Rollin' with the Changes
March 19, 2007
Dave Amato is a musician with incredible range; he’s played with everyone from Ted Nugent and Richie Sambora to Cher and Kim Carnes en route to his current gig with the legendary REO Speedwagon. Along the way, he’s had a chance to amass one of the largest Marshall collections around, and a few guitars too. Dave spoke with us about his history, his gear and REO Speedwagon’s newest album.
You’ve had a pretty long and successful career as a professional musician. Could you talk about some of your more memorable gigs, and who you played with? Who left an impression?
The impression was definitely from Ted Nugent, like ’85 to the end of ‘87.We did two records, Little Miss Dangerous and If You Can’t Lick Em … Lick Em. It was a great experience; we went out with Aerosmith in ‘86, and did five months opening for them. It was an incredible experience and we played all the big ones … Madison Square Garden and the Philadelphia Spectrum, it was amazing. I was a lead singer then too, so I sang one half of the show and Ted sang the other half. That was an amazing time.
I did do a little live stuff with Kim Carnes, believe it or not … I mean, from Nugent to Kim Carnes is kind of nuts. It was fantastic; she was like a female version of Rod Stewart. Real raspy and a great lady. I had a lot of fun with that, and was lucky to do that. Is versatility a big thing for you?
Oh yeah! That was great, sure. It was a great experience to get to play in a bunch of different styles. It was a real challenge.
What’s going on with REO Speedwagon right now?
Actually, I’m heading down to the studio in a few hours to hear the first mix of our new record.We’re mixing it right now.
Have you set a track listing?
Yeah, we’ve got 10 songs, maybe 11 on it. Today is the first time I’ll get to hear it. I know I’m gonna hear it and say, “Hey man, turn my guitar up a little bit more.” That’s all.
When it comes to writing, where do you fit into the mix?
Well, Kevin [Cronin, lead vocals and guitar] usually does the bulk of it, as he did in the heyday … but Gary [Richrath, former guitarist] did a lot of it too. Since then, Kevin has kind of taken over everything. On this one, all of us co-wrote a song on it, and Bruce [Hall, bass player] has a song on it, but the rest is pretty much Kevin. He’s a great writer.
When you approach these songs that Kevin’s already written, do you have to fit your style to the song, or does he write with your style in mind?
He kind of writes … folksy [laughs]. He’s kind of a folksy guy. That’s sort of where he came from; he used to play solo gigs at clubs, by himself with an acoustic. He writes a lot on acoustic, and we kind of adapt it … I know the old REO did the same thing. He came in with a bunch of folksy songs, and they said, “What the hell is this?” So, when the band gets a hold of it, it definitely changes. I kind of rock it up a bit, you know, because I come from the Nugent days. And I gotta say, Gary was rock too, so he kind of changed it, and I feel like I fit into that slot really well.We change it, and make it like REO … great rock!
Since we’re talking about old REO vs. new REO, how was your transition into the band? You came on kind of late in their career span … was it difficult fitting into these guitar parts that Gary had already written?
No, it was easy, because I’ve done a whole bunch of stuff, from Kim Carnes to Nugent, and everything in between, so it wasn’t really hard at all. I kind of caught the band on their downhill side, which was unfortunate for me, because they had already peaked with Hi Infidelity, but when I came in and the drummer [Bryan Hitt] came in, we kind of turned it around.We didn’t start from scratch, but we did claw our way up to where we’re at now.We kept going up a little every year, we kept getting better gigs, and we made a couple of records that were pretty good. It’s a classic rock band, and sometimes its tough to sell records out there. But we could tour in the Midwest, which was still huge, and in the ‘90s we did some great tours with Fleetwood Mac, Pat Benatar and Peter Frampton.We kind of really kicked it there, and jump-started it about 10 years ago, and it’s been going great ever since.
Everyone has that artist or band that makes him or her pick up the guitar for the first time and start picking. Who was that for you?
The Beatles. Cut and dry, that’s it. I mean, I’m a little bit older, so Elvis was big. I listened to Elvis when I was really, really small, and I just loved rock and roll.
