An Interview with Jessica Kaczmarek: Multi-Talented Gretsch Shredder
“I’d describe myself as an eclectic girl with attitude and panache. Don’t try to stick me in one box, I don’t fit there. I love experimenting with different sounds and genres and mixing them all together like a fine Molotov cocktail. Boom!”
That pretty much sums up the DNA of Jessica Kaczmarek, a multi-talented musical chameleon who plays killer lead guitar (plus piano and synth, bass, ukulele, and the mandolin), sings, records, fronts a trio, teaches, scores music for films, and has even toured with The Blue Caps and jammed with Prince.
Not a bad musical journey for someone who started out sort of being forced to take piano lessons when she was eight. “My mom loved music and loved the piano and really wanted me to love it, too, but after four years I was bored,” says Jessica. “Fortunately, Mom wanted me to continue in music and when she asked me what I wanted to play next, I quickly said, ‘the guitar!’” I was only 12 but I had seen a clip of Jimi Hendrix at Monterey Pop that just blew me away. And when I saw him light his guitar on fire I said, “Now, THAT is COOL! THAT’S what I want to do!”
Jessica lists Debbie Harry of Blondie and Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders as two of her biggest influences growing up. “I’ve always been drawn to strong women musicians,” shares Jessica. “And those two frontwomen are not only strong, but they know their worth and they know their talent. That’s something I really respect and hope that I embody, so I can encourage other women and girls to be themselves, be strong, and believe in their talent.”
The Southern California native has been a professional musician since she was 17 and has worked with a slew of bands in the Los Angeles and Orange County area (including Busstop Hurricanes and Russell Scott & The Red Hots) playing everything from indie rock/alternative and punk, to blues, surf, and raucous rockabilly. Jessica’s wide range of impressive guitar chops have also led to touring opportunities around the U.S. and Europe, where she has rubbed shoulders with Chuck Berry, The Blue Caps, Joe Strummer of The Clash, Reverend Horton Heat, Dwight Yoakum, and many more.
Regarding how she became a Gretsch Endorsed Artist, Jessica was discovered quite by accident in 2018 by Joe Carducci, retired Gretsch Product Marketing Specialist. “I was checking out a band on social media and looking at their video and Jessica just happened to be sitting in with them. She got on my radar right away because it was obvious she could play,” shares Joe. “We were always on the lookout at Gretsch for ladies who could influence other ladies. It was a no-brainer with Jessica. She’s the real deal.”
Jessica is busy recording her upcoming album, Dark and Light. with fellow bandmates of the Jessica Kaczmarek Trio, David Valdez on drums, Lakshmi Ramirez on upright bass, plus “Juke Joint” Anderson adding his trademark blues harmonica on a few tracks. “It’s a mix of all my influences: blues, Motown, the Stax sound, indie rock, which I love, and dreamy ballads,” says Jessica. “It’s a bit of an Amy Winehouse flavor with some Tom Waits swampy blues, and some Elvis Costello melody sensibilities added in.”
We caught up with Jessica at her home in L.A. to talk about the versatility of Gretsch guitars, her mission to get women guitar players more visibility, and what attracted her to Gretsch in the first place.
For those not familiar with your music, how would you describe it?
I would describe it as blues-infused soul/indie rock ‘n’ roll. Take no prisoners; that’s my attitude.
Some people joke and call me “BB Queen: Blonde Blues Queen” but, obviously, I’m not BB King at all.
You play multiple genres of music on a Gretsch. Thanks for showing how versatile they are.
You’re welcome. It’s really a mission of mine to show people that it’s not a guitar for just a couple of very specific genres. Anything can be played on a Gretsch: blues, alternative rock stuff, pop stuff, whatever. I’ve seen people on Gretsch Forums say, ‘Oh, you can only play this on a Gretsch’ and I’ll respond back and say that’s not true, you can play anything on a Gretsch. A Gretsch is a very versatile guitar, there are no limits. It’s whatever comes out of the player.
Besides the guitar, you also play four other instruments. What are they?
Well, my mom started me on the piano when I was eight. It’s a beautiful and expressive instrument, but I got bored and after four years I took up the guitar. Then after the guitar, I was playing my friend’s bass and thinking this is basically a guitar with just four strings. Then I got a ukulele and thought, hold on, this is a bass but just tuned differently. And then, a mandolin. It feels like a little chicken neck but it’s like a ukulele with double strings. So, I just started playing them and translating everything because I think music is pretty much a language, you know?
Creating music for films, such as the documentary, David Mirisch–The Man Behind the Golden Stars, is also a talent of yours. How do you know when you’ve done it well?
For starters, being able to play and record multiple instruments myself is an advantage when creating music for films. I’d say if the music is done really well, then it shouldn’t distract from the film, it should feel integral to the whole of the movie. To be able to put audio and visuals together with music is, just, deeply satisfying. And to see the film on the big screen and see how the music that you made affects people in the audience and know you had some part in eliciting the emotions that they’re feeling, that’s what being a musician is all about to me. Bringing emotions out through songs.
So, why the attraction to Gretsch guitars?
They just stand out to me. They’re definitely the Cadillac of guitars. I do think of them like a classic automobile, how carmakers put such thought and care into every detail to make them absolutely stunning visually and also built to last. And I think that’s what Gretsch is all about. When you play one, people immediately stop and come over to see what it is. They’re insanely eye-catching to me and the sound that comes out of them kind of knocks your head back. I’ll hear comments, “Wow, that’s one beautiful guitar. And it’s got a mean, powerhouse sound to it.”
