Joining an established rock act like REO Speedwagon might be the dream of many a Vintage Guitar reader, but such was exactly what occurred for guitarist Dave Amato in 1989. Amato has had experience with other major acts as well, and his love of guitars has taken him to Texas and California guitar shows. He currently resides in the L.A. area.
When Vintage Guitar talked with the personable player, REO Speedwagon was in the process of recording a new album. “We’ve got five songs down”, Amato enthused, “and we’re now putting background vocals on them.” It was apparent that Amato relished the opportunity to talk about his love of fretted instruments:
I might be putting the cart before the horse, but it’s my perception that you show up at a guitar show every chance you get.
Always! (chuckles) I know a lot of dealers, and it’s great to see them all in one place. I love old Strats and Les Pauls, and the “atmosphere” at shows makes them a lot of fun. I really look forward to them; I try to go to Dallas in the Spring and Arlington in the Fall; I’ve been to California shows as well.
What kind of a collection do you have?
I have a ’55 Strat, two ’58s, a couple of ’63s that are refins, a ’59 Esquire, a ’59 triple-pickup Les Paul Custom, a ’57 TV model Les Paul, and a ’52 all-gold with a trapeze tailpiece, and a bunch of others. I’m pretty much of a Gibson and Fender guy; I’ve also got some old Marshall and Vox amps.
Are you originally from California? What about your “pre-REO” bands?
I’m originally from Boston; I’ve been out here for fifteen years, but people still ask me where I’m from, so I must have a kind of “East Coast twang”. (laughs)
I was playing in local bands; I would open for bands like Aerosmith; they’re great guys. I wasn’t really getting anywhere, so I moved to L.A. in 1980. I played with Black Oak Arkansas for a while; it didn’t last very long. The wife of Jonathan Cain from Journey had a band up in San Francisco; they were on RCA. Jim Pierce and I were the guitar players; he’s a great player and does a lot of session work. Then I did sessions with LaToya Jackson; I did background vocals for David Lee Roth, Rick Springfield and Motley Crue. I joined Ted Nugent in 1985 as his lead singer and guitarist; I was with him for about three years. I did Little Miss Dangerous, and If You Can’t Lick ‘Em, Lick ‘Em.
What about the evolution of your instruments over the years?
The first guitar I had was a Harmony hollowbody. Early on, I lucked out and found a couple of Fifties Les Paul TV models, but I didn’t know what I had back then, and I sold them to get a brand new Stratocaster. I vowed that I’d get another TV model one day, and I picked up that ’57 one a couple of years ago. I loaned it to Brad Whitford, who was in town for a photo session; it’s on the inside sleeve of [Aerosmith's] Get A Grip. It seems like I’ve gone back and forth between Les Pauls and Stratocasters; now I have both; probably about a dozen of each.
Did you do anything between Nugent and REO?
I commuted to Australia and played on a lot of Jimmy Barnes records. I was doing that while Ted was off on one of his hunting trips in the winter; he wasn’t supposed to tour until spring, and I wanted to keep working. I had a contract with Jimmy to do several dates, and Nugent unexpectedly got a call to open for KISS. I couldn’t get out of my Australia commitment, so Ted went back to using Derek St. Holmes, who’d been with him before. After that I played live gigs with Cher for about two years; I didn’t do any records with her.
Were you in her video that was filmed on that battleship?
No, I joined right after that. Those weren’t really musicians; they were actors, except for her son. Then I joined REO Speedwagon in ’89.
How did that come about?
A friend of mine told me about the auditions; I wasn’t really a fan but I thought I’d give it a shot. We got together and played some songs at Kevin Cronin’s house, then we played some basketball for a while (chuckles), then we played some more music. After about four or five hours they asked me to join the band. They didn’t really want to put out a “cattle call” for auditions; it was word-of-mouth that put us together.
Did anybody else even audition?
I don’t think so.
You replaced Gary Richrath, who’d been in the band about eighteen years. Is the lineup of the band still the same as it had been for such a long time?
Brian Hitt came in as the drummer at the same time I joined. Neal Doughty is still on keyboards, there’s Bruce Hall on bass, and Kevin. 1996 will make twenty-five years for the band.
What was the reaction of long time REO fans who might’ve been used to Richrath and his sunburst Les Pauls?
Well, they asked “where’s Gary” for a while, but that was only for the first couple of years. I’ve never met Gary, and would really like to meet him. I respect the stuff he did; he wrote great songs.
The obvious follow-up question would be to ask how you play on “classic” REO songs.
On songs like “Keep On Lovin’ You” there’s a solo that I play basically note-for-note, because that’s what the audience expects. It would be stupid of me not to play it like the record; I’d be cutting my own throat. People know such songs so well, they know the solos in them too, so I try not to change things very much.
There are songs like Bruce Hall’s “Back on the Road,” however, which are classic REO Speedwagon songs, but the solos aren’t that memorable. I can do my own thing on songs like those and “spruce them up”.
I’ll say this about Gary’s use of a Les Paul: When I joined the band I was using Les Pauls and Strats. Some of those songs where there’s a lot of bending didn’t work at all on a Strat; it was pretty interesting to learn that I couldn’t force a Strat on some of the “Les Paul songs”. (chuckles)
I Have you done any off-shoot projects since joining REO?
Richie Sambora from Bon Jovi did a solo project in 1991, and I played in his band. He’s a great player and a good friend.
A profile of you appeared in Fender Frontline.
I’m a Fender endorser; they’re treating me great.
The band is still touring quite a bit, right?
We’ve toured about six or seven months each year since I’ve been in the band. It’s pretty much been domestic tours, but we want to get this album out so we can go to Europe and Australia to support it.
What’s the concept, or perhaps I should say “style”, of the upcoming album?
We want to keep the old REO “feel”, but we’re also going for an up-to-date, Nineties sound with some classic REO ballads in the mix. We’re touring an awful lot this year; hopefully we’ll finish it by the end of the year. The goal is to have it done by Christmas.
Any instruments you’re still seeking?
I’d still like to have some Fifties Strats; I love their V-necks and their sound.
Some might opine that Dave Amato had some big shoes to fill as the lead guitarist for REO Speedwagon, but the amiable musician is looking ahead, not back. His enthusiasm for his band’s music and his stereotypical vintage guitar mania are the marks of a respectable player.
Photo by Pat Amato.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Dec. ’95 issue.