Richie Kotzen: Timeless & True

By Greg Jones | Photos by Derek Brad

This interview was originally published in our “Classical Issue”

There was a famous TV commercial in the 1980s that used to feature a plethora of mechanical toy animals, all moving or banging away on drums and cymbals in a cacophony of noise, while a voiceover would say “can you guess which one has the Duracell batteries?” But alas there was no way to tell amidst the maelstrom of almighty clattering. You had to wait for them all out and see which toy was still playing when the others had come to a halt.

Guitar based rock music in the 1980s was very similar. Between the flood of instrumental virtuosos that swept across the world and the abundance of bands that got labeled hair metal due to the sheer volume of styling gel needed to complete a single video for MTV, speedy solos, and high voices were first the fashion and then the folly of the day. Trying to sort the wheat from the chaff became exhausting and expensive.

There is, however, a power in pure honesty that is so compelling that it is irresistible to any who encounter it. Sadly those opportunities are rare, precious, potentially life-changing and daily overlooked in haste by the masses. But if you’re seeking one, they do exist. When true inspiration is expressed in music, the effects on all who hear it are tangible and undeniable. And I’ve experienced this recently in the body of music by Richie Kotzen.

Beginning as a young guitar virtuoso in the Shrapnel Records stable and navigating through the proverbial Big Time during a brief stint with Poison, his determination to express completely what was in his heart and soul bore fruit in the spotlight. In its aftermath, he has continued sowing seeds that have blossomed artistically and yielded decades of an abundant musical harvest. In this interview, it becomes clear that, whether sailing new waters in the glorious melodies of Stanley Clarke and Lenny White’s five-piece band Vertu or touring small clubs the world over in a trio supporting his independent releases, Richie infuses everything he does with blues, soul, and heart. His latest band The Winery Dogs teams him with fellow feel virtuosos Billy Sheehan on bass and Mike Portnoy on drums to explosive results and their unexpected success proves the power of real rock, soul and even some shred in the service of a great song.  Every word he sings, and every note he plays, comes straight from the heart.

Guitar Connoisseur – Was there music in your childhood home and if so, what kind of stuff really moved you early on? 

Richie Kotzen – There was music. My father was really into r&b so I was exposed to that music when I was very young. My mom was really into bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix so I was kinda getting both sides, you know, the r&b/soul thing and what now is considered classic rock.

GC – Do you remember when you finally decided to play guitar, what you were listening to at that point?

RK – Yeah I had started off playing piano – someone had suggested that I take piano lessons when I was around five – because I was always trying to sing and entertain the family. I took piano lessons for a short period but I really didn’t take to it. About two years later when I was seven there was a guitar at a yard sale and I really wanted it. At that point, I was really into the band KISS and I think that was part of what inspired me to want to learn the guitar. Unlike the piano where I didn’t really take to it very well, with the guitar I just really, the minute I started, I really loved it and kept at it. Around the time I was in the seventh grade I met another guy that was a little older than me that was a guitar player and singer and we formed our first band. And from there I just kept going.

GC – That first record deal you got was on Shrapnel, where they had primarily instrumental guitar players…

RK – Right.

GC – Was there any difficulty getting signed when they found out you also sang or did it make them want to give you more support?

RK – Well, for me it was a way out of my small town. I got signed to Shrapnel when I was around eighteen and my intention was always in music with vocals. But when Shrapnel Records was really at the height of it, there were a lot of great players they were discovering, so it kinda came I guess the year before. I was featured in a column in Guitar Player magazine when I was seventeen that was called Spotlight for new talent.

B.B. King's New York, NY March 25, 2014
B.B. King’s New York, NY March 25, 2014

GC – I remember that. I’m older than you and I used to read that all the time, looking for things to buy.

RK – Yeah, yeah. That was something that kind of became an obsession for me, to try to get into that column. Finally, they featured me and that led to me getting signed to Shrapnel. But after I made my first record I quickly realized that, if I was going to make records, I wanted to be making records where there was singing. I remember when I went to do the second record I was sending demos to labels with various singers singing songs that I had written. And finally, it was the record company president Mike Varney that suggested that I sing.

