Rick Nielsen

Vintage Phenomenon Forefather
Vintage Phenomenon Forefather

Considered by many guitar aficionados to be one of the “founders” of the vintage collecting phenomenon, Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen has long been a sage among those with an earnest interest in classic fretted instruments. He has been collecting for decades, and has been through examples of most every collectible instrument. And he still owns two late-’50s Gibson Explorers.

But Nielsen is first and foremost a professional musician, and Cheap Trick has always maintained an active schedule, in spite of hassles with recording companies, which the guitarist asserts will soon be rectified. He’s obviously proud of Silver, the live album of Cheap Trick’s 25th anniversary concert, staged at their home town of Rockford, Illinois, with help from a lot of friends and family.

Vintage Guitar: To the probable amazement of many fans, the album recorded by Fuse (a pre-Cheap Trick band in the late ’60s that included Nielsen and bassist Tom Petersson) has been released on CD.
Rick Nielsen: Well, we recorded it about a hundred years ago (chuckles); I knew it was out on CD, but hadn’t seen it until my mailman asked me to sign a copy of it. As I signed it, I realized there were some liner notes on the inside of the booklet, so I read those. I’d say they’re about 80 percent right.

How do you think the CD sounds?
I still haven’t listened to it. I’m usually surprised when I listen to some of the Cheap Trick stuff; except for a few mixes and sonic things, I’m pretty pleased with most of the stuff we’ve done. You do it, then you go on to something else, and I’ve never really gone back and listened to much of the older material.

I recently went to a funeral for our longtime friend and merchandiser, and they played some Cheap Trick stuff in the chapel. It was kind of an odd place to be listening to it, of course, but the song called “Shelter,” from a late-’90s album we did seemed to convey the exact sort of emotion. It was like the first time… it was the first time I ever really heard it.

On that Fuse CD, the Grim Reapers material was from a label we were on called Smak; they had it in the notes as “Smack.” We were good players, and that early Fuse and Grim Reapers stuff shows that we made pretty decent recordings, for what we were. Fuse was the first American band to have a Mellotron, which I imported and played; I also played a Hammond M-3 organ. I owned a C-3 and a B-3 for a while, but the M-3 was easier to haul around.

Can you give us a brief overview of the band’s recording efforts in the ’90s?
We did Woke Up with a Monster on Warner Brothers. We’d been signed by Ted Templeman, Lenny Waronker and Mo Ostin, and about a week before the record came out, Lenny and Mo got fired, so we were kinda doomed from the start on that one, even though Ted Templeman produced it. We just recently got the rights back to that one, as well as the late-’90s album that “Shelter” is on. In reality, those records were almost not even released. We’re going to release them.

People have said, “How come you never put out studio records?” Well, we got burned on our last two, and they’re both interesting records.

Sex, America, Cheap Trick is a boxed set.
It was gonna be a single CD, then it was a double, then it was a triple, and finally it was a quadruple. It’s got a load of stuff on it, more than half of which is previously unreleased. It’s got “Money is the Root of All Fun,” which I wrote, and Roy Wood from the Move – one of my favorite singers in the world – and with Robin Zander, also one of my favorites, in the studio. There’s the demo of “World’s Greatest Lover,” with me singing lead, and there are also many outtakes, different mixes, and a lot of other cool stuff.

Music for Hangovers?
That was recorded live in Chicago. That year, we did three-night stands in tons of cities – London, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit, three cities in Wisconsin, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle – where one night Pearl Jam opened for us – Portland, Denver… We were all over the place. We did an album a night; the first album the first night, etc., plus other songs. Chicago was a four-night stand because we did the complete Budokan set, not just the songs that were on the ’79 Budokan album, which was only half of the show.

We got some good performances out of it. (Smashing Pumpkins guitarist) Billy Corgan’s on there, as is Darcy, who was also still in the Smashing Pumpkins at the time. Doing those shows was a lot of fun, and it just came out this spring on DVD.

