Richie Kotzen was one of those kids – always entertaining the family with song and dance, usually in a crazy costume. “I wanted long hair like a rocker, so I went to mom’s closet and pulled out wigs so I could pretend I was in Kiss, and she had these go-go boots that to my eye looked like what Paul and Gene wore. So I’d put on a show,” he recalled. Finally, someone thought, ‘Hey, maybe we should get him piano lessons’ – we had a piano in the house – but at five I didn’t take to it.”
A year and a half later, his family was browsing a yard sale when they spotted a guitar. “I realized, ‘That is what the guys in Kiss are holding’ and I really connected with it,” he said. “I spent a lot of time figuring out how to play things and started taking lessons. Before I knew it, I was putting together a band.”
Influenced mostly by popular hard-rock bands of the late ’70s/early ’80s, he also got into his parents’ collection with its Stevie Wonder, Spinners, and soul music.
By 18, Kotzen had caught the ear of Mike Varney at Shrapnel Records, who signed him to a deal and turned him loose on his first album, a self-titled rock/shredder set. Through it and the six albums that followed, Kotzen showed consistent growth. Today, his style reflects the influence of jazz and fusion (he has backed bassist Stanley Clark and drummer Lenny White) with hints of Hendrix, Vaughan, Van Halen, and Holdsworth. A decade ago, he quit using a pick.
In 2013, bassist Billy Sheehan and drummer Mike Portnoy invited Kotzen to jump aboard their new power trio. Dubbed The Winery Dogs, the band found an audience and has released two albums supported by extensive tours. Following its 100-show stint that ended in June of ’16, Kotzen took time to decompress then began gathering material for his 21st solo album, Salting Earth. Essentially a DIY project (except for bassist/singer Julia Lage’s background vocals on “Make It Easy”), Kotzen says when it comes time to give his ideas tangible form, old habits die hard.
“It’s really not deliberate when a I finish a record and realize I’m the only performer on it,” he said “It just comes out of my process. In the late ’80s, I realized that to get the music out of my head to where I could listen to it, I had to do it alone.”
Highlights on the disc include the first single, “End of Earth,” the edgy, anthemic “Thunder,” the funk-jazz swing of “This Is Life,” and the revealing acoustic closer, “Grammy.” All showcase not only guitar, but vocals that would serve well fronting nearly any rock band. We spoke with Kotzen as he prepped to tour behind Salting Earth, beginning with a closer look at his personal story.
What was that yard-sale guitar?
I don’t know, but I remember my teacher seeing it and telling me, “I can’t teach you on this. You need a proper instrument.” So, my parents and I went to the music store and bought a Gibson Marauder.
Straight off the 1976 Gibson promo poster with Kiss!
Yeah, that was my guitar.
What sort of guy was your teacher?
He was a 20-something biker, backwoods guy. His name was Larry, and I’ll never forget when I saw him the first time – very tall, long red hair, long red beard. I was terrified. But within the first couple months I realized he was really cool. I remember being psyched because he was teaching me how to read music. He was trying to get me play in time when he pulled something out of his pocket and was holding it like a switchblade. Then he pressed a button and it hit the sheet music – it was pointer. But I was terrified for a few seconds, nearly dropped my guitar.
Eventually, we became friends and I studied with him for years. At first I was so little I couldn’t carry my guitar up his stairs – my mom had to carry it.
Did he ever show you Kiss licks or how to play something off the radio?
No. Oh my God, this is classic! I’d been taking lessons for two years, learning scales, modes, chord progressions, improvisation; he’d strum and I’d noodle around on a pentatonic scale, whatever. But I never learned a specific song. He never said, “Here’s how you play ‘Purple Haze.’” One day, my father said. “I know you’re learning, but you can’t play a song. Tell Larry to teach you a rock song.” He was thinking Beatles or something.
So, I go to a lesson and say, “My dad said you need to teach me a rock song so I can play it for him.” And I kid you not, Larry said, “No problem…” He grabbed a piece of paper, made lines across it and wrote, “Two measures in G, two in B, and a measure at A.” Then he drew a repeat symbol and wrote “Rock Song” across the top. He said, “Play that for your dad.” That was his attitude.
I don’t think I studied with him long after that, but I had another teacher who taught me a lot. Learning the solo from “Hello” by Lionel Ritchie was like a big accomplishment.
What influenced you most from that point?
I spent a lot of time experimenting on my own. I remember wanting to write songs, but I’d get frustrated not knowing how to write lyrics. I remember going out on the porch once and telling my mom, “You got to help me write lyrics.”
