See, the club isn’t real—it’s the set of Rock of Ages, the hit Broadway musical that features the music of Night Ranger, Journey, Foreigner, Styx, REO Speedwagon, Poison, Whitesnake, and other icons of ’80s rock. Taking a nostalgic and none-too-serious look at life and love on the Sunset Strip in the spandex era, the play is set to become a Tobey Maguire-produced major motion picture, and is one of the best mainstream showcases for electric guitar playing Broadway has ever offered. And it’s hard to imagine anyone more suited for the show’s lead guitar duties than Joel Hoekstra.
Hailing from the Chicago area, the versatile guitarist—who has three solo albums you can check out on joelhoekstra.com—cut his teeth on the New York theater circuit doing 1,400 performances of the Janis Joplinfocused production Love, Janis. And, speaking of Night Ranger, Hoekstra’s bulletproof shred chops have landed him a lead guitar spot in that band alongside ’80s rock’s master of the “super Strat,” Brad Gillis.
“Honestly, I think that one of my strengths as a player is that I genuinely enjoy being a total ham,” says Hoekstra. “I fit in well with Night Ranger because they’re some of the most energetic showmen in the world, and they’d kick my ass if I ever stood still for a song and just looked at my guitar. They treat me like I’ve been in the band forever, and they want me all over the stage. Rock of Ages is cliché and cheesy, but that’s the whole point. People love it, and I’ve never had so much fun. It’s every cliché cranked to 10, and there’s never a serious moment. We just stand up there and laugh our asses off and have a ball. One of the main characters dies, and the crowd is laughing—that’s how silly it gets.”
Another of Hoekstra’s strengths is that he’s obsessive about showing up to gigs entirely prepared. “Bandleaders like it if you can bust your ass and learn 35 tunes at home and just get up on stage and do ’em,” says Hoekstra, who gets regular calls to do high-profile, multisinger nostalgia concerts such as those put on by Matt and Gunnar Nelson’s Scrap Metal project, and Jim Peterik’s Worldstage concerts. Hoekstra also gets work on the ’60s rock circuit with classic acts such as the Turtles and Big Brother & the Holding Company, as well as with contemporary singer/songwriters such as Cathy Richardson. “You’d be surprised how much people appreciate not having to rehearse you and put you up in hotels extra nights.”
Musically, the funnest thing about Rock of Ages for Hoekstra is that he gets to play famous guitar parts note-for-note and then expand upon them by adding riffs and leads of his own design. “The show opens with David Lee Roth’s ‘Just Like Paradise,’” says Hoekstra. “We start off with the big G-D-A progression played huge, like the Who. Then, I come downstage in the spotlight, playing Steve Vai’s intro solo.”
When the director asked Hoekstra to extend the solo, he came up with a kaleidoscopic, two-handed, five-finger (including three pluckin-hand fingers) tapping figure that was inspired by Jeff Watson (the founding Night Ranger guitarist Hoekstra replaced) and T.J. Helmerich. If you need to brush up on standard tapping before we try Hoekstra’s zany lick, start with the triplet-based, Van Halenstyle tapping move in Ex. 1, which puts us in the “Paradise” home key of Amajor. Then, try Hoekstra’s pyrotechnics in Ex. 2.
“The first note—the open G string—is plucked by my tapping hand’s index finger,” says Hoekstra. The lick then unfurls a rippling G major texture that employs the tapping hand’s index, middle, and ring fingers to tap the 12th, 14th, and 16th frets, respectively. (“You can tap the highest note with your pinky, if you want. To get the right sound when pulling off tapped notes, always pull up off the string—you know, towards your chin.”) While the example is written out in even sixteenth-note triplets, you may find other ways to comfortably cram the notes into the measure. Find one that feels natural to you, and then repeat the same moves on the D and A strings over the last two chords in the G-D-A progression.
Simpler techniques that are staples of ’80s rock, says Hoekstra, include the Van Halen-/Satriani-style spray of harmonics produced when you perform a repeated three-note hammer/pull/pull maneuver on one string while gently dragging a pickinghand finger across the string [Ex. 3]. With enough gain and the right touch (think Van Halen’s “Somebody Get Me a Doctor,” 2:08), sparkly, prismatic partials will fill the air.
“Harmonics are key to this style,” reminds Hoekstra, creating a sprightly ascending lick by simply playing the harmonics at the 4th, 5th, and 7th frets of the low string in quick succession and then repeating the process on each new string, all the way up through the first string. “Be sure to explore the high harmonics on the low frets—like, for instance, the super high [F] harmonic just before the 3rd fret of the third string. Also try bending a note, then striking the same string five frets higher so that you get a harmonic to sound two octaves higher [Ex. 4].”
