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Richie Kotzen

Issue #14

Richie’s eponymous solo album, released in 1989, showcases Kotzen’s ahead of the curve chops for the time. With his incredible command of legato and sweep picking, a new star was born and just like that, Richie was making the cover of the biggest guitar magazines.
Levi Clay

Richie Kotzen Soul Trained

Richie Kotzen is not only one of the world’s most respected guitarists - he’s a fabulous singer, a great songwriter and a master of that most elusive of qualities - soul. Stuart Bull met Richie in Los Angeles on the eve of a European tour. Levi Clay considers the career of one of today’s greatest guitarists.

When a talent like Richie Kotzen is born, you know that all the stars must have been aligned. With so much skill on the guitar, tasty phrasing, great tone, incredible songwriting skills and an unbelievable voice, it’s no surprise that Richie is still hugely popular almost a quarter of a century after exploding onto the scene.

Born in Pennsylvania in 1970, the young Kotzen picked up the guitar at age seven just wanting to be like his heroes, KISS. He developed quickly, and began to take things pretty seriously, “My influences were Van Halen, Steve Morse, Jeff Beck, Clapton, Hendrix; anyone who had blues and soul in their playing,” Kotzen recalls.

Around the age of 16, Richie found himself writing with the band Arthurs Museum; who released their only record, Gallery Closed, on KGS records in 1988. This certainly wasn’t going to be a career band for Richie, but as with so many of the guitar legends of today, it wasn’t long before Mike Varney found him and offered him a recording deal on the legendary Shrapnel label.

Richie’s eponymous solo album, released in 1989, showcases Kotzen’s ahead of the curve chops for the time. With his incredible command of legato and sweep picking, a new star was born and just like that, Richie was making the cover of the biggest guitar magazines.

At this point REH brought Richie in to shoot an instructional video. The resulting Rock Chops was one of the staples of the aspiring guitarist’s collection in the ‘90s where Richie covered his slippery legato techniques, lengthy sweep picking ideas and high octane tapping ideas.

However, it was in 1990 that Richie really showed what he was about, with the release of Fever Dream. An all out Rock album with noticeably better production values, the most notable change was that, while his first album was full of instrumental tracks, this album saw Kotzen take centre stage with guitar and vocal duties, and it turned out that the 20 year old virtuoso had an excellent voice.

After his third album, Electric Joy, cemented his position as a guitar hero, Richie’s next role was as the replacement for C.C. Deville in the Glam Rock icons, Poison, in 1991. After two years of touring and the release of Native Tongue, Richie was given a taste of what it was like to be a superstar, but after getting just a little too intimate with bandmate Rikki Rockett’s fiancée, he was speedily ejected from the group and sent back to his solo career.

From here Richie went into overdrive, recording so many albums, both solo and collaborative, that the resulting discography is just too deep to cover fully here. If you look over that period though, there are some obvious highlights that reveal his influences stretching far deeper than the Rock guitarists you might expect to have inspired him. The Inner Galactic Fusion Experience and two collaborative albums with Greg Howe (Tilt and Project) are perfect examples of Richie’s deep passion for extended Jazz improvisations, chromaticism, substitutions and complex chord changes. That passion came to its head in 1999 when Richie teamed with Stanley Clarke and Lenny White for the Vertú album.

In 1999, tensions had grown so high in Mr Big that Paul Gilbert jumped ship, and Richie was quickly drafted in as his successor. Paul had recorded some terrifying guitar parts (Colorado Bulldog for one!), which Richie ate-up. He also brought his own unique brand of funk and soul to the table as demonstrated on Get Over It and Actual Size. While this was a golden era in Richie’s career, unfortunately Billy’s and Eric’s long standing personal relationship exploded and Richie was soon back producing solo albums.

From his exit from Mr Big up to 2009, Richie released seven studio albums in seven years, which include some of his most loved material, including amazing songs like Go Faster (Taken from Return Of The Mother Head’s Family Reunion) and Paying Dues (from 2009’s Peace Sign). It’s safe to say that, while in the UK, Kotzen never became a household name, his popularity continued to grow elsewhere in the world, most notably in South America and Japan, as you can see from 2008’s Bootlegged In Brazil.

When it comes to gear Richie began out on a Yamaha SGB 3000, then moved on to your typical shredder set-up. Beginning with a Kramer superstrat, then a series of Ibanez RG models (and an S) with an array of custom horror influenced graphics, but around 1992 Richie made the jump to Fender guitars, where he has remained since. There are a few signature model Telecasters and Stratocasters that have been available to the Japanese market for many years, but now Fender will be offering it as a worldwide model from January. He is most often associated with his signature Telecaster which features gold hardware, DiMarzio Twang King and Chopper T and a baseball bat thick neck.

Ampwise Richie started out on Laney before moving to Marshall for many years. In 2005, British amplifier company Cornford released the RK100 which was a single channel head designed to meet Richie’s requirements. In 2010 Richie moved back to Marshall amplification and since then has danced between the two companies. When using a Marshall though, Richie would opt for the 2061X or 1974X. When it comes to pedals Richie likes a touch of delay and reverb, though he does have a signature Zoom multi FX unit which contains 20 of Richie’s own pre-set tones.

The other thing to mention about Richie’s playing set-up of recent years is his complete abandonment of the pick, instead opting for use of the thumb and fingers. This means that his style now uses less alternate picking or sweep picking that he would have played many years ago, but he now claims there’s a better connection with the instrument.

In more recent years, Richie put out the album “24 Hours” in 2011 which features more of Richie’s excellent playing and singing over 10 tracks including OMG (What’s Your Name) and the title track. This year Richie entered the studio with Mike Portnoy and Billy Sheehan to record yet another collaborative album, this time in the in the style of great bands like Led Zeppelin, Cream and Hendrix, all with a sprinkle of Soundgarden and Alice In Chains. There is no official release date yet, but when it lands it’s going to be a ‘must have’.

So, almost 25 years, 25 solo records and over 40 recorded with other artists, plus hoards of adoring fans around the world and Richie Kotzen still shows no sign of slowing down. That is surely something to be grateful for in these difficult times!


Issue 14

Issue #75

Peter Green / Ivar Bjørnson

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