Interview With Jennifer Batten (Michael Jackson, Jeff Beck)

Very few musicians can say that their first big break was an international stadium tour with one of the biggest musical artists of all time. For Jennifer Batten, one of the most celebrated performing guitarists in the industry, it was the start of a long & vibrant career exploring creativity and performing with musicians across the spectrum. We caught up with her after her Guildford masterclass to ask about all things music!

Sam Beattie

Sam Beattie

Interview with Jennifer Batten - Andertons Music Co.
Welcome to Guildford, and welcome back to the UK! How does it feel to be out on the road in Europe? Any interesting stories so far?

I almost always enjoy being on the road. But it really depends on the situation I’m walking into, as I do a lot of different things. But, I confess I dread it the last week I’m home as the pressure mounts to make sure I have everything I need to take, and have sorted out everything back home for the people I’ve hired to live at my place when I’m gone, to look after my animals.

I had dinner with Adrian Legg, the other night; the phenomenal acoustic guitarist. We realized we met close to 30 years ago. We shared road stories. At this point in my life, I’ve got so many friends around the planet, traveling is in part a good chance to catch up. So although something like that is not a big story to expound upon, it’s a big personal perk of travel.

I was really looking forward to my day at Andertons. It was fully immersive with planning Uber and train journeys that would make the most sense to get there and back with my ridiculous luggage. As it turned out, Lee was on my train. We’d both planned to take a later one but ended up together. Due to the YouTube videos Anderton’s creates, there’s become a global interest in the store brand, so I was intrigued to take part, and see the video studio first hand. It was a jam packed day between travel, shooting an interview, setting up and doing the night time performance/clinic, and enjoying the swanky hotel provided, and then poof it’s done and I’m on to something else.

There is so much that happens on the road every day that when I return home jet lagged, I feel like I’m in a state of suspended animation for a week or two.

Rumour has it you’ve had your Washburn JB 100 signature guitar since the early ‘90s – what’s the wildest show that your signature guitar has ever seen?

I started using that guitar when I joined MJ’s ‘HIStory’ tour in 1997. It’s been well beaten over the years, and broken multiple times by airlines, and even stolen briefly. I’ve had 2 guitars stolen and got them both back. That’s unusual and miraculous. I used it all over the planet and on TV shows like Jules Holland w Jeff Beck and David Letterman in America.

Those are top memories but I also used it on The Rock N Roll Hall of Fame tribute to Les Paul in Cleveland in 2008 when Les was 93 years old. It was about 6 months before he passed. That was a big moment of pride for me. I was asked to play the jazz tune “Lover” which he had recorded in 1948 as his first multitrack recording. He used some trickery of speeding up the tape and multi tracking 8 guitar parts. I agreed to do it and afterward realized what a giant challenge I had ahead. I tried to emulate it by using a looper, a whammy pedal up an octave, and tapping. It was pretty difficult. When my performance was over I found Les had come out from the back stage and watched. He had some positive things to say about it, so THAT was the payoff for my struggles.

Over the years, you seem to have favoured Super Strat designs; Ibanez, Washburn etc. what are the main reasons for your preference?

It was the era I was in during the 80’s. I was playing Fender Strats and became intrigued w Ibanez and ended up taking a few of their guitars out on Michael Jackson’s Bad tour. I used their Saber model which was ultra-lightweight and slim. The design was pretty revolutionary at the time. I was also influenced by the artists that were using Ibanez at that time as well; from Frank Gamble and Scott Henderson to Vai and Satriani. They all had expensive full-colour ads on the inside front covers of the guitar magazines which instantly introduced them to a bigger audience. There was a huge buzz about that brand, and the models had incorporated ultra-modern design ideas from super slim necks to hot rod pickups. Ultimately the thin necks had a stability problem for me. The necks would warp and go to hell overnight if a desert wind blew through LA.

When I switched to Washburn in 1997, the neck issues ended and the guitars just felt instantly comfortable. It’s the same with the new Washburn Parallaxe I use now (see below). The neck is really well made plus it has 24 frets and a Stevens cutaway for easy access to the 24th fret.

Jennifer Batten at the Boileroom, Guildford - Andertons Music Co.

Do you have any guilty gear pleasures? Gear you’ve owned / would like to try that people might not expect?

