Interview With Rick Van Zandt of Metal Church
Question: When did you first start out on the guitar?
I was a little kid I was like 4 or 5. The reason I know that is I began on the ukulele because it was more my size and when the Beatles played on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964 or '65 that's when I made the connection. It was like "Oh, these guys are playing the guitar. I sort of play the guitar." I wasn't really playing, I was playing with it—I would strum to the rhythm. I would put on the records and strum to the rhythm and sing "She loves you yeah yeah yeah", when I was five years old or so.
Somewhere along the line my older sisters showed me where to put my fingers so I could play chords and informed me that the top four strings on the uke were just like the guitar so anything I played on the uke I could play on the guitar. But the guitar was just too big for me—it had steel strings and it hurt my fingers. I still tried to play the guitar. But the uke was the thing I played the most at first.
My dad saw me struggling with the steel strings so he brought out a slide so I could play slide guitar. He taught me a Hawaiian tune or something. That's how I got started on the guitar.
I think I was eight when my parents bought a nylon string classical guitar. And I just jumped right in. I already knew my open chords and could play Day Tripper, stuff like that. I put a capo on the 5th fret because up higher the frets are closer together and it fit my hand better because I was still pretty young.
Because I had used a capo, it was pretty easily explained to me what a barre chord was—just use your index finger like a capo!
By the time I was nine, that's when The Who came into the house—Tommy the rock opera—and I was learning to play "I'm Free" and "Pinball Wizard" and stuff like that. No lead guitar yet—that would come later.
I got my first electric guitar when I was 10. I know I was probably begging for one.
Question: Did you take guitar lessons at that point?
There were attempts at getting lessons but it seemed like there were mostly piano teachers and violin teachers who were trying to make an extra buck by teaching guitar. They didn't have what I wanted—I wanted to learn to play like Jimi Hendrix and that was too much for most teachers, I think.
I was young and had all the time in the world. At about that time the Woodstock album came out. I got to side four and heard Ten Years After and Alvin Lee and I had never heard anyone shred the blues like that.
My older brother was a freshman in college and came home and saw me listening to the Alvin Lee and said, "Oh you haven't heard Hendrix yet!" He played the intro and the Star Spangled Banner and I was so blown away that that was even a guitar. That was a game changer, I said "I have to find out about this guy." I was totally in.
By the time I was 13 I had the Strat, the fuzztone and the wah pedal.
Question: Did you get discouraged at all when you were trying to learn to play like your favorite guitar players? How did you take the next step in your playing?
Because I was so young, it wasn't like I was in any kind of a hurry or race. I didn't have any goals—I was a 13 year old kid, you know? There was no band or anything—I just played.
There were a couple of guys who were 18 years old that moved into the house two doors down and there was loud guitar playing coming out of that house. I'm pretty tall so at 13 I was 5' 10" and had long hair so it was pretty nice of them to let me hang out with them.
The guitar player showed me a couple things that made my guitar playing smoother and faster. I already knew how to bend notes, hammer on and pull offs and that kind of thing.
It's funny but when Kiss came out I thought they sucked because I grew up listening to The Who and Hendrix and by that time I was into Alice Cooper the Love It To Death Album—well orchestrated compositional work there. And Kiss was just like bubblegum stuff. All my friends were into Kiss and said I should learn how to play it.
I did learn something from Ace Frehley—I don't know if this is on all his records but it was on the first record. He would use the same template for every solo—it had kind of a formula. He would play a phrase, then he would repeat the phrase with a little variation. Then he would go up to the next position on the neck, play another phrase and by that time it was time to get out of the solo and back into the third chorus. And I was kind of like "Oh—so there's kind of a method here. He's not just randomly throwing licks together." So I started doing that.
I learned to play a phrase and let it breathe. Then repeat it with a little variation. Go to another place on the neck, play another phrase. Then whammy bar and big frill at the end and you're out of the solo.
By the time I was 15 I had a band and we were playing Rush, UFO and Zeppelin and all that stuff.
Question: So at some point in your teen years did you start to dig in and get into music theory or did you keep learning by ear?
I took piano lessons when I was 5 and did that until I was 8 so I could read music but I wasn't very good at it. It wasn't until high school when the choir teacher decided to use his free time to teach music theory and I took music theory for a couple years.
After high school I went to Cornish College of the Arts and that teacher wasn't very good but what he got me to do was go to a Howard Roberts (jazz guitarist and teacher) seminar. That really enlightened me to the scope of what the guitar could do. It wasn't just like you could play rhythm guitar or lead guitar—you can play the guitar like it's a complete musical instrument. You can play the bass, chords and melody all at the same time. George Van Eps called the guitar "the lap piano."
I really got into jazz. I'm really more of a jazz guitar player than a rock guitar player now. My roots are in rock—it's in my blood. I'm into the gypsy jazz stuff as well.
You know, if you're going to play guitar your whole life it's good to be versatile. I think that is one of the things that kept me going. I could play acoustic or electric guitar. By the time I was 18 I was listening to Allan Holdsworth and Larry Coryell and a lot of the fusion guys. After the Howard Roberts seminar I was listening to Joe Pass and Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis and Wes Montgomery. I wasn't going to stay with just one thing. For me it's fun to mix it up.
I used to teach and it was sad to watch so many people give up on it. I always had fun with it starting out as a kid even with the ukulele. You've got to keep it fun.
When I got into guitar I did not really think it would turn into anything, but one thing led to another and I ended up in a band that travels around the world and gets paid (Metal Church.) I don't make enough to quit my day job but it definitely pays enough for me to go on unpaid leave from my job to go out and play. I'm really grateful for that.
Question: What do you see as the biggest keys to becoming a great guitar player?
There have been times when I did lock myself in a room and practice for four hour hours a day for stretches. I find that you learn something, and that's really cool, now if you really want to be good you're going to have to learn how to apply that and learn to play it in every key, up down and sideways. There's no shortcut other than applying the seat of your pants to the top of the chair and practicing.
When I was 16 or 17 I had just got a job and I bought a 4 track reel to reel Teac recorder. So I could overdub. That was really a big breakthrough because now I could solo over my own rhythm playing. I could solo until I played something I liked and then could back up and punch in and eventually have a well produced recording of your playing. It gave me that perspective like "hey, I can really do this!"
Instead of trying to play like someone else and not being able to get it quite right, get a four track, or now you can do it on your computer, and start recording yourself. You'll be impressed.
I didn't look back after that. Once I started recording myself I didn't really want to play like anybody else. I just wanted to find my own voice.
I didn't have a motive to try to get a record deal or anything like that. When I got the four track I had no idea how much it would end up inspiring me to play more. That was the biggest I got out of it.
I've watched it happen with my son as well. When he was a kid he downloaded recording software on the computer and he would put a whole song together while I was at work—guitar, bass and drums. He would have the whole thing recorded and mixed. He kept getting better at it by doing it. That's the key.
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