Rick Nielsen

It’s shaping up to be quite a year for Cheap Trick. On April 1, the veteran rockers will release Bang Zoom Crazy… Hello, their 17th studio album, to be followed one week later by enshrinement into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As these exciting events approach, Gibson Custom is proud to announce the Rick Nielsen 1959 Les Paul Standard, a replica of the famous instrument the beloved Cheap Trick guitarist has been playing for 25 years. Unlike most of the guitars in Nielsen’s vast collection, his original ’59 has been a steady companion both on-stage and in the studio. Recently, Nielsen spoke with us about the new album, the forthcoming Rock Hall induction ceremony, and, of course, guitar playing. He also shared his thoughts about Gibson’s replica of his cherished ’59 Les Paul Standard.

What were your first thoughts when you heard about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction?

My first thought was, “What an honor.” It lends credibility to being in a rock and roll band for so long. They don’t [base inductions] on the number of records you sell--it’s based on the influence you’ve had on others, which makes it more meaningful. It’s a defining moment, a destination that people can easily understand. I can go out and play 300 shows a year, and a lot of people will know nothing about that. But everyone knows about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It’s definitely high up on the resume.

Cheap Trick is the only band ever inducted in the first year they were on the ballot. That must make it even more special.

That’s right. We were eligible 13 years ago, but we were never put on the ballot. It’s pretty amazing, especially when you consider all the great artists who were on the ballot this year. We’re just four guys from Rockford, Illinois. People always say, “If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.” I say, “No, if you can make it in Rockford, you can make it anywhere.”

Rick Nielsen

Will [original drummer] Bun E. [Carlos] be performing with the band at the induction ceremony?

As far as I know. We don’t set that up. Bun E. is totally part of our history. Daxx [Nielsen, Rick’s son] has been our drummer for the past six years—he’s part of our present and our future. But Bun E. will be involved as well, as far as I know.

Is the new Cheap Trick album still slated for release on April 1—April Fools’ Day?

Ah, you mean “Cheap Trick Day.” “Cheap Trick Day” was established in the state of Illinois back in 2007. It falls on April Fools’ Day each year. Yes, it is. All of this--the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, “Cheap Trick Day,” and the release of the new album---is sort of tied together. We didn’t make the record thinking all this other stuff was going to happen, but it’s great that it worked out that way.

Are the singles the band has released so far, “No Direction Home” and “When I Wake Up Tomorrow,” representative of what the rest of the album sounds like?

I think so. Our records have always been diverse, and this one is no exception. “No Direction Home” is a really fun pop song. “When I Wake Up Tomorrow” is a rock song, but kind of slower. That one sort of puts me in mind of David Bowie. Robin is a man of a thousand voices, and his voice on that one is very emotional. Both those songs represent opposite ends of the spectrum.

Some people are saying the album brings to mind the band’s vintage work.

I think that’s true. There’s some loud and noisy stuff, and there’s some cool pop stuff as well. Cheap Trick has always been song-based. The song dictates what we do—whether something should be loud, whether it should be heavy, or whether it should have a slow tempo. The song is king. It’s not based around a guitar solo or anything like that.

Rick Nielsen

Does the guitar still hold fascination for you?

Definitely. I’m self-taught, so I know the basics. My parents were opera singers, so I grew up around that type of music. I knew about pitch and I knew about control. I started out playing drums, and then began playing guitar out of necessity. The guitar player I was working with didn’t have a clue, didn’t know a minor chord from a major chord. So, instead of trying to instruct somebody on an instrument I didn’t play, I ended up instructing myself.

Do you still practice, in the conventional sense?

I’ve never been into theory, or scales, or things like that. I’ve always been a songwriter who played guitar. To this day, I practice and rehearse for the song, as opposed to trying to show off as a guitar player. Or rather, I am a showoff, but not in the sense of being a virtuoso on the instrument. Plus, I’m always susceptible to surprises. I’ll make a mistake and think, “Wow, that’s pretty cool.” I’ll make note of my “good” goofs.

What were your thoughts as the shredder movement took hold in the ’80s?

Well, first of all, I couldn’t do that, and, second, I wouldn’t do it. As I say, I’m more song-oriented. Girls don’t like drum solos and girls don’t like guitar solos—to put it in the most basic way. When I play a solo, I try to have it actually mean something within the context of the song—melody-wise or emotion-wise. Why have a bunch of guitar distraction when you have a great vocalist like Robin?

Are there special challenges involved in handling both lead and rhythm guitar?

I look to Pete Townshend as the example for that—the way he handles both roles. That’s what I try to do. We’re essentially a three-piece band with a great vocalist, although Robin plays guitar sometimes. The fact that we used to play in bars—doing three or four sets a night--was great training as well.

Gibson’s Custom Shop recently announced a limited-edition release of the Rick Nielsen 1959 Les Paul Standard --a precise replica of the instrument you’ve been playing for 25 years. What can you tell us about it?

I saw a prototype for the first time a couple of months ago. It was amazing. They went through everything--got all the dimensions, replicated everything about it. My ’59 Les Paul has a really nice tiger-stripe--curly maple on the top, real tight. They replicated that, along with all the wear marks and the fading. The only thing missing is the smell.

Have you played it?

Oh, yeah. It plays terrific, and sustains like mad. Even before I plugged in, I could tell it sounded great. Les Pauls from ’58, ’59, and ’60 all sound a little different. I don’t know the technical things the Custom Shop did, but they obviously took into account the weight of the wood, the kind of wiring that was used, and the strength of the pickups. They really did their homework.

You also requested a replica of the original ’59 case.

That’s right. I wanted it to come with a replica of the Lifton case that was included with the ‘58s, ‘59s, and ‘60s. So now there are 50 relic’d cases. They were done exactly the way I wanted. I have to say, the Custom Shop did a fantastic job.

Photo Credit: Mike Graham