First Hamer Five-neck (orange) 1981. Photo: Frank White
At one point in our conversation, Rick Nielsen
blurted out, “You’re not laughing enough!”
“Well Rick,” I replied, “I’m trying to write
down everything you’re saying.” My wife
always says I can’t take a joke.
I learned pretty quickly that Rick Nielsen,
lead guitarist of Cheap Trick for well over
thirty years, is a pretty funny guy who punctuates his remarks with an occasional Woody
Woodpecker-style chuckle. Nielsen is also
a consummate guitar collector, chief songwriter, and the man behind Cheap Trick’s
visual image. He’s certainly not your typical
rock star. He has four kids and has been
married to the same woman for decades.
With his highly recognizable geeky persona,
numerous custom-made and vintage guitars,
distinctive clothing (he’s more apt to wear a
suit onstage these days) and baseball caps,
Nielsen has become a bona fide guitar hero
without the usual trappings, affectations and
posturing you might expect from your average rock guitar god. Few people know that
Nielsen was actually the keyboard player/
second guitarist in Fuse, the band that eventually morphed into Cheap Trick. He didn’t
become “the official guitar player” until
Cheap Trick came together.
According to Jol Dantzig, president of Hamer
Guitars, “Rick definitely likes to make people
laugh… and confuse people. He has a definite sense of humor.”
Can you tell us about the guitars you’ll be
using on this upcoming tour?
Probably about fifty guitars total. I like to
use what I have, and because I’m a collector, you’ll see me with Gibsons, Gretsches,
Fenders, and of course, Hamers. When I
started collecting, there were no “vintage
guitars.” They were just “used guitars.” I
always liked the way guitars looked, as a
kid and now. You start with one, and before
you know it, you have five hundred! I always
hated it when I’d go see a guitarist break a
string and everything would stop. I liked to
have ten or twelve guitars around at least,
although I haven’t had to tune any of them
for years! I have a guy who does that for me.
You’re using the new Carlino Korina guitars
this time out, I understand.
Eddie Carlino was a fan of Hamer, Gibson
and B.C. Rich, so his guitars are like tribute
instruments, with elements of all those models. I didn’t know Eddie, but he contacted me
and sent me a guitar, one of the first ones he
made. It played terrific, but there were a few
little things that I wanted to change, and he
did that for me. They’re great guitars.
Your father owned a music store. Were
you able to grab the cool stuff that
walked through the door? What came
your way over the years?
I got a Gretsch Duo Jet, some Fender
Esquires, Telecaster Customs, Strats, Les
Paul Juniors and more. The store was
called Rockford Music House, in Rockford,
Illinois. We were the first US dealer to sell
Mellotrons in 1967. Back then, it wasn’t a
big deal to change necks or do modifications. I did a lot of my own repairs, and I
screwed some things up, I’m sure. Today,
collectors get nuts if one little thing is
changed on a vintage guitar, but I never
cared if the guitars were changed. It
was like the discarded dog in the pound
nobody wanted. It’s your guitar; if you
want to change something, change it!
Most of us can only imagine what it must
have been like growing up in that envi-
ronment in the ‘60s. Any cool stories?
I sold Jeff Beck his second Les Paul
Standard and we’ve been friends ever
since. It was a dark sunburst with a
Bigsby. I nailed my first Les Paul, a ’ 55
Goldtop, for $65. I remember going to
place called the El Dorado Club, and
I’d be the only white guy in the place;
it was full of Mexicans and blacks. The