The last 'guitar hero'

By Sergio Ariza

It’s 2003, Jack White (born in 1975, real name- John Anthony Gillis) was already declared the ‘savior of rock´n roll’ 2 years ago, as frontman for his White Stripes, but he still wants more. With his new release he’s about to get weirder still, a ‘guitar hero’ ala old school, a species on the road to extinction. He just needs two moments on his new Stripes record to get it. The first gets right to it, Elephant bursts open with a riff so iconic that it stands alone in the 21st century, face to face with the classics of the 20th century like ‘Smoke on the Water’, ‘Satisfaction’ or ‘Whole Lotta Love’. His 1950s Kay Hollowbody, one of 3 electrics that he’s used for 10 years with the Stripes, is what he plays here. However, the most iconic of the 3, is the red Airline “JB Hutto” Res-O-Gras, kept for the moment when he definitely turns into a ‘guitar hero’ of his time. ‘Ball and Biscuit’, (track 8) begins like a standard blues number until 1:48 when White launches into a cutthroat solo with the Airline that’s become one of the most hell-raising in years; a feedback storm where he not so much as plays but chokes the guitar with the intensity of a predator, toying with the calm/storm formula of the Pixies or Nirvana but used on the blues.  If the 60s had Hendrix, the 70s Jimmy Page, the 80s The Edge, and the 90s Kurt Cobain, the 21st century had found its man.  

His story begins in Detroit, and oddly, not with a guitar but with a drum kit, his first instrument, and a musical diet of the greats of rock n roll of the 60s and 70s, like The Doors, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin ( an influence he never left behind), but it would be his discovery of classic blues, with his beloved Son House at the forefront that led him to want to devote himself to this. Before leaving high school, he met two guys who helped him launch his career. At 15 he met Brian Muldoon, a friend of the family for whom he worked as an upholsterer’s helper, and who instilled in him his second passion: punk . He’s likely responsible for what took White from the drumsticks to the 6-string. Muldoon and White, still Gillis at the time, formed a duo, with the first on drums and Jack didn’t hesitate to strap on the guitar.   

But it wasn’t the most important friend he met in those years, for in his last high school year, he met Meg White, a waitress who frequented the same bars, shops, and record stores as he did. They started dating right away, and in 1996, at 21, he married her and took her name, just the opposite of what is customary in the U.S. A year after saying ‘I do’, Meg began playing the drums, and in that moment Jack clearly saw the future, give her free reins on her madness between the bluesiest riffs in that punk attitude, attaining their own aggressive rock that soon became a feature on the grunge scene in Detroit. 

The Whites soon made a name for themselves, and decided to baptize the group as the White Stripes, making the most of the name. It was in these beginnings that their hallmark elements appeared, like choosing to dress in black and red (something Jack picked up in his upholstery days), to leave out a bass guitar for a much cruder sound, and to introduce themselves as brother/sister instead of as a couple. Something they didn’t bother to clear up after gaining fame.  

The White Stripes’: the title of their record cut on June 15 1999, was a clear-cut sign that rock had found a new star. From the moment he let loose with the riff on ‘Jimmy the Explorer’, we could see that it was a breath of fresh air to the genre, melding the classic with the rebel punk. Jack was so delighted with the record (dedicated to Son House) that, in 2003 when he was critically acclaimed as the saviour of rock for ‘White Blood Cells’ and ‘Elephant’ he wasn’t clear it had exceeded the rawness and power of his debut. 

He was wrong, with ‘De Stijl’, their second album, they were going to go a step further and keep evolving as a group. The record opens with ‘You’re Pretty Good Looking (For A Girl)’, not even two minutes long, but that showed Jack White was also capable of writing marvelous pop songs. Fame was just around the corner. But no-one should think that this was a sell-out of their integrity, but rather a broadening of their horizons. If anyone has doubts about it, they just need to listen to the following songs, ‘Hello Operator’ and ‘Little Bird’, two bullets between the eyes that makes clear they haven’t lost their aim.  

The next record would be what turned them into superstars, in 2001, and all at once, thanks to ‘White Blood Cells’ and to ‘Is This It?’, the debut of The Strokes, guitar bands were back in style. It was their third record in three years for The Stripes and truly confirmed White as the new messiah of rock. It’s his most direct record to date, in which there is less blues and more of a ‘garage’ slant to it, as the song that brought them to fame Fell in Love With a Girl, proves. The record is yet another example of how much of a restless sort White is, and keeps trawling other types of music, Hotel Yorba takes a country approach (the album is dedicated to Loretta Lynn) and the acoustic We’re Going to Be Friends is a tip of his hat to his debt with Paul McCartney.  

In 2003 they came back with Elephant, and it was evident that they hadn’t been lazing about. Their 4th record was an absolute masterpiece in every sense of what they do, from the rock hymn Seven Nation Army, (the wickedest riff of the decade) until it ends with the playful Well It’s True that We Love One Another (a joke on the relation he had with Meg), the record embodies some of the White brilliance, I Want to Be the Boy Who Warms Your Mother’s Heart pushes his piano fixation that will appear again on Get Behind Me Satan. You’ve Got Her in Your Pocket is another show of his appreciation for acoustic McCartney, who he once called truly the best composer in history . Then there’s Ball and Biscuit.  

After reaching perfection in his genre, White decided to experiment with other sounds on his next record. If on his first records there had been plenty of instruments,  the electric guitar no doubt, had always been his centre of attention. Get Behind Me Satan was Jack’s first step into new territory, setting the electric guitar aside for the piano, the acoustic, and the marimba drums in more relevant spots.

The following year the ever need to try new sounds led to the formation of The Raconteurs together with Brendan Benson. With a classic combo of guitars , bass and drums, this band gave him free rein on his love for live power pop as we see in his most popular number Steady As She Goes. In 2007 he got back with Meg, after a 7-year professional hiatus, ( even though they still referred to each other as siblings). Nobody knew yet, but Icky Thump would end up feeling like a ‘goodbye’ to the duo that had revolutionised 21st century rock.  

It was a return to pure  rock, to the punk blues of his beginnings with a touch more classical, using more instruments, like the trumpet on Conquest or the claviola on Icky Thump, and don’t forget that on this record the 1915 Gibson L-1 acoustic appears (recognised as Robert Johnson’s model), a guitar White himself calls his favourite. 

Consolers of the Lonely, the second record with The Raconteurs, has Jack in a more classic rock, more 70s, more in line with Zeppelin, Stones, and even Badfinger. It’s the best produced of his albums, in the sense of clean-cut, also with less punk, and still is very entertaining with some of his best songs like that of the title, Salute Your Salution, Old Enough, These Stones Will Shout, and best of all Carolina Drama. If there were those who branded the first record as ‘power pop’, White makes it perfectly clear that The Raconteurs were a (great) rock group.    

And then the creation of another parallel band comes along, The Dead Weather, where White would get busy on his first passion, the drums. It wouldn’t be until 2012 when the face of 21st century rock would release his first solo album , the magnificent Blunderbuss. Two years later came Lazaretto which was again solid proof of this man’s talent. His music, much like his guitars, had returned to the more and more classic style, he is seen with the Raconteurs on several Gretsch models, and on solo albums he’s used a Les Paul to a Telecaster. However the guitar he will always be associated with is the Airline “JB Hutto” Res-O-Glass, just like The Edge was associated to his 1976 Gibson Explorer or Jimmy Page to the 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard ‘No.1’, two guitarists he recorded the treasured documentary It Might Get Loud. Sound proof of his status as the last great ‘guitar hero’ of rock. 

(Images: ©CordonPress)