So I started really going back, listening to singers that inspired me, you know; people like Paul Rodgers and early Rod Stewart. On that second record, I actually sang for the first time on the recording. And shortly after that, I started to hone my direction and it became clear to me what it was that I was supposed to be doing with my music.

GC – That’s great. From that era, a lot of those guitarists who got tagged “shredder” or “neoclassical” eventually migrated to bluesier waters over the years. This is just my opinion but, in your case, that soulful bluesy playing was always there. I even hear it on the first record. Not only is it genuine, but even your blues licks seem to be pretty much free of cliches and I’ve got pretty jaded ears. I’m way back from the Sixties, so…

RK – Right on. Thanks.

GC – When so many players find it hard developing a signature style, do you have any tips on how yours evolved so distinctively? 

RK – It kind of happened, you know, through discovering. I knew that I didn’t want to play the instrumental thing; I never really listened to classical music or had that in my background so a big part of my style is, I think, it comes from what I listened to as a little kid.

Like I said earlier, with my dad’s records being r&b and my mom’s rock records, I think when I started singing it all just kinda came together. As a singer, I definitely listened to more of the r&b guys, you know, Sam Moore and Walter Edwards kind of singers. As a guitar player, I was inspired by more of the rock players like Eddie Van Halen, some of the British guys and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Once I had some kind of sense of connection, where I started to feel like I was connected to the instrument- so that if I played something it was something I was actually feeling, not something I had practiced or rehearsed – once I could trust those instincts, the style kind of evolved.

I remember years of bitter frustration because the camp that I came out of, people would hear my name and they would just throw me into that category of the typical Shrapnel thing, which was great but it really wasn’t who I was. Finally, I just kept doing what it was that felt natural and after several years, it just became obvious, through the music I was writing, who I was and what my identity was.

B.B. King's New York, NY March 25, 2014

GC – It’s pretty amazing that you got to find that out while being smack in the middle of the music business. I imagine that joining Poison for a little while wasn’t exactly going to lower the pressure on you. I know a lot of people own the album Native Tongue specifically because you’re on it. 

RK – Well, that was an interesting opportunity. It was kind of a double-edged sword so to speak. The good thing about it was that I became known to a much wider audience by joining that band. The other good thing was that when we made that record they really gave me free rein. They were looking for artistic direction, they wanted the band to have a new sound and go somewhere where they hadn’t gone before. So with the Native Tongue record, we did that. There’s a lot of me on that record. So that part of it was really good. The downside was when I left the band, people, that didn’t listen to the record and didn’t know what we did on that record lumped me into a whole other category. “Oh, he was in Poison”, so they assumed I was that kind of a player which obviously I’m not.

GC – Right. 

RK – But it was a double-edged sword because, back then, in the business, to put out records you really needed a record deal. I’d have situations where they’d be telling me “well, we have to market you this way or that way” and I’d always fight with them and say, “no, you really don’t. If you let me do what I do, the audience I’m going to reach is a completely different audience that has nothing to do with Poison fans.”

But of course, being executives, they can’t see past that and they want to capitalize on an existing base, which I understand; but that’s not always the best move for a new artist that has their own identity.

GC – Do you ever see any of them today, smile and say (laughing) “I was right?”

RK – You know, it’s funny, a lot of those people and those executives aren’t even in the business anymore. Some of these guys are guys that were, back then, very powerful and very opinionated and just thought they had all the answers. Now here we are twenty years later and a lot of them aren’t even around. And the ones that are around are the ones that know how artists work. They know how to develop artists and let them be artists. But those people are far and few between.

Even artist development isn’t what it was then. Back then someone would get signed, and if they got signed by someone who knew what they were doing, they’d spend a year or two with that artist, letting them write and explore and record until finally, they made a record. It would be the thought of, well, if the first record doesn’t blow up, we’re going to see this through for three or four albums and see where it leads. Where now, it’s nothing like that, you know? It’s more producer-driven.

B.B. King's New York, NY March 25, 2014
Left to right: Billy Sheehan, Richie Kotzen, Mike Portnoy

GC – It’s one song now, I think, not even an album anymore.

