In the late ’70s, Cheap Trick’s
Rick Nielsen was the clown prince
of rock guitar. With his wacky clothes, goofy facial expressions,
and penchant for slinging several guitars on his body at once—
and famously five necks on a single guitar—it was easy for some
people to dismiss him as all show, a guy who was more interested
in flicking picks than playing licks. The fact that his band’s
smash concert album, Cheap Trick at Budokan, sported the impossibly
poppy “I Want You to Want Me” single (as well as
crowd screaming that bordered on white noise) didn’t
help anyone to take him more seriously. But a closer inspection
revealed a rock-solid rhythm stylist who blended the best elements
of British Invasion punch and rockabilly swagger; a songwriter
with uncanny pop and street smarts (not to mention a
great sense of humor); and a certifiable guitar freak who dragged
literally dozens of instruments onstage every night, including
vintage Strats, ’59 Les Pauls, original Flying Vs, and several
custom guitars from a then relatively unknown company called
Hamer that were as iconic as anything from the era.
Through it all, Nielsen still didn’t really
get his due as a guitarist, and that was fine
with him. Why would anyone take him
seriously when he refused to take himself
seriously? Even when he made the cover
of GP in November 1979, Nielsen was all
jokes. Tom Wheeler asked him what sort of
slide he preferred and he deadpanned, “It’s
made out of an old toilet paper roll that I’ve
had chromed.” Undaunted, Wheeler continued,
“Really, though, do you know what
kind it is?” “I think it’s a Charmin.”
so unassuming about his own abilities as
a guitarist and a songwriter that he almost
can’t talk about his process or success, falling
back on self-effacing platitudes such
as “The song is king” and “Whatever the
song needs.” But kind of like Steve Stevens
a few years later, Nielsen has always been
the guy that guitarists describe as being
“a lot better than anybody knows.” His
solos straddle the line between rhythm
and lead much like those of his influences
Pete Townshend and Keith Richards, and
his muscular, power-chord riffs echo the
best of those two guys as well.
And he’s done it for more than four freaking decades. This
year marks the 35th
anniversary of the release of Budokan, and
that was Cheap Trick’s fourth record. They
have played hundreds of gigs every year since
then and show no signs of slowing down.
They bring it, night after night, year after
year. They are survivors in an industry that
chews up and spits out seemingly younger
and stronger bands every day. Nielsen and
Cheap Trick have staked their claim the old-fashioned
way: by being a kick-ass concert
experience that you have to see to believe,
and once you see them, they want you to
tell your friends and come see them again.
That’s what has happened with an absolutely
ridiculous number of artists who cite
Cheap Trick as an influence, from Metallica
to the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Pantera to
Smashing Pumpkins and way beyond. It’s
an amazing American rock and roll success
story, driven by Nielsen’s tunes, riffs,
guitars, and grins. This year, opening for
Aerosmith, Nielsen and his mates took the
stage to a prerecorded announcement that
said, “Please welcome to the stage the best
f***ing rock band you’ve ever seen,” and
then proceeded to back up that bold statement
in a big way.
I read somewhere that Budokan was
intended for a limited Japanese
release. In retrospect, it seems like a good
thing they reconsidered that, wouldn’t
Yeah. It was originally just made for
the people of Japan because they liked us.
We weren’t that popular in the states prior
What do you remember about that
We didn’t know it was a recording! Well,
actually when we got there they said they
wanted to record the show, but it was all sort of behind the scenes. The
engineers were in a back room and there
were just some nondescript mics in front
of the amps. We didn’t really set up and
rehearse long and hard to get the right
sounds or anything. It wasn’t like, “You
guys better play good here because we’re
making a live album.” We didn’t even feel
like we were recording. It was just another
live show for us, except in a big arena.
