Richie Sambora Interview

GuitarKing were recently fortunate enough to be granted an exclusive interview with the legend that is Richie Sambora.

And who better to interview him than resident Sambora expert and lead guitarist of Bon Jovi tribute band Wrong Jovi – Mark Harding!

With studio sessions looming for his upcoming album with guitar prodigy Orianthi, we discussed his songwriting approach, recording and performing technique, and his influences.

If you really want to get to know Richie Sambora, read on for one of his most in-depth interviews ever!

Richie_Sambora

Richie, 2014 was a very successful year for you – we saw you embark on a solo tour and take part in some cool collaborations such as your performance with Dolly Parton at Glastonbury.

Do you feel it has set you up well for a busy 2015?

Of course!

Basically, I missed being the front guy and singing as much as I wanted to.

Working with Ori has been fantastic and we are getting ready to go into the studio and get some stuff down, you know… just have a great time.

We’ve written some great songs together.

I’m certainly no stranger to that and I think that I would know if I didn’t have the material and all that kinda stuff.

The record business is in a flux at this point.

You mentioned that you are getting ready to go into the studio with Orianthi.

What can the fans expect to hear from this new record and the new songs?

Well, you know, the interesting thing about me and Ori is that we have a dexterity and a flexibility between genres.

The difference between being a musician that is coming into their own and a musician that is in their own is owning that genre.

The great thing about Ori is that she is a prodigy… I mean, she was great when she was, like, 14 years old and she was playing with Carlos Santana.

I was, like, playing Frisbee on the beach and in a garage band at that age!

Between the two of us we have such a wide range… from anywhere from a very intimate acoustic environment to, probably, pretty heavy stuff.

So anything in between is wide open surface that we can experience and that’s what we have been exploring.

That’s why I decided to take the band out live.

We didn’t have any product and we were very well received, thank god.

And I think that is because of the heart.

The authenticity is one of them things I think that a lot of music could be missing at this point – the fact that you just get out there and lay your heart on the line.

I mean if you can’t do that for a couple of hours and people are paying good money to see you at that point, I think you’re missing the point as a musician.

Ori and I have a very interesting chemistry because… we just do, it’s one of those things.

So, when something happens like that, you’ve got to follow it.

ori

Last year people heard you perform “Lighthouse” and in 2013 you released “Come Back As Me” on YouTube.

Are we likely to see them come out as a product?

I’m not really sure what’s going to happen at this point.

We are just going into the studio and recording… we have a LOT of songs!

Like I said, the dexterity between genres… my god, we could make 6 albums at this point!

The interesting thing, also, is that there is a community of music and musicians that we have been playing with and obviously that guides you, so to speak, in a different way.

When you are working with people that are in different genres you adapt.

And Ori and I, we love all music.

To me, I try to like everything that comes across my ears.

I try to embrace all art in that respect.

So, anything that comes across my ears, it doesn’t matter what it is, I try to embrace it.

I think that music is one of those things.

It’s like a piece of art in a museum.

You walk by it one day or one year and it doesn’t really touch you, but in its own timelessness you can walk by it 5 years later and something’s happened to your life, something has moved you or your spirit in some way where you go, “Oh, now I’m touched by this.”

I mean, that’s the problem with the music business at this point, because they have no patience.

It’s either instant or it’s over.

And I think that is a big problem, especially for young bands, especially for people that are trying to just get a leg up.

It’s a tough thing.

On the last album, “Aftermath Of The Lowdown”, and since the turn of the millennium with Bon Jovi, your songs seem to be more focused on the song and the message within it rather than riff based.

Was that a natural result for you? Or did you pick it up from collaborating with producers like John Shanks?

Nah, it’s been the same with me.

To me, the riff comes after the song and it’s always been that way.

I’m a songwriter first.

Some people do it backwards in my opinion, but that doesn’t mean it’s backwards for everybody else.

I need a title and a motif as far as what the lyric says, and I try to write a riff that accompanies that.

And if you’re in a band like Bon Jovi, you’re sitting there going, “OK, well I have to turn on a stadium full of 70,000 people!”

