YOU NEVER WANT TO ACCUSE SOMEONE OF BEING
too talented, but Richie Kotzen might be a candidate
for that criticism. A great singer, a strong
songwriter, and a flat-out amazing guitarist (not
to mention a pretty good drummer), it’s tough
to pigeonhole him in an industry that insists on
pigeonholing everyone. Kotzen is one of the more
charismatic exponents of the Shrapnel wave of
the ’80s and early ’90s, and in addition to releasing
solo albums, he also landed a glam metal gig
with Poison, played fusion in Vertu with Stanley
Clarke and Lenny White, and replaced supershredder
Paul Gilbert in Mr. Big. Currently touring
his latest record, Peace Sign [Headroom], where
he plays pretty much every instrument, Kotzen
continues to elude easy classification.
How did you get such a live sound on a record where
you’re playing all the instruments on almost all the
For starters, there’s no programming or any
of that sort of stuff in the production. It’s all live
instruments playing parts. Another reason is, if
something happens during the recording—as long
as it’s musical—I’m more inclined to let it go and
then work around it. I have a studio at my house,
and I leave everything set up at all times. The
drums are miked and going through the preamps and compressors, and that doesn’t change
until the record’s finished. So, I might lay
down some sort of drum groove to work off
of and then play something on the bass and
think, “It would be really badass if the drums
reacted to that.” Then I can hop behind the
drums, punch in, and do that. It’s easy for
me to keep those cool little accidents that
happen and make it sound like the instruments
are all reacting to them.
There’s cool interplay between the guitar and
drums on “Paying Dues.”
I knew I needed some kind of excitement
in the drumming department that I would
not be physically able to deliver on that tune.
So a good friend of mine, Dan Potruch, played
drums. You really do hear the guitar and the
drums interacting, and although it sounds
like we cut it together, we didn’t. I had a click
track, a guide guitar, and a guide vocal and
he cut his performance to that. He did about
five or six performances and then we put
together what I thought was the best representation
of the drums by editing the five
performances down into one. Then from
there, I played off of his drumming. That’s
where you get that interaction, which is
something that I’ve always had live. Even
back on my first record, with Steve Smith, I
was into that whole notion of playing off the
How did you get the solo tone on that song?
That's my signature Fender Tele into a
Fender Vibro-King. I used that amp for probably
50 percent of the guitar sounds on this
record and the rest were the Cornford
RK100. I set the Vibro-King for an aggressive
tone—not the kind of tone where you’d
want to do a shredding lead, but definitely
a cool rhythm tone—and then by adding an
overdrive pedal, it let me sustain notes and
be able to solo that way. The overdrive was
a Tube Booster from Ed’s Custom Shop. That
was a pretty straightforward solo as far as
attempts. I did not labor over that one at all.
You don’t run as much gain as a lot of the guys
that you are associated with.
That’s true. That solo doesn’t have a typical
high-gain tone. By contrast, “My Messiah”
has a full-out distortion tone. But a song like
“Paying Dues” has a cleaner tone, with just
enough gain so the notes don’t die out.
Talk about the ringing chords that are in the
beginning of “Catch Up to Me.” Those have this
incredible sustain. How did you get that sound?
There are a bunch of guitars happening
there. There are two 12-strings playing the
open chords, there’s the electric guitar doubled
through a standard amp, and then
there’s the Leslie guitar, which I use a lot.
That was a Mesa/Boogie Revolver rotating
speaker that I’ve had it for as long as I can
remember. You have the regular cabinet and
then you have that one where the speaker
spins and you get this big, lush, stereo sound.
Any time you hear that chorus-y effect, like
on this song or “Peace Sign,” it’s the rotating
Is there a ton of compression on the 12-
Yes. You might not want that sound on
everything you play, but in that instance,
I think it was very effective because I’m
hitting these long, ringing chords. The
attack is at one volume and then the chord
ringing out comes up to the same volume.
I have a few compressors in my studio. I
have an Anthony DeMaria that’s basically
made like a Teletronix LA-2A. I have a
Manly compressor called a Variable Mu, and
I have a Focusrite Blue series channel strip that has a pretty good compressor. It was
the DeMaria on the 12-strings, though,
because I used my vocal mic to mic those
guitars and that’s the compressor I use on
that mic. It’s an old Neumann U87 that I
bought from a friend of mine years ago.
You bring a lot more funk to your rock than a
lot of shredders do.
I never considered myself a funk guy. I
think what you’re referring to comes from
where I grew up—outside of Philadelphia—
and the music I listened to and what was on
the radio. When I was young, I had the classic
rock records like Bad Company and Led
Zeppelin and all that, but my dad had Percy
Sledge and Otis Redding records, so I was
also exposed to the R&B stuff. When I write
something it tends to still have those roots
to it, which I would imagine is pretty common.
If I grew up in Latin America and
listened to that music, then that influence
would be more prevalent.
Both funk and R&B players value space and
dynamics. Talk about how you apply those concepts.
Dynamics—that’s a very powerful tool.
Everything you do with music should ultimately
be about expression. So, if you’re
mad all the time and all you do is scream,
then all you’ll have is a constant barrage of
angry sixteenth-notes, which becomes ineffective
after a while. You can’t just have one
emotion all the time unless there’s something
wrong with you. You naturally adjust
how loud or how soft you play at a given
time. With my band, so much of what we
do is based on dynamics. Every time I do a
show, I’m in a different country with a different
soundman and I have to tell him,
“Don’t touch it once it’s right. We’re a threepiece
band. We’re going to control our own
dynamics.” When we have that going for us,
it’s extremely effective. The guys listen to
me and I listen to them. If I start playing
more aggressively, they play more aggressively.
If I start getting quiet, they get quiet
with me. It’s communication. And I think
the space also comes as a result of listening
to what’s happening. If right now you were
to speak, I would shut up because I want to
hear what you have to say. It would change
what I’m thinking and what I’m saying and
that’s part of the conversation. That’s how
I look at music.
Think back to the Shrapnel days, where it was
you, Paul Gilbert, Jason Becker, Vinnie Moore, and
Yngwie, and you guys just ruled the guitar roost.
What was the vibe like amongst you?
There was a lot of respect from my end.
I came into it thinking, “These guys are
amazing musicians. They’re great guitar
players. I want to be part of this crew.” It
motivated me to work really hard as a musician.
Then, once I got around Jason Becker
and Greg Howe, I realized that I was never
going to be like those guys. I didn’t have a
handle on the classical thing, so I wasn’t a
neoclassical guy. And at the time I wasn’t
really a jazz guy, either. So what was I? What
I always really enjoyed was getting on stage
and playing songs with my band. So I
thought, you know what? I’ve got to make
that kind of music. I started writing songs
that were based on more of a vocal situation
than a guitar situation, and that’s what led
me to become a singer—the minute I started
singing, I found my calling as far as who I
was as a musician. The thing that made me
happy was playing the guitar and singing my
tunes. I’m better at that and more comfortable
at that than I ever am doing any of those