The Cheap Trick website also mentions albums known as “Bun E.’s bootlegs” (Bun E. Carlos is Cheap Trick’s drummer).
For years, we’ve recorded just about every show and soundcheck we’ve ever done. Bun E.’s the archivist, and thank God for that. I think we’ve had three or four of those to come out so far. There’s Alex Harvey playing with us, AC/DC playing onstage with us – with Bon Scott. There are different versions of songs; demos of some of the things we’ve done, and soundchecks. For a fan, it’s like being onstage or in the studio with us; material you could never get in a store. It’s only available through us and our website.

Was there a lot of planning put into the 25th anniversary concert in Rockford?
Yeah, we had done similar types of shows at an event called Trickfest, which is just for fanclub members. There have been three of those so far. After the third three-day Trickfest, we came back to our hometown to do that show. We still haven’t gotten the key to the city, which is kind of ironic since I’m the only one who still lives here and pays the property taxes (laughs)! Bun E. lives in the country, Robin lives in Florida, and Tom lives in New York.

We actually did three sets; there are 29 tracks on the concert DVD, VHS, and CD.

Peter Frampton’s Live in Detroit DVD was originally conceived as something for just that audio/video format, but it begat a VHS, which begat an audio-only CD. Was Silver also designed in such a “domino” manner?
No, we meant to do Silver in all three formats right from the outset. There’s also a DVD with two discs with some “fun footage,” where we’re interviewing ourselves. It’s still coming out in certain places in the world, and it’s actually done fairly well.

Is the DVD mixed in 5.1?
Yep; Harry Witz recorded it and mixed it. He owns DB Sound, in Chicago; they do PAs for bands like the Rolling Stones, AC/DC, and everyone else.

The audio CD carton has some Japanese characters written on one edge.
That translates as “Cheap Trick,” although it’s my understanding that some of the early ones said “Cheap Tric,” they missed the “k,” so I guess those are collectors’ items, like a 1955 double-stamped Lincoln penny.

Fans would probably tend to compare Silver and perhaps even Music for Hangovers to the original Live at Budokan recordings, regardless of whether you’re considering the original ’79 album or the complete recordings from that earlier show.
And believe it or not, that one is being re-released this spring, and it’s already quadruple-platinum. It still sells, it’s like definitive Cheap Trick. We made the Budokan famous, and the Budokan made us famous. Technically, I think the newer ones are probably better records.

The fidelity on Silver is impressive, and at one point, you introduced Tom Petersson as “the inventor of the 12-string bass guitar.” How much does that instrument add to your sound?
A lot; it always has. We’ve been using that since the Budokan days, although I think back then he had a 10-string, because Hamer wouldn’t make a 12-string for him. Since then, Hamer’s made ’em, and he’s also got quite a few made by Chandler. What an instrument – it’s like a bass, a 12-string guitar, and a six-string guitar, all playing at once. It’s an instrument on its own, and there are quite a few bands who’ve gotten those instruments – Pearl Jam, King’s X… But Tom was the progenitor, and I get to hang out with him (laughs)!

Let’s talk about some of the guest players; first, Jon Brant and Tod Howarth, on bass and keyboards, respectively.
Jon was our bass player in the ’80s when Tom was gone; until about ’87. For Silver, he sat in on some songs that were new when he was first in the band – “If You Want My Love” and “She’s Tight,” although I may have actually played bass on the recordings. At one point we didn’t have a bass player, but Jon would have played bass on the tour to support [One On One]. And he has recently been seen in an Altoids ad.

The Mint?
(chuckles) The mint! He’s the guy in the spacesuit. He does voice-overs, as well, and when he went in to do one of those, they got him to pose, too!

Tod had played with us on occasions when we thought we needed to flesh out the sound; he’s a great guy. When that particular show, with all the background singing, it just seemed like a good idea to bring him back in.

It was also a nice idea to bring in family members, which happened during the second set.
Ian Zander played a Martin tiple on “It All Comes Back to You” and Holland Zander sang on “Time Will Let You Know.” Daxx Nielsen played drums and percussion on several songs, and Miles Nielsen played electric guitar and sang on “I’m Losing You,” the John Lennon song, and acoustic on “Time Will Let You Know.”

