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“When You’re a Guitar Player, You Can Really Hear How the Differences Matter”: Jack White Talks Creativity and Gear

Jack White
(Image credit: Future/Eleanor Jane)

***For more on Jack White's favorite gear check out this article on guitars and this one on effects***

Just four days after Eddie Van Halen passed away on October 6, 2020, Jack White performed the title track from his solo album Lazaretto on Saturday Night Live, brandishing his favorite blue customized EVH Wolfgang guitar as a gesture of tribute to the late master.

“I won’t even insult the man’s talent by trying to play one of his songs tonight,” White said prior to the show. “[But] Eddie was very kind to me and saw to it that this guitar was made for me to my specs. Thanks again, Eddie, for this guitar, and rest in peace, sir.”

While some might be surprised to learn that indie-rock’s champion of primal blues lines and the late, lamented heavy rock virtuoso were so sympatico, it makes terrific sense on many levels.

In addition to decades of knocking out album after album of wicked riffs and potent solos, both players have displayed throughout their careers an almost obsessive pursuit of individualism and specialized design in the instruments they’ve played, never content with stock features and aesthetics, always pushing the envelope to make their own guitars more idiosyncratic, versatile and allied with their singular approaches to both technique and tone.

“Eddie was really gratified to learn that Jack was playing the Wolfgang guitars,” says Fender Master Builder Chip Ellis, who oversaw the design of the EVH Wolfgang line (opens in new tab), as well as the customizations on White’s specific axes, and has been White’s collaborator on custom designs ever since.

White and Ellis’s latest co-creations, used liberally on White’s newest release – the wide-ranging and explosive guitar showcase Fear of the Dawn (Third Man) – are every bit as unique in form and function as you’d expect.

And although they are unmistakably Fender guitars – including a customized Telecaster and Jazzmaster, and two Acoustasonics – they stray as far from the production models (opens in new tab) as one could possibly go.

Eddie was really gratified to learn that Jack was playing the Wolfgang guitars

Chip Ellis

Likewise, on Fear of the Dawn, White strays about as far from mainstream pop and indie rock as one could possibly go, turning in a blistering electric guitar statement that suggests timeless touchstones such as Frank Zappa, Prince, T. Rex, Thin Lizzy and Tom Morello as much as it does the kind of garage psych nuggets on which White built his reputation.

The sounds are outrageous: White’s guitars practically peel the steel off your studio monitors with aggressive, even explosive tones that are anything but manicured, despite the album’s obvious top-tier engineering and mixing.

As a sort of aesthetic palate cleanser, White will also be releasing Entering Heaven Alive, a full-length album of predominately acoustic guitar songs, something he’s more than proved his mettle at already, as evidenced by the lovely collection, Acoustic Recordings, 1998–2016.

As White and his band prepare for his first full tour in more than two years, he sat down with Guitar Player to discuss the methods to the madness behind his creative and fluid approach to recording, writing and modifying both guitars and pedals – including his own Third Man line of effects (opens in new tab), which includes the cool Bumble Buzz, Triplegraph and Mantic Flex – and how his tone has evolved from his early days with the White Stripes through his Raconteurs years (with co-frontman Brendon Benson), the Dead Weather and his own unique and often challenging solo albums.

Let’s start with the very unique blue and white Telecaster you’re featured holding in our cover shot this month. It resembles the more copper/orange sparkle Tele you played with the Raconteurs…

This is sort of the next step on from that guitar, which Chip Ellis and I had started working on around the Raconteurs’ last album, before the pandemic. We called it the Three-Wheel Motion Low-Rider Telecaster.

We started with a B-Bender-equipped Telecaster that I received as a Christmas present a few years back, and we just started adding cool elements and features that I’ve been wanting to have added based on my experience playing live over the past couple of solo tours I’ve been doing.

The B-Bender Tele was a great present to get. I’d always wanted one, and we changed the color of it to something more suitable for the color scheme of the Raconteurs, with that orange sparkle finish.

I’ve played Gretsch guitars quite a bit, so I really wanted those same types of pickups in my Telecaster

Jack White

Then the thought was, Okay, as long as we’re repainting it, let’s put some new pickups in it. At that moment in time, I was really into the Fender Lace Sensors (opens in new tab) for the bridge and then a P-90 in the middle position.

