I love low
octaves. I’ve always loved playing octaves on
the piano, even as a little kid. So when they
came out with that pedal, and I heard Tom
Morello use it in Rage Against the Machine,
I knew I’d finally found an interesting pedal.
All I used in the White Stripes for seven years
was an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff and the
Whammy. So you might be hearing me building
up to the note with the pedal.
Okay, how about some actual slide-playing
It’s better to play slide with the pinky finger.
That way your first three fingers can
mute the strings behind it, and then you
don’t get all that metallic rattling. You can
focus solely on the note you want, which is
more like a pedal-steel technique. A lot of
people put it on their middle finger, and
they’re missing that idea. You may get better
control from one of the thicker fingers,
but the pinky’s the way to go if you want to
kill all the extraneous noise.
What are you playing tonight with the Dead
I had all of the Dead Weather’s equipment custom made. I co-designed the drum set
with Ludwig. Gretsch painted all the guitars
white. I was going to do shows with Alicia
Keys and the band for the James Bond theme
I was working on [“Another Way to Die” for
Quantum of Solace], but I slipped a disc in my
neck, so I couldn’t. As a result, all the equipment
I had designed was just sitting in my
studio. When the Dead Weather started, it
was just supposed to be a 7-inch single, but
it turned into an album, and then into a band.
So I said, “This equipment is already here.
We should use it.” The gear ended up influencing
the band’s overall color scheme. I
play a special-edition Gretsch White Penguin
Jupiter Thunderbird. They only made
12 of them, and I found one in Texas. I also
got a Gretsch Bo Diddley factory model, and
painted it white so that Alicia Keys and I
could be like Bo Diddley and the Duchess—
his female stage partner. We would both use
those guitars on tour to support the James
Bond theme. But when I got hurt and I couldn’t
do the dates, Alison [Mosshart] ended
up taking on that idea. She plays the rectangular
Bo Diddley model, and I play the Jupiter
Thunderbird—which is also called the “Billy
Bo” because Billy Gibbons brought that idea
back to Gretsch.
What’s your Dead Weather rig, and how does
it compare to the White Stripes rig?
The amp is a Fender Twin Reverb—no
Silvertone, like in the White Stripes. Effects-wise,
I have a Big Muff and a Whammy just
like in the White Stripes. Sometimes, I use
a POG pedal. I think I was the first person
to record with one on the White Stripes song
“Blue Orchid.” Electro-Harmonix sent me
one as a present when we were recording
Get Behind Me Satan. “Blue Orchid” came out
two weeks after the session, so it had to be
the first song to feature the POG. I use it to
add the first and second octaves below, and
one octave above the root note. It’s four of
the same note simultaneously. It’s just so
heavy. The riff is actually pretty simple, but
it’s all about the one. It’s a funk-based idea.
What picks do you prefer?
Any heavy pick, so I can strike the string
harder. Anything other than a heavy gauge
just feels wrong. I end up throwing it away,
and plucking with my fingers.
I don’t know. Whatever company can
make black ones [laughs].
What kind of strings do you use?
I really don’t know. When I was a
teenager, I used GHS strings because I was
from Michigan, and they were made in Michigan.
I liked the nickel ones because they
sounded a little bit different. But I stopped
caring when I was 19 or 20 years old. Everyone
always asks, “Do you like .009s or
.010s?” I have no preference, because I can’t
decide if I want to make it easier or harder
on myself. I usually choose to make things
harder on myself, but I don’t know when it
comes to strings. Lighter strings might actually
be harder for me to play, because I hit
them so hard. I bend them too easily, and
break them all the time. I leave it to chance.
I always just tell whoever is putting the
strings on to do whatever they want. I won’t
Do you have any endorsements?
No. I have never endorsed a product.
Is that a general life stance?
I feel better about paying for my gear,
because I don’t owe anybody any favors. People
come up and say, “Here, you can have
this guitar for free.” I’ll say, “Okay, thanks.”
And they’ll say, “Can we take a picture with
you holding it for the Web site?” I’ll just
hand it back to them [laughs]. It’s like, “Well,
that’s not free then, is it?” Also, most of my
favorite brands—such as Silvertone, Airline,
Supro, and Bigsby—are gone. I prefer old
Gretsch guitars to new ones, but Gretsch
still has the best sounding new acoustics
and electrics. They have a lot more character
and quirkiness than other modern guitars.
