By Paul Rigg
Exchange began to raise the profile of female guitarists on its pages, Lita Ford was one of the first to respond, well before the #MeToo movement exploded as a
global force for change.
That should be no surprise to anyone who has seen her blaze a trail from the tender age of 16, when she joined The Runaways. Despite the sexism that is rife in a male dominated industry – it was said, for example, that other people were being paid to play her guitar solos - and the physical and emotional abuse she has faced in her relationships, Lita Ford has carved out a unique career and managed to remain a warm and approachable person in the process. In this sense she can be seen not just as a legendary guitar hero, but also as an inspiration for women and men everywhere.
The first woman to receive Guitar Player Magazine’s ‘Certified Guitar Legend Award’ in 2014, Ford continues to rock the house with her highly skilled ‘from the heart’ guitar playing, as a quick glance at her list of upcoming tour dates will show. At 60, the rebel spirit - or ‘the bitch from hell’ as she has called herself - refuses to play by anybody else’s rules.
Although Lita Ford is often thought of as American, she was actually born to an English father and Italian mother in London, on 19 September 1958. And the support and encouragement that she was offered by them from the start can be seen as key to her development as a guitarist, and as a person.
It has to be said at this point that her mum, in particular, sounds quite liberal in outlook. “My mom was my biggest fan,” Ford explains. “She never asked me where I went, or what I was doing, or who I was doing it with. She trusted me. She was awesome. We lived by the Long Beach Arena and everyone would come to my house after the shows to hang out. My mom had to be at work at 4:00AM, so she would leave at like 2:30AM in the morning, just when I was coming home for the night. I would be reeking of cigarette smoke and alcohol and she wouldn't bug me about it. I was having such a great time back then. It was the '70s in Southern California. Mom was so open-minded about me and the stuff I was into," she said.
At around that time Ford went to see Black Sabbath play live, and it changed her life. Ritchie Blackmore and Johnny Winter became her early idols, partly because there were so few role models who were women. “I didn’t have any females to look up to then other than Janis Joplin, and she was dead. So that didn’t do me much good.”
At 11 her mother had bought her an acoustic Spanish guitar, which was not what she wanted but helped sharpen her desire for what she really did. As soon as she got a job – with some guile, as she was underage –she saved herself $375 and went out and bought herself a chocolate Gibson SG.
Ford honed her six string skills by learning to play other songs, particularly Black Sabbath riffs, but it was her natural talent and chutzpah that really helped her when she was one day invited at the last minute to play bass guitar on stage in a band. She nailed the gig and was as a consequence invited by producer Kim Fowley to audition for an all girl group; he suggested bass but with a little persuasion she was offered the role she really wanted: lead guitarist.
That group was The Runaways, and with Joan Jett, Sandy West, Jackie Fox and Cherie Currie at her side the group became, in her words, “huge in the blink of an eye because we were unique and special. Rebellious teenage jailbait troublemakers—and we loved it.”
Their first album, The Runaways, and songs like Cherry Bomb, Queens of Noise and Hollywood were better received overseas than in America and the band, with its blend of punk and hard rock, became especially big in Japan. Soon they were opening for acts as big as Cheap Trick and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Success however led to tensions, and amid allegations of sexual abuse by management and disagreements about money and the musical direction the band should take it split up, and Ford embarked on a solo career.
Ford took singing classes, returned to the studio and released Out for Blood (1983) and then Dancin’ on the Edge (1984). However it was her following album, Lita (1988), produced by Mike Chapman, that brought her into the mainstream as a solo artist. The single Kiss Me Deadly was an instant hit and was followed by the US Billboard Top Ten single Close My Eyes Forever with Ozzy Osbourne. Falling In and Out of Love, co-written with Nikki Sixx of Mötley Crüe, was also a huge popular and commercial success.
Ford’s following albums Stiletto (1990), which spawned the singles Hungry and Lisa, and Dangerous Curves (1991) and Black (1995) did not achieve the same level of success however and Ford’s life took a different turn as she focused on her marriage to former Nitro singer Jim Gillette and family life: “I got pregnant, hung up my guitar, and wanted to be a mom,” she says of that time.
Ford returned in 2009 with the nü metal-inspired Wicked Wonderland, but her following album Living Like a Runaway, (2012) was much better received by her long-time fans. “It’s a real Lita Ford record,” Ford said of the latter “It’s what the fans expected from me a while back. It was something that really came natural to me. I hid away in [producer] Gary Hoey’s studio and started writing and writing, like God cast some spell over me and said, ‘Thou shall write songs now!’ What makes this album so special is that it’s real. I was able to write this album in one of the darkest times in my life. It really was a gift from God.” The ‘dark time’ she is talking about was her divorce and the subsequent alienation she suffered from her family, which went so deep that it eventually led her to establish an organisation to combat Parental Alienation (a form of child psychological manipulation during separation). It is perhaps no surprise that Ford refers to this album therefore as a ‘survival record.’ “It’s a journey,” she says. “You want to listen to it in its entirety.”
2016 saw Ford deliver a double-whammy: the release of the album Time Capsule and the publication of her autobiography, Living Like a Runaway: A Memoir. The former – drawn from an archive of songs she had recorded in the 1980s with artists such as Dave Navarro, Gene Simmons and Billy Sheehan – was well-received and her self-written tell-all book was an instant hit, and established her as much more than a successful writer of songs. Rolling Stone called the book "Fearless. ... A vivid account of life as 'the one-and-only guitar-playing rocker chick’ who could shred like she did.”
Ford, who has been described as ‘heavy metal’s leading female rocker’ by Rolling Stone magazine, has played a huge number of electric and acoustic guitars over her career, but when asked to highlight one in particular she goes for her old 80s B.C. Rich. “Bernie Rico passed away in the 90s and he made the most incredible guitars and I was his girl,” she explains. “So anything they developed and created I would play because it was absolutely what I wanted. They were original, they weren´t a Telecaster or a Stratocaster copy - not that there is anything wrong with a Strat or a Tele because I have both, but I wanted to be a leader, original and unique and Rich gave me that opportunity.”
She particularly loves a white double neck that the company made especially for her. “It is a protype, unique,” she says. “It has a pre-amp in the bottom neck. It is a beautiful instrument.”
Ford has recently been song-writing with Gary Hoey, the producer and co-writer of ‘Living like a Runaway’, for her next album. She is very excited about the collaboration but a release date has not yet been announced.
Aside from all her various roles she has also acted in films and competed on the reality TV show ´Chopped´ to raise money for charity.
However it is really rock ‘n’ roll that continues to really drive this mother, bandleader, songwriter, and role model for guitarists with a rebel heart everywhere.
“When somebody starts telling you, ‘Don’t play it like that,’ that’s when you don’t listen,” she says. “Stick to your heart and follow your dreams and don’t let anyone steer you in the opposite direction”.