Keith Nelson

Axes, Amps, Bikes, and Tats - The Rock And Roll Life of Buckcherry's Keith Nelson
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Since launching its self-titled debut album in 1999, the SoCal hard-rock band Buckcherry has stood as a unit swimming against a tide of acts that look too much alike, sound too much alike, and bring little to the table in terms of potential staying power. The fivesome – fueled creatively since its inception by guitarist Keith Nelson and vocalist Josh Todd – staves off much of the modern rock ethos in creating albums that follow traditional rhythmic, hook-based paths cut by the Rolling Stones, Zeppelin, Guns ‘N Roses, and their cohorts and adherents.

Buckcherry’s latest album, 15 (a reference to the number of days the band took to record it) is at once reflective of the grunt-and-grind attitude of its creators and holds up as cohesive and listenable, front to back. Even more impressive is the fact the band did 15 – for better or worse – with no U.S.-label backing; their label dissolved within a year of releasing the band’s second album, 2001’s Time Bomb. Then, between August of ’01 and January ’02, three of the band’s original members bailed for various reasons. The nasty twists of fate left Nelson and Todd frustrated to the point of packing Buckcherry into a road case stenciled “Done” and moving on. After wrapping up the Time Bomb tour, the two hooked up with Guns ‘N Roses members Slash, Duff McKagan, and Matt Sorum to play a benefit show that led to them being part of a precursor to the band Velvet Revolver (Nelson has co-writing credit on VR’s first album). Ultimately, it didn’t pan out, so Nelson moved on to work in a recording studio, producing independent bands while Todd released a solo album, then worked in carpentry.

For three years, Nelson and Todd barely spoke to each other, until the unfortunate passing of Nelson’s father provided an opportunity. The conversation eventually turned to gathering a few friends, guitars, and some amps. By early ’05, a re-formed Buckcherry had written 30 new songs and was set to make a demo. Universal’s subsidiary in Japan bit on a record deal, and the band used the advance to buy time in a California studio. Forced to mostly record together in the same room at the same time, they emerged with the tracks that would become one of the biggest albums of 2006, propelled by an independently produced video for the hook-heavy, lyrically nasty “Crazy Bitch,” the hit single “Everything,” and a rep for a killer new live show.

Playing a major role in the band’s sound are – you guessed it – a truckload of vintage guitars and amplifiers driven by Nelson, who recently spoke with VG as he prepped for a cross-country Harley ride and nursed more than a touch of the flu.

How were you first drawn to music?
There was always music at my house. My father had a mix of Motown records, ’50s do-wop, and country music. We lived in rural Western Pennsylvania, and he had very eclectic taste in music.

I started by playing the drums, then one day went from wanting to be Peter Criss to wanting to write great songs, like Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp. And when being a scholar of music and songwriting became important to me, I gravitated toward the guitar, obviously.

How old were you?
It was right when I graduated from high school.

So your aspirations were in music then and there?
I came out of an area where people really didn’t really encourage you to pursue that kind of stuff – that was for people who went to Hollywood and made their dreams come true. But you couldn’t do that in rural Pennsylvania! That was the mentality. It wasn’t cultivated. And even after I’d moved to Los Angeles, everyone was asking me when I was coming back. It was like, “How long are you going for?” And my response was “As long as it takes.” I was pretty naive and had a lot to learn, but certainly the desire to make it happen was there.

57 Gibson ES-225.

’57 Gibson ES-225. Photos: Rick Gould.

62 Gibson ES-355

’62 Gibson ES-355.

57 Gibson J-50

’57 Gibson J-50.

54 Gibson Les Paul model

’54 Gibson Les Paul model.

97 Gibson Custom Shop 58

This ’97 Gibson Custom Shop ’58 Les Paul reissue was refinished by RS Guitarworks and is Keith Nelson’s primary touring Les Paul. Finish inspired by Duane Allman and Paul Kossoff!

56 Gibson Les Paul Junior

’56 Gibson Les Paul Junior.

