Since REO Speedwagon’s arrival on the scene 40-plus years ago, the band has seen a lot of musical changes. Touring relentlessly through the Midwest in the 1970s, they finally broke through, scoring a pair of No. 1 hits in the 1980s. They also had the bestselling rock album of 1981, Hi Infidelity.
Some might even say they were the originators of the term “power ballad."
And although the band also has gone through a few personnel changes over the years, they never cease to bring their lineup of hits to eager fans every year.
The band, which includes Kevin Cronin (vocals, rhythm guitar), Dave Amato (guitars), Bruce Hall (bass), Neal Doughty (keyboards) and Bryan Hitt (drums), performed 96 shows last year and are on pace to do an equal amount in 2014, including a summer co-headlining tour with Chicago.
I caught up with Amato, who recently celebrated 25 years with REO Speedwagon. I asked him to reflect on his career with REO and his affection for guitars and vintage gear. He also told me about an important lesson he learned from his early years working with Ted Nugent.
GUITAR WORLD: Twenty-five years with REO Speedwagon. What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think about that?
I think brothers. We've been together for 25 years, and these guys are my friends and my brothers. It's great playing with them every night.
Can you tell me the story of how you joined the band?
My friend Jesse Harms was a keyboard player in Sammy Hagar's band and was also writing songs with Kevin [Cronin]. Gary [Richrath] wasn't with the band anymore and they were looking for a guitar player. They didn't want to put out a “cattle call” for people in LA, so Jesse mentioned me to Kevin and they gave me a few songs to see what I could do with them. I remember I went in on a Friday around 1 p.m. We played a few of the songs together and then played a little basketball. Then we went back in and jammed again until around 5. That was when they offered me a spot in the band. It’s a good story and was just meant to be.
Did you ever imagine you'd still be doing this 25 years later?
My span of doing things with someone had always been about two or three years. With Ted Nugent, it was three and a half years, and I thought that was a pretty good run. I remember thinking that if I could do that with REO it would be great, then I might go on to do something else. But here we are now 25 years later and it's still just as exciting as day one.
What can you tell me about the band’s upcoming tour with Chicago?
We’ve never toured with them before so it's going to be great. We’ll each be doing our own sets and then we're all going to go on stage together and do three of their songs and three of ours. We're really excited about it.
Let’s talk a little gear. In particular, your new Murphy Les Pauls.
They're shiny, brand-new Les Pauls and I just love them. Tom Murphy is contracted by Gibson and he just ages them to look like they're about 50 years old. They appear distressed and beaten up and just have a killer look. I know Joe Perry, Brad Whitford and my buddy Derek St. Holmes all own a few as well.
You have close to 100 vintage guitars in your collection. What do you like most about vintage instruments?
I love the vibe of the old guitars. There’s just something about the pickups, the sound and the aging of the wood that makes them so cool.
You’re also a big fan of the vintage Marshall JCM800 series.
I started using them in the mid-Eighties and have never looked back. There’s nothing like them. I used them all with Nugent, Cher and [Richie] Sambora. I think I have about 15 heads, it's crazy [laughs]. About the only thing that comes close to the 800’s are the Joe Satriani heads Marshall makes.
Has there ever been a turning point moment in your early career?
It would have to be my first show with Ted Nugent at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. We were on the bill with Bon Jovi, Deep Purple, the Scorpions and Night Ranger in front of 91,000 people. I remember we didn’t even do any shows beforehand, all we did was rehearse. I even remember asking Ted if we were going to do any shows: a little club, anything, just to warm up. But he said, "No! I like to break my boys in right!" [laughs]. Ted likes to challenge you, and for us, it was either make it or break it. For that particular moment in my career, I knew I had to make it.
I remember being so nervous but I got through it and it was a great show. Then afterwards I just said, "You know what? I can do anything now!" I learned a lot and was happy to be there. It was a big moment in my career.
What excites you the most about being part of REO Speedwagon?
Our friendship. It's a good friendship and we make really great music together and it shows. We're working on new material and getting excited about new things every day. We don't just want to lay on the past. We want to go forward. There have been many hills and valleys over these last 25 years, but we're still here and better than ever. It's been a great ride, and it's nowhere near over.
James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.