Tone Talk with Jessica Kaczmarek

Photo by Harmony Gerber
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While taking piano lessons as a teen, Kaczmarek saw footage of Jimi Hendrix on television and it completely changed her world. She immediately stopped piano and started playing guitar, digging deep into the blues of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, and the British blues of John Mayall and Eric Clapton. Later heroes were David Gilmour and Steve Cropper, along with contemporary players such as Johnny Marr and The Edge. Chet Atkins, Eddie Cochran, Scotty Moore, Duane Eddy, and Link Wray came soon after as she delved more into the style of early rock ‘n’ roll.

Kaczmarek has worked in various bands around Los Angeles and Orange County, playing music ranging from indie rock/alternative, punk, blues, surf, and rockabilly. Bands include Busstop Hurricanes, Russell Scott & the Red Hots, and the backing band for Tom Kenny (aka SpongeBob Squarepants) on his comedy tours. She also appears on songs with Kenny on The Cartoon Network, with Bourbon Jones (alongside drummer Stephen Hodges of Tom Waits’ band), and occasionally with The Blue Shadows (featuring members of The Blasters).

Kaczmarek is currently playing guitar and singing with Greg Antista & the Lonely Streets and making guest appearances with the Tony Lopez All-Star Band. She is also endorsed by Gretsch Guitars.

What is your definition of tone, and how has it changed over the years?

Tone is an important word to me, which first comes from your fingers and your style of playing — the way you shake a note, the embellishments you employ, your phrasing. That all translates to the kind of equipment you play through. Some amps and guitars can give you a more edgy sound, some a completely different feel altogether. Ultimately, if the guitar player is good at what they do, you’ll be able to recognize their playing, no matter what they’re plugged into. To me, tone is personified by individual style — either you got it or you don’t.

Which guitars, amps, and pedals are you currently using and why?

I’m endorsed by Gretsch Guitars so I primarily play their guitars. I have a lower end black Gretsch 5120 that has the best sound coming out of it, which goes to show that you don’t always need to drop a lot of cash to get quality. I also have a Gretsch 5420 hollowbody and a 6129 gold Sparkle Jet that I absolutely love — nothing makes me happier than a Champagne Sparkle Jet! Gretsch really hits the mark on that one.

As far as amps, I’m a Fender purist. My main amp for larger venues is a 1972 Fender Silverface Pro Reverb that I had the master volume taken out and rerouted to sound more like a Bassman. It’s pure magic every time I play it. For the band “Greg Antista & The Lonely Streets” (which can be described as “punk rock with a twist of Johnny Cash“) this is the main amp I use, as the two 12” Celestion speakers really cut through the hard-hitting drums of the band and can compete with the power of the rest of the group. When I’m playing more intimate venues, I go with the standard Fender Blues Junior, which gets the job done every time.

As far as pedals, I primarily use the Electro-Harmonix “Soul Food” which has a nice biting overdrive sound to it and can get really dirty and loud when you crank it up. My backup overdrive is the industry staple Ibanez Tube Screamer TS9, which I use when I want a more mellow and relaxed overdrive sound. On occasion, I’ll throw in my TC Electronics mini delay to add more shimmer to the reverb from my amp, which is usually set to a hefty 5 or 6 on my silverface dial.

Are there certain recording techniques you prefer in the studio?

Playing in tune is my favorite technique I’ve stumbled upon! All kidding aside, I usually have a set part I’ve figured out before I go in the studio that I’ve thought through that compliments the song and fits the tone of it. This way I don’t waste time trying to figure out what I should’ve worked out before getting on the job. From there, the part can change due to the feel of the song and other variables. It’s important to be prepared, but also quite important to be flexible in order to let the creativity of the situation take over. The moment can inspire new ideas and lines you wouldn’t necessarily play on your own, so it’s important to be open to that and not so hard-wired into thinking that things have to be so concrete as to how you originally planned them.

How do you keep your sound consistent onstage?

Having a good sound engineer that you trust is crucial to that question. If you can’t hear yourself live, that can really mess with your performance. That’s when you have to rely on knowing your parts and focusing in on what you’re playing. That can take away from other aspects of a show, as you have to give more attention to making sure everything is sounding okay. So it’s quite important to have someone who knows what they’re doing behind that audio console. I haven’t had too much discrepancy with my actual guitar and amp tone from venue to venue, with the exception of doing outdoor festival shows — those for some reason really seem to alter the sound of your gear, at least in my experience. When that sort of thing happens, you just have to plug in, have confidence in what you’re playing, and hold on tight!

What does your practice consist of?

Really just working on better phrasing, making transitions smoother/better voice leading, and being open to new ways of playing and listening to different styles. Listening to players you really admire and picking apart what they do can help you think of new ways to play things you would never think of. I really think it’s important to expose yourself to new music and players, that way you keep growing as an artist. They don’t even necessarily have to be guitar players. In fact, when you listen to other instrumentalists such as horn players or piano players, for example, you’ll be exposed to different approaches to playing lines and phrases, which is a great boost for your own originality and creativity.

What is your advice for young women who hope to work in the music industry?

Don’t compromise who you are just to sell records. It’s not necessary these days as the world is now only just a click away, and you can reach people all over the world and connect with people by just being who you are. There are a plethora of pop stars who sell the notion of sex, and that’s still a big struggle of being a female artist, for some reason. Your music and talent should speak for itself, and usually does after you peel away all the gimmicks. I think as the world has gotten smaller with social media, we now see there are a lot more people in different shapes and sizes, and the world isn’t and doesn’t need to be a “one size fits all” kind of reality. That isn’t reality, anyway. Be a true artist and true to yourself, and you will find a lot of people out there who will connect and identify with who you are and what you do. Stand your ground as well and know that you have value just as much as any guy who’s on stage with you, or any woman, for that matter. If you’re playing with decent people, that will already be a given. Keep pushing and don’t let anyone convince you to give up on your dreams and talent. If you keep practicing and doing, you will eventually get to where you want. Don’t give up.


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