First Lady of Metal

Interview by Paul Guy for FUZZ # 3/2001

(Text © Paul Guy 2001)

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Jennifer Batten

"It's a man's world", according to James Brown - and the guitar world is surely one of the most male-dominated of all worlds. "Guitar hero" is a title which, until now, as if by some law of nature, has been reserved exclusively for men. Female rock guitar players have had to struggle twice as hard as their male counterparts to gain any measure of recognition, and very few have succeeded in breaking down the walls of sexual stereotype which surround the rock business. It seems totally incredible, though, that even Jennifer Batten, one of the most accomplished guitar players I have ever seen, has had to deal with this problem.

Rumours about Jennifer's incredible technique and passionate style began circulating back at the beginning of the 80's. Her transcriptions and performances of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" (for "Guitar For The Practising Musician") and Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight Of The Bumblebee" (for Guitar Player) gained her an enormous respect among her colleagues, which was further reinforced when she was hired as a teacher at the renowned "Guitar Institute of Technology" in Los Angeles. (Jennifer was the first female student to graduate from GIT, in 1978.)

Jennifer played in six different bands at once for one period , running the gamut from jazz to rock, funk, fusion and metal. Her big break came in 1987, when, in competition with over 100 other guitarists, she was chosen to play in Michael Jackson's band. Jennifer did three gigantic world tours with Jackson. Her two solo albums - "Above, Below and Beyond" and "Momentum" (with "Jennifer Batten's Tribal Rage") were recorded in the pauses between tours.

In the spring of 1998 Jeff Beck invited Jennifer to join his group. The group has toured in the USA, Europe and Japan since then, and recorded Beck's album "Who Else". At the time of writing Beck and Batten - with Randy and Andy (bass player Randy Hope-Taylor and drummer Andy Gangadeen) are in rehearsal for a new American tour in support of Beck's latest album, "You Had It Coming."

Hi, Jennifer, how are you doing?

- I’m doing great!

Yeah, you’ve got the dream gig, haven’t you!

- I sure do, I can’t complain about that, boy!

(Small talk...)

When did you get your first guitar?

- Eight years old. I got it for Christmas, I think - it was really cool, it was an electric, and red and blue, and I thought it was the coolest thing on the block. Cause most kids get acoustic guitars for their first, and I was into electric bands already.

Do you remember what make it was?

- No, I don’t. I think it was something from Sears, or some big chain.

What really made you want to start playing the guitar?

- My sister had one, and I didn’t! It was jealousy from the start. And the Beatles, and the Monkees, and bands like that - I was into like the teenybop scene for a minute.

You’ve been into that again recently, haven’t you?

- Oh! Britney Spears... Yeah... How did you hear about that?

Jeff told me...

- Oh! (Laughs) Yeah - it was a cool tune that she did though, we did a real rocked-out version of that. It was kind of a Mad Max-looking kind of set. It was pretty fun.

Jeff said, ”They dolled her all up...”

- Oh yeah - (laughs) - they had a wig on me, and they cut it up to look like cotton candy.

So you started off with the Beatles, and stuff like that, then?

- Yeah - when I got my first guitar I started taking lessons right away, so I learned how to read. It was more reading out of books for the first few years of lessons, and then copying what was on the radio, which I probably would have preferred to do, but that’s what the teachers taught me.

I wish I had learned that way in the beginning, really.

- Yeah, it’s actually better to learn to read early, before you find out how painful it is! I think it’s a lot more painful as you get older.

When did you start playing in public?

- Oh God - it actually wasn’t until after I went to the Guitar Institute in ’79.

You were an instructor at GIT, weren’t you?

- Yeah, but it wasn’t until years after I graduated.

When did you start tapping?

- Um - God - it was towards the end of the year at the Guitar Institute, cause a buddy of mine who was a fellow student, Steve Lynch, really got into it - he saw a seminar by Emmett Chapman, the guy who invented The Stick. He just decided that rather than learn a new instrument, he would try it on guitar, and I thought the stuff he was doing was really outrageous. Eventually he wrote a book about it, and I just tore through that cover to cover, learned everything that was in it, and started expanding and seeing what I could do from there.

You wrote a book about it yourself.

- Yeah. That was kind of the expansion of what I had learned. I was so into it when I first got into it that I ended up with blisters on all my fingers. Kind of overdid it at first.

What was your first professional band?