There also was a time where I’d put my finger on the record player to slow it down and hear it better. Then, by 13, 14, 15, I was obsessed with learning difficult stuff. I had my band play “La Villa Strangiato” and “YYZ” by Rush along with other progressive-rock stuff. My drummer was a very prog-rock guy – I wasn’t the only one (laughs)!
When I was like 15, I got into Allan Holdsworth, Eddie Van Halen, Steve Morse, the Dixie Dregs, and I remember thinking it was a major accomplishment learning to play “Bloodsucker.” I also learned Steve Vai’s “The Attitude Song”; certain parts I just got the gist of instead of learning note for note. A lot of guys can play “Eruption” just like Eddie. I’d listen, but get bored; “Okay I know what he’s doing there… I can do this.” I’d never really learn it, which in a way was a blessing because I came up with my own way of doing things.
So, instead of having a “guitar hero,” you absorbed influences more broadly?
I think so. I remember hearing Brad Gillis on Ozzy’s Speak of the Devil and being very impressed. I heard of him before Eddie Van Halen – first time I heard Eddie was when Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” was on the radio. Then I started listening to Van Halen.
What forged your individual style?
When I was 17-18, I wrote and recorded an album that came out in ’89, and in that period in my life I didn’t know who I was, artistically. I had a lot of agility, a lot of ability to do things, but I didn’t feel defined artistically. I had a sound, but it was based on my technique, not my personality. It’s like that with a lot of players – their sound is a result of what they practiced as opposed to personality. Eddie Van Halen was special because there was so much personality in his playing.
That first album was instrumental, right?
Yes, and after that I started to figure out who I was and why I was playing. By the time I was 20, I didn’t have much interest in making instrumental records. I didn’t grow up listening to that kind of music in Birdsboro, Pennsylvania. I was just thrilled to be on Shrapnel Records with so many great players. So, on the second record, I sang. I wasn’t going to – I was writing vocal songs and planned to hire a singer, then the label convinced me to sing. Writing those songs, singing for the first time, then later having my contract bought by a major label really helped me focus on my voice. At that point, I picked up a guitar only to write. I became whatever it is I became as an artist.
If I look at my first couple records – the debut, then Fever Dream – I can’t count Electric Joy because it was done out of obligation after my contract was bought by Interscope… the record I released in ’94, Mother Head’s Family Reunion is, in a way, my first real record because it represents me, vocally, instrumentally, and as a writer. The whole thing came together. When I look at my catalog, in a weird way I can’t identify with that first record. It’s cool because it’s a snapshot, but I don’t connect with it as being me.
Which guitars did you play on those albums?
After the Marauder, my parents went to get me a Les Paul as a Christmas present, but the guy at the music store convinced them the Yamaha SVG2000 – like Carlos Santana was playing – was a much better guitar. I’m shown with it on the back of my first record. Then I had a Kramer with a locking vibrato, and an Ibanez. After that, Ibanez signed me and the second record was that guitar and the Yamaha on a few things.
Did you make any changes to them? Pots or pickups, maybe.
I don’t remember… probably pickups. I built a wireless into one, and it worked really well. And I used to bolt straps right into the guitars. I was quite the showman – guitar flying in the air and spinning around my back. I blame Cinderella for that – they were very popular locally when I was growing up, and always did crazy tricks.
Little bit of Vai?
Yeah, Steve did it too, but that whole thing really came out of Philly – Cinderella and Britny Fox were the first guys I ever saw do that. I’m sure there were others, but Tom Keifer was the master of crazy guitar tricks.
How about amps you’ve used through the years.
Well, in the very beginning I played Peavey amps because they were stocked at every music store and they were cheap. After the Peaveys, I got obsessed with Mesa/Boogie, then later got turned on to Marshalls. I had an endorsement with Laney and I made them crazy. They designed two amps for me – one had this huge capacitor in it – I don’t know what I was trying to achieve, but when I turned it off, it’d stay on for 45 seconds as the capacitor drained.
For a while, I had a signature amp from Cornford, a British company that’s out of business, then I developed a new amp with Victory, and that’s what I’m using on tour. I have a signature amp, signature Telecasters, and a signature version of Tech 21’s Fly Rig that’s pretty cool.
What sort of amp is your signature Victory?
