Few bands experience the success of Bon Jovi, a group that achieved tremendous commercial audience by combining hard rock elements with strong melodies, great hooks, and well-written pop lyrics. Though they reached the pinnacle of the ’80s pop/metal scene, they have since flourished by bucking trends and staying true to their roots. After making music together for almost two decades, the group recently released its seventh studio album, Crush.
As guitarist, second vocalist, and a primary songwriter, Richie Sambora has mastered the art of songwriting, and tightened his chops. His experience with Bon Jovi and his solo career have provided the opportunity for Sambora to acquaint himself with a variety of sounds, and to sample some of the finest musical instruments, amplifiers, and effects available in the modern and vintage worlds.
In the last 15 years, Sambora has also built an impressive collection of gear he not only admires, but uses. While he may not always take his favorite vintage pieces on the road, he does use them in the studio, and his touring rig includes a respectable array of very cool guitars. In fact, Sambora considers himself a total “guitar geek.”
“We’re just a breed of messed up people, but we could all have worse addictions,” he confesses. As the owner of a formidable assortment of Les Pauls, Strats, Teles, and tweed Fender amps, Sambora is continually hunting for guitars and amps to add to his menagerie.
“I’ve got a ton of great vintage guitars and amps now,” he admits proudly, but knowing he has caught a serious case of “gear acquisition syndrome” (GAS). Unlike the typical “collector,” who puts instruments behind glass, Sambora plays everything he owns.
“It’s pretty cool to have all this stuff on hand. The only downside is that it has started taking up lots of space,” he sighs. Then he shoots back, “But you’ll never hear me complaining!”
VG caught up with Sambora as he was preparing for Bon Jovi’s worldwide tour, which began with a string of sold-out shows in Japan and Europe, before hitting the U.S. The discussion included the resurrection of Bon Jovi and how he approached the making of tha band’s new album, Crush, as well as his reliance on vintage guitars and amps (as well as new gear from Fender, Marshall, and Vox) to conjure up his tonal recipes for each track.
He also reflected on his musical roots, discussing the evolution of his playing and songwriting styles, and offered helpful advice to those embarking on their own musical ventures.
Vintage Guitar: How has your approach to playing guitar changed since Bon Jovi’s beginnings in the early ’80s?
Richie Sambora: I think it has become a more organic approach. Inside the band’s style, I’ve totally got my own style and I’ve gained my own voice. One of the hardest things for a band to do, in general, is to find out who they are stylistically and to find that voice. As an instrumentalist and the guitarist in this band, finding my voice has been a part of gaining my style, which is basically like an organic kind of modern-day R&B/rock and roll fusion.
Did this evolution come about naturally, or was it more of a deliberate effort?
It has been through the band’s life and my own solo work, as well as through the different experiences in the music business and as a musician that have brought me to this place, musically. I don’t think it’s anything I’ve consciously worked on, although, I’ve enjoyed evolving my style by bringing in different instruments.
I’m the kind of guy who gets really turned on by a new axe. In the past, I’ve been playing a lot more Dobro, although I didn’t make any conscious effort to play any Dobro on this new record because it didn’t seem to fit in anywhere. But I am playing a lot more slide on this album. Obviously, my tone is evolving, too. When you look back at albums like Slippery When Wet or New Jersey, I used two guitars and two tones, besides an acoustic. But on this new record, the palette is getting deeper. Because of the growth of my collection of vintage guitars, I’m able to put more colors in the songs.
I look at songs as sonic paintings, and having a different guitar, different amplifier, and different stompboxes creates a whole other hue. So I like to look at it like I’m painting with different colors when I have a different guitar and amp.
How has your interpretation of great guitar tone evolved over time?
As a musician, I have always liked to apply what is needed for the song, emotionally. I see songs in a cinematic level, so I try to apply the right tone to bring out an emotion. For instance, in a song like “It’s My Life,” the tones are amongst the heaviest I’ve ever gotten. I wanted people to react when the first chord hit them. It’s a combination of my ’60 Les Paul doubled through the new 100-watt Marshall JCM 2000 Dual Super Lead head and a Mesa/Boogie Rectifier head through a 4×12 and a talk box.
What kind of talkbox are you using?
