Joe Perry The Ultimate Rock Survivor Talks Tones Tunes And The Power of The Groove

April 1, 2010

America has a proud history of great singers, classic songwriters, and brilliant guitarists. We can hang with anyone in the known universe in those categories. When it comes to epic, game-changing rock bands, however, the States just can’t compete with Britain. Even if only the Beatles and the Stones had invaded, American bands would still be playing catch-up. But when the discussion turns to legendary rock groups from the US of A, you simply must include a quintet out of Boston called Aerosmith. With their blend of Stones-y attitude and streetwise blues-rock chops, these jokers managed to carve out quite a niche in the post-Zeppelin world of rock and roll. And, despite the massive contributions of a great rhythm section and a charismatic lead singer, Aerosmith got over in large part thanks to the guitar playing skills of one Joe Perry.

At an early age, Perry was exposed to rock and roll architects like Elvis and Chuck Berry. Later he would worship at the altars of Clapton, Beck, and Page, all the while developing his signature rock mojo. Over the course of several albums and multiple hit singles, Perry would rise to the top of the ’70s guitar god heap. He gave us memorable two-guitar interplay (with longtime cohort Brad Whitford) on smashes such as “Dream On,” infectious riffing on “Walk This Way,” kickass solos all over the Rocks and Toys in the Attic albums, and—just when everyone had written him off for dead—he proceeded to enjoy a whole ’nother career on the gazillion selling Permanent Vacation, Pump, and Get a Grip records. Damn, dude. Did you not get the memo that you were supposed to be retired/gone/six feet under by now?

Joe Perry never got that memo. That may be because Joe Perry is the quintessential American rebel rocker. It might have something to do with the fact that Joe Perry is one of the all-time badass, shoot-from-the-hip guitarslingers. Maybe it’s because Joe Perry is the missing link between Keith Richards and Jimmy Page. A bold statement, to be sure, but here’s the evidence:

Perry is an awesome rhythm guitarist. No matter who else takes a solo onstage, you watch Perry, his effortless groove and cool comping are mesmerizing. If someone lit themselves on fire on that stage, you would still watch Perry.

He’s fearless about his tones. Never in danger of settling into a comfort zone, he’ll go from bridge pickup on a Strat in one tune to beefy Les Paul tones in the next, to Gretsch twang, Supro honk, hollowbody howl, and Dan Armstrong clang, and he’ll get the best out of all of them. And although he might flirt with an overly bright Strat or a too-raspy Supro, he never goes to the tonal dark side. His tones flat-out rock.

He bends strings the way they were meant to be bent. People talk about muscular bends all the time, but Perry really has muscular bends. If he bends up to a root, it’s strong and secure. When he bends to the flat seven, like he does in his “Walk This Way” and “Sweet Emotion” solos, it’s a crying, mournful bend. His bending ability also contributes to his swagger. Although never arrogant, Perry exudes this cool confidence that no matter what note he lands on in a solo, he can bend it up to some bitchin’ pitch.

Then there’s the funk. Perry reeks of the kind of funk that can’t be taught. It’s the kind of elusive funk that defies logic and quantification, you just know it when you hear it. You hear it when Van Halen brings it, or the aforementioned Richards or Page, and you hear it when Perry does it. The huge pocket, the ability to push and pull a groove in the coolest way, the zone where upstrokes and downstrokes have no meaning in the conventional sense and only serve to provide one rhythmic gut punch after another, all the while making it look way too easy. To paraphrase Cheech and Chong, Joe Perry is so damn funky that if he moved in next door to you, your lawn would die.

There are those who would dismiss Perry as a guy who “pretty much just plays pentatonics.” There are plenty of solos where it looks like that’s exactly what he’s doing. Then you realize how difficult those licks are to duplicate. The main reason for that is, once again, rhythmic. How and where Perry works those box shapes is unique and singular. When he mixes in his trademark chromaticism and Stax-approved doublestops, forget about it. You can’t touch it.

It’s hilarious to say about a guy who embodies the image of a 100 percent rock star, but Perry is completely unpretentious. Watching a gig, you never get the sense that he has any agenda to his playing. He might play a tune with no solo whatsoever, then in the next he’ll solo his brains out. It’s impressive, but it never seems like he’s trying to impress anyone. If James Dean played guitar, he would be Joe Perry.

Perry was gracious with his time after a recent San Francisco show and talked to GP about his new record, his old records, and, with the fate of his classic band up in the air, how he hopes to play his old tunes in the new era.

What was your mindset for the making of Have Guitar, Will Travel?

