Jumping Into the Fire by Richie Kotzen

Approximately four years ago, Richie Kotzen abandoned picks completely while on a South American tour.

Approximately four years ago, Richie Kotzen abandoned picks completely while on a South American tour. It was a ballsy move to force a near-total technique revamp right in front of concert audiences, but Kotzen felt it was essential to his growth as a player. Here, Kotzen—who recently released the album 24 Hours [Headroom-Inc]—discusses why he challenged himself so abruptly, and what he feels the rewards were.

It was the first show of a long South American tour, and I had one of those nights where no matter what I played, I hated it. I was thinking, “I’ve got a long way to go here, but I’m not going to sit in my hotel room and practice tonight. It’s really doubtful I’m going to get that much better in the course of five hours. If anything, I’m going to tire myself out and not be able to play tomorrow. What am I going to do?”

My best idea was to force myself into a totally different direction—to take something away from my tool bag. Well, I wasn’t going to go onstage and play rock songs with a clean tone, so I thought, “Why not lose the pick?” This wasn’t a completely scary move, because I’d often gone pick-less at jam sessions. You never know if a pick has been in someone’s mouth, so when a guitarist would offer me one at an impromptu jam, I’d just say, “No thanks—I play with my fingers.”

I always need to force my hand in order to move forward, so I just jumped right in and did the next show without a pick. Most players test something out before doing it in front of an audience, but what better way to try something new than putting yourself on the spot? For me, that’s when my best performances come out. Now, there’s plenty of stuff on YouTube of me sounding horrible, but that’s probably when I was out on a limb taking chances. I’d rather take a risk and grow, than play it safe and end up doing the same gag over and over. Of course, I never go onstage trying to sound bad. I want to be expressive and inspired. So my choice is to go out there with enough confidence and belief in myself that I can pull off whatever I’m attempting.

In this case, losing the pick made me feel more connected to the guitar. It slowed me down immediately, and forced me to consider each and every note. It changed my phrasing. I also felt more in control of my tone, because when you strike or pull a string with your fingers, it’s a very intimate attack—a radically different sound than when you use a pick. Certain things you lose, of course—like alternate picking—but other things happen, and your technique evolves.