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HomeInterviewsIn Conversation with Emily Burton, Guitarist for Black Sabbitch, Fireball Ministry,...

In Conversation with Emily Burton, Guitarist for Black Sabbitch, Fireball Ministry, and Hexandagger

“I play this music because I love heavy guitar sound and tone — that’s what makes me happy: to be enveloped in this loud, powerful music.”

As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 21 – Fall 2022

Photo by “Loud and powerful” is an apt description for the musical tornado that touches ground in Emily Burton’s world. The hard riffing guitarist for Black Sabbitch and Fireball Ministry talks flame-shaped guitars, her vintage Gibson SG, tone dynamics, and taking Black Sabbath’s diverse catalog on the road with the all-female band Black Sabbitch.

Originally from Indiana, Burton embraced sixties music, then the heavier strains of British metal captured her attention. Today, that may not seem like a big deal, but Emily and others helped set the tone for more women playing hard rock and metal music. 

Nowadays, there’s room for it all, like her longtime band Fireball Ministry, the edgy hard rock of Hexandagger, and Black Sabbitch, which mesmerizes audiences with versions of the iconic metal band’s songs. Black Sabbitch isn’t just a backyard cover band but a superb hard rock experience consistently touring the U.S. and overseas and has been booked for festivals by Dave Grohl and Sharon Osbourne. 

Burton’s metal journey began at age 15 when she told her guitar instructor she wanted to learn “Iron Man” (Black Sabbath), a choice that would symbolize her individuality as well as her future.

How did you join Black Sabbitch?
I was playing in another band with our drummer Angie Scarpa, and about that time, she decided to start Black Sabbitch with Melanie (Makaiwi), who is still on bass. Her friend was playing guitar, and they went through several singers — cut to about four years now, she reached out and said they were looking for a new guitar player and asked if I knew anyone. She didn’t think I would have time because I was playing in a few other bands like Fireball Ministry, but I said, “Hey, I want to do it,” so I joined, and then right after that, we auditioned singers and found Alice (Austin). Our first show was Cal Jam, which was huge. That was both of our first shows with the band.

Were you a Black Sabbath fan growing up?
I was. That’s why I wanted to play guitar when I was 15 because I heard Sabbath and was like, “This is what I want to do.” And so, Sabbath and Iommi’s playing were my main influences. And starting my own original band, they’ve always been one of our huge influences, that “stoner music,” so that was a natural fit.

If I’m going to play a cover of somebody else’s music, I want it to be Black Sabbath (laughs). That’s the ultimate to me. It’s been fun and challenging because when I first started to play guitar, I was trying to learn Sabbath songs. Then revisiting them all these years later, sometimes I’m still like, “Oh my god, how do you do that?” And other things seem clearer and easier, not easy, but I understand them more. It’s been interesting for me — what seemed impossible, now after playing for 20-plus years, I’m like, “Oh, yeah. I can do this,” and other things I’m just like, “I don’t know how he does that?”

Tony Iommi is a unique player partly because of that accident he had years ago; he had to adapt his style.
Yes. What’s funny is on this tour, it’s always something. Out of the gate, we had five shows in a row, and I ended up getting a blister on my one finger under the callous, which is bizarre. Usually, you’ll get a cut, it’ll heal, and a few days later, you’re fine. But it just kept getting worse because we didn’t have any time off. So, I actually played with this smooth band-aid on my finger one night, which I didn’t think was possible, but I’m like, “Hmm,” everything was gliding along pretty well, and I’m like, “Interesting. I’m just going to pretend like I have Iommi’s tips.”

What are some of your favorite Black Sabbath songs to play?
I like the heavier songs. I love playing “Into the Void” and “Electric Funeral.” It always changes, but I like those riffs. I’ve always been a rhythm player. I’m not a “showoffy” shredder. So that’s challenging, too, because this is the first time I’ve been in a band where I’m the only guitar player. Usually, I’ve played with two guitar players, and we can do some harmonies. But I’m more comfortable playing songs with those heavy riffs versus a lot of soloing and crazy noodling. The older stuff gets a little more jazzy, just crazy shredding. I really love the heavy riff songs, so I would say those two are probably my favorite right now to play live.

“Paranoid” and “Iron Man” are popular choices as first songs. How did you get started?
When I wanted to play guitar, my parents were always supportive. I was into sixties stuff, and then it just got heavier. When I heard Sabbath, I was like, “Oh, that’s what I want to do,” and so, I got a rental guitar, and my mom’s like, “Let’s get some guitar lessons, and then if you like it, we can talk about getting a better guitar.”

