By Craig Hunter Ross
Here’s a trivia question for your next dinner party or summer BBQ…
What do LaToya Jackson and Motley Crue have in common? Or try this one…
What do Ted Nugent and Cher have in common?
The answer to both? REO Speedwagon lead guitarist Dave Amato.
While Amato has spent the last 23 years providing the soaring solos to some of classic rock’s most recognizable hits on the stage and in the studio with REO Speedwagon, his musical history runs far deeper; with as many twists and turns as a summer amusement park thrill ride.
Currently out on the road with REO Speedwagon, along with STYX and Ted Nugent, Amato took some time to chat share how he ended up where he is today, as well as his legendary guitar collection. Forget playing ‘Six degrees of Kevin Bacon,” read on and you’ll be shocked as you learn how well you’d be at “Three degrees of Dave Amato”…
Craig Hunter Ross: You grew up in the northeast, Massachusetts to be precise, and in 1980 moved out to the west coast. Were you just not seeing anything musically really coming to fruition in your future on the east coast and decided that you needed to head out to the west coast?
Dave Amato: Well, being in the Boston area, I still really felt I needed to get to New York or California. In my head, and with others I was talking to at the time, there was just no one really getting signed in our area except the band Boston. That being said, I was playing with my band at local high schools with Aerosmith, I was good friends with all those guys.
I mean we were really playing high schools and maybe some 50-100 seat clubs with Aerosmith after their first record; with Steven (Tyler), Joe (Perry) and Brad (Whitford), who is still one of my really good friends. My band had gotten some spec deals with Atlantic in New York City, but you know I was really just sick of the cold!
I thought to myself that I’d rather get out to California, get some nice weather and really try to “make it.”
Long story short, we had the same manager as Black Oak Arkansas and that’s what really got me out to Los Angeles. They had a spot in Black Oak Arkansas for me, even though it was actually kind of crumbling at the time. But, it got me out there. I was in Black Oak Arkansas for like one second [Laughs], but I was there, and I stayed. It was really a good thing for me.
Craig: So coming out of that Black Oak Arkansas period, you really start to do a lot of session work including not just guitar, but backing vocals. Were you starting to see yourself taking on a career as more of a “session guy” and being happy with that, or were you always still looking for that band you could stay with and tour with?
Dave Amato: I was definitely looking for a band, a band that I could be at home with. But I cut my teeth on anything and everything I could get my hands on. I wanted experience anywhere that I was wanted and figured they would all be one more step to where I wanted to be.
Steve Farris from Mister Mister was playing guitar for Eddie Money’s band and I was part of the opening act and he really just took me under his wing. I always like to give Steve a plug because he really started me on a lot of session work. The guy had so many sessions that he couldn’t possibly accept and make all that was coming in. He asked me if I wanted some of the work and of course I told him I would really appreciate anything he’d be able to hand off to me.
He’s the one that really got my career going in LA. It was experience, I was making money and it was great, which allowed me to start to build my own thing from there. I owe it to Steve Farris, he was great to me and I still love him to this day…an amazing guitar player as well.
Craig: Do you think that with the way the industry is structured today that a lot of the younger artists will miss out on benefiting from an experience like that? Having a seasoned mentor to take them under their wing and as you described of being able to just cut their teeth on whatever they can get?
Dave Amato: Yeah, because I don’t think there is really anymore session work to be had. Steve Lukather has written articles about it, that there’s just no more session work. He was the monster on that. It’s all dried up now with everyone having Pro Tools and just starting their own band and doing everything at home.
It’s a great way to do it, but it also means that nobody hires anybody anymore. Some elite players will every now and again, but that’s it. In the 1980’s there were always people hiring to have you play on their stuff. But I think you’re right, the young guys don’t get to experience that stuff, and they really don’t. It is valuable experience and these guys aren’t getting it, the musical experience.
The musical experience…I’ve played with LaToya Jackson to Kim Carnes to Ted Nugent. Even Motley Crue, I got hired to just do backing vocals for them! All of these experiences, I look back and “wow.” At the time I was just trying to get the credits and make a little money to move forward, but looking back, like I said ‘wow!”
Craig: As you’ve mentioned, you holed up with Nugent, around the mid-1980s I believe. How did that come about?