Basically, I wanted to make this record sound like it was recorded back in the old days, from the equipment we used to the way we used the equipment. I really wanted to do it as if we had recorded on tape, but I didn’t have time to record on tape. So we tracked on the computer but we didn’t do anything we wouldn’t have done on tape. That was how we gave it that old-fashioned grit and feel. I kept hearing from the fans that they wanted to hear some real rock and roll, the way it was meant to be recorded. It was really hard getting a big machine like Aerosmith to think like that. That’s one of the things about doing a solo record that I enjoy. I was able to say, “Look, we’re going to do it this way and we’re going to stick to it,” and I didn’t have to get anybody else to agree with me. I don’t know in the great scheme of things if people will really notice the difference, but I think there’s a sound to this record that I don’t hear that much these days. Even with some of the socalled hard rock bands now that are stripped down and playing basic rock, there’s still kind of a sheen and a gloss to the songs, and I wanted to avoid that as much as I could. I just wanted to get back to some of the rootsy stuff that you get when you record using vintage equipment and with the band playing together. There’s something that happens when the whole band’s playing and all those harmonics are lined up. It’s like a witch’s brew or something.

How did you get the backwards solo on “Heaven and Hell”? It sounds almost too composed to be a true backwards solo.

We used Pro Tools, but I did it the way we would have done it in 1973. You basically track a forward solo and then listen to the song backwards. Then you memorize it. You have to figure out what the timing is going to be in your head because very often the beats and the phrasing can get confusing. You kind of plan ahead where you want the notes to go and the dynamics of it. This is the same whether you’re analog or digital, but obviously it’s a lot quicker in Pro Tools. If you want it to end high, you need to start the solo high and so on. It’s hard to describe. You just have to do it. There are plug-ins that will do it for you and you can kind of cheat it—throw anything down there and just reverse it. I didn’t want to do it that way. I wanted to do it the old way, which gives it a different vibe. Sometimes it comes out wrong and you have to do it over again but when you get it, it has a feel that you just won’t get if you fake it.

Did you print effects?

Yeah, echoes and reverbs and all those things—we did them right there in the moment and recorded them. We made the decisions right there so when we went to mix, we only had to mix 16 tracks, not 50. I’ve made records with Aerosmith where there were 150 tracks. It was ludicrous. We couldn’t even get a daily rough mix.

Your version of “Somebody’s Going to Get Their Head Kicked In Tonight” has that real old-time rock vibe, like a Buddy Holly or Eddie Cochran kind of feel. Talk about that tune and the influence early rock and roll on your music.

There are some basic rhythms and some basic tempos that I think make up rock and roll. There’s the Bo Diddley feel, there’s the Chuck Berry feel, there’s Muddy Waters, Buddy Holly, Elvis, Gene Vincent—those rhythms made up a big part of what rock and roll was. It was hard picking just one that would exemplify that because I love all those feels. But I heard Fleetwood Mac do this particular tune a bunch of times live and I remember it knocking me out back in ’68 or ’69. I’ve always wanted to cover it, but for some reason I just never got around to it on any of my solo records or with Aerosmith. That particular song and that particular sound, as with a lot of those rhythms, you’ve got to play them live. You can’t overdub guitar and piano and really capture it. It’s basically just a 12-bar blues sped up. There’s no real magic to it other than the feel, but that’s huge.

What gear did you use?

I played a Gretsch Roundup—a ’56 or something—with the old leather binding around the edge and the letter “G” branded on it. It probably sounds more like a Gretsch than any other Gretsch that I have. I used a Marshall 300 for the slapback. It was an analog echo that apparently was invented for Phil Spector back when he was recording. It sounds just like a tape delay. [Ed. note: For more info on the Marshall Electronics AR-300 Tape Eliminator, see the sidebar “Joe Perry’s Secret Sauce” in the May 2005 issue of GP.] The reverb was my EMT plate, I think it’s the 140, and I was probably using an old Fender Twin from the ’50s.

Let’s talk about some of the tones on “Wooden Ships.” That song has more guitar layers on it. What’s the guitar with the volume swell that sounds like it might have a wah wah on it?

I got that sound with an Electro-Harmonix POG. It’s got about eight sliders that you can adjust different frequencies with. Then there’s a slider that brings it in from the absolute bass all the way to the treble and as it brings it in, it sounds like this orchestral effect. I had the thing modified so that I could move that particular slider with my foot. It does kind of sound like a wah but if you listen to it very closely you can hear it is actually fading in a bunch of different frequencies. It’s a much richer sound than a wah. I really like the way that turned out.

Did you double track the melody guitar?

Yeah, with a Strat. I had lyrics for that song but I didn’t think they were strong enough. I felt like there was enough going on in the tune that it would hold up as an instrumental, so I basically reproduced the melody on the guitar and filled it out by double tracking it.

The first solo that comes in at 1:25 has a different, heavier tone.