To be entirely ’80s rock-approved, one thing Hoekstra suggests you avoid is the chicka—the sound created by striking fully muted low strings with heavy distortion engaged (think Radiohead’s “Creep”). “That’s more of a ’90s—or even a ’70s— thing,” says Hoekstra. “A lot of the ’80s sound had to do with alternating between palm-muted low notes and accented higher notes—notes sometimes accented with pinch harmonics, as in Ex. 5, which is like Styx’s ‘Too Much Time on My Hands.’”
On extreme ends of the ’80s rock guitar spectrum lie two techniques: Sweep-picked arpeggios, such as those in Ex. 6 (keep the distortion thick, and try not to let the notes overlap), and crystal-clean pop-rock textures that feature the “rub” of major and minor second intervals. “Those seconds kind of give you that Steve Lukather, Michael Landau, Alex Lifeson sound,” says Hoekstra, who uses the chimey series of grips in Ex. 7 to add poignancy over the Damn Yankees’ “High Enough” progression. “Let all the notes ring over each other, with maybe some delay and modulation added. That was a big technique for the session guys.”
And no matter what era you’re in, playing with your teeth is always a crowd-pleaser— if you do it convincingly, and with a fat tone. “The key is doing it on the first string,” says Hoekstra, demonstrating with the E major blues licks in Ex. 8. “It’s obviously a lot easier to access that string with your teeth than any of the others.”
Rock of Ages’ climactic number is Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” on which Hoekstra really stretches out. He plays Neal Schon’s famous solo, then launches into his own flashy maneuvers over the same background chords. For the first half of the progression (E-B-C#m-A), Hoekstra plays the sprightly pull-off-based texture in Ex. 9, keeping the moves the same in each bar, but changing the notes to suit each new harmony. For the second half of the form (E-B-G#m-A), Hoekstra starts with a satisfying hemiolic pull-off maneuver over E and B [Ex. 10], and then finishes things off with one final must-know staple of ’80s shred—the threenotes- per string ascending scale launched over G#m.
“These approaches are good for squeezing in more notes,” says Hoekstra of the last two examples. “That was the ’80s thing— the more notes you can squeeze in, the better. It’s been really fun for me to rediscover all this stuff. Rediscovering where I began as a guitarist has helped me to remember that one of the most important aspects of being an inspired musician is playing the music that makes you the happiest.”
FIVE WAYS TO CRANK UP THE ’80S CLICHÉS
Hoekstra loves the fact that anything goes on the Rock of Ages set. (“It’s all about pleasing the crowd.”) If you ever find yourself needing to play the part of an over-performing, over-the-top ’80s guitar god, here are some fun ways to get into character:
1. Maintain the Metal Stance. “Your feet should never be less than two feet apart,” says Hoekstra, laughing.
2. Open Wider as the Note Gets Higher. “Yougotta do the open-mouth thing when you’re soloing. Save the widest scope of your mouth for when you’re bending the high-Estring up at the 22nd fret.”
3. Aim High. “You definitely need to be able to fling picks, either by holding the pick between your thumb and middle finger and snapping, or by just employing a straight-up Frisbee technique. We have a contest in Rock of Ages to see who can get a pick up to the mezzanine first.”
4. Jump Off Stuff. “Have no regard for your gear or your physical well being. Always put the show before your health, or your guitar’s health.”
5. Play One-Handed Licks. “This lick [below] is an Angus Young-style thing that involves only the fretting hand, so you can keep playing while you use your other hand to throw devil horns at the crowd. Stoking the crowd is always good, even if it means getting them to cheer by raising both hands in the air and looking at them like, ‘What the f*ck?’” —JG
GEAR THAT RAGES ON ROCK OF AGES
Amps: Both Joel Hoekstra and Dave Gibbs use EVH 5150 III heads and cabinets. “I also use a Custom Audio Electronics rig,” says Hoekstra, “especially with Night Ranger.”
Guitars: Various Gibsons (primarily Les Pauls, but also a couple Vs and SGs). “For divebombs and other whammy-bar stuff, I use a Suhr Strat-style guitar with a humbucker/single-coil/humbucker pickup configuration.” says Hoekstra. “People ask me how come I don’t have a Floyd Rose on it, but I swear, with Big Bends Nut Sauce applied to the nut and the string saddles, you don’t need one. It’s almost like having a locking trem, but with lower maintenance when it comes to stringing up. Nut Sauce even keeps my Gibson SG in tune, which previously had problems with strings binding at the nut.”
Wireless Systems: Nady
Strings: Ernie Bal