CHEAP TRICK LEGEND RICK NEILSEN TALKS US THROUGH OVER FOUR DECADES OF ROCK'N'ROLL BRILLIANCE AND GETTING TO KNOW HIS BIGGEST GUITAR HER
Cheap Trick are right in the middle of soundcheck when founding guitarist Rick Nielsen starts heckling TG and waves us up onstage. “Hey, is that Total Guitar? I’ve got a good tip for you guys… practise!” Much like his personality – his guitar playing is loud and proud, bold and brash, littered manner with all of spontaneous ring hand slides and left trills. His amps are cranked loud and there’s seemingly no end to the amount of feedback fingertips. In at his many ways, it’s like Angus. he’s the American After running through a few tracks, he looks over and shrugs his shoulders as if it was effortless. all The US rock heroes have been going for 44 years and are showing no signs of letting Everyone from up. Dave Grohl, Slash and Armstrong Billie Joe to Kurt Cobain have quartet cited the Illinois as an inspiration for their knack in writing songs that were brilliantly catchy as they were – something which heavy stands true of their music today We’reAll 18th full-length with this year’s of back on a career Rick Nielsen looks Alright!. expectation… defying
as a guitarist? describe yourself Howwould you
1967. I haven’t practised since “Well, I haven’t in about 40 years or tuned a guitar changed a string just a songwriter that I look at it, I’m haha! Theway rhythm As a result, I play to play guitar. I happens has to, and ultimately somebody and lead, because good songs… I’ve written some play for the song. too. I like it simple someshitty stuff but I’ve written of me,other than effectsout in front – I don’t have to song every night that I use on one onewah pedal no actual wah noises. There’s simply makethree it’s just me When I writesongs, playing, as such! it used to be before player – or at least and a cassette in a basic idea. But to quickly record smartphones –
this band, it’s never like ‘Here’s my demo’. People forget you can spend longer on demos than you do writing the actual songs. It’s all basically just blues riffs I make up as I go along!”
What are the main secrets to writing rock songs that stand the tests of time?
“If you don’t have a great chorus, write a good bridge first. I often do that and find I write good bridges. If you discover something that goes between this part and that part, holding it all together – that’s kinda key! That’s why some of the songs like DreamPolice start right in the chorus, instead of waiting for it to come. Then the bridge is manic but you can’t start off with that - it all needs to be interesting enough to go between the chorus and verse. I wrote the song a long time before I finished the song… that bridge was from a song called
Ultramental. I had this double neck four-string bass and a six-string guitar and Tom (Petersson) was playing this Hagstrom eight-string at the time. We started playing it and it was dumb, so we forgot about it until that middle part came back for DreamPolice. It wasn’t planned that way. It was a good part without that duelling bass thing, finally we had a good place to put it.”
Robin Zander has sung and played rhythm by your side throughout your recording career. Why do you think the pair of you work so well together?
“Robin’s a great singer and I write okay songs, that’s how it works! Sometimes we’d tell him, ‘Here’s the melody’ and he could sing it way better than any of us. I could hit the pitch and range okay, but I don’t have a lead singer voice. He sounds too good and I sound too shitty, so together it’s a bit heavy duty. If we had 10 Robin voices, we’d sound like The Eagles or Crosby, Stills and Nash… because his voice is that
good. He’s just perfect for my guitar playing. He’s the singer I’ve always wanted to have. With all the other people I’d worked with before, there was always a lack of excitement about vocals. Look at Bob Dylan, his voice is not a great sound, but it gets the idea across… and that is what’s really important.”
You use your fingers a lot. What made you gravitate away from using the pick?
“It’s just how I play. I don’t need a pick all the time; I don’t want everything to sound hard and heavy. I’m not like Billie Joe Armstrong in that sense, though I have to say it’s perfect for what he does. I prefer to fingerpick and play my own funny songs. That’s what feels right for me. I always wrote songs so I could look at the audience and not my neck… I mean, who cares what’s going on with the fretboard. I want to see people picking their noses or looking the other way haha! I like using my rings a lot too – dragging them across the strings makes a big ‘whoosh’ sound. For me, that’s almost like an effect.
You’ve often pointed out Jeff Beck as an influence – which could also explain the finger approach…
“A lot of it comes down to Jeff Beck – he’s my favourite because he came up with things no-one else played. I guess that’s why I like him so much. I have a lot of Jeff Beck history, even on my phone. There’s a picture of my ticket to see him on 11 December 1965 with The Yardbirds. He played about 15 minutes from my house at the Rock River Roller Palace. You know, I sold Jeff Beck the second Les Paul he ever owned not long after on 4 June 1968. I’m not kidding one fucking bit! It was a ’59 that had a Bigsby on it… If you look close, you can see where it used to be. I traded a Gibson SG and $25 for it. I have pictures of me with him, Buddy Guy and Stevie Ray Vaughan 10 years after selling him that guitar.” Not many people can say they’ve met SRV… what was he like? “Stevie was really great – I knew him back from Texas before he was famous, when he was this unknown hotshot fucking guy. He was a bit of a wildman, so you could say he did fit right in with me. As a lead guitarist, I can play to a level… but that guy that could stand up and play solos all day long by himself. That’s the difference – I need a band. I need Robin Zander, a good drummer and bassist. I can’t do that stuff by myself, I’m just not that kinda guy.”
How did you end up getting to know all these older guitar players?
“I flew to Cleveland to a place called Le Cave for three nights of the Jeff Beck Group, with Micky Waller, Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart. I was also in Chicago for the Kinetic Playground shows where everyone did two performances, which Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull also played at. I went to all of that stuff back then – I’d already seen Jethro Tull the year before at the Marquee Club in London, which was the first time I was ever over here. In December 1969, I saw Yes when Tony Banks was in the band. I was always going to gigs… Anyways, one time when Jeff was playing he sat his guitar on the top of his amp and the roadie picked it up by the body, accidentally knocking it down. I don’t think anybody else in the place noticed except for me as I was totally glued looking at all of his gear. I went backstage, because it wasn’t like today where you can’t do that, and saw his road manager asking if I could talk to Jeff about something that was wrong with his guitar. I explained that I collected guitars, lived 90 miles away and Jeff was my biggest hero, blah blah, I’d seen him at La Cave in The Yardbirds. The whole bullshit story because this guy didn’t know me at all, so I handed him my number…”
And he called back?
“A week later I got a call from that manager guy saying, ‘Hold on for Jeff Beck!’ So I got invited out to see them in Philadelphia, which was really far away. I took about five or so guitars with me, some Juniors and some Standards.
“i have a lot of jeff beck history – even on my phone”