RK – It’s a completely different market now, yeah, absolutely.

GC – It seems like very often, at least in a live situation, you’re usually in a trio setting. So I was wondering if you’d elaborate a bit on what it was like working as one of three melody instruments inVertu? 

RK – Oh, yeah. I learned a lot from that band. ‘Cause those people, the band members, were obviously jazz musicians and I’ve kind of done things that had a jazz flavor but I’m definitely not rooted in that style.  So it was a big learning experience for me and there’s so much that I got from playing with them that opened up my ears, how I hear harmony.

It’s hard to go into detail but it really taught me how to listen, to know when to play and when not to play and what to do when someone’s soloing. For example, Karen Briggs, the violinist in that band, to this day is one of my favorite soloists on any instrument and you have to listen to what someone’s doing, because once they start soloing, you’re part of, you’re the foundation, you have to not get in the way of what they’re doing. But at the same time play things that elevate it, take it to the next level, which is something that I think you have to figure out over time, as you’re doing it.

Because a lot of it is improv-based, you have to rely on your ears.  And those choices, I think, as musicians mature, some people get there faster than others, it’s something that only really comes from playing with other people and just being aware of what’s played around you.

GC – Speaking of improv, there’s an almost indecipherably fast run you play to match Lenny White’s insanely quick snare drum roll in a song called On Top Of The Rain that I would recommend every reader to hear. 

RK – (laughs)

GC – It’s just unbelievably fast. Did you consciously have to sit and practice that run to get it up to speed or did you just pull it out of your hat?

RK – I think it was probably a line that was something that was within my natural capabilities. You know, there are certain types of runs that you do that are part of your technique. Now, my technique has changed a lot over the years. But back then, one of the stronger things for me was the left-hand legato type thing. And so probably on that run, I was playing something that may sound difficult but, for me, I was used to doing based on my particular skill set.

But the thing I learned from Lenny White, a lot of the things that he would talk to me about was concept. Not just playing something that’s been pre-rehearsed, make sure you’re playing things for the right reason and that you’re feeling things from your heart.

There are so many little things that I picked up from all those guys. The actual run you’re talking about, I’d have to hear it to know exactly how I was playing it. But I do know that on that record the big thing I learned was really more about harmony and not so much about technique, but just actual notes, phrasing and fitting in with what everybody else was playing.

GC – I was also really struck by the beauty of the rhythm guitar part in Anoche. 

I thought that was incredible and it didn’t sound like anything I’d ever heard before.

RK – Oh wow, cool. Thanks.

GC – Having played somewhat futuristic jazzy stuff with Stanley, Lenny, Rachel, and Karen in Vertu, as well as all-out blistering guitar fusion with Greg Howe, have you ever felt the pull toward an orchestral film project of some kind?

I ask because the beautiful harmonized fast triplet melodies in an early song like High Wire, for example, seem like they would lend themselves equally well to a string section or even a British prog-rock style keyboard. Also, Noblesse Oblige from your debut album is extremely cinematic in the scope of the arrangement and the grandeur of some of the themes. 

Have you ever thought about doing some scoring for films?

RK – That’s something I’ve never done that I’d like to do. I’ve just never had the opportunity. The closest thing I ever did was something I did with Stanley. He scores a lot of films and he had called me up to the house to play on something he was scoring. I think it was a movie called The Best Man if I remember correctly. We would have the movie playing, watch the scene, and I was doing some kind of bluesy guitar licks, trying to fit into what was happening with the actors. I enjoyed it, it was fun, but I never had the opportunity to do any full-on scoring. But if it came up, you know, it’s something I’d love to explore.

B.B. King's New York, NY March 25, 2014

GC – You mentioned Paul Rodgers earlier. The Winery Dogs album I got when it first came out ‘cause I’m a drummer and a huge Mike Portnoy fan. The band’s sound, to my ears anyway, even though it is bursting with muscle, hearkens back to when the British rock bands like Free and Humble Pie, as well as you, mentioned Rod Stewart and The Faces, had very strong elements of soul music mixed with heavy guitar. Were a whole bunch of those bands influential on you?

