Anthony Joseph “Joe” Perry, a true American rock guitar hero, has held down the lead guitar chair for nearly 35 years with Aerosmith, often touted as America’s premier rock band. Born and raised in the suburbs of Boston, MA, Perry, of Portuguese and Italian descent, was taken with the sounds of the ‘60s British Invasion bands, and counted Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, and particularly Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green as inspirations.
Formed in 1970 in Boston, Aerosmith paid their early dues, played hard and partied harder, and enjoyed hits like “Walk This Way” and “Dream On.” In the summer of 1979, Perry, at odds with other members of the band, and dealing with the strain of increasing drug dependency, left Aerosmith to start The Joe Perry Project, a group with a rotating lineup that recorded three albums and toured almost constantly. With his personal and professional life a shambles, Perry and his friends in Aerosmith patched things up in 1984, got into rehab, cleaned up, and enjoyed 25 years of unprecedented success with a series of hit singles, MTV videos, critically-acclaimed albums and sold-out tours. Aerosmith have sold an astounding 150 million albums worldwide, and are members of The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
But flash forward to Autumn 2009, and Aerosmith was once again in a state of confusion and turmoil. Lead singer Steven Tyler, eager to establish himself as a solo artist at age 61, decided to take an indefinite hiatus after falling off a stage this past summer. While rumors of the band’s demise abounded, Perry went on record saying that Aerosmith was still together, and might look for a replacement for Tyler. In the meantime, Perry, never one to sit still, and with a backlog of new material, quickly recorded and released an album in October called Have Guitar, Will Travel, featuring a newly handpicked group of musicians. Billed again as The Joe Perry Project, the band has just completed a short US tour, and is poised to take their act overseas within weeks of this writing, opening for Mötley Crüe and Bad Company.
A self-confessed ‘60s rock fan, guitar collector, horse enthusiast and gearhead, Joe spent time discussing his love of funky Supro guitars, and how he surprisingly plans to unload a significant portion of his vast collection in the coming year.
What was the spark that ignited your desire to play guitar?
The Joe Perry Project performing at L’Amour, Brooklyn, NY, Sept. 30, 1983. Photo by Frank White
It was a series of things, really. I had an uncle who owned a homemade four-string instrument that looked like a ukulele. He would probably get mad if I called it a ukulele, but that’s what it looked like. During the holidays, he would play Portuguese folk songs and then let me play with it. I must have been five or six at the time. I used to go to school and listen to the orchestra, and I didn’t like any of the wind instruments, but I did like the guitar. I begged my parents for an acoustic guitar, which they bought for me. It came with a 45-rpm record that taught you how to tune, how to strum, and all that. This must have been around 1961 or 1962—definitely before The Beatles came out. I bought a fake book and learned chords from that. I never took lessons.
Once I discovered The Beatles, their music and movies, and all the other British bands like The Stones and Yardbirds, I was captured by rock ‘n’ roll.
You were influenced by Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix specifically, but how did Peter Green fit into the equation?
A lot of English bands came to Boston before they hit New York back then. I guess they wanted to warm up first there. I had a friend who got a lot of free tickets to the Boston Tea Party club. Fleetwood Mac took up residence at the Tea Party for weeks on end, and I must have seen them thirty times or more. I saw them on great nights, terrible nights, nights when they were all drunk. Peter Green’s style, attitude and sound really got to me. These guys didn’t care about being rock stars. It was all about the music for them. I became a big fan of Fleetwood Mac. I guess you could say I was most influenced by the second wave of British bands, like The Yardbirds, Mac and The Who.
Did you ever see The Yardbirds live?
No, they had broken up by the time I started going to concerts. I wish I had seen them.
The first time I saw Aerosmith, you guys were opening for Mott The Hoople
We toured with them a lot in the beginning. I can’t say enough nice things about those guys. They were very good to us. They took us under their wing, you might say. All they wanted to do was play rock ‘n’ roll and party. They’re back together with all the original members playing shows in England, and I heard they sound great.
Let’s talk specifically about guitars. What are you using on tour right now?
Performing at the Filmore at Irving Plaza, NYC, Nov. 10,
2009. Photo by Frank White
I’m using a few Strats right now, including the first upside-down one I had back in the early days of The Project. I got that one out a while and ago and began playing it again. A left-handed Strat played righty just has a whole different vibe and sound that a standard right-handed one doesn’t have. I have a black Jeff Beck Strat, not a normal color for that guitar. I have both of my signature Gibson Les Pauls, my Billie guitar, a reissue Gibson Custom Shop flametop, a Gretsch White Falcon, a Dan Armstrong see-through Plexi guitar for slide, and a Supro Ozark that’s strictly used for slide. I rotate guitars a lot out of the collection. I really don’t like changing guitars that much onstage, but I have so many great ones that I like to play. I went through a ton of Strats over the years trying to find the best ones—the same with Les Pauls. You want to play good guitars all night. I also have a guitar that was put together for me by RS Guitarworks that has a Fralin P-90 in the bridge and Joe Barden pickups in the middle and neck.
Is that the brown guitar with the studs on the body?
Yes, that’s the one. I call it the Bones and Bullets guitar. There are pictures of it in the booklet of the new CD.