What acoustics do you prefer?
Gretsch Ranchers. They are great for live
use, because they produce more bass than
anything else, and I like a lot of bass in an
How do you amplify them?
Playing an acoustic live is very difficult—
especially when everyone else in the band is
playing electric. It’s very frustrating. I don’t
have any advice, other than it’s tough, and
the best thing to do is stand really still and
put a microphone in front of the soundhole.
Who are the women portrayed on the backs
of the Ranchers?
Claudette Colbert is on the orange one I
used in the Raconteurs and White Stripes.
Rita Hayworth is on the white one you see
me carrying around in the Great Northern
Lights DVD. The white and gold one I use in
the Dead Weather has Veronica Lake on the
back. So I’ve got a brunette, a redhead, and a blonde—one for each band. An incredible
tattoo artist in Cincinnati, Ohio, named Kore
Flatmo did the work for me. I saw the portraits
he had done tattooing, and I bought
him a really nice wood-burning tool to burn
those images into the backs of my guitars.
Can you list the White Stripes guitars over
I had the same three guitars in the White
Stripes for about ten years: the Airline, a hollowbody
Kay tuned to open A for slide
playing, and a red Japanese guitar I used for
open-E tuning on a couple of early songs
such as “Let’s Build a Home” and “I Fought
Piranhas.” Around about 2007, I got a ’57
Gretsch White Penguin, which is really rare.
So it debuts on Icky Thump?
Yeah. I always thought it was a really
interesting instrument. One came up for
sale in Nashville where I live, and I went
and looked at it three times. I just didn’t
know if I could justify buying it for a while.
Finally, I was with some friends, and I said,
“I want to go check that thing out again.”
They said, “Alright, this time you’re buying
How does it compare to playing the Airline?
It feels like it’s in the same department.
It’s a very strange instrument. It’s more like
a machine. The knobs are so clunky. Pickups
don’t really sound like that nowadays—guitars
don’t really sound like that.
When I saw you at Jazz Fest in New Orleans
a couple of years ago, you had a copper-top
I had a couple of guitars made for the Raconteurs.
I designed a Gretsch “Triple Jet” by adding
a third pickup to a Double Jet, and putting an
MXR Micro Amp inside the guitar. You can
instantly get an overdriven sound by clicking
on that pickup. You can just plug into
an amplifier. If it’s time to play a solo and
break out a little more, just click that
switch on the guitar. I had everything for
that band made out of copper. All the pedals
were made of copper. I had a copper
microphone, and I had the guitar made of
copper. We even went as far as putting copper
frets on that guitar—just to see how it
sounded. It sounded incredible! But copper
is so malleable that the frets wore out
after one show.
I’ve always loved elements, and breaking
things down to a single element—no other
components. Sometimes, I need something
to keep myself centered. Having everything
in the White Stripes be red, white, and black
centers me, and keeps me on that one path.
Copper centered me on the Raconteurs.
Is Randy Parsons—the luthier who appeared
in It Might Get Loud—still doing your custom
Yes. I do a little bit at home in Nashville
with some other people, but I send all my custom
ideas to him, and he brings them to life.
What’s up with your guitar that has a builtin
That was created for the Raconteurs, as
well. I call it the “Triple Green Machine.” It
was based on the “Triple Jet” idea with an
MXR Micro Amp wired to the middle pickup,
and then I added more and more things. I
started with a Gretsch Anniversary Jr., which
was the only small hollowbody guitar I could
find. I made it a double cutaway instead of
a single. I had a Bigsby installed, and I put
in an old mute, too. When you pull a lever,
the mute comes up and dampens the strings.
I also had a light-activated Theremin installed
that I could control with my wrist while I
was playing. When I lifted my wrist, the Theremin would be added to the sound. I
wanted to be able to pull a Green Bullet
microphone out of the body, sing into it, and
have it retract when I dropped it. Randy
found a vacuum cleaner retractor cord for
that. He built a fake Green Bullet—a wooden
one, because the metal one was too heavy
to retract. It took a lot of experimenting. The
guitar weighs more than a Les Paul because
of all the components!