So there is a specific outlay of what has to happen there.

With the band it happened organically and then as the years roll by you have to continue that kind of motif.

You said that when you write, you start off with a title.

How do you build the song from that? Where does it lead once you have a title or motif?

Well, it’s a small movie, it’s a story.

First of all, I’m sure that people just view me as the riff master of what Bon Jovi was or whatever… but I’m a principal songwriter.

And the songs come from real life!

We all, as different as we may be, go through a lot of the same things; heartbreak, you lose people, you gain people, you’re born, you die [laughs], and everything in between.

I am a lyricist, I always have been.

I think that people would be surprised to know that the lyric comes before the riff for me.

And every once in a while, the riff comes first.

99% of the time I have to have a song, and idea or a concept for what I want to portray to people.

I suppose the lyrics can influence what the riff sounds like then?

Absolutely!

I mean, it’s as simple as this: if you’re writing a song and it’s gonna be… I don’t even know how to say it in today’s terms… romantic is not quite the right word, but maybe it’s hooking up [laughs]… if you’re gonna write that hook up song, there’s a riff that goes with that song.

And it would probably be a beautiful, slow, sexy, bendy riff.

And then if you’re gonna write something that is a bit more aggressive and you have an idea in that area, you’re gonna go a little bit more punk.

I just travelled through loads of genres, luckily for me, and I believe that ‘cos I’ve been in so many different bands and in so many different genres that I was able to own that, because I had to.

When you walk on stage with people that do all that, you have to own it yourself, and if you don’t. they’ll kick you the fuck out of the band [laughs]!

You’ve been working as a musician for many years, releasing three solo albums and much collaboration along the way, so there must be so much unreleased material.

You have a very strong fan base, have you ever considered releasing a box set of unreleased material?

Ah, of course, I mean all this stuff’s gotta come out at some point.

What happens is that you listen back to what happened, in like 1991, the stuff that didn’t make “Stranger In This Town”, and they’re still great songs.

They just weren’t ready to be born yet.

I couldn’t surround them with what was happening in the moment.

The gravitas of what a great song is, what’s happening at the time and what the feeling pertains to the present moment.

I mean you can write a great song and if it doesn’t pertain to the present moment then it doesn’t connect to people.

Basically, it will probably lie dormant there… that’s quite unfortunate, but then it has another life down the road.

Basically, it’s like when an artist does a sketch of an amazing painting.

Dahli would do a pencil sketch of what he was gonna do and how the painting would come to fruition.

So that song lead me to another song, that lead me to another song, that lead me to another song.

It’s a concept sketch – maybe we are all writing one song?

It’s like, at the end of the day there’s no regrets about it, it’s a learning process.

With that in mind, “Stranger In This Town” came out in the early 90s and is an all-time great!

There were so many great songs on it – “Father Time” and “Mr. Bluesman” for example.

How do you feel it has matured? Would you consider going back and doing a modern remix of it?

Yeah, sure.

But to me, I think what people thought of the complexion, not only sonically but also perceptionally and socialistically and how Bon Jovi came about with that, I made a sonic painting that was completely different.

And people, for the most part, were freaked out.

But I’ll leave it as it is for now, it’s a product of that time, a product of where I was at, a product of a bunch of wonderful musicians that I was graced enough to have followed me down the road I was going.

I think everybody expected me to be in competition or something with Bon Jovi or something like that.

That’s not where I was going, I was just gonna follow my soul.

In fact, I cleared everything out.

I’m very, very, very proud of that record because I have never heard a record sound like that.

It sounds like me.

I listen to everything and love it all, but that was my painting, at that particular point in time it was my sonic painting, all those songs, all those lyrics.

A few people got it, and most people didn’t [laughs].

Father Time is one of my personal favourite songs of all time…

Father Time… yes!

If you could rewind the tape and say, “Yeah I wish I didn’t make that mistake”, that would be a nice thing in life but it doesn’t happen.

It was praying for some kind of redemption… I wish I could have done things differently.

It was a product of what I was going through at that time and I’m very proud of it.

Going back to more recent times, in Bon Jovi you were the lead guitarist in the band.

