Jennifer Batten (Interview) "I thought the revolution was upon us with more females playing"
A conversation with Jennifer Batten about her career, touring the world with Michael Jackson and Jeff Beck and her Guitar Cloud Symposium.
Since the moment she appeared in the spotlight as Michael Jackson's guitar player in 1987, stunning everybody with her remarkable playing, wild solos and an iconic stage presence, Jennifer Batten has secured her place in guitar history. Batten is the female guitar virtuoso of the 1980s and 1990s and has opened the door for many other female players.
Yet, her accomplishments go well beyond that. Batten is one of the early adopters of the tapping technique — as well as an educator and author. Her most recent project is the Guitar Cloud Symposium, an online guitar program with regular live-events offering in-depth courses on a wide range of topics. The Symposium features numerous renowned teachers (Nili Brosh, Gretchen Menn and others) as well as occasional special guests (Steve Vai, Steve Lukather and more). Batten has also recorded and toured with one of her musical heroes, Jeff Beck, released solo albums and written books.
I talked to Jennifer Batten via Zoom.
I'd like to start off by talking about the Guitar Cloud Symposium, which is something that you've been doing for a while and which you have founded. Can you explain what it is?
It grew out of a seminar I put together six or seven years ago and with which I toured across America. I had the idea of having a lot of different subjects that I wanted musicians to know about. Because there were so many, I condensed it all into 20 minute modules, like TED Talks. I was out for a couple of months, doing that. Then I got really busy, playing with bands, recording, traveling — you know, a musician's life. When the pandemic happened, obviously, all the tours were canceled. So I had to do something. I came up with the idea of not only rebooting the seminar, but making it virtual and adding more people to make it a lot more interesting. The original seminar I did was four hours long. To look at one person for four hours is kind of taxing on people. People's attention spans get shorter and shorter, as we get hijacked with Facebook and so on. I called a zoom meeting with Gretchen Menn and Nili Brosh. I had toured with them not long before the pandemic happened. I had also toured with Vicki Genfan in the Czech Republic and around America. I've since started adding more instructors, a couple of special guests. Mark Lettieri from Snarky Puppy, Greg Koch, who is an amazing player that brought in slide guitar — he's going to be doing chicken picking in June. So it's kind of like a smorgasbord for guitar enthusiasts. We want to introduce people to all kinds of techniques they probably never tapped into.
Looking at the curriculum, especially at the topics that you cover, there's some really interesting fields that aren’t necessarily guitar related, such as the brain and learning techniques. I was wondering if you could elaborate a bit about those topics.
It's things I've learnt from neuroscientists about learning. When we go to school as kids, nobody ever tells us: "THIS is the way to learn". They just say: "Learn it and come back". Everybody goes off on their own, trying to memorize things. Some people are more visual learners, some people prefer text, and some people just get lost in the shuffle. I guess if I could really distill it down: We want to make students realize that when you learn something new, you're putting code in your computer. If you play too fast and make mistakes, you're putting bad code in your computer. So the main emphasis is learning everything in very small chunks that you can manage. Small enough that you can play them perfectly every time. Guitar players are notorious, including myself, for that, when you're learning something, you want to have it down now. But that's not how the human brain works. And I know it, for years I would just be in the studio trying to bash information in my head, making mistakes and just staying way too long on one subject. The human brain can only take in 15 to 20 minutes at a time on something new. It’s not like you have to go off and play baseball after you did your 20 minutes, but you need to move on to something else. And then, when you do move on, whether you're doing a different kind of music, or doing something completely unrelated, that's when things start finalizing in your brain behind the scenes.
It can be tough as a player when you practice and you get a bit frustrated with your own progress — and then you start wanting too much.
Yeah, absolutely. I think that's a natural thing. You want to get it down. You want immediate gratification. I start this Yngwie solo, I want to have it down in 20 minutes. Well, you might have four bars down really well in 20 minutes at 50% speed. And that's good enough for today. Or good enough for this morning. You can come back and add more later.
You started playing guitar when you were eight years old. What were your beginnings like?
Oh, it was traumatic. My first lesson was with my sister, my dad and the teacher, which was probably a hell of a lot of pressure on the teacher. He taught me the first three notes in a Mel Bay book and said: "See, you can read. Here, use this pick". It was overwhelming. And I was like: "Nooooo, I can't read". It's amazing that I got past that.
How did you proceed?
