Photo: Danny Clinch
Years ago, when I worked for the Guild Guitar Company in Elizabeth, NJ, you called one day looking for an old, extinct Guild effects box that we no longer made. What was that?
It was called the Rotoverb. It was a Leslie simulator that Guild used to sell back in the late sixties. I always liked them and was trying to find a couple more that I thought you guys might have lying around.
How do you integrate yourself into the sound of the E Street Band with both Bruce and Steven playing electric?
I’ve become the “swingman” in the band, by playing lap steel, pedal steel, Dobro and bottleneck guitar. With Bruce and Steven playing electric, and Patti (Scialfa, Bruce’s wife) and Soozie (Tyrell, violin and acoustic guitar) playing acoustic, we don’t always need five guitar players, so I started playing everything else. I have some beautiful Carter pedal steel guitars, and some terrific resonator guitars. A friend of mine sent me a couple of great old lap steels. He has a huge collection of them.
How did you get the Springsteen gig?
I followed Bruce on the same circuit of clubs, concert halls and recording studios over the years and we established a friendship. It was a great honor for me to join that band. I think that Bruce is the greatest bandleader in rock ‘n’ roll history. He’s a pleasure to work with. He knows how to prepare you so you can go out and play with passion and commitment. The E Street gig is a highly improvisational thing, and Bruce lets you create freely in that environment.
What made you pick up a guitar in the first place? Was it seeing The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show?
Yes, it was.
I knew it. How did you progress from there?
I had ten years of classical piano and accordion training from the age of six, so I had a musical background, and never would have become a rock guitarist if it weren’t for that training. I picked up an old acoustic guitar we had around the house, and my brother Tom, who was a member of Grin, taught me my first chords. It was The Beatles’ songs, their arrangements, and the way they put their songs across that opened Pandora’s box for me. I discovered blues, Tamla/ Motown, Stax/Volt R&B, British Invasion, folk, country, and so much more, listening to The Stones and Beatles.
Who were your guitar influences?
Well, Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix, of course. I followed the Jeff Beck Group throughout their US tour for the Truth album. I still think Jeff’s the greatest living guitarist. I liked Roy Buchanan early on and got to know him. I also liked Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, Muddy Waters, and B.B. and Albert King. Grin did a gig once with Moby Grape, and their lead guitarist, Jerry Miller, was a monster player. He was using Marshall amps and a big, old Gibson hollowbody jazz guitar. I liked Stevie Ray Vaughan too. All those guitarists were the “soup” that helped me form my style.
Grin recorded several albums and had some success, and then you embarked on a solo career in the seventies. You’ve always managed to balance your solo career with that of a sideman. How do you do it?
When the E Street Band plays, I’m there, and when they’re not, I do my solo thing. It’s not hard. I have a great website that’s managed for me, and complete freedom to do what I want, musically speaking. When I’m with Bruce, I’m not the leader, like I am with my own band. I like not being the leader for a change.
Your list of credits as a sideman is impressive. You seem like a classic overachiever.
I’m not an overachiever; I just love making music, love the live musical environment and putting out a passionate, emotional, positive, and spiritual performance for the audience. I think I’m a great team player. I love the experience of being in a band. I’m happy banging on a tambourine and singing harmonies if that’s what’s needed.
Photo: Mark Hendrickson
I was invited to one of Ringo’s birthday parties. He had a room set up as a studio and a place to jam. I didn’t get to play until late at night, but afterwards, Ringo and I talked things over and remained friendly. He and his wife Barbara used to come to my gigs. In 1989, he asked me to become part of his All- Starr Band, and we did two tours together. Joe Walsh was in that band, too. It was one of the greatest band experiences I ever had.
Your new CD, The Loner: Nils Sings Neil, is a tribute to your friend, Neil Young. Can you tell us how you managed to hook up with him to record After The Gold Rush at age seventeen?
I went to see Neil and Crazy Horse four times at the Cellar Door club in Washington, DC, and they were incredible. I used to sneak into clubs and concerts, seek musicians out and ask their advice. Neil was very kind to me. He bought me a hamburger and a Coke, and we talked and started a friendship. Grin had decided to move to Los Angeles, and Neil gave me his number and told me to look him up when I got out there, so I did. One thing led to another, and I wound up recording with him and touring as part of his band.
And you used Neil’s old Martin D-18 to record that CD, didn’t you?
Yes. When After The Gold Rush was finished, Neil gave me the guitar as a gift for helping him out on the album, and also because I didn’t own an acoustic guitar. It’s my most treasured guitar.