What do you remember most about your earliest efforts at making music?
Well, I was 17 and because I was a drummer, all the kids would jam at my house because it was easier to move guitar amps than it was to move the drum kit! We’d leave everything set up in my garage or my basement, and then Monday through Friday, when we weren’t jamming, I had the band’s gear at my disposal to fool around on. So I just picked it up and started doin’ it.

What sort of music were you playing?
The earliest stuff I was into was the Rolling Stones. I’ve always loved them. And just learning songs from stuff like Tom Petty records, Mellencamp. A couple guys I jammed with loved the guitar on those records. And Springsteen stuff I liked because it was about the song. There was this moment I had when I saw John Hammond, Jr. on “Austin City Limits.” I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing – this guy playing the dobro and harmonica. I was like, “What’s this blues thing about?” I had no idea because until then I was exposed to whatever was on classic rock radio and some country stations. It just hit me like a bolt out of the blue. Shortly thereafter, I sold my electric guitar and bought an acoustic. I was obsessed with learning more about guys like Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf and T-Bone Walker and Elmore James – this whole world I didn’t know anything about. And that was fun for awhile, but then I missed being in a band and rockin’ out.

When I was 19 or 20 and had been playing two or three years, suddenly the Stones, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck – all my favorite guitar players – started to make sense. It was like, “Oh, this is a really loud version of the stuff that was coming out of Chicago.”

Looking back, I discovered the blues in a really innocent way. Hair bands were the biggest thing going at the time, and all the metalheads and musicians I was hanging around would break my balls for thinking I was an old black dude (laughs)! But I loved it. There was something about the music in me, and I wanted to make that music.

Do you remember the first song you wrote?
I don’t, but the first time I picked up the guitar I was thinking, “Oh! That’s a little bit of a song, isn’t it?” I’ve always loved playing the guitar for the sake of playing it – it’s a vehicle for me to create a great song.

Does a song come to you first in the form of a melody?
It comes from all different kinds of ways. Sometimes the secret of songwriting is as simple as not playing through a loud amp for a few days. Or I’ll take a break, then come into the rehearsal room and plug in one of my favorite guitars, and the amp will be loud and something will come out that just sounds cool.

You hear that all the time how certain guitars and tones can inspire a person.
And that has happened on more than one occasion – I pick up the guitar and something comes out, and it’s like, “Whoa!”

So, how old were you when you moved to L.A.?
I was 22 or 23.

What did the naive kid from the East Coast find there?
Well, I really thought that everyone in L.A. would be a phenomenal musician, and that it wouldn’t take long to hook up with someone. When I got there, someone told me about the Music Connection, a local magazine where musicians advertise when they’re looking for a gig. So I started calling people, and two or three years later I was still trying to find a band where everyone would show up and actually play shows, and musicians were good. Or I wasn’t accomplished enough to join some of the other bands that were holding auditions. So at one point, I was thinking I might move back home when a friend – a tattoo artist – suggested I meet this guy named Josh, who was a singer…

57 Gibson Les Paul Special

’57 Gibson Les Paul Special. Photos: Rick Gould.

59 LP Junior

’59 Gibson Les Paul Junior.

'63 Gibson SG

’63 Gibson SG.

61 Gibson SG Junior

’61 Gibson SG Junior.

67 Gretsch 6120

’67 Gretsch 6120.

'64 Gretsch Duo Jet.

’64 Gretsch Duo Jet.

Another client of his, by chance?
Another client, exactly… So that’s how I met Josh (Todd), our singer, and we started writing songs on a cassette four-track at his house after work every day. After three or four songs, something clicked and we started coming up with this cool stuff. I come from this background of classic rock and he’s an Orange County punk kid. I don’t think he ever sang, actually, until we had the band together – he mostly screamed! So on our very first songs, I was like, “Why don’t we just scream in the chorus and sing in the verse (laughs)!” The longer we’re together, the heavier my playing gets. And the more he sings, the better singer he becomes. It’s been a really awesome transition from point A to whatever letter we’re on now.

It’s fun to go back and listen to our old stuff. I just go “Wow!” because you can tell the spirit was always there, but we were working at it and getting more comfortable with who we are.

