Why the guitar and how did you learn to play?
Dad. While I was growing up, my dad worked lots of different jobs but always played in a band at night. He introduced me to the guitar, showing me chords, the main positions on the neck, and he had me listen to the records he thought were great examples from guys like Chet Atkins, Buck Owens, pretty much all the great country players.
By the time I was 11 or so, my parents had me perform for their friends and later on, my dad would have me sit in with his band. I have to say, my mom and dad were always completely supportive of my decision to become a musician.
My dad recorded an album in Nashville under the stage name, Rick Rayle. It got some good airplay and made it as high as number 10 on the Billboard charts. My dad's in his 80's now and he still plays at clubs. He has a loyal following back in Attleboro, Mass.
Who were your early influences?
Initially, it was all country, because my dad wasn't into rock. But you know, I grew up during that incredible time in music when everything was changing. Eric Clapton, especially during his time with Cream and Blind Faith, really grabbed me. His tone and playing were amazing.
So though I was still playing mostly country at the time, I was listening to the rock artists… One day, I heard a song and I thought, "What is that? How's he getting that sound?!" It was like nothing I had ever heard from a guitar before. It was Jimi Hendrix. A short time later, when I was 12 years old, I got a ticket to go see him at the Rhode Island Auditorium. What a trip that was. All those speakers, the volume, the showmanship - Hendrix changed the way I looked at playing the guitar.
Eventually though, and true to this day, I got into Jeff Beck. He's still the biggest influence on my playing, especially blues (check out Red House on the Listen page).
Why did you come to LA?
Back in Massachuessetts, like everyone else starting out, I played in local bar bands. I was my own manager and roadie. I never thought about being famous, I just wanted to play. I knew LA was the best place for music, so my best friend, Richie Raposa (a bass player) and I moved. We had no money, so we rented a single room in a house in Hollywood. It was just two mattresses on a floor. The only things I brought with me were my guitar and a Pignose amp. The people we rented from wouldn't give us a key, so we had to climb up the trellis to get into our room. We lived on peanut butter sandwiches for a year. I still eat one every night as a reminder.
Towards the end of our first year, Richie sold a Fender Rhodes and when the guy came to pick it up, he asked us if we played. It turned out he was looking for a band for an upcoming gig at the Burbank Holiday Inn, so we joined the band. It was a steady gig with decent money.
Who gave you your big break?
We were rehearsing at a studio and someone brought Gene Simmons down. He pulled me aside told me Cher was looking for a guitar player. He gave me a number to call which turned out to be Cher's home phone number! Pretty damn excited and pretty damn nervous, but I called the next day. She asked me to come down and put something on tape. Five months later, she hired me to play with her in Vegas. I did that gig for a couple of years at Caesar's Palace and, during that time, she started her rock band, Black Rose. I was one of her guitarists, along with Les Dudek. After that, I heard that Ricki Lee Jones was putting together a band, so a friend and I went to audition. After 3 auditions, I got the gig. She was an amazing artist. I was having a blast.
Who else have you played with?
Rick Springfield and then Steppenwolf. I played with John Kay for many years and did a few albums with him. After that, I got a gig with David Lee Roth, replacing Steve Vai.
What's it like being a hired gun?
It's probably more of a job, and harder than people think, but it is a great job. Mostly, you're just expected to do your thing. Nobody ever tells you you're good, because that's assumed. If not, you wouldn't have the gig. But it's not just about playing. There are other expectations, just as important.
Let's face it, a lot of what you are playing could be played pretty easily by other guitar players. You have to just learn it, and learn it well. So in addition, you have to be 100% reliable: you have to look good, your guitars have to be in tune, your gear in top shape, you can't get sick. You have to sound great, every night. And most importantly, you can't be late… ever. My motto was "if you're not early, you're late". Also, it's not about "hot dogging" (fancy playing). You have to play the right part, the same way every night - consistency. The singer is relying on you. In fact, that consistency is one of the things that allow you to play if you do happen to get sick. You have to remember that it's not about you; it's about the lead singer. It's their name on the marquee. Your job is to help make them and the music sound great. I could do that and I loved doing it.
You also did a lot of studio work, including the TV show Friends. How did that come about?
