Richie Kotzen

amer­i­can singer/song­writer and mul­ti­in­stru­men­tal­ist Richie Kotzen walks TG through his inim­itable gui­tar style…

Total Guitar - - CONTENTS - Words Amit Sharma / Char­lie Grif­fiths

There is a level of musicianship that ra­di­ates from Richie Kotzen un­like any­one else on this planet. Be­fore you even get to his Prince-ri­valling tal­ents as a singer, pian­ist, drum­mer or pro­ducer – as a gui­tarist he em­bod­ies the very no­tion of be­ing in tune with his in­stru­ment. Like his big­gest in­flu­ences, Jeff Beck, Ste­vie Ray Vaughan and Ge­orge Ben­son, there are no bound­aries in be­tween what he hears in his head and the sounds com­ing out of his amp… it sim­ply pours out of him. From his early rise as a teenage vir­tu­oso for hire, even­tu­ally play­ing in Mr Big and record­ing with Stan­ley Clarke, to his more re­cent work in The Win­ery Dogs and, ar­guably most of all, on his bluesy solo records – it’s al­ways been a case of choice notes for each and ev­ery mu­si­cal mo­ment. Here he tells TG how forg­ing his own un­ortho­dox, left-hand path and go­ing against the grain led to sound­ing bril­liantly unique…


Be­ing uni­ver­sally adapt­able is the mark of any good mu­si­cian, be­lieves Kotzen…

“You should be able to solo in any key, ma­jor or mi­nor, if you plan on play­ing mu­sic. One thing I’ve no­ticed, es­pe­cially in hard rock, there are so many mu­si­cians who sound like they’ve only been play­ing six months when forced out­side that one style. It can be like a bull in a china shop... a com­plete miss! Gui­tarists can get caught out play­ing just in a mi­nor or in one blink­ered genre and it’s a bit like scream­ing all the time. I don’t know how mu­si­cians can be so great in one way and then sud­denly not so much. I’m not say­ing go from play­ing rock to play­ing Giantsteps overnight – there are vary­ing de­grees of rock and some peo­ple can’t even make that switch. I’m not a jazz mu­si­cian, I can fake a jazz lick real good but I’m not Ge­orge Ben­son. No­body plays gui­tar like him – no­body. To me, he’s the great­est gui­tarist that’s ever lived, pe­riod. That was the first con­cert I ever went to as a kid – I saw Ge­orge at Val­ley Forge Mu­sic Fair, fol­lowed by Ste­vie Won­der the week af­ter! I grew up out­side Philadelphia, so there was a lot of R&B and soul on the ra­dio, which is why I have a lot of those kinds of in­flu­ences.”

BLIND FAITH How the power of be­ing present holds the key to let­ting those fin­gers fly…

“The key to im­pro­vi­sa­tion is trust. You have to turn all the out­side dis­trac­tions off and stop judg­ing what you can and can’t do. It sounds scary but that’s the only way. What makes me lis­ten­able as a gui­tarist, if I am lis­ten­able, is my emo­tional con­nec­tion to the in­stru­ment. There are plenty of gui­tarists that can pick more ac­cu­rately, or do a lot more tech­ni­cally, and I don’t think my le­gato is even that sen­sa­tional – but it’s how ev­ery­thing com­bines over the right chord changes… that’s when I be­come in­ter­est­ing. I’m a lot more of an en­sem­ble, in-the­mo­ment player. I’m not the guy to pick up a gui­tar and daz­zle ev­ery­one with this in­tense thing that I worked out, com­posed over four days and prac­tised un­til I can play it per­fectly. That doesn’t in­ter­est me. I’d rather watch some­one else do the work and en­joy them do­ing it. Sit­ting down to prac­tise is the most tor­tur­ous thing – what ex­cites most of us is the cre­ative process. [The Win­ery Dogs bassist] Billy Shee­han is the per­fect ex­am­ple of a dis­ci­plined mu­si­cian – he can still sit for hours on end and get things per­fect. It makes me think I need to fuckin’ prac­tise in or­der to keep up with him, but

I al­ways end up want­ing to watch bas­ket­ball or do some­thing else. I put a lot of time in as a child to learn all the tech­niques – so as a teenager and adult, it was just about what I can cre­ate. I just bought a new house, I’m cre­at­ing here too – hav­ing a blast mov­ing walls and chang­ing floors. That’s the fun bit, I guess!”


