Approximately four years ago, Richie
Kotzen abandoned picks completely while on a South American
tour. It was a ballsy move to force a near-total technique
revamp right in front of concert audiences, but Kotzen felt it
was essential to his growth as a player. Here, Kotzen—who
recently released the album 24 Hours [Headroom-Inc]—discusses
why he challenged himself so abruptly, and what he
feels the rewards were.
It was the first show of a long South American tour,
and I had one of those nights where no matter what I
played, I hated it. I was thinking, “I’ve got a long way
to go here, but I’m not going to sit in my hotel room
and practice tonight. It’s really doubtful I’m going to
get that much better in the course of five hours. If anything,
I’m going to tire myself out and not be able to
play tomorrow. What am I going to do?”
My best idea was to force myself into a totally different
direction—to take something away from my
tool bag. Well, I wasn’t going to go onstage and play
rock songs with a clean tone, so I thought, “Why not
lose the pick?” This wasn’t a completely scary move,
because I’d often gone pick-less at jam sessions. You
never know if a pick has been in someone’s mouth, so
when a guitarist would offer me one at an impromptu
jam, I’d just say, “No thanks—I play with my fingers.”
I always need to force my hand in order to move forward,
so I just jumped right in and did the next show
without a pick. Most players test something out before
doing it in front of an audience, but what better way to
try something new than putting yourself on the spot?
For me, that’s when my best performances come out.
Now, there’s plenty of stuff on YouTube of me sounding
horrible, but that’s probably when I was out on a
limb taking chances. I’d rather take a risk and grow,
than play it safe and end up doing the same gag over
and over. Of course, I never go onstage trying to sound
bad. I want to be expressive and inspired. So my choice
is to go out there with enough confidence and belief
in myself that I can pull off whatever I’m attempting.
In this case, losing the pick made me feel more
connected to the guitar. It slowed me down immediately,
and forced me to consider each and every note.
It changed my phrasing. I also felt more in control of
my tone, because when you strike or pull a string with
your fingers, it’s a very intimate attack—a radically different
sound than when you use a pick. Certain things
you lose, of course—like alternate picking—but other
things happen, and your technique evolves.