Now you’re working with Orianthi, who’s an exceptional guitarist…. [Richie interrupts]

Exceptional?

Let me correct you on that – ‘exceptional’ is not the word!

At any given time she’s just the best guitar player on the planet.

You just gotta give her the right bed to lie on so she can actually create.

She’s far better than people actually think, and people have this exalted place for her and it’s even more than that.

She’s extraordinary!

Has working with Orianthi changed your approach as guitarist? If so, how?

Not really.

The thing that we talk about is that in most music that’s coming out, there’s not a lot of improvisation.

So what we’ve tried to do is just improvise, and actually speak to each other through the language of music and guitar.

We just go with that and see what happens.

And it works…

I think so!

It’s just chemistry, we are feeling the same rhythm and groove.

Ori’s very interesting because she has the same influences that I have, and I’m 26 years older than she is!

She feels the same soul.

And she wasn’t allowed to do that ‘cos she had to play the side person.

Then even when she had her own record they were running her around and trying to figure out who she was.

When you’re a young artist that’s what the record companies do.

So, basically, her and I just sat down, started jamming and… you’re gonna see what you’re gonna get.

And I think it’s going to be very exciting.

Over the years you have proven yourself to be a great vocalist as well as being a great guitarist…

Well thank you very much.

Its true, I liken your voice to someone like Paul Rogers…

One of my big heroes… I love Paul!

He’s one of my favourite singers of all time…

Me too, man!

With so many admirers of your work within the industry, have you ever been tempted to form a “super group” of sorts with a different frontman or woman?

Or do you enjoy being the front man?

richie2Nah… you know what?

That’s a lot fun… that’s all it is.

A group and a band or whether it’s a solo album or you’re really coming across with your own feelings.

Ori and I are going to make this record and it’s gonna be an interesting thing for people to see, the curiosity of it. Because it’s a man and a woman.

And this woman just happens to be an anomaly that is an amazing shake on what the guitar thing is.

People don’t know that she’s a great songwriter and also a great singer.

And together it’s gonna be a curious thing for people to actually go, “What’s that gonna sound like? How’s that gonna be?”

All I can tell you is that the well is deep.

There’s six albums to be made, and as to which one we’re gonna make, I’m not sure.

Your last album had a really raw, exciting live feel to it because you tracked it in the studio as a band whereas the modern Bon Jovi records sound very slick and well produced.

Which approach do you prefer? Do you prefer tracking as a band or do you like the well-produced approach?

I think it is a balance of both really.

I wanna go in and play and jam… personally!

Myself, I think improvisation is missing.

When people came to see us live, they were like… “Wow!”

We’ll play as long as we want.

I can’t say, maybe, that I’ve earned the right to do that… but… we just go out there and kinda feel what the audience feels.

We just play with great musicians, always.

I can’t not have a good engine, man, I need a good engine!

I have an amazing drummer, and amazing bass player… everybody’s gotta be soulfully and wholeheartedly into it.

Every time somebody has come to see on my solo endeavors, I’ve bought those musicians to the table and made the songs that I’ve written come to life and with great spirit.

That’s integral, that’s what people wanna come and see, that’s what I wanted to see when I was a kid.

So, basically, I’m kind of mirroring everything I wanted to go to see and be.

And it’s great that you’re in a position where you can do that now…

Yeah, it really is.

It’s not about money, it’s about going out there, playing, enjoying and hopefully turning some people on, inspiring some people.

That’s what it’s about.

If we go back to being in the studio, how do you approach tracking your guitars?

Do you double parts? Do you add parts for choruses? Do you layer your guitars?

Or is it just a case of going in a doing it as you would perform live?

It happens in all different ways, it’s what the song calls for, whatever it is…

If you take “Burn the Candle Down” that was a take.

In the middle of that I told the bass player to lie out of the solo in the middle of that song so it was just me and Aaron Sterling, who is an amazing drummer, just going at it.

And then Kurt Schneider… amazing bass player and other things also… then he comes in and then it’s just the three of us.

Then shit kicks in and it comes into a whole other area.

