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Melissa Etheridge: Guitar Storyteller

Melissa Etheridge plays her favorite electric guitar, a custom 1982 Les Paul, live in February of 2014. There's no sitting allowed on her stage. "I want to make a sign of a stool with an 'X' through it," says Etheridge of her performance style.
Photo by Ken Settle.

From a badminton racket to her signature Ovation and various 12-string obsessions in between, one of rock’s reigning queens shares a few of her favorite guitar things.

In the days of the Ed Sullivan Show, it was actually the cartoon garage band The Archies that caused 6-year-old Melissa Etheridge to fall in love with the guitar. She didn’t have her own instrument then, so she pretended to play on a badminton racket. “I really wanted to be Reggie,” she remembers.

When her father brought home a Stella beginner guitar, Etheridge was 8 years old and very determined. “He brought it home for my sister,” Etheridge says. “I was like, ‘But I want to play!’ My sister was 12 and the teacher said I was too young. Finally the teacher said, ‘Let her come but she’ll quit after a week because it’ll be too hard. Her fingers will bleed.’ Of course, yes, my fingers bled ... and I did not quit [laughs].” (Her sister, however, did quit.)

YouTube It

Melissa Etheridge performs her new single "Take My Number" live during a solo show at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown, New Jersey on July 3, 2014.

This is the story behind her first guitar experience, and there have been many since. For her just-released album This Is M.E., Etheridge wanted to do something special to kick off the tour for her first record on her own label, ME Records. For the first leg of dates, she wanted to play solo, with the help of nine or 10 of her best friends: her guitars. “I love playing solo—it’s where I came from,” Etheridge says. “I played solo in bars for 10 years.”

For her solo show, Etheridge stands ("no stools allowed" is her motto) onstage within a semi-circle of her favorite instruments, a group that includes the usual suspects along with a few wild cards. From the road, Etheridge shares the unique background of each guitar she’s using on this tour, instruments that help her explore the many styles in her repertoire. Without further ado, meet the guitars and gear of Melissa Etheridge, as described in her own words.

Melissa Etheridge Signature 1598-MEII 12-String Ovation

This is my No. 1 because it’s like my favorite pair of shoes. If I’ve got to walk a mile, that’s the pair of shoes I’m going to pick. I write on the Ovation—it’s just like a piece of me and it has been for so long. I’ve played Ovations since I was 14. Oh my god, that’s almost 40 years. I don’t even know how many I have [laughs]. I’m awfully hard on them and that’s one of the reasons I like them—their durability. What I count on from my 12-string is that it’s electric-acoustic, easy to plug in, I don’t get feedback, I can EQ it, I can make a big humungous sound with it, and I can hit it on the front and back and beat it—it’s almost a percussive instrument. I always hear the drums in my head so it comes out that way on the 12-string.

Gibson Custom ’82 Les Paul

Man it’s just so sweet, it’s one of my favorites. It has little handles on the tuners that were just from that one model year. I had a custom 1974 when I was in high school and it was so heavy that I traded it in for a Strat. This one isn’t as heavy. You can’t beat the sustain and you can’t beat the smoothness of it ... I just love it. I play it on “I’m the Only One” and I used it a lot on the new album—most of the electric guitar on the album is my Les Paul.

James Trussart Baritone

James Trussart makes such nice guitars. The neck on that thing, I think it’s rosewood, it just feels ... I love to touch that guitar, it has an energy you can feel. I bought it because on my last album, 4th Street Feeling, I wrote “The Shadow of a Black Crow” on a borrowed Jerry Jones baritone. So when I was looking for a baritone to play that song, my bass player Brett Simons recommended a Trussart. I’ve always admired his guitars as art, and when I plugged it in I thought, “This is an incredible sound and an incredible instrument.”

Jerry Jones 12-String

I’m kinda crazy about all 12-string guitars. I’ve gone a little nutty about it and that’s okay, that’s what I do. I’ve found that with the Jerry Jones, I can get a tone that’s not harmful. Sometimes on a 12-string electric, you can’t use it like a rhythm guitar, because it just eats up all the midrange and there’s no room for anything else. The Jerry Jones has a tone to it that is pleasant, and then I can bang! I can throw on a little distortion and I can actually play lead on the 12-string, which people go nuts for because it’s a sound they aren’t used to. It’s like a mandolin, but not. “Chrome-Plated Heart” is usually what I play on the Jerry Jones.

YouTube It

Watch at the 11-minute mark as Melissa Etheridge puts her Jerry Jones 12-string through its paces on “Chrome-Plated Heart” during this full set at the 2013 Telluride Blues & Brews Festival.