I’m sorry you didn’t get to do the “Bond band”
with Alicia Keys. “Another Way to Die” is the
coolest James Bond song since “Live and Let
Die.” How did that go down?
I wrote and produced it. She came to
Nashville and sang it. We snuck it in at the
last second. If they had more time to think,
I don’t know that they would have approved
the song for the film.
Did you write the song specifically for
Quantum of Solace?
Yes. I was given the task to write and produce
the song—which has only happened a
couple of times since I began writing. I wrote
it on piano first. I like to write on other instruments,
and then transfer them to guitar.
Did you watch James Bond movies all day to
get into the mind frame for “Another Way to Die?”
When I had the track going, and I began
adding other elements, I actually did put
Goldfinger and Thunderball on a TV screen in
the control room with the sound muted—just to watch the figures move. I worked a
lot on making it powerful and slow.
From watching the Northern Lights DVD, it
looks like you are still using a Silvertone 610
combo and a Fender Twin Reverb.
That’s so I get the crunch and the reverb at
the same time. The Silvertone’s reverb is horrible,
so I just use it for the thick, Jensen-speaker
crunch that only a Silvertone can produce. No
other amp can sound like that. I use the Fender
for the reverb. It’s the best. A Silvertone and a
Fender make a great combination.
How did you get the tone for the ascending
riff on “Icky Thump”?
That’s the POG.
How did that part of the track go down in
That was unusual. I said, “Roll the tape,
I just thought of something.” I recorded Meg
and myself playing that little five-second section,
and then we sliced the tape and edited
it in during mixing.
After the last verse and riff on the DVD version,
you achieve a sound like a motorcycle
revving up. There is also some sick-sounding octave stuff on the solo. How do you play and
manipulate your effects to manifest such
It all depends on what signal you give to
the Whammy as you’re manipulating it. That
might have just been a lot of open strings—something like that can really rattle as you’re
diving all the way up. But you need a lot of
gain and distortion to make that kind of tone.
It sounds really wimpy if you don’t have some
power behind the note. And you have to put
the Whammy after the Big Muff in the signal
chain. The power has to be before the octave.
You know, I actually started using the
Whammy because it was a great way to cut
through when I was playing in garage-rock
bands in Detroit. We were relying on sound
guys who didn’t know when to turn you up,
so no one’s solos ever stood out. I thought,
“If I hit the octave higher, there’s no way
they’re going to miss me now [laughs].”
You play “Seven Nation Army” on your old
Kay hollowbody slide workhorse, tuned to open
A. But the song is in the key of E. Correct?
How do you achieve the bassy octave riff
that kicks off the tune live?
That’s the low-octave setting on the
I love hearing the crowd hum along with
that song on Under Great White Northern Lights.
It may be the most identifiable riff of the past
decade. Do you remember writing it?
I was sound-checking at the Corner Hotel
in Australia when that came out. I thought
about it as a possible James Bond theme,
actually. And then I thought, “That will never
How does it feel when you’re watching something
like a Michigan/Ohio State game, and the
marching band and the crowd join together on
That’s wild. It’s becoming a big soccer
chant in Europe. The President of Italy
chanted the riff to a crowd when they won
the World Cup. That’s really folk music to
me—when people don’t know where it came
from. That’s the highest compliment.
There’s a moment during It Might Get Loud
when Jimmy Page starts playing “Whole Lotta
Love,” and you have the look of a giddy ten-year-old
kid. What was that like?
It was incredible. My favorite part was
when Jimmy, Edge, and I all played “In My
Time of Dying” together. You saw three different
attacks on the blues, and three different
styles of playing slide guitar. It was insightful
to see three generations of guitar players
attacking the same song—which is actually
an old folk song that Led Zeppelin covered.
I learned so much from those moments.
So what does it feel like to play with Page?
The overwhelming feeling is that he’s
connected to the blues. That’s what put a
smile on my face. It made me feel good
because I knew that, despite our differences
in age and where we came from, we’re both
traveling down the same path—the one that
heads straight for the blues.
Are you going to make a solo record?
I don’t know. I guess eventually. I always
let the music tell me what to do.