Dave Amato: Ricky Phillips, one of my best friends who is with STYX now. Ricky knew Ted’s manager and Ted was looking for a guitar player and lead singer. When I had my own band in Boston (the city, not the band, laughs), I was the lead singer. There were only two of us that auditioned and Ted believed in me and I got the job. It was a major deal for me, it was amazing. Ted gave me that shot and I tip my hat to him every day. We’re still great friends.
Craig: Then you also end up spending some time with Mastedon and the Elefante brothers (John & Dino)…
Dave Amato: I love those guys! I love them! I actually just played a bit on John’s last record a couple of years ago. I had two days off from REO a couple of summers ago and John invited me to his home to play guitar for his project.
I love John and Dino. They are great people and my friends as well. John is one of the greatest singers ever. When I get to sing with him…oh, I can’t even explain it to you.
Short story…I had a vocal coach in LA who also worked with John Elefante as well. I told him how much I loved John’s voice and that I would really like to meet him. If I remember correctly, he gave me John’s number and I called him and told him I wanted to play and sing with him. We ended up in a band together and then I played on the Mastedon stuff and we did a Petra record or two as well. We did a lot of cool stuff together.
Craig: Again, you always seemed to be in the right place and the right time with the right people…
Dave Amato: Yeah, I just kind of marched forward!
Craig: Then you spent time with Cher…and at the time of her big resurgence too…what are some of the major differences in playing with an artist like Cher, compared to REO or Ted? Or is there even really a big difference?
Dave Amato: There was more structure with Cher because there was so much going on. There were dancers, theatrics, the stage was moving…but it still rocked. We made a concert video at The Mirage in Las Vegas. I think it was on CBS even. It rocked! She let me just go.
I was the lead guitarist and she was not afraid to rock. I think wherever I am I’m going to give 150% toward the show, but with Cher, there was just so much going on around you, structure is the best way to describe it. I mean she’s changing clothes, changing wigs; you got dancers all over, she’s up in the scaffolds, there’d be a motorcycle fly by, just everything and you had to play around all that. On and off for four years I did that, what with the REO gig as well.
I quit a bunch of times, but she evidently liked me because I would get calls from her management telling me she was not happy with the new guitar player and they wanted my schedule. The minute I’d wrap up something with REO, she’d want me back. I was kind of double dipping there, which was great!
Everyone in LA auditioned for that job with Cher. It was like 160 guitar players and it took months. I got over five call backs.
Craig: Well in a process that long, how involved was she (Cher)?
Dave Amato: On the tail end she picked us. It was tough. I mean it was a tough one. It was with her band and musical director and then her at the end. There were three different bands, an “A” band, a “B” band and a “C” band. There were three bass players, six guitar players, man it was tough! We beat out a lot of the “A” listers in town. I was pretty proud of that.
But here is the ironic thing…I beat out all these players, get through it and in the same week, I got the Cher gig on Wedneasday and the REO gig that Friday! Both of them the same week!
I get the REO gig so now I have to go back to Cher and say “I don’t want the gig now.” I was going to join REO Speedwagon as a full band member, that’s what I had been wanting in life, to be a band member. Oh man was she pissed off at me! She was really pissed.
So I actually ended up replacing myself by helping with the auditions for my replacement. She didn’t end up liking him and called me back for the next four years. I got the gig, quit, but she still had me for the next four years! Unbelievable.
Craig: Did REO approach you or did you approach them?
Dave Amato: It was a buddy of mine who was writing with Kevin Cronin, Jesse Harms. He was the keyboard player in Sammy Hagar’s band. We were good friends and he told me he was writing with Kevin. Gary Richrath had left about four or six months before that and they were looking for a guitar player for the next REO record without putting out for a “cattle call.” They wanted someone from a friend who was a straight forward player with experience. I had Nugent under my belt so I felt it would be a lock.
I went in to audition on a Friday afternoon at 1pm. We played “Can’t Fight This Feeling” and a couple others of their songs, as well as some of the new material they were writing for the new album. We then played a little basketball and by 5pm I was in the band! Basically four hours and I was in. Twenty three years later, I’m still here.
Craig: At the time did you think it would last that long?
Dave Amato: No. I thought it would be two years, maybe three, and then I would move on to something else. But this is home; and it’s a great home.
Craig: The current tour is being promoted as “The Midwest Rock-n-Roll Express” with REO, Ted Nugent and STYX. You (REO) have such a long history with STYX. You talk about the family feel of the tour and all involved. Is that what makes the REO/STYX combo tours so successful just as much as say the obvious fan base crossover?