And then we added a neck pickup that was on my brother’s 1972 Fender Telecaster Thinline when I was a kid. I always thought that the bassy-sounding neck pickup on that was really creamy, so I wanted to have that in there.

And then eventually the bridge pickup changed from the Lace Sensor, as well. My wife, [Third Man singer/songwriter/guitarist and session player] Olivia Jean, had gotten a custom guitar from Fender, and [pickup guru] Tim Shaw had made these outstanding Filter’Tron-style pickups for that.

I love Filter’Trons (opens in new tab), and I’ve played Gretsch guitars quite a bit, so I really wanted those same types of pickups in my Telecaster.

Jack White

(Image credit: Future/Eleanor Jane)

Sure, if you A/B most Filter’Trons against a lot of the higher-output pickups out there, they don’t compete for gain, but whatever Tim did to make these balance with the output of my other pickups, they’re just really furious Filter’Trons. Tons of bite.

And we’re even considering adding a coil-tap to it next. We did that with the humbucking Lace Sensors I used on the last tour, and that was really interesting at times for adding a bit of extra treble when you need it.

Tell us about this cool B-Bender.

Sure. So, this is not the factory Fender Bender that you’d typically see on a Fender guitar. It’s called a Glaser Bender, and Chip Ellis partially recommended it to me because it’s much lighter than a traditional all-steel B-Bender.

I just wanted to be sure it was as good as the Fender Benders, because I really like those, and this one is great and, like I said, much lighter.

My concern was that with three pickups, and all these extra features, we were going to have to consider going semi-hollow with the Tele body to compensate, but so far so good.

My concern was that with three pickups, and all these extra features, we were going to have to consider going semi-hollow

Jack White

The B-Bender works by pulling down on the guitar from the strap, and it allows you to adjust the bend as far as you want. There’s a little cavity that goes under the neckplate so you can install the Bender mechanism, and another one under the bridgeplate, which is where the B/G Bender “finger” goes.

It works great, really smooth, and can be used as either a B- or a G-Bender.

Now, in the past I always thought you couldn’t have a B-Bender and a Bigsby on the same guitar – you have to pick one. But we figured out that we could have them both, except the Bigsby doesn’t bend the B-string.

On the Tele I used with the Raconteurs, I had a Hip Shot for dropped-D, as well as a B-Bender and a G-Bender, so I began to miss the ability to use the Bigsby on all, or at least most, of the strings.

The armrest is a feature that’s very unique to these guitars. What was the inspiration there? Also, what’s the story behind that kind of robotic-looking segmented tremolo arm?

Well, I started putting armrests on that top back shoulder because many of the Gretsch models I was collecting had them, like the Duo-Jets (opens in new tab), and the White Penguin had that sort of banjo armrest.

At first I just thought they were really cool looking, but I began to realize that I do always wear the paint out in that area of the guitar. It’s just a very beautiful and purposeful sort of “form meets function” design element, which also adds to a sense of symmetry with the pickguard.

The tremolo arm you’re looking at was designed by a guy named TK Smith. His company, TK Smith Design & Fabrication (opens in new tab), is based out in the Mojave Desert and makes amazing vintage-inspired guitars and electric mandolins, as well as cool vintage-style tone knobs and vibrato arms for Bigsby tailpieces.

I started putting armrests on that top back shoulder because many of the Gretsch models I was collecting had them

Jack White

So me and Chip just attached it to the Bigsby. To be honest, I just loved the shape and design of it. It was different from the conventional Bigsby arm, but we’ll have to see how it performs in practice. I haven’t really had a chance to use it hard with the band yet.

You’ve always used some form of pitch modulation, including Whammy Pedals, octave fuzzes and Bigsbys. Do you feel like you’re shooting for specific results with those tools, or is it largely a matter of improvising and seeing what comes out?

Definitely the latter. In fact, in a lot of cases, I feel like the vibrato arm and the Whammy Pedal (opens in new tab) are more in control of what happens than I am. In many ways, I feel like I’m following their lead, rather than the other way around.

For example, the company that makes the Third Man Plasma Coil and Plasma Drive pedals with me – Gamechanger Audio – is also working on a Bigsby in a foot-pedal design (opens in new tab). That could be really cool to hear what happens when you use the Bigsby arm and the Bigsby pedal at the same time.

But yeah, to answer your question, I feel like some pedals are great for doing exactly what I want them to, and other pedals are kind of directing me, pointing me in a direction I wouldn’t normally go.

