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Interview: O.A.R.'s Richard On

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

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 Stranger and All 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 record All Sides because 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 the song.

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.

You rock some Teles too. What are the differences between your ’72 Thinline and ’63 Custom Shop Teles?

The Thinline works great for a lot of the heavier stuff because the pickups are a little hotter. [I use it] when I need a lot of feedback and sustain; for instance on “War Song,” I use that guitar all over that song. The ’63 Custom Shop Tele I use for a lot of the lighter stuff—the glassy and twangy kind of vibe, ya know, that traditional, old-school Tele tone. Each guitar has its own voice and character that can truly breathe more life into a song. While I think every guitar has its own place within each of our songs, I would say 80 percent of the time I’m using that ’63 John Cruz Strat.

In acoustic settings, you’ve been seen using a Taylor model. What kind is it, and what drew you to Taylor’s acoustics?

Out on tour I’m using a 314ce, which I believe is one of their lower-end models. They sound unbelievable and allow me to play whatever I need. I got linked to them through Mark Roberge [lead vocals, guitars] because he has an endorsement with Taylor. They’re great touring guitars because you can just plug and play and have no worries about tuning or other issues while going from gig to gig. Taylors are definitely my all-around favorite acoustic guitar out there.

You’re using two very different amps—the Two-Rock Signature Custom Reverb is a modern rock monster and the Fender Supersonic pulls from the ’65 Vibrolux and ’66 Bassman—how do you incorporate both into your rig live and in the studio?

I know it sounds cliché to stereotype amps by saying a Two-Rock shouldn’t be playing on a certain song, or a vintage Bassman should be on this song, but some of our songs have that vintage-y, classic rock sound and I definitely use the Fender for those jams. It’s got that unmistakable chimey tone that’s a foundation of rock.

When I need a little more power, volume and more modern tone, I turn to the Two-Rock. It has a bark all its own. However, the clean channel on my Two-Rock is fantastic and it’s the clean channel on a lot of our glassy reggae-ish, offbeat stuff. When it comes to lead tones I tend to blend the two amps. It’s just nice having those two distinct options behind me, but at the same time, its great knowing that I can blend them together to create a killer lead sound for my solos.

You play a fair amount of outdoor festival-type gigs. Why do you prefer the 60-watt Fender Hot Rod DeVilles for backline situations?

I’ve just found those amps to be the most consistent. When you’re playing with a rented backline you’re basically rolling the dice because you really never know what to expect of the gear and its quality. I mean, you never know who had the amp before you and how many beers he spilled on it. I’ve just been able to trust the sound and durability that the DeVilles crank out. When you travel with a few guitars, an on-the-go pedalboard and have to jump on stage at a festival gig, you don’t have sound checks or any prep time so it’s just plug and go. In these situations, you’re just hoping to get some kind of a tone that resembles your own rig. Thankfully, the rented DeVilles I’ve used thus far haven’t let me down. On one-off shows, it’s all about what backline amp can give me the least amount of anxiety [laughs].

What are some effects you currently have on tour that help you achieve the wide range of tones and sounds covered in O.A.R.’s songs?

The one sound or tone that is a staple in our band is Line 6’s Sweep Echo on their DL4 delay pedal. The funny thing with those pedals is that we seem to break them all the time. We have a drawer full of assorted DL4 parts from previous pedals already broken. But obviously, that sound really caught our ear and has done wonders for the band, so when one does break, we have to buy another one. We even wrote a couple of songs based solely on that sound.

Now that I’m using a foot controller and everything is MIDI, our sax player is letting me borrow his rackmount version, so hopefully I won’t be breaking stuff anymore. I also have a ‘70s Electro-Harmonix Small Stone Phase Shifter that I bought a long time ago for like $30 and its been with me since the beginning. It has needed some occasional surgery, but I’ve never heard another Small Stone like it.

Richard On's Gearbox
’63 John Cruz Fender Masterbuilt Strat
’63 Fender Custom Shop Tele
’72 Fender Thinline Tele
314ce Taylor Acoustic
100W Two-Rock Signature Custom Reverb 2x12–open back bottom
Fender Supersonic with matching 4x12 cab
2-60W Fender Hot Rod DeVille’s 4x10 (backline setup)
Buddha Bud Wah
Line 6 DL4 Delay (rackmount)
Crowther Audio Hotcake
Radial Tonebone Classic
Original Electro-Harmonix Small Stone Phase Shifter
Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail
Line 6 Tap Tremolo
ISP Decimator
RJM Music RG-16 MIDI switcher unit
As for the dirt in my signal, I’ve been using a Crowther Audio Hotcake, which I love because it’s versatile and mixes great with any amp that I put it through. Some others on my board are a Radial Tonebone Classic distortion, Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail for reverb and an ISP Decimator.

Chronicling your tone from The Wanderer to All Sides, what would you consider a trademark setup/signal chain for your signature OAR tone?

Well, it’d all have to start with that ’63 John Cruz Strat. I’ve played so many other guitars, swapped out pickups and I always come back to that Strat. Players, myself included, are always looking for new gear or something to break them out of a rut, but no matter what I’ve found, I’m always going back to that Strat. That guitar is one of the important aspects of O.A.R.’s tone.

Next in the signal chain would be the amp. Whether it’s the Two-Rock or the Fender Supersonic, I just need a big, open clean amp—just something that doesn’t tend to break up. I used to play a lot of Hiwatts because I could never get the clean to break up. I like to get my dirt and other stuff from stompboxes and rackmount gear. But ideally, the amp would come somewhere from the Fender world because you can’t beat a Fender clean. And for that one effect, like I said before, it’d have to be that Line 6 DL4 delay with the Sweep Echo feature.