RK – Well definitely, yeah. That era of music for sure I lean towards. For me to really, how can I say this, I love all kinds of music. At least as far as it relates to playing rock music, it has to be rooted somewhere in blues or soul for me to really feel connected. There’s a certain kind of rock music that just doesn’t have those elements to me and I can appreciate it but it’s not anything that I would want to really play. It doesn’t excite me for some reason internally. And so that’s why, when The Winery Dogs started writing, things really clicked because we kinda fell into that thing.

Even though we play a lot of crazy unison lines, Billy and I, there’s still a blues-based thing there that’s happening that we all kind of gravitated towards. I think that’s a big part of what made the band work. Our attitude when we got together was, we never discussed direction. We just got in a room and started throwing ideas around. And before we knew it we had some songs written.

GC – And a sound.

RK – A sound, yeah, and it was easy. I think if it was laboring or felt forced we just would have moved on. Neither one of us needed to, it wasn’t like we needed to make a project, but hey, I’ve known Billy for over twenty years. I had never played with Mike before so it was intriguing; it seemed like it could be fun. And it was. I think that’s why the band came together and that’s what brought us here where we’re able to tour now for, it will be over a year we’ll be touring on and off. When I did the record I never expected much of anything, other than making a really cool record, so it’s been great.

GC – Are you surprised at the response? I’ve noticed lately that some of the venues you guys are playing seem like the band’s audience are larger than the sum of each member’s core following all stuffed into one place.

RK – That’s true, you know, we’ve definitely noticed that. What really was surprising, when we did the record, we booked our tour. And we started in Japan, based on what we’d done, we figured those shows would go well and they did. But when we got to Latin America the audiences were huge and sold out and that then carried on into Europe. But I remember getting off the plane when we were going from Japan to South America – we had a couple of layovers – and on one of the layovers, our label sent us some information and our record had charted in the Top 200 at 27.

B.B. King's New York, NY March 25, 2014

GC – Wow.

RK – And we were all shocked because, my solo records, I kind of put those out independently and though I have a respectable base, I’m not in that world of charting.

GC – That’s rarified air, right?

RK – Yeah. We were just shocked that we appeared that high. We didn’t have a single at radio. What I think is, the day the record came out, I guess people were curious and they went and checked it out. And now it’s created a situation where we can stay out on the road and play shows and there’s a lot of enthusiasm and excitement within the band for the three of us to get back in and make another record and see how far we can go.

GC – I’m so happy for all three of you. I saw where Mike had a blurb on his blog where it seems that had a promotional segment on the video for I’m No Angel and I said to myself, what world am I living in?How did this happen? I have more Winery Dogs questions but I really want to ask you this: on your first album you recorded out with Stu Hamm and Steve Smith.  We’ve talked already about you playing with Stanley Clarke and Lenny White, now you’re playing with Billy Sheehan and Mike Portnoy. While the readers take a moment to let the weight of those names sink in, did playing with such formidable bassists and drummers present any challenges for you? 

And what do you look for in your own rhythm section when you’re touring or recording?

RK – That’s a really good question. There are multiple answers there because it’s timeline based. For example, when I made my first record, I didn’t really have my identity together as an artist. I had a concept as a guitar player but as an artist, I was growing. And I can say that even on the second record there was a lot of growth happening, a lot of trying to figure it out. But to talk about that first record with Steve Smith specifically, it was the first time that the concept of time was brought to my attention. Mind you, I’m an eighteen-year-old guitar player at that point that’s trying to play crazy licks and impress people. But back then I never really thought too much about rhythm guitar. So we were making the record and we had these sections where I’d play a riff and he’d solo over it in 9/8, me playing the riff over and over and him improvising around that. I remember he made me come back to the studio and said “your time is moving. What’s happening is you’re making me sound like I’m making mistakes.” So I went back to his studio and he sat with me for a day and really broke down for me what it was playing rhythm guitar, what that means and how it all fits together and works. That was a huge awakening for me. So from then on, all I focused on was that, the rhythm guitar aspect of things. So that was one huge learning thing.

