About halfway through my call with hard rock icon Lita Ford, she asks me what the deal is with the name “She Shreds.”
I can understand why she is skeptical about it, especially without prior knowledge of the publication. Recently, another guitar magazine told her they were going to run an article about her in what she referred to as, “their female section.” No matter that Ford has a music career spanning four decades, helped to pioneer punk rock as a teenager in the 1970s as the lead guitarist of The Runways, became a multi-platinum-selling, world-famous solo artist in the 1980s, and has been nicknamed “the Queen of Metal” for her artistic prowess. As of spring, 2016 she still experiences marginalization of her talents based on her gender.
This year Ford is in the spotlight in a big way, having recently-released a memoir, Living Like a Runaway (Dey Street Books), as well as her eighth album as a solo artist, Time Capsule (SPV/Steamhammer). “It’s a busy year and I’m very excited about it, you know? I love to keep busy and I love all this great stuff,” she said.
As one might expect from such a badass, Living Like a Runaway is a no-holds barred look into an incredible life and music career. Starting from her happy childhood and close-knit relationships with her parents (who would remain her bedrock), her days with the Runaways and subsequent rise to solo fame in the 80s, through a turbulent, isolating marriage that she broke free of in 2011, though but not without heartbreaking consequences as she was alienated from her two young sons. Although raw and uncompromising, Ford mixes in plenty of tenderness and humor, and while the book has caught attention for her tales of rock ‘n’ roll excess (and especially her rock ‘n’ roll love life), her insight into love, music, and triumph over obstacles are what makes it an especially compelling read.
She Shreds caught up with Ford from her home in California. She had just returned from a national book tour for Living Like a Runaway. Next up, tour prep for an arena run with Halestorm in support of Time Capsule. We spoke at length about the memoir and the response she’s gotten from it, the art of reinvention, and then got a lesson on shredding from the Queen of Metal herself. A condensed version of our interview follows:
She Shreds: What is some of the feedback you’ve gotten about your memoir either from people who are excited about it, or people who already had the chance?
Lita Ford: There are so many different [responses]. I’ve gotten wackos—of course in the New York Post, the first thing they do is pick out the sex. “Ok, She did this guy, this guy, this guy…” It’s like “great.” I figured that much, that there would be this chauvinistic [reaction] and they would miss the subject of the book entirely. But I’ve had girls come up to me, too. A couple of girls came up to me at the last book signing in Denver and they said they had struggled their entire lives with child abuse, and that they didn’t know what a real life was like, they didn’t know they could go out and be someone as a female until they discovered my Dancing on the Edge album. That was years ago, but because of the book tour they came to me to have the book signed, and they told me about their experiences growing up, and how much it has helped them and changed their lives.
That’s really amazing. A lot of things you have dealt with in your life are things that so many women have dealt with. I know the word “brave” is a cliche, but at the same time, to be so personal and open about these experiences is meaningful to a lot of people.
Good. I was scared at first. I didn’t know what to expect.
You mentioned the New York Post making this sex expose about the book. There’s actually been a lot of press that’s focused on your love life but to me, the thing that stood out more was this dual idea of female sexuality and how it affected your career, whether it was a marketing tool putting the Runaways together as these “hot teenage girls” and later developing this sexual image as a solo artist. Then also getting negative feedback from it where stores were afraid to carry your records or having “Hungry” (For Your Sex) banned from the radio. Do you think that double standard still hold true for women?
No, I don’t think it holds true for women. Not anymore. I think if I had been a guy and released “Hungry” I it would have gotten airplay and it would have been fine. I think that was a chauvinistic thing that happened. When the first rappers that came out from Compton, they came up with some stuff that was really sexually explicit and I thought, “How are they getting away from it, but they won’t play ‘Hungry For Your Sex?'” All it says in the song is “I’m so hungry for your sex. I want to fill the sting. I want to taste your sweet thing.” That’s it! That’s as sexual as it gets. “How do you like that pussycat scratch?” I mean, come on. Really?
Even the Beatles hinted around that much. That’s crazy.