Your comment about goose bumps following “Time Will Let You Know” is pretty much on the money – it’s a gorgeous power ballad, replete with a string section from the Rockford Symphony, and a high school choir.
That was on Robin’s solo record, and the Harlem High School choir was the choir that Robin sang in when he was in high school. The woman who was basically his first voice teacher was in charge of the choir; she died recently. They really added a lot; and who wouldn’t have liked to have had the strings and singers on every song?

Robin’s daughter really sings great, and it’s a really good song with a lot of emotion, but it’s not just a “linear” song. It’s got loud moments, quiet moments, and a huge chorus at the end. I’d like to take a second swing at the guitar solo, though. But the audience reaction to it was great; there were people there from all over the world, and that song was a real standout. I’m surprised stations like VH-1 haven’t really shown much from the show, particularly that song. Programmers, wake up (laughs)!

The live version of “The Flame,” with the string section, sounds edgier than the original.
It’s not just a rock song, but it sounds more like there’s a rock band doing it. The studio version doesn’t sound “flowery,” but on this one, you’ve got big, heavy drums, and all the guitars are big.

The string section stayed onstage for quite a few numbers, and was really into it!
They like us! There was a married couple among them; Rachel was the woman nearest to me on onstage, and her husband, Mike, was the cello player on “Shelter.”

And Slash broke a string on what was possibly the very first note he played.
That was his guitar, so he borrowed one of mine – so no wonder he sounded so good (chuckles)! But what a treat. He flew out on his own, and he was supposed to be there with (producer) Jack Douglas, but Jack’s mother had died the day before.

More recent and younger players who’ve had some success in the music business also sat in.
Billy Corgan came out again on “Just Got Back,” and Art Alexakis from Everclear played and sang on “Day Tripper.” Going back to those three-night stands, we’d had different bands open for us every night – bands like Pearl Jam, Everclear, Smashing Pumpkins – all kinds of acts from around the country. Everclear actually did a real cool version of “Southern Girls,” one of the songs on In Color, our second album. They recorded it for a Cheap Trick tribute record that hasn’t come out yet.

“Who D’ King,” the final “song” is something that needs to be viewed instead of just heard, considering how everybody came back onstage and then marched off accompanied by a plethora of drummers.
Yeah, that was something we planned, but we didn’t give it a run-through, because we wanted there to be some spontaneity to it. Bun E. and I were sort of directing the whole shebang.

We’d originally done that song with (producer) George Martin, in Montserrat. I wanted to call it “Who’s the King of the Whole Wide World?,” as kind of a chant with drums, and I wanted all of the people who worked at the studio to be on it. One of ’em was a cook, also named George, and he and some of the others were chanting it as, “who d’ king a d’ whole wide world,” so we sort of slurred it like that, going with their inflections.

When we used to do it in concert, we would bring up people from the audience, radio DJs, and others, and we’d put ’em all in those Bun E. masks; it was a hoot. This time around, we had members of Bun E.’s Drum Choir, including Daxx, and the Phantom Regiment drummers. And you’re right – it’s best to see it to get the impact of it, and at the end, we just kinda trailed off the stage and walked into the crowd.

If I asked about each guitar you used on the show, we’d need to add another installment, so let me inquire about just a few. What were some of your classic, vintage pieces?
That’s a (Gretsch) White Penguin on “Never Had A Lot to Lose.” I had three of my ‘Bursts there; in fact, that’s the guitar Slash grabbed when he broke a string on his own Les Paul. I had one of my ’58 Explorers there, as well. Still used plenty of Hamers, too.

The five-neck Hamer is now sporting a new checkered paint job.
No, that’s another instrument. I’ve retired the orange one. There’s an art show going on right now at the Rockford Art Museum that involves cars and guitars, and they’ve got about three dozen of my instruments, including the original five-neck. It was also at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for a year, at that “Dangerous Curves” show.

