Soul Renovation

Ultimate DIY guy Richie Kotzen builds stuff, designs gear, remodels his technique, and makes records all by his lonesome.
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Across from a Bright-Red grand piano, Richie Kotzen is seated on a comfy couch in the living room of his house in the Santa Monica Mountains. One of his signature-model Fender Telecasters is in his hands, and a small tube combo is powered up by his side. In mere weeks, the guitarist/singer/composer and Winery Dogs founding member will take off on the latest leg of his worldwide tour supporting his 21st solo album, Salting Earth [Headroom-Inc.], and his fingers seem more than ready. Pouring out of his hands are pleasing volleys of notes—some phrases slow and meaty, others fast and aggressive—but all are soulful, and none are played with a pick. The little amp next to him is sounding great, too—its warm timbre given added dimension by the room’s vaulted ceiling.

“I built that amp myself,” says Kotzen. “Technically, it is a tweed-era Fender Deluxe. I soldered it together from scratch, using a kit that I found online. I’ve been building electronic things since I was a kid.”

As it turns out, Kotzen also had a hand in the design of his main touring and recording amp—the new Victory Richie Kotzen Signature RK50.

“The RK50 sounds great and it’s incredibly simple to use,” says Kotzen. “It basically gives you three things to play with—a master Volume, a Tone knob, and a Gain control. It does have reverb, tremolo, a boost switch, and an effects loop, but, to me, those are just bonus features. The magic lies in its great gain and sustain. When [Victory Amplification head designer] Martin Kidd sent me the first prototype, it was voiced almost exactly how I wanted it, but I still wanted to try a couple of subtle tweaks. So, instead of me sending the amp back to Martin, he sent me the schematics, and suggested modifications I could try. He trusted me to go in there with a soldering iron and wire clippers, so I did. Afterwards, I was worried I would turn the thing on and it would explode, but it didn’t. It sounded perfect.”

The more you hang out with Kotzen, the more you realize you’re talking to one of the handier guitar heroes in action today. (“See the molding around all the doorways?” he asks. “I matched it perfectly to the antique wood around it, and I installed it myself. And that fire pit outside? I designed it, landscaped it, and poured all the cement.”) One of Kotzen’s concepts emerged as the Tech 21 Richie Kotzen RK5 Signature Fly Rig—which puts reverb, delay, boost, and two flavors of Tech 21’s SansAmp analog-amp emulation circuitry at your feet in an aesthetically pleasing, ultra-portable hull.

“The whole thing was my idea—even the name,” says Kotzen. “I had been doing so many fly dates that, one day, I decided that—from my guitar gear to my wardrobe—it was time to start traveling lighter. So I grabbed a few of my favorite pedals, pulled the guts out of them, and installed everything in a small electrical box that I got at Electronic City. I drilled holes in all the right places for each pedal’s switches and controls to pop through, hardwired everything together, added an input and output, and—bang!—there was my rig. You can see me using it on the Winery Dogs’ DVD, Unleashed in Japan 2013.”

Later, when Kotzen showed his homemade multi-effector to Tech 21 founder Andrew Barta, the pair decided to build the Fly Rig professionally.

“Andrew transformed it,” says Kotzen. “He found all the right components—including the wonderful little knobs that light up—and turned it into something fantastic.”

Kotzen’s DIY approach to life shows up in the studio, too, as he played all the instruments on Salting Earth.

“That ends up happening on some of my records—not because I’m a selfish bastard, but because of the way I write,” he says. “I go in there, I start working, and I put down ideas, and the next thing you know, the song is finished. Sure, I listen back and think, ‘I could have people come in and replay the drums and bass.’ But the only real test is whether I love the track or not. If I really love it, it’s done.

“Some songs come unbelievably fast. For Salting Earth, take ‘Grammy.’ I literally woke up at 3:30 in the morning with an idea, and I went into my studio. By 7:30 am, the song was done—fully tracked and mixed. But then you have a song like ‘Make It Easy.’ Its basic tracks have been on my hard drive since 2003. I loaded the session into my system again, started listening, and the lyrics finally came to me. I put down the vocal, added the B-3 and Clavinet, and it all fit.”

Kotzen first gained renown at 19 years old in 1989, when producer Mike Varney received his demo tape, featured him in GP’s “Spotlight” column, and signed him to Shrapnel Records. While maintaining his prolific solo career, Kotzen also enjoyed stints with arena rockers such as Poison and Mr. Big. Fast forward to the present, and it’s striking how much Kotzen’s playing and songwriting have evolved. For example, the giant chorus to “Make It Easy” would be right at home on a gospel record.

“If there’s a lot of R&B in my music, it’s because the first bands I was into as a kid were the O’Jays, the Spinners, and Sly & the Family Stone, and my first concerts were Stevie Wonder and George Benson,” says Kotzen. “It was years later that I got into the Who, Led Zeppelin, and other guitardriven bands. The first vocalist I ever became obsessed with singing like was an R&B guy, too—Terence Trent D’Arby. Back in 1990, I was so into him I learned to sing his debut album from top to bottom.”

As Kotzen’s musical evolutions often revolve around paring down elements of his craft (or wardrobe), he has also become possibly the only early Shrapnel alum who has almost completely parted ways with the plectrum.

“I still use picks when I’m on acoustic and want that strumming sound, but I rarely use them live on electric anymore,” he says. “Going pick-less started many years ago, when I was on tour in Brazil. I was sitting in my hotel room feeling unhappy with the way I had been sounding. I needed a change, but I knew I couldn’t suddenly become a massively better player in one night of practice. So, instead of trying to add something to my playing, I thought, ‘What can I eliminate?’ I decided to challenge myself by seeing if I could get through an entire show without a pick. The next night, I got onstage with just my fingers, and it was scary because it meant that several techniques I used regularly were instantly unavailable. In many ways, this slowed me down. But on the positive side, I suddenly was back to playing really lyrical lines. I was really phrasing again. And guess what? Over time, I’ve found ways to bring back many of the techniques I initially gave up—such as sweeping and alternate picking—without using a pick.”

Now that Kotzen has completed several legs of his Salting Earth tour, he’s able to see how his show has evolved.

“We started with a big U.S. run, then we did Asia, Australia, and Europe,” he says. “We literally circled the planet. By the end of that circle, I noticed I was doing a third of my show on electric guitar, a third of it on acoustic, and a third on piano. It was interesting to realize that, despite being best known for putting out guitar records over the years, it was no longer my guitar playing dictating my set list. My set is now built more around my voice and the strength of each song.”