Thinking Out Loud: Rick Nielsen

Cheap Trick
(Image: © Peter Noble\/Redferns)

Born in Elmhurst, Illinois in 1948, Rick Nielsen is best known as the lead guitarist in Cheap Trick.

Apart from being the driving force behind the power pop that has inspired the likes of Nirvana, Weezer, Smashing Pumpkins and The Wildhearts, Nielsen has also somehow made bowties, woollen jumpers and five-necked guitars look cool.

Outside of Cheap Trick, he’s also lent his skills to everyone from John Lennon and Gene Simmons to Alice Cooper and Foo Fighters. And at the age of 67, he shows no signs of slowing down.

As Cheap Trick gear up to release their seventeenth studio album, Bang, Zoom, Crazy…Hello, Team Rock sat down with rock ‘n’ roll’s favourite nerd to find out exactly what’s on his mind…

I got married way before Cheap Trick, but I’ve always been a musician and I found somebody who was willing to put up with that. My wife always wanted to have kids. But I was an only child and I never knew about having other kids around. So she was grounded in one way, and I was determined in another. But it’s never been about fame or money for me. I’m a musician, so I’m supposed to be poor. I worked hard when we were struggling along and I’ve worked hard since we’ve done well. I’ve had many ups and downs in my career and my marriage, but we’re still together and we have four kids now. And they all have their own occupations and ways of doing things. My third son Daxx plays in Cheap Trick. But he’s not just in the band because he’s my son. He really fit the bill - he’s worked with everyone from Dick Dale to Maroon 5, and he lived in Hollywood for 10 years doing all kinds of session work. Daxx has been with Cheap Trick for six years now.”

Cheap Trick at the GRAMMY Museum on September 12, 2013 in Los Angeles

Cheap Trick at the GRAMMY Museum on September 12, 2013 in Los Angeles
(Image: © Mark Sullivan/WireImage)

George Martin was probably the greatest producer, musician and human being that I ever worked with. He knew more and he’d done more than anybody I’ve ever met. He was humble and smart, and he was great, and he liked me. Every year I got a Christmas card from George and his wife Judy [Lockhart Smith], and they even cooked for my wife and I at their country home a couple of times. We became friends in 1979, and when we did the Sgt. Pepper Live album [2009] I actually went to his house in England to get his blessing and collect all the sheet music for the songs. He signed them and wished me good luck, and I actually thanked George in the notes to our new album back in November of last year, which is a bit creepy. But it was an honour to have worked with him. It really was one of the highlights of my career. God bless his soul. He was a great guy, besides being a musical genius and indeed a good friend.”

I had my first five-neck guitar built for me in 1981. Originally I wanted to have a six-neck one that spun around like a ship’s wheel, but then I saw Billy Gibbons had a spinning guitar and I didn’t want people to think that I was copying him. I love Billy, but I don’t plan on growing a big beard any time soon.”

(Image: © Frank Micelotta/Getty)

Cheap Trick have always been big in Japan. It was the first country where we had a number one song [Clock Strikes Ten], which was off our second album [In Colour] and it didn’t do anything anywhere else in the world. The Japanese press have always liked us too, ever since 1977 when that record came out, and we were the first band to really make the Budokan [an indoor arena in Tokyo] famous, by recording a live album there [Cheap Trick at Budokan, 1978]. But I always tell people that the Budokan made us famous, too.”

Cheap Trick live at Nippon Budokan, Tokyo on March 16, 1979

Cheap Trick live at Nippon Budokan, Tokyo on March 16, 1979
(Image: © Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty)

It was an honour to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It wasn’t around when we started, and we never assumed or expected to be inducted in there. But here we are. The timing worked out perfectly, too. We got nominated and we got in on the first round. I hear that’s really rare. We were eligible for 12-14 years or something like that, but we were never waiting around for it happen so when it did it was pretty exciting. Some of the other people in there have sold way more records than us, so to be acknowledged alongside them is amazing.”

I’ve never wanted to look like anybody else. I never wanted to be like Jeff Beck, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, or any other guitarist of the month. I’ve only ever wanted to be me. I’ve never been the good-looking frontman, I didn’t want to wear my mother’s make up, and I didn’t want to steal your girlfriend either. I’ve always been happy just being the songwriter. And I’ve always worn whatever I wanted to wear. I think I’ve cultivated a pretty good look over the years.”

Cheap Trick’s new album Bang, Zoom, Crazy… Hello will be released on April 1 through Big Machine.