I don’t have any idea what gear people would expect me to use but I buy a ridiculous amount of gear. I’m perpetually in search of the most lightweight solutions I can find for travel. Almost all of my gigs involve a flight so there are severe weight restrictions. With the newer effects processors there’s a learning curve and often by the time I learn how to use it and decide it sucks, it’s too late to return it so I sell it on Right now at home I have a Helix, HX Effects, Boss GT 100 and Boss GT1000, as well as 2 Digitech RP1000’s. I’ve been with Digitech over 25 years and brought it on this current tour, but I’m afraid they’ve gotten behind the times as far as multi effect processors and have no new plans to keep up. They’re focused on pedals and their Trio jam pedals right now. The main reason I’m searching for a replacement is that they’ve left  MIDI capability out of the RP1000 and I’m using BluGuitar’s Amp1 exclusively. Without  MIDI in both, I have too much tap dancing to do. I have to step on the Amp to change channels and then step on the processor preset. It’s just too much fussing when you need an instant change. I’m not one of those players that uses 2 sounds the whole night when I’m playing my own music. I demand much more.

I’m leaning towards the GT1000 now, but haven’t had enough time at home with it, plus it’s missing one of my top 5 favorite Digitech sounds which is the talker effect you control with an expression pedal. There’s no other company that comes close to that sound which truly bums me out. I’ve started collecting every talker-like pedal out there, but I’m not that impressed so far, plus it just adds more weight in my suitcase.

How about pickups? You’re quite an advocate for Seymour Duncan – what drew you to their sound?

I joined Seymour many years ago. One of the early reasons was the power of their Hot Rails. It seemed at the time like it was the only pickup that would help me cut through the band frequencies and be heard clearly. But LA luthier John Curruthers years later showed me how when the pickups were too close to the strings, the magnetic force would pull the strings out of tune. His demo was astonishing, so I then went to weaker magnets like the JB single and humbuckers. But a couple years ago I became intrigued by Greg Koch’s tone with the Fishman Fluence pickups and made the switch. It’s a different technology. The bonus is they’re super quiet, and that’s very important to me. There’s nothing that will ruin a show faster than playing in a venue with electrical issues that wreak havoc through the pickup magnets. I even switched briefly to the Line 6 Variax guitars in part because when you run into electrical issues, you can switch into the virtual models and instantly eliminate the issue.

How about amps and pedals? What are the main components of your rig?

I was Thomas Blug’s first customer for his BluGuitar Amp1. He designed for Hughes and Kettner for 27 years. His Amp1 is a revolutionary design and is essentially a vintage Marshall Plexi 100 watt, 4 channel, tube driven,  MIDI capable head, but it’s under 3 pounds. It’s always in my carry on along with his BluBox speaker emulator. I don’t always use the BluBox but it’s saved my ass many times when I show up for a gig and someone forgot to get me a speaker. I use his Marshall 1964 IR speaker model with the BluBox’s virtual mic placement knob. It’s 100 times more pleasant coming back into the monitor than your average mic’d cab, plus you have the virtual mic placement control at your fingertips, rather than trying to communicate your needs to a sound guy that may not speak English. Sometimes I’ll use both so the sound guy can blend the two sources.

BluGuitar Amp1 - Andertons Music Co.

Does your rig in the studio differ from what you use live?

No. I like to find what works for me and that’s it for all situations. It’s the same with guitars. I’m not a collector and I don’t enjoy changing strings. That’s why I used my Washburn JB100 for 20 years.

You’ve never been afraid of using digital/compact amp technology – Digitech, BluGuitar etc. What’s your opinion on amp modelling, either hardware or software?

If I didn’t travel constantly for gigs I might have a different perspective about digital. Regardless of what you request in your rider, you get what you get when you arrive, so I like to take control as much as I can to have consistency. That means bringing as much with me in the chain as possible. I did hundreds of clinics for Digitech also, so I got well immersed in the technology as it came. I got used to the models sound, and I will say they came up with some really great gear over the years, but when the Amp1 came along which wasn’t that long after the advent of the 4 cable method integration, I had an instant improvement that I relish. The analog aliveness and the ability to roll back the guitar volume to clean up the saturation gives another level of emotional expression.

