Not-So-Cheap Tricks: The Guitars of Rick Nielsen

| June 14, 2013

The first show I ever saw was Cheap Trick. It was a Bill Graham Day on the Green in the summer of 1979 that featured, in this order, Cheap Trick, AC/DC (with Bon Scott), Journey, Blue Oyster Cult, and Ted Nugent.

Think about that for a second.

That day for me is something of a blur. I was totally overwhelmed to see so many of my favorite (or soon to be favorite) bands in one place, and I don't remember a lot of specifics. I do remember Rick Nielsen and Cheap Trick kicking ass from start to finish. I remember Nielsen greeting the crowd by saying, "It sounds like Oakland." I remember him introducing "Surrender" by saying, "This is for everyone out there with weird parents." And I vaguely remember him running back and forth across the stage at full speed on every tune. I would see Cheap Trick many more times over the years—because they tour their brains out—and I would always come away knocked out by their pop smarts, rock bombast, and great sense of melody and showmanship.

All this made it infinitely cool to interview Rick Nielsen for the July 2013 cover story in GP. It sort of felt like coming full circle from the little kid who was so in awe of the rock stars on the big stage at the Oakland Coliseum that day. He was totally cool on the phone, and seemed pleasantly surprised that people cared enough about his playing, approach, and songcraft to want to talk to him about it, much less put him on a magazine cover. I reminded him about that show in 1979, and he said, "That's funny…I don't remember seeing you there." We talked for an hour, I wrote up my story, missed my deadline (but not by much), and I moved on. Sort of.

Then the emails started coming in, and then the Facebook messages, all from people saying they were so glad to see Nielsen on the cover. Everyone said he was a criminally underrated talent, and everyone wanted to talk about their favorite Cheap Trick show or their favorite Rick Nielsen riff. I instantly thought and I still think that it says way more about Rick Nielsen than it does about me. I was hopped up on goofballs when I wrote that piece and pretty much just phoned it in. (Kidding! Okay, half-kidding!) You never know what's going to work.

To make it even cooler, last night, just a few days after the issue came out, Cheap Trick came to Napa, CA, and I figured it would be a chance to not only catch another Cheap Trick show but in a great-sounding, intimate setting. Nielsen was very gracious before the show, talking and joking, and he had his tech, Larry Melero, show me all his guitars and amps. Remember that 14-year-old guitar-obssessed kid I referred to earlier? Me too.

A Hamer Standard with cartoons of—who else?—Rick Nielsen.

Another Hamer Standard with one of the best metal-flake sparkle finishes I've ever seen.

A replica of his checkerboard Standard. The original was retired after being damaged in the Ottawa stage collapse.

A Les Paul with an Explorer headstock. When the original headstock broke, Nielsen requested this one. The funniest part is it actually looks great.

A 1958 Les Paul.

The Sgt. Pepper Hamer

A replica of Jeff Beck's Yardbirds Esquire, given to Nielsen by Beck himself.

The box-shaped Rockford Hamer

No introduction necessary.

The Paul Rivera-modded Fender Deluxes that have formed the core of Nielsen's tone since the late '70s.

A Boss Noise Suppressor, MRX Micro Amp (used only on the solo to "The Flame"), and block logo MXR Phase 90 sit atop a rackmount Crybaby, and Shure wireless units.

Onstage that night, Nielsen made the following speech: "This month I'm on the cover of Guitar Player magazine. I was on the cover in 1979. So look for me to be on the cover again sometime around 2047."

Will do.

Setlist from the 6/12/13 show in Napa:

Hello There
Oh Candy
Ain't That a Shame
Never Had A Lot to Lose
Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace
Need Your Love
High Roller
She's Tight
Heaven Tonight
I Know What I Want
I Want You to Want Me
Southern Girls
Baby Loves to Rock
California Man
Dream Police
Auf Wiedersehen

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