It doesn’t matter how you layer things, there needs to be some­thing be­neath it

“My songs can usu­ally be boiled down to just one acous­tic gui­tar. I think that needs to be true for any song, not just my mu­sic. Peo­ple are very ac­cus­tomed to hear­ing pieces that are re­ally pro­duced, es­pe­cially in mod­ern pop­u­lar mu­sic. You get all these weird sounds and trends with some guy yelling in the back­ground ran­domly but kind of in time. They do all kinds of shit on these pop records. To me, it sounds dis­tract­ing but I guess some­one must like it. The re­al­ity is, if you strip away all of that stuff, what do you have? When you hear big­ger pro­duc­tions and boil them down to just gui­tar or pi­ano with voice, you’ll ei­ther be like, ‘Wow, there re­ally is a song in there’ or find not much at all. In my live show, we have a sec­tion where we break it down to acous­tics or I might go out and play a few songs by my­self. Some places I’ve played, they put a sub-woofer un­der the stage, which cre­ates all kinds of night­mares... it’s just a hor­ri­ble sound. So some­times, it’s nice to turn all the shit off and just de­liver the song. I tend to sing bet­ter when it’s just me and the gui­tar – I can­hear bet­ter.”


The le­gato master on why he ended up be­ing a left-hand dom­i­nant player…

“It just so hap­pened that it was easier for me to do the left hand stuff. The lines I play have an el­e­ment of pick­ing with my thumb and first two fin­gers, but in­side and around it there are le­gato el­e­ments where I’m ham­mer­ing notes on, slid­ing or pulling off – so it tends to be a

com­bi­na­tion of things. I can al­ter­nate pick, but I al­ways liked the sound of the more slip­pery, snakey style of phras­ing. I guess I got it from Al­lan Holdsworth – let’s be hon­est, that was the guy that made me think, ‘Woah! That’s crazy.’ I’d watch Al Di Me­ola and al­ter­nate pick­ers like that, and think it was great though I felt there were so many play­ers that sounded like that. Ob­vi­ously, Al was the orig­i­nal! Then you had the other guys from Shrap­nel Records – who all had wicked right hands, but it didn’t ap­peal to me to want to sound that way. I was one of those guys that did things nat­u­rally and if it was easier for me to wid­dle around with my left and wave at the girls in the au­di­ence, so be it! I did what­ever felt right to my hands or right in my head. That’s the best way to play. There’s no one ex­er­cise that will give you your sound – only you can find that.”

AROUND THE BEND How Kotzen com­bines tech­nol­ogy and tech­nique to push his song­writ­ing…

“In The Win­ery Dogs, I wrote a song called I’mnoan­gel that uses bends

against open strings to cre­ate an in­ter­est­ing ef­fect. I don’t know why I came up with that, I must have liked the clash – I guess it has a coun­try feel even though it’s not a coun­try lick. The ideas just come: once you get those mus­cles go­ing and you un­der­stand the feel­ing/approach to do­ing it, then all you need to do is seize the mo­ment. Work on it right there or de­velop it later, but at least doc­u­ment it. On my phone, I have a recorder app – that ev­ery­one prob­a­bly has – and right now there are 175 memos recorded. They are all hor­ri­ble sound­ing and prob­a­bly don’t make much sense, but I know what they mean. The ideas that turn into songs are the ones I don’t need to go back for... they will al­ready be in my head. I’m all about the ones that keep com­ing back, though some­times I might think there’s a cho­rus that might match another verse and go back to find it.”

ALL IN THE HANDS Why the gui­tarist even­tu­ally chose to ditch the pick af­ter years of hy­brid pick­ing…

“Play­ing with just myfin­gers made

me a much bet­ter player in the sense that it forced me to think dif­fer­ently. Us­ing a pick, I would find my­self get­ting into traps. I know the dif­fer­ence be­tween feel­ing mu­sic, let­ting it come through me in­stinc­tively, and not. There are ex­am­ples on­line of live shows where I’ve lit­er­ally let mu­sic run away with me. I know what that feels like and as a per­former you want that feel­ing ev­ery time! So for what­ever rea­son on one par­tic­u­lar tour, I felt re­ally stuck – like I was just go­ing through the mo­tions. I knew I had to do some­thing to snap out of it. The only thing I could con­ceive was not us­ing a pick, which wasn’t a mas­sive stretch because I of­ten played things with just my hands. Immediately, it elim­i­nated all my scale-based sweep pick­ing or tremolo al­ter­nate pick­ing... a lot of stuff was sud­denly out of the reper­toire but I still had to play! It slowed me down and yet I felt more con­nected with the in­stru­ment, which ex­cited me. Then I had to re­learn all the stuff I couldn’t do, like the ma­chine-gun pick­ing or sweep arpeg­gio shapes, I had to work it all out.”

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