I just remember going to the lesson, and the instructor was like, “Is there a song you want to learn?” I said, “’Iron Man,’” and he showed me the riff. I didn’t even understand at the time what they were doing with their hands to make that full sound. He took my little amp and turned the distortion and the gain up, and he’s like, “There you go,” and I’m like, “Oh, my god.” That’s how they’re doing it! They’re just playing these barre chords that are making heavy, heavy sounds. I was definitely more into “Iron Man.” That was the first song, but of course, “Paranoid” is always a good one.

Tell me about your guitars. You play a flame-shaped guitar. Is that a custom?
It’s made by a company called Minarik. They’re kind of like a boutique company so that one isn’t exactly a custom. But I have that flame-shaped guitar, it’s called the Inferno, and I have one in a cracked mirror finish. I don’t know how many there are of those. I think there are only a couple, and I have one. That guitar is really cool. They play amazingly, and they’re not as heavy as they look — it’s not weighing me down. That’s what I love — they look like these huge, heavy axes, but they’re very comfortable to play. I have a few other shapes. They did build me one that has more of an SG body (like a stock); it has a fireball inlay on the fretboard.

You also play Gibson SGs, too? How do you adjust in a live setting to Sabbath’s de-tuned, darker riffs?
Yeah, so I normally play a Gibson SG, and it’s a series called “The SG.” They made them from, I think, ’79 to ’81. And it has a walnut body. I love it. I have two of “The SGs.” One, I had recorded all the Fireball Ministry albums, actually, every album that I’ve ever done, but I stopped playing it live. I stopped touring with it because I got nervous. I didn’t want anything to happen to it. About five years ago, I bought one on Reverb from a guy in Chicago. It had all original pickups, everything. I’ve been playing that live for all the down tunes, like the later records, like the C sharp stuff; it’s set up for down tuning. Then I have a few other SGs. But in Sabbitch, I have a reissue, a Guild S-100 Polara, and it looks like an SG (Kim Thayil plays them). I’ve been using that to play all of the first two (Sabbath) records, like the up-tune stuff, and I love it. It’s great. I have another Guild, the X-82 Nova; it’s one of those crazy shapes (laughs). It’s like glitter and cool, so that’s more of a Fireball guitar. In Sabbitch, I’m using the Guild and my “The SGs.”

As far as amplification, are you still using your Orange Head?
Yes. It’s like an Overdrive 80 from the early nineties that’s been modded a little, and that’s my main head. I’ve been using a Dual Terror Orange on the road with Sabbitch; it’s a 30-Watt compact one, but it sounds killer. It’s a tube amp, and it’s great because it doesn’t weigh 60 pounds (laughs). I love a little lightweight scenario if I can get one, so I’ve been using that, and then I also have one of the Orange cabinets. They made a compact, smaller cabinet, but it’s their lightweight one, and I can pick it up myself, toss it around. I’ve been using that, too. I think a cabinet plays a large role in your tone; I really do. That’s why I love the Orange cab. They have a really darker, thicker tone. When I use my head with whatever cab, I can really hear a difference. Marshalls are much brighter. If you want that full thing, like an Orange tone, you need the head and the cab.

Black Sabbitch
Photo by John Travis

Fireball Ministry was formed in 1999; how did the band come together?
Jim Rota and I met in Cincinnati, and we started writing songs and putting together a demo. We were just getting done with college, and the idea was to start a band. He’s from the New Jersey/New York area, and we were in New York for a little while. It’s hard to put a band together and gig in New York, and there wasn’t a lot of rock happening at the time; this was the mid to late nineties. So, we went out to Los Angeles and sent our demo out to small labels. Bong Load Records hit us up and said, “When can we see you play?’ And we’re like, “Well, it’s just the two of us.” Jim had played drums on the demo. So they still wanted to do a record. They said, “Hey, I think we might have someone to play drums on the record,” and it was John Oreshnick, who’s still with us. They also had Nick Menza come in and play songs, which was amazing. For a minute, there was a conflict with John, and he couldn’t join the band, but then he did. The three of us have been together the whole time. We had a few bass players along the way; then we got Scott Reeder. Around 2014, we were asked to do Motörhead’s Motörboat cruise and some other things. So, he came on to do that, and he has been with us ever since. 

