He's the guitar god in geek's clothing, the chump with the killer chops, the dopey-looking dude who does the dynamite solos in the middle of indelible ditties he pens himself.
He's Rick Nielsen, the lead guitarist of power-pop top guns Cheap Trick and composer of such uber-catchy classics as “Surrender,” “I Want You to Want Me” and “Dream Police,” the rock star from Rockford, Ill., who models his stage wardrobe after Huntz “Satch” Hall, who always played the buffoon in the Bowery Boys and Dead End Kids films.
Of course, the goofiness ends at his fingertips, when they tear into the strings of one of his outlandishly customized electric guitars. That's when he transforms himself into the giant among power-pop guitar heroes he's been for more that 35 years.
He still looks like it, though, standing between quintessential rock-star pretty boys Robin Zander on vocals and Tom Petersson on bass. It used to be drummer Bun E. Carlos — who looked like a portly, chain-smoking cross between Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet — backing Nielsen up on the dweeb half of the team. But Carlos is semiretired now, replaced on the drums by Nielsen's son, Daxx.
It's this 2013 version of Cheap Trick fans will welcome to the Main Stage at Rocklahoma — Pryor's three-day outdoor rockfest — at 8:40 p.m. Sunday.
And Nielsen, at 64, has no intention of retiring any time soon, as indicated in this recent phone interview with The Oklahoman, after he called on time, then asked if he could call back in 45 minutes because he was “caught up in something.”
45 minutes later:
You must be in Orlando, Fla., right about now, or headed there.
Nielsen: I am there. That's why I was late. Florida slows you down.
How many dates a year is Cheap Trick averaging nowadays?
Nielsen: Something like around 200. That's ridiculous, isn't it?
You haven't cut back much, have you?
Nielsen: No, not really. I mean, you know, some years have been less, some years have been more. We're lucky that we get to work.
Is Bun E. playing any dates with the band this time out?
Is he still a member of the group?
Nielsen: My son Daxx is playin' drums for us.
Is he now the permanent drummer for Cheap Trick?
Nielsen: The last three years now.
Well, the last time we talked —
Nielsen: The last time we talked was about 45 minutes ago.
Before that, the last time we talked, “The Latest” had just come out on CD, vinyl and 8-track tape. And you were boasting about having the No. 1 selling 8-track in the world.
Nielsen: I think we're still in the Top 10.
I thought you would've managed to sell em all by now.
Nielsen: Well I think we probably did. I don't imagine we're selling too many more of 'em, but it's harder to find an 8-track player than an 8-track tape.
So, you're coming to Rocklahoma ...
Neilsen: Who we playin with?
Guns N' Roses, Alice in Chains, Korn, Bush ...
Nielsen: Oh, that's good stuff. We'll kick all their ---es. Well, we've got the most seniority, put it that way.
Have you heard anything about this festival?
Nielsen: Well, I've heard of it but I heard of South by Southwest and we never played there until three years ago. So it's like, I know about it, but until we get invited ... now we've got invited, can't wait to play.
When people talk about your musical influences, the Beatles always come up, of course, and other British Invasion groups, but you mentioned in one of our earlier conversations some later, lesser-known groups. Could you tell me who some of those were?
Nielsen: The Move, Patto ...
Yes, you mentioned Patto and that was one thing that really interested me because you're about the only guy I've ever talked to who knows who Patto was. Also the great (guitarist) Ollie Halsall.
Nielsen: Oh my God, the guy was unbelievable. Left-handed player. Amazing stuff, plus the band and the arrangements. Very, very cool. The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, those guys were great. Would stand up to anything today. And all that stuff. The fact that you know Ollie Halsall, you're like one of the four people in the United States who knows who he is. ‘Singin' the Blues on Reds,' ‘Loud Green Song,' all that good stuff. You know, the last album that they did, Mike Patto was dyin' of cancer and when they recorded the record, he was lying on his back on the floor in the studio with the microphone above him, finishing the record. He was so weak ...
Are you self-taught on the guitar?
Nielsen: Yes. I started out as a drummer. I love to be the loudest thing in the room. But I took it up when I was in junior high school just 'cause I wanted to be in a band. But I have kind of perfect pitch and so when I would play with other players, they'd hit wrong notes or play the wrong chords. I had to get up from the drums and teach 'em myself, what it was that was supposed to be played. ... Before you know it, I was getting up off the drums all of the time, so I just took over on guitar and taught myself keyboards, and now I can't play the drums at all.
When did you start collecting guitars?
Nielsen: Back in the '60s. Back then they were just called used guitars. They weren't vintage and all that kind of junk. But people used to trade in their guitars. I couldn't afford the new stuff so the used stuff was always cheaper, and I didn't just buy everything that was available. There were certain things that I wanted and certain things that I didn't have. You start with one and then you get another one, and before you know it you've got a thousand.
How many guitars do you own now?
Nielsen: Right now probably around 400. A couple of thousand instruments but about 400 guitars.
How many of those guitars were custom made for you?
Nielsen: Probably half of those. I probably have close 100 Hamers. They were the first ones to make custom guitars for me. I helped design a lot of that stuff.
What's the funkiest-looking guitar you own? That five-neck?
Nielsen: I've got three of those.
That looks like it weighs a ton.
Nielsen: It does. I used to be two inches taller. What's the craziest I have? I have some stuff that's as rare as can be, and stuff that's rare and great, and some stuff that's not so rare, but I like. I've owned about 2,000 guitars through the years, because I've traded a lot and given away and sold some stuff.
Nielsen: A 1955 Gibson Goldtop Les Paul that I still have. Paid 65 bucks for it. And I have a 1963 Guild Merle Travis. The only made three and it was the second one ever made. In 1963 they were $2,000. You could buy a Ford Mustang for $2,000 back then. If you had $2,000 bucks you'd put your own name on a guitar, not Merle Travis. So I've got that. I'd actually looked for one of those for almost 40 years before I found — before it found me, we'll put it that way.
Even down in Oklahoma, it's like, I bought some stuff down there years ago. I bought one of the two Gibson Explorers, '58 Gibson Explorers that I have, I bought down your way from Larry Briggs, from Tulsa.
You once told me you're always working on the next album. Are you working on the next album?
Nielsen: Well, we're thinkin' about working on the next album. We won't get to it until the end of this year. We're working up until actually December, so ... We have new ideas, yeah.
Will we hear any of the new stuff at Rocklahoma?
Nielsen: Well, the mistakes we make, those are the new songs.
Still doing occasional performances with orchestras?
Nielsen: Yeah, we are. We have one at Chicago at Ravinia coming up. We have one in Wyoming coming up, and we have a few other offers of things that we may be doing. Last year and the year before we did quite a few. We did 46 shows in Vegas, we did about 30 in Milwaukee, and we did L.A. at the big theater. We do em occasionally because we don't travel with orchestras. If we're ever in one spot, then we use the orchestra, which is tough to do.
Nielsen: We try to. We did “Dream Police.” We also did 40-some shows with Sgt. Pepper's. We did that whole thing and then did our own stuff with it. The one we're at Ravinia, we're actually doing the complete Live at Budakan and St. Pepper together. The Beatles never did it live so it's kind of interesting and fun when we get to do it.
Any more live orchestral albums?
Nielsen: Well maybe. There's no rush to ever put out a new Cheap Trick record. We put it out when we feel like it. If we get enough interest in it, we'll probably do.
How much of a set?
Nielsen: I have no idea. It'll be good. You better be there, Gene, or I'm gonna kick yer ass. Bring your Patto records and you and I'll be the only two in the state of Oklahoma that know what the heck that is.
Never too busy to talk to you — except on time.