Joe Perry Talks Guitars, Solos, and Aerosmith’s Future

Several weeks ago we spoke with Joe Perry about his new autobiography, Rocks: My Life in and Out of Aerosmith. In the ensuing weeks, the book rocketed onto the New York Times Book Reviews’ best seller list, and just recently that same publication hailed the memoir for its disarming candor and evocative portrait of the rock and roll lifestyle.

Last week the legendary guitarist released a Christmas EP, with the promise of more solo material to come. In our follow-up interview, Perry talks about his approach to solos, his beloved “Billie” Gibson guitar, and whether or not fans can expect a new Aerosmith album anytime soon.

What distinguishes your guitar sound from that of other players?

I’m always wanting a little more of this, a little more of that—making adjustments all the time. Some guys find one sound and stick with that. But I think because I like different kinds of music and different kinds of rock and roll—and because our songs have such a variety of vibes—I use a lot of different tones. It’s funny, I was trying to find a certain sound for myself when we made our first album. I thought once I got in the studio I could do that—make things a little richer, or a little fatter–but it didn’t work that way. I had never been in a studio before and I was naïve. It was all new to me. What I found was that my voice on the guitar varied according to each song. That’s actually how I do it to this day. None of us were happy with how that first album sounded. We were just learning our chops in the studio, discovering what Aerosmith sounds like on an album.

Has the way you approach solos changed through the years, live and in the studio?

I feel I’ve gotten better technically. That’s given me a bit more to work with. But mostly it’s about trying to steer clear of those standard riffs you use to practice, or to warm up with, and really try to focus on something that works melodically. It’s like a vocalist who’s looking for a melody to sing over a riff, or maybe even with the riff. That’s how I go at it for most songs. Obviously there are some songs where you just cut loose and don’t plan things out, because the song calls for that. But whenever I sit down and actually craft a solo—put riffs together—it’s always new ground. The goal is to give the song something different, create something no one has heard before.

How do you go about practicing, these days?

I make sure to at least keep the basic stuff going. There are things I do every couple of days, even if I’m in a mood where I don’t want to touch the guitar. I’ll either practice with a metronome–work with a rhythm going all the time–or else I’ll “free riff,” and when I find something I can’t play, I stay on that until I can play it. But that’s really it, as far as practice goes.

How important to you is your “Billie” guitar, your modified B.B. King “Lucille”?

It’s my “go to” guitar in an Aerosmith live situation, because it’s so versatile. I can get a really chime-y sound out of it, without much trouble at all. And because it’s wired pretty standard and it has P-90s, it’s pretty easy to get a great lead tone out of it as well

Tell us about the modifications.

It started off originally as a “Lucille”—the B.B. King model–but I wanted it without the f-holes. I wanted the most space possible for the artwork, without a lot of knobs and things like that. I love the shape—that’s probably my favorite shape for a guitar. It’s rare that you get a guitar with a design you love—get it designed and made—and then actually have it sound great as well. I really lucked out with the “Billie” guitar. Even if my wife’s picture wasn’t on it, it would still be my go-to guitar. It probably has a fraction less output than a Les Paul, but that gives me a little more tone, I think, especially when I turn it down.

How did this year’s Let Rock Rule tour compare with other tours?

It was good, but also a bit bizarre. There was a terrible mining accident in Istanbul, when we were supposed to do our first gig. Around three hundred people died—really horrible. And then we had to cancel a date in Kiev, because of the riots there. When we got to the States things went more smoothly, except for Joey almost having a heart attack in the middle of the tour. He was feeling wasted after every song. We’d say to him, “Hey Joey, how ya doin’?” and he would be like, “Man, I’m dyin’.” He thought it was his stomach. He went in to get checked and the doctors determined he needed heart surgery, or else he could have a heart attack. Fortunately it wasn’t one of the big arteries—but still it was his heart, so we were freaking out. He was in good shape, working out all the time and eating well, so it had to be something genetic. Ten days after the surgery he was back on the drums, playing like he was ten years younger. I still can’t believe it.

Will there be another Aerosmith album at some point?

I have to think so, although I don’t know when. Steven has announced he’s doing a solo album—he’ll be probably be involved with that during January, February and March of next year. That doesn’t leave us much time to go into the studio. And I know if I were doing a solo album, like he is, I would want to schedule some time to promote it. But all of us are on-board whenever we decide to do something together again. We’ll probably get together in January to meet and discuss when we want to go out on the road again. We’ll see what happens.

By Russell Hall for Gibson