On the record, one that was homemade. It was built to take the rigors of touring with an extra heavy speaker driver. I forget what it is, but it used to blow my teeth out onstage (Laughs)! Peter Frampton just lent me one of his because I blew that one up. He’s building his own effects now and he gladly obliged. So I’ve been playing live with his new stuff and I’m liking it a lot.
How many bands are using a talkbox these days?
Not too many. I think the Foo Fighters used it on their last album as an underlying tone, not as obtuse as what I’m doing on my record.
It’s an interesting instrument. I’ve tried to use it a lot more because I’ve always thought it was cool. And it has become kind of a signature thing for me since “Livin’ On A Prayer” was such a hit. At that point, when I brought the talk box out, I don’t think it had been on the radio for 10 or 15 years, except for classic rock radio. But when I brought it up to everybody in the band, they all started laughing at me like I was a goofy bastard. But when it actually worked, it became such an integral part of that hit song. Consequently, a couple of other times I tried to incorporate it into a song, it just didn’t work. For some reason, sometimes it works and sometimes it just sounds goofy. But on that particular track, it made it sound very tough.
Who inspired your use of the talk box?
When I was a teenager, Frampton Comes Alive was such a huge record. I liked that it was a live album and I loved to see bands live. Joe Walsh also used talkbox amazingly. Those were the main guys.
Which players influenced you in finding your tone and selecting your gear?
Guys like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Joe Perry, Johnny Winter, the Allman Brothers, and all the modern-day blues players. When I first heard Cream and Hendrix, they really caught my attention. Then I kind of went backwards and started listening to Albert King, B.B. King, Albert Collins, and Hubert Sumlin. Then back even further to Muddy Waters and further back from there to Charley Patton and Reverend Gary Davis. I went backwards to go forwards.
As a soloist, it was the modern blues guys who really influenced me. But as an arranger, for coming up with parts and the structure, it was the Beatles and George Martin. With a lot of the stuff I played on the Bon Jovi hits, it wasn’t about developing solos, but to play stuff that was melodic and memorable. So the solos were more like melodic interludes. You can almost imagine them either played by another instrument or by an orchestra. So they are more melodic and melodically-oriented than solo-oriented.
When I was playing sessions, I was trained to play what was right for the specific piece of material. I brought that experience to Bon Jovi. Then, becoming one of the main songwriters in the band, I wanted to see the right thing get on the right track and I felt less of a need to actually be a guitar masturbator. I had enough to do with the material, not only being the songwriter and the artist, but also many times as the arranger and producer of some of the music. So I felt that I had enough of a stake in it that I didn’t have to go overboard with my guitar playing. I’d just let it come and played what was appropriate for the piece of music.
Talk about the songwriting process for Crush. How did the songs come together? Did you demo the tracks first, before going in to make the record?
When Jon and I got together to discuss this, we wanted to make an optimistic rock and roll record with good songs that people are going to want to see performed live. We wrote 60 songs – the most absurd amount we’ve written for a record – and we demoed everything. We had time to do it for a lot of different reasons. Jon came in with 30 pieces of music because he wasn’t sure if he was going to write a solo album. He had just finished a short solo tour and started writing again, but he wasn’t really sure what he was going to do.
When he came back, I was on tour. When I got back, we decided to put the band back together. Then we wrote another 30 songs and we just picked those that fit the band the best, and I think that was the greatest thing about this record. I think it’s one of our best records we’ve ever made as a band because the material fits us well and we can stand behind every song, lyrically.
How did you approach things from the production side?
We did a lot of interesting and new stuff on Crush. Jon and I ended up co-producing with Luke Ebbin, who’s phenomenal and I think going to be a big star in the future. He brought a lot of new ideas. We recorded with Pro Tools, which was a big help, used a lot of drum loops, and recorded with a 56-piece orchestra. It all came together very well.
I’m always a very hands-on kind of guy, but on this record, Jon and I really watched it like a baby. We weren’t listed as producers on Slippery When Wet or New Jersey, but we’ve always been very involved in the production of how things sounded and how things were arranged. Nobody was telling me what to play. Then working with some great guys along the way, like Bruce Fairbairn, Bob Rock, Don Was, Neal Dorfsman. I’ve always worked with good guys, and I always became a part of the production team with them. During basics and the recording, I’m always standing behind the board, watching everyone do everything. That’s kind of the way I learned about recording and production – by making myself part of the production and not just one of the musicians.
