"There was almost a Mafiosi-style meeting about me joining them": Richie Kotzen looks back on life in Poison, Mr Big, the Winery Dogs and more

Richie Kotzen studio portrait
(Image credit: Travis Shinn)

With Richie Kotzen's 2024 European tour now underway, the much-travelled American guitarist, vocalist and songwriter tells Classic Rock about his long career, which includes spells with Poison, Mr. Big and The Winery Dogs, plus a recent collaboration with Iron Maiden guitarist Adrian Smith.


Wasn’t it seeing a poster of Kiss’s Gene Simmons breathing fire that made you want to become a musician when you were seven? 

That’s completely true, it’s all Gene’s fault. I had been taking piano lessons, but I convinced my parents to buy me a guitar from a yard sale. 

Decades later, while playing on Gene’s solo record Asshole, did you tell him about that? 

We recorded that album at my studio, so there was a lot of down time, and I would definitely have told him the story. I don’t recall what he said, but probably something along the lines of: “Join the club.” He must hear it all the time. 

While Gene set you out on this journey, the patronage of Mike Varney at Guitar Player magazine must have been a vital second stage. 

You’re right. I was seventeen. After doing a write-up on me, Varney signed me to Shrapnel Records. I quickly realised that my heart wasn’t in instrumental music, so my second album [Fever Dream, 1990] had vocals. Mike convinced me that I could sing, which really led me on the path I’ve followed. 

With hindsight, how do you now look back at your two-year spell in Poison? The resulting album, Native Tongue, is sorely underrated. 

Being in Poison was a great thing for me, despite the fact that as a young man I don’t think I saw myself being in a band like that for too long. Now I can look back and realise it was an important time for me, and I agree that we made a great album. Bret [Michaels, vocalist] really encouraged me to sing, and that was cool for me.

Then you replaced Paul Gilbert in Mr. Big. 

That was quite different to Poison. I was in a band with [celebrated jazz bassist] Stanley Clarke, but one day Billy [Sheehan, bassist] and Pat [Torpey, drums] came to my house and there was almost a Mafiosi-style meeting about me joining them. At the time, they were only active in Japan, with minimal touring planned. Looking back now, I see that it was a part of my education. 

You’re also a member of The Winery Dogs, along with Billy Sheehan and Mike Portnoy. Do you prefer a trio, or a quartet? 

I prefer to be in a power trio. It’s unusual for me to be in a four-piece. That’s just the way I prefer things. With very rare exceptions, I have done from the very beginning. 

Smith/Kotzen, your project with Adrian Smith, made an album and an EP and toured in 2021. Is there more to come from them? 

Oh, for sure. Adrian and I have written more songs that would be very well suited for a second Smith/Kotzen album at some point in the future. I can’t tell you when that might be. This year is set aside for myself. 

Does that include a new solo album? 

A brand-new song [Cheap Shots - see video above] is being mixed right now in time to be a single for the tour, and that will lead into an album in the fall. 

The first of Kotzen’s three British/Irish dates is in Belfast on July 10, with a US tour following in September. For dates and tickets, visit Richie's website

Dave Ling

Dave Ling was a co-founder of Classic Rock magazine. His words have appeared in a variety of music publications, including RAW, Kerrang!, Metal Hammer, Prog, Rock Candy, Fireworks and Sounds. Dave’s life was shaped in 1974 through the purchase of a copy of Sweet’s album ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’, along with early gig experiences from Status Quo, Rush, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Yes and Queen. As a lifelong season ticket holder of Crystal Palace FC, he is completely incapable of uttering the word ‘Br***ton’.