I took lessons from guys who worked at local music shops. I started with one guy, then we moved a year later to California. I ended up with a teacher that was showing me finger picking and folk songs. Then we moved again, I took lessons from a teacher that got me into blues and rock. Eventually I ended up going to G.I.T., and I flunked the test to get in. Even though I had been studying with all these different people, I was never taught the skills like a chord scale or diatonic scales. I was only ever taught pentatonic scales and blues. So I flunked the test and then I went to study with a jazz player named Peter Sprague in San Diego. He's the guy that got me up to speed. He had me learn Chet Baker solos and Charlie Parker, he taught me chords, scales and inversions, getting the diatonic scales and patterns together. Six months later, I was able to get into the school. But even at that I was pretty much at the bottom rung of the ladder. I was the only student that had never done a gig before. It was a pretty tough year. The curriculum moved so fast that in subsequent years, they took the same curriculum and stretched it out from a year to a year and a half — because they were losing people, people couldn't keep up. That was a real ass kicker. I can honestly say I would never have gotten the Michael Jackson gig or Jeff Beck without having gone through that school and gotten the skills together.
Looking back at that time in music school — was it a good time all in all or a frustrating time?
The word that just comes back is hard. It was really hard to keep up. I don't look back at it with great joy. I was never partying, I never became good friends with anybody in there, I would just do the classes and go back home. I slept in a friend's garage the whole year, because I didn't live in that city. I was just crashing on a bed in their garage. That's all I did. It was difficult. Although it was also inspiring, people like Larry Carlton or Pat Metheny would come in. It was just 100% being immersed in guitar and nothing else.
When did you start playing gigs then?
It was probably within a year after I graduated. And my first gig was playing jazz standards with another guitar player at a cafe. I made twelve Dollars that night.
So you already decided to become a professional musician and enrolled into music school before having had your first gig? That’s kind of daring.
Well, I think when you're younger, you just jump into stuff. I announced to my mother that I wanted to be a professional musician when I was twelve. And she warned me that it was very competitive. But when you're twelve, that doesn't really mean a lot. But I remember all these years later, because I've had plenty of ass kickings along the way. That shapes your personality and your direction.
Makes you tougher, probably.
Yeah, it can make you tougher. But it can also inspire people to get out of the business entirely. The struggle can really affect the joy of playing. I mean, that's how we got in at first place: we enjoy music, and then we enjoy playing music. Then all of a sudden you're relying on that money to pay the mortgage. That can really affect how you feel about music.
Am I right to suspect that there weren't too many women studying guitar at that time?
Yeah. When I went to the school, I was the only female in the school. I wasn't aware that it was a thing until day one. I looked around and went: wow, this is crazy. Fast forward, when I got into Michael Jackson's band, I thought the revolution was upon us with more females playing. Prince already had Wendy and Lisa. Billy Idol had a keyboard player in his videos. I thought: Okay, the change is right now. That was 1987, 1988. And then 15, 20 years go by and there's no change at all. It was kind of shocking. Then all of a sudden, there's a whole new crop. I think as Internet speeds got better and young girls grew up seeing other girls playing, that was encouraging. You know, back then you were trying to get an audition in a guy's band and had no hope because you're female. All of a sudden, everybody wants a female because now it's become a thing. In part that's because there's some super bad asses out there like Tal Wilkenfeld on bass or Moheny Dey. You can't deny the musicianship there. There's nothing weak and girly about what they're putting out.
You were one of the first female guitar heroes in the 80s, a role model for female lead guitar players — which at that time seemed even to be more of a boys’ club than it does now.
Thanks to Michael Jackson, because he put the stamp of approval on it. And even at that, there were a lot of people that just put me down, saying: "That's just a pop gig. Anybody can do a pop gig". When I later got the gig with Jeff Beck, that really pissed off some guys. It was like: Wait a minute, now she's really in our turf.
It’s really weird to have that territorial claim to music.
It really is. When you look at different genres of music, like classical music, there's plenty of males and females and it's no big deal. Everybody's doing their job. And in other art forms pop and country it's typically women that write lyrics and sing and have minimal guitar skills. But then you get somebody that pops out like the Dixie Chicks, who have some mad bluegrass skills. Every once a while, there's somebody that pops out who has spent a lot more time on their instrument. Yeah, the genres are crazy. It's funny, because you can be put down for playing or recording covers. Then you look at classical music, and it's all covers. I don’t think Frank Sinatra wrote a song in his life. It was all covers. Nobody had a problem with that. Because what they enjoyed was the character of the voice and the treatment of the melody.
Before you started in Michael Jackson's band, you graduated from school, and then you started teaching there not that long afterwards.
