Anyone who fears the beating heart of Rock & Roll is in dire need of a fresh jolt of electricity should look no further than longtime Kramer fan Gina Gleason to set it right. In person, Gleason is gracious, warm, and genuine—as appreciative for her success as her fans. On stage, she is easily one of the more formidable guitarists in rock working today. Just ask Carolos Santana, Brendon Small, Adrian Belew, and Smashing Pumpkins. Gleason is currently residing in Las Vegas where she’s playing the part of the “Muse” in Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson One show. The Kramer SM-1 is Gleason’s main guitar in the studio and on the road and was the inspiration for her custom made guitars for Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson One, where Gleason never fails to pull in the audience with her scorching leads and command of Jackson’s broad catalog.
The Philadelphia native has been dedicated to guitar since her early teens. “I discovered my passion for music when my guitar became more and more attached to me,” said Gleason, “to the point of being an extension of myself and playing became the one and only thing I ever wanted to do.” Kramer Guitars spoke with Gina in-between shows in Vegas where One is a regular sell out.
Thanks for speaking with Kramer Guitars, Gina. Catch us up on what you’re been up to.
I play guitar and a character (the Muse) in the Michael Jackson One show with Cirque du Soleil. So, my character runs around and plays guitar and on ramps and interacts with the other characters. I think the idea for having the character that plays guitar is that Michael Jackson had Jennifer Batten or Orianthi—he liked to have that female guitar person by his side. The idea is to interact with the other characters and tie the story together. There’s no band in the show. So what we did was take the original songs and pull out the guitar tracks and I just play live over them, which was a super fun process to hear all the individual tracks broken down. In the show, we use the Fractal system to program all the tones to get them to match the original. It’s a super fun process.
So you’re running around for the whole show?
I love doing that. I love high energy performing. I always played in metal bands, punk bands. I love losing your mind performing while playing guitar. So, it’s something more in that vein than sitting with a band.
Which is great since you can concentrate on playing—there’s no fiddling around with your amp or adjusting to what’s happening on stage.
It’s true—it’s a really unique place to be as a musician and performer because with the Fractal system everything is MIDI-triggered to the time code on the show. So we would program—for instance—“Dirty Diana,” which starts with the clean riff during the verse and then it kicks in during the chorus to this overdriven tone. So that’s all MIDI triggered. There are not even any foot switches anywhere. I’ve never used anything like that before during this show.
But you still love plugging into an amp…
Absolutely. I was playing out live a lot this past year locally and in the Vegas area and around Utah. I write music outside the show so I’m always in the studio or recording at home. It’s funny--I still have same amp I’ve had since before the show that I used in Misstallica.
You helped form Misstallica, is that right?
Yeah, it was myself, the bass player (Teddi Tarnoff), and the drummer (Kaleen Reading). And the fourth member was always whoever was available. We put it together in maybe 2008?..I think (laughs). That was really fun to do. Metallica is one of my favorite bands so just to be able to play their stuff and travel around and hear other people’s stories about how Metallica effects them and how much that band means to people--it’s awesome.
Did you ever hear any feedback from Metallica?
We met Lars at the Orion fest in New Jersey and that was cool. We just told him about the band and he got a kick out of it. But no specific feedback (laughs)--certainly not anything like “don’t play our music.” Having this (One) as the consistent thing in my life, I can spend my time on writing arranging and stuff like that so that’s become one of my favorite things now. Which is kind of a fun adventure because now I’m finding my tone and finding my voice again in the music I’m writing.
Can you see yet how your own music is informed by your experience with Cirque du Soleil?
I think were I’m headed in my own work is just getting into rock music but keeping it with a really modern edge. Because I love old school metal: Angel Witch and Venom—I love that dark old school metal. And there’s so many great modern bands like Yeah, Yeah, Yeah’s and the Dead Weather---stuff that has that kind of old school blues/rock edge but keeps it super modern. I’m trying to find some marriage between what I love from old school Rock & Roll and what I’m listening to currently and really using the technology that’s available to musicians now—experimenting with what’s happening now. That’s the kind of direction I’ve been going in.
As far as the show’s influence, just hearing the way they arrange the Michael Jackson songs—they’re all way different than the original versions that we’re all used to hearing. And a lot of them are based on movement or other visuals. I think it’s very interesting and influential to see how the music director for that show sat down with us and said: ‘here are all the songs and this is how we’re going to arrange them to fit this visual or this mood or this vibe.’ To really get into the arrangement side of thing is pretty influential.
That’s right up your alley since you studied music and arranging.
I started out on guitar but then I wanted to go to this music school in South Philly (Girard Academic Music Program)—I’m from Philadelphia. I auditioned for guitar but there was no place for guitar since it was all orchestral kind of stuff. But they were willing to make space for guitar in a jazz band setting but that couldn’t be my main area of study. So I told them I’d love to learn upright bass so they took me on under the circumstances that I would learn bass. So that was an awesome experience ear-training-wise and hand- strengthening wise. I was very lucky to have that experience in high school.
How did you start playing Kramer?
I started playing Kramer more recently. I always played a Jackson and then somebody let me borrow an old Gibson Explorer and I was really into that. The Gibson/Epiphone/Kramer showroom in Vegas said “you have to try a Kramer with your tone and what you’re doing”. I tried the SM-1 for the first time and I was blown away with the feel of it. It was something like the Jackson but it had a lot more versatility because it had the coil taps where you could dial in more single coil tones. You weren’t limited to this box –‘this is your shred guitar and this is your chill out guitar’. It was kind of all there. And so I really dug that.
When I went out to do the One show, I first moved from Philly to Montreal where we created the show. And they really wanted custom looking guitars for the show—crazy shapes, gold and sparkly; one of them shoots fire (laughs) so the guitars I used are modeled on the specs of the SM-1. And its appropriate for Michael Jackson where you have these heavy riffs like “Dirty Diana” or “Beat It” and then you have these really funky single coil tones like “Wanna Be Startin’ Something”—We could do it all with this one set up.
Do you have any recording plans?
I’m in the studio right now and hoping to cut an EP of original stuff by the fall. A couple of interesting things have happened recently. Since doing the ONE show I got to sit in with Santana at the House of Blues. I played the Kramer for that which was bad ass. That was another experience where they asked if I wanted to play one of his PRS guitars and I really just wanted to stick with my own set up. I didn’t care what amp I played but I wanted the feel of the Kramer. So that was pretty cool. And in December I had a chance to open for the Smashing Pumpkins at the Brooklyn Bowl. That was a really cool experience and then when they came through here again I got to sit in with them while they were playing with Marilyn Manson.
We can’t wait to hear your new EP. Thanks again, Gina and good luck.
Thank you so much. I really appreciate you guys and everything Kramer has done to help out.