Guitars 1,2,& 3 / The Story Of The WZ Guitar / Chris’ Room

|July 16, 2011 | Gear, Photos Of J.Yuenger, White Zombie

Since you asked, a lot, here’s my White Zombie early guitar timeline :

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Guitar #1. Gibson Firebird : purchased for $200 at the south side Guitar Center, Chicago, in 1986. At some point it had been stripped of its finish and covered with white latex house paint, its metal parts were corroded, and it had been played a LOT. The serial number was long gone, but it had trapezoid fret markers, full-size humbuckers, banjo tuners, extra-thin headstock, and it came with its original case – black tolex, white logo, purple velvet interior – so, a 1972-1979 Firebird V.

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At that time, electric guitars weren’t really collectible unless they were rare variants (I remember that there were certain Fenders which had a particular cachet ; custom colors with matching headstocks were desirable, as were Jazzmasters and Jazz Basses with block inlays and reverse maple necks.), had originally been very fancy and expensive, or were particularly good players. Les Pauls could push an amp the hardest, especially if you raised the pickups as far as they would go, so those were good. Everything else was just an old guitar, which you could buy at a pawn shop. Look at photos of bands from the 80s ; rockabilly guys had beautiful old Gretsches, which nobody else wanted. Metal players routed out 1960s Stratocasters to install locking tremolo systems and active pickups.

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This guitar, while it looked like it had been stored in a basement in Manila (or underwater, possibly), was within my meager budget, and it had that voodoo quality that you learn to recognize after you’ve been playing for a while : you can pick up a guitar, and by the heft and balance of it, the way it feels in your hands, the way the wood resonates when you tap it — you just know when you’ve got a good one. You don’t have to plug it in. You don’t even have to play a note.

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I tossed all the hardware except the pickups and tuners (I know, I know, but remember, that stuff wasn’t worth anything in 1986), stripped the latex off, and spent days carefully applying thin coats of dark blue spray paint. I got a new black pickguard, chrome tailpiece and tune-o-matic bridge, knurled chrome knobs, and I had it all put together at a little guitar store in my neighborhood (I cringe, now, to think of how I used to bug the guys who worked there, but what else was there to do? All the boys and girls who want to be in bands still do the same thing) and it looked great, triggering a collective ooooh every time I took it out. It sounded great, and it was unbelievably easy to play. A keeper.

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I moved to New York at the end of 1987, sat out the following year (worked, took the bus, failed to meet anyone who wanted to start a band, wrote long letters to dispersed friends, went to CBGB by myself), and joined White Zombie in the beginning of 1989. I quickly acquired a more suitable pointy-headstock-and-locking-tremolo guitar (see Guitar #2), but the Firebird served as my on-stage spare through early 1990, when the headstock snapped on the way back from our first European tour.

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1990-91 : we played shows, hustled, got signed, recorded La Sexorcisto, moved to Los Angeles. We brought what we could fit in the van, which, outside of (functioning) gear, wasn’t much. Our friend Damien (the character in the Thunderkiss video in long johns and skull mask, that’s Damien) lived with his grandparents in a big apartment in Brooklyn, where he let me store my meager stuff – the Firebird, a few crates of LPs, some books. The building burned down a couple of months later, destroying everything. As far as I know, there is no surviving photograph of that guitar, either in its original blue/black/chrome incarnation, or after Rob and Sean covered it in glittery/prismatic silver, red, and green flames.

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Guitar #2. Charvel 6 : known to fans as the STP guitar, or, 666 guitar.

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This:

White Zombie - L'amour-1990

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Basically a made-in-Japan version of a Jackson soloist. It has a faintly clunky, slightly miniature quality that an actual U.S.A Jackson doesn’t, but it is totally playable. Features include neck-through construction, bound neck and headstock, Jackson-licensed Floyd Rose (with a snap-in whammy bar that you were sure to lose), Jackson humbucker and two singles (everybody who bought one of these replaced them). It came with a funny silver plastic case that looked like a NASA equipment container.

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In February 1989, right after I joined the band, Sam Ash (or was it Manny’s?) on 48th St. got a big shipment of these and blew them out for $350. Sean and I went up there together and I bought one, and she bought the matching Charvel bass. Now that I think about it, half the bands around then in NYC (Prong, Biohazard, Lunachicks, and more) had one of these on-sale model 6s, or some other inexpensive Charvel. At that time, people didn’t want Gibsons or Fenders, which seemed old fashioned, or cheap garage-band guitars, which everybody appreciated but which were strictly for display. They wanted high-functioning heavy metal guitars, hot-rod parts strats, pointy headstocks. Install a better pickup, cover your guitar with stickers, get your strings good and stretched-out the night before the gig. Go!

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There’s not much to say about this one, except that it was solid, a workhorse, sounded pretty good, and was my main guitar from my first show with WZ through my first tour (USA, Summer 1989), second tour (Europe, Winter 1989-1990), recording of La Sexorcisto, and the first half or so of the tour for that album. I didn’t do anything to it except drop an EMG 81 into the bridge and an EMG single into the neck (I left the middle rout empty) - there were mini on/off switches for each pickup, which I thought was dumb, so I installed a Gibson-style 3-way selector. I’ve been asked many times if the White Zombie logo on the headstock is a custom inlay. It’s a sticker, and the question always surprises me, because I had no more access, at that time, to a skilled luthier than I did to a spaceship.