Custom Shop Fender Thinline Telecaster

I can’t remember the year of this guitar, I’m so not like a boy—they can recite the serial number to you, I can’t do that. This guitar is very rich, and when I want a clear tone, I use this Tele. It’s a replica of an older original custom Tele that I retired from the road. It belonged to a jazz player and has the ashtray on the bridge, and the dudes on their break used to go in the alley and smoke and put their cigarettes out on their guitars. My original has stains where he used to stub out his cigarettes.

12-string Dobro

I’m going to have to retire this thing after this solo tour because it’s just barely hangin’ on! I bought it in the early ’90s at the Rose Bowl flea market in Pasadena. I used to always check out guitars at flea markets. I opened this up and it was a 12-string. I had never, ever seen a 12-string resonator! It was a little crunched up, but I think I got it for $300 or something. I did some research and found out that National only made it for one year and there was no market for it. I took it out this year because I’ve just started playing more slide. It’s been a natural progression.

I’m using it now on the end of “The Shadow of a Black Crow.” It’s in open B and tuned really low—it’s like “BWAAAAH” [laughs]. It’s cool. I detune it, it rattles around, I play the slide, I put a little bit of distortion on it, and people just go crazy. On the new album, all the slide you hear is this resonator.

National Reso-Phonic

This is the latest guitar—I bought it just a couple of weeks ago. I bought it because I have to retire the 12-string Dobro and I needed something solid for the road. I bought a Dobro from Norm’s [the legendary L.A. music store, Norman’s Rare Guitars] and brought it out on the road and was like, ‘What was I thinking?’ It wasn’t electric. So I traded it back in for this 6-string resonator.

Gibson SG Doubleneck

This was from when they started making the reissues in the ’90s. Of course, I wanted to be a purist and get one from the ’70s, but the ’90s version fixed everything that was wrong with the ’70s model—and that’s great. I was on tour in Sioux City, Iowa, headlining a big festival. It was me and Sublime. A music conservatory there was hosting a guitar show. I thought I’d just go visit it and I saw this doubleneck … and you know me and 12-strings.

I knew I’d be doing a solo thing and I thought, “That’s just perfect.” It’s heavy as a mother—insanely heavy. I just play it one song at a time. At soundcheck where we run through something a couple or three times I’m like, “Okay, I’ve got to take this off. This is killing me!”

It is such a phenomenal sound—the sound and the quality of that guitar amazes me. In the solo show, I’ve reworked a lot of the ballads. I’ll play “Royal Station” or “Don’t You Need” and other ballads where I’ll sing and play on the 12-string and loop that and then I’ll play lead parts on the 6-string on top of it.

12-string Phantom MandoGuitar and Boss Loop Station

The MandoGuitar is fun to play on the solo tour. On “If I Wanted To” I loop my 12-string Ovation and then pick up the MandoGuitar. It’s cheating—it’s not a real mandolin. I haven’t used it on an album since [2010’s] Fearless Love when I did the song “Only Love.”
Secret weapon for “If I Wanted To.”

Suhr Badger 35

Marc Vangool works with me and my guitars and pedals. He’s my tech when I can have him, but he’s very much in demand. He really guided me in the last few years to be a better guitar player. And Peter Thorn: He is the reason I’m a better guitar player today. He was so instrumental and he was so kind. He was such an amazing and gentle teacher. He introduced me to the Suhr people. My Suhr amp has such a great sound at low volume, which onstage ... that’s golden.

Pedalboard 1

My pedalboards are pretty straightforward. I’ve got the Bonamassa wah, I love that. The tones you can get from it—just as a boost, not even using the wah part—are amazing. I usually use it as a wah, but if I really need one more push, I’ll do that. What I do love is the Tube Screamer. And that Maxon, if you love just a beautiful analog delay, it adds such a nice effect.

I use my other delay [MXR Carbon Copy] when I want a slapback. I’ve got a tremolo reverb pedal, the Strymon, but I’m not a guitarist that’s doing all the crazy stuff. I’m very organic in my sounds. A lot of lead guitarists program everything in, but I just can’t go down that road—I’m just not that girl. I want my pedalboard to be a useful tool in the moment where I go, “Tonight I want this sound,” so there is freedom and choice in the moment. [Board #2 houses a G Lab Power Supply, Strymon Flint, TC Electronic PolyTune Mini, Dunlop JB95 Joe Bonamassa Wah, Ibanez Tube Screamer, MXR Carbon Copy analog delay, and a Vintage Maxon AD-999 analog delay].

Pedalboard 2

I have different distortions because the Malekko and the BB Preamp are so loud I don’t use them on the solo tour—they obliterate everything. I use the Koko Boost almost every time I pick up the guitar. [Board #1 is home to a G Lab power supply, MXR Phase 90, Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor, Xotic Effects BB Preamp, Suhr Koko Boost, and a Malekko B:Assmaster.]

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