Interview: Lita Ford Talks Marshalls, Double Necks, Runaways, and Rock

At just 16 years old, Lita Ford auditioned for the lead guitarist role in an all-female group called the Runaways. This was 1975, and by the end of the following year, the Runaways would be in full swing with their successful debut album already recorded and released.

The Runaways continued to tour heavily until April of 1979, when they disbanded. After the breakup, Lita launched a solo career that would continue until 1996 — the start of her 15-year hiatus from music during which she focused on raising her two kids.

In the mid-2000s, Lita came back into the fold full swing and hasn’t stopped since. Since 2009, Lita has published a memoir that focuses on her career in music and her time raising her kids on a deserted island, has released three albums and is working on another, and will soon be launching her own clothing line. Back in January, she was also honored with the Icon Award by the Women’s International Music Network.

We had a chance to catch up with Lita over the phone to discuss her go-to gear, how she feels about being a musical icon, and what she has coming up next. For more information about her and any of her projects, you can check out her website here.

Earlier this year, you received the Icon Award at the She Rocks Awards show. What did it mean to you to received that kind of recognition from an organization like the Women’s International Music Network (WiMN)?

Lita Ford

It actually put tears in my eyes when they were announcing the award, and I came up on the screen. It was like, “What? This is insanity." I didn’t expect it. I had no clue, and to be put in such great company was just something I had been striving for for the last 40 years of my life.

You know, to finally break the door down and carve a path for people to talk, to make it okay for women to be musicians and guitar players. You’ve got your drummers, you’ve got your bass players, but there’s not very many females that play guitar. Well, there are now.

Absolutely. And I do think that you’ve been a big driver of that. I mean, you’ve been doing this for a long time now. What, 40 or 45 years?

I started in the Runaways in ‘75, and the album came out in ‘76 when I was 17, so it’s been a long time. I had to deal with a lot of bullshit, a lot of people trying to give me crap and tell me that girls don’t play guitar. Really, why? You have to have balls to play guitar? I’ve seen people play with their toes. Anyone can play guitar. If there’s a will, there’s a way.

I feel like the landscape has changed a bit with the more recent generations. I’m in my 30s, and I don’t really think about gendering guitarists. There are both men and women who can totally play circles around me. Do you feel that you’ve seen the industry evolve since those early days?

I’ve seen the industry move forward since I’ve been back from my hiatus. And I didn’t know what was going on during those years I was gone because I was completely disconnected from the music industry and civilization.

I lived on a deserted island. We had no television, we had no radio, we were really disconnected. We had the internet, but it ran by satellite, so if a cloud came in or bad weather came in, it would cover the satellite, and we weren’t able to access the internet.

So my kids grew up, and it was 15 years of not knowing what was going on in the music scene. When I came back, I didn’t research the music industry. I didn’t care what was out there because I don’t need to copy anybody, I don’t need to sound like anybody anymore. I proved my point. I don’t need more.

When you were coming up during those Runaways days, what were you listening to and how did it help shape your playing?

I was able to play my favorite heroes, you know. We actually acted out our favorite heroes. Joan loved Suzi Quatro, Cherie loved David Bowie. If you look at Cherie back then, she had the same haircut. Joan looked exactly like Suzi Quatro.

I loved Ritchie Blackmore, and there was nothing I could do to look like him, but I could play like him. I loved his guitar playing and Tony Iommi’s guitar playing in Black Sabbath. Riff rock, you know? It’s dark, and I loved the darkness of that era.

The Runaways - "School Days" (1977)

Then came the punk era, with the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, and Blondie, and the Runaways picked up on all of that. It helped create some of my sound and some of the Runaways sound, of the chugging guitars and the attitude that they had.

And then someone told me that we aren’t our rock heroes. We’re not David Bowie or Suzi Quatro. You have to act like yourself, you have to come up with your own style. Create Lita, create Joan, create yourself. That’s where we did, we learned our own style. We had to write it, learn it, create it, come up with the look. Everything changed.

I think that’s one of the hardest things guitars players — musicians in general, really — have to learn, how to be themselves. You learn from your influences, but you define yourself outside of them. What was the Runaways’ process of deconstructing all of those influences to create something that was unique?

I combined a lot of things into my music. The punk era, the riff rock — I just pieced it all together. You know, our producer would tell us to play stuff like “My Sharona." And then he would say, “Okay, now play it backwards."

I don’t know how the heck that would go, but it made it a different song completely. If you take one of your favorite songs and play it backwards, it becomes a different animal. This was a challenge for us.

When I came back from my hiatus on that island, I didn’t want to know what the music scene was like. I didn’t want to hear it, so I didn’t listen to it because I would have ended up trying to fit in or trying to copy whatever was going on at the time. And I thought, “You know, I’m Lita Ford. I’ve been doing this so long that I don’t need to copy anymore. They need to copy me now."

After releasing your first record after the hiatus, Wicked Wonderland, did you got back and start listening to what other people were doing?

Yeah, I have. I do. It doesn’t change me now or change what I want to do. Papa Roach is a band that I love, for example, but I don’t want to necessarily sound like them.

