Richie Kotzen on His Creative Process and Signature Gear

Richie Kotzen has made quite the career for himself since recording his first solo album at 19.

Those old enough to recall might remember Kotzen as the fresh—faced 21–year–old touring and recording as part with Poison during the early 1990s. At the tail end of that decade, Kotzen was chosen as the guitarist who would fill Paul Gilbert's massive shoes in Mr. Big.

Richie Kotzen - Salting Earth

Rolling Stones fans might have gotten a glimpse of Kotzen as the band's opener during the Japanese leg of its “Bigger Bang” tour in 2006.

Hard rock and progressive rock fans might know Kotzen as the guitarist and singer in supergroup Winery Dogs, formed with drummer Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater and journeyman bassist Billy Sheehan in 2012.

But the most formidable aspect of Kotzen’s career so far has to be his prolific solo output. Starting with his self–titled 1989 debut, Kotzen has turned out nearly two dozen albums on Shrapnel Records.

In our recent conversation, Kotzen discussed the recording process behind his new album, Salting Earth, his favorite touring equipment, and how his taste in gear tends to evolve along with his various projects.

You've been a busy guy over the past few years, between touring with the Winery Dogs and recording your latest effort, Salting Earth.

I have, haven't I? [laughs]

The beauty of Salting Earth is that I had my recharge period. I actually had the luxury of finishing it back in September. I've been holding onto it so that I could get away from music for a good couple of months.

I said to myself, “If I come back to this a few months later and I still feel as strongly about it as I did when I left it, then I know it's done.” So, I got time away, I got back to it, and here we are releasing it.

We've got a year's worth of touring booked in support of the record. I'm thrilled to go back out. I had my recharge period. I had enough time to finish the record, get away from it for a good three or four months, come back, confirm that I like what I did. Now I'm ready to get back out and support the album.

Richie Kotzen - "My Rock"

That recharge period seems important after touring non–stop over the course of 2015 and 2016.

Absolutely. For me, there's a lot of guys out there that just want to play. They don't care what they're playing, who they're playing with, they just want to be on stage playing. That's not me.

I am a guy who needs to be creatively inspired, you know? I need to be involved in the creative process and that's what I love most, which is writing. Sometimes the monotony of touring can become very stale. I need a break, and I need that balance.

As a songwriter, you can't have output without input. So to get input, you have to get away from the daily routine and experience life outside the realm of what you do. Hopefully [you] get inspired and start writing. That's when things become new and exciting, when I get a little distance.

What's that old expression? “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” It's kind of like that for me.

This is your 21st solo record. After doing it for so long, do you have a recording process established?

Yes. I definitely have a process I use when I make my recordings. It's something that stems from when I grew up. I was in an isolated environment on the countryside. Once I got into the idea of making my own songs, I wanted to record them. So I had found a way to get ahold of an 8–track recorder, and I set up a little studio in a barn.

And it was such that I would just take the microphone and put it in the front of various instruments. I'd mic the drum set, go to the bass, just to get my ideas going. That evolved many years later into how I make my records.

Can you walk us through that creative process?

To give you an idea, I have a studio in my home. So everything is always mic'd up and ready to record at any time. I've got my microphones on the drums: an [Electro–Voice] RE20 on the bass drum, a [Shure] SM57 and AKG C 414 on the snare. Everything is mic'd up. The signal chain doesn't change. And that's true for all instruments.

Believe it or not, some ideas start on the drum set. I have a song called “This is Life” that I more or less wrote behind the kit. At any given moment, I can wake myself up from sleep when I have an idea and hop on the guitar, pick up the bass, get behind the kit. I'll keep massaging that idea until it sounds like what I heard in my head.

The beauty of recording this way is this. Say there's a drum track I like, so then I lay down a bass track and some piano. Then I start work on the vocals, and if somewhere along the line I decide, “Eh, the drums coming out of the second chorus don't sound quite right,” I can go back and change it, and it sounds like I played it for the first time.

That's really the way I can accomplish having a system where I'm the only guy on the record.

What other types of gear did you find yourself gravitating toward?

I've got my signature model Telecaster, which is my main guitar, but I also have a signature model Stratocaster that's available, too.

It's all relative to what I want a song to sound like. It's that literal. Like when you're building a house, you aren't going to use a drill when you need a hammer. For me, it's a pretty simple decision. It has to do with the tones I have in my head and the type of emotion I'm trying to convey.