I’ve tried the Fractal gear twice in maybe 5 years. I went through every single preset and was disappointed. The IR technology has made vast improvements, but at this point I’m pretty gun shy regarding modeling. I know the Kemper is super popular these days. I’ve never even had the desire to plug into one because of the size and weight of it.

If I didn’t travel constantly for gigs I might have a different perspective about digital. Regardless of what you request in your rider, you get what you get when you arrive, so I like to take control as much as I can to have consistency.

I spent a lot of time working with guitar apps and hoping something like NI’s Guitar Rig would work for me, but it’s just not there yet and they’re not putting any effort into updates sadly. At some point, and no doubt it will be the year I retire from gigging, everything you could possibly desire will be a matter of wirelessly connecting to your iPhone, and all the weight issues will be a thing of the past, but for now the Amp1 + effects is as good as it gets.

And as far as pedals, I left individual pedals long ago for multi effects. I love having any unrestricted combination of effects I want set up in preset mode. The thought of having to step on a delay, and then tap the tempo, and then add maybe a ring modulator or whatever else you want is just too much fuss and takes away from the focus on performing. I want to kick a single button to get the amp channel and all the multi effects I need for any section of a song instantly.

What would be your desert island setup?

Exactly what I have (once I settle on a new  MIDI capable multi effects). But I suppose if I were to take it literally, I’d need a solar charger!

When you’re not on the road or in the studio, do you maintain any sort of practice routine?

No. There was a period of time that I’d practice 8-10 hours a day and break it up with an egg timer going off every hour; ear training, reading, arpeggios, scale patterns, and on and on. But now I focus on future projects generally. If I’m learning a new tune or new set of music, I’ll put every track into the Transcribe app to learn it. I’ll make a loop of the solo section to jam on and get comfortable with it. If it’s a cover song, I’ll look at to see if there’s a version of it there so I can eliminate the guitar track and play along. It doesn’t matter how simple the solo section might be, I find if I spend time on it, it allows me to expand beyond my normal vocabulary and get creative.

Have you ever found yourself in a rut in terms of playing and inspiration? If so, do you have any advice for people who might experience the same thing?

Sure, I think every creative soul gets in a rut from time to time. Sometimes, it’s a matter of leaving your craft for a time and just going to a movie, show, play, or reading a book. I even took almost a year off when I moved from LA to Portland Oregon 15 years ago – I got into other art forms like taking stained glass lessons to explore another creative art form. I was obsessed with glass daily for 3 years and found I listened to music much more intensely while working with glass, than I had in years. When you come back to your main craft, it’s fresher. You feel renewed and ready for the next chapter.

Who were your main guitar/music influences when you were learning to play at a young age?

I started at age 8 so at that time it was the Beatles and other late 60’s pop bands.

If you could choose, who would you say are your favourite guitarists/musicians nowadays?

Jeff Beck has been at the top of the heap for many decades now, and he keeps growing and creating. That in itself is something to look up to. He’s 74 now and still isn’t slowing down. I’ll be seeing his new tour in a week or so in NY on my way back home from UK. He still listens to anything and everything.

I’ve also got a mild obsession with country picker Brad Paisley. He’s super creative and twisted and that vocabulary is completely different from mine so it’s fresh to my ears. I also admire Preston Reed as that is also a far cry from what I do.

You’ve always taken a lot of influence from jazz and world music – did the fusion of those styles with rock and prog come naturally to you, or did it require a lot of thought and workshopping?

Fusion was super vibrant and hip when I was going to GIT in 78-79. George Benson Live hit big at that time as well as Al Di Meola’s Elegant Gypsy, The Jeff Lorber Fusion, Weather Report, and Pat Metheny was just starting to tour. I was immersed in that world so it was natural to embrace it. This was before MI’s bass school opened up and we had a single bass player in our guitar classes. He turned me onto Jaco’s debut disc. THAT was a life changer. Jaco and Weather Report is still music I look up to and enjoy. I can’t point to anything in particular I took from that that ended up in my own music but I’m sure it’s there.

It’s night and day different 31 years on from joining the ‘Bad’ tour. I thought the female revolution was beginning back then.

Here come the MJ questions: what was your all-time favourite show with Michael?