Dave Amato: I just think with both bands being from Chicago, we all know each other; the mentality of both bands, the effort to put on the best possible show we can for the people. We get along tremendously and we just want to put on great shows. There are others out there, I won’t mention names, maybe they just do it for money and go through the motions. But I can tell you this and guarantee it…If you come out to see STYX and REO you are going to get a great show, 1000% from both bands, we don’t mess around. That’s what we are here for.
It’s a huge team. It just works. After 23 years, this team is the best. We all want the same thing. Our production teams are totally in synch, it’s just incredible. I can’t speak highly enough of the STYX organization and the guys in the band. I love them all. Plus they are fantastic players! Tommy Shaw, JY (James Young), they are amazing. It truly is one big happy family. There’s no infighting about the production aspects or anything like that. We all do the best we can with the budget we have and do what it takes to put on the best show we can.
Craig: It pays off in the long run with the fans when they see that effort.
Dave Amato: I hope they do, you know? We’ve toured with them for like twelve years and it just plain works.
Craig: Do you have a few more moments to talk about you guitars?
Dave Amato: I have all the time you want to talk about guitars! But wait, we haven’t talked about one of my best friends…Richie Sambora!
Craig: Well by all means let’s do it!
Dave Amato: In 1991 I went out on his solo tour…
Craig: Did Cher have anything to do with that? [Laughs]
Dave Amato: Uh, no…Well maybe indirectly, he was going out with Cher at the time. I had met Richie in 1985 with Nugent when we did the Texas Jam. That’s where I met Bon Jovi. I’d run into him at NAMM shows and stuff like that. He’d come and watch me play with Cher, so indirectly, I guess you’re right!
He came up to me and said he was doing a solo record and he was pretty much done, just finishing up mixing it and wanted me for his solo tour. I didn’t believe him, but gave him my number anyway thinking he wouldn’t call. But he did! We’ve been like best friends ever since. Richie Sambora is one of the most talented guys ever. He’s a great friend, and just an unbelievable talent…a great guitar player, an amazing singer, songwriter, wow!
Craig: OK, now your guitars. How many currently in the collection?
Dave Amato: Oh gosh…I’ve lost count, but it’s probably around one hundred. I always keep it around a hundred; it’s hard to keep up with them.
Craig: So you don’t try to just keep accumulating and accumulating…
Dave Amato: No, no. A round a hundred is usually enough.
Craig: Which do you consider most special?
Dave Amato: Man, the early Les Pauls, my 1954 Strat, a first year Strat; I really like first year things. I have a couple of 1954 Les Paul Juniors, two of them are just mint. Really special. But I’d say any first years. Oh, a 1952 all gold Les Paul, you can’t really play it but man!
Craig: Any that you have sought after that have eluded you?
Dave Amato: A 1959 Sunburst, I don’t have any. I’m waiting for the price to go down [Laughs]. Pretty stupid of me, I could have gotten them at a great price way back when, but I kept balking on them. I kind of kick myself sometimes!
Craig: What are you traveling with this time around?
Dave Amato: I’ve got about eight historic Les Pauls, ‘58s and ‘59s, all custom shop; A couple of customs, triple pick-up 57s, a couple of Gibson acoustics, a twelve string J185 and a J200. So, mostly Gibsons, some Fenders in there, about a rack of Fenders. I think I’m out here with about twenty guitars. And I’m playing through Marshalls. I love the old Marshalls. I probably have sixty to seventy pieces of Marshall gear, if not more. I’ve cut things down for the stage though, about four heads in the rack and about four or so cabinets.
Craig: This tour will pretty much take you through the summer. Anything special lined up for you at the conclusion?
Dave Amato: Yeah, I have kind of a secret project I’m working on right now with a good friend, really don’t want to give too much away! We’ve been working on it for about a year or so now. It’s been in my spare time, but a lot of fun.
I really hope you have been able to hear in my voice the great time we’re having on this tour and how it feels like such a family. We all just get along so well. You see all the guys, all of us…we’re smiling because we really are happy.
Craig: That’s probably the secret to your success. The fans can see it, they can feel it and when they can feel it, they know it’s genuine. The audience can see you are enjoying the show and they will in turn.
Dave Amato: Plus we have to get pumped up to get out there and compete with Ted! [Laughs] I tell the REO guys “Hey, I used to be on that team! We have to make sure we step it up!” It’s almost like I got traded from the Yankees to Boston or something! [Laughs] This tour is so much fun, it’s great. I think everyone is really going to love it.