Obviously, with the Stanley thing, we talked about it before, there was more of a harmony aspect to things because they’re jazz players and their ears are in a whole different realm. And so I picked up a lot from them. But if you fast forward to now, many years later after I’ve grown a lot since I first started making records and found my own identity, what I look for in a rhythm section, obviously aside from playing the song the way it needs to be played, when it comes to soloing and improvising, if someone’s taking a solo you have to know how to play a support role. If I start soloing I don’t want someone else to start soloing under me because then it becomes impossible for me to go anywhere harmonically. Instead of a solo, it becomes a cluster of notes that don’t always work together.

For the rhythm section, it’s knowing how to support the soloist and elevate them. That doesn’t mean you just play root notes and a simple drum beat, either. Maybe you start there. But you have to understand you’re playing a role to support the solo. And that doesn’t always mean the guitar player.

When Billy takes a solo in a song I’m playing something to lay down the foundation so he can take his harmonic and rhythmic concepts to the next level. And then if I hear something that he does, I can change what I’m doing to push him further in a direction. It’s like a conversation. Somebody says something, there’s a rest, someone responds. If you don’t do that, imagine two people screaming at the same time, you can’t hear anything.

GC – On that same subject, I was going to ask you, when you’re songwriting, I hear a song like Paying Dues and there’s tremendous attention to the rhythmic transition from the chorus part into the verses.  Also, the bassline in The Shadow, especially the second chorus, is so melodic that it leaps out and grabs your attention. 

I’m wondering how much you spell out what you want from the other instruments when you’re writing, and since I know you play a lot of bass and drums on your own albums, is it primarily spelled out when you’re playing those parts yourself or also for other players you bring in? 

RK – It’s different all the time. All songs come to me in different ways. Paying Dues came to me out of the guitar riff and suddenly I knew where I was going with it. But most of the time I hear it complete in my head. In other words, it starts with the vocal and the melody. Once I have a melody I can feel really what the drums are going to play because they’re connected.

GC – Even on something tricky like Paying Dues?

RK – Absolutely. The minute I hear that melody (sings), I hear it instantly, the drums, exactly what needs to be played. And then everything else kind of falls into place. Sometimes I write a song on bass, sometimes on the piano. But everything is tied to what I’m doing with my voice and everything is built around what I’m doing with my voice. That’s the key.

Obviously, the lyrics are extremely important but the melody is where everything starts. That dictates everything. That means you can technically write, in my opinion, the song IS the melody and that’s proven many times. When you sing Happy Birthday, you’re not fumbling around trying to figure out chords, you’re just singing the melody. Any song, when you sing it, you know that’s it; that’s the song. Everything else is built around it, added to it.

B.B. King's New York, NY March 25, 2014

GC – I think if you took the last song on The Winery Dogs album Regret and sang it acapella, it would still sound – that sounds like a classic soul song to me.

RK – Well it’s definitely rooted in that. I love that kind of feel and I’ve done songs like that before, songs like Remember for example or Let’s Say Goodbye. A song like that for me is a pleasure to play because of all the space. I notice a lot of times, in a show, if I’ve got a lot of shows in a row, say we do four in a row, and maybe I’m getting a little tired, because, on a lot of the louder songs I’m singing harder, trying to hear myself above the loud instruments – when we play the softer stuff, there’s so much more room for the voice to live and you don’t have to scream over instruments. That’s a big part of why I love doing the acoustic tours that I’ve done in the past because it just really focuses everything back on the song and the lyrics. Obviously, I’m a singer so that’s important to me. But it’s a balance; I wouldn’t want to do only one thing.

GC – Right but it’s amazing to hear such an accomplished lead guitar player who not only loves to play rhythm but says the most important thing is my voice and the melody of the song. That’s almost unheard of (laughs), especially in a guitar magazine. 

RK – Yeah, well, to me it seems painfully obvious unless you’re doing instrumental music. And even if you are doing instrumental stuff, whatever the lead instrument is playing the melody, that becomes the main focus. And everything is there to support that. That lead instrument can be a bass, it can be a violin, a saxophone, or in the kind of music that I do, it’s the vocals.

