When it comes to throwing down heavy riffs and face-melting solos, few guitarists can own the stage like guitarist Courtney Cox. Born in Philadelphia, Courtney picked up the guitar in her early teens and almost immediately went on to perform with noteworthy artists, including tours with Jon Anderson (Yes) and Adrian Belew (King Crimson), sharing the stage with George Lynch (Dokken) and Perry Ferrel (Janes Addiction), and studying with guitar virtuoso Chris Gordon.
Courtney is also an expert when it comes to fulfilling fan expectations in nationally recognized tribute acts; she previously performed in Queen Diamond, an all-female tribute to King Diamond, and she currently performs with the all-female Iron Maiden tribute, cleverly called the Iron Maidens, under the stage name ‘Adriana Smith’ (a female version of guitarist Adrian Smith). When not touring, performing, and making appearances at various guitar clinics around the country, Courtney is busy writing and tracking her own solo material.
What inspired you to pick up your first guitar? What was your practice routine then, and how has it changed now that you’re performing and touring regularly?
My road to playing the guitar was a strange one. I played the piano and was a first chair clarinetist in grade school. Music was second nature to me, and I really didn’t think much about that at the time because it was just another class in school that we were all forced to take. I was more focused on athletics and lacrosse was my thing. I was training for the good old sports scholarship because it was my only route to university, as money was extremely tight and it was the only way to get out of the small town that I’m from.
I remember being in my mother’s car around the age of 13, and Metallica was blaring out of the radio. I found myself playing air guitar, and what was funny about it was that I was strumming to the drum beats and not the guitar parts. What did I know, right?! Soon after that, I woke up one day and just told my parents that I wanted a guitar. They were confused, and so was I. I just didn’t know where this urge to play guitar had come from. My father took me to the local music shop in the next town, and I picked out this $50 second-hand guitar off the wall. It is still to this day the worst guitar I have ever played. Funny enough, I still have the thing.
After the purchase of a Radio Shack guitar amplifier with its weak distortion, a tangled guitar lead, and some guitar picks, I was ready to go! I did not put the thing down. I would sit and play my guitar for hours. To the point my mother would drag me out of the garage kicking and screaming, I just didn’t want to stop playing. Within a week, I was playing that Metallica song I heard in the car, which was “One.” People would knock on the garage door to see who was playing! It was a great feeling for a kid who was extremely shy and had low self-esteem. It was the push I needed to realize you know what? This is what I’m supposed to do. Play music not only for myself but for others. I wanted to be an entertainer, headbang, and just have fun. Nothing else mattered. By 15, I was already on the road touring.
I would practice for at least eight hours back then. I wouldn’t even call it practicing as that word to me meant work. I was jamming and rocking out. If something didn’t sound right, I would rewind the song and fix it. I learned by ear and on my own terms. I didn’t have the focus for lessons, so it was me in my garage with the stereo and amp on 11. Is my technique proper? Absolutely not, but my playing style is ME.
These days my routine has only changed by the amount of time I play. Fatigue can be harmful, so you need to know when you have had enough and when to put the guitar down now. Little CC would play until her fingers were bleeding. My rule now is to play smart, not hard.
How has your tone evolved over the years?
Simple answer – it hasn’t evolved at all. I’ve had the same tone since I was a kid. Don’t fix what isn’t broken. Tone is everything to me, and it starts with your fingers. My set up is very basic. I have my Friedman Butterslax amplifier half stack and a few pedals on a board in front of me to add textures on my tone for solos or anything I particularly want to stand out live.
A funny story for you; I shot some videos for BOSS pedals a long time ago, and they laughed at me because the delay pedal and chorus pedal that I use from their pedal line were so beat up and trashed, knobs falling off, etc. They asked if I wanted to exchange them for new ones, and I declined because they were the first pedals I ever purchased and were still killer, distressed or not! I didn’t want my tone to change, and I had this fear that something brand new would change my tone (it didn’t). I finally replaced them recently. After 15 years, I think they deserved their retirement.
The only other factor I can think of would be your guitar. You can’t fight a guitar. I always say a guitar chooses you. When you are truly one with your guitar, it can be heard through your tone, and that tone comes to life!
I saw you play the Whisky a Go-Go with the Iron Maidens recently, and the energy was incredible! What advice do you have for other musicians looking to own their stage?
It’s not my stage when I’m playing live. It is the band’s stage, “our stage.” There’s nothing worse than a “look at me” stage hog; it can really ruin a show for the other members in a band and the audience. Your stage presence should be natural and a part of you and not be forced or scripted. So, I would start there, rock out, go crazy, but leave your ego in the dressing room.
Engaging the crowd is another thing newer players need to learn as well. You are an entertainer, and the fans come to be entertained, plain and simple. I love watching the faces in the audience light up when I make eye contact with them. It is a really awesome thing to have that kind of connection with a complete stranger and make their night from just a smile or singling them out mid-song with a thumbs up or a point.
My only other advice on stage presence would be to make sure music always comes first. There are “smoke and mirror” tricks that a lot of players are doing in the business today, and they are not even playing a note. Personally, I want to be entertained both visually, and more importantly, audibly. I remember being in a shred contest when I was 15, and I flipped my hand around the neck for a flashy move, and I honestly only made obnoxious string noise. I won the contest because of this move; I was so annoyed as it made no sense and was literally the dumbest thing I could have done. I never did it again after that. I won’t run around, throw my guitar up, or do that kind of stuff unless I know those notes are there and they sound good. The old saying is fake it until you make it. I don’t believe in that myself … play your guitar first.