I don’t know. It was just one hurdle I had to jump through. And then the album cover was banned because…It was so stupid. They banned the album cover because of the blood on the guitar. Because they said, “Well, Walmart is not going to carry this with blood on the guitar.” I was like, “It’s a guitar.” It’s not real. It’s just airbrushed in there, but nobody said anything about the fact that I didn’t have any pants on. I’m wearing a leather g-string on the album cover.
Do you think that was the real reason then? The blood?
I don’t know. There was something about that cover and they just blamed it on the blood on the guitar. It could have been a number of things. It was just bizarre. Today no one would take a second guess, you know?
When you reinvented yourself as a solo artist after the Runaways split, your new image seemed to stick it back to these people that had criticized the Runaways for being too sexual or writing off your guitar playing as a novelty. How did you deal with people overlooking your talent in those days or taking credit for your work? How did you turn that into a strength?
I just kept plodding through and didn’t let anything discourage me. As a matter of fact, sometimes stuff like that makes you stronger, like that Kelly Clarkson song, “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger.” I should have written that. That should have been my song!
That’s definitely a recurring element in your story. This idea of reinvention and not letting things hold you back, whether it was the band breaking up, bad relationships, the loss of your parents, and then really having to rebuild your life when you left your ex-husband. How did your music help you get through these hurdles in your life?
I had a great childhood. I had great parents, as you read in the book, that not something many musicians write about. And I’m a mother, and these other guys aren’t. It’s the basis of what grows up to be something that is confident and strong, but I can also get sucked in. I’m a Virgo, I have a big heart and sometimes that does you wrong. Sometimes bad guys finish first. I think having good parents just really gave me a lot of confidence to move forward in life and never second-guess myself or question anything.
I was brainwashed through my marriage, and even then I never let go of the fact that I am Lita Ford. Even though he would try to talk me out of it. “You’re not a Ford. You’re a Gillette.” I am not a Gillette. I am a Ford. I was born that way and I will always be that way. Nothing changes that; not a piece of paper, not a wedding ring around your finger. You are who you are, and I never let go of that fact. I think parents are what gives somebody their confidence from childhood. In my case, I joined the Runaways at 16 and had my first record out at 17, and I had my parents’ support throughout all of that.
In your book you also wrote a lot about business, and having a bunch of managers that didn’t know what to do with you because you were this anomaly who really didn’t fit the mold. Then things started coming together when you started working with Sharon Osbourne, which also had its ups and downs…
There was a whole other side to that. You know? Then I had to deal with jealousy, or whatever it was I don’t know what it was. Jealousy or suspicion. It was just “wow, what’s going on here?” It was awful.
Do you think because there were so few women [in that scene] at that time that women were sort of pushed towards competition? How different do you think your career would have been if there had been more women in the industry?
Oh yeah. If there were more women it would probably be like today where it isn’t a novelty anymore. Well, it still is because… if you think about it. What is the name of your magazine? She Rocks or something?
See, right there, that is almost chauvinistic. She Shreds. Why do women have their own fucking category? You wouldn’t put Jimi Hendrix in a black man’s category so why do women have to have their own fucking category. It’s just ridiculous. You’re either a guitar player or you’re not. I guess that is a step in the right direction, but next on my “To Do” list is to get rid of the “She.” It’s not just you, though. It’s all over the world. It’s everywhere. A “She” category. I can guarantee that if there was a Grammy Award it would be “Best Female Rock Guitarist.”
That’s a conversation we’ve had a lot. Part of the thought with She Shreds was that there are so many talented musicians that are being overlooked and might continue to be if we don’t create a platform, so why not do it in an informative and intelligent way? Hopefully we are furthering the conversation.
One thing that kept coming up in your book was your favorite guitar pick and how it’s been a constant for you. How important did your pick end up being to your style of playing? In your opinion, how should people find what works for them and their style?
I think you just adapt to it. It’s kind of like what gauge strings you use. I can only talk about the guitar pick I use and why I use it. I’ve always used a home plate-shaped pick. It’s got a really pointy tip on it, and I find that a normal is more rounded than pointed. I need that point–I’ve gotten so used to it that I can’t really play without it.
Your first guitar was a chocolate Gibson SG and from there you started using BC Rich guitars. Do you have any advice for newer guitarists on how to find the right guitar for them or the right tone?