You’ve been exploiting interrupter, or kill, switches for a while now, and most of your guitars have them. What inspired that?

Some pedals are great for doing exactly what I want them to, and other pedals are kind of directing me, pointing me in a direction I wouldn’t normally go

Jack White

My interrupters do a complete cut of the signal, but I mean, Tom Morello was doing a similar thing back in the ’90s by just turning on and off between two pickups.

And of course, people would do similar things with Les Pauls back in the day, where they’d have one of the pickups’ volumes down, so the pickup selector would act as a kind of kill switch. So it’s nothing new.

All my White Stripes guitars had those sorts of on/off switches on them back in the day, and I enjoyed playing with them, but eventually I thought it would be much easier if we installed them as buttons.

The inspiration for that way of doing it probably comes from when I was using the Fender EVH Wolfgang USA Eddie Van Halen Signature guitars, which have these momentary push-button switches. I’m tempted to put them on all my guitars now.

And it’s not an issue for me with blending two pickups, because I’ve never blended pickups on any guitar I’ve used, not ever. Even my Tele is just three positions, not five. I’ve also got a V-neck on this Tele, made from the whitest maple we could find, because I really don’t like that sort of yellowy maple; I like it to be really white.

I like the V-neck a lot. All the old Gibson acoustics I play, like my 1915 Gibson L-1 [a.k.a. the Robert Johnson model], are V-necks and I really like that. I understand why people wouldn’t like it; it’s hard to play. But I think I like making things a little bit harder on myself, too. So there’s that.

But there’s something appealing about putting a little extra leverage against my thumb off the back of the neck. I hadn’t experienced that before, and I’ve grown to like it a lot. I’m not going to stand here and say, Yeah, that’s the shape I love the most. But I will say that I do get some interesting results from it.

It’s not an issue for me with blending two pickups, because I’ve never blended pickups on any guitar I’ve used, not ever

Jack White

I’ll try it this year on tour and see if after 10 shows I’m still excited by it or if it’s become a hindrance. But my sense now is that it’s actually making me play a little differently.

We’re also experimenting with some scalloping, especially on the higher frets, and we’ll see what that’s like. I dunno. I just kept seeing it on all these Ritchie Blackmore clips I was watching, and I thought it was something I might enjoy.

CooI! We had no idea you were a Ritchie Blackmore fan. That may surprise some people.

Oh, yeah, Blackmore’s great. I especially love mid-period Deep Purple albums like In Rock, Fireball, Made in Japan and Who Do We Think We Are. The second and third Rainbow albums – Rising and Long Live Rock ’n’ Roll – also have some pretty incredible playing on them.

See, like Jimmy Page and Tony Iommi, Blackmore was still blues guitar-based, y’know? A lot of the later players who were more heavy metal go over my head – or maybe I should say under it – because without the strong blues element in there, I begin to lose my connection to the music.

But Page, Iommi and Blackmore are really just the heaviest blues that existed at the time, coming out of the English blues boom of the ’60s and expanding it into this heavier sort of territory.

While we don’t think the term shredder applies to you, you certainly have some speed in those hands, and you’re not afraid to use it.

I like to use speed in short bursts. I try to choose my moments. Like anything, if you use too much of it, it can lose what makes it interesting in the first place.

I also played all the instruments, including drums, on many of these songs, and that kind of led me to begin structuring the song in my head before I ever even picked up a guitar.

Instead of the space for a solo either showing up naturally in a band arrangement or not, I could be very deliberate about it, because I was structuring the song from the drums up. Like, okay, I’m going to open up with something impressive on the guitar and sort of knock the listener on the head, and then I’ll sing a bit, and then come back and do it again.

I like to use speed in short bursts. I try to choose my moments

Jack White

That opened me up to try some things that maybe in a full-band tracking context I might not have gone after.

Talk about these customized Fender Tele- and Jazzmaster-style Acoustasonics you’re playing. They look rad with those cool blue finishes. But there’s more to your specs on these than just the finish, right?

Yeah, I made some recommendations regarding the range of sounds in them, as well. Y’know, I first started using an Acoustasonic for the last Raconteurs tour.

Since we were going with an orange color scheme for that tour, we borrowed the design idea from one of my Gretsch Rancher Falcon (opens in new tab) acoustics, the one I named after the actress Claudette Colbert, which has her face engraved on the back by a great tattoo artist in Cincinnati named Kore Flatmo.