There’s a lot of deconstructing that goes on in my head these days.

Do you have specific gear that you use in the studio?

Do you like modeling amps or does it have to be a real amp?

Are there special guitars that you use?

Nah, I got too much shit, I experiment… it’s basically a laboratory.

Then there are specific songs that need specific sounds that I know I can get through this guitar and this amp, with that mic and this compressor and all of that.

There’s a foundation that sometimes is set up and you know what is gonna drive the song.

Again, I always look at things as sonic paintings, so I know how I’m gonna look at things.

I look at things as colours… sometimes it’s gonna be brown, sometimes it’s gonna be blue, and I know how to get those sounds through specific guitars that I have done this through over the years.

We try it that way first to see if we can set up the foundation.

But for the most part it’s about the song really and then the groove and the engine.

Essentially I’m a producer and a songwriter.

The guitar playing is the vanity, actually.

When that stopped happening in Bon Jovi, I… erm… what you gonna do?

You know what I mean?

At the beginning I’m a songwriter, a producer, and the guitar playing is a vanity and it has to be appropriate vanity.

That’s what I know and that comes from working in studios and being a studio musician.

You know when you go too far out as a soloist.

If we talk about your soloing for a second – on the old Bon Jovi albums it seems like your solos were almost composed, like Brian May did with Queen.

Everybody can sing the solos to “Livin’ On A Prayer” and “Wanted Dead Or Alive”.

In recent years your solos are more improvised – do you prefer the improvising approach?

Nah it’s both… it’s what’s appropriate.

When you listen to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, those solos were orchestrated.

I’ve done that and I think that has a lot of integrity also.

I think that certain songs call for a solo that has a melody that will reoccur and will become part of an orchestration, like you’re in an orchestra.

And there are times it leaves you in a place where you can appropriately improvise.

That’s called being a professional musician, I guess.

Just look at it as an artist with a paintbrush.

“I’ll Be There For You”, a brilliant song, became a staple of the Bon Jovi set with you on vocals.

Have you considered re-recording songs like this with you on lead vocals?

The future’s wide open, man.

I don’t know, I prefer to live in the present, personally, so I’m not really thinking about that stuff.

“I’ll Be There For You”… it’s a blues song.

So, basically, my chick left me at that point and broke my heart.

It just became that kind of thing.

Like I said, people don’t know that there is a practicality to my lyric writing… they don’t even know that I write lyrics.

I think they think that I’m just the riff guy.

But to me, as a guitar player, I attach it at a different level.

I need the song and the feeling of what the song is.

However the creative process comes along and is communicated… it just comes to a different thing.

We met back in 2012 at the Let It In masterclass in LA with Laurence Juber and Tommy Emmanuel…

Ah yeah, that was a great gig man… frightening!

At the time you were having lessons with Laurence. Are you still doing this?

I haven’t because I’ve been a bit busy, but I miss Laurence very badly and paths change.

Different things happen.

I took my first guitar lesson when I was 52 years old with Laurence.

What’s that called? That’s called respect!

And that’s called love.

Listen, to attach yourself to that kind of virtuosity you have to apply yourself to a whole different place.

When Laurence and I met… I was at my good friend Norm’s Rare Guitar shop [Norman’s Rare Guitars in Los Angeles], which I go to all the time and I saw him play.

I was like, “What the hell are you doing man? You gotta teach me that!”

I then went on tour for 18 months, and then when I came back I started to work with him and have lessons with him.

Not only is he an amazing virtuoso, but he’s the loveliest man.

He taught me a bunch of stuff and a lot of it was applied on “Aftermath…”.

There was a lot of alternate tunings going on, a lot of different stuff going on.

Besides that it was just a joy to be around him because he’s a lovely human being.

I would love to get back to it but times are busy right now.

I gotta go out there and make a record now!

As soon as I got back from that masterclass, I went straight online and bought a Laurence Juber guitar book… he’s an incredible talent!

And how about Tommy? Jesus!

He’s out of his mind, he really is!

He’s out of his mind with ease.

I don’t think people who are just music lovers will understand the depth of what has to happen to get to that place.