I graduated in 1979. I played a few years with a band in San Diego. The band moved from fusion to top 40 to weddings. We did a lot in three or four years. Then the bass player ended up moving up to LA and almost immediately got a gig touring with Johnny Rotten. So we were all inspired that we needed to get back to LA. I graduated in 79. And I got the Jackson gig in 87. So that was eight years. In the meantime, I was playing in LA. At one point, I was in five different original bands that would play at Sunset Strip with two other bands in the night. There was no money at all, the idea was just getting out and playing.
What was the time like in the 80s on the Sunset Strip?
Everybody just wanted the magical record deal and be launched into fame. There was more hairspray thrown into the atmosphere than anywhere else. Van Halen were at their peak at that time. Everybody wanted to be like them. Or like Dokken, Cinderella or Poison. The look was a big deal. I remember seeing ads back then where bands looking for a guitarist or a drummer, and it would say: "Hair is a must". You had to have big hair, because that's more important than what you can do on your instrument. It was a very vibrant time. It seemed like everybody was into doing it. And that's why you would be in four or five bands at once: to kind of up your chances of being discovered.
"[Michael Jackson] was always great to me. He was very even-tempered".
You joined Michael Jackson's band in 1989. How did that happen?
I was working at the Musicians Institute at the time, and they had a referral service. One of Michael's people called, and asked them to send down candidates to audition. I was one of them. I asked when the last possible time I could go down would be — so I could stay home and work on the tunes. As I recall, it was two or three days and I just cancelled everything and started learning his music. When I went in to audition, I was surprised because there was no band. It was just me and a video camera. The only guidance I was given was to play some funky rhythm. I'm known as the one who played the "Beat It" Solo, but that's just 16 bars in a two and half hour show. Groove was number one. I improvised something and then I went into a rock soloing kind of thing. Thanks to Eddie, "Eruption" and his solo pieces, every band I was in had a solo spot for guitar. That was nothing new for me. I just kind of went off. I played the "Giant Steps" tapping solo that I had worked out, the one that ended up on my first record. And I had played the "Beat It" solo in that cover band in San Diego. Almost the moment that it was released on the radio, I'd set out to learn it. So I finished the audition by playing that. Twenty years later, somebody was making a documentary on female players. They contacted his guy that did the original video shoot of the auditions. I saw my audition tape twenty years later, which was pretty funny. There was a paper in there where Michael made notes, and he wrote "great" and put two stars next to my name. I should have that in a frame somewhere, I don't know where it is now. But it was super cool.
What was it like to be a part of that huge Michael Jackson machinery?
It was a party. It was just fun. I was already a fan of his music, so to be on stage with him was kind of daunting. You kind of felt like you were part of a theater group. There were two guitar players, two keyboard players, bass and drums. It was a huge sound, lots of programming, sequences, four dancers when we started out. We were so pampered. It was like a first class vacation, really. We only played two or three days a week. We had plenty of time to see the cities that we were parked in. We'd go to Switzerland, and everybody would trot off and get their Swiss Army knives. It was pretty much a joy. We didn't even have to do anything with our luggage. All we had to do was make sure it was packed and outside of our door. The morning we were going to leave, it would magically appear in the next hotel room. There was an entourage of 100 people. There were people assigned to do everything. Several tour managers, there were caterers and hair stylists and makeup artists and security for Michael — and somebody that looked after the chimp when he came out (laughs). Just the amount of money they spent! His manager told me in 1987 or 88 that it took a half a million dollars per week to keep us on the road. Every week! The expenses of the bus drivers, flights for 100 people, that was just an enormous thing. It was like moving a city!
That’s some real rockstar shit right there!
Right? Yeah. My career's gone backwards. I mean, granted, I started playing in the shit clubs for no money, but shot right up to the very top. The next thing was Jeff Beck and that music is much more near and dear to my heart. But while Michael would pull in 50,000 people, Jeff would pull in five [thousand]. So although he was very generous, it was a different paycheck. And then after Jeff I did a million different kinds of things, and went back to playing in shitty clubs. And sometimes I'd be in theaters and just completely dependent on the gig.
Before we talk about Jeff Beck, one last question about Michael Jackson. What was it like to work with him? One often reads that he was extremely professional and caring towards his crew.
