Richie Sambora - Kiss Reject, Pop Rock Hero
In 1983, just a few months before he joined Bon Jovi, guitarist Richie Sambora was in a practice room bashing out songs like "Detroit Rock City," "Hard Luck Woman," and "Rock and Roll All Night" with three musicians who know the tunes better than anyone. That's right, Sambora was auditioning for the "hottest band in the land, KISS." "They were actually pissed I showed up," Sambora recalls. "They liked they way I played but they were going, "you know this one? That one?" And I'm goin' "No."
After being turned down by Kiss ("Honestly, I didn't really want it. I was really only trying for it as a good business measure"), he went for his next big audition, and bingo, he was invited to replace guitarist Dave Sabo in Bon Jovi.
17 years and $80 million in Bon Jovi album sales later, Sambora is sipping coffee early one morning in a New Jersey studio. In an hour, he and his bandmates will start rehearsing for their upcoming tour in support of their latest album, Crush. At this point in their career, practicing isn't a big deal for the group, but Sambora still feels the adrenaline rushing. "For our last tour [the 1996-97 These Days tour], we rehearsed one day. But this time, we're doing a whole four days - that's big for us."
Bon Jovi's new material warrants the extra rehearsal days. Crush contains the usual Bon Jovi trademarks - surging pop-metal and anthemic rock 'n' roll celebrating the group's hard working, fun-loving New Jersey roots. But it also features the most mature guitar work Sambora has exhibited to date. "I think I'm falling into my own style, which is kind of an organic blues-based rock 'n' roll kind of thing," Sambora says. "For instance, I played a lot more slide on this album. My style has become a lot more 'me.'"
Guitar.com: Four days of rehearsing still seems pretty minimal.
Richie Sambora: For us, being a band for this long, the only stuff that we really have to go over is the new stuff. We opened our last tour by playing in Bombay, and then went through Malaysia, Indonesia, other places in the Far East, and that's what we kind of considered our warmup.
Guitar.com: How long is a typical Bon Jovi tour?
Sambora: For a band like us, it takes about a year to get around the world. Last tour was about 42 countries, and 72 sold-out stadiums.
Guitar.com: What's the craziest thing that's ever happened to you on tour?
Sambora: After all these years of touring, there's been a lot! [laughs]. A lighting rig once busted and came down on my head, and busted my head open. That was in Wembley Arena in the late '80s. Luckily it didn't come down too far, it might have killed me.
Guitar.com: How would you describe your guitar style?
Sambora: I think I'm a utilitarian. I like to play many different styles and different tones. I like to look at songs as sonic paintings, and lucky enough for me, I'm such as guitar collector and all the guitars have different tones. You stick 'em with different amplifiers and then you make your own colors.
Guitar.com: Has it always been this way?
Sambora: If you listen to the earlier albums, I basically had one or two guitar tones. On this, [Crush], the sonic depth of what I'm painting seems a lot deeper to me. I think in the '80s, I was searching. To have a stylistic voice is actually the hardest thing for a band to do. Right around Slippery When Wet  is when I think I hit stride. At that point, my style as a guitar player was a bit more flamboyant. Those were the days when Eddie Van Halen was doing his tricks, and guys like Satriani and Vai were also popular. But at the same time, I wanted to play the right things for the songs, being a big Beatles fan and guy who likes Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, and Muddy Waters. At that point, I also infused the acoustic guitar back into pop music. It was something I mastered playing in those bars early on, but which I didn't have a chance to play on our first two records [Bon Jovi and 7800 Fahrenheit]. I also brought the guitar talk box back into rock music back then.
Guitar.com: Are your solos spontaneous these days?
Sambora: The solo at the end of "Next 100 Years" is two takes that I kind of stuck together. But there's also a lot of one-take soloing going on. I don't do a lot of struggling on this record. Once I got the tones I was looking for, it came out real easy. It's not that I rehearsed at home before I walked into the studio, it just happened spontaneously.
Guitar.com: Did you use a lot of effects on the album?
Sambora: No, and I think the guitar sounds are pretty "true," partly because of good mic placement and a great studio.
Guitar.com: Let's hear more about the studio.
Sambora: Jon built a wonderful big studio here in his house. We did the record there, which took a lot of pressure off as far as studio bills. Also, we had no creative time limit; you come in when you want to play and you don't have anyone up your ass to get out. And you can leave everything set up. So it was a very comfortable record to make.
Guitar.com: Production-wise, some of Crush is reminiscent of the Beatles.
Sambora: Oh, absolutely. I'm a George Martin advocate and I always thought he was this fifth Beatle. I've gotten to know him over the last couple of years, and he's given me a lot of hints about exactly what went down. On the song "Next 100 Years," from the new album, we wanted to go into that whole double-time, crazy-ass jam thing that's in the end, because there's not a lot of bands actually doing that anymore. We thought, "let's ask George to put strings stuff in." We called him, but he's retired now. So I just said, "look, I gotta steel your shit then." [laughs]. We hired David Campbell, who is Beck's dad, to do our strings, and our co-producer Luke Ebbin also worked on them.
Guitar.com: The songwriting of "Say It Isn't So" is also reminiscent of the early Beatles.
Sambora: Especially in the chorus, when Jon sings "say it isn't so," and I answer him with another lyric behind it.
Guitar.com: How many songs did your write while working on this album?
Sambora: We wrote 60 songs to get to the 12 on the record.
Guitar.com: On one hand, Crush has a contemporary, techno-influenced quality - like on the dancy rhythm elements of "It's My Life." At the same time, Bon Jovi still sounds like a good ol' rock 'n' roll band.
Sambora: We wanted to make a record that was true to our heritage as an American rock 'n' roll band. We also wanted to make a record with a 21st century production. We gave our sound and style a new face. But when we tried to take the drums out completely, it did not work for us. We're a live band, and we needed some bashin' drums. Then we had the careful job of how to integrate the three different drums loops that are on that particular track with normal drums.
Guitar.com: Even though the band doesn't rehearse much, do you practice guitar a lot?
Sambora: Sure, and I'm always trying to teach myself something new. The thing that really spurs me on are different instruments and other equipment, so I'm always buying new stuff or tradin'. I'll get a new amplifier or a new stompbox and put them in line with a bunch of other different stuff, and that's kind of the way I practice. But as far as me practicing techniques anymore, no, I really don't do that.
Guitar.com: What was your first guitar ever?
Sambora: A $10 guitar that was returned to E.J. Corvettes, which used to be a big department store in New Jersey. My dad used to work there part-time in the music department and he brought it home for me one day.
Guitar.com: When did you start playing?
Sambora: I was about 14, which is a little bit late. I was playing other instruments before then, but I just wasn't diggin' them. I picked it up pretty naturally, and it just kind of clicked. I had one lesson and then decided I was going to teach myself. I wanted to gain my own style, so I sat down with a lot of records and picked off the records.
Guitar.com: Who are your biggest influences?
Sambora: It's about the blues, and modern day blues in rock 'n' roll. I started with guys like Johnny Winter, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Jimi Hendrix of course, and then went backwards to Albert King, B.B., and Muddy, and then all the way back to Charley Patton. Forwards and backwards.
Guitar.com: Any regrets regarding your career?
Sambora: I feel so lucky in my life that there's not a lot of stuff I'd do differently. I'm a workin' musician. In the perfect world you want to end up being like Jimi Hendrix. You want to be someone who's critically acclaimed and has influenced millions of guitar players. But I'm happy to be a workin' musician and have a lot of hit songs and have the talent that I have. There's not a lot of regrets.