- God! That’s a blast from the past... The first professional thing I did was a jazz guitar duet with another guy at some hippie restaurant - reading jazz standards out of The Real Book. I was in a bunch of bands in San Diego for a while, and ended up with one that I stayed with for about three years or more. We went through different things - doing Top 40 rock, and fusion - when I first met them, they were doing fusion. Then we ended up doing weddings one summer, we just ran the gamut. And then we started writing original songs, and broke up! (Laughs) And then we all, one by one, moved to Los Angeles.

Are you from California yourself?

- I was born in upstate New York, but the family moved west when I was nine.

Your project that you were working on before you joined up with Jeff, Tribal Rage, is that in mothballs right now?

- Yes, the band itself - they’ve gone off and done other things, but I’m working on a new record of my own right now, and it’s mostly the stuff I wrote for Jeff that didn’t make the record - God, I wrote at least twenty songs, in the last couple of years, for him. So if I get enough time at home - I mean, all the songs are written, I just need to record them right.

Who have been your biggest influences in your career?

- Well - Number One is my boss, Jeff... early on it was like B.B. King, and Duane Allman - I really got into a heavy blues period for quite a while there. And then in the ’80’s I loved Van Halen, I learned a lot of that stuff, and George Lynch.

How long have you been working with Washburn?

- It’s been at least four years now - I joined them just before I went on last Jackson tour, which was in ’97. So maybe even as early as ’96, I switched over. I was with Ibanez before, and I went through seven guitars with seven warped necks, and it got pretty frustrating, so I decided I needed to tap into a new forest. The Washburns have been a lot more reliable - the model I’m using has a built-in neck, so it’s a real smooth transition from the neck to the body, and they’re equipped with synth pickups - that’s something I just started when I joined Jeff.

Oh! I though you’d been doing that a lot longer...

- No - I thought the synthesizer was just crap, pretty useless - I messed around with it a little bit, but I never used it live - so it was really a trial by fire when I got in this band. Cause I thought there was going to be a keyboard player, and when I found out I was it, I figured I’d better get that side together!

Jeff was saying ”She’s amazing! She’s got this huge rack of stuff, it’s like operating 15 sewing machines all at once!”

- (Laughs) It’s a pretty ridiculous rig, it’s really two people’s rigs.

Can you give me a description?

- Actually it looks like a lot more gear than it is, because I’ve doubled up on everything, in case something blows up. For the synth side I’m using a Roland GI-10 MIDI converter, into the JV-1080 for sounds, and that’s pretty much it. I’ve got two volume pedals - there’s a couple of songs I bring a second sound into at one point - and MIDI switchers for each system, for the guitar system and the synthesizer. I started out with one system that was faster triggering, but it was so unreliable it was driving me to drink. So I ended up with the Roland, which is a lot more reliable, but just a little slower.

Do you ever play nylon-strung guitar at all?

- When I went to GIT, yeah - they had a classical course, but not since then. I like little necks, litte sissy necks.

Have you got small hands?

- Well - girl hands, let’s just put it that way! (Laughs)

Jeff hasn’t really got such enormous hands either, has he?

- They’re not really long, but they’re bulky.

Are those actually his own hands on the new album cover?

- Yeah, those are his - all covered in car grease!

How did you actually meet Jeff?

- I tracked him down. It was on the ’92 Michael Jackson ”Dangerous” tour. On the first tour, the ”Bad” tour, there was a guy in the band who said he knew him, and he would introduce us, but he never did - so I thought ”Damn it, on this tour, that’s the one thing I want to have happening this year, is that I just meet him.” So I invited him to a show, and of course it was one of the many shows that tour that Michael cancelled. The two openers went on, and then Michael decided he was sick. So Jeff had just pulled in, and they turned him away - so I called him up, and hooked up to meet him next day in the studio, he was doing the Playboys record. I just wanted to meet him - I just hung out in the studio for a couple of hours, and I gave him my CD, and I didn’t think he’d ever listen to it, but three or four months later, he gave me a call, and said ”Let’s do a record together” - so I just shit my pants! (Laughs)

Well, you would, wouldn’t you! ”Er - OK, give me a couple of years to practice...”

- Well, he did, actually - it was five years later when we hooked up. But that’s Beck time, though - when he wants to do something - years could pass. We’re just keeping our fingers crossed that this thing keeps going.

So is everybody else, I’m telling you. Christ, I’ve missed that guy. Five or ten years between records - ”Hey, get out from underneath that car, man!” Mind you, I’ve seen some pictures of some of his rods, he’s as good at that as he is at playing the guitar.