Do you typically play Adrian Smith’s guitar parts as close to the recordings as possible, or do you try to add your own flavor to the music?
When I learn a new Maiden tune, I will learn it note for note. When playing live, I always put my own spin on solos because, at the end of the day, I may be playing Adrian’s part, but I’m not him. I’m Courtney, and my style just naturally happens. Even when you add your own flair to a piece of music, you have to respect the song. I know when it is appropriate to go off the beaten path on a tune and when not to. I lose myself in the music and just play. My fingers take over.
You’ve been with the Iron Maidens for nearly a decade now. Any tips on maintaining relationships with bandmates both on and off the stage?
Over ten years, yes! Where does the time go?! Being in a band sometimes is the best thing in the world and sometimes the worst. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it. It is like a marriage, I always say. Some days we get along, and others not so much, but it doesn’t mean we don’t love each other. We are family.
Some advice I would give is to just be yourself, and if people don’t like it, then that is their problem. Another major thing is respect. Your chain is only as strong as its weakest link. A band has to function together, and when it does, there is no weak link. I just treat people the way I would want to be treated. If I have a bad day, I just walk away and cool off, and then come back and get back to work. There also have been many a good tune written in the past during an entire band meltdown or feud in the music business. At the end of the day, to succeed, you all need to have thick skin.
How would you describe your process for writing and recording? Do you have a preferred approach for either?
When it comes to writing, I’m a composer that can’t force themselves to sit down and write a tune. I have to be inspired always, and most of my writing happens organically. Most of my riffs just pop into my head at the worst times and in the worse places. I’ve been to many a show, or even out grocery shopping, and have to abandon everything that I’m doing to rush home to lay down the riff in case I forget it. I drive my boyfriend absolutely insane because of this. It may be crazy, but you have to strike when the iron is hot, even if it involves abandoning your shopping cart and ice cream in the middle of a store! I also have a box filled with every phone that I have ever owned because they are all filled with random riffs from over the years. Some riffs played on guitar and a bunch with my singing parts into my phone. I crack up listening to the playback of the singing ones.
I’m also a perfectionist when it comes to my own tunes, and I’m my own worst critic. I never know when a song is truly finished. I may take more time than other players with releasing tracks, but I want these songs to be the best they can be and if that takes more time for me to give them the CC stamp of approval, then so be it. You should never rush art.
For recording, right now I use Logic Pro X on my computer at home to lay down ideas. My views on recording are very old school, so when it is time to lay the songs down properly, I will go into the studio and record in a live room. I always choose to record through a live amp. I know I’ll have my exact tone, and I can recreate that magic in the studio on stage as it is my rig.
I’m about halfway through my album at the moment. The rest will be written in pieces here and there when I have breaks in my touring schedule. I swear I live out of a suitcase these days!
Are there any particular artists you’ve been listening to a lot these days?
I don’t always listen to music. Seems strange but sometimes after a long tour I like to give my ears a break and prefer the silence. When I do have tunes, my go-to genre is always heavy metal. I’m definitely stuck in the ’80s. There is just something about the tones and style that really grabs my ear. Give me some Judas Priest, Metallica, Saxon, King Diamond, Pantera (the list goes on) all day every day.
How was the partnership with Caparison formed?
I have been with Caparison guitars for about four years now. I first discovered the brand through watching old videos of King Diamond as Andy Laroque, who is one of my favorite guitar players, played one of their TAT models and the Horus model guitars. It wouldn’t be until I met the owner four years ago at an Iron Maidens local California show that I would have the chance to play one for the first time. I was skeptical at first because there is no way that a company could come along and persuade me to love anything other than the guitar brand that I had been playing for over 13 years. I was wrong. I first plugged in one of their TAT Special models and was completely floored. The feel of the neck, sound of the wood and pickups, ease of the tremolo, and everything down to the sharp look of the body really impressed me. It sounded great without being plugged in as well. That is another sign of a well-crafted instrument. The natural resonance is unreal.
What attracted you to the Horus-M3 (tone, body style, etc.)? How did you customize it to meet your needs?
Over the next year or so, I would play through the different models that they had to offer, and I would eventually settle with the Horus-M3 as its body woods (Mahogany wings and Maple center), neck shape, and dark Caparison pickups fit me the best. After three years of touring the world with my Horus-M3, their head designer approached me about a signature model and shortly after we went to the drawing board with ideas. The Horus-M3 I played was already perfect for me and my style, so I didn’t have to modify much of the guitar for what would become my signature model. My changes included a five-piece Maple and Walnut neck (which is their signature soft, shallow D shape) and a deeper cut by the neck joint to allow easier access to the higher frets. I fit the guitar with the lesser-known Caparison PH-bc bridge pickup for a slightly brighter, more accurate, and articulate sound which also allowed me to create more percussive tones with my right hand while picking. I also fitted some FU-Tone parts to the Schaller Tremolo, a Brass Block, and HD Noiseless Springs for more resonance, stainless steel saddle screws, and titanium string retaining blocks for better durability – I have toxic sweat. As you can see, I didn’t change a lot, and my axes come off the same production line as all their guitars. So, what other players receive when they buy a Horus-M3 CC is exactly what I play down to the DR Veritas strings.
How did you decide on the color choices?
I have two different versions of my Horus-M3 CC model. The first one that was released was the color “Pink Sapphire” and the second, my “Greenie” green. Throughout my career, my main axes were always pink and green, so it was only natural that I would go with these two colors for my signature model.