When you write guitar parts, are you conscious of creating parts you can re-create live, and while singing?
No. I just let it come out. Then I have to learn how to do it all later. You have to play what’s right for the song, not what’s right for you. That’s the way a musician grows, and kind of what has happened to me over the years. I’ve grown stylistically because of all the experiences I’ve had in the music business. It has led me down a particular path.
Working with Don Was and different musicians takes me down a different path. Also, working with different writers, like Richie Supa, is part of the learning experience. Two years ago I did one of those Steve Vai Christmas albums, which was very bizarre. I did a very simple thing on Dobro, with Don Was on upright bass, and we recorded a version of “O Come All Ye Faithful” that I think stands up like a mother! So in that period, I ended up doing a gospel album with Don and playing on those things. There’s been a wide range of projects for me as far as my stylistic diversity goes. I think I’ve become not only a stylist, electrically, but also a utilitarian kind of player because in what Bon Jovi does is a diverse range of styles I get to cover using all of those cool vintage instruments which now are a big part of the depth of [my] sonic palette.
How do all these instruments affect your approach to playing and songwriting?
Obviously, the playability and the sonic qualities of different instruments does change things. If I’m going to use a beautiful Les Paul, like the 1960 and ’59 Les Pauls I have, it’s going to inspire me to play in a certain way and it will work best for getting certain tones and attack. But if I use my ’50 Broadcaster, I’m going to take a totally different approach. The Les Paul is going to be silkier, heavier, and will have more bottom end, but the Broadcaster is going to have all the bite. Then a Strat is going to get into all that phasing where you want it…so you approach playing it totally different and use it where it fits best.
On this record, I pretty much used everything I own – a bunch of Gretsches, Teles, old Strats, Les Pauls. I used a few Danelectros, some Bajo-Sexto Teles the Fender Custom Shop made for me, some electric sitars and all kinds of usual and unusual stuff. I also used a bevy of amplifiers. I just used everything and had a blast!
Was there a core group of guitars, amps, and effects for rhythm or lead tracks?
I didn’t use many effects, and I tried to not use the same instrument on each song, even if I was using a guitar from the same family of Teles. I’d try to use different ones, like use a ’50s Broadcaster and a B-Bender Tele Jay Black made me in the Fender Custom Shop, or I’d use a ’58 Strat I got from Norm’s Rare Guitars, and couple it with a new Richie Sambora Signature Series Strat. I was doing a lot of coupling with guitars on each track. I have a very quiet amp switcher and I used a ton of different amplifiers. I have a lot of old tweed Fenders, my favorite being a 1959 Super Twin that has got a clean sound that barks so loud, a ’53 Super and a ’58 Bassman. I also have a Selmer amp with two 12s and a bunch of old AC-30s and AC-15s from the ’60s, along with a brand new AC-30 that I used a lot on this record. I also used some Mesa/Boogies and the Marshall JCM 2000 DSL 100 head made a large appearance on this record. I’m also using it live. I really love that amplifier. I got turned on to it when I went to see Jeff Beck. I also used a VHT Pitbull, which have been a staple for me on almost every record I’ve made in the last ten years. It’s always found it’s way onto my albums. I’ve also got a couple of Dumbles, which Howard has made me that are great. I’ve got a couple of Jose-modded Marshall plexis, too, and they also find their way onto the records, once in a while.
In a way, I’m kind of a Neanderthal about my amps. When it comes to tone, I know it if it’s right and if it’s working for the song. But as far as the technical stuff about it goes, I just want to be able to turn on the amp, then turn the knobs and mess with it to get the right tone. I turn it on, couple it with a guitar and then know if I’m getting the tone I want.
How does your studio rig differ from your live rig?
For the stadium stuff, I tend to go for amplifiers that clean up well when I turn down the volume knobs on my guitars. So right now, I’m using a combination of Pitbulls and Marshalls onstage. The new Marshall has that beautiful clean channel which I think has gorgeous tone. I like to use something that I can get a bevy of sounds from and can also work well with the different guitars that I’ve been using live. There are large sonic gaps and volume gaps between different pickups, like when I use my ’60 Les Paul compared to a brand new Strat. There are a lot of different things you have to compensate for.
