Rick Nielsen

Rockford State of Mind
Rockford State of Mind

One of the godfathers of the vintage guitar phenomenon, Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen was in an ebullient mood when he contacted VG… and not just because he’d acquired yet another five-neck guitar and a Guild he had been seeking for three decades.

The release of the quartet’s new album, Rockford (Cheap Trick Unlimited/Big 3 Records), was imminent, and the axe slinger was upbeat.

The album is titled in honor of the Illinois city where the band formed in the early 1970s. “I think that was (CT frontman Robin Zander’s) idea,” Nielsen said of the name. “And we immediately said, ‘Yeah, that’s good!’ Usually, there are months of negotiations about what’s right or what’s wrong with an idea. And you also try to find a title track; something cohesive like Dream Police. But our roots are here, this is where we honed our skills and our songwriting, and things have turned out pretty good.”

Nielsen conceded that the album takes a back-to-the-basics approach, saying “…it’s the four of us, and we really produced the whole thing. But we did have other people working with us. It’s good to have somebody tell you ‘no’ or ‘yes’, but it was pretty much the four of us sitting in a room, bangin’ ’em out. We didn’t bring in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir; it’s just us.”

The disc, he said, is a strong display of the songwriting skills of the band, which includes Tom Petersson (bass), Zander, and Bun E. Carlos (drums). “It’s diverse, like all of our records. It’s pop songs; some are kind of nutty, the others are kind of normal.”

Contributors to Rockford‘s production included Linda Perry, Steve Albini, and Jack Douglas.
“I think they’re kind of fans of ours, and we’re fans of them,” said Nielsen. “It’s fun to work with different people.”

Rockford consists of 12 hook-laden tracks that contain all of the classic facets that have made Cheap Trick an enduring entity. Tight arrangements, roaring power chords, and soaring vocals are all over it. The first single, “Perfect Stranger” (produced by Perry and co-written by her and the band) is a prime example.

“We did it at her studio. She’s a great engineer/producer/songwriter/singer…she didn’t even need us!” Nielsen chuckled. “We did a couple of things with her, and this one made the most sense. It wasn’t something we would probably have written ourselves, and I don’t think she would have written it that way, for her, either.”

And while the album has the expected riffs or end-of-chorus guitar fills typical of Cheap Trick material, there aren’t a lot of stereotypical lead breaks.

“I’ve always thought if a song needs a solo or a break, I’m never opposed,” Nielsen detailed. “But a solo for the sake of a solo is dumb, to me. That’s been the case with all of our albums, and I’m not a guitar god. But sometimes when we’re playing some of the new stuff live, I’m doing some things that I wish I’d done on the tracks. But that’s typical hindsight.”

“O Claire,” which has a Beatlesque vibe, is the album’s closest thing to a power ballad.

“We’re guitar/bass/drums/lead vocalist,” Nielsen explained. “If Robin also does all of the background singing, it sounds too perfect. If I did all the singing, it’d sound horrible! So it’s a mixture. That’s me singing the beginning of ‘O Claire’. I did the demo of that a long time ago, and the chorus was always too linear, but it now has some dynamics. The chorus Robin sings is the chorus I always wanted. As for being ‘Beatlesque,’ those are just the harmonies we do. We’re still a garage band, and always were, and I think it shows in a lot of the songs.”

Among the acoustics Nielsen used on Rockford was a custom-made Martin. “Tom and I went to the Martin factory, and had some stuff custom-built,” he recalled. “I got a D-42 and a black-and-white prototype I liked.

“I also used some Taylors, and a Gibson Hummingbird.”

The album’s final track, “Decaf” starts and ends in unique fashion, and if you listen closely, you’ll hear the chord progression – D, E, C, A, F.

Rockford is a strong effort from a band that has accumulated a third of a century of experience. Our conversation wrapped up with Nielsen’s take on a recent performance by Cheap Trick on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” in May, when the program was broadcast from the Chicago Theatre. The band tore through a rip roaring version of “Surrender,” with Nielsen playing a 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard while Petersson provided the band’s foundation with his trademark 12-string bass.

“Conan asked us to do ‘Surrender'” Nielsen recalled. “He’s a guitar lover – a Gretsch guy. And I asked if he’d ever played with a band, and he said, ‘Just Bruce Springsteen.’ I told him, ‘He’s too serious. Come on with us!'”

At the end of the song, O’Brien charged onstage with a black Gretsch, did a looping somersault, crashing to the stage. While it was difficult to determine whether the guitar was damaged, thousands of guitar aficionados across the country likely shrieked in unison.

Undaunted, Nielsen then strapped on one of his Hamer five-neck monstrosities (four necks with six strings, plus a 12-string) onto O’Brien. Was he worried O’Brien might attempt more gymnastics? “Whatever. It’s insured!” Nielsen said. “And I got a third five-neck last year that Hamer made out of korina. It’s got a mandocello neck, so it has 38 strings, as opposed to 36!”

Rick Nielsen photo: Mike Graham.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Sep. ’06 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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