- Yeah - he’s good at everything - he’s a gourmet cook, too. He takes his cooking as seriously as his playing - it’s pretty funny, he can get really upset about garlic or something! (Laughs)

Is he still a vegetarian?

- Yes, he is - I think it’s about 25 years now.

I don’t want you to think this interview’s all about Jeff Beck, but when you talk to someone who plays with him...

- I don’t have a problem with that!

I’ve been listening to Jeff for 35 years, I used to go and see him at the 100 Club in London and places like that...

- Oh, I’m jealous!

Not half as jealous as I am of you! One of my secret ambitions used to be to play rhythm guitar for Jeff Beck... To me he was just the best thing I’d ever seen, he still is.


I’ve seen you do some pretty amazing stuff too - it’s so refreshing to see, I wish there were more women in the rock business really.

- Yes, it’s pretty crazy, it’s so unbalanced still.

It’s really nice to see a girl ripping the fingerboard up like you do, I love it.

- Oh, thanks.

But anyway - back to guitars - you’re really happy with the Washburns?

- Yes - it’s a really different body shape for me, cause when I got it I was playing Strat body shapes, and when I first got this MG series I took one look at it and I thought, ”Oh, I’m not going to like this”, but I put it on, and it just fit like a glove. It felt really comfortable. So I’ve stuck with them ever since, I’ve got half a dozen of them now. My main one has been broken twice - both on the Jeff tour, too. I’ve got this $400 Anvil case to protect it, and something fell on it, and cracked the neck... But I managed to fix that, and then one of the airlines - for ten years I took my guitars on board with me, then this one guy had an attitude, and wouldn’t let me take it on board, and he said he would take responsibility for it - and sure enough, the headstock cracked clear off. And I wanted to talk to him, but he wouldn’t come off the plane, cause he knew I was going to kick his ass! That was very disheartening...

Are you still using Peavey amps?

- No, with Jeff I’m using Marshall. I just called Peavey a couple of days ago and said, ”Ahh - there’s been a change...” I’m just finding a lot more clarity and balls, really. Something about standing next to Jeff really makes you go - ”Mmm - I think I’ll rethink my whole system!” I mean, you know, it’s in his fingers mostly, but... I was using some other stuff, I was also using a Digitech 2101 preamp, and it’s got all the sounds in the world, but it just doesn’t have that direct clarity that’s really important for live. The Marshall has really made a big difference.

Are you using the same model as Jeff?

- I’m using the Marshall 2000, but I’m using the triple Super Lead, cause it’s got separate EQ for the channels.

That’s what surprises me with Jeff, I always thought having the same EQ on your clean and distortion channels was a pain.

- Yeah, well you know, the way his guitar works, he can just seriously roll back the volume on the distortion channel and have a perfectly clean tone. And he doesn’t necessarily switch to the clean channel for a clean sound. I can’t do that.

Mind you, who can do what Jeff Beck does? He’s wicked, that man.

- Yeah! It’s a whole other world, boy.

I’m so jealous of you, being able to see him just practising and stuff.

- It’s a privilege. I’m still pinching myself!

How long have you been using the Feiten system?

- Um - I think it came with the first MG I had - 97, I think, right when he joined with Washburn. So all of my guitars have had that.

Do you find it a big advantage?

- I find that the tuning is better, but I still have problems with it. I’m sure part of it is travelling so much, and having the guitar knocked around, I just need to get it intonated more often than I do. But it’s the best intonation that I’ve ever had. I always had problems - when I was recording, I pretty much tuned to the part of the neck that I was going to be in. It was such a pain in the ass if you were trying to do a whole solo front to back.

Have you ever discussed it with Jeff at all? They always used to say that he never tuned his guitar before he went on stage with the Yardbirds, but you wouldn’t have known it.

- Well, he must have perfect pitch, because if the guitar goes out, he just bends in tune. I never did talk to him about that, because I didn’t think he needed to hear it!

No - his intonation sounds so perfect, you can’t believe it.

- Yep. He’s a god.

It must have been a bit disappointing, you didn’t have too much actual playing input on the new record, did you?

- No, but honestly, when you get a Jeff Beck record, you don’t need another guitar player - there’s really no need for it!

Playing live with him, how much is straight guitar playing and how much is synth guitar?