Then we were asked to mix it and make it
into an album. Bun E., Jack Douglas, and
I went to New York and we mixed about
half of the concert. We thought, “Well,
that’s enough.” That’s what came out as
the actual Budokan record. Then, 20 years
later, we put out the rest of that concert,
which is kind of a dumb move. We probably
should have put out the whole concert,
not just part of it.
Why do you think that record resonated
with fans like it did?
|Seriously ironic: Nielsen, Tom Petersson, and Robin Zander.
Our first three records weren’t getting
a ton of airplay in the states, but in Japan
we had three number one hit singles. But
we were gigging constantly. When Budokan
came out, people thought, “Oh, I saw them
open for Kiss, I saw them with Queen, or
I saw them with AC/DC. I remember that
song in concert.” The tunes just sounded
different than the studio versions—more
mistakes and more live feel. I think for the
people that had seen us in ’77, ’78, and ’79
but hadn’t really heard us on the radio—it
reminded them of us.
In the videos for the Budokan tunes
looks like you have Marshalls and Fenders
in your backline.
That’s right. Marshalls, Fenders, and
Sound City cabinets. That was the real stuff.
My Marshalls were the ones with the real
on and off switches, not the plastic ones.
My Sound City cabs were from 1968. The
Fender Deluxe Reverbs that I was using were
beefed up by Paul Rivera before he started
Rivera amps. He used to hot-rod amps for
Steve Lukather, Larry Carlton, and all the
studio guys of the era, and I liked the way they sounded so I had him make me
them. He put master volumes, heavy-duty
transformers, and heavy-duty speakers in
them. I still use them to this day.
Were you touring with all six of
I always had two of them and then probably
a third as a back up. I would have Fender
Deluxes and my Marshall or Orange amps, and
I’d have our soundman mix between them.
Did Paul Rivera modify your Marshalls
in that era as well?
No, he didn’t modify those. He just modified
Do you remember how you had the controls
On the Fenders I know that I had the
treble on 10, bass on 3, middle on middle, and
reverb off. I’d put maybe the master up to 6
and the regular volume up to 6 so I could get
nice distortion at almost any level. I was consistent
on that—I rarely changed the Fender
settings. With the other amps, I’d find out at
soundcheck what I needed more of or less of.
Let’s talk about some of the tunes on
that record. Your “Big Eyes” intro has a little
bit of a “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” kind
of vibe. Is that what you were going for?
I never really thought about it that way. I
thought we were going for more of a Fleetwood
Mac, Danny Kirwan, Jeremy Spencer,
Peter Green kind of thing. That was the Fleetwood
Mac that I loved. But with our band, for
the most part we had just one guitar player.
Tom [Petersson, bassist] and I would have
to do all the parts. If there was an answer,
we had to answer ourselves. I think that’s
where we got some of our chops from—we
had to fill all the parts.
Speaking of chops, you play some killer
triplet pull-offs in tunes like “Ain’t That a
Shame” and “I Want You to Want Me.” Do
you think that’s a Les Paul influence coming
Definitely, Les Paul and Jeff Beck. That goes
back to “Jeff’s Boogie.” It’s a trick
but it’s a
good trick if you’ve got the right key to play
those pull-off things. “Jeff’s Boogie” is in the
key of G, “Ain’t That a
Shame” is the key of E,
so I had to change it out a little bit and make it
my own. I couldn’t play the Jeff Beck riff, and I
didn’t want to. I made up my own. I love Jeff
Beck. I actually sold him the second Les Paul
he ever owned, in 1969. I saw the Yardbirds
live in Byron, Illinois, on a Sunday afternoon.
There were probably 100 people there and
I got to go up close and see everything that
Jeff was doing. Back in those days you didn’t
have Guitar Player magazine per se, and there
was no national press to read about Jeff Beck.
You’d have to have the English papers like
NME or Melody Maker or in the US you’d read
Hit Parader. One time they asked him “How do
you get that sound out of your amp?” I think
he said, “I took a screwdriver and poked holes
in the speakers.” So of course I immediately
poked holes in my speakers.