Along with the tribute to Claudette, my thought was to try to mix some of the design vibe from those interesting old Fender Antigua finishes from the 1970s, but with the modern Acoustasonic guitars.

As for the sounds, I was lucky enough to be one of the first people to get an Acoustasonic when they first came out, and I brought it straight out on tour with the Raconteurs, so I got to road test it pretty heavily.

And the first thing I asked them was, is there any way we can have fewer choices for sounds? I felt I only needed three sounds: one great electric, one great acoustic and then a sound with both together, because that solved a basic issue with how to play songs of mine that had acoustics and electrics either in different sections of the same track, or sometimes doubling the same parts.

That came in real handy with the Raconteurs. Before that, I’d have to write acoustic sections with a long enough space at the end so I could switch back to electric.

This custom Jazzmaster electric you’ve got in process here looks pretty cool. Any interesting mods happening on that one?

I was lucky enough to be one of the first people to get an Acoustasonic when they first came out

Jack White

Oh, yeah. So, Dan Mancini, my brilliant guitar tech and mission man, has been working a lot on this one.

A while back, I showed Dan a clip of a guy who had incorporated some sort of synth device into his guitar, and I thought, That’s what I’ve been trying to do for years that I wish we could figure out! I remember speaking to Matt Bellamy of Muse about how he incorporated a Korg Kaoss Pad into his guitar [eventually leading to the Kort Manson MB-1 Matt Bellamy Signature guitar], and I always thought that was a great idea.

So Dan and I began talking, and right now he’s in the process of installing the guts of an Electro-Harmonix Pitchfork (opens in new tab) pedal into the back of this Jazzmaster. The intermittent switch can turn on the harmonies, but I can also use one of the pots to bend the pitch as well, just like with a Whammy Pedal.

I think Tom Morello may end up getting jealous of this and have to put it on his guitar, too. I’ll have to send him a clip of it and see what he thinks.

Will that have a similar mix of Filter’Trons and P-90s like the Telecaster?

It will have some of the same features as the Tele, but the pickups will be different. I own this incredible Gibson Fort Knox “Skunk Baxter” Firebird that I played with the Raconteurs, and the mini-humbucker pickups on that, which Jim DeCola designed, are just so impressive.

Honestly, it’s almost a shock every time I play it. So Tim Shaw at Fender is working on his own version of that type of mini-humbucker to put into this Jazzmaster.

I just always want to know what’s happenin’!

Jack White

From your well-documented 1964 JB Hutto Montgomery Ward Airline to your gorgeous Gretsch “Triple Green Machine” to your 1950s Kay Hollowbody to your EVH Wolfgang guitars, you constantly seem to be exploring unusual choices in pursuit of both new sounds and new/old aesthetics. What do you think drives that for you?

I just think it’s cool that there are these moments in your life where you might play through a certain pickup or type of guitar, but maybe it’s at the wrong moment in your life, and somehow you decide, “Nah, that’s not for me.”

And then you revisit it 10 years later, and you’re like, “Oh my God, actually this is great. It just has its own kind of appeal.”

Now, obviously this kind of experience only happens when you’re really deep into the tone thing. Plenty of people wouldn’t know the difference if you played them five different pickups in a row. They’d probably sound exactly the same to them. But when you’re a guitar player, you can really hear how the differences matter and how they influence your playing and tone.

Still, it’s unusual to meet even experienced players or luthiers as ready to flip the script on conventional guitar design as you are. Or as curious about it as you always seem to be.

Plenty of people wouldn’t know the difference if you played them five different pickups in a row

Jack White

Well, I’m really curious right now about this Billy Gibbons Gyrock Signature (opens in new tab) guitar from Wild Customs that’s just come out. It has this crazy roller device that has three pickups loaded in it that you can rotate to choose which pickup you want.

You just spin the drum in there, and you can also pop the pickups out, put different ones in, and it’s very easy to do from the backplate. There’ve been other companies that have tried to do removable pickups and removable pickguards, but it seems like they’ve really figured it out here.

Pretty cool to have three choices of bridge pickup on a drum, so you can literally “roll” from lipstick tube to a humbucker. That would be so cool to have. I dunno. I might get jealous and have to try those out.

So, to answer your question, I guess I just always want to know what’s happenin’! [laughs]

Order Fear of the Dawn here (opens in new tab).

Pre-order Entering Heaven Alive here (opens in new tab).