Still Rocking The Road After 30 Years
By Chris McCrellis-Mitchell & John McVarish
Musician’s Friend Staff Writers
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Musician’s Friend: Do you remember the first gig you played? What were some of the lessons you learned that first night that are still valuable today?
Richie Sambora: Sure! I played a gig, I think it was a Confirmation party or something like that. I remember that we didn’t have enough material to finish the gig, so we had to keep playing the same songs over and over again. Luckily, the adults were drunk and the kids didn’t care, so it was OK. I think the lesson I learned was that you gotta show up. I was scared, you know? I think you have a lot of fear, and that’s one of the things that a lot of musicians have to overcome—that first step of getting up in front of an audience. That is something you just gotta show up for. You just have to put yourself out there, and if you fail the first time, you’ve got to keep on doing it until you have the confidence. That’s the lesson I learned from that gig.
MF: How has the live experience changed for you as your career has progressed and the band had more and more success?
RS: I think it’s evolved a ton of ways. You start out playing in your mother’s basement and your garage for nobody, then high school dances and proms, those kinds of things. I went right to the clubs after that. Then you start to gain your stylistic voice and realize who you are. That’s when you start to hone your craft, writing songs and playing them live. You find out how to communicate with your music. When you get to be a band of our status, which is very rare, you get to play stadiums all over the world. It’s been an evolution that has made sense to me and kept my feet on the ground, but it all started out sitting in a garage or in my mom’s basement. I could write a book on that question alone. The nuance that comes within each chapter of that evolution is pretty deep.
MF: Can you recall a live experience that made you feel like you had truly arrived?
RS: The first time headlining an arena. The first time 15,000 people show up to see you play, that’s pretty much arriving. When 70,000 come to see you do a stadium, that’s really arriving. [laughs] Luckily for me I’ve been playing those gigs for 20 years now, so it’s become a comfortable place for me to hang out. Anytime I walk out onstage and I see a place full of people, I look at it with extreme reverence and gratitude. That’s what keeps this band going and searching for evolution. Because certainly it ain’t the money anymore. We’re out here because we enjoy it and we’re having a good time. We’re still relevant and still making records that people want to hear, and thousands and thousands of people are coming to see us play every tour. Millions, actually.
MF: Was it intimidating the first time you headlined in front of a crowd that big?
RS: No, for some reason. Not for me. I think because at that point you’ve built up to that place. I’d been on a stadium stage many times before that as an opening act. Doing that, you’re just out there throwing down. When you finally do get to that place where you’re headlining a stadium, you had to have a success level and an achievement level before that to get there. That kind of poises you for that moment. At that point, you have a wealth of knowledge to know what works with an audience and what doesn’t.
MF: It’s been written that the non-stop touring between Slippery When Wet and New Jersey almost destroyed the band. How did the group recover from that and find a tour schedule that works for everyone?
RS: It was a combination of the intense touring but also, at that point in time we were basically broke. The next thing you know, we’re riding a rocket ship to fame and stardom. When you’ve got five guys, everybody interprets fame and fortune at different speeds. Then you add a little lifestyle in there and exhaustion from traveling around the world for three years straight, you can imagine why you’re at odds with each other. Not only that but you’re at odds with yourself, trying to figure out who you are also. I think that’s what really happened. Nowadays, everybody’s got families and things that you have to take care of. It’s just about pacing at this point. After 30 years on the road, now we know how to do it.
MF: What do you enjoy most about touring these days?
RS: It’s the same as always. Just playing music. I don’t get paid to play, I get paid to travel. The playing part is the fun; it’s being away from your family and the travel that you get paid for. The playing part is what we live for as musicians. It’s the end of the cycle with each album you make. It starts with the songwriting and making the record, then you have to take it out live and see how people react to your new songs. Show the world your new baby and see if they think it’s pretty or ugly. [laughs]
MF: When it comes to playing solos live, how do you balance the audience wanting to hear them the way they are on the record and your desire to improvise?
RS: There are certain songs that I play on the money, and other times we have built-in jam sections where I can actually play. With this particular band, in general, I’ve been trying to jam the blues and the pop songs for a long, long time. I come from a bit of a session background too, so I play melodically. What’s on the record is there because those parts were appropriate for the songs as a whole musical piece. So the solo from “Wanted Dead or Alive” is an integral part of the song that I play perfectly every night. I think the audience deserves that. When I tried to not play it that way, I felt s****y. [laughs] Over the years you try to get out of those boxes, but in the long run, you find out how you feel about it when you’re up there doing it.
MF: From a live-performance standpoint, what guitarists have influenced you the most over the years and how so?
RS: All the guys I grew up with, like Jeff Beck, my friend Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton. All the modern-day blues players. Duane Allman, Johnny Winter, all those guys that I grew up listening to when I was a kid…I’m still that. I still try to get as much emotion out of my playing as I possibly can, and try to improve as much as I can and be in the moment. That’s what those guys did, and they were also very musical. A lot of the stuff they played were integral riffs…you remember the songs because of those riffs. That’s the kind of stuff I emulate, the emotional kind of musician. That’s where I’m coming from.
MF: What’s your favorite song to play in a Bon Jovi set and why?
RS: That’s an impossible question really. There are different ones for different reasons. The jam songs I love because I get to improvise and play my ass off, and there are other songs like “Wanted Dead or Alive” that people love to hear and go nuts for. You love those songs for that.
MF: Are any of the new songs standing out this early in the tour?
