“It’s nice to be home for a couple of days. I haven’t been here since January,” grins Nita Strauss when she connects with Guitar World via video link. It's been a whirlwind year for Strauss, who has well and truly been living up to her Hurricane nickname – touring American and European arenas with Alice Cooper, and then heading out with her solo band whenever a gap in her schedule presented itself.
But the big news came in July, when she dropped the bombshell that she would be not be performing on the shock rock veteran’s fall tour, and even going as far as canceling all of her own solo dates. “I’ll be on stage again much sooner than you think,” she teased, adding, “but that’s news for another day”.
Rumors soon circulated that Strauss would be joining Demi Lovato’s all-new live line-up, which was put together for a world tour to support the pop star's newest album, Holy Fvck. In turn, the record itself would supposedly take more cues from rock and guitar-based influences – a far cry from the Disney star’s past releases.
This was confirmed when Lovato and her band performed new single Substance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, with Strauss sharing an advert for Lovato’s upcoming tour dates soon after. So, how exactly did this all end up happening?
“I got the call back in May,” reveals Nita, whose studio room backdrop is packed with Ibanez headstocks. “I was on tour with my solo band opening up for Black Label Society. It was a tough tour to be on. There were a lot of cancellations. That didn’t have any bearing on my decision, but I guess it made me think what else might be out there.
“It was the very last day of that tour when I got a call saying Demi Lovato wanted to go in a rock direction and she was putting together an all-female band. They wanted to know if I’d be interested, and I thought, ‘Yeah, of course!’ What guitar player wouldn’t be excited for that kind of opportunity? Bringing this type of music that we love so much to a more mainstream audience…”
Having been in the Alice Cooper band since 2014 – a dead-cert dream gig for any rock guitar player – it wasn't a decision to be taken lightly. But when we inquire as to whether she lost any sleep over it, Strauss points out that the clickbait headlines and overzealous rumor mill may have been somewhat misleading, at least to a certain degree.
“You know, I think it’s been blown up into a much bigger decision than it was,” she admits. “There was a lot of speculation from people who didn’t have all the information about what was going on. When I got the call, I went straight to Alice in person and talked to him in his hotel room. I said, ‘Look, I have this opportunity, it doesn’t conflict with this tour but I will have to miss the fall tour. Are you cool if I go and do it?’”
With Coop’s reputation as one of the nicest rock 'n' roll stars on the planet, it’s hardly surprising to learn Strauss was given the support a player of her stature so clearly deserves. In fact, doors were even left open for a potential reunion later down the line, if the stars so aligned.
“He gave me a big hug and said, ‘Absolutely, go do it, we’ll see what happens from there, we are excited for you and proud of you.’ I think his exact words were, ‘Go and shine your light there, bring what you’ve learned to the world.’ So from my point of view, it was never like, ‘Peace, I’m out!’ I asked if I could take a step back to try this thing and Alice told me to go have fun.
“Then it became this big fiasco. Maybe in hindsight I could have made a statement making things more clear, but I didn’t really think I owed it to anybody. I wanted to try this new gig out and see where it goes from there.”
Aside from the obvious hits, what were your favorite Alice Cooper tracks to play live?
“I love the Kane Roberts tracks, like The World Needs Guts, Teenage Frankenstein or Roses On White Lace, so it was very surreal to hear that he was coming in to do the fall tour. I talk to Kane all the time, or at least a few times a month. He’ll ask me about what part I played or what tone I got. It’s so cool to think I learned these songs watching him and now he’s listening to what I did to learn the new arrangements.”
You also played on Roberts’ last solo album, which a lot of people might not know. That makes it even more full-circle, don’t you think?
“I did, yes. I played on this really cool song called King of the World. There’s so much synchronicity. We’re on the best of terms, there’s so much mutual respect and admiration. We’ve always gotten on so well. As a fan, I’m so excited to see him step into that role and play these classic Alice songs again.”
Were you following Demi Lovato’s music before this point or did you need to deep-dive as part of your homework?
“I definitely did my homework, for sure. I knew about her as a super-talented singer and had read all the same headlines everyone else had read about everything she’s gone through and achieved in life. It was interesting going back and listening to her older music, coming out of this Camp Rock and Disney world.
“You can hear a rock fan being put into a pop genre. Even as a teenager, she was writing lyrics like, ‘Who said I can’t wear my Converse with my dress?’ It was her saying, ‘Let me be me and let me rock!’ Now she’s just turned 30, she has a lot more say in her career choices and style of music. It’s exciting to be a part of bringing that vision to life.”