He was always great to me. He was very even tempered. There were plenty of screw ups that happened — because that's what happens live. Sometimes things break. Sometimes things don't work. I never saw him lose his cool. I never saw him yell at anybody. I think if he was frustrated, he would internalize that. But he'd been doing it since he was four or five years old. It's not like somebody suddenly gets famous at 20. He was always in it. Being in it since you were five, you've seen plenty of things go wrong. You've seen misconnections and things breaking on stage and amplifiers exploding. That probably led up to his personality. We watched "The Brady Bunch" after a show. He wasn't out drinking in bars, he looked after his health for the most part.
But that one Super Bowl that you played in 1993 must have been big even in Michael Jackson measurements, with 1,3 billion people watching it on television.
Actually this is the only time I ever thought that he was nervous. He just seemed a little scattered that day, because the pressure was enormous. It’s live, it's only going to happen once. If something screws up, there's not a lot you can do about it. In fact, there's one part during that show where they had some stage fog, because it enhances the lights, but it was in the daytime. The fog guy thought he needed A LOT of fog. There's one part where the camera comes around to Michael and I, and we're both engulfed in fog. For a second, you can't see either of us. In that kind of environment, there is no such thing as perfection. You can only do your best.
"Man, if I'm going to die in a fiery car crash, this is a really cool way to go!
What's amazing was that when one reads about your beginnings it's always said that Jeff Beck already was an influence when you started playing guitar. And in the late 90s, you joined his band, and you recorded two albums with him.
Yeah, that’s pretty crazy. I was just a fan. And I wanted to meet him. It was my number one goal of the "Dangerous" tour. I knew we were going to England, and I knew he lived there somewhere. I would talk to all the Sony reps. After the gigs, they'd be hanging out at the VIP tents afterwards. I would ask all of them, one by one: Does anybody have a connection to Jeff? Because I want to invite him to a show and meet him and get an autograph. That was my goal. Eventually somebody came up with it and invited him to our Wembley show. Two opening acts went on … and then Michael canceled the show. 80,000 people disappointed, walking out, kids crying. People had flown in from other countries. It was just horrible. As it turns out, Jeff was turned away at the gate. I called him up and said: "I don't know when or if they're gonna make up the show. But can I meet you anyway?" He was really kind, he invited me to the studio he was working at when he was doing his rockabilly record with the New Town Playboys. I got to see some of the recording. Then he drove me back to my hotel in his Corvette, which was like driving with Batman. He’s a speed freak. I mean, it was London traffic, but anytime he had 500 yards to himself, he would just floor it. I remember thinking: "Man, if I'm going to die in a fiery car crash, this is a really cool way to go!"
At least you die with Jeff Beck on your side. What happened then?
Yeah. I made my connection, I gave him a copy of my first record that had just come out. I also was on MTV at the time with "Flight of the Bumblebee". I thought that was it. I didn't think I'd ever see him again. Then he called a couple months later and said: "I finally had a chance to listen to your record, let's record together". That just blew my mind. It was so left field. He was not known for playing with other guitar players. It wasn't ever a dream that I had. It was actually five more years before it ever happened. I had seen him on a couple tours in the meantime. Every time I'd see him, he'd always say: "Okay, we're gonna do this thing. It's gonna happen". I thought: "Yeah, probably not." (laughs) One day, he called me up and said, we have a tour of Italy, join it! I thought it was kind of odd that he had that much faith. At that point, I had two records out, he had seen the "Dangerous" tour. And he's gone on the faith of these records. I forced an audition on myself in his presence. I learned the "Guitar Shop" record. I had a gig in Italy and I flew to London, before that, actually, just to play in his presence to make sure he wasn't nuts. I didn't tell anybody that I was going to get the gig in case it didn't happen. Because it was such a lofty thing for me. How much would it suck to tell the world that I'm going to be touring with Jeff Beck and then it doesn't happen? So I kept that a secret for quite a long time. But it worked out and we did two records and two tours together. I am missing some frequencies in my ears, I will tell you that much.
Was playing with Jeff Beck anything you expected?