What do you remember most about making the first Buckcherry album?
We were finally making money (laughs)! We made 15 for maybe a fifth of what we spent on the first record, just because we didn’t know the game and didn’t realize at that point that everyone was making money except us. We were very, very naive – everything was new and exciting, and we thought we were making our version of our favorite modern records. It was a lot of fun.

Was the songwriting on the first album a team effort?
We always opened up the songwriting to everyone in the band. I really believe in the band mentality, through and through. Even in the face of getting screwed over by former associates or attempted rip-offs or financial sodomy, I still like the team mentality more than, “Josh and I are going to go write these songs and we’ll see you guys in a few months when we’re done.” I’m not into that kind of thing. I love the collaborative aspect and I’m lucky now because I’m in a band with four other guys who are best friends – we’re tight and we look out for each other. We have a common interest – making great music; nobody cares where an idea comes from, and it’s a lot of fun to be in that environment.

What do you see as the secret to Buckcherry’s success?
I think the band is successful because we’re the real deal. We’re not fakin’ it at all. I think we make good records, but one of the things that cements us is our live show. You can have downloads and web pages and all that stuff, but you can’t replicate the live performance. We’ve had some rough years with band members abandoning ship, then breaking up and not being able to get a record deal, then self-funding the last album – doing it on our own and not taking “No” for an answer. And I think people realize that if we were just in it for the money or just wanted to be famous, we’d be doing something else. I think that comes across. I put 100 percent into everything; I’m a workaholic and love what I do, to the complete disregard of my health and social relationships.

What was your first “real” guitar?
My first “real” guitar was a bastardized ’70s Fender Tele Custom with a humbucker in the neck. I bought it off of this kid who had chiseled it out and painted it Van Halen colors. All I could think was, “For a hundred dollars, here’s a Tele Custom just like Keith Richards’.” So I bought it.

At some point you went from having a few guitars to having a lot of guitars. Do you buy a guitar now because you want to get a certain sound, or have you bought guitars just because they’re vintage?
Well, as a general rule anything I buy has to sound good. If it’s a dog, I don’t want it… not interested. So I generally buy stuff I’ve picked up and played and think is incredible.

Martin D-28

’64 Martin D-28. Photos: Rick Gould.

51 Fender Esquire

’51 Fender Esquire.

57 Fender Esquire

’57 Fender Esquire.

72 Fender Telecaster Thinline

’72 Fender Telecaster Thinline.

05 Zemaitis 50th Anniversary model

’05 Zemaitis 50th Anniversary model.

Dobro Resonator

Dobro Resonator.

2006 Zemaitis

This 2006 Zemaitis disc-front was custom-made for Nelson and is one of his primary touring guitars. “I visited their custom shop in Osaka, where they make them one at a time, and I ordered this one. They took the dimensions from my ’56 Les Paul Junior neck, and I asked if there was a way I could get Danny O’Brien, who did Tony (Zemaitis’) engraving, to do a dragon on it. Nine months later, the guitar showed up, and it’s just phenomenal.”

Which ones stand out?
Well, that ’51 (Fender) Esquire is a good one. The (’54 Gibson Les Paul) goldtop is incredible. It’s hard to pick, you know? I just got a 3×10 tweed Fender Bandmaster that’s just ungodly sounding!

Nice. Where did you get it?
From the good folks at Guitar Center in Hollywood. Mike Catterino is a guy that I’ve dealt with for a long, long time. He knows what I like and he finds me stuff all the time. I’ve known Drew Berlin and Dave Belzer from Guitar Center since before the band was formed.

Where did the white-guard Esquire come from?
I don’t remember… I’ve had it for so long. The black-guard Esquire came from my good friend Oliver Lieber, producer, songwriter, guitarist, multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire, and a great friend. That was one of those late-night trades where we were sitting around the studio with a bunch of guitars. I call it getting “guitarded” (laughs). And I am often guitarded!

Why does it have a humbucker in the neck?
There’s a couple of things that aren’t right – the control plate, the rout, and the pickguard. It had a really bad rout under the pickguard. And of course I traded accordingly for it. I knew what I was getting myself into, and I just figured since it was already hammered, I was gonna make it as usable as possible. So I found an old PAF and put it in the neck – a double-black with the sticker. It’s nice.