RS: This is kind of a weird thing for us to be doing. We went out before the album was released, so nobody has the new songs. They’ve heard the single on the radio, so that’s the one that’s working best. I think now, they’re really getting their heads around the new material, really listening intently. That’s exciting too.
MF: What are some of the things you do to prepare for a tour?
RS: Absolutely. Obviously, you’ve gotta be fit. As you get older, if you’re going to travel the world the way we do it’s essential that you get in some kind of shape to deal with the wear and tear. This particular tour, I didn’t have to get in shape. Because I just finished my solo tour right before. The last (Bon Jovi) tour was 18-1/2 months, then two weeks after that I started writing my solo album and went right into the studio. That whole thing kicked up, and we wrote the Bon Jovi record in the middle of that. Then I went out on my tour, went home for the holidays, and here I am now. So my chops are as good as they ever were. That’s for sure. [laughs]
MF: What sort of rehearsal schedule does the band have for a tour like this?
RS: Basically all we have to do is rehearse the new stuff. The other stuff is embedded deep in our memory, in our cells. We’ve been doing this for a long time. We’ve been a band for almost 30 years now, so it’s intrinsic at this point. We go over the new stuff, and we do the old stuff for the lighting, the monitors and the things that are ever-changing from tour to tour. We like to get the lay of the land, where the sweet spots are.
MF: Do you have any pre-show rituals?
RS: I like to listen to some good s**t. Whatever I’m in the mood for that particular day. Obviously, warm up the fingers. Usually we throw in new songs each night, so there are probably two or three songs I’ve got to learn or relearn in the tuning room. I also do a vocal warm up before the show and a warm down after.
MF: What are some of the most exciting venues you’ve played?
RS: Giants Stadium. Any stadium, really. I’m excited about everything. When I did my tour, I was selling out theaters of 2-3,000 seats. I was excited about that. I’m just excited to play music. Stadiums sometimes, in a weird way, can isolate you even more. When you’re in a smaller venue, you’ve got less to hide behind, you know what I mean? In the stadium you just kind of become part of the event. It’s interesting. You’re driving the car, but you’re just part of the event really.
MF: Is a stadium a more forgiving place when it comes to mistakes?
RS: Nah, you still know. We’re pretty hard on ourselves. I think that’s why we’re still doing what we’re doing at such a high level.
MF: When it comes to your gear, did you have to adjust sonically to larger and larger venues as the band’s following grew?
RS: At first I did. I remember walking out in front of Wembley Stadium one time and I had 16 heads and 16 cabinets or something. Obviously I was only using two heads and maybe four cabinets out of all of them, and the rest was for show. Now I utilize the monitor system more than anything. I like to keep my sound tight. I use an isolation box, which I put one cabinet in and mic it. I use that for the soundman so he gets a poignant sound without any air around it. Then we mic my cabinet on stage. I’ve been using just a 2x12 cabinet on stage, believe it or not. I also have full-range PA cabinets onstage as my monitors for everything I need, and I have in-ear monitors also that are ported and open as well. So I have a pretty complicated monitor system. Basically I’m sitting in the middle of a record every evening. I’m a very lucky guy.
MF: Some players have a massive pedalboard or rack, while others prefer to keep it minimalist. Where do you lie in the spectrum?
RS: I use analog pedals, and I look to the soundman and the monitor man to put echoes, reverbs, and stuff like that on my guitar. I still play with a cord! Rarely do I play wireless, only when I’ve got to run around, usually a couple songs a set. Otherwise I’m on a wire. I have a flanger, phaser, a Uni-Vibe and a bunch of different overdrives that I use mostly. Pretty stock stuff like a Phase 90. I have a Klon overdrive and a BOSS overdrive…just normal stuff, you know? Coupled with the right amplifier, I’ve got some great tone. Come see me live and you’ll hear it!
MF: What are some of the must-have pieces of gear you can’t play without?
RS: My vintage instruments. I love them all. I have a ’59 Les Paul that I love, I have a ’59 dot neck 335 blonde, I have a 1953 Telecaster that Keith Richards signed for me that I play every night. A ’61 Strat that’s my baby. Those are the ones I play all the time. They’re irreplaceable.
MF: We saw some Blackstar amps earlier during the photo shoot. Are those your go-to amps for this tour?
RS: Sometimes. I have a couple different amplifiers that I’m using. Every once in a while I still go back to my Marshalls. I’ve been playing Friedman amps lately too. I used Blackstar predominantly on my solo album.
MF: To what do you attribute Bon Jovi’s continued success?
RS: When you’ve been a band for as long as we have, you’re just evolving and you’re excited for that evolution. Jon and I, as songwriters, pick up on what’s going on with the world and put our perspective on it. I think the people listening get our perspective from a storytelling point of view. The interesting part about it as a musician is I take myself out of it as the songwriter and put myself outside of it, as a guy who’s coming in to make the painting clearer. Color this lyric in a story-like way so the song becomes clearer. That’s the real excitement for me.
MF: What advice do you have for musicians new to playing out?
RS: Just show up man! Practice. Feel confident about that, that’s the thing. You know, I give musicians the same advice all the time: learn how to write songs. Practice writing songs. You can be the best instrumentalist in the world, but if you don’t have a song to play to, you ain’t got much. You can’t make a living. So I think that’s a real essential part, besides learning the mechanics of your instrument and being able to emote through it. You have to have good songs to play. You have to realize also that there is going to be some pain. [laughs] You’ve gotta learn your lessons and take your lumps like all of us did.