RICHIE KOTZEN SALTING AUSTRALIA
PAUL SOUTHWELL VIBES GEAR, TECHNIQUE AND THE ART OF CHANGE AHEAD OF KOTZEN’S DEBUT JAUNT DOWN UNDER.
American guitarist, producer, vocalist and songwriter Richie Kotzen has been releasing albums regularly since the late ‘80s, after debuting as an instrumental guitar technician during the Shrapnel Records heyday. His overall presentation and musical output has changed a lot since then, and along the way, he’s enjoyed brief, yet solid stints playing in huge-selling bands like Poison, Mr. Big and The Winery Dogs. Ahead of his first ever Australian tour this August, we got Kotzen on the phone for a quick chat. What can we expect to hear on your upcoming Australian tour?
I’m doing a lot of songs from the new record [SaltingEarth], which is cool. There’s one song we’ve never done before, and some other songs that we haven’t played in a while too. Do you favour being in a three-piece band?
Yeah. There was a short period where we added a Hammond organ as well, but for most of my life it’s always been a three-piece. It gives me freedom, and it’s a comfortable and expressive format. The lineup has been together for seven years now, so we can read each other really well. When you did a magazine column in the late ‘80s, it was at the tail end of the shred era. What are your thoughts in hindsight?
I was eighteen when I did that column, after my first record [ RichieKotzen] came out. I didn’t find my footing as an artist until after I’d made my second record [ FeverDream] – which was the first I ever sang on – and I developed quickly from there. I look at
Mother Head’s Family Reunion as the album where I found my stamp as an artist. Would you say that switching from Ibanez guitars to Fender Telecasters was reflective of your development?
That came from wanting a different relationship with the guitar and a different sound. I started playing a Stratocaster and Telecaster a lot after my second record, and Ibanez made me a good Telecaster copy [Starfield] after that. Fender saw them and offered me two Master Built guitars: a red Stratocaster and a brown Telecaster, the latter of which later evolved into a signature model. There’s a signature Stratocaster too. Those are my main ones, and the only modification I’ve made to the rack model Telecaster was to sand the finish off the neck. The Telecaster sounds very bright. Did putting DiMarzio pickups in them counter that?
Yeah, we’ve got a humbucker in there that is louder and darker than a normal Telecaster pickup [Chopper T], but it’s not as loud as what you might put in a Les Paul. The neck pickup is a standard replacement Telecaster pickup [Twang King]. The Stratocaster has DiMarzios, but they’re pretty standard single coil pickups. Does digital amplifier modelling appeal to you given that is becoming more widespread?
No, because even though it’s convenient in certain applications, I’ve been playing through tube amplifiers for my entire life. There are ways that a physical amplifier will respond depending on what you play and where you’re standing. There are so many variables, and I can feel those things missing in a digital modelling amplifier. If I have the components I need to get my creative vision across, then I’m happy. I don’t get caught up in the gear thing. What events led to making your Tech21 [Richie Kotzen Signature RK5 Fly Rig] piece of effects gear?
That came about from doing a lot of fly dates – flying into a region, doing several shows, and then leaving. I took an overdrive and a Tech21 delay pedal, mounted them into a hardwired box and added two switches for a Fender Twin. I went to Tech21 [to develop a prototype], and we put in a delay [Tap Tempo], a reverb and the SansAmp. The two-stage overdrive part took several months to get right, but it’s a really cool and practical pedal. I’ve also got a signature 50-watt combo Victory amp on the way. We added a gain control, and tremolo and reverb circuits. What led to the decision to stop using a plectrum as part of your playing technique?
Ten years ago, I was having a rough time getting sounds on tour, so I went on stage and did my whole set without a pick. It eliminated a lot of my repertoire – including sweeping and alternate picking – but forced me to play differently. I ended that show feeling more connected to my music, and I played better by slowing down and phrasing more to my feelings. Over time, I worked on bringing those other things back, like sweeping, so the way I perform is ever-evolving. I still use a pick for some things in the studio, though. In hindsight, how do you regard being in Poison as contributing to your musical development?
Poison was very important for me, because having done three records at the time, my contract was bought out by a major label [Interscope]. We had it all lined up that the direction for the next album would be a combination of soul and rock – which is what I wanted – but the label were pushing for a standard rock record. So I asked to be dropped from the label. During that process, they informed me that Bret Michaels had expressed interest in having me join the band. Initially, that didn’t make any sense, but I sat down with him and oddly enough, I hit it off with him and his desire to take the band in a different direction. So we started writing, and it was a lot of fun. I’m still excited about that record [NativeTongue] and it was a very important part of my life.