How Nita Strauss became a 21st century guitar hero

Nita Strauss
(Image credit: Jeremy Saffer)

For wrestling fans, WrestleMania weekend is basically Download festival, Glastonbury and the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame all rolled into one: an annual super-festival capped off by a stadium-filled extravaganza in front of tens of thousands of delirious fans, with a worldwide streaming audience in the millions. This year at New Orleans’ Superdome, however, it was a 31-year-old guitar player named Nita Strauss who stole the headlines, making a surprise appearance accompanying the enigmatic Shinsuke Nakamura to the ring for his marquee match with WWE World Champion AJ Styles. Nita’s histrionic guitar playing gave his electric entrance music, The Rising Sun, an extra knee to the face.

It was a massive boon for a woman who had already made a name for herself playing guitar for none other than Alice Cooper. “I remember when I first saw Shinsuke come out and the music hit; I thought the song was so cool and you could see that from the crowd reaction,” says Nita. She explains how an old Instagram video of her first playing piano, and then guitar, over the charismatic Japanese star’s violin-led theme, helped land her the prestigious role just a few days before the Showcase Of The Immortals. Despite not being afforded much in the way of practice or rehearsal, the thrilling results spoke for themselves. “I’m playing guitar on a song that has no guitars on it, in front of 80,000 people at Wrestlemania,” Nita recalls incredulously. “It’s been the most surreal experience of my life.”

As she will go onto say so eloquently when recalling the events that led her to playing in Alice Cooper’s band, it was just another occasion where “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity”. It’s this attitude that characterises many of Nita’s stories. Though she often uses the words ‘luck’ and ‘serendipity’, she’s also keen to point out that she’s come by her success through years of practice and slog since picking up the instrument as a 13-year-old in LA. After a few tentative steps on the fingerboard, it was seeing one of her heroes, Steve Vai, in the film Crossroads that “flicked the switch” in her head and set her on her current path. By the age of 15, she was touring in bands across the globe, regardless of genre or material, playing purely for the love of music and the thrill of the stage.

“It’s funny, [guitarist] Ryan Roxie from Alice’s band always says, ‘I’ve been in 100 bands, 99 that you’ve never heard of’, and that’s really what it is for me,” she laughs. “I’ve played in local bands, death metal bands, rock bands, punk bands, funk bands, playing backing guitar for a pop singer. For a lot of my life, I would play guitar for anyone that would let me, whether it was writing the music or learning other people’s songs. I just wanted to get onstage and play.”

It was this desire to play live, making sure every performance was delivered with aplomb and guts, that helped Nita claim more prominent victories. From forming her own bands, to joining renowned cover band The Iron Maidens and learning the craft of a Dave Murray solo, to hooking up with reunited 80s glam metallers Femme Fatale. It was while performing with the latter on the Monsters Of Rock Cruise in 2013 that Nita’s skills were spotted by Winger’s Kip Winger. He was so impressed, he passed on her name on to Alice Cooper’s camp, who were on the lookout for a new guitar player following Orianthi’s departure in 2014. 

“The real lesson there is to play every show like it’s an audition for something bigger,” she enthuses. “The show Kip saw us, we were in a tiny lounge on a cruise ship, and if I hadn’t played the best show of my life that night, who knows if he would have been impressed enough to select my name for the Alice Cooper gig?”

Having embraced the pressure of stepping into not just Orianthi’s shoes, but those of so many exceptional guitarists who have flanked Alice during his 60-year career, rock’n’roll has certainly taken Nita under its wing. There have been understandably huge shows with an evergreen Alice, the aforementioned WrestleMania, appearances and jams with some of the biggest names in rock guitar (such as Zakk Wylde, Steven Tyler and Judas Priest), and progress in her own bands, We Start Wars and cover band The Starbreakers. She’s even got her own signature Ibanez JIVA model, similar in shape but light years ahead of her first guitar, the “cheapest little black and white $99 Squire Strat” that she modded with a black pickguard before she even played a note. Despite giving her the breadth of tones needed to play Alice Cooper’s catalogue, and shred-based metal tunes, it’s unfortunately the colour that some have wanted to talk about.

“Someone said, ‘I thought it was going to be pink.’ When have you ever seen me play a pink guitar? Just because I’m a girl, you expect it’s going to be pink? Of course it’s black!”, Nita exclaims, with the recollection galvanising her to talk passionately about her role among a wave of musicians breaking down barriers and banishing such misjudged and outdated concepts. “Maybe when I was younger, I would have a chip on my shoulder, saying, ‘Don’t call me a girl, call me a guitar player’, but it’s not an insult. I am a woman, I am a guitar player. The other day, I heard a great female bass player say, ‘You don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘I’m a woman!’ Just go about your day and do what you do, and if anyone doesn’t like it that’s their problem,” she explains. “I know Orianthi, I know Lzzy [Hale] and I know a lot of these incredible women in music. And it’s why when I do put my own bands together, I do make them all-female; it’s an amazing thing to be a part of this wave of female musicians.”

Nita says she lacked female guitar heroes growing up, but was inspired to see US guitarist Jennifer Batten playing with Michael Jackson at the 1993 Super Bowl. “I remember it really clearly; she had her blonde hair flying around as she played this incredibly technical, complex solo,” she remembers. “I thought, ‘It can be done!’ Now in this amazing age that we live in in 2018, there are women guitar players, black guitar players, Asian guitar players. It’s not weird to be any kind of person and do what you do, and I love being a part of that.”

Clearly revelling in her role as a guitar icon for the new era, Nita isn’t taking any opportunity for granted. After paying her dues performing other people’s material, she’s already written half a solo album, including last year’s Vai-inspired single Pandemonium. She’s funding it via Kickstarter, so she can record and release it on her own terms.

“Rather than going down the traditional label route of getting an advance and paying it back, getting everything approved, having a touring schedule, why not just go directly to the fans?” she enthuses. “While I appreciate the input of people who know better than me on these things, I’d like to do this one on my own. It’s great for me as a guitar player to cut loose and play and not worry too much about stepping on the vocals, or making it too busy. As an instrumental guitar record, it can be as simple or as busy as the guitar player wants. I’m having a blast doing it.” Given the year Nita Strauss is already having, few would bet against the record being another headline event. 

Adam Brennan

Rugby, Sean Bean and power ballad superfan Adam has been writing for Hammer since 2007, and has a bad habit of constructing sentences longer than most Dream Theater songs. Can usually be found cowering at the back of gigs in Bristol and Cardiff. Bruce Dickinson once called him a 'sad bastard'.