What was the first Gretsch guitar you recall seeing?
I would say it was Poison Ivy of The Cramps playing her 6120 orange hollow body. She had attitude and style. Those are two things that I really love and hope to embody them as well.
Any other Gretsch Artists that inspired you?
Billy Zoom of X, who’s now a friend, has attitude and style in the way he plays that Silver Sparkle Jet like a dream. And Brian Setzer, of course, is right in there too. He is my first searing memory of seeing a truly mind-blowing Gretsch player. In addition to attitude and style, he has tons of cool on top of it all. He navigates the guitar neck like he invented it.
Tell us about the first Gretsch guitar you played or owned.
The funny thing is, my first two Gretsch guitars were given to me. The first was a Jumbo Sierra acoustic from the Historic Series that was given to me by a friend. My first electric Gretsch was a Satin Black 5120 Electromatic that came from another friend as sort of a barter. I had helped him out with a plane ticket to Paris. I still have them both today and play them all the time. So, the first Gretsch I bought proper is my 6129T Gold Sparkle Jet. And it’s worth every cent to me.
I see you playing your Sparkle Jet on a lot on your videos. Is it your favorite?
I’d say it is, even though all of my Gretsches have different personalities. But the Gold Sparkle Jet is, like, an Academy Award winner. I look at it and I just want to play it, and it’s usually hard to peel me away from it because it works so well with everything I play. It feels really good in my hands and feels closer to me physically because of its size and more like an extension of my body. It just really sings to me, and I think they look and feel pretty sexy as well.
How does your Gretsch contribute to your stage persona?
Sparkle is really my thing. You just can’t ignore it. It’s kind of an attitude and you look at a Gretsch with sparkle on it and it’s got an attitude. I definitely like that a lot. I love the style and class of the 50s and 60s and I like to mix that glamour in with a modern-day attitude. To me, you have to dress to impress, you gotta look sharp, so why not start with a cool-looking Gretsch Sparkle Jet around your neck?
How did becoming a Gretsch Artist impact you and your career?
It actually changed my life and changed things for me. It really elevated my career. People love the brand so much that when they hear I’m with Gretsch, they tend to sit up a little straighter and take notice a little more, so being with Gretsch has been a really great thing. And it really has a family feel which I don’t think you’d get with other brands. I think it’s a reflection of Fred and Dinah and being based in the South in Savannah, because it just has a down-home family feel and I really enjoy that. It makes you feel proud to be playing a Gretsch and being part of that family.
I read where you jammed with Prince and even played his yellow cloud guitar?
I did. One of the best experiences of my musical career was getting to meet Prince and play with him. That was an amazing experience and an amazing guitar. Not only did that yellow guitar look like butter, it played like it too. And when I got an approving nod from him when we jammed and I played a guitar solo with him, it just melted my heart. Like butter, baby.
What did you learn from being around a legend such as Prince?
I learned about believing in yourself and knowing your worth and not accepting anything less from yourself or others. And pushing yourself to be the best that you can be and not comparing yourself to other people. You’re unique and that’s what you’re here for, that’s what you bring to the table. Just being able to jam with him one time, you could feel the attitude and the confidence in what he was doing and creating. And he was a force of nature when he played guitar. He could shred the life out of it.
How do we get more women to play the guitar so they can jam with and get approval from the next Prince like you did?
I’m always trying to promote women playing because when I grew up, and it really wasn’t that long ago, there really weren’t any female guitar players that you’d see. And you still don’t to this day, and it just blows my mind because I know there are a lot of really talented women out there that are really good players, but they just don’t get exposure and it never made sense to me, ever. I really think it’s a matter of visibility.
You raise a good point. You think more visibility would lead to even more women taking up the guitar?
I’m sure it would. We’re usually represented playing other instruments, like piano or whatever, so many women and girls out there never give it a thought or think it’s possible for them to play the guitar. It still seems to be an instrument that is heavily represented with male players, and I think that’s really discouraging to women. There are a lot of female players out there that can play really well, but they just don’t seem to be getting that much exposure and I’m not sure why that is, but it really needs to change. The more talented and skilled women players that are featured prominently, the more other women out there will see that it’s possible for them to play guitar as well. To me, when you see yourself mirrored back in other musicians and artists, then you realize, oh, it really is possible for me to do it too.
I’m sure you’re an inspiration to other women and girls out there. What’s their reaction when they see you play the guitar like you do?
Usually, they’re shocked to see that I really know how to do it and they’re almost immediately excited and inspired to play. I’ve been seeing more girls and women playing guitar these days. And I think some of that is due to the popularity of Taylor Swift. Even though she’s mostly known for strumming an acoustic, a lot of girls connect with her and love her attitude. I’m not a particular follower of her music, but I definitely know she inspired a whole generation of girls to play guitar. For me as a kid, it was Bonnie Raitt. She was, hands down, the best female guitarist out there who not only played great lead, but was also an amazing singer and songwriter too. She really inspired me to pursue guitar. There just needs to be more female artists being put out there and highlighted and from many different musical genres, too, so a woman or girl can say, ‘Hey, if she can do it, there’s no reason why I can’t be up there, front and center, playing a guitar and basking in the spotlight as well.’
And check out the groove and Jessica’s guitar chops in this live studio performance of “Nothing At All,” an original song from her upcoming debut album:
Feature photo of Jessica by Billy Burke.