Honestly most of them felt the same as 95% of them were in stadiums around the world, and aside from looking out in Sweden and seeing all blonde heads as opposed to brown and black hair in Italy, they were pretty similar. The Superbowl performance was a one of a kind so that will always stand out in my memory. Going to South Africa was the most exotic thing ever. When we played in Johannesburg we had a police escort driving from our hotel in a nearby town, and Nelson Mandela was at the sound desk in a bullet proof vehicle. That kind of thing connected to the show will never happen again so those are my top memories.

How was the transition from auditioning to playing enormous shows on the ‘Bad’ tour? Did it happen quite naturally or did it take quite a bit of adjustment?

Most people don’t start out playing such enormous shows. I had plenty experience playing in various smaller venue sizes and have done plenty of house concerts as well. I’ll just say that the income was much more of an adjustment than the venue sizes. You can get used to a generous income in a hurry! During the Bad tour I was able and very proud to be able to pay my father back from the tuition he bought me for GIT. I don’t think he expected that.

He was always known for surrounding himself with world-class musicians. What was it like at the time, being in the company of so many similarly accomplished players?

It was a bit daunting at first to be playing with the likes of Ricky Lawson and Greg Philingaines who had résumé’s a mile long. They were well aware that mine wasn’t, but luckily they all treated me with great respect and kindness. There was a great bonding that happened on the Bad tour. I think we all realized that we were a part of a great piece of history and we all (those of us still living) still keep in touch (RIP Ricky)

You’ve shared the stage and the studio with countless artists of the highest calibre – Jeff Beck, Michael Sembello, Andy Timmons – the list goes on. When you collaborate, do you like working with people who are on the same page, or do you like being pushed outside of your comfort zone?

That’s an interesting question. I’ll just say that being pushed outside your comfort zone has degrees; from exciting and challenging to “what the hell am I doing here” type of intimidation. If you’re super uncomfortable, you’re going to shut down and not play your best. So somewhere in between would be my choice. I remember Pat Metheny told us at a clinic during my GIT year that the best situation is to be playing with people who are better than you. He was referring to his time with the Gary Burton band. I’ve been in that situation many times and have to agree, as long as there is a mutual respect on the stage. Depending on whom you’re playing with, it can feel like you’re dragging a ball and chain to an unexplainable spiritual lift of joy lifting your wings to a new space of creativity. I still remember the feeling of playing with a jazz band that was way the hell over my head very early on, compared to my steady band I was with at the time and a sort of depression of returning to the steady band. The better band just grooved their asses off. But moments like that give you new aspirations of possibility.

In recent years, we’ve seen a shift in the creative industries in terms of attitudes towards women – more young girls are picking up the guitar than ever before, and more and more artists are flying the flag for equality. How does the industry differ now compared to your experience in the ‘80s and ‘90s?

It’s night and day different 31 years on from joining the Bad tour. I thought the female revolution was beginning back then. Wendy and Lisa had already joined Prince before I joined MJ and I thought the trend would continue. But then 25 years went by with little change. I’d say in the last 5 years in part due to the internet, talented women are exploding on the scene whether it’s some genius 7 year old in Indonesia kicking my ass with a bedroom shred video or women like Nita Strauss getting hired by a big name like Alice Cooper. That kind of influence on younger girls is huge. I didn’t have that when I was coming up, but in the end it’s music itself that is the inspiration and I think who’s playing it comes second.

Have you enjoyed your time in Guildford today? Be honest!

Yes! It was a blast and I’d love to spend more time there. Seemed like a fun town to take a long walk in – there’s some beautiful architecture.

Finally, to round it off, what’s next in store for 2018/2019? Any ambitious plans?

Strangely no. These days I’m going with the wind. If someone sends me a track to play on or an offer of a guitar festival or tour, then THAT’s my future. I used to be very goal oriented but at the moment my goals are fairly vague.

The Captain Meets Jennifer Batten

If you’d like to find out more about Jennifer Batten, you’ll find everything you need on her website. And if you’ve enjoyed reading this interview, you may want to check out the rest of our industry features while you’re here!

Sam Beattie
Sam Beattie
Sam is one of our content writers, as well as being our resident southpaw and synth enthusiast. He spends his free time composing for music libraries and playing in a post-rock band. Sam's desert island gear would be his Mexican Tele, Strymon El Capistan and Teenage Engineering OP-1.

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