How did that work out for you?
It didn’t work very well. For a sound like
Jeff Beck you had to be Jeff Beck. But that’s how you learn
When I listen to you play rhythm, I hear a
bit of Pete Townshend power chords, a little
bit of Keith Richards funkiness, and a Duane
Eddy low-string thing. Is that accurate?
I think you’re right on the money. Those
are the guys. I didn’t study them, but that’s
the way I played. I never tried to be Pete
Townshend, I never tried to be Keith Richards,
but I sure did appreciate them. Like the
Who, Cheap Trick is guitar, bass, drums, and
a vocalist. You’d have to play lead and rhythm
pretty much at the same time. If the song
didn’t need a solo, you didn’t play one. Keith
is in a class all his own. I know why more
guitarists don’t try to do the Keith Richards
thing, with the tunings and all that stuff. The
minute you go to five strings or tune to open
G or E or whatever, it’s a
dead giveaway that
you’re trying to be Keith. I can’t say enough
about Townshend. That guy is one of my alltime
favorites. We opened for the Who in
1979 for 190,000 people or something like
that. He came over and he said, “Hey Rick,
how did you get that tone on ‘I Want You to
Want Me’? I love it.” I said, “You’re
that did Live at Leeds, what are you asking
me for? I was probably trying to sound like
you and I got it wrong.”
What can you say about Robin Zander’s
He’s like Ray Davies, Brian Jones, or John
Lennon—he just plays by feel. He’s not a
techno guy but he can play almost anything.
He’ll play a certain way, I’ll play a different
way, and together it kind of makes a bigger,
better sound. When we did the Beatles tune
“Getting Better,” I played the low part and he
played the high part. He played the part that
you would normally think the “lead guitar”
guy would do. On “Need Your Love,” we do
the riff together and he plays the high part
and I play the low. We fall into it pretty naturally.
It works out good.
You’ve said in the past that you’re
too crazy about acoustic guitars. Plenty of
your tunes, like “Everything Works If You
Let It” and “The Flame” have a big acoustic
guitar presence. Can you elaborate on
that statement a little bit?
I try to avoid using an acoustic, but certain
songs need it. So when I said that, I
meant my preference is using electrics. I
have some great acoustic guitars, too, but
that’s not me. I’m electric all the way. If I’m
forced into it, though…
That is hilarious. Of all the interviews
I’ve ever done, I don’t think anybody has
ever said anything like that. How do you
not love the acoustic guitar?
I didn’t say I don’t love it. But my druthers,
my preference, my first choice, is how
can I be playing in front of as many people
as possible? How can I make it powerful?
That’s electric guitars. I don’t want to see
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
do an acoustic show, you know? Someone
like Richie Havens, who just died yesterday,
you want to hear him with an acoustic. So there are always exceptions to the
but not many. I mean, Ritchie Blackmore—
I love him on the Strat and now he’s playing
a 14th century lute. What?!?
Your solos often incorporate 7th chords
and those cool, sliding two-note country
or rockabilly intervals. You’ve mentioned
James Burton as an influence. Do you think
that’s where that comes from?
Yeah, that’s probably part of it, but I
didn’t study it or anything like that. James
has been a dear friend of ours for quite a
You came into the public’s consciousness
during a super-competitive time for
guitar playing, and yet you never really felt
the need to flex your soloing muscles. Was
there never any temptation to do flashier
solos, even when it was pretty fashionable?
I always thought it was human nature: For
the most part, girls don’t like guitar solos.
The problem you had with show-off
guitarists of the day was that some of them
lacked melody or taste. But you were quick
to praise guys who could burn musically, like
Jeff Beck and Eddie Van Halen. It seems like you could have done a similar
thing if you
had wanted to.
But the song is what’s king. It’s Cheap
Trick—it’s not Cheap Trick featuring Rick
Nielsen on the guitar. I was just more into
the song. There are very few people that
can do big solos or instrumentals that are
worth getting excited about. Jeff Beck is one.