Does Fireball Ministry have any particular style of writing?
Yeah. We’ll come with riffs — I’ll have some riffs, Jim will have some riffs, and then we’ll get together, and it always changes a little once the drums and the bass come in. But it usually just starts with, “Hey, I have a whole voice memo folder on my phone of just ideas and riffs,” and sometimes you have multiple pieces that go together easier. And then, other times, it’s just like a mix and match, but that’s usually how it goes. And then, Jim will do the vocals, and the vocal melody last, really last. 

Fireball Ministry has several reissues on vinyl with very cool artwork. Do you have more of that in the works?
Oh, thank you. We have one record that is not on vinyl. It’s our third record, Our Rock. We have the rights and everything. So, we’re working on that. And for the first few records, we wanted to do a deluxe edition. I went through old photos and things that we had and did a photo collage from the time period. They’re so old. A lot of the photos are just prints from a photo mat or digital. I was scanning old photos, flyers, and things. It was fun to relive that. I’m a little bit of a hoarder. But we also found a bunch of old videotapes, so Jim’s been digitizing videos. We’re still going through things we’ve really never seen.

Are you still making jewelry with Dutch Hollow General?
Yeah, I’m still doing that, and it’s a bit of a juggle when I’m on tour. I love silversmithing. I have always been into that, and it’s meditative for me, too. I’ll mix up what I want to wear on stage and in life. It’s all sterling silver. I do a lot of handmade chains. But there’s only certain things I can wear on stage as a guitar player, and I’ve had jewelry in the past pop off and fly off or get in the way (laughs). In a sense, I’m making things for myself, but also for other players and people who are not players who love the rock and roll life. My inspiration is all about that “rock look.” I love black and silver. Basically, I like making the chains because I get to use a hammer and just hammer on an anvil (laughs) and then fire up my torch. 

What is your touring schedule like?
I feel like I know myself, and I know it takes me a couple of weeks to get in the zone. At first, I’m tired, and then I get in there and can do it for a long time. It’s kind of fun; I enjoy it. You have to switch gears. Sometimes, it’s nice to focus on that one thing: you get up, you go to the gig, sound check, you play the gig, but it can be extremely exhausting. It’s an endurance challenge. I’m like a “three or four show in a row, day off” person. On this run, we did five, and that’s when I get like, “Oh my god, I need a day off.” Because your head starts to get jumbly, too. You keep making the same mistakes over and over again. You’re like, I just need my brain to settle so that when I come back, I’m not in “bad habit” land.

What do you love about what you do?
Honestly, I play this music because I love heavy guitar, sound, and tone. That’s what makes me happy, to be enveloped in this loud, powerful music and to be a part of that machine. That is what gives me joy — that powerful sonic feeling — the sound that you’re making. And it’s the camaraderie between your band mates, too. I have never been a solo artist, I enjoy playing music with others, and in Black Sabbitch, this is the first time I’m playing in an all-lady band, and it’s an absolute pleasure. It’s a joy. It’s a different perspective, especially with touring. Even at shows, it’s like, I would be the only one who’s changing my clothes; now, with Sabbitch, we’re all getting ready for the show together, and it’s that part of it, too. I think I played in bands because I wanted to have that sense of unity, making music together. I love songwriting as well, like creatively. I love playing in Sabbitch, but it is different for me with Fireball — that’s a creative songwriting outlet. And then with Sabbitch, it’s a different piece of it. It’s more technical or something, where I’m trying to play these songs and do them justice.

Fireball Ministry
Photo by Andrew Stuart

It was really great speaking with you. Anything else you would like to add?
I think it’s exciting that there are more and more women playing metal guitar. I see these young shredders online, and I think it’s super cool. I think it’s important to see other people doing something, and you’re like, “I want to do that, too,” and it’s been fun to see on this last tour a lot more women on the crew and sound people, and I think that’s exciting to make that a more common occurrence.

Caroline Paone

Caroline Paone is a freelance writer for several content channels such as SFGate and ClassicRockRevisted. Her work has also appeared in Bass Player, Bass Frontiers and Flair magazines. Follow her on Twitter @CarolineRex

Caroline Paone
Caroline Paone is a freelance writer for several content channels such as SFGate and ClassicRockRevisted. Her work has also appeared in Bass Player, Bass Frontiers and Flair magazines. Follow her on Twitter @CarolineRex
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