It’s a very, very interesting study.

But when you watch Laurence… any of the greats… Tommy, Al Di Meola… I was lucky enough when I was on tour in Europe and Al and I ran into each other.

We’re good friends and he’s just… he’s another one where you’re just like… “Wow!”

And then we lost Johnny Winter.

Johnny… c’mon… listen to Johnny Winter live.

When guitar players like that throw down those kinds of records they become your books, they are you teachers, they are your library… that’s what happens.

And that’s what I tell everybody… everybody asks me the same thing.

What did you do? How did you do it?

Well, I listened to it and played to it 20,000 times.

I sat in my room with my guitar and just kept going.

Trying to understand where they were coming from.

You know what? You never get there!

But you get to the feeling of it!

People ask me who is my favorite guitar player?

Can you say?!

I mean it all started out with Robert Johnson man, it goes all the way back then.

Whatever’s present in the market place at that time when you’re growing up… for me it was the Allman Brothers, ZZ Top, Zeppelin, Johnny Winter, modern day blues players, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton… all of that.

Then I said, where did they get it from? Let’s rewind the tape.

Ok, then you go… “Shit!” [Laughs].

There was BB, Muddy and Buddy Guy for god’s sake!

I mean, forget about it!

That guy? FRIGHTENING!

Walk on stage with him? Woah!

You better sort out your soul!

That’s all you can do… it’s all you can do.

It has nothing to do with technique… all to do about soul!

You jam a lot now – we saw just the other day at Billy Gibbons “Adopt The Arts” event, you jamming with Slash, Duff McKagan, Steve Lukather and loads of great musicians there.

Also, you jammed with Dolly Parton last year.

Do you just love jamming with any musician?

Anybody! Of course!

Scared or not scared… whatever it is… you’re gonna learn something all the time.

If you roll on stage with Buddy, Buddy’s just gonna go at you!

BB’s gonna lay back and do his thing… he’s gonna kill you with the layback… he’s like… “Don’t forget… I’m BB… I’m gonna kill you with the lay back!” [Laughs].

Its all different, its all fun and all you gotta do is show up… y’know?

Everybody has his or her own voice, and that’s what the beauty of jamming like that is in my opinion…

That’s it, nobody’s out to get anybody.

Maybe sometimes people are out to get somebody.

I don’t… I always ran my own race because all your influences just catch up with you when they do.

There’s not any time continuum that happens.

We are thinking of starting up a Guitar King video jam on the website.

Next time you’re in the UK, would you fancy coming and filming a jam with us?

Sure man!

Ori and I are trying to start a whole new deal going on here, man.

Y’know, we spoke about fearless… that woman is fearless!

She don’t give a shit about nothing man!

That’s the way we are, we just walk on stage and enjoy it.

That’s the thing… you get to a place where you are OK with yourself and say, “Hey, if I make a mistake… that’s alright!”

Do it twice, man!

Everybody’s trying, all the way to the end.

I wanna do this shit till I’m dead and I will, that’s my job!

All that rock star stuff… that’s bullshit man! That’s bullshit!

That is a very, very shortsighted look at music.

I loved it, it’s cool… I’m not saying its bad, I had a great time… but that’s not, at the end of the day, where it’s at.

Obviously you’re comfortable with yourself and all that you have achieved…

Yeah, well you know what?

With all the crazy stuff that’s going on in the world today, if there’s some place of solace that you can conjure… for a lot of us that is the guitar… for many, it is not only a guitar, but any place of music where you can kind of lose yourself into a place where you are forgetting about the world.

Its true!

I play in a Bon Jovi tribute band called Wrong Jovi and we do “Every Road…” as part of our set and it goes down great….

Ah, thanks man!

As a songwriter, sometimes when you hit that vein… that song is as good as any song I have every written.

A lot of people who come and see us probably haven’t heard that song, but they love it when we do it.

If you could be in a tribute band, like Joe Elliot is doing with Down N’ Outz (Mott The Hoople covers band featuring Joe Elliot and members of The Quireboys), who would you pay tribute to?

If you could form a tribute to one artist who would it be?