As far as effects go, I try not to use many of them and I put them on afterwards when I’m recording. I try to keep the tone as pure as possible. I don’t even use a wireless and I try to use cables as much as possible and then affect the tone afterwards. Onstage, I use a Vox wah, a Boss SD-1 Super Overdrive and a couple of outboard effects, like stereo echoes.
As for my guitars, Todd at the Fender Custom Shop just built me a few new signature model Strats which are killer. I’ve also got a new signature acoustic series that Taylor is making which is just phenomenal. The guitar is made out of koa and has a Florentine cutaway. It’s just tremendous. I’m also waiting on two doubleneck acoustics that Taylor is making for me. I think these are going to be the only ones in the world. I’m so thrilled with the signature model. It’s not only a gorgeous instrument, but I just used it the other day on a session and it records phenomenally. It records totally even whether you’re playing with a pick or doing fingerstyle work, and there’s no runaway low end. There are Fishman pickups in the bridge and neck, which you’re able to balance out. There’s a frequency knob, contour knob, bass, treble and master volume controls, notch filter and a balance control to switch between pickups. It sounds great both amplified and acoustically. I had them make the neck so it plays fast and smooth, kind of like an electric, so it feels great. You pick it up and know that it’s a really great guitar. They really did it right.
How do you like your guitars set up?
I like a little fight, so I’m playing with .010s and they’re set up a little bit high off the fingerboard. When I’m playing live, I get out there and I have all this adrenaline, so I like a bit more tension on the strings. But when I’m in the studio, I play with .009s and because it’s about having a little more of a finesse deal. If I’m using an alternate tuning, then I raise the action and use heavier strings. I play with regular medium picks, but sometimes I try out different materials for different sounds, like I’ll double an acoustic track with a thin pick to give it that real ringing kind of thing happening. I’m a really good doubler, so I can play an exact double. I pull that stuff off easily.
Do you practice frequently?
I practice, but I don’t practice technique as much as just letting a song take me somewhere. When I do practice, I just pick up an instrument that I get turned on by, maybe something I don’t play too often, like a Dobro or my 1902 Martin parlor guitar, and I’ll fingerpick. I’ve been doing a lot more fingerpicking at home, as well as on the record. I’m also playing a lot more slide.
What kind of slide are you using?
Acrylic and bottleneck slides. With metal slides, I sometimes get too much runaway frequency and I’m not that good of a slide player to control it with my palm. On “Save The World,” I think I was using a plastic one, but on “One Wild Night” and the end of “Mystery Train,” which has a country feel where you can hear more string, I think it was bottleneck. I prefer thin bottles over thick ones.
What advice do you have for players on developing their own style and sound?
I think the hardest thing for any band to do is to gain their own stylistic voice. It took Bon Jovi three years of touring and the experience of making two albums before we found out who we were. It took that long to find out what we were going to do and how the songwriting fit into the situation. Through those experiences the band was getting to know each other, not only personally, but musically. After that you kind of fit your guitar style into that environment.
But I think if I can give any advice, it’s to really work hard on the craft of songwriting because it is the foundation of our business. Without a good song, we can all be the best musicians, but if you haven’t got a good song to play, no one is going to come see you play, no one is going to buy your records, and you have no career. It’s a very important part of what builds a person’s style, a band’s voice, and a particular instrumentalist’s voice. That’s the best advice I can give. If you’re not good at songwriting, find a good songwriter to learn from. And even if you are a good songwriter already, write with as many different people as you can because you learn something new every time you sit down with a new guy.
Do you think collaboration is the best way to grow as a songwriter and musician?
It’s helpful and definitely a good way to help you grow, unless you’re like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, or John Cougar Mellencamp – people who can just sit down and write a very prolific song by themselves very easily. Guys like Dylan or Bruce are just walking around with an album in their pocket all the time. Those guys are the exception to the rule. But through writing with other writers and collaborating with other people, you’re always going to learn something.
When Jon and I sit down and write music, we have a style and there’s something that just happens naturally between us. It just sounds like us. We’ve been doing it for almost 20 years, so it has that history, but we continue to evolve. The way we evolve as writers and record makers is through those breaks we’ve taken. We take breaks to do solo projects and have other individual experiences, so when we do bring it back to the band, there’s new musical and life experiences to talk about. So the songwriting not only grows musically, but lyrically.
