Feature Interview: Joe Perry Talks Riffs, Guitars, and the Future of Hollywood Vampires
Hard to believe, but nearly a half-century has passed since Joe Perry partnered with Steven Tyler to form the songwriting core of Aerosmith. The Boston-based rockers have been on a sabbatical of late, but during the downtime, Perry has involved himself in several projects. Most notably, the veteran guitarist recently wrapped up a tour performing with the Hollywood Vampires – a “supergroup” named after Alice Cooper’s notorious group of ‘70s drinking buddies. Comprised of Cooper, Perry, Johnny Depp, Matt Sorum, Tommy Henriksen, Robert DeLeo and Bruce Witkin, the Vampires also recorded an album that mixed three original songs with cover versions of period-specific classics. We spoke with Perry before the tour got underway, and then followed up with him after he came off the road.
Can you share with us a couple of memorable happy moments — on-stage or off-stage — from the Vampires tour?
We played up North at a winery, a beautiful spot on top of a mountain. As we were climbing the hill in my bus we had to deal with all the people driving down from a wine-tasting. It took over a half hour to get up the hill, but it was worth it — one of the best shows of the tour. It was also great getting to watch Johnny cut loose and show everyone what he is made of.
Photo by Ross Halfin
You were working on a solo project before going out with the Vampires. Is that still on the table?
It’s in the can right now. I just need to polish it up a bit more. I’m looking to release some of it in the new year.
Let’s talk guitar-playing a bit. You’re naturally left-handed. Are you happy, in retrospect, that you opted to play right-handed?
I’m probably in the middle on that point. My first inclination was to play left-handed — that felt natural — but I just assumed holding the guitar in the right-hand position was the correct way. I didn’t know anyone who played left-handed, and I wasn’t aware of any professional musicians who played left-handed. There was no one I could look to and say, “Hey, is it okay if I play this way?” All the instructions I had seen said to play with the neck in my left hand and the plectrum in the right. I don’t know if playing right-handed has worked in my favor, or if it worked against me. At one point I did spend a couple of months trying to learn to play left-handed, but in the end felt it best to keep on the path I was already on, rather than start from scratch.
Who is your biggest influence on guitar?
Probably Jeff Beck. He’s so verbal with the way he plays. I could tell he had paid attention to a lot of vocalists, in the way he phrases his licks. It’s based so much on melody. Certainly he gets “out there” sometimes — he’s a flashy guitar-player and can show off his technical abilities — but he doesn’t lose sight of the fact that being able to play a melody, using just three or four notes, can be just as impactful as being able to rip up and down the neck in fifteen seconds. Beck-Ola was probably the album that influenced me most.
What was the first record you ever bought with your own money?
Actually that was Little Deuce Coupe, by the Beach Boys.
When did you find your voice on guitar?
I got that feeling within a few weeks of owning my first guitar. But that said, I’m still looking for a voice, continually looking. I’m always wanting a little more of this, a little more of that – making adjustments all the time. What I’ve found, going back to the first Aerosmith album, is that my voice on the guitar varies with each song.
Has the way you approach solos changed through the years, live and in the studio?
I feel I’ve gotten better technically, something that’s given me a bit more to work with. But mostly it’s always been about trying to steer clear of those standard riffs you use to practice, to warm up with, and really try to focus on something that works melodically. It’s just like a vocalist who’s looking for a melody to sing over the riff, or maybe even with a riff. That’s how I go at it for most songs. The goal is to give the song something different, create something no one’s heard before.
Who was the first band or artist you ever saw live in-concert?
The Dave Clark Five. They were at The Armory in Boston.
What was the music scene like in Boston when you were coming up with Aerosmith?
The J. Geils Band ruled the roost. We were just young upstarts.
Do you still think of Aerosmith primarily as a live band?
Of course. We love being in the studio, but to me it always feels like we’re working on the album so that we can get on the road. I suppose the two are equal, as far as the job description goes, but I’ve always felt each record is like an advertisement for the band, to come and see us play live
Is taking time away from Aerosmith good for you and the other guys, in the sense that it allows you to come back with fresh ideas?
That’s the whole point of taking time off.
What’s your favorite guitar to play on-stage or in the studio?
At the moment, I would say my Echo Park guitars … but then a Les Paul feels like home to me.
What gives a riff real staying power, or turns it into something for the ages?
I think it’s something that people can sort of sing along to. It depends on who it is, but for the average fan, who are really the people you’re playing for, it’s something that’s memorable. When you listen back, say, to The Ventures, or to Duane Eddy, or other popular instrumentalists, those were really simple riffs, from a guitar player’s point of view. One of the greatest examples is the original “Batman” theme song. It’s just three notes, but if you hum that, everyone knows what it is. Everyone who grew up in that era recognizes it. Or the theme to “Bonanza,” or “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.” Those are really simple riffs, but they’re so unique.
Do you still have lots of great riffs in you?
That’s why I keep making solo records. I’m still searching for those things. I’ve still got lots of riffs inside me, and lots of riffs on my iPhone. (laughs) They need to get transferred onto some kind of recording format with some bass and drums.
Is there a single album that’s remained especially relevant for you? Or maybe one album that, if there were just one copy left, you would pay any price for?
That’s a tough one. I would have to say the first couple of Jeff Beck records, the first couple of Hendrix records, and of course Led Zeppelin. I can’t narrow that decision down to a single album today.
How about someone you would especially like to collaborate with?
One last question: Is it likely the Hollywood Vampires will record together again?
I’m not sure, but we do have a charity show happening in December. I’m looking forward to that.
By The Musician’s Ear