John McLaughlin with the old Mahavishnu
Orchestra is another. He quit taking drugs,
though, and then I wasn’t as keen on him.
But for the most part my solos are songoriented.
It’s like the Kinks: When they got
to the guitar solo—was it technically great?
No, but it was rhythmically cool.
What do you go for in a lead tone? Do
you change your tone up from the rhythm?
Do you turn up, do you add a boost, do you
I’d like to tell you all kinds of crazy
techno stuff, but no. I have the bridge pickup
pretty much always on 10 and then I have
the rhythm pickup on 3 or 4. When I go to
solo, I’ve got the thing wide open. Quite
often I follow what the melody does. “The
Flame,” “If You Want My Love,” “Woke Up
with a Monster,” all those solos are obviously
inspired by the vocal melody.
Do you have a favorite solo in your
No. I don’t know. I never thought about
it. I mean, some of that stuff you mentioned,
the Jeff Beck/Les Paul stuff in “Ain’t That a
Shame,” that’s fun.
Much has been written about your awesome
guitar collection, but not as much
about your amps. What are some of your
I love the Fender Deluxes that Paul Rivera
hot-rodded for me back in 1977-’78. I’ve got a
number of Premier amps. They’re quite cool.
I have some great Selmer amps, a bunch of
Sound City amps that I bought in 1968, a lot
of Fender Tweeds from the ’50s, a number of
Vox amps from the ’60s—a nice brown AC30
and a Super Beatle. I actually have a couple
Sunn pieces that I’ve never seen anywhere
else. I still have my first Orange amp. I actually
met Cliff Cooper at Orange Music and
I also bought my first Mellotron from him.
I’ve got some Fuchs that I’ve been touring
with. I also bought a Diezel, although I’ve
never taken it out of the box.
The core part of your tone seems to be
those modified Deluxes.
Yeah, that’s correct. And for a number
of years, I’ve had this iso-box. It’s a
speaker box that has a microphone in it that
sits offstage. The Deluxe goes into the iso-box
so I have a consistent sound every place I go.
How many fans do you think you’ve
blinded by launching guitar picks deep into
their ocular cavities at Cheap Trick shows?
Hopefully most of them.
Cheap Trick has been cited as an influence
by so many bands in so many styles
it’s kind of ridiculous. Can you always hear
your influence on them or are there times
where you think, “Wow, it doesn’t sound
like that band has ever heard Cheap Trick”?
A little of both. A lot of musicians are
generous to say that they have listened to
us. Last year we played at the Download
Festival outside of London with a bunch of
metal acts. Kirk Hammett told me he’s a big
fan. Really? Phil Anselmo and all these guys
from really heavy bands, they were all up
on stage watching us for our whole show. I
think people like Cheap Trick because we’ve
had ups and we’ve had downs but we keep
going. We have a work ethic and we’re a real
band. We’ve always seemed to get along with
almost any kind of crowd once we get get in
front of them. Before the show they might
be thinking that we’re this ancient band, but
we don’t think like that. Our ages are old but
we’ve never grown up as far as I know.
Lowbrow as High Art
Jol Dantzig on Creating Rick Nielsen’s
ACCORDING TO HIS FACEBOOK PAGE, JOL
DANTZIG is the “grand fromage” at Dantzig
guitars. He is perhaps better
known as the genius builder and designer from Hamer guitars,
and his instruments have been seen on stages worldwide in the
hands of brilliant players in all styles. After having created many
thousands of guitars for Hamer (and later Kaman and Fender),
Dantzig has sort of come full circle, “making guitars one at a time
to a theme and dealing directly with the people who are going
to play them.” That’s pretty much what he was doing when he
made the most iconic instruments of his career—including the
checkerboard Hamer Standard, the “Uncle Dick” doubleneck,
and, of course, the legendary five-neck—for Rick Nielsen.
