Good luck trying to guess Todd Rundgren’s next move. The man has made a career of keeping fans on their toes. Many figured he would make a career out of being a pop tunesmith in the wake of his 1972 album, Something/Anything?, which spawned such radio hits as “Hello It’s Me” and “I Saw the Light.” Instead, he followed it up with a pair of psychedelic freakouts (1973’s A Wizard, a True Star and 1974’s Todd), and launched a prog-rock band, Utopia.
So when Rundgren issued a pair of guitar-heavy releases a few years back—Arena and Todd Rundgren’s Johnson—it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when he did a complete 180 on 2013’s State and 2015’s Global, focusing entirely on EDM sounds. And apart from his recent tour (which sees Rundgren playing little guitar on stage, and solely joined by a pair of singers/dancers and a DJ), there is often a second guitarist onstage at Rundgren shows: GP’s own Jesse Gress.
Despite the lack of guitar on his latest project, Rundgren was more than happy to chat about his preferred instrument, as well as why he had to part with a guitar that once upon a time was one of Eric Clapton’s most identifiable 6-strings.
It’s interesting that you’re being interviewed for Guitar Player, yet guitar is not the focal point of Global. Was that intentional?
I think it is intentional, actually. I did a guitar album not too long ago, in fact two guitar albums. Sometimes I get the sense that I have been ignoring my principal instrument, and then I’ll purposely write a bunch of material for the guitar. But my natural inclination has been to usually use a keyboard, because the guitar only makes six notes, and sometimes you can’t make your fingers reach the notes you want them to [laughs]. The piano gives you the entire palette of notes to work with. From a composer’s standpoint, I think that’s something of an advantage, although I enjoy writing for the strengths and limitations of the guitar. It’s hard to play power chords on the piano.
I’ve always felt you were an underrated guitarist. Songs like “No. 1 Lowest Common Denominator” feature great playing.
I used to be totally mental about the guitar. It was the only thing I played. When I first got out of high school, I was very much into any sort of music that involved the guitar. So I naturally gravitated towards blues, or what would be properly called “white blues.” The Yardbirds was my favorite band and was essentially a guitar player factory. At one point, I was almost suicidal about it. I remember staring down into the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, and I said, “If I can’t be as good as Eric Clapton, I don’t want to live.” [Laughs.] Fortunately, things got a little bit more real after that. I got recognition as a guitar player early on and I leveraged that into the rest of my career. I’ve always loved the instrument, but never really mastered it. I get constant reminders of that, because I play with Ringo, and Steve Lukather is the other guitarist in the band, so I’m constantly reminded about what I don’t know about guitar playing.
Who are some of your other guitar influences?
Probably the first time I wanted to play guitar and thought “This is the instrument for me” was when I heard “Walk, Don’t Run” by the Ventures. Immediately, I said, “I want to do that. I want to learn how to play that,” and I pestered my parents until they got me a guitar and lessons. I didn’t learn anything from the lessons. I just essentially taught myself how to play. I wanted to play anything that was instrumental guitar music, which there wasn’t a whole lot of. And guitar players weren’t necessarily featured a whole lot. It wasn’t until the Beatles that the guitar was a regularly featured instrument. So I would have to say George Harrison was certainly an early influence, because of all of those finely crafted solos that appeared in almost every single Beatles song. It seemed a big part of their songwriting formula: verse/ chorus/verse/chorus/guitar solo. I tried to learn every single Harrison guitar solo that I could, and then I heard the Yardbirds. I got the first American release of the Yardbirds, and it completely changed my whole idea about what the guitar was supposed to do. During the course of that series of releases, there was “Shapes of Things,” and that completely warped my brain and I became a Jeff Beck fanatic. Then John Mayall’s Blues Breakers came out, and I became an Eric Clapton fanatic. Clapton was probably the biggest influence on my guitar playing.
Which guitars and amps do you use?
It’s a really simple setup: one guitar, a Line 6 wireless system, and a Line 6 audio interface. I’m playing a guitar that was gifted to me by my fans. It was custom made for me by Jeff Stoddard at Bradenton Guitar Tech. It’s lucite, so it’s completely clear, and it has LEDs inside it. At this moment, I’m using the Line 6 AMPLIFi. They’ve got a new line of things that are all Bluetooth-enabled and can be reprogrammed using iPad apps. But I’m not playing that much guitar during this show—only four times during a two-hour presentation. I start out with a guitar, but I’m just chunking along, and I only play a couple of solos throughout the show.
Do you ever regret parting with Clapton’s “The Fool” SG that he used with Cream?
It was something that I almost had no choice but to do. It was about a year after Eric Clapton’s guitar auction in the ’90s, where his brown Stratocaster Brownie went for like half a million dollars. I suddenly realized that the guitar that I owned was likely worth a bunch of money. The thing is, I had been loath to take it out on the road anyway. It was pretty much not being played because I didn’t want to risk damaging it or having it stolen. At the same time, I was in some trouble with the IRS. I had bought a piece of property in Hawaii and spent all the money I had, and then didn’t leave any left over for the IRS. So they were angry about that, and I couldn’t afford to keep an expensive asset like that guitar. I was pretty much forced to sell it in order to settle up some debts with the IRS.
“Couldn’t I Just Tell You” is a long-time highlight at your concerts. What do you remember about writing it?
“Couldn’t I Just Tell You” was really almost a tribute to the Byrds—trying to get that jangly/happy guitar sound, with a lot of open-string things. A lot of the time, the inspiration for a song is just a hazy feeling, and I think for that particular tune, I wanted a certain aura and shimmer about it. There were a lot of keyboard songs on that album, Something/Anything?, and I decided that when I did play guitar, it was going to be a demonstration of what I was capable of playing, as opposed to just a simple accompaniment.
Todd’s Right Hand Man
Jesse Gress is super-familiar to readers of Guitar Player thanks to his longstanding gig as a lessons contributor and music transcriptionist. But he has also often accompanied Rundgren on stage since the early ’90s. “I was a fan of his music since I was about 14. I grew up near Philadelphia, and his early band, the Nazz were the act in the area. I always thought of Todd as like the American Eric Clapton, because by the time he made the first Nazz record his sound was fully formed. It wasn’t like he went through a tonal transition like some players. I followed his whole career and got all the records when they came out, absorbing everything I could.” Through mutual acquaintance Lyle Workman, Gress and Rundgren crossed paths. “In 1991, he did an album called 2nd Wind, where he rented out the Palace of Fine Arts Theater in San Francisco and held live recording sessions. Lyle did those dates, and Roger Powell from Utopia was also on the gig. Roger was getting into guitar at the time, and he had heard that I had done some guitar transcription books, including Joe Satriani’s Surfing with the Alien. That night Roger said, ‘This guy writes down all the notes from all these records,’ and Todd looked at me, and said, ‘You like doing that?’ [Laughs.] Not long after that I flew out to one of the shows in Chicago, and Lyle said he wasn’t going to do the tour, and asked if I would be interested.”
“I’ve just always been drawn to the guy’s music,” adds Gress. “As a guitarist, but also as a musician. He’s got a very unique sense of harmony in his compositions that I’ve tried to adapt to the guitar as much as possible.” He and Rundgren will work together with the Akron Symphony in September, and tour the U.S. with a full band this winter, but in the interim Gress remains active. “I’m just looking forward to whatever comes next. I’ve got my monthly grind for the magazine, I occasionally play with Jim Weider’s Percolator based in Woodstock, and I’m doing some Music of Steely Dan shows with the Marotta brothers. I’m keeping busy.”