Rick Nielsen Seriously Jokes about His Music

January 30, 2014
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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 Beatle-maniacal 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.” He’s 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 initially intended for a limited Japanese release. In retrospect, it seems like a good thing they reconsidered that, wouldn’t you say?

Yeah. It was originally just made for the people of Japan because they liked us. We weren’t that popular in the states prior to Budokan.

What do you remember about that recording?

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 recording 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.

Seriously ironic: Nielsen, Tom Petersson, and Robin Zander.
Why do you think that record resonated with fans like it did?

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 it 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 six of 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 them?

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 the Fenders.

Do you remember how you had the controls set?

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 through?

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 stuff.

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 the guy 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 rhythm playing?

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 not 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 rule, 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 long time.

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 do anything?

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 catalog?

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 favorite amps?

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 Hamers

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. —MB

How many guitars have you built for Rick Nielsen?

I have no idea but it’s a huge amount. I’m always seeing photographs, 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?

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 very early 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 was able to return the favor many times over. That’s something I’ll always be grateful for.

What were his gigs like back then?

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 endured.

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.

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