Do you adopt the same philosophy toward buying amps – if you’re gonna buy it, you’re gonna play it, you’re gonna record with it?

Is the 3×10 Bandmaster something you figured you’d use right away?
Oh, yeah. It’s a sound I didn’t have in my arsenal, and I’d been looking for one for a while. I had the word out, and I just stumbled on it. You know, it’s always like, “Oh, s**t! Now what (laughs)?!” Careful what you wish for! I have a really good relationship with Dave Hinson at Killer Vintage in St. Louis, and every time I’m in town we’ll go out to lunch and we’ll kick tires and I’ll end up buying something off of him. He’s the kind of guy, last time I walked in the shop I said, “You know, if you ever come across an original Matchless DC30…” and he said, “Oh, like that one right there?” I’m like, “Oh maaaan!” (laughs). He takes care of me. He’s a good guy.

When you’re recording songs, at what point do you hear which guitar and amp you’re going to use on a track? Or do you plug into something and build a riff around it?
Usually, I kinda have an idea in my head how it’s all supposed to sound. And the madness is in chasing it and getting it to come out of the speakers. I know how everything I have sounds, so I kinda know what to reach for. Which is almost like painting, in a way; you know how the colors are going to mix. It’s always a happy surprise, and I certainly don’t know everything. But part of the fun is “Hey, let’s plug that in and see what happens.”

Reviewing some of Buckcherry’s most popular songs, do you remember which guitars and amps you used on “Lit Up” and “Check Your Head” from the first album?
Almost the entire record was a 1966 45-watt Park head, which is like a JTM 45. Steve Jones, who was co-producer on that record, had a modified early-’70s 100-watt (Marshall) Super Lead, and I don’t know what was up with the modification, but it sounded incredible. So those two amps, basically, did the whole record. And a lot of times for the clean sound I just rolled down the guitar’s volume knob.

66 Vox AC30

’66 Vox AC30. Photos: Rick Gould.

1960 Fender Deluxe

1960 Fender Deluxe.

55 Fender Super

’55 Fender Super.

60s Supro 1x12

60s Supro 1×12.

Which guitar were you playing?
A lot of my sunburst Les Paul Junior. That, and at the time I had a ’71 reissue (Gibson Les Paul) goldtop with the wraparound (tailpiece). Back then, I didn’t have a lot of guitars. Another was a ’97 Gibson Custom Shop ’58 Les Paul reissue that I later had refinished in a Duane Allman-style tobacco sunburst. That was my other primary guitar when I wasn’t using P-90s, and it’s my main Les Paul on the road. When I bought it, it was yellow, and I wasn’t knocked out by the color. But it had this gorgeous quilted top. It was cool, but I found myself wanting this dark-sunburst guitar and I couldn’t find one, so I sent it to the guys at RS Guitarworks, in Kentucky, and they gave it the once-over. I loved the guitar before, but I love it even more now.

Many guitar collectors can relate to wanting something strictly for its color…
I saw these old pictures of Paul Kossoff with this dark-sunburst Les Paul with ridiculous flame… he was just a kid! I wonder if he even knew? Free is one of my all-time favorite rock and roll bands – lightning in a bottle!

Which guitars and amps do we hear most on 15?
You hear a lot of my Gretsch 6120, especially on rhythm tracks. And now with the Bandmaster, I can get the Pete Townsend thing going (laughs)! You also hear a lot of that 50-watt small-box Marshall plexi, which is used on the first two records, as well. The black-guard Esquire would be the next, through the AC30. Most of the leads are cut with the Super Lead 100 – in the room with a cabinet, just gettin’ all the good love, blowing up headphones left and right (laughs)! The Les Paul is all over the record. And then, of course, the tobacco-sunburst Junior. I didn’t have any of the Zemaitis guitars when we did it.

In a way, I like to bring them all in, but at the same time I don’t want to have too many other options – a couple good P-90 guitars, a good Tele, a nice Strat, and a few Gretsches. That was enough to keep me confused for days!

Is there any guitar and amp combinations on 15 that we might find surprising?
You know what? A lot of my guitar solos were a Strat.

