Steve Hunter Remembers Dick Wagner

On July 30, 2014, Dick Wagner—who with Steve Hunter formed one of the most thrilling rock-guitar duos of the ’70s—passed away from respiratory failure at the age of 71.

On July 30, 2014, Dick Wagner—who with Steve Hunter formed one of the most thrilling rock-guitar duos of the ’70s—passed away from respiratory failure at the age of 71. It had been a rough few years for Wagner, who battled multiple heart attacks, brain surgery, a stroke, and other maladies, but he continued to compose, produce, and play music right to the end of his life. In this personal tribute, Hunter—Wagner’s guitar partner for a series of stunning and mindblowing albums and tours with Lou Reed and Alice Cooper—recalls their musical chemistry.
—Michael Molenda

How Dick and I first started playing together is a weird story, because it’s a little convoluted. Some of it, I didn’t even know myself until a couple years or so after the fact. You see, I had done an album with Mitch Ryder’s band Detroit in 1971 that Bob Ezrin produced, and, unbeknownst to me, Ezrin had also produced Dick’s band, Ursa Major.

Then, I played with the Chambers Brothers for a short time in late ’72, and I used to hang out with Joe and Billy Chambers all the time. I just loved them. So, Joey called to tell me about some biker club called Flying Machine in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, that had a pretty good band playing there. We went, and there was Dick in Ursa Major—this great power trio. We chatted a little bit, and that’s how we initially connected. But what really happened was Bob Ezrin—it was all his fault [laughs]. Bob helped put together Lou Reed’s live band that ultimately became the Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal band, and he liked that sound so much that he brought us with him to trade licks for Alice Cooper’s Welcome to My Nightmare. From then on, we were either playing for Lou Reed or Alice Cooper, and that’s how everything started.

Dick Wagner with Alice Cooper.

Strangely enough, people seem to think the two of us played on a lot of tracks during the ’70s, but Dick and I didn’t do much stuff together outside of Ezrin’s productions. I wish it were true that we played on everything [laughs]. Even the infamous “Train Kept a Rollin’” on Aerosmith’s Get Your Wings—well, I think Dick played more on that album than I did, but I don’t know for sure. We weren’t in the studio together for that one. And, then, in 1978, we sort of waved goodbye when we quit Alice Cooper’s band. Dick waved goodbye first, and then I did.

The really strange thing about the two of us is that we had similar backgrounds and influences, and yet we always thought opposite of each other. For example, I would play in one position, and Dick would just automatically go to another position without us having to talk about it. That made it really easy to work together. With other guitar players, I’d always have to work those things out. But I never had to do that with Wagner.

He also had this incredible ability to come up with parts, lines, and things on the spot. I usually had to sit down and figure stuff out, but Dick would think of something off the top of his head, and say, “Oh, let’s play this in there.” It killed me how quick and good he was at that.

Most of the guitar parts for the Lou Reed and Alice Cooper tracks were sort of an amalgam of myself, Dick, and Bob. Bob has a classical background, and he would play these power fifths on the piano, or things that could have been cello or double bass lines. Now, put those lines on guitar, and you’ve got a whole different flavor. Sometimes, it would be Bob’s idea to layer the parts a certain way, sometimes it would be an idea that I’d have, and sometimes it would be Dick’s idea. We had the option to embellish what Bob played us—to add our own two cents—or play the parts exactly the way he showed them to us. Of course, Dick and I would come up with parts, too. It really was a three-way thing when it came to the guitars, and I loved the fact that Bob listened to us.

Steve Hunter today.

Gear-wise, what we did in the ’70s was plug straight into Marshall half-stacks, and vary the sounds by adjusting the guitar’s Volume and Tone knobs. There were very few pedals back then. Initially, I used a Gibson SG, and Dick played a Les Paul. A little later, we ended up getting B.C. Rich guitars. We also had Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters if we wanted some jangly sounds. We didn’t really use them that much, but we did use them. Dick would tend to go for a bright tone, and I would go for a warmer sound. The beauty of that was it worked very well for layering our guitars, because we weren’t playing in the exact same frequency range. Add to that the fact we were also playing different inversions, or in different positions on the neck, and the blend was always incredible.

One thing I’d like to clear up is that people often ask me why Dick and I didn’t try doing stuff on our own after we left Alice. Well, we did. We tried to hack something together maybe six or seven times over the years. We really, really tried. But nothing gelled.

I mean, we were so good at playing behind a really powerful frontperson. We’d become this team supporting their vision, presence, and identity. It was amazing, and I haven’t experienced it since. But as soon as you took away a Lou Reed or an Alice Cooper, we’d have a hard time getting a focus. And the really weird bit is the thing that made us great at developing parts— the fact we played opposite to each other— kind of killed us when we’d try to write material for our own project. We couldn’t get past four bars, because Dick would go one way, and I’d go the other. It wasn’t a disaster, but it sure was a hodgepodge that went in all different directions. It was the weirdest feeling.

You have to understand that we wanted to put a band together. We were always excited about that. And every time we got together to write the songs for “our” band, it was like, “Oh, no. Now what do we do?” We thought it was going to change. We thought we’d find a way to work through it. But it never changed.
—Steve Hunter