- I think it’s about 50-50 really - there’s actually more guitar on the new record, so obviously all my parts are rhythm guitar. Except for ”Nadia” - there might be one other that has synth, but it’s mostly guitar on that. But a lot of the older songs - he’s recorded with keyboard players for 30 years, so a lot of the songs need to have synth sounds.

So you put all the string sounds on ”A Day In The Life”, and stuff like that?

- Yeah, I do strings on that, and ”Where Were You”.

How do you concentrate on doing that, when he’s playing that stuff like six feet away from you?

- (Chuckles) - I can’t listen to him the way I would like to, if I were in the audience - I can’t get 100% absorbed in it, because I do have to pay attention to what I’m doing so I don’t fall on my butt - that is the frustrating part of it, but ultimately I’d rather be on stage.

So are you rehearsing for the tour now?

- We just started today. We’re just trying to work out some new ideas, to refresh the set that we did in Japan, spend some time and make it more exciting.

Are you singing any more?

- (Laughs) - One’s enough! I haven’t sung since I was 18, so one song - I’m not too ambitious to get any more! I’m just learning how to sing, really - learning how to do it properly. It’s a whole other thing, boy, there’s no frets to rely on! It’d different, I’m having a lot of fun with it, and I enjoy it, because it’s such a different thing for me. But it really depends on what you’re hearing on the stage - I’m going to try to use the in-ear monitors on the next leg.

Oh, haven’t you been using those up to now? Because Jeff was using them before, wasn’t he?

- He hasn’t since I’ve been with him, he stopped using those.

He said he’s stopped using the white noise earplugs, too.

- Yes, he’s been doing really good in that regard.

That’s good to know, it must be a terrible thing, severe tinnitus. He told me, eighteen months ago, and again last week, that it had almost driven him to suicide...

- (Sadly) Yes.

Jeff said he thought it was the tour with Stevie Ray Vaughan that did it.

- Yes, I’m sure it did.

Stevie Ray was just crazy. Mind you, so was Hendrix. Did you ever see Jimi live?

- Never, no.

I saw him a few times. Once - at the Marquee, I think it was - I stood there with my fingers in my ears. I loved it, but he played so loud, it was ridiculous.

- I saw a Rory Gallagher show like that, that was so loud I just physically got ill and had to leave. It doesn’t have to be like that any more, because you don’t have to turn the amps up loud to get a good sound any more.

What are your plans for the future? Will you stay with Jeff as long as it goes?

- Yeah. (Chuckles) Yeah! In the interims - there are always breaks between legs of tours, and between tours - like I said, I’ve already got a record that’s ready to go, it’s going to be on Steve Vai’s label, Favored Nations, so when I get enough time at home I’ll whip that together. But I would much rather go and play with Jeff than have to screw with my own band. Cause that’s a pain in the ass! (Laughs) It’s dreadful, man, it takes the fun out of music! Worrying about every apect of it, and it’s such a worry if you’re going to make any dough, and all that. Any time I’ve ever taken a band out in the past I’ve always lost money in the end... It’s real expensive, to take people out. If you do it right, anyway.

How long are you going to be rehearsing now, when do you go out on tour?

- I fly back February 7, and then the first date is February 15 in Seattle. And it will be six weeks.

I saw the schedule on the Internet, you’re pretty tightly booked. How do you travel, plane or bus?

- Bus. Bus is a lot nicer. It’s such a drag to have to hassle with airplanes, and waiting around. It’s just nice to get in the bus and have all your junk there to entertain yourself with, and watch videos and stuff.

Jeff was saying that he’s enjoying touring a lot more nowadays when he’s got the sort of people he can have intelligent conversations with.

- (Bursts out laughing) It’s a blast. It’s a real family kind of unit, and everybody’s got a quirky sense of humour. We’re getting along great. And that’s so important on the road, that’s where the real test comes in. You never really know what people are about until you’re strained out there for a month or so.

You’re living in each other’s pockets.

- Yeah. But fortunately I work for somebody who doesn’t like touring that much either, so it’s not like we’re going to be out a year and a half straight. It’s the only way to keep your brain balanced, to come home from time to time and get your feet back on the ground.

And pat the dog, right?

- Yeah, I have two.

Don’t you miss them?

- Yeah, it’s horrible, but I’ve got a guy living at the house who takes care of them, so... I don’t see a way around it at this point. I wish I could e-mail them! I guess the next thing will be, that you can have the virtual thing - put your gloves on and pet them!

Now you came up with something!

- I don’t think it’s all that far away...

© Paul Guy, 2001

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