GC –  On the song Desire, the wah-wah tone you achieve sounds like your guitar needs its mouth washed out with soap. 

RK – (laughing) Thanks.

GC – Over the years we’ve all heard tons of wah-wah pedal solos but this one sounds unique to me and I think it’s the level of expressiveness in each phrase.  I don’t know if it was the subject matter of the song or what, but it sounds like your guitar is a guy standing to one side making rude remarks and it’s just great. I wonder if you have any tips for getting that precise level of expression?

RK – Well, obviously, or maybe not so obvious, I guess my answer would be that it’s what I’m playing. and my phrasing in that moment. How I’m moving the pedal. I could say it’s the wah pedal but it really isn’t. It’s just what is happening at that moment and it has to do also with the band.

What Mike and Billy are playing at that time and how I’m responding to it. Those are just moments that happen and there are so many variables. It’s interesting, a lot of times I find myself being asked questions about gear, but in the end, you know, I pretty much sound like what I sound like, regardless of whether I’m playing a Marshall or a Fender amp. There are amps that make it much easier for me to be expressive.

Certain amps I won’t play because they just kill the dynamic range. I tend to choose amps like Marshall Plexis or the Fender Vibro-King is a great one. These are amps that have a great dynamic range, they’re not very forgiving but they allow a player like me to be more expressive than I could be on say one of the more compressive high gain styles of amps that are so popular in rock music.

B.B. King's New York, NY March 25, 2014

GC – My question was not about the type of pedal at all; I just really thought that the way you played it brought out a unique almost sneering quality that is just amazing.

RK – Oh wow, thanks.

GC – Songs like Damaged or The Dying sound like you really enjoy playing rhythm now.

RK – Well I do. Aside from what I told you earlier about when Steve was pointing out what I was doing wrong on my first record since I started to sing, then I really understood what the guitar’s role was in the kind of music that I want to play. So I instinctively changed my approach on the guitar to make room for the fact that I’m singing. That was a big step for me that allowed me to have the understanding of what rhythm guitar really is. And it’s all related specifically to the type of music that I’m writing and playing. If I was playing in a flamenco trio, it would be a completely different thing. But everything that I’m saying is directly connected to what it is I do.

GC – I remember when I listened to the Into The Black record and a couple of the songs didn’t even have solos, I realized “he’s really into what he’s singing about here.”

RK – Oh yeah, and those choices are made out of necessity. Certain songs, a song like You Can’t Save Me, it’s so much about the lyrics and the vocal performance. And a song like Till You Put Me Down is a freer, looser kind of thing, where the guitar solo becomes a huge part of the song because it’s conveying an additional emotion on top of what the vocal’s saying. Whereas in You Can’t Save Me, it felt like a solo would distract from the message of the song so I didn’t think it was necessary to have it.

GC – Gotcha. I’ll close very simply with: whenever I read an interview with Jeff Beck he’ll say that he always likes to keep an eye on whatever John McLaughlin’s doing. Similarly, Eddie Van Halen used to talk about Allan Holdsworth quite a bit. 

In that vein, is there anyone, either someone older or current, that you like to check in on what they’re doing from time to time; not because they’ll influence you in some way, but because they always inspire you?

RK – You know, I have to be honest. I am pretty out of the loop, so to speak, with what other people are doing. I don’t stay in tune, maybe I should; I just haven’t been. I don’t know why. There are definitely players, someone in particular who, I was lucky enough to write a song with him that’s on one of my older records, is Doyle Bramhall. I really think he’s an amazing talent and a great player, singer, writer, so.

There are guys that I like but I have to say recently I really haven’t been checking in on anybody and seeing what they’re up to. Uh… I probably should! (laughs) But honestly, I haven’t.

GC – There are articles online that say that you’re actually featured on fifty albums so far, so, I guess you don’t get to accomplish something like that if you’re busy checking everybody else out. 

RK – (laughs) Right.

GC – Thanks a lot, Richie, I hope I didn’t keep you too far over time.

RK – Not at all. It was a pleasure. Your questions were great.Happy to have done the interview.

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