How many guitars have you built for Rick
I have no idea but it’s a huge amount. I’m always
reading interviews, or seeing video clips and I see one
that I forgot about. More than 25 but less than 100.
Some of the early ones had Gibson PAFs in them,
Right. We had a small stockpile of Patent Applied For pickups
and we would use them for artists who really could tell the
difference. When we started to run out of those we would buy
the new Gibson humbuckers at the time, the “T-top” pickups.
Then we worked with Larry DiMarzio and with Steve Blucher to
create a pickup of our own that was based on the PAF but with
a little bit more midrange punch for the bridge and a totally
different tonality that was more tuned in to the neck-position
sound for the neck.
How instrumental was Rick in publicizing the Hamer
brand back in the day?
We were already pretty well established. We had a dealer
network both in the United States and in Europe and England,
and we had some great artists like Wishbone Ash, which was a
huge band at the time, Martin Barre with Jethro Tull, and Mick
Ralphs of Bad Company. Cheap Trick was a really great band,
they were really good friends of ours, and we were big fans and
supporters of Rick. We were also fellow guitar collectors so we
had a bond with him. We ran an ad for our English dealers in
Melody Maker magazine, and we put Rick in it. So in the
part of his career I think that we helped him, and then of course
when they broke big a few albums later with Budokan, Rick
able to return the favor many times over. That’s something
always be grateful for.
What were his gigs like back
They were a killer band—just an astounding band when they
started. You could bring anyone, no matter what kind of music they enjoyed, to
one of their gigs and the next time you saw that
person, they would be dragging three of their friends to a Cheap
Trick show. It was universal. People had never seen anything like
it. Rick was doing stuff back then that was unheard of: wearing
multiple guitars, changing guitars—not only for every song but in
the middle of songs—running across the stage,
I mean at a full gallop. It was unbelievable.
The most famous guitar you built
for Rick has to be the original five-neck
guitar, which has been displayed at the
Boston Museum of Fine Art. How do
you view that guitar historically after all this time?
For a long time, I felt the caricature part of our contribution to
Cheap Trick detracted from the whole modern/vintage aesthetic
that essentially we invented. We were serious guitar builders—
very serious about super high-quality traditional-style guitars,
and that kind of got trampled by the Cheap Trick thing, so for
a little while I got kind of bitter about it. But I’ve come to that
point where I realized that it was a gift, like having a hit single in
a way. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have been able to
design and build a guitar like that. The original idea was to have
three necks, which had to do with Rick’s sense of humor. Rush,
at the time, had two guys playing doublenecks and Rick wanted
to parody that with three necks. And then I suggested four necks
and then of course he said, “Well, why not five?”
I’m sure it would
have gone to six or seven but we ran out of physical space where
you could actually play it. So it was a conversation like that and
then he left it totally in my hands. We talked a little bit about
having the different necks do different things but it was mainly
a great sight gag. We had no idea at the time that it would ever
become as iconic as it has. Sometimes you get lucky. My parents
were artists and musicians and I think when
I went into making rock and roll guitars, they
kind of looked at it like, “Wow, we didn’t really
expect you to do that. When are you going to
make something of yourself?” When I saw
that five-neck guitar next to a Picasso in the
Museum of Fine Art in Boston, both my parents
had passed away by then, but I looked
up at the sky and thought, “Well, here I am
with the greatest artists in the world. My
work is hanging right next to theirs.” You’ve
got to be happy when the universe gives you
stuff like that.
It might have started as a joke, but
the funniest part is that it has really
It’s lowbrow as high art. Yeah, it’s goofy and
wacky, but there’s
a higher purpose. It’s both ironic and serious at the same time. I
see very much of a parallel with Rick and with Cheap Trick. If you
bother to take a closer look at what Cheap Trick does, behind the
cartoon façade, there is such serious execution and such serious
intent that it can’t be denied. And that’s the way I always
approached any project with Rick Nielsen.