“I painted my guitar in the stars-and-bars motif, partially because I admired Pete Townshend’s Union Jack sportscoat, but also because I felt like the symbol of the flag was only being used to promote one side of the argument,” says Wayne Kramer, of the paint job on his original MC5 Strat. Here, he brandishes his modern Fender Custom Shop signature version. Photo by Ken Settle
Fred preferred a Rickenbacker 450/12 with humbuckers, which led you to modify your Strat, too, right?
Yeah. What happened was, I couldn’t quite get my solos louder than him to jump out in front of the sound of the band. We weren’t very good at dynamics yet, so everything was balls-to-the-wall. It was very difficult for us to learn how to play quieter—how to break it down and leave yourself some headroom. So my solution was, “I’ll put a humbucker in the center position, so when I want to play a solo, I can switch over and I’ll have just enough boost in gain and tone so that my solos jump out in front a little bit.”
And you know, I really wanted the band to be dynamic visually, too. I wanted banners on the stage, and streamers and flyers and flashing lights—anything that we could think of to make it look like a celebration or a rally or a religious ceremony or something more than just a band standing there. So one idea was let’s put flags on the amps, and in the beginning I made my own Jolly Roger—a big death’s head on a black background, as kind of a pirate symbol—and then later I just went with the American flag.
You also write about how you were using Vox amps for a little while.
We had the Super Beatles—100-watt tube amps from England. I think we went to Sunn after those. They had come out with the Spectrum I or Spectrum II, but they weren’t very consistent. The amps would work for a few shows and then they’d blow up. So we went to Marshall, and, you know, in those days, all the amps were imported from England, and they were used to running on 220 current. Local distributors would have to put step-down transformers in them, and they would also blow up all the time. In the MC5, at one point I think we had about nine of them. We’d carry six on the road with us, and three would always be in the shop. You had the one you were playing through, the backup for when that one blew up, and then the other one in the shop that hopefully we could get out whenever we got back to Detroit.
What are you and Kim using now?
We’re both playing through Fender Hot Rod DeVilles, with the 212 Super-Sonic cab. I wanted the extra speaker cabinet to push just a little more air. The Hot Rod DeVilles have all the power you need, and a great crunchy tone. We also don’t have to play at the volume levels that we did back in the day. Today sound reinforcement systems are very sophisticated, so if you get a good sound onstage, they can make sure that gets out to the audience. I’m always surprised when I read about bands like AC/DC that actually do use 12 Marshall stacks. Oh, my god! I know my hearing is damaged. These guys … they must be deaf as fence posts!
Have you had a particular stompbox or effect that you relied on?
Well, back in the day, I had one of the first Fuzz-Tones. It must have been ’65 or ’66. That was the Maestro, and I was kind of underwhelmed with it. I thought it was a nice sound effect, but it didn’t really light a fire under me. I found I got a better sound by turning the amp up all the way. That natural harmonic tube distortion—that’s the sound I wanted.
Then later on I got a Fuzzface, which I liked, and a [Cry Baby] wah-wah. I used those in the MC5, but in the intervening years I moved away from stompboxes. As they got more ubiquitous and sophisticated, they started sounding worse to me. I didn’t use them for a couple of decades until I got a job with Marianne Faithfull. I figured she would probably like it if I had some modern effects on the guitar to gloss up the sound, and I’d been working with Tom Morello, and he’s so creative with the tools that he uses that I was kind of stealing some ideas from him. Well, I wasn’t kind of stealing them—I was stealing them. [Laughs.] So I got a DigiTech RP500, which is a multi-effects unit. This has the Whammy in it, along with every other effect that’s known to man—fuzz tones, delay, backwards chorus—you know, everything in one place. I won’t be bending over wriggling any cords, and I can pre-program it for the set I’m playing. And I’m using it now on the road.
You know, going back to The Hard Stuff, there’s another passage where you describe your first encounter with the insurgency that roiled Detroit in the summer of ’67. You talk pretty vividly about how exciting and terrifying that moment was. You were just a teenager at the time, but did you see music back then as a way to connect people who couldn’t resolve their differences?
That was just starting to emerge in our thinking. It was important for us to address the concerns of the audience, because they were our concerns, too. And I think that’s the thing that separated us from our contemporaries. We weren’t trying to be blues aficionados or the next Bob Dylans or the next anything. We were trying to be a community band—the people’s band. We saw ourselves as members of a larger community of young people that didn’t agree with the way things were going, and wanted to make a change for the better.
And that’s the essence of rock ’n’ roll, isn’t it?
It is. You’re absolutely right.
With flamethrower energy, the MC5 blaze through this classic performance of one of their signature tunes, “Kick Out the Jams.” The song’s title came from the taunt the bandmembers shouted at other groups they felt didn’t deliver the goods onstage.
Nearly 50 years later, Wayne Kramer, at 70 years old, is still kicking out the jams, swinging his signature Stratocaster like a battleaxe as the song starts and digging into a wailing solo after 90 seconds.