It looks like the reaction to your career news has gone down well – most people sound pleased to see you taking your talent to new areas and different stages.
“You and I are looking at different social media feeds! It is what it is. In a way, I feel very cared about – people are so protective of me and my career that they want to weigh in on my decisions [laughs]. If people didn’t care, they wouldn’t say anything. I’m choosing to look at the bright side of things. I’m very excited about the opportunity. I haven’t been to Brazil to play a gig since 2017. I can’t wait to crush these shows.
“And it’s not just about me, it’s an amazing all-female band: Brittany Bowman on the drums, Leanne Bowes on the bass, Dani McGinley on the keys. If we can reach this next generation of passionate and intense fans, and inspire them to play music, isn’t that a wonderful thing? They might pick up a guitar or bass, try out drums or see Dani on keys and think, ‘I could do that!’ Some of these younger fans might not have been reached through a traditional rock show.”
A lot of virtuoso guitarists have paired up with pop stars in the past, from Jennifer Batten and Greg Howe working with Michael Jackson, to Nuno Bettencourt playing with Rihanna.
“I’ve gotten to play with Jennifer. She’s amazing and it was very humbling. Yeah, there’s a long tradition of rock players in pop acts. There’s Justin Derrico with Pink, Nuno Bettencourt with Rihanna. Greg Howe did NSync as well as Michael Jackson.
“Then there’s Monte Pittman playing with Madonna while simultaneously playing with Prong, which no one seems to care about in terms of juggling both. And you know why they don’t care? Because they shouldn’t!”
Especially when he’s teaching Madonna how to play things like A New Level by Pantera, which she surprised fans with on her Sticky & Sweet tour.
“I know, that’s so crazy. It’s amazing that Monte gets to be the incredible musician he is across different genres and platforms. I’m excited to join that rank: the lucky people who get to stretch their wings and do something a little different. Demi has been taking lessons with me since we started rehearsals. She’s playing an Ibanez on stage and really going for it.
“She’s a total metalhead. I’ve been quoted saying that a lot and it’s true. We did the first gig only a few weeks ago in Springfield, Illinois. I walked past a dressing room and could hear somebody listening to Megadeth, and it was Demi. There she was, getting ready for the show.
“She’s not trying to fool anyone with air guitar or any kind of act; she’s finally being her genuine self. It’s a big move for Demi, you know? She had a very safe pop career that she didn’t need to mess with but she chose to step out and play the music she loves.”
What kind of advice and exercises have you have been giving her?
“Mainly it’s just been getting her ready for tour. We’re not going through modes or any theory yet. I want her to feel as comfortable as she can playing these songs on stage because she’s coming from a different world.
“It’s been more about practicing standing up, keeping the fretting hand in the right position. She was doing this thing a lot of younger players do, with her thumb over the neck, and strumming more over the neck than over the pickup. It was just little things like that: the building blocks of riffing.”
It makes sense for her to leave the blistering harmonic minor shred to you... that’s what you’re known for, after all.
“She’s not doing that on this tour, but maybe next time. She’s a very good learner, which surprised me because I’ve taught in the past and I’ve never had a student who didn’t need to be told the same thing twice.
“Eventually, one thing will leave their mind and you’ll need to remind them, ‘Don’t forget, keep your thumb at the back!’ With Demi, I’ve only told her things once and she gets it. She’ll retain that information and instruction like a sponge, which is really cool.”
What are the main differences for you as a player? It feels like the Alice Cooper set is more classic rock and ultimately blues-based, while your new gig might fit in closer to the punk world.
“It’s really interesting playing through so many years of Demi’s catalog. The early stuff is more Paramore-sounding pop-punk. The middle years were her bread and butter years – Heart Attack, Sorry Not Sorry or Cool For The Summer. They weren’t simple songs, but they were more straightforward in terms of guitar chords.
“This new record is so riff-y and heavy, there’s so much interesting stuff going on guitar-wise. Tying it all together with Demi’s Musical Director, Stacy Jones, has been so much fun – taking that middle era of music into something that makes sense with the current stuff.
“We couldn’t just do Sorry Not Sorry as recorded on the album because it wouldn’t have fit in with this rock show. Everything has been 'rockified'. Solos, double kick drums and more have been added, with Demi singing her ass off.”
Clearly, it’s time to crank the gain.
