How to Play Guitar Like Johnny Thunders

By Ralph Heibutzki
Johnny Thunders set the template for many punk rock guitar players.

If style ever deserved a royalty check, then the late New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders should have been "the richest cat on the planet," as his ex-bandmate, Sylvain Sylvain, once wryly stated. Sporting a spiky hairdo and sneer right out of Rock 'n' Roll Central Casting, Thunders' simple but loud, raw style inspired countless players--from Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, Izzy Stradlin of Guns 'N' Roses, and countless others. With this wide-ranging influence, there is little doubt that Thunders ranks among a handful of players--such as Ron Asheton, of the Stooges--who created the fine art of punk rock guitar. Proceed accordingly, and turn it up!

The Les Paul TV, which Thunders played throughout his career.

Strap on a single-cutaway Les Paul TV model guitar, so named for its honeyed-yellow finish, which--with various exceptions, dictated by circumstances--became the dominant model throughout his career. Associates like former Dolls soundman Nitebob assert that Thunders made this choice, because he was "too much of a klutz" to deal with more than one pickup switch. The Les Paul TV's setup eliminated those problems, featuring only one pickup, one tone and one volume control, respectively.

Thunders as a New York Doll, with a twin-control Les Paul custom--before switching to the TV.

Make overdrive and volume an essential part of the equation, but resist the urge to slather the sound in distortion. Unlike his contemporaries, Thunders plugged straight into his Fender Twin Reverb "blackface" amplifier, with no effects boxes or pedals--presumably aided by the TV model's denser wood routed for the single P-90 "soapbar" pickup. To get his classic "squeal," simply turn up the amplifier as loud as you can stand it, and fire away.

Johnny Thunders in performance with his post-Dolls combo, the Heartbreakers.

Keep the chord changes simple and direct--if you're paying tribute, three or four will suffice. "Personality Crisis" is among the best-known examples, built around a powerhouse C-D-G sequence. This provides ample room for a lead guitar player to stretch out, without wandering from the basic framework. The elemental simplicity of '50s and '60s rhythm 'n' blues, soul and Top 40--sounds on which Thunders and his Dolls colleagues grew up--should not be underestimated here.

Thunders' classic 1979 solo album,

Form your playing style around simple, two-fingered power chords--a trick that Sylvain credits teaching Thunders early in the Dolls' career--and some well-placed string bending. Bend upwards toward the fret, using the inside string of the power chord that you are creating. For relevant snapshots, listen to the live version of "Chinese Rocks" from the Heartbreakers' "DTK" live album, or the stop-and-start dynamics of "Subway Train"--New York Dolls and solo versions.

Johnny Thunders, right, seen later in life with his fans.

Make sure that your Les Paul TV guitar is a double cutaway model, which is easily distinguished by the two "horns" on either side of the neck. This quality is essential for accessing the higher frets, and one that you will need to approximate Thunders' trademark screaming high-end approach.

Tip

Recognize that, for all of Thunders' affection for the Les Paul TV, he used many "one night only" guitars, too--such as the Dan Armstrong plexiglass model, which he played early in the Dolls' career. Other examples include the Vox Teardrop, played on the Dolls' classic 1974 "Old Grey Whistle Test" TV show appearance, and double-cutaway Grestch White Falcon, his initial weapon of choice for his first post-Dolls band, the Heartbreakers.

Warning

Understand that approximating the vintage aspect of Thunders' sound will not come cheaply. As Nitebob has noted, Thunders and his New York Dolls colleagues were strongly into vintage Gibsons and Les Pauls, because they were widely available--and far cheaper--than they became later, as prices soared, and collectors' awareness of them grew. In short, you may have to settle for a more affordable brand with a similar appearance.

About the Author

Ralph Heibutzki's articles have appeared in the "All Music Guide," "Goldmine," "Guitar Player" and "Vintage Guitar." He is also the author of "Unfinished Business: The Life & Times Of Danny Gatton," and holds a journalism degree from Michigan State University.