That’s still the Strat, but I plugged into this MXR Boost/Overdrive pedal. One side adds about 10dB to the volume of the guitar and doesn’t add any fuzz. The other button adds fuzztone. It has a sound of its own, and if you adjust it right, you can get a late-’60s, Hendrix-y kind of sound.

Are you picking behind the nut to get those cool, creepy screech noises?

Exactly. That’s kind of a prelude to the solo. I wanted to fill something in there and I didn’t want to use anything but guitar. I just fooled around a little bit and that sound popped out and that’s what I used. It was all organic so I could get that sound live.

Speaking of your live show, your rig on this tour has three Fender heads, three Marshalls, and a Fender combo. What do you use each of them for?

I use three of them at once. The others are backups. I always like to have a Marshall with a little bit more crunch and then something a little cleaner, which usually turns out to be some kind of Fender. This tour I’m using a 50-watt plexi Marshall going through an 8x10 Marshall bottom. Then I have a Fender Dual Showman Reverb. I think it came out the year after they got bought by CBS, so they still sound really good. They didn’t start to sound crappy for at least a couple of years. The Dual Showman cab has two 15s. I love to record with 10s but obviously you can only get so much low end out of a 10" speaker that’s designed for a guitar. These particular Marshall speakers sound great but there’s just not enough bottom. The Dual Showman is on about 4 or 5, so it’s not very dirty at all, but it does pump out a lot of bass. So you blend that in with the Marshall and it sounds great. Then, somewhere in the middle, is a mid-’50s 3x10 Bandmaster. I have that set about two-thirds of the way up. When you turn the guitar down, it’s got that really nice, rich old Fender sound, and when you turn it up, it’s got some guts. It kind of blends the two other sounds together. I spent a lot of time working with the sound guy getting a mix between the three. I’ll run through my different guitars and see how they all match up, so that the Strats sound like Strats, the Teles sound like Teles, the Les Pauls sound like Les Pauls, and so on.

There is also a brown Tolex Fender head.

That’s a Tone-Master, one of the very first that came out. I use that for the airbag [talk box], which I haven’t gotten around to working into the set yet, although I used it on a couple of tracks on the record.

What do you hear when you listen to your solos from Aerosmith records like Rocks or Toys in the Attic?

Back then, I didn’t have the technique of a lot of the guys that I learned from, at least I didn’t think I did. So, I basically used a process of elimination for solos: If it sounded like something someone else had done, I wouldn’t do it. Whatever was left, that’s what the solo was. When I listen back to some of those, there are some pretty rockin’ solos that don’t lean heavily on the pentatonic stuff. By self-editing some of those standard riffs, it kind of forced me into a place of playing things that were a lot more melodic.

Do any solos stand out in your mind?

I’d say “Walk This Way.” That’s a pretty well known song, but I do like how the lead keeps that funky kind of feel. I really thought a lot about that solo, even though I still didn’t plan a lot of things out. But that’s me steering away from what I thought were standard rock things.

We all know what someone means when they say, “That’s a Hendrix lick,” or “That’s a Van Halen lick,” or Jimmy Page or SRV, but no one ever says, “That’s a Joe Perry lick.” Can you describe what goes into a Joe Perry lick?

Dynamics. That’s really the key to me. Using dynamics and keeping it as melodic as possible so it has a reason to live. A bunch of riffs strung together doesn’t particularly interest me, whether it’s done by me or somebody else. It needs to have more than that. It has to have some inspiration, it has to have some melody, it has to have a reason to live. That’s what I go for.

To my ears, the thing that sets your playing apart is your sense of the groove that’s just incredibly funky. Where does that come from?

So much of that has to do with the guys that you’re playing with. If they’re really holding it down, I can float on top of it and drive the groove. The groove is the most important thing to a song. It’s what gets you to move. All the rest of the music keeps things interesting so you keep coming back to it. For me, when I’ve got a rhythm section that’s really locking in, that can dictate what I play and how I play it. That’s why so many of my leads sometimes sound more like rhythm parts, because that’s what’s getting me off. My favorite players always did that and I think a lot of people lost that in the ’80s. Players in the ’60s, because of their direct connection with the blues, knew about that and focused on it. So to me, it’s all about the rhythm and then playing a few things on top of it to keep it tasty.

Speaking of treating rhythm parts like solos, the rhythm guitar breakdown in “Sick As a Dog” off Rocks is pretty much a solo unto itself. Who played that?

Tom [Hamilton, bassist]. I played bass on that song for the first half of the song and Tom played rhythm. Then during the breakdown, I gave the bass to Steven and I picked up my guitar and played the lead on the way out.

You recorded it that way?