The Friends session, which I did for all but the first year of the show, was through a recommendation by Gregg Bissonette, another friend and a brilliant drummer. I had never heard of the show when I started and I ended up doing it for nine years. Once a month we would do a three hour session, usually 30-40 cues. You had to be really quick, typically having to nail it in one take, and be able to switch gears and dial in sounds fast as well.
I had done some commercial work before Friends though. A friend of mine introduced me to a producer named Paul Hoffman, who was in that business. He liked my musical choices and we got along great, so he started bringing me in on almost everything he did… I did a LOT of commercial work. It was a great period - two, three, even four sessions a week and for national campaigns such as Cadillac, Ford, you name it.
So who are you playing with now?
For the past few years, I've been playing in the Gregg Rolie Band. Gregg is one of the founding members of Santana and Journey and the original singer in both. His voice is the one you hear on all the recognizable Santana hits - Black Magic Woman, Oye Como Va, and Evil Ways. We play mostly outdoor gigs during the spring and summer, from wineries to the beach concert series in Santa Cruz to a blues fest in Canada. It's maybe the most guitar-oriented band I've played in. I cover all Carlos's signature guitar parts and all the cues are guitar driven, but there's a lot of room for improvisation. The combination of Gregg's blues-influenced organ playing and an amazing Latin rhythm section make it a blast for me. Everyone in the band is a great player. Gregg also tours in Ringo's All Star band.
Why did Kane choose drums instead of guitar?
Drums chose Kane. When he was 1 1/2, he came to a Steppenwolf rehearsal. Jutta Kay (John's wife) was holding him in her arms. He was too young to walk or talk, but he kept pointing to the drums and insisting she take him closer to them. Later, when I was on the road with Steppenwolf, my wife Kristi came out to meet me with Kane. We wanted some "alone" time, so Ron Hurst (the drummer) agreed to babysit. He gave Kane a practice pad and drumsticks and showed him some beats. After that, Kane was never without a pair of sticks, chopsticks, pencils, anything he could "play" with.
Once we got off the road, I set up a bunch of little trash cans for him to play on. Then, on his third Christmas, my dad got him a mini drum set. I set it up in the garage and when I opened the door on Christmas morning, Kane went crazy. We couldn't get him off it. We got gun mufflers a day later. By that time, people were already noticing that he had a talent. Gregg Bissonette would come over and show him beats and technical stuff, and he's been playing ever since.
Does he play professionally?
Starting at 3, he was invited up to play a song with all the bands I was playing in and he's been playing professionally since he was 12. His first paying gig was with Devo 2.0 which was a kid's version of Devo, produced by Gerry Casales. At 16, he played in a band opening for the Jonas Brothers. After that, he played on a few albums, and toured with After Midnight Project (Jason Evigan), The New Regime (Ilan Rubin), and Badlands (Sean White). More recently, he's been on tour with Portugal. The Man, ARO (Aimee Osbourne), and will be touring with Tobias Jesso, Jr. in September (2015).
Nowadays, I get to play onstage with some of the bands he's with - giving them a little "old school" influence. He is always working or practicing and when he's in town, plays gigs around town with his other bands: Bad Things, Duk, and The Ceremonies, which we're really excited about. He's also an actor. He played Benjy on Monk for two seasons and guested on several other shows. He's a busy guy.
What advice do you have for aspiring guitarists?
It's a whole different world now. I'm not sure how much of what I did exists anymore. For sure, there's less of it. One thing that still holds true is you have to be versatile and there's no such thing as "selling out". If its music and if you're lucky enough to get paid to do it… that's success. Your ego can't be involved if you want to make playing music the way you make your living. Do what you love to do, even if it ends up a hobby, keep doing it.
You've had a really varied and successful career. Is there anybody you'd especially like to play for?
Paul Rodgers for sure, I love his voice. And I would LOVE to play for Rod Stewart. I dig his music, and I really respect him as an artist. It would be amazing to tour with him. So Paul or Rod, if you're reading this…….
And apparently your son is following in your footsteps?
Almost. My son, Kane Ritchotte is a wicked drummer, so I guess he's taking over the "family business" (laughing).
Interview by Bill Glazier, March 2015