Richie Kotzen

October 26, 2007

When he performed at Guitar Player’s 40th anniversary celebration during the Winter NAMM show in January, for example, he hit the stage with enough energy to fill an arena, rather than a sedate showcase room at the Anaheim Hilton. There was no doubt the NAMM audience was hit with the same guitar firepower, vocal gusto, and pure balls-out rock that he unleashed on the Rolling Stones crowd when he opened for Mick and the boys during their 2006 Bigger Bang tour. It appeared as if Kotzen has no sense of proportion. If he plays, he’s gonna go for the throat—an admirable trait in an era where major artists often approach rock as a Broadway show where video production and choreography are more critical than passion.

Sadly, chops, charisma, and dedication haven’t made Kotzen a household word in the United States. Perhaps the guitar mafia still disrespects him for being a member of Poison and Mr. Big, but any naysayers should take note of his latest release, Go Faster [Headroom]. The album swaggers with all the riff-saturated brilliance of ’70s guitar heroism, but it also soars on Kotzen’s songwriting and production smarts, and it’s topped off with playfully macho Paul Rodgers-by-way-of-Hall-and-Oates vocals. It’s almost too perfect—which means it’s probably too good for the typical 2007 music fan. However, guitarists who moan that no one rocks like they used to should do themselves a solid and get into the Richie Kotzen business.

Go Faster is full of vibey and evocative guitar sounds. How did you visualize the album’s tonal landscape?
Very rarely does the tone dictate what I’m going to play. I hate to say this, because I might piss people off, but I don’t think tone is as much about Marshall, Boogie, or Fender as it is about Keith Richards, Chuck Berry, and Eddie Van Halen. Tone comes from the person, and the idea of an amp is to make it easier for you to get your natural sound. It might be easier for me to get my sound out of a Fender rather than a Crate, but at some level, I’m going to sound pretty much the same regardless of what I play through.

Typically, I’ll hear a part in my head—say, while I’m doing the basic rhythm track—and then the part dictates the sound. A lot of the tone comes through my hands and fingers, because I’m one of those guys who doesn’t hear a lot of effects. I’ll do whatever I have to do to get what I hear in my head out of the amp and guitar. Sometimes, it’s as simple as cranking down the gain on the amp, and turning down the volume on the guitar. Suddenly, I’ll have a cleaner tone for a song section.

There’s also a nice blend of classic rock and R&B styles. What’s in your artistic DNA that drives your songwriting and playing?
Between 12 years old and 16, all I cared about was listening to guitar players. Eddie Van Halen was the first guy I got into, and he talked about how much he liked Eric Clapton and Allan Holdsworth, so I started listening to them. From there, I got into Steve Morse, and, ultimately, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix were probably my biggest guitar influences. Then, I started getting into singers like Paul Rodgers and Terence Trent D’Arby. I got as excited about Terence’s voice as I did about Van Halen’s guitar playing. As far as songwriting goes—it’s a direct reflection of growing up in Pennsylvania. The radio was all about Hall and Oates. I was exposed to a lot of blue-eyed soul, and I think my music always has that Philadelphia sound.

You’ve made solo albums by playing all the instruments yourself, and you’ve also made group-oriented records. How does each method affect your studio performances?
Well, it’s two completely different worlds. I have a studio in my home, so the minute I have an idea for a song, I can go in and start messing around with it. Last year, I did Into the Black all by myself, and it has a certain sound. But that record would have sounded totally different if I had worked with other people—not better or worse, just different. It definitely changed my performance to make Go Faster playing with other people, because I became more reactionary. I’d hear somebody play something cool, and I’d say, “That’s badass—I’m gonna follow that.” For example, the drummer might play a certain fill, and I’d play something off that fill, and that interaction might cause something else to happen. When other guys throw in their things, it changes the music a little bit.

What was the main gear you used during the Go Faster sessions?
I played my Fender signature model Telecaster and signature model Stratocaster throughout the entire record. I have DiMarzio pickups in both guitars, and I’ve used D’Addario strings since I was 19 years old. The gauge is .011-.049. On my Tele, I’ve replaced the Tone knob with a series/ parallel switch. It’s pretty cool, because you can get a standard two-pickup, scooped-mid Tele sound or a louder, more midrange-heavy tone simply by flipping the switch. The Telecaster also has comfort cuts for my arm and body—kind of like a Strat—as well as a dropped-D tuner.

For amplification, I used my signature-model Cornford RK100 with a Cornford 4x12 cab loaded with Celestion 30s. It’s a pretty simple 100-watt, hand-wired amp that kind of sounds like an old Marshall. But, out of all of the amps I’ve ever used, I can get a tone instantly with that rig. I plug in, turn up, tweak a few knobs, and I’m there. I also used a Cornford Hurricane 1x12 combo for a lot of the solos and rhythms. It was already miked up during the sessions, so I just tried it, and it sounded really cool—the midrange was very clear and focused.

You said you don’t really hear effects, but you did use some stompboxes on the album—right?
I don’t need any overdrive pedals because the amps have plenty of overdrive. But I used a CryBaby wah, a Dunlop JD-45 Rotovibe, a Dunlop TS1 Tremolo, a Boss OC-2 Octave, and a Mesa/Boogie Revolver rotating-speaker cabinet.

The solos on the album always intensify the songs with just the right mixture of shred, melody, and tone. What typifies a really exciting guitar solo to you?
When I listen to guitar, the things that stand out are vibrato and phrasing. To me, those two things are like secret windows that reveal a player’s confidence and artistic honesty. If someone has a great vibrato, for example, I can buy into what they’re saying, as opposed to someone who has a shaky, fly-buzzing-around-your-head vibrato. The guitarist can play a great lick, but if the vibrato is shaky, I’ll think they hit the part by accident, or just got lucky. Now, phrasing is like poetry. It’s how you communicate a musical sentence or statement. The excitement is in the way you play something, and how it feels when you play it—not whether the part is complex or not.

When I play, it’s from a sense of just being in the music. I hear a melody and I play it. That’s actually how my guitar playing evolved. People always ask me what scales I use, and I can explain theoretically why a certain part works over a certain chord, but that’s not why I played the part. I played it because the melody sounded good. I think one of the biggest mistakes young players make is playing something that they know will work technically—such as a blues scale over a blues progression. But that’s not necessarily what they should play. They should react to what the musical foundation is doing, and play what really sounds best with the music.

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