Becoming a musician is full of highs and lows. There are times when you’re nailing it, and there are other, frustrating times when you feel like giving up altogether. To give you a bit of inspiration, Chordify has gone to the pros for tips on how to persevere, conquer – and rock!
Greg Hetson interview – guitarist Bad Religion, The Circle Jerks, Punk Rock Karaoke
Greg Hetson, by Jon Tampkin
Greg Hetson is an American guitarist, born in Brooklyn, New York and has lived in Los Angeles since he was 2 years old. Hetson is best known as the guitarist for the influential hardcore punk bands Redd Kross, Circle Jerks and Bad Religion. He was a founding member of Black President and also plays guitar in another supergroup, called Punk Rock Karaoke.
As far as punk rock guitar shredders go, Greg is the cream of the crop. He’s here to tell you all about how he first picked up the axe and rocked his way to stardom.
Which song inspired you to pick up an instrument?
“The intro to ‘Up Around The Bend’ by Creedence (open this song in Chordify!). I was just getting into the radio and the Top 40 stuff back then and my parents were like ‘You should learn to play an instrument, ya know, to be a well-rounded human being. What do you want to play?’ I didn’t know back then, but I heard CCR and asked my dad ‘What’s that noise?’ He said, ‘That’s the guitar!’ and I said ‘That’s what I wanna do!’ So yeah, that was a song that influenced me.”
First guitar ever?
“It was a…[thinking hard] Harmony Guitar and Harmony Practice Amp!”
What was the first song that made your fingers bleed?
“Well, I didn’t initially stick with it. When I was around 11, I got a guitar and took some lessons and then kinda put the guitar down until I was 16. But when all my friends started learning the guitar, we started to teach each other stuff and it was kinda like ‘Game on!’ ya know. I guess when I discovered punk rock it was kinda like well I don’t have to be that [a traditional rock guitarist].
“I would have friends of the family trying to discourage me by saying things like ‘You know, in this world of music,’ – it was the late 70’s – ‘If you’re not going to the Guitar Institute, you’re not a guitar virtuoso and you’re not gonna get a record deal.’ And I’m all, ‘Record deal? Who’s thinking about that? I just wanna play guitar!’ [Laughs] But then I started listening to punk rock and stuff like that and I was like, ‘This is really heavy guitar stuff and you don’t have to be a virtuoso.’ It kinda just spoke to me. It gave me confidence.”
A lot of punk rockers from that era claim that the Ramones or Sex Pistols ignited their passion for punk rock. Did these bands do it for you as well?
“Yeah! The Ramones and then, when I started going to local shows, the first punk rock show I went to was The Dickies and Middle Class, back in July of 1978. The opening band, Middle Class, were all teenagers like myself, and I’m like, ‘I can do this! I can see myself up there!’ That’s when I kinda got what punk rock was all about. It’s all-inclusive. You don’t need to be excluded. Regardless of age or ability, as long as you’re making good music, it doesn’t matter. Punk’s a different approach; it’s thinking outside the box.
“To me, it was always like going back to the original concept of rock ‘n’ roll. Bash it out, get loud and obnoxious like Link Wray or Eddie Cochran. To me that’s the beginning of punk rock.”
Punk’s a very reactionary music style in many ways, born as a movement to counter the Leif Garret’s, Eagles and Kansas type bands that were popular at the time. Were you motivated to rebel against the soft rock era that was dominating the airwaves in the late 70’s?
“Well back then it was like ‘Fuck Disco! Disco sucks!’ [Laughs] Yeah totally. Back then, you had bands like Journey and America which was this easy listening, watered-down, overproduced stuff that was too folksy, too California Country or whatever you want to call it. I wasn’t really into all that you know. Shit like Jackson Browne was on the radio so much, I didn’t ever want to hear Journey’s ‘Infinity’ ever again in my life and I definitely didn’t wanna hear Joe Walsh’s fuckin’ ‘Life’s Been Good’ ever again. [Laughs] That’s kinda what turned me against all of that stuff.”
What’s your favorite chord?
“You know, I don’t really have a favorite chord, it’s just kinda whatever comes into my head or wherever my fingers go. In my twenties, I finally decided to take a few lessons and my guitar teacher said, ‘Well, it’s OK that you’re bringing in punk rock songs to show me but I don’t like it. The only thing I like about it is that it’s still called rock, but it’s not for me. It’s shit.’ So I gave up on that teacher.
“In my late twenties, I started taking more lessons and learned the augmented and diminished chords, minor sevenths, flattened fifths and started learning some jazzy songs like ‘Sunny’ and ‘Girl From Ipanema’ and some songs by The Guess Who – I was a big The Guess Who fan as a kid – but later on in life, I picked up more of the technical aspects of playing. I still don’t know my circle of fiths, but I’m not reading charts with an orchestra so that’s OK.”[Laughs]
Tell us about your first band
“Well, the first band I was in was Redd Kross in high school and I wrote a few songs for them. I wasn’t in the band very long, we put out one EP and then the Circle Jerks formed and I started to do more songwriting. A lot of it was very collaborative, so we’d collect parts and put it together. Back then I didn’t have that much confidence or experience so to me, working together was the way to do it. To me that’s the spirit of punk; everyone pitching in and doing it.”
Your work with Bad Religion is very popular in all forms of media from alternative radio to video games. How does it feel to be in a position where something you worked on 25 years ago is still appreciated like it was just released yesterday?
“It’s cool because you can go into any bar in any part of the world and they are still playing old-school punk rock and you hear yourself and you think, ‘Ok, this is the kinda bar where we would have had our asses kicked back in the day.’ But it gets surreal sometimes, like, ‘Is this really happening? Did that really happen?’ But 35 years later, to go anywhere in the world and hear my favorite music, that I grew up on and helped create, it’s like, ‘This is nuts!’”
Greg Hetson performing in Bilbao, by Guillemshc + Punk Rock Karaoke poster (artist unknown)
What’s Punk Rock Karaoke up to?
“Well, we started out by saying, ‘Ok, we’re not gonna play anything but the stuff that we like and it’s gotta be pre-1983.’ But now we realize that there’s a lot of good music after that so we’ve gotten into the newer punk stuff. We’re always expanding our repertoire and rearranging the sets.”
Any advice for kids just starting out in the industry?
“Perseverance and perspiration. Just keep at it and don’t give up! Don’t give up the hope or the struggle and try not to have an ego. That’s what kept us going. To me, music is not a competition. You know, it’s the same for any genre; stay humble, remember your beginnings. You’re no better than the next person, and no worse. Just roll with it! If you love it, keep doing it forever.
“I also just want to say that I did this Misfits tribute recently in San Diego and had to learn like, 40 Misfits songs and Chordify helped out nicely! I didn’t want to transcribe all of that so it was a great cheat sheet for that!” [Laughs]”