It’s a 50-watt that uses EL34s or 6L6s, and it has an amazing gain stage – you do not need an overdrive pedal with this amp. And it has a boost switch so you can set the amp to have a nice rhythm tone, then step right to your overdrive. It has tremolo, reverb, and one Tone knob. Looking at the face, you see a Master Volume, Gain, and Tone – very, very simple. I don’t like to have to do math equations to figure out how to run an amp. So many of these amps are marketed to a lot of people. I’m trying to create something that’s really easy to use and can do a lot of things. I just got the prototype 1×12 combo with an extension cabinet, but eventually there’ll be a 100-watt head. They also make a travel-size head that’s very cool. I’m really excited about it.
Which guitars and amps do we hear on the new album?
I’m not sure, because it’s been recorded at various times, but you’ll hear Fender amps, my Cornford, Marshalls including a little Hand-Wired head. I record so randomly and it’s crazy how these things come together. For example, “Make It Easy” was recorded more than 10 years ago. It never had vocals before this album, and the guitar solo is probably the Cornford MT50 I was using back then. “End of Earth” is probably the 18-watt Marshall plugged into a 2×12 cab. The solo on that song is the Tech 21 Fly Rig.
Have you used the Fly Rig without an amp?
Yeah, I did that on the Winery Dogs record. There’s part of a guitar solo where I plugged it right into the console.
Which bass did you use for the new record?
A Fender Jazz.
Did you use an amp?
Sometimes, otherwise it was direct. Sometimes I added a keyboard sub-bass to double it. I’m kind of obsessed with bass; there’s a lot of it on the record.
When you amplify bass, what do you use?
The main signal is always direct, but on secondary tracks I had a Marshall 4×12 cab with a plexi, or a tweed Deluxe.
How does songwriting work for you? Do you capture ideas for melodies, then rush to record it?
Every single time, it comes to me in a different way. For example, the last song on the new album, “Grammy”; I woke up at 3:30 in the morning and the melody and lyrics to the chorus were just there. I was singing it. So I went to the studio and messed around, and by 7:30 I’d recorded what you hear on the record. “This is Life” started on drums. I went in the studio with a concept – it was rhythmic and harmonic. I went in, sat behind the drums without a click track – as you can tell – and imagined the band playing along. Then, I added a rhythm guitar, then bass, and I sang made-up lyrics – not even real words. That sat on my hard drive for months, and when I came home from a tour in Japan, I listened to it and thought, “That could be interesting.” So, I developed it, did some editing, went in once I had lyrics, and the piano tied it all together.
There’s all kinds of ways to write a song. And it’s easy for me, as one guy, to do what I’m doing, I keep my studio live – drums are miked and plugged into the APIs, my amps are never unplugged and the signal chain is never touched. At any given time, I can change things, add to them, this or that.
As a singer, who do you count as vocal inspiration?
Well, I have to say Paul Rodgers, early Rod Stewart, and Terence Trent D’Arby was probably the biggest.
Yeah. I get compared to all these different guys, but nobody ever makes the connection to Terence because I’m in the rock world and people sometimes look at things with tunnel vision. But I was really into him; when Introducing the Hard Line came out, I tried to do what he was doing. In 1991, “Dream of a New Day” was put on the soundtrack for Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey – I originally recorded it for Fever Dream, but I re-sang it for the film because my voice had evolved. I was at the height of my Terence obsession, and you can hear it. Many years later, a friend was playing guitar with him and I got to meet Terence. It was pretty cool to talk with someone who had such influence on me.
Who else… Definitely there’s some David Coverdale. I loved when David and Glenn Hughes sang together on Stormbringer, which is a really cool rock record. I love their voices together. Also, Sam Moore, Sam Cooke – soul singers – Levi Stubbs in the Four Tops.
Have you heard comparisons that didn’t make as much sense?
It’s interesting… I get compared to Chris Cornell a lot. He was fantastic, but it’s weird because I’ve sounded the way I sound for so long, way before I knew about him. It’s a compliment, but sometimes it feels undermining because there are elements of my voice that are similar, but I think my phrasing is really different. He was probably the best out there – but it frustrates me that people can’t hear the differences. There’s a similarity, tonally, when I’m screaming over a power chord. But when I made Fever Dream, Soundgarden wasn’t a household name. Back then I was being compared to David Coverdale. Another time, I was compared to Ronnie James Dio.
Hey, when you’re compared to somebody great, it’s a nice thing. Whatever. I live inside myself, I don’t live on the outside, so in a way it doesn’t really matter.
This article originally appeared in VG August 2017 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.