Born to Rock
A pioneering female guitar hero, Lita Ford has accumulated a collection of stunning guitars as wild and unpredictable as her four-decade career.
“Back in the early Eighties, there were no other girls out there that could play like I could play,” Lita Ford says. “And I had to prove it was me playing those songs, because nobody could accept it.”
These days, it’s a well-established fact that Ford knows her way around a guitar. From her groundbreaking work in the Seventies with all-female hard rockers the Runaways to her string of shredding, glam-tinged melodic metal efforts in the Eighties and early Nineties, Ford has remained a highly visible figure in the rock-guitar world for more than 40 years. Recently, she has also been celebrated as a major influence on a new generation of guitar-playing frontwomen, in particular Halestorm’s Lzzy Hale, who credits Ford with “kicking the door down” for waves of female six-string slingers.
To make that happen, however, Ford occasionally had to do some actual kicking. As she explains, you may underestimate her skills as a guitarist, but you’ll do so at your own peril.
“I remember one time around ’81, there was a guy in the front row at a show,” Ford recounts. “He was right up against the stage, and he had an unopened can of beer. While I was playing, he shook that beer. I was watching him do it, but he didn’t know I could see him. I was acting like I didn’t see him. I knew he was gonna spray me down with his beer, so I waited for him to get the can up, and as he was about to pop the little tab, I walked over and kicked him in the wrist as hard as I could. I know I broke his wrist, because I used to wear these great big clodhopper platform shoes onstage!” Ford lets out a laugh. “But it was like, Dude, you’re gonna spray me with that? I don’t think so. If someone spits at me, I spit back.”
Ford, now 58, no longer needs to approach every gig ready to do battle. Her music, however, remains as aggressive as ever. Her most recent album, 2012’s Living Like a Runaway, was a solid return to hard-rocking form, hailed by many as her strongest effort in more than two decades. And in 2016, she released a self-penned autobiography, also titled Living Like a Runaway, that chronicled her lifetime in music. “It’s like the manual of the first girl rock guitarist,” she says of the tome. “Because I was the first guitar player to do what I do. I mean, there was [former Runaways bandmate] Joan Jett, but she was more of a singer and rhythm guitarist. She wasn’t really a lead player. So there was nobody else. I thought people would want to hear about that and not just, you know, ‘What drugs did she do?’ ‘Who did she sleep with?’ Dude, the saying is sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. You can’t forget that last one, you know? It’s a very important part.”
As Ford tells it, her indoctrination into rock and roll came very early in life. Born in England, she moved with her family to Long Beach, California, at age four. Before she was even a teenager, she says, she was already taken with the heaviest sounds of the era. “I asked my mother for a guitar,” she recalls. “And she bought me this Sears acoustic model. I ended up giving it away to my girlfriend, and I got another guitar that was a step up from Sears—it was, I don’t know, maybe a Bloomingdale’s model or something. I was playing heavy metal on this acoustic guitar. It was all Black Sabbath and Deep Purple riffs, but it just didn’t sound right to me. It didn’t have the balls I was looking for.”
After a cousin chaperoned Ford to a 1971 Black Sabbath concert at the nearby Long Beach Arena, she knew exactly what she needed. “I saw Tony Iommi, and I had to have a Gibson SG,” she says. “I just loved the darkness and the low end of the sound. I went to this hospital where my mom worked, and I bullshitted my way in and got a job. I saved up $375 from that job and bought myself a chocolate-colored SG.”
Ford was still playing that SG when, a few years later, she joined the Runaways at the tender age of 16; it’s the guitar that can be heard on the band’s classic, self-titled 1976 debut. At that time, however, she needed to update her amplifier. “I had been using my father’s reel-to-reel,” Ford says, laughing. “It was this huge thing, and it had an echo on it that sounded like a delay, which was great. It was like, Wow, I’ve got effects and everything! It was bizarre, but it worked. But once I was in the Runaways, I used a Marshall.”
Later in 1976, Ford augmented her Runaways gear with a pair of eye-catching Hamer Standards—one black, one white. These Gibson Explorer–inspired guitars became her main instruments throughout the rest of her tenure with the band and can be heard on the Runaways’ later albums.
Ford says she enjoyed her time in the Runaways, but the group’s explicit punk stance proved somewhat suffocating, considering that she’d grown up on a steady diet of Iommi, Ritchie Blackmore, and Jimmy Page. “I would go home and learn stuff like ‘Stairway to Heaven’—all the riffs, all the solos,” she says, “because that was the type of stuff I wanted to play in the band. But when I got into rehearsal, we would end up doing, you know, ‘Cherry Bomb.’ It was always that chunky, straight-ahead thing.”
It wasn’t until the Runaways dissolved in 1979 that Ford finally found the space to spread her guitar wings. At the dawn of the Eighties, hard rock and heavy metal were about to experience a major resurgence, in large part due to the up-and-coming New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands. Ford quickly made herself at home in this new world, reinventing both her image and her music. “I started playing harder, heavier,” she says. “I got off on that. I figured, I’ll make up my own ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ you know?
“I really took over my own self,” she continues. “I cut my hair and changed my clothes. I came up with my own style, my own look, my own way of playing.” She also swapped out her guitars. “I got into B.C. Rich,” she says. “They became my home away from home. [B.C. Rich founder] Bernie Rico, Sr. was just fantastic, and I was always over there carving out new ideas and helping to make new stuff. They would make anything I asked them to make. By the end of the Eighties, I had a stack of different B.C. Rich guitars, and I would play them all in concert, because I wanted to show them off.”
By the latter part of the decade, Ford was also enjoying the success of a bona fide hit record: 1988’s Lita. Her third solo effort overall, the album spawned two hit singles—the hard-rocking “Kiss Me Deadly” and the ballad “Close My Eyes Forever,” sung as a duet with Ozzy Osbourne—and eventually became her first Platinum-seller. Yet, despite playing guitars in videos and onstage, and being credited as the sole performing guitarist in her albums’ liner notes, Ford still had to contend with skeptics who doubted her abilities.
“I would play a show, and then afterward I would still get the question: ‘Oh, Lita, that’s such a great solo in “Close My Eyes Forever.” Who played it?’ And it’s like, ‘Are you fucking stupid? You just saw me play it.’ I mean, c’mon. It was really unbelievable.”