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Jam buddies and neighbors Adrian Smith and Richie Kotzen on swapping guitars, blues phrasing and the secret to successful collaboration

Smith/Kotzen
(Image credit: John McMurtie)

It’s telling that the new collaboration between Iron Maiden’s Adrian Smith and genre-hopping virtuoso Richie Kotzen was one born out of friendship. 

On the pair’s new album, titled simply Smith/Kotzen, the way their vocals and guitars trade off is much like a conversation, each telling their own bluesy chapter in the unfolding story.  

Adrian is often considered the most technically driven of Maiden’s guitar trio, and has played a central role in evolving the metal genre into what it is today, while Richie has progressed from his roots as an 80s shredder and one-time member of glam rock stars Poison to make a series of modern soul-tinged solo albums in which he marries his sky-scraping voice with finger-twisting fusion lines and improv blues to stunning effect.  

As fate would have it, Adrian buying a house in close proximity to Richie’s is what got the pair initially acquainted... 

“I bought a place in California seven or eight years ago,” Adrian explains. “And obviously there’s a great music scene in LA and everyone knows everyone. I was vaguely aware of Richie from the early bands he played in, but hearing him do all this bluesy rock and sing was very cool. I think maybe 20 years ago someone brought one of his solo albums to a barbecue and I was impressed then. 

“It was actually Pat Cash, the tennis player, who is a big fan of Richie’s! We met a lot later through mutual friends and got to know each other a bit, doing Stevie Ray Vaughan and Bad Company songs in my jam room. My wife said we should get together and try to do some writing, see what happens...” 

For Kotzen, who once told TG he wore his Iron Maiden shirt to school like it was uniform, it’s been quite an experience. 

“To now have an album out with someone like Adrian is pretty darn cool,” he says. “I would have The Number Of The Beast as my wake-up song in the mornings, ‘Woe to you, oh earth and sea!’ I would start every day like that. Over the years we’ve had various jam sessions and dinners, just socialising whenever Adrian would be in Los Angeles. There was a lot of common ground to build a foundation from, everything just fell into place...”

You’ve both mainly played in standard tuning over the years, so it’s interesting you chose to record this half a step down…

Richie: ”That’s an interesting point. And yeah, I’m generally in 440, although there was one album I did called Get Up that had some songs a whole step down. It just happened out of picking up a guitar and it already being tuned to that. On this album I guess being a semitone down gave it a heavier tone...”

My new 100-watt Victory signature ended up being the main one for most of the record. It’s loud, powerful, clean and sings well. I’ve really fallen for this amp

Adrian: ”And some tracks like Running have the E-string tuned down even further. It is a driving rock song but having that low string in it gives a bit of a modern twist. It does sound a bit more metal, yeah, which is great! Of course, it was also helpful for the singing because it gives you a bit more range.”

What were the main amps used during the sessions? 

Richie: ”My new 100-watt Victory signature ended up being the main one for most of the record, we were plugging into it quite a bit. For me, it was 100% Victory. It’s loud, powerful, clean and sings well. I’ve really fallen for this amp.” 

Adrian: ”To be honest, because of how we recorded, I didn’t have access to all my gear. It was in a warehouse in England and getting it out of storage would have been a real pain. I used Richie’s Victory and my Marshall DSL a bit too – you always get a good sound out of a Marshall. 

I think when guitars are new, it takes a while for the wood to settle down. You get intonation and tuning problems, which I’ve had with the Goldtop, but now it just never goes out of tune

Adrian Smith

”I had a wine-red