We did it live in the studio, just like that. Whenever we gig that song we do it the same way. We also did that on a song on Night in the Ruts. There’s a breakdown and then a lap-steel solo. I put the guitar around my back, brought up the lap-steel with a volume pedal, played the solo, and switched back to the regular guitar. We did that all right there in the studio. That’s why I say there’s some really great playing on Night in the Ruts. It’s too bad that a lot of those songs never got played live because that’s the record where I left the band before it was done.

On that subject, what’s up with Aerosmith these days?

Right now we’re looking for a singer because I think Steven is planning on taking a few years off. The rest of us want to play and we’re thinking about getting somebody who is a headliner in their own right. Somebody that basically grew up listening to the same stuff we did and I don’t have to explain anything, kind of like when the Stones went to replace Mick Taylor. Rather than go out and just get a guy who had great blues chops, they wanted to get somebody from their neighborhood.

The fans weren’t super receptive to an Aerosmith without Joe Perry. Do you anticipate a similar backlash against an Aerosmith with no Steven Tyler?

Sure. There already is. But at the same time we have fans who are supportive of the idea and are suggesting singers to us. Obviously we’re not putting a super group together. We already have the four guys. We just need somebody to sit in with Aerosmith, whether if it’s going to be for a tour or for an album and then a tour, and I think it should be somebody that already has a bag full of tricks and that people would recognize.

There’s a video on YouTube of Aerosmith jamming on “The Immigrant Song” with Jimmy Page. What did you take away from that?

It’s kind of funny. I remember when we first started rubbing elbows with and playing with the English guys back in the ’60s and ’70s. I’d always ask them about their tone or I’d say, “How did you play that?” They kept that stuff very close to the vest. They’d keep their tone secrets to themselves. I really wanted to know what that chord is that he plays in “The Immigrant Song” [sings F# octave line and then C9 stab]. For me, that chord has the kind of mystique that the first chord on “A Hard Days Night” has, where you go, “How the hell—what chord is that?” You can get close, but I don’t know anybody who really has it down. So I asked him. Jimmy was very much like, “You should play it the way you want to play it.” On the one hand you could go, “Wow, that’s great. He wants me to play it my way.” And then on the other hand I thought, “Well, he’s really not going to give that chord away.” I asked Jeff Beck about some of his riffs and he said, “Listen, it’s all right there on the Les Paul records,” or “It’s all right there if you listen to Freddie King.” He’d name three guitar players that he loves and that’s it. I’d be thinking, “Yeah, but how did you get from there to here?” A lot of times they were vague about it because so much of it is talent and you can’t describe to somebody what talent is. You can’t teach somebody that. They were just born with more of it. All you can do is what they did: Fool around, practice, and work at it. When you hear something you like, remember it, build on it, and incorporate it into your thing. That’s what I do.


Although Joe Perry is famous for being a gunslinging lead guitarist, it’s his sense of rhythm that truly sets him apart. In this lesson we’ll examine some of his killer chord work. Aerosmith fans know, though, that the band’s rhythm sound is the product of both Perry and co-conspirator Brad Whitford and their interlocking parts. To really dissect Aerosmith’s twin-guitar assault is beyond the scope of this lesson—and most of us just play one guitar at a time anyway. So some of these riffs represent an amalgamation of parts that were originally played by the two guitarists together, and some are standard tuning approximations of lines that Perry plays in altered tunings—but all of them are funky and bitchin’, so let’s get the lead out. 1 is similar to Perry’s awesome line in “Combination” off Rocks. He does a slinky slide between the 3rd and 4th frets, but I find it easier to hammer both the G and G#, hit the open A with the pick, and tag the open D with my middle finger. Obviously, do whatever makes it groove the hardest. Then play the same thing starting on A, which is also the verse riff. 2 recalls the song’s pre-chorus riff, with power chords in place of Perry’s octaves. This moves around a lot, so make sure you think one step ahead at all times. Get this one up to speed and, like the song says, you’ll be walkin’ on Gucci wearin’ Yves Saint Laurent! 3 is an approximation of the two chorus guitars. Keep the single notes greasy and hit the chords hard. You want a ’70s-era classic rock workout? Here ya go. the sound of it, Perry plays his dynamic “No More, No More” riff in a some open-E tuning (E, B, E, B, B, E maybe?), which definitely makes it easier. I’m too lazy to retune, so Ex. 4 is close enough. open tuning also enables Perry to play the riff in Ex. 5 with one-finger power chords. We’ll just fret ’em, but make sure you leave out the major 3rd. Also, resist the temptation to play E/G# on the and of beat four in lieu of the G# that’s written. Some classic Aerosmith progressions (most notably this one and “Sick As a Dog”) rely on the parallel motion of straight power chords to work their mojo. Think of Ex. 5 as the second ending to Ex. 4. The second time through Ex. 4, instead of playing the Badd4, go right to the A.

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