Man, you know what?

Everybody asks me the same fucking question, man [laughs], there’s no answer.

There’s just not, it’s impossible.

Do I want to be the Rolling Stones? Do I want to be The Beatles? Do I want to be Stevie Wonder? Do I want to be Al Di Meoloa? Do I want to be Jeff Beck or Eric, the Allman Brothers?

I wanna be them all [laughs].

That’s the problem… and nobody says that!

I wanna be them all!

It’s like, as a songwriter, all the great songs that have come across my ears, my soul and my heart… I wish I had written them all, I do!

But guess what? They all had a lead up… their influence all had a lead up to them.

To that moment when they wrote that stuff, it’s like, “OK, somebody else got there first, before me, but it gave me the gift of having that song.”

For me, it’s an organic occurrence… it happens through influence, that’s what it is.

It’s like… am I gonna tell you that Jeff Beck didn’t blow me away? That Johnny Winter didn’t blow me away? Simon and Garfunkel don’t blow me away? The Beatles didn’t blow me away? The Stones? Bob Dylan didn’t blow me away?

They ALL blew me away!

I was lucky enough to grow up in the renaissance of music back then, where everything was accepted.

Jimi Hendrix? Fuck! Did he blow me away?

How many times did I listen to Band Of Gypsies? Every morning!

You can hear it in my playing.

Listen, that’s the problem with people that try to put a fucking monoscope on me, because I’ve got too many influences.

That’s what happens when you teach yourself… it’s not the easiest thing to do.

Basically, its paying homage to actually being in love,  that’s what its about.

You can’t get away from it man, you can’t get away from being in love.

You had a great relationship with your former guitar tech Chris Hoffschneider.

Do you and Chris still work together in any capacity?

Yeah, not lately, but yeah he’s still with me.

We haven’t done anything yet.

There’s so much stuff going on, I just don’t know what to do at this point.

Like I said, there’s so much dexterity between the genre.

Chris and I have been together for a long, long time and he’s an amazing luthier… we know each other from ‘88!

I use the LTD SA-2, which must be somewhat different from the one you use. It’s a nice guitar…

You know what?

It’s not any different than the one I play, it’s really not.

There are slight changes I recall but not too much.

I would equate it to this… I have a ’34 Dobro, I picked that up the other day and I started to play it, then I turned it over on my lap…. I started playing it like a lap steel.

And then there was insufficiency in that particular instrument, soo I changed a couple of things like the nut.

Everything was done in, like, 1934.

There’s all that stuff going on there and you’ve got to change it to make it work properly.

So yeah, there’s not much difference.

r3

That’s great to hear. It was also quite affordable for upcoming guitarists…

Well that’s what I wanted to do.

When you’re a young kid, you buy a guitar, it doesn’t stay in tune, and you know what happens?

You get discouraged. You get pissed off… you think it’s you.

You get discouraged.

And what happens after that? You don’t play guitar anymore.

So what Chris and I wanted to do was make a guitar at an affordable price for people that worked, stayed in tune and would last… would have some longevity.

And we pulled it off!

You know what?

It was the concept I had in my head, and as a luthier, Chris pulled it off, so god bless him for that, because he probably inspired a lot of people.

If somebody gives you a shit guitar and it doesn’t work, as a kid it will discourage you.

I love playing it personally…

Yeah, it’s a great guitar, it sounds good.

Hey, it’s not a ’59 Les Paul or anything like that but it’s pretty good.

I mean, I played it onstage every night.

And it didn’t let you down!

Nope!

Before we go, do you have any last words for your fans?

Can we see you in the UK in 2015?

I think so, yeah!

I certainly do, yes.

You never know, but the engine is gearing up, man, so we will see what happens.

It’s gonna be good, that’s all I can tell ya.

It will be interesting and we’ll make it a lot of fun for everybody.

For guitar players, for people… for music lovers.

That’s what it comes down to.

Basically, it’s songwriting, communication… trying to make people understand each other.

Thank you for speaking with us Richie, good luck with the album and everything else that happens this year.

Hopefully we will catch up soon, have a great day!

Sure, man. You too!