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Jerry Cantrell: “Sometimes I’d be late for soundcheck and I’d show up to find Eddie Van Halen up there with the band, rockin’ out”

Jerry Cantrell
(Image credit: Gibson)

Just last week, Gibson announced the first of the Jerry Cantrell models that have been rumored over the last year or so. What they’ve confirmed so far is that only 100 of the ‘Wino’ Les Paul Customs will be made, each hand-signed by Cantrell on the back of the headstock. 

The Murphy Lab-aged Wine Red finish pays tribute to the Alice In Chains guitarist’s original, and the guitars will feature Gibson 490R and 498T humbuckers, as well as a Fishman Powerbridge piezo to cover the acoustic tones the Seattle legends are famous for.

“We have some really exciting things planned over the next four or five years,” the Alice In Chains singer/guitarist tells GW. “The Wino is coming out first and then there will be a few other models after. Expect some really cool guitars either designed by the both of us or replicas of what I’ve played over the years with my own modifications.”

That’s not all the alternative rock legend has been up to over lockdown. There’s the 30th anniversary reissues of AIC’s Facelift debut which came out at the end of last year and, of course, his upcoming third solo album, Brighten – which arrives this October, some 19 years after its predecessor. 

We also couldn’t help but notice the video for its lead single, Atone, could very well have been teasing his next signature model – a custom acoustic with a square white scratchplate around the soundhole and the guitarist’s name on the truss rod cover. 

As the man himself tells us, there are some very exciting things on the way. In this catch-up with Guitar World, the Seattle hero talks through his signature Friedman amps and pedalboard, and explains how it felt to be reunited with a guitar gifted to him by Eddie Van Halen two decades after it was stolen…

Jerry Cantrell

(Image credit: Gibson)

Last year, your music was celebrated at the MoPOP benefit show in Seattle with some incredible cover versions. Ann Wilson doing Rooster was one of many highlights.

“Yeah, she’s amazing and she’s been a real deal friend to us for many years. Around the time William [DuVall] joined, we did a show with Ann singing and she passed the mic over to Will and they finished it together. It’s really cool she picked that to do. She actually recorded it and sent me a vinyl single for her new record, it was the B-side. I was pretty honored by that, too. Fishbone was amazing. And Dallas Green. 

“And fuckin’ Tad… man, I love Tad, with the Soundgarden guys. Lily Cornell Silver doing Black Gives Way To Blue with Chris DeGarmo. Everybody killed it. The song choices were great, there were some real deep cuts that people picked and Liz was amazing. It was really cool. 

“I had moments where I was quite overwhelmed, actually. The part that got me the most was the kids. I started tearing up when they started playing our tunes. There was a real sense of community. 

“Everybody in that show decided to pull together and do a cool thing for charity, and also honor the life and music of this band, but they’re also people that we admired and friends. 

“It showed a sense of community that’s tough to put into words but it was an amazing experience, especially considering what we’re all living through and all the difficulties of pulling that together with Covid. Everyone banded together. It really meant a lot.”

The main effect I’ve used consistently over the years, probably the one I’m most associated with, is the Cry Baby

We have to say, Nona Weisbaum [as seen on 1995 AIC mockumentary The Nona Tapes] also did an excellent job...

“It was hard getting hold of her, you know?! Her agent was asking for a little too much but we finally settled on a price and got her to come in and give us a little shoutout [laughs].”

Amp-wise, are you still running two of your signature Friedman JJ-100s, one clean into Greenbacks and the other driven into Vintage 30s?

“Yep, I love my Double J! Dave Friedman is a great dude, man. I’ve known him a long time and he makes great gear. I’m really happy with the collaboration we came up with. It’s such a versatile amp, but at the end of the day, it’s just a basic plug-in-and-go rock amp. You can hammer nails with that thing all day and it’s going to frickin’ hold up for you.”

And pedal-wise, you’ve generally stuck to a few key pedals over the years, like a Boss chorus for Rooster and your signature Cry Baby for various leads…

“Yeah, there’s a few things I tend to have on the 'board. I always have a chorus in the mix. The Rotovibe is one I’ve gone to a bit as well. And of course, the main effect I’ve used consistently over the years, probably the one I’m most associated with, is the Cry Baby.

“When we were designing my signature one, I was after something a little thicker, with a darker edge to it. Other than that, I guess we use a flanger once in a while…”

Ah yes, we’d seen the EVH flanger on the ‘board at points too. We loved that story about you supporting Van Halen on tour and coming back to find he’d sent you a couple of guitars and an entire rig as a gift...

