Joan Jett: the Melody Maker

joanjettcarmenmelodyJoan Jett is a rock and roll baddass. She’s raw, unadulterated, kick you in the teeth, pull your shirt over your head and pound you into oblivion rock and roll any way you slice her. But they call her a punk, the Godmother of Punk actually but simultaneously, she’s the Queen of Rock and Roll. Ho! Ha ha! Guard! Turn! Parry! Dodge, spin, hah, thrust, pwing. Whatever she is, she’s got a permanent spot in my rotation. Back in 1982, when I first knew about Joan Jett and had gotten MTV, I remember watching ‘I love Rock and Roll’ and being blown away by the crunch of her guitar. I mean really, her crunch tone is to die for, seriously. And that was through a 19 inch, mono TV that used a “tube” to create the picture. The person that ultimately turned me onto her was a guy named Jet Murcell, I swear to God. He had a signed copy of her debut Blackhearts album, she loved his name and wrote that in the autograph. He was a pretty cool guy, such a major, major stoner but knew bands. He turned me and my friends onto the Cars, J Giels, The Tubes, Robin Lane and the Chartbusters,Black Sabbath, Deep Purple (Machine Head, oooooo) and Ms. Jett. Thanks Mr. Murcell, you showed me a lot of very, very good music. I remember we’d have crab apple fights in his grandparents little ratty orchard, those were good times. Joan’s recipe for that monster tone? A Gibson Melody Maker into a Marshall. That’s it. Simple, basic, frugal. So, to be clear, a Gibson into a Marshall.

rock and roll embodied

With that, there’s an elephant in the room. Something I haven’t brought up, a sordid admission, a coming clean. My name is Kris, and I didn’t respect Marshall. No, it’s true, I didn’t understand. I thought all Marshall amps were these mid-range heavy, barky tone sinks. I am so sorry. Really, I apologize openly to the ghost of Jim Marshall. To his children, to those men and women that have made some of the most glorious amplifiers ever. From Eddie Van Halen to Joe Perry to Jimmy Page to Joan Jett to Slash and beyond, everyone rocks the Marshall. Originally modified versions of Fender Bassman circuits, Jim Marshall created a wonderful little company in Bletchley, UK and taught the world about EL34 tubes and the climactic tone issuing from Celestion speakers. Marshall is far and away the preeminent rock guitar amplifier. Oh, Mesa Boogie and Engl (ENG-gall) want you to think otherwise but Marshall is it.

Back on the tracks and getting back to Joan, those Melody Makers were special. These were the entry level Gibsons, no lie but the thing was, Joan was looking for a lighter guitar than the Les Paul she had been playing. Luckily for us, back in 1977, one of her roadies (Kevin Dugan),  heard that Eric Carmen, who played guitar and sang for the Raspberries (whom Kevin had worked for in the past), was selling his Melody Maker (a much lighter instrument) and he thought it would be perfect for Jett. He was right, Joan modified the guitar by putting a Velvet Hammer pickup in it, and it became her number-one. The actual year of manufacture has to be estimated in the 1968-1971 range, concrete data was impossible to locate. Eric Carmen used the Melody Maker on the Raspberries biggest hits including the classic “Go All The Way.”

The battered but perfect tone machine

So what’s the deal? The guitar body was a slab mahogany design. This means no multi-piece body, no maple cap, no body binding, no frills, just a planed, barely rounded on the edges guitar. The electronics were affixed to the pickguard like a strat. The neck is a single piece of mahogany with a rosewood fingerboard, a 12 inch radius, 24.75 inch scale length, Grover tuners and medium frets. A tune-o-matic bridge and wraparound tailpiece finish out the hardware. They were meant to be built like widgets, sold to the masses but they turned out to be these incredible tone machines. Jett used the guitar on “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll,” “Crimson and Clover,” “Do You Wanna Touch Me“(oh man, the tone, could make me cry) and “Bad Reputation.” I played Bad Reputation in a cover band I had years ago, I sang it as well. Her guitar has quite a history if you consider that Carmen also had charted hits performed on that guitar. According to a Guitar World interview around the time of her 2015 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, Jett said of the guitar “I recently took it off the road, because I was afraid something was going to happen to it. The white paint is all cracked and it’s sort of yellowing, but in an awesome way. That’s my baby.” Gibson created a signature guitar for Jett in 2008 and she uses one of them these days on the road though her favorite is on all her albums.

Invariably, talk about Joan, or any woman rocker, gets to the fact that she’s a she. Like, “lookee what that girl can do, she can rock with the boys.” To that, I call bullshit. The second we start making a case for “why” a woman can rock as hard as a man can, we’ve lost the battle. To me, there’s no distinction between Joan Jett and Joey Ramone, between Sarah Longfield and Stanley Jordan or any other woman compared to a man in any genre. Stop thinking about rock guitar as a male dominated thing and look at it as music, a gender free embodiment of angst and frustration that all of us, well, those with a pulse, can relate to. I can say that Joan swaggers rock and roll as well as any other artist in the history of the style. To deny sex is a part of rock and roll would be a failing on my part, it’s part of the holy trinity (um, hello, sex, drugs and rock and roll?). I just think it doesn’t matter if it’s Nancy Wilson or Tony Iommi, it’s all rock. If you aren’t familiar with Joan Jett or the work she did in the Runaways (from which Lita Ford also spawned), please start here to learn more. I’ll leave you with the song Cherry Bomb by the Runaways, it features a 17 year old Jett rocking out. Please stop by next time when I talk about Rory Gallagher’s 1961 Fender Stratocaster. Thanks for stopping by.

KSK February 2017



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