“IT KIND OF FREAKS ME OUT HAVING TO cover guitar and bass at the same time,” says Nico Vega’s Rich Koehler of his trio’s guitar-vocal-drums lineup, “but it keeps me stimulated.”
Although stimulation wouldn’t seem to be a problem, given drummer Dan Epand’s propulsive attack and vocalist Aja Volkman darting around onstage covered by just a Danskin camisole, Koehler does have a huge chunk of frequency information to hold down. Fortunately, his obsession with tone tweaking— as well as influences that include Black Sabbath, the Stooges, the Sex Pistols, Jimi Hendrix, and Funkadelic—provided Koehler with the raw material to conjure one helluva sonic storm front on the band’s live-sounding, self-titled debut on MySpace Records.
What gear do you employ to fill the sonic space of a missing bassist?
I play Fender Stratocasters strung with a .011 set of GHS Boomers, and because of the single-coil pickups, I’m always looking for fat tone. I run an Ampeg SVT, a ’72 Fender Pro Reverb, and a Music Man 1x12 combo simultaneously using a Morley ABC router. Obviously, the Ampeg pushes out the real low end, and then I use the Music Man for the high-midrange frequencies and the Pro Reverb for low-mids.
Do you run the Ampeg and guitar amps on different sides of the stage—as if you had a bassist—or do you stack everything behind you?
I’ve experimented with both ways, and I’ve had good shows with all the amps together, and good shows with them split up. Lately, we’ve been putting everything on my side of the stage.
You’ve chosen to drive the trio sound by playing mostly riffs, rather than devouring the frequency spectrum with huge chords.
I have a lot of faith in the riff, and I think the riff is where you hear a guitar player’s voice. I try to go as far as I can with the main riff, and then develop it further to write bridges, choruses, and so on. I also work closely with Aja, who has a knack for putting pieces together to make a song.
Do you create riffs by exploring scales or melodies, or do you go with whatever beams into your head?
I let my fingers take me wherever they go. I rarely go back to scales. The more I don’t focus on it, the better.
So you never consciously think, “I loved what Tony Iommi did on ‘Sweet Leaf,’ so I’ll work from that foundation to build my own riff”?
I never go back to a song and try to emulate it, but if you think a song is cool, it’s definitely fused into your brain, and it’s going to come out of you in some way or another.
Do you have a typical tonal starting point for crafting your riffs?
I start with a classic clean tone, and then I keep on building by adding effects or adjusting EQ. I’ll tweak for hours. I’m constantly looking to reinvent my sound.
What are your main effects?
A Fulltone ’69, an Ibanez Tube Screamer, a Boss Digital Delay, and an Electro-Harmonix POG and Graphic Fuzz.
Do you have a favorite riff on the album?
It’s “Beast.” I left the Ampeg very clean and twangy, and I used the Fulltone and the Graphic Fuzz on the guitar amps. Most of the tone was the Fulltone, though.
Do you adjust your Strat controls much?
No. I leave the Volume and Tone all the way up, and I’m always on the bridge pickup.
How do you approach your solos on stage without a bassist or rhythm guitarist to hold down the harmony or maintain the density of the band sound?
I keep a low note going all the time with my thumb, while my pick and fingers pluck the rest of the solo. Each time I change positions, I have a low note that matches that specific part of the lead melody. It’s a simple self-accompaniment technique that keeps the power churning.
You’ve managed to develop a rather unique sound, while many other young guitarists have chosen to emulate the sounds of popular bands or players. How did you avoid the clone trap?
All I can say is that I never tried to play like anyone else but myself, and I play whatever gives me goose bumps or chills. I just try to honestly express whatever I’m feeling at the time, and that is never going to sound like anyone else. Beyond that, if I can also communicate the magic this band feels when it plays together, then I’m one happy guitarist.