Is the new five-neck any lighter than your old one?
Nope! But if you notice, I had one thing made different from the original one – the orange one had regular tuning pegs, but this one has banjo tuning pegs. They stick down, so you can actually tune it. The pegs on the other one were running into each other.

The band made VH-1’s list of all-time hard rock acts…
Number 25! Not a bad place to be!

Your collection book came out in ’93. Were you satisfied with the way it turned out?
I was very happy with the book. Bill Rich, from Tulsa, asked me if I would do one, and this was at the time when Robin was doing his solo album. I didn’t necessarily want to do it, but it seemed like a good time if I was ever gonna do it. Before I knew it, I basically took over the project; got my own photographers, color separators, and printers here in Illinois. There was also another museum display that year that tied in with that book.

Since then, I’ve been to England [to visit] John Entwistle. I brought the same two photographers with me, and we’ve done John’s collection. We hope to get it published real soon; it’s been a long time comin’. He’s a great guy and he’s got some great stuff.

You thanked Hamer in the liner notes on Silver.
I still use their stuff, but I’ve never used just one company’s stuff. Hamer’s been very good to me throughout the years; they’ll make me any crazy thing I want. Frank [Untermeyer] is my main man.

Ten years ago, you noted that you’d been through just about everything when it came to collecting guitars. Is there anything you’re still seeking?
I’ve seen a black Merle Travis Guild with real fancy appointments and a real fancy pickguard and truss rod cover. I’m still waiting to get my hands on one.

You’ve also differentiated between “collecting’ and “hoarding.” How has that changed, for better or worse, since we last spoke?
Well, you hardly see anything anymore. And I know it’s not musicians who’ve got ’em – it’s doctors, dentists, and lawyers who wish they were playing guitar, and they actually have the money to be able to afford the instruments. I don’t know if a lot of it will ever see the light of day again.

What about prices?
It’s kinda crazy. We just played the Olympics in Salt Lake city, and we had just played there with Aerosmith about a month before. I got a phone call from a car dealer there who was looking to buy one of my Explorers. When we were in Japan in April of 2001, somebody offered me “too much money” there for one of ’em. The guy in Salt Lake also offered me “too much money,” but not as much “too much money” as the guy in Japan. I’ve got two, but they’re different. They’re both sweet, like a nice old car, but they still play cool.

They were so oddball for their time, it’s no wonder I like ’em (chuckles)! I liked ’em before they were collectible, so I usually feel like I need to keep ’em together. If you play ’em, they’re priceless. At least, that’s the way I feel.

But the prices have gotten so high on some instruments, I’m glad I’ve got a collection, it’s a nice pension plan for my wife and kids (laughs)!

But I’m from the old school. Back then, when you were gonna buy an old Strat, maybe three out of 10 were good, not every one was a winner. And now, every one of ’em is supposedly a winner, as far as the hype goes.

I’ve got one Les Paul that’s my favorite. All of those that I have are good, but there’s one that just cleans the clock of all the others. I don’t know why that is, but it’s true.

What about the craftsmanship on modern instruments?
I just went to Gibson’s Custom Shop and spoke with Edwin Wilson. I went through and picked out the wood for four Les Pauls they’re gonna make for me. I picked the prettiest wood, and then he asked how I wanted ’em to be made. I said, “Edwin, you’re not the player, you’re the artist who’s making these. I want you to make ’em how you would want to make ’em. You know I like the vintage stuff, so make ’em right.”

He said I was the first person to ever say something like that, and I think I’m going to end up with some fantastic guitars. Same thing with Hamer – I tell Frank to pick out the right material and to make it right. I trust the guys I deal with in those situations, and I think they appreciate it.

As always, Rick Nielsen’s opinions about music and instruments are astute, and he has the experience in the music business as well as the “old guitar phenomenon” to back up his observations, so attention should be paid, whether the source is his voice or any number of terrific guitar riffs that emanate form his assortment of classic instruments.

Photo: Mike Graham

This article originally appeared in VG‘s July ’02 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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