For example, I knew the solo on “End of Earth” wouldn't work on a Telecaster because I wanted that sort of movement that you can only have with a Strat. And other times, I have a hollowbody electric I pick up for certain things. But it all has to do with the song. What does the composition need? If it needs a banjo, I'll pick up a banjo. It's whatever. That's how those decisions are made for me.

A lot of guys just experiment and kind of just throw paint at the wall to see what sticks. I try not to do that. There's a certain level of clarity, I guess, for what I'm hearing and how to do it. If I don't know how to do it, there might be some figuring out, but usually it's pretty clear.

And let's not forget, there's no hard rules to this. We've all kind of messed around with a pedal and had a great idea that turns into a song. That happens, too.

The only time I've ever thought about it is when people have asked me what I'm doing, and I'm surprised by the answers sometimes. [laughs]

On the subject of signature gear, how about pedals? Your signature pedal, the Tech 21 RK5, gets rave reviews.

I'll tell you the story behind that. Over the past few years, I was doing literally what are called “fly–in gigs,” where I'd fly down with my band to, say, Costa Rica to do a show, then fly to South America and maybe we do eight shows. Since we're flying to every show, it gets impractical to drag all this stuff with me through customs while traveling in and out of various countries.

So I wanted to make this very simple. I took my favorite overdrive, I took my favorite delay. Back then I was playing Fender amplifiers. I'd just ask for a Twin Reverb, and I knew I could do what I needed to do.

So I had this crude box with basically six buttons on it and a bunch of knobs. I'd plug this thing in and there's my rig.

So I showed Andrew Barta from Tech 21, the mastermind behind the SansAmp, my crudely made fly–in rig. He said, “Wow, I think I can make this for you, and I think I could do this properly.” In other words, not homemade. And he said maybe we could sell this thing.

About a year went by, and he showed it to me. It's fantastic. That's the essential part of my rig, the little red fly–in rig.

It's so durable. I've dropped this thing so many times. It always works, it sounds great. I love it. I could put one in my back pocket and travel with it — not that I'd put one in my back pocket.

How about amplifiers? I've seen you with everything from the Fender Twin to Marshall stacks as part of Winery Dogs.

I went through phases where I did the Fender thing, then I had the Winery Dogs which is a bit more aggressive, so I went back to the 100–watt Plexi. Now, I've actually got a new signature model guitar amp that's coming out.

What’s the story with that?

The guy who's building it for me is the guy who did my last signature model and he's now with a company called Victory based in the U.K. We've developed a really cool amp that kind of takes the last one a step further.

We simplified the tone stage and gain stage. You have basically a master volume, a gain control that can give you anything from a screaming lead that sustains forever to a clean, chimey sort of bell tone. There is one tone knob, sort of like a good vintage Fender, and a reverb and tremolo circuit built in because I like to have that in my amp.

There are going to be a few different versions of the amp. There'll be a 1x12 combo that's rated at 40 watts, and so that's the first incarnation. My rig on this upcoming tour is going to be two 1x12's linked together sitting on top of two 1x12 extension cabs, so I'll have plenty of air to move with each of those speakers getting their own cabinet.

Eventually we'll have a travel—sized head, which is really cool, like a fly rig. for an amp. We're going to do a 100–watt head eventually. All of [these amps] have EL–34's.

Richie Kotzen

That definitely seems like a far cry from how you started out, as a 19-year-old kid with Ibanez guitars and Laney amps.

Yeah, you know, I'll never forget. [laughs]

We needed endorsements. I had a bunch of guitars. I still have the Yamaha I was playing, I had a Kramer. But back then, to sell a record on Shrapnel Records, you really needed to get locked in with a guitar company that was willing to run ads, or else nobody would know.

[Shrapnel] was a good label, but back then they didn't have the money to run full–page ads for every artist. So I hooked up with Ibanez and I hooked up with Laney.

That reminds me of a funny story. I was just out of high school. My friends and I kept getting calls from military recruiters trying to get us to join the service. And I wanted to be a musician. The thought of me cutting my hair was unthinkable. So, I was getting these calls left and right and I'd hang up on them.

One call comes through, and they said it was Hoshino. They started talking, and right off the bat, I must have just had a call from a recruiter, I got real aggressive and said, “Nope, you have the wrong number,” and slammed the phone down.

So then my mom comes in and asks me what that was about. I told her and she says to me, “Hoshino doesn't sound like it has anything to do with the United States military.”

Somehow, and I don't know how she did it back then, she was able to return that call. She asked them what they do and then she told me it was Ibanez guitars calling. Sure enough, it was Ibanez, and they wanted to give me a guitar. That's how it happened.

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