Richie Kotzen interview

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Richie Kotzen is a guitar virtuoso with a huge career behind him. He played in Poison and Mr. Big as a rocker and with Stanley Clarke and Lenny White as a fusion player. He released an REH instructional VHS in the late 80s, 20 solo albums and toured all over the world playing big Clubs, theaters and arenas. We got the chance to catch up with him in London's O2 Academy in Islington before his show and asked him about his musical journey.

1.You have been around for quite a long time and known as a top virtuoso guitarist and amazing singer. How did it all start?
I’ve always been into music... since I was a little kid. I started by taking piano lessons when I was 5 but it didn’t last very long because I realized it wasnt for me so I switched to guitar. I wanted to be creative in terms of writing my own songs and be in a band and this sort of thing, so that’s what I did. I was a Rock ‘n’ Roll fan. I was into AC/DC, Kiss and Aerosmith and eventually because I’m from Philadelphia area I used to listen to a lot of soul music as well. So there is that side that came to me as I started to sing a few years later. I found myself wanting to play the guitar and sing at the same time and I got very influenced by all these soul singers and so now as an adult making music for the last 20 years I feel like I got here because of the definition of my influences from when I was young.

2.You have a very diverse style range as a guitarist throughout your career. How did you achieve this approach?
Well, the thing that happens with me is that any time I’m in a situation people are working with me because of who I am and because of what I sound like. I’m lucky that I started out by making solo records and I established myself as a guy who does his own thing. So when somebody came to me and said “Hey we want you to join our band and we want to make a record with you”, they are coming to me because they think that I’m going to add something to what they’re doing and they want my input. I was never into a situation that I was a hired hand paid to do what I’m told. I was always in a situation that “we want you in our band etc.” So I think that happened as I said earlier on, because of the foundation that I started making my own records under my own name.

3.Tell us a little about your REH “Rock Chops” Instructional video.

Well, since you are asking me some old things, I did that when I was 18 and I’m 40 now so that was 22 years ago (laughs). That was a whole lifetime ago. The video was focused on the techniques I utilized on my first album, which was primarily a shredder guitar record. Back then I remember a bunch of guys did these videos with the idea of sharing these techniques that made you unique, made you stand out sort to speak, however you want to put it. I remember being really nervous about it. I never felt comfortable as a teacher. I’m a guy that feels more comfortable getting on stage playing my songs and going to studio and creating; that’s really my thing. I never considered myself as a teacher. I don’t have the passion for it, at least not yet. Maybe when I get older I will... you never know.

4.1999. You replaced Paul Gilbert in Mr. Big. How did you get the gig? Did you happen to know him? How did you feel about it?
I was excited! At that time I was playing with Stanley Clarke in a band and it was a very busy year. We’ve been working on a record with Stanley; I had done two solo albums as well and then I was asked to join Mr. Big. We wrote an album together and I remember writing the album and leaving when they were still working on it, to go for a European tour with Stanley Clarke. So it was a busy year its kind like a blur. But it was a good experience! They are great guys and I admired all those guys when I was teenager 'cos they are a few years ahead of me and already known, already famous before I even had my first record deal. I was familiar with all of them and it was fun to work with them and collaborate.

5.Can you tell us a few words about getting the gig with Stanley Clarke and Lenny White.
It was an interesting situation because I have done a few fusion instrumental records and their manager knew of me. When Allan Holdsworth left the project they had approached me about playing and auditioning and my first thought was “No way! I can’t play with these guys…I’m not that good…”. I decided to go down there and they liked what I was doing. So they asked me to join up and make an album. It was a great experience, great education.

6.You’ve just released your 20th solo album, ”Peace Sign” what is it about?
Nothing. It’s just another record! It’s what I do, I write songs, when I have 10 or 12 that I like I put an album together so to me it’s just what I do. I don’t come out of the gig with some big plan or attitude. It’s just making music man! I make music, I play music, and it’s just what I do. I don’t really have any other ulterior motive! Just that.

7.You have been endorsed and have signature models from Cornford amps, Fender guitars and Zoom pedals. How did that happen?
I’ve been with Fender for 20 years now and I have been playing Fender guitars for more than 20 years. When I joined Poison I was playing Fender copy guitars and on my 2nd solo album I was using a telecaster because I liked the tone of the guitar. So I was making the album and the bass player at that time had a deal with Fender and the Fender guys came down and saw I had a Tele copy guitar and they said “ We’ll make you real ones, you don’t have to play these things”. So I started working with fender and in 95’ Fender Japan approached introducing 2 signature models, a strat and a tele and that’s what I play. I kinda go back and forth, occasionally I’ll give in into the start thing and play the strat but for the past 3 years I’ve been playing my telecaster. As far as Cornford... They are very cool amps. We designed my signature model together. I wanted it to be very simple, a plugin and play with a lot of gain, great tone and all that. I’m kinda getting through an experimental phase right now. I play through a Marshall with Low Watts. Two very simple low wattage amps that I link together in order to get my sound and it sounds very cool. I really dig it at the moment.

8.What is your advice for the new guitarists out there who want to make it in the business?
It’s important to realize something. Everybody I guess wants to step out from what they are and be something bigger than what they are. I think you have to realize that all that other stuff is a byproduct to the work. If you think like “I want to become famous, I’ll learn the guitar”, it's not gonna work. People become recognized because of their actions and what they do. People are talking to me because they’ve heard my music and they like my music, not because of anything else. You do the work, you learn the instrument, you play. Some of them like it, some of them don’t but you cannot control that and when you are trying to control that you set yourself up for a lot of heartbreak because it’s a big world, there is a lot of people out there who make music and you got to do it for loving it. You play music because you have to, it’s the only thing that you really know. I don’t know how to do anything else, that’s what I do. If I wasn’t playing here, I’d be playing in my bedroom. I’d be sitting there with my guitar playing because I like it, I enjoy it. So my advice is don’t worry about what I’m doing or don’t worry about what your neighbor is doing, make sure you’re happy. You like playing music, go play. You like being in a band, form a band. You like playing your own music, go write some songs. You want to play in front of others, book a gig. You want to hear your music through the speakers, go to a studio and record it. Be proactive! Do that stuff but by no means don’t expect everybody to love your work but if you connect to someone that’s a byproduct, that’s the bonus. But the objective is to make yourself happy and play music.

9.Will you be joining our Live4guitar community?
Yes sure, you guys look that you are doing a great job and that’s a good place to be. I’ll be having a look.

10.Thanks for talking to us, anything else you would like to add?
I’m very thankful for being in a position that you guys want to talk to me. Thank you very much! It means a lot to me. Thanks for checking out my music and coming to see me play. It’s a great feeling.