A Lovely (and savage) Contradiction in the Scale of Blues

By Mario Benito

He’s the most modern musician playing the oldest music. The most primitive blues which through his hands and savage guitar pick — “the hardest he can find”— which he uses to strike the chords on a plastic guitar, turns it into a thing of postmodernist magic with the deconstruction of the newest sound of this new century.    

In 2008, David Guggenheim made a documentary on the different styles and instruments of three great rock guitarists titled It Might Get Loud. The first images show us a strange looking young man, very pale, white, dressed in 30s style from the last century...though not really as such, but more like he reinvented the look himself, with a hat from that time but worn like nobody would have worn it then. His very black hair against the white face, long in the front and sides but short in the back, a girly cut...but not really.  He furiously strikes a chunk of splintery wood with a hammer driving enormous nails between which he stretches a wire tight placing between the wire and wood an empty Coke bottle. He also nails the centre part, just below the wire, a copper spool tied around a magnet that is later connected to an amp, and with a metal cylinder on his finger he begins to play the blues. “Who says you need a guitar?”, he chides us looking into the camera. It’s Jack White. The two other guitarists with whom to share experiences, guitars - of course the guitars are not necessary, and not just a few, as we will see later- and even songs, are: The Edge (lead guitarist for the globally famous Irish group U2) and none other than Jimmy Page (if you don’t know him, you might as well stop reading, of Led Zeppelin, indeed).

Jack White was born in Detroit 1975, centre of the American auto industry and also Motown, centre of popular black music; a hard place to grow up in, a city in continual decline, unending economic crisis which got to the point of declaring bankruptcy in 2013. Even harder in the marginal Mexican neighbourhood on the outskirts where his family lived. They didn’t give him that name...so old yet modern that he has. Just the opposite of what normally happens in the anglo-saxon world, John Anthony Gillis - his real name - took the surname of his wife Meg White, with whom he formed the outstanding group we will talk about today: The White Stripes, with which he rose to fame and international recognition. No, it wasn't his sister as he has said over and over again, it was his wife. And that was an unheard of and original outcome, like everything he does, because it’s not common to find a band with a woman drummer and a man on guitar and vocals. Melodious at the top of your lungs. Yet still, the most surprising thing was the brutal and powerful sounds the duo made, dressed in the latest and yet most vintage fashion of flat colours: red, black, white...as solid as their songs. 21st century blues. Maybe the best of their generation.  

The White Stripes formed in 1997, in Detroit of course. Before that, he was working with his older brother (or one of them, Jack is the youngest of 10, 7 boys, 3 girls) and got a guitar as payment for helping on a house moving job. A Kay Hollowbody with a sound box - pure classic blues guitar - from the 50s. He still has it, it’s his guitar, we can see it in action, and especially listen to it in some songs on the aforementioned documentary together with Jimmy Page and The Edge. With The White Stripes he basically used a rarity in the form of a fibre-glass guitar (“a hollow piece of plastic” as White defines it) red and white, in coordination with the group, a JB Hutto Montgomery Airlines from the year 1964.


The sound that he gets out of that ‘piece of plastic’ is incredible. But he says he likes things difficult, that “it would be easy to play with a Gibson or new Strat” and that “the evil you must fight in any creative field is the easy thing”. He says he flees from technology because “ it’s the great destroyer of emotion and truth”, says the most modern; he says he fights with his guitars, that he wants to convert his way of playing into a battle — and does he ever do so — in a scrap with his guitar. And beats it.  

And then there’s his other guitar. In the year 2005, without leaving The White Stripes, he formed another band, The Raconteurs, together with Brendan Benson (vocals and guitar), Jack Lawrence (bass, chorus) and Patrick Keeler (drums), the last two also members of the  band The Greenhornes. For them, rock is somewhat more traditional and solid even though it’s likely to lose that freshness and originality. And with them we see him play with a Gretsch modified by himself and the help of luthier Randy Parsons of Seattle, who added a double cutaway, three pickups instead of the 2 originals and even a microphone for the Green Bullet harmonica!, which you must see him use for those ripping screams he makes while he plays. It’s with The Raconteurs and that guitar that he plays, considered by many, his best solo at the end of that superb song on the album Broken Boy Soldiers, called Blue Veins. Totally savage. So much so that there are recordings of him bleeding from the fingers on his right hand, all over the guitar, through sheer force and passion squeezing out chords, transmitting it to all those lucky enough to be at those shows.    

With The White Stripes he also played some songs on a big beautiful red guitar with a sound box: a Crestwood Astral II, and for the acoustic numbers he likes the forceful low notes of the Gretsch Rancher. Apart from The White Stripes, which officially broke up in February 2011, and The Raconteurs, in 2009 he put together another band in Nashville, where he currently lives, with vocalist Alison Mosshart, guitarist Dean Fertita, Jack Lawrence on bass, and White himself playing not just the guitar but drums and vocals too, called The Dead Weather -  so, in a few years he formed 3 bands simultaneously - with which he used to play a Gretsch Jupiter Thunderbird (the classic ‘Billy Bo’)in as weird a way as everything else around Jack White.   


Possibly the most amazing record of his career is Elephant, recorded with The White Stripes in 2003. It’s his fourth effort with the band, and whereas the 3rd, White Blood Cells (2001) was their first great success, Elephant is recognition and especially the explosion of Jack White as a guitarist. It starts off with Seven Nation Army, his biggest commercial success to date - so much that it was even used by the Italian tifosi (footy fans) to cheer on their team in the World Cup in Germany 2006, po-po-po!- but it also includes Black Math, a kind of insane punk/blues piece with very inspirational chorus which is almost a hymn, and especially Ball and Biscuits, with another of his stratospheric solos, where not only does he destroy the strings of his plastic guitar, but also the principles of harmony, the pentatonic scale of the blues, and any other musical consideration...except the beat. So powerful. Elephant is a masterpiece, in which the credits read as follows: “No computers were used during the writing, recording, mixing, or mastering of this record.”   

In the last two years, Jack White has released 2 solo records, Lazaretto (2014) and in 2012, a gem titled Blunderbuss, where curiously there is more piano than guitar… a Fender Telecaster! Yes. Anything that is extraordinary, is pure contradiction. And we can assure you that what he does with it is anything but easy. Since he keeps hanging on to his roots no matter what guitar he uses while he recalls and tells us that nobody liked rock anymore in his deprived Detroit neighbourhood when he was a teenager, hip-hop was the only thing they listened to, nobody wanted to play the guitar...and he didn’t care. Jack White wanted to play the blues, destroy the blues by blows, with his guts, and the result was pure blues because that is precisely what blues is.

(Images: ©CordonPress)