I was an Elvis fan, until the Beatles came along. Then I was gone; I wanted to be in a band, grow my hair out, just like everyone. Actually, I just got a 12-string John Lennon Rickenbacker 235 a few days ago. I keep trying to collect the Beatles stuff.
Since you brought it up, you’re admittedly a huge collector. It had to have started early. Do you remember your first guitar and amp?
Oh, boy [laughs]. I think it was a Harmony, a big-bodied acoustic. I think I added a pickup that bolted on the back behind the bridge, with the cable just hanging down all over. And the amp? It was really a Radio Shack kind of thing too, called LaFayette Radio, with a 12” speaker and 15 watts. Those Harmonys are probably worth something now. When you were a kid, everyone played Harmonys.
In your collection now, is it mostly Strats and Les Pauls?
Yeah, pretty much. It’s got to be at least 20 Les Pauls and at least 20-25 Strats.
Is there one that really screams for your attention when you walk in the room?
Yeah, the first year Strat. The 1954 sunburst Strat, maple neck … it just kills me, slays me every time. I bought it for a song from Norm [of Norman’s Rare Guitars, in California], and it’s worth a stupid amount of money.
Is there a guitar you let get away, that you always think about?
That’s actually why I started collecting.When I was a kid, I played a little Les Paul Junior model, the little student guitar, and they were from the ‘50s … they didn’t stay in tune for me. I traded them for new Stratocasters, but now most of those Juniors I let go of I’ve gotten back. Not the exact guitars, but the same things. I just got a ’54 prototype Les Paul Junior at the shop. Norm got it, and it was a prototype; I didn’t even know, I just liked the look of it.We put it under a black light and everything was right on. I got it right away.
Do you play those?
Oh no, man. They’re worth too much money!
Like a Spinal Tap thing? Don’t even look at it?
Yeah, man [laughs]! Don’t dare look at it. Spinal Tap actually got all their guitars from Norm too.
Word on the street is you have a pretty sick collection of Marshalls. What is it about those amps?
Yeah, I have over 100 pieces of Marshall gear. I think it’s all about Jimi Hendrix. I just loved the look of those basket weaved cabinets with Jimmi’s silhouette on the front. I tried to put that on my website, I tried to get the same type of shot.
When you have that “tone” in your head, is that the tone that you’re hearing? A Marshall and a Strat, or a Les Paul?
Oh yeah, just like Jimmy Page. It’s that British crunch. I use a lot of Les Pauls with REO. It cuts through the mix. I could do any situation with a Marshall. Of course I’ve had other amps; a Soldano and a Boogie for a while. Soldano makes a tremendous amplifier, but I really just stick with the Marshalls; I’m getting too old to use anything else. I’ve used them so long, and I know what they can do. People get other amps and say, “It can get a Marshall sound.”Why don’t you just get a Marshall then?
I do have to mention, I do love Vox amplifiers too. I’ve got a bunch of AC30’s, which Marshall makes now anyway.
Do you ever mess around with modifying your gear?
Nope. Absolutely, positively stock! I’m a real fan of stock. On the Les Pauls, I play Historics live, and Custom Shop Relic Strats and Teles. I don’t really change anything; maybe if a guitar just doesn’t make it sound-wise, but I still like the feel of it, I’ll throw a Seymour Duncan pickup in there. I love Duncan; he’s a good friend of mine, and makes an unbelievable pickup. But I’ve been using a Seymour ’59 for a long time.
What is your formula for rock and roll?
A Strat and a Marshall or a Les Paul and a Marshall. It’s classic. Some of these kids use the off-brands, and I just want to say, “Come on, man. This is where it all started.” I mean, I went to Jackson in the ‘80s, because I thought Fender and Gibson were making some crap, and they really were. So I went to Jackson for a while, it was a little flashier for the whole Nugent thing, but then I eventually went back to the rock roots. Putting the Strat or the Les Paul with a Marshall is where it’s at.
When Dave is playing in front of thousands of fans, here’s what he plugs in for those great tones.