I didn't know what to expect. I had a lot of anxiety about it. I mean, he has played with such amazing players. Tony Hymas, Jan Hamer, Terry Bozzio, all these people were people I looked up to. It was kind of daunting. But because his personality is very down to earth, really easy going, that made it pretty comfortable. Combined with the fact that most of the time, I wasn't playing guitar, I was triggering guitar synthesizer. That’s something I could handle, you know, I'd spend hours and hours hours programming sounds, because… doing songs from a 30,40 year career that has a backdrop of keyboards, guitar just wasn't gonna cut it. So I really got deep into triggering the synthesizer, which at that time wasn't very good.There were great sounds, but it was slow. Thankfully, for the most part, I was playing pads, so I could trigger it, and it could be a couple milliseconds behind and it was no big deal. There were parts, like in a song called "Savoy", where I had to play a little horn solo, that was challenging, because I had to be so on top of the beat, that it felt really uncomfortable. But he also had me solo with him. I traded solos in a song called "Blue Wind" and some other stuff. We did one song called "Declan", where he played guitar melody, and I doubled him with flute. That was a real challenge, because I couldn't play it like guitar. It didn't react to a tremolo bar. So I couldn't do the little nuances I would have done if it was guitar. But overall, it was a wonderful learning experience. And he was really fun. After the shows, I mean, all of his friends are comedians, so it was just another party. Right. The Jackson thing was one kind of a party, super spoiled. And Jeff was a whole other party. A lot of champagne on that tour!
Are you a guitar collector?
No. My house is too small and I don't like to change strings. You know, I'm kind of one of those people: I find a guitar and that's my guitar. [shows a guitar] I actually have this because I'm working with a band that insists on tuning down a half step. It’s a Washburn Parallax and is the first 24 fret guitar I've ever had. These are stickers that go in between the frets from a company called Neck Illusions. You can change the look of the neck every time you change your strings, it’s really amazing. And I'm really into the steampunk look. So I have gears on everything. And that's my main guitar. That's rainbow color. I’m so into the Floyd Rose tremolo that's got to be there. I do have a Thomas Blug strat. And it's just so hard to get used to a Fender tremolo. Now, I'm used to the nuance of how much pressure I need to move the string slightly. And it takes a lot more pressure with that. And plus it doesn't have a locking nut. So I'm really timid about using it and knocking it down a tune. These are first world problems.
You’re one of the pioneers of tapping. Can you tell a bit about how you discovered that technique?
It was because of a seminar that came through GIT when I was there. Pat Metheny would come one month, another time it was Emmett Chapman, the guy that invented the Chapman stick — which is just a big fat neck full of 10 strings. There's no picking involved, it's all tapped. So the left hand has the bass strings, the right hand has melody and chords. We all saw the seminar and thought, you know, we're just trying to get guitar down, nobody's gonna go buy your stick. (laughs) Steve Lynch was inspired by that. So he started experimenting to see what he could do on the guitar. I would see his development month after month and thought "man, this is the coolest thing I've ever seen". And it was before I was aware of Van Halen. As soon as the school was over, because it was just too much to add, along with all the other curriculum, I asked him to send me a demo of things he was working on. I tried to learn the solos and was failing miserably. So I went and took a lesson with him. And that's all it took. He was working on his first book of the right touch. And he showed me his concept. That's all it took. I just started experimenting from there and developing whatever I did.
Is it over? The answer is no, it's not over.
Where do you see the status of guitar these days?
Well, during the pandemic, sweetwater.com alone sold 1000 guitars every single day. Despite the articles that were written a year prior to the pandemic, saying that guitar is dead. Is it over? The answer is no, it's not over. We had Steve Vai on as a special guest with one of the GCS weekends. And he said something remarkable. I mean, his technique is flawless and he's got such an original sound and has done so much for the guitar world. He was saying there's a new generation of guitar players coming up that are going to surpass him. They are surpassing him, by far, just a whole new level of harmonics thought and technique and in every aspect. I found that kind of mind blowing and, you know, that leaves me in the dust.
There are also a lot of companies focusing on eight-string guitars, long scale guitars and so on.
I don't know how big that is, I guess it’s still a pretty niche thing. I remember Nili Brosh telling me that she got a gig with Tony MacAlpine. She went to play with him and he said: "You got to use a seven string, because that's what was used on the record". That's akin to my challenge when all of a sudden I'm in Jeff Beck's band, so I better get the guitar synth down. That's something I never would have put that kind of effort in on my own. But when you have a gun to the head, and that's your challenge, you either face it or walk away. For me, I have enough trouble with six strings. I have no interest in adding more. I spent about 20 minutes with a seven string guitar and was constantly picking the wrong string. So I lost interest.
That probably means no eight-string guitar for you in the foreseeable future.
No, not going to happen.
Can we expect another solo album anytime soon?
I don't see a reason to do one. In the digital age, everybody can get your stuff for free. To put that kind of money into something that you're not going to get a return on just makes no sense. I do sessions for other people. I got a couple of tunes pending right now. So unless I get a sugar daddy that says "Here's a bunch of cash, make a record", it's not going to happen.