I’m still keeping the Lita fans happy and the new fans growing up on my music. I see these kids in the audience, and their faces are just in shock that a female is up there shredding and rocking so hard. Because my band is monstrous, too, you know.

Lita Ford and her band

I saw the performance from the She Rocks Awards, and even everyone on that stage was ripping. I loved it.

Yeah, those were women put together by Laura Whitmore for the event. She did a great job, and they did too. I especially adored the keyboard player. Musically, she just had something going on, she had a look, and I actually got her phone number and thought we should work together.

Having that award presented to me from Marshall and Guitar Player Magazine — you just can’t beat stuff like that, there’s nothing better.

You’ve been working with Marshall for a long time, right?

Oh, it’s pretty much all I’ve played, except for in the early Runaways days when I played Orange amps.

Are you still using Marshalls now?

I do, and I’m real picky with my Marshalls. I loved the early-‘80s JCM 800s. They’re very different. They varied from year to year, so when you get into the ‘90s, the JCM 800s don’t sound like they did in the early-‘80s.

Now, Marshall has duplicated that JCM 800, and they put out DSL, which is what I use now — the DSL100H. As soon as you plug it in and crank it up, you hear the JCM 800 hiss that a lot of people try to get rid of by putting a gate on their amp or their pedal board.

But me, I don’t want to get rid of that hiss. That hiss is part of my sound.

That’s great. And what about B.C. Rich? You’ve been playing those for a long time, too, and you have your signature guitar with them. How long have you been working with them, and what initially drew you to them?

It really was everything — looks, feel, sound. I met the owner of B.C. Rich. He passed away in the ‘80s, and when he passed, he took the recipe for B.C. Rich with him.

There are a couple of guys who are pretty familiar with building B.C. Rich guitars, but they don’t work at a factory, they have their own guitars that they make. Neil Mosier, he makes great guitars out near Tempe, Arizona. There’s a couple of other people that make some pretty badass guitars.

But my guitars are the originals, and they can’t make them like they used to. It’s like the cars these days that aren’t the same as what the cars were like in the early ‘80s, they just seemed so much beefier and stronger, and they had more balls. When you stepped on the gas, they got up and moved. Ram them into a brick wall, and you’d be fine.

By that estimation, do you think that one of your Warlocks from the old days would break if you swung it on stage and tried to smash it?

No, my God, no. It’s solid as a rock. It’s heavy. My double neck weighs 15 pounds, just the double neck. And it’s a smaller, downsized version of the Rich Bich double neck at that.

I actually wanted to ask you specifically about that double neck. We put out an article on Reverb a while ago that was called Who Actually Uses Double Neck Guitars? and it was kind of a funny article because not a lot of people have them. I was wondering why you use them. Are they tuned differently, are they different pickups, why do you have them?

I had mine made because I don’t use a lot of pedals, and I wanted to be able to play one song — “Close My Eyes Forever" — on one guitar. “Close My Eyes Forever" starts on the 12-string neck because it’s kind of a tinkly guitar part. When the chorus kicks in, there’s great big power chords, so I switched to the 6-string bottom neck.

The song finishes quietly on the tinkly part again, so I switched back to the 12-string neck. The 12-string neck also has a flange or a phaser cross flange built into it that you can turn off and on — it has little switches. I don’t need to be anywhere at a specific time on the stage to step on a box, I’ve got it in my guitar.

Lita Ford - "Close Your Eyes Forever"

That’s super cool. I love built-in effects on guitars. They’re usually really heavy-handed but super, super cool. What else is in your rig right now? Is there anything from the old days that you’re still using regularly?

I’ve got my old Warlocks, my old Rich Bitches, my old Mockingbirds, and then I’ve got some stuff I picked up decades ago for the studio. A nice Telecaster, a nice Stratocaster, Les Paul, Les Paul Junior — just a lot of stuff that I use in the studio. I love Taylor acoustics, they sound so good. You know, there’s stuff for stage, stuff for photo sessions, and stuff for the studio.

It sounds like you have a very minimal rig, which I kind of how I try and run things, too. The simpler, the better.

Yeah, I use a Jerry Cantrell Wah on a few things because it adds to the solos. If you hit a high note and open up that Wah, it just makes that high note scream. I like that the Cantrell Wah doesn’t have a lot of knobs and stuff that you don’t need.

You, as the guitar player, have to do the work to make that thing sound good. Don’t add all the stuff to it that you don’t need, especially if you have another guitar player in the band would could help cover some of the gaps.

For a long time now, you have been the go-to icon representing women in music and in rock. And now, with players like Annie Clark of St Vincent, women are getting more press now and breaking down those walls. Are you excited to see more women jumping out and getting some of that recognition they deserve?

It’s amazing. It’s just wonderful. It’s an amazing thing, and I really feel grateful that it’s happened. The door was kicked in, and the path has been carved. I’m really glad that I helped to do that. I’m happy to know that I’m going to leave a mark in rock and roll history.

What’s up next for you? You got anything exciting in the next year that you want to talk about?

We’re working on a signature clothing line called Lita Ford’s Kiss Me Deadly Apparel and Accessories. My main focus right now, though, is the new album I’m working on, which is badass. So stay tuned for that!


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