By: Rob Cavuoto
The Motor City Mad Man is on the loose and touring the US for his summer I Still Believe tour. While most people are more familiar with Ted for his political candor, music fans know Ted from where it all began, back in 1975 on his first solo CD Ted Nugent.
Ted has been cranking out music for the past 30+ years with legendary guitar riffs. If you have ever picked up a guitar or been in a band, I can almost guarantee that you know how to play some of his most famous songs like “Cat Scratch Fever,” “Stranglehold” or “Wang Tango.”
His latest CD, Love Grenade, is a testament to those 30 plus years of making music. The CD is laced with killer riffs from beginning to end. Tracks like “Still Raising Hell” and “Funk U” are in your face, balls to the wall rock that rival the energy and excitement of his earlier albums.
When Ted rolled into New Jersey this summer, I got my chance to sit with the guitar master and pick brain on the secrets to his infamous guitar sound and memorable riffs.
We had the chance to talk with about his guitar playing, his techniques, and why he started out using the Gibson Bryland, all the components which contribute to him being an American guitar legend.
As I waited for Ted in his dressing room, I couldn’t help notice his road case lined with all of the necessities for tonight’s show: black jeans, a sleeveless camouflage shirt, camo sneakers and hunter’s hat, sweatbands, a 5150 practice amp and a PRS zebra stripped guitar.
All the weapons a guy could need to put on one hell of a show. When he arrived he greeted me with a big hand shake and smile. I’m 6’1” but today seem small in compared to Ted’s larger than life persona.
No sooner than we sat down, Ted had the amp cranked and the PRS in hand blasting out a monster riff. Ted is 63 and still raising hell!
As I asked the questions, Ted tore through a lead or song riff as if providing an exclamation point for his answer. If you told me when I was 17 learning to play “Cat Scratch Fever” in my first band that someday I would be sitting a few feet away from Ted as tore through riffs answering my questions, I would never have believed it.
Buckle up and learn from the master.
Rob Cavuoto: You’re about half way through the I Still Believe tour. How has it been going so far?
Ted Nugent: You can’t even imagine. The real answers will come after you watch the show. Every one of my songs has what can only be described as a phenomenal guitar lick.
I would defy you to name other songs, and I’m not talking about chords. AC/DC starts with some nice chords but nobody’s songs start with the kind of licks I have, the definitive licks. Nobody can play it like that. [Tears into a lead]
Rob: What you’re secret for writing a classic Ted Nugent song?
Ted Nugent: [Playing “Cat Scratch Fever” riff]. Every song starts out with a definitive lick. That’s the trick. I play leads, and I play some monster fuckin’ screamin’ leads, but I think the real essence is the minute a Ted Nugent song starts; it can only be one guy.
I’m really proud of that, and that’s a direct result of my being born three years after Les Paul electrified it and Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley and Lonnie Mack and Dwayne Eddy and Dick Dale and the Deltones and the Ventures showed us what to do with it.
These guys were real pioneers and I happened to be in there…thrust upon my being five, six, seven, eight years old listening to this new electric guitar outrage. If you genuinely revere that uppity-ness, that spirit, that defiance that is the Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, even the Lonnie Mack: the nasty notes and tones that these guys got. If you truly plunged into their statements, their guitar aura, how could you not continue that in your own individual fashion?
Obviously whether you’re talking Keith Richards, who had the same influences I did, or Eddie Van Halen, who ultimately had the same influences, or Stevie Ray Vaughan or Billy Gibbons or Rick Nielsen, ad-infinitum, all the guitar players. Those original uppity, spirited creators of this guitar music guided all of our thoughts and our hands-on-neck maneuvering.
I just keep doing it because I still crave it and I always craved it and I can’t imagine not craving it.
Rob: The Gibson Brydland guitar has become your trademark, its more typically known as a jazz guitar what was the impetuous for starting to use it and how has it contributed to your sound?
Ted Nugent: Around 1961, my band in Detroit named The Lourds, opened up for Billy Lee and the Rivieras at the Walled Lake Casino in Walled Lake, Michigan. They later changed their name to Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels.
Jimmy McCarty was playing a Gibson Byrdland through a Fender Twin amp. Do I really need to tell you any more than that? I get both pickups going, that’s what Jimmy taught me… [playing].
See I’m playing all the strings. I was hooked. I was already nuts for the Lonnie Mack sound and The Ventures, things like that, but when I saw Jimmy McCarty with that Byrdland, holy guacamole.
The Byrdland has its own agenda. It’s a jazz guitar that’s hollow and porous, with a spruce top, hand-carved, which causes even more resonance & feedback, at even a minimal volume. I don’t know what minimal volume is because I’ve always played at maximum volume. Not really…I could have been louder.
There is a threshold with the Byrdland that causes that feedback, which scares most guitarists because it’s not controllable at first. But I wanted the sonics of the volume. There are better highs, better overtones and outrageous noises that are very musical whether you’re talking John Coltrane or Sun Ra or Yusef Lateef.
The stream of consciousness is unlimited, an uninhibited adventure, so instead of being intimidated by the feedback, I decided to learn to work with it. I won’t use the word control [Laughing] because you don’t want to control it, but you want to work with it.
Obviously the “Journey to the Center of the Mind” guitar solo is the greatest feedback in the history of the world. I was just blundering into it because I played all the time. I’d go on 40 and 50 hour marathons with Dave Palmer, and Greg Raymond, of The Amboy Dukes. Though I was constantly Lewis and Clarking on the Byrdland guitar with all those Fender amps.
You found places to stand where certain feedback notes would stand alone and just by moving slightly to the side, which you can watch me do tonight, I can get two notes at once and dissonance and overtones.