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A funny thing about a guitar with a locking tremolo system is that it will often stay in tune better than one with a standard stop-tailpiece (how d’you like that G string, Gibson players?). However, restringing is a drawn-out, even stressful ordeal (you get used to it, but it sucks) and the bridge sometimes requires a daily bit of adjustment to perform really well. I didn’t have a guitar tech until much later, and I didn’t have access to the wealth of information available today about every aspect of guitar maintenance – and I sure didn’t know much about set-up and intonation ; I just wanted the thing to be stable and play in tune, so I put a block behind the trem – actually a piece of hard rubber, so you could pull back just a tiny bit, but basically just dive forward. In 1992, we played MTV host Riki Rachtman’s birthday party at The Palace in Hollywood, as did Pantera. They used our gear because their stuff was somewhere else, and Darrell couldn’t do any of his signature whammy-squeal-harmonic tricks with my guitar, which I’m sure seemed like a toy to him. He reacted with characteristic good humor, but kept catching my eye with a “What the FUCK am I supposed to do with this thing?” look. There’s a photo, somewhere.

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What stands out in my mind about that period is how much I didn’t know about my gear, which I was using every day, traveling with, depending on. My Firebird broke in the cargo hold of an airplane because I had no idea you’re supposed to loosen a guitar’s strings when flying. The first time I played in L.A., my Charvel 6 mysteriously stopped working and I had to finish the set with the Firebird (which sounded pretty good, actually). The next day, I was .. to put it lightly, concerned, and L7′s Jennifer Finch, who was kindly showing us around, said, “Well, when’s the last time you changed the battery?” — I was like, “There’s a .. battery?” – I had no idea what ‘active pickup’ meant. In the studio, during the recording of La Sexorcisto, the tubes in my JCM-800 started to glow superhot and then the amp blew —  Oh no, what have I done to this thing? Producer Andy Wallace said, “When’s the last time you changed your tubes?” — I had no idea tubes don’t last indefinitely. You can hear a marked difference in tone between the songs on the album recorded pre-and-post amplifier meltdown. Thunderkiss ’65, appropriately, features the sound of a Marshall that’s about to explode.

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Guitar #3. The WZ guitar : the guitar from the Thunderkiss ’65 video, subject of much speculation, email, and more than one drunken late-night phone call. Lent to the Hard Rock Cafe in the 1990s, finally purchased by them in the 2000s. Spotted in various locations around the world.

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This, in a photo I found on Flickr :

Hard Rock 2

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In early 1990, the cracking of the Firebird’s headstock forced me to get serious about finding a spare. It would need to be a metal guitar, with a Floyd, but being able to afford something like that, used, even, was out of the question. The Kramer Focus body I’d gotten from my friend Chris for $30 two years previous was an option. On the back of the photo below, which Chris sent me soon after I left Chicago, he wrote (under the banner “Feeling homesick yet?”) : “More about Kramer : I feel some words of praise for Mr.Floyd Rose are in order. Even though the headstock broke off months ago, the guitar is still in tune and playable!”

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Chris

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I met Chris through the Chicago hardcore scene, and during the period where my contemporaries and I were drifting away from punk, then leaving it behind entirely, then scattering to go to college, work, or off to something else, we were inseparable. We both dropped out of school at the same time. I lent him my guitar, which he proceeded to learn how to play better than I could in about 6 weeks. He got me a job at the photo lab where he worked (the contraband-containing metal Kodak film can, see it?), which allowed me to save up enough money – so I thought – to move to NYC. We consumed music voraciously (not only Metallica, Slayer, Venom, the metal bands we were obsessed with, but everything - notice the Residents LP), which we listened to on cheap turntables through big 3-way speakers made of chipboard. Here are guitars (the broken Kramer, to the left, and an early 80s Hamer Special, a common sight in Illinois pawn shops then), and several items that are particularly evocative of the era ; shelves made from stolen milk crates, empty Augsburger bottles, guitar tab books.

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I collected some really excellent prismatic hot rod stickers at swap meets (unless we had to get somewhere fast, we always pulled the van over and went to flea markets), which I plastered on the Kramer and sealed down with a layer of urethane. I bought a neck from the ESP shop on 48th St., begged and borrowed other parts, and cobbled everything together. I got an EMG pickup and pots and installed them myself (my first attempt at doing my own soldering), not that I knew how, but I copied the wiring from my Charvel, and it worked. The assembled guitar didn’t intonate correctly, and thus was never quite in tune, and my main guitar hardly ever broke strings (I mean, like, never) so I probably only played it once or twice on stage, although it did make an appearance in some early experiments with tuning down in 1992-93. The guitar tracks on La Sexorcisto are 99% the same set-up : Charvel 6 → Pro-Co Rat → Marshall, but I did use the WZ guitar, which had a twangier sound, for some leads and overdubs : for example, check out the little tri-tone symphony that happens in Starface from 3:24 to 3:40.

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As for Chris, he stayed in Chicago and formed a band which was about as different from mine as possible. Trenchmouth ( I did a vinyl-grab of a track I particularly like back in February, which is here) were an indie – that meant something, then – group who evolved from a muscular postpunk sound (think Dischord Records, kind of) into something else that I really can’t pigeonhole : a trippy, dub-inflected, acience fiction vibe that was groovy yet angular (I know that’s not saying anything, I guess you’ll just have to go listen to them). This was the grunge era, yet they were spiffy guys who somehow kept their suits presentable on van tours. I ran into them from time to time. They slept on my floor once, in L.A., and they played me heavy dub and electronic records, music totally outside of my experience. Today, in a widening of divergent paths, Chris, who I talk to occasionally, is a chemistry professor.