For their new album, the Gibson-favoring duo of Joe Hottinger and Lzzy Hale eschewed their usual custom and signature models for a pair of vintage Les Paul Juniors. Photo by Annie Atlasman
Producer Nick Raskulinecz had just begun working in the studio with the band Halestorm when he had an inspired moment. Raskulinecz decided that, rather than play their high-performance modern Gibsons, Lzzy Hale and Joe Hottinger should go for something decidedly unrefined. He handed each guitarist a 1950s Les Paul Junior, and they got to work.
“Nick decided that we needed something out of the ordinary—these old guitars that would go out of tune if you hit them too hard and just sound nasty with their P-90s,” Hottinger says.
“We faced each other in the loud room and were soon writing this wild and forceful riff that became the breakdown in ‘Skulls’,” Hale says. “Our bass player—the only real musician in the band—walks in the room and the first thing he says is, ‘You know that’s out of tune, right?’ We’re like, ‘Yeah, dude, that’s what makes it cool. It’s so wrong, it’s right!’”
Halestorm has been perfecting its brand of wrong-and-right rock since 1997, when Hale and her brother, Arejay, then 13 and 10, respectively, began writing music and performing together. In 2003, Hottinger joined Halestorm, which signed a contract with Atlantic two years later and made a big splash with a self-titled album in 2009 that followed their live 2006 EP debut.
By the time they released their third studio album, 2015’s Into the Wild Life, Halestorm had begun to branch away from straightforward hard rock and heavy metal to include pop, country, and other influences. But Halestorm’s latest album, Vicious, is a return to form, with plenty of hard-driving, down-tuned riffing from Hale and Hottinger, some pyrotechnical soloing from each guitarist, and even the occasional power ballad.
Calling from their home base in Pennsylvania, Hale and Hottinger had lots to say about their longstanding working relationship, their propensity for improvisation, the extensive tools of their trade … and the importance of playing at ear-splitting volume levels.
Let’s talk about guitars. What’s in your arsenal at the moment?
Lzzy Hale: I’m playing pretty much all Gibsons. I got two signature Explorers, a white one and a black one. I have a double-neck SG, which is a 6-string on the top and baritone on the bottom. I have a new Firebird that’s amazing. I have a Gibson Les Paul Supreme, which is amazing. I have a really hard time leaving anything under the bed, so it all comes out.
Joe Hottinger: I like a variety of guitars. I’ve got a bunch of Gibsons that are my mainstays. I just got one of the Freddie King [1960 reissue] ES-345s, and it’s got to be one of my best-sounding guitars. Whatever PAFs Gibson Memphis made for those things, I’ve got to get more of them, because they’re just amazing. [Editor’s note: They’re MHS—Memphis historic spec—humbuckers.]
I have a new Custom Shop SG in Inverness green that Gibson just came out with. It’s a really great sounding guitar. I keep going back to it and wanting to play it more. It’s so playable and fun. I also have a long-scale goldtop from the Custom Shop, which is just a really good Les Paul with Jimmy Page pickups.
I got a Manson earlier this year, one of the MA-2s with the Fuzz Factory in it and the Sustainiac in the neck. It’s just a crazy guitar. I’m having them build me another one for Europe because we wrote so many songs on that thing. And some of the main riffs in “Vicious” and “White Dress” are done just with the sound that comes out of that guitar and how unique it is. So, I’m gonna need more of those.
What else do I have? I have a Fender Master Built Tele and a Custom Shop 1964 Strat. I have a few more Teles, a baritone Tele that I put a humbucker in, and this weird Esquire-ish Tele, which Fender built to my specs a few years ago, that I always have out on tour with me.
Hale: It gets to the point when you say, “Well, let’s hang all the guitars up on the wall,” and then you run out of wall space. That’s the point that we’re at right now.
Is it hard to decide what to play on a given tune?
Hottinger: It is hard. It’s annoying, actually, because I have a Custom Shop V and a Firebird that are both killer. But they don’t get played as much as I’d like, because I’m really into the Freddie King and SG right now. So sometimes certain guitars just sit in the vault for a while, but that’s OK.
What amps are you using?
Hottinger: I have a ’71 Super Lead that I just turn up to deafening levels and this reissue Twin Reverb that I go back and forth between.
Hale: I use a Marshall JCM 800. My guitar tech and I crank it to the point where the sound guy is slightly annoyed, but not too annoyed that he’s gonna say anything. We started putting both of our amps backwards, so that we can crank them more. It’s been really interesting, because a lot of our peers are using [prerecorded] tracks onstage right now, and we’ve just never done that. So many people come up to us and are like, “How do you get your guitars to sound like that?” Our answer is always, “Well, we plug them in and we turn them up and we actually play.” Everyone is like, “Wait, really? A real guitar?”
It seems like you make fairly straightforward use of effects, but on some of your older stuff, like 2012’s “Freak Like Me,” there are some unusual sounds happening.
Hale: It’s a kind of delay effect that I make just by using my foot on a [Dunlop JC95] Jerry Cantrell Wah. I started doing that to try to make myself a better player, because I noticed the more effects that I have, the more I depend on them. And the Jerry Cantrell Wah is great, too. I can use high heels on that one because I don’t actually have to hit a button. It’s just automatically on. And as a performer, it just creates a much better effect with the audience because they’re like, “What is she doing with her foot? Oh my god, it’s crazy.”
The more that I can draw attention to the fact that I’m doing this on my own and not just hitting a button and letting things happen, the better reaction I get from an audience. But in general I’ve become quite the minimalist over the years when it comes to effects. I’m getting most of my sound from my amp, so I roll back the volume knob and use a lot of that kind of physicality.
How has your musicianship evolved since you started relying less on pedals?
Hale: I’m relying more on the tone that I create with my fingers and paying much more attention than before to how I’m using the pick. I’ve been kind of experimenting with different positions, pick-wise, with much help from Joe. I’ll be like, “Hey, man, I want to create this kind of very tight.…” And Joe will be like, “Just angle the pick this way.”
Does it go both ways with you showing each other tips and techniques? Joe, have you learned things from Lzzy?
Hottinger: Oh, yeah—totally. I remember back to when I joined the band, 15 years ago now, she’d written the riff for “It’s Not You” and it’s got this slappy left-hand thing that I had never seen before. I said, “What are you doing?” It took me a few days to get it. It was just this really cool approach to riff writing and guitar playing that I hadn’t seen before. I ended up using it in “Freak Like Me” on the second record—the same exact rhythmic thing in the verses, which keeps the song moving and chugging along.
Lzzy has such a singer-and-piano-player approach to guitar. Her vibrato is awesome. It’s such a wide vibrato. It sounds like when [Cinderella’s] Tom Keifer does a solo. When she does her solos, it’s like a voice, which is what it should be.