Yes. A lot of the melody lines that I overdubbed, and things like that, was a Strat. I went through a little Strat kick there. I don’t have any old ones, because I’m not a Strat guy. But I have a couple of phenomenal copies by Bill Nash. He makes a fine, fine guitar.

How did you get into the new Zemaitis guitars?
I was always a fan, and I tried to have Tony (Zemaitis, the late British luthier) make me one before he died. Some of the people I was working with reached out to them in England and I think he had just had a heart attack and wasn’t sure if he was going to retire, or he was already in semi-retirement. Shortly thereafter, unfortunately, he passed away.

A few years later, we were in Japan – we had just released 15 – and I was looking through one of the Japanese guitar mags and saw an ad for Zemaitis. So I got hold of the company and we went down to their showroom, and we started a relationship. I just started playing their guitars, and fell in love with them. As we became more and more successful, especially over there, they asked my opinion on more guitars, so I began to acquire a few.

Tony’s guitars were such a work of art, such a handmade tradition, and these are a little bit more “finished.” And on the road, they’re so reliable and consistent and never really have issues, no quirkiness as far as tuning and fretting and all that stuff, it’s just a really well-made guitar. They’ve been a really great company to work with. And I don’t need anything for free – I have enough guitars. I play them because they’re great.

66 Park

’66 Park; this 45-watt amp has been employed heavily on Buckcherry recording sessions. Photos: Rick Gould.

70s Sound City 50 Plus

’70s Sound City 50 Plus.

72 HiWatt Custom 100

’72 HiWatt Custom 100.

67 Marshall JTM (50-watt)

’67 Marshall JTM (50-watt).

73 Marshall Super Lead

’73 Marshall Super Lead.

78 Marshall Mk II

’78 Marshall Mk II.

Are you on the hunt for any particular vintage pieces right now?
(Groans)… I’m always looking. I still don’t have the right black Tele Custom. And a great Watkins Dominator (amp). But outside of a ‘Burst, I don’t know if there’s anything else on my wish list right now… But if you give me a minute (laughs), there’s always something!

Do you customize your newer guitars?
Yeah, usually one of the first things that happens is I’ll get one of the upgrade kits from RS Guitar Works. They are really great parts. And with most of the newer guitars, I throw in WCR pickups. Jim Wagner has captured something with them… there’s just a little more output than a standard PAF-style, but it’s still open and you still hear the guitar, you still hear the amps. They’re incredible, I can’t say enough.

You keep your tech pretty busy!
I work on my own stuff. I make my own cables, I wire my own pickups, and I set up my own guitars, everything short of re-finishing and refretting. I’m not afraid to get in there and twist a truss rod. On the newer stuff, everything usually gets an upgrade, the old stuff I don’t really believe in changing. If it doesn’t sound good, or if it needs new pickups or something, I’m not going to own the guitar.

You’re getting set to work on the followup to 15. Are you far enough along to know when it might be released?
Not really. But we work quickly, and I do like to make demos because I want to hear everything. We did 15 in two weeks, and I’m hoping we’ll really be extravagant with the next one and do it in three (laughs)! We’ll take our time.

Working quickly works well for you, so why mess with it?
Yeah, if it ain’t broke, ya’ know. But this is our thing and we’re really proud of it. As long as the five of us are getting off on it, man, that’s all that matters. The fact we’ve sold more than a million records in the U.S. is a happy accident. And the fact it sold the way it has and we’ve toured the way we have is sweet revenge (laughs). And I say that tongue-in-cheek; it’s not about revenge, it’s just about us enjoying ourselves and having fun and gettin’ off on the music.

Do you get the feeling most bands these days don’t care about making “whole” albums?
Well, I think to achieve a certain level of mass consumption, you’ve gotta get the suits excited – and the suits don’t get excited about your 11-song/45-minute masterpiece. They want something that’s gonna be downloaded a couple million times and have a great-looking video. But there are artists out there… I think we’re trying to do both, ya’ know? I want to make great f***in’ records that you listen to and want to hear again. And I also want to be a ring tone and have a nice house and all that other stuff. But at the end of the day, we’re not willing to do it on anyone’s terms but our own.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s March 2008 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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