On, with his '72 Tele Thinline. Photo: Joe Scalfaro
Guitarist Richard On is the first to admit that in the beginning he never imagined his band, O.A.R., reaching the heights that it has. For a guy brought up on piano and high school basement gigs, he has a lot to be proud of. O.A.R. is playing Madison Square Garden on August 15, armed with gear to match—a Fender Custom Shop’63 Strat replica Masterbuilt by John Cruz.

The band’s name, O.A.R., stands for Of A Revolution. From their high-school days to playing college parties for beer, to two top-40 albums (Stories of a StrangerandAll Sides) and stadium gigs, it’s safe to say that over the past 13 years the band—and On’s playing—have experienced a revolution of their own.

We caught up with On during their summer tour to talk about his Fenders, getting his signature tone, and bonding with the band.

So how does a group of friends in the Rockville, Maryland-area stick with a band through high school and college, eventually making a living doing what you started just as a hobby?

This was something that was always a pipe dream for us. It was nothing that we took seriously until we got to school and we realized we had a small but loyal following. The days of playing in our drummer’s basement and for a few friends… it was getting to be more than that. When we got to OSU and toured the local circuit, we realized that people were actually listening to us—we weren’t just background noise at the bars. That’s when we took it more seriously and really started paying attention to our instrumentation, overall sound and crafting our songs. Everything just became more important… [laughs] and here we are.

What are some other things that have resulted from playing with the same group of guys for more than 10 years?

I think the biggest benefit of our band playing together for that long is the trust we have when in the studio. If you’re in there with a group of guys that you sincerely trust and you have a bond with them, it truly shows in the final product. I think people can listen to albums and feel if the songs were put together by musicians who were either just thrown together, working with one another for the first time or just didn’t get a real good feel for each other. I think it’s transparent. But with us, the comfort level has always been there because we were friends before we really started jamming. We’re still great friends, and I think that shows in our last recordAll Sidesbecause it comes through rock solid in the music.

How has this bond changed the songwriting and recording process?

The first record we recorded,The Wanderer… it’s even hard to say it’s a record because that was a jam session in high school and we didn’t have a clue what the hell to do. We literally took [bassist] Benj’s credit card, swiped $500 off it, went into this guy’s basement and just recorded what we could. That’s a reason why “Poker” is such a long song. It’s because we honestly had no idea on how that song was going to work or how it would even end. We pretty much just had the hook and chorus figured out and the rest was just kind of a spontaneous jam. Literally, when Mark sang, “I don’t know what to say anymore” in the song, it was because he was making the lyrics up as we were recording.

Back then, we had no idea about the craft of songwriting, and we definitely didn’t take it too seriously because we were just having a lot of fun. Somehow that song and record just translated and spoke to a lot of other people. It’s definitely not the tones or the playing that grab people. It’s really hard for me to listen to. I think it is the innocence and honesty of that song that just took on a life of its own.

I think the more we recorded, the more we realized that we want to say as much as possible without making it too long or overbearing. Everything within the song has to matter. We dissect all parts of the song and make sure it has to be there. The longest song on our newest record is “War Song,” and we knew that we wanted to make that an epic song. The song was based on a USO tour we did in Iraq, and it was a long trip and we experienced a lot of things. Because of that, we knew that this song would be very meaningful and be the longest on the record. But even so, we scrutinized each part and made sure it had a relevant place in thesong.

On with John Cruz Masterbuilt '63 Strat.
Photo: Joe Scalfaro
Let’s talk guitars. Tell me about your ’63 John Cruz Masterbuilt Fender Strat. How did you get your hands on it?

Well, first off, I definitely don’t deserve the right to own or even play that ’63 Strat. I don’t even know how John even considered building me that guitar. My contact at Fender, Billy Siegle, who I always with about the specs and sounds I want from my guitars, said, “why don’t I introduce you to John and see if he can build you the guitar you’re talking about.” I was like, “You’re shitting me?!” And Billy said, “No way man, he’s very cool and completely down to Earth.” So John and I started exchanging emails and phone calls.

My friend Bob had this original ’63 Strat and he let me borrow it and I fell in love with it. I didn’t have $30,000 floating around to buy it, plus I can’t say I’d be willing to bring that all over the country on tour with us. He let me borrow the ’63 neck, and I sent it to John Cruz, who replicated it and built me the ’63 Strat based around Bob’s original neck. The guitar that John built me and the original one that Bob owns feel exactly the same in my hands. It’s amazing.