“We’re definitely cranking things up. The first time I went to Demi’s house, she had an amp with no distortion channel. I ended up leaving my practice amp there for her to use, one of those little battery-operated Nux ones. Marshall just sent her a Code 50, so now she’s got that to crank. It’s like rule number one for a guitar player: get a Marshall and turn it up loud!”
And how is your rig looking – is there anything new or different to the Alice Cooper shows?
“It’s actually the exact same rig. I took my same Kemper and kept the same sounds. There are definitely more tones in this set. With Alice, it was mainly one block of five sounds: clean, rhythm, rhythm with a little distortion, a lead and then a lead with a wah.
“With Demi, there are so many different tones, like a brighter JCM800-ish sound with the gain turned really low that I need a lot. It’s not something I would have dialed in outside of this gig, but it works so well for spanky or washy cleaner tones. There are also a lot of long delays and big reverbs, so we’ve had so much fun experimenting with the tones.
“There’s an octaver on some of the new album solos, which I haven’t used much before, so I’ve been enjoying that. It’s more interesting guitar-wise than a lot of people might think. The Kemper is doing everything with the Mission Control on the floor and my [signature Ibanez] JIVA models are my workhorse.”
We’re guessing pickup positions two and four have been coming in handier than ever, right?
“I haven’t used position two this much in my entire life [laughs]. There are times when our MD might say, ‘Can you clean that tone up a little bit?’ and I’ll just click it over and it’s perfect. Position two to the rescue! Being the only guitar player is also very new for me. I’ve been playing in two- or three-guitar bands my whole life.
“It’s interesting being the one that has to cover everything instead of organizing which octaves to play with other people. I might think, ‘If only one of these parts get played, which one is it going to be?’ It’s tightened my rhythm playing up so much because it’s just me. There’s nothing else there to mask any imperfections.”
You just released a new song called Summer Storm. With its brutal beatdowns, Phrygian Dominant shred and blazing pentatonic runs, it seems to have everything people would want from a Nita Strauss song.
“I feel like on both of my albums there’s one track that seems to encompass everything that I’m about as a player. For the first album it was Our Most Desperate Hour and for this one it’s Summer Storm. And I agree, it really covers all the bases of my playing. Everything that makes me sound like me. It’s catchy, shreddy, emotional and a little chaotic.
“It tells a story. After the success of Dead Inside with David Draiman, I think everyone else – from my label to a lot of my fans – expected another vocal song next. But I love surprising people and wanted to stay true to who I am as a player, which is why it was time for another instrumental.”
Speaking of which, there’s a great arc to the solo you played on Dead Inside – that opening line pedals off the perfect fifth and ‘cries’ by bending the second up to a minor third, building and building from there…
“Yeah, I probably learned that kind of stuff from Marty Friedman. When I write solos, I’ll improvise several times and then start refining it, taking this beginning and linking to this other middle part. I’ll eventually get to a whole thing and record it properly. And what ended up on the final recording was my first pass after having pieced those parts together. I looked at the producer and we both felt it sounded cool. It came out very organically.”
In terms of technique, what are you working on right now? Is there a current drill or exercise?
“To be honest, all my practice time has been in tour prep recently. I’m always rehearing for the next tour while still on the previous one. I started my year on my solo tour, while getting ready for the Alice tour. I went to that and was rehearsing for the next solo tour. Then I finished that and got back on an Alice tour, learning songs for the Demi tour. And now that’s just started.
“My practice time has been just trying to keep my head out of the water. There’s always so much to learn on guitar. I just barely have time to do it.”
Is there a style you’re hoping to spend more time on when you do get the opportunity, like Al Di Meola-ish flamenco or gypsy jazz à la Django Reinhardt?
“Oh, totally. Flamenco is always something I want to get better at. I was first exposed to it through Steve Stevens’ Flamenco A Go-Go album, which is a total masterpiece. That’s my dinner party album – if I’m having people over, we will definitely end up listening to it. I enjoy it so much and would love to learn more of that kind of stuff, as well as jazz.
“I’d love to improve my metal playing, too. There’s still so much to learn. I’m a more left hand-dominant player, using a lot of legato and fast trills. I’d love to catch my right hand up and get more into economy picking. I do a little, but I could do more. It’s a never-ending quest, this instrument that we love so much. It’s a lifelong affair.”
- Head over to Demi Lovato's website to find out when Nita Strauss will next be performing live.