“Yeah, that was pretty amazing. He had a really big heart. It meant a lot then and it means even more to me now that he’s gone, that he took a shine to me. We had a little bond, you know. It was a really cool thing. 

“Any time we got the chance to hang, going to a pool hall or just meeting at his hotel and whipping out a couple of guitars or just sitting around backstage. Sometimes I’d be late for soundcheck and I’d show up and he’d be up there with the band, fuckin’ rockin’ out with them [laughs].”

It’s the quest that never ends. You’re trying to find your own fingerprint. You need to find what’s uniquely yours and that can only come from you

That’s hilarious!

“Yeah! And honestly, those two EVH guitars mean the world to me. One of them was the Goldtop that went missing when I was making [2002 solo album] Degradation Trip. Somebody lifted it out of the A&M studio. 

“I just got it back a few years ago – a couple of AIC fans and collectors tracked it down and tried to do a sting on this kid who had it and was trying to sell it. He went dark on the first guy, who was from Florida. The second guy was a separate collector from San Diego. Between the two of them, it took about two weeks for me to get that guitar back… after 19 years!”

You must have been over the moon! Did you ever tell Eddie?

“Yeah, I remember giving Eddie a call saying, ‘Dude, do you remember that fuckin’ guitar that got stolen, the Goldtop you gave me? I got that thing back!’ And he was like, ‘No way… how long had it been?’ I told him and he said, ‘Man, I’m really happy for you, I never get any of my stolen shit back!’ 

“And then I told him, ‘Man, you’re Eddie Van Halen… if I had some of your gear, I might not give it back either!’ And we laughed and he was like, ‘Yeah, okay man, well I’m happy for you and really glad you got it back!’ I’m looking at it right now… it’s sat on my couch.” 

Jerry Cantrell

(Image credit: Keith Griner/Getty Images)

Despite the pandemic, it’s looking like you’ve been keeping busy with the Facelift reissues and new solo material…

“We all have to make do with this situation, and with AIC, we’ve never really taken the time to do a 20 or 25-year celebration. We figured it would be a good idea to do it at 30! It’s nice to look back, revitalize the music and put it back out there for the world, plus give fans the chance to own some cool vinyl and enjoy the history of the band and our music. 

“And that’s the thing about music… it’s alive out there. Through trying times is when you reach for it the most, I find. It’s always carried me through. Now that I’ve finished the new solo material, I’m excited to get that out there and see how many ear holes it gets into. Hopefully people will enjoy it.” 

You’re the master of creating some of the most emotionally powerful music using just a few simple, almost cowboy-like chords on songs like Nutshell, Your Decision and Scalpel. Other tracks like The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here are much more harmonically complex, but it seems whatever you do, there’s always this inexplicable depth...

“That’s very kind of you to say. And yeah, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here is a trippy tune. I just did a re-listen on that one not long ago, it’s a fuckin’ good tune, man. I feel it’s well orchestrated. 

“I’ve been fortunate to learn to become a writer and progress over the years. Where I come from and who I’ve been influenced by has always bled through my music. All those things you described are the things that touched me the most about my favorite artists. 

“That thing you can’t put your finger on… I don’t know what the fuck it is, but it’s the power that other things don’t seem to have. That’s always the goal for any artist.”

You’ve been a lot better at finding it – whatever it is – than most…

“It’s the quest that never ends. You’re trying to find your own fingerprint, I guess. You need to find what’s uniquely yours and that can only come from you. I’ve been in a great band, with some individuals who are completely unique. 

“A blend of all of us together is what makes us what we are. I’m really grateful to have that, not everybody gets that on a wider scale – some people might have it individually – but for a group, it really comes down to the right ingredients in the bowl. I’ve been lucky to find that with my brothers and continue on this journey… it’s not over yet [laughs]!”

Amit Sharma

Amit has been writing for titles like Total GuitarMusicRadar and Guitar World for over a decade and counts Richie Kotzen, Guthrie Govan and Jeff Beck among his primary influences. He's interviewed everyone from Ozzy Osbourne and Lemmy to Slash and Jimmy Page, and once even traded solos with a member of Slayer on a track released internationally. As a session guitarist, he's played alongside members of Judas Priest and Uriah Heep in London ensemble Metalworks, as well as handling lead guitars for legends like Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols, The Faces) and Stu Hamm (Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, G3).