With any new guitar player, they should always keep in mind the style of music they want to play. If they want to play heavy metal, don’t go buy an acoustic guitar. Buy something that shreds, you know? That you’re able to plug into an amplifier. And if you live in an apartment and you can’t play that loud or you gotta keep it quiet in case mom starts yelling at you, then buy something really small. They make these little speakers you can plug into, or even a set of headphones that just plug straight into the guitar.
Always fit the neck to your hand. If you have a small hand, don’t get a big, fat neck. If you have a big hand, don’t get a little, tiny neck. You want to get something that feels right for your hand and your body. Don’t get a great big guitar if you’re a tiny girl. Get one that is smaller. Fit it to yourself and your musical needs.
Do you have any warm-up exercises, whether it’s for playing guitar or for signing 300 books after this call?
I always do a minor scale backwards and just play that over and over, and I just hit a few chords and bend a few notes. If we have time, we go backstage before the show and play, on electric guitar but not plugged in, we’ll play 3-4 songs of the songs out of the set. It’s a good way to get your voice warmed up, so you actually sing out at full volume and all the crap from the night before comes out, rather than onstage during the first song. I think it’s better to clear your pipes and warm up for at least five minutes before you go on stage. If you can break a sweat it’s even better. Definitely.
It’s like walking into the gym before a workout. You don’t go straight for the heaviest weight in the room. Then, when you hit the stage you are at full volume and you are ready for it. And [to prepare] mentally, kick everyone out of the dressing room. I don’t care if it’s your mother. Kick them out and really focus on what you’re about to do, what you’re about to take over, and the people, and what you’re going to say between songs. You’re stepping into another world.
That’s great advice. It can be harder for people playing places without a back stage.
Find a place. Use the bathroom. Kick everyone out. Sit in your car and do it. There is always a place, even outside, as long as it is not raining or snowing. Just find a place to play. You don’t have to be in a dressing room to hold your guitar. You can stand behind the curtains and do it.
So, now that your book tour is over you’re going on tour for your new record, Time Capsule.
Yeah! We’re doing a tour with Halestorm and we’re releasing the Time Capsule on April 15. Tax Day.
The album contains a lot of material from your archives and there are many collaborators and friends on it. What are the most important elements that make for a great collaboration? Over the years whether it was jamming with Ritchie Blackmore or anyone else, what are some unexpected things you’ve taught other guitar players or learned through collaborating?
I taught [Judas Priest guitarist] Glenn Tipton how to use a harder pick. We both looked at each other and laughed. He uses a medium-soft pick, and for my liking it was very bendy and had no attack, so I suggested he use a harder pick. I don’t know if he ever did, but he probably thought about it. Maybe he switched, I don’t know. He heard me loud and clear, that’s for sure! We both laughed.
Steve Hunter from Alice Cooper’s band taught me how to change a guitar string really quickly. He came to one of the Runaways shows and was watching us and my string broke. At the time I didn’t have anyone to change it. We had no tech. He took my guitar and I said, “You can’t take my guitar! We’re in the middle of a show.” Because I had my other guitar, an Explorer with me. And he said, “Check this out!” He comes out on stage and he gets the audience to count to sixty and said, “By the time you count to sixty, I will have changed and tuned and stretched this string.” The audience starts to count, “One, two, three…” as soon as they get to sixty, BOOM, he’s done. String is changed. The end is not clipped off, it’s still hanging, but it looks pretty cool hanging, and it’s in tune.
And he made it part of the show.
Yeah, he made it part of the show. It was great! He ties the string into little fishing knots so it doesn’t slip when you wrap it around the machine heads. He folds it over and latches it, and then he rolls it tight.
You’re touring with Halestorm this spring. Do you listen to a lot of contemporary hard rock and metal? What are your thoughts on how the genre has really progressed over time?
There are a lot more women right now, which is great to see. I don’t particularly care for the electronical stuff. I prefer recording the way we used to record. It doesn’t affect it too much, but I try to stay as true as I can to a real guitar playing or a real band sound without using too many click tracks and electronical devices. I like to stay as true as possible.