What kind of music do you listen to for enjoyment and for inspiration?
I’m an avid blues fan, but I listen to a variety of music. I love everything from field hollering like Charley Patton to Muddy Waters to Eric Clapton, to new bands like Lit, Foo Fighters, and Creed. I love the Black Crowes – they’re a great band. I listen to Frank Sinatra, and to classical music.
I listen to the blues-based stuff because I like the emotional output. That’s what I add to Bon Jovi. If you listen to the stuff I play, there’s an emotional commitment to what I do. I think that comes from the players I grew up with – guys like Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page – who obviously threw emotion into their playing. That’s what I do as a player.
Who has influenced your acoustic guitar style?
Led Zeppelin records were very much a foundation for me. That acoustic work Page did was phenomenal. There’s also a guy in New Jersey who I used to go see as a teenager, named Bruce Foster. Now he’s one of my writing partners. I used to watch him play at a restaurant called Charlie’s Uncle, in East Brunswick, and he played at all the little bars by the Jersey shore. Bruce and I became friends, then writing partners. He was able to play those gigs by himself and make the guitar sound like an orchestra. I used to be kind of a disciple of his. Then I used to go and play those kind of gigs myself, too.
When we made Slippery When Wet, there wasn’t a whole lot of acoustic guitar being played on rock and roll records. It certainly wasn’t anywhere on the radio at that time. The airwaves were completely electric guitar, and keyboard-driven with bands like A Flock Of Seagulls. Being an acoustic guitar lover, I really wanted to interject acoustic guitar back into modern rock at that point in time – 1986. Thus came “Dead Or Alive. ” Songs like “Never Say Goodbye” are also acoustic guitar-driven. Then I just kind of kept that trend going and I think I’ve successfully done it because after that record came out, people started using acoustic guitars again.
Hearing “Dead Or Alive” inspired me to buy a 12-string, and I’m sure it inspired other guitar players in the same way. It definitely did bring acoustic guitar into the forefront of rock music.
Cool! That’s exactly what I wanted to do. At that time, I had my two guitar tones with two guitars and one amp. That was about all that I owned. I had a couple of cool acoustics and that particular guitar sound was recorded with a big old Guild F-50 12-string that was a factory second I picked out at the Guild factory. I had a friend who knew someone at the Guild factory and they were nice enough to let me go up to the factory and pick out a six-string and a 12-string. They were both factory seconds due to things like finish flaws. I didn’t really do a good job of picking out the six-string because it never recorded well. But that 12-string was a killer. It sounded so good, although it was a bit hard to play. The tone was really bright.
We recorded that song at Little Mountain Sound in Vancouver. It was one of the side rooms with a stone wall, and I kept the climate very cool so the brights were very tingly. The guitar was a bright, well-bodied instrument, so it recorded phenomenally. But my quest was to bring the acoustic guitar into rock because it had a lot of dignity and it added integrity to songs.
A lot of our songs were written with just two acoustic guitars and a tape recorder. That’s the way we write – very simply. And we really adhere to the rule that you can’t polish a turd. So if we can sing a song accompanied by an acoustic guitar or a piano and think it’s good, then we take it to the demo stage.
What’s in store for Bon Jovi?
Right now, we’re pretty hell-bent on making this a contemporary album, and we want to make Bon Jovi contemporary again. There aren’t too many bands out there that are doing what we do and having hit records. So far, it has been going very well.
Out of the box, the record entered the charts in 10 countries at number one and in America at number nine. “It’s My Life” is a hit single throughout Europe, Japan, Australia, South America, and South Africa. Our first show at Wembley Stadium, all the stadiums in Japan, and most of the stadiums around Europe are sold out. We’ll be touring America at the end of the year. “It’s My Life” is doing very well on radio, we did the “Behind The Music” thing on VH1, and the video is already on VH1 and MTV, so Bon Jovi is contemporary again. Who would’ve thunk it? We’re beside ourselves with happiness. But when it comes down to it, I think we made a good record with good songs that I believe people are going to want to listen to and that’s a very important thing.
Richie Sambora Photo: Robert Matheu.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Feb. ’01 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.