It’s a fascinating workout, an adventurous, musical workout with the Byrdland, because it wants to eat your face off and on those occasions where other guitarists have picked up my guitar at my volume, there’s no way they can play it. Forget it! They would say, “How do you stop this thing?” Now give it to me. It doesn’t like you!
So it’s an awesome and challenging instrument because it’s virtually limitless in its noises, sounds and voice and it’s a matter of improvising, adapting and overcoming. I don’t want to use the word overcome, because you don’t want to overcome the feedback. The best part of the feedback is when it overcomes you, and uses that outrage, which I’ve done so beautifully.
Rob: Would you say you’re a schooled player as far as theory goes?
Ted Nugent: No, I’d say I’m an anti-schooled player. My whole pulse of music is like my entire pulse of life: defiance. I don’t believe in authority. I don’t believe in rules, status-quo, perception-wise.
I believe in Chuck Berry. And I believe it’s a great starting point, but the notes that I find exciting are the really ugly notes, scary notes, especially with the feedback. For example, one of the greatest notes in the world is such an ugly note in, “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” when I first started playing [starts playing “Baby, Please Don’t Go”].
You get those nasty, bluesy notes that you can’t get on any other instrument. You can’t do that on a horn or a keyboard and that turns me on to no end. Yeah, I can play boogie-woogie and honky-tonk, thanks to Joe Podorsek at the Capitol School of Music on Grand River Avenue in Detroit in 1958. But I like to take paradigms and throw grenades at them.
I call in an air strike. There is no envelope. I obliterated that in 1963. So there are some things that are schooled that I will play with, because it can sound wonderful, a simple three chord progression. But I always like to challenge myself to break the status quo and break the paradigm.
Rob: Speaking of “Love Grenade” any plans to play that tonight? I think it one my favorite Nugent riffs.
Ted Nugent: No, it’s so hard to get all the great songs in. But I’ll play it now for you! [Playing “Love Grenade” licks] I created “Love Grenade” to sounds like a slide, but it’s not.
Rob: When you look back on your career and you look back on the early days, what’s the most important thing you ever learned?
Ted Nugent: Discipline. I’m clean and sober for 63 years, and even though I look like a shadow of my former self, this is our eighth concert in a row this week. Eight in a row and we’ve only had three days off since June 18. This is an adrenaline junkie tour, which describes every one of my tours.
I look back at the discipline of my parents, the discipline of the hunting lifestyle, that conscientiousness of stealthy maneuvers to get close to game, the aim, small-miss, small mantra of marksmanship and then life itself.
Discipline, being the best that you can be, something Amy Winehouse should have been forced to adhere to and Jimi and Janis, Bon Scott and Keith Moon, etc. Clean and sober and the discipline to always take good care of your sacred temple is the secret to my tsunami of happiness.
Rob: What do you think has been the biggest challenge, musically and professionally so far in your career?
Ted Nugent: I challenge myself more than anybody else can. It was a challenge at first when I was getting a lot of pressure from the industry people, from producers and A&R people to add keyboards here and get more vocals there and I defied that.
I said, “No. ‘Stranglehold’ is what it is. It’s got one singer.” They go, “What’s the chorus?” and I go, “My guitar solo. My guitar licks the chorus. Now shut the fuck up and push the record button.”
Those kinds of moments of friction, I don’t look at them as challenges but rather gifts, because it made me examine myself intellectually and spiritually and determined by a much more powerful source of direction than A&R and industry people, the people at my concerts going berserk 300 nights a year.
You mean to tell me, Mr. New York City CBS Records guy that you know more than the last 100,000 people I played in front of and those gorgeous chicks dancing like that? Those gorgeous chicks dancing like that outvote your ass.
As a kid and as a teenager, I looked at things as a confusing moment, but a very small moment, because my confusion came and went in a flash. Because I was referencing what was clearly the more powerful indicator: the clenched fists, the smiling, laughing faces, the grinding bodies to what my band and I were creating.
There is no other indicator of worth: not sales, not industry okays. Watch what I do to these people tonight. Watch what my music means to these people tonight. It means so much to them.
Just two days ago, I was at the Bethesda Naval Hospital and a half of a marine, there’s only half of him left, who was more full and complete than anyone I’ve ever met in my life, told me that the “Fred Bear” song is helping him heal.
Rob: That’s as tremendous compliment.
Ted Nugent: Two feuding brothers in Michigan whose dad died and they got in a pissing match 38 years previous. Old men older than me, they both heard the “Fred Bear” song the same day, one in Detroit and one in northern Wisconsin. They both called each other for the first time in 38 fucking years. Tell me there’s a more powerful connection than that. It’s huge.
A six-year old…I’ll try not to cry for you. A six-year old boy, Macon, dying of cancer, no hair, no eyebrows, a zombie from the chemotherapy and the drugs. He’s gonna die. His only request was to go hunting with Ted Nugent and he wanted me to play “Fred Bear” at the camp fire. Get the fuck out of here. That’s just one song.
That’s why when I see my critics attacking me for the very things that people love. I go you’ve got to be fucking kidding me! You’re gonna attack my hunting? But Macon wanted to go hunting with me before he dies. Can you be that soulless? So you wonder where all this confidence comes from.
The greatest human beings, the strongest, most positive human beings in the world give me, “Atta boy, Ted.” I don’t need anything else and it’s not just the music.
It’s the lyrics to “Fred Bear.” It’s the lyrics to “Great White Buffalo.” It’s the outrage of “Wango Tango.” It’s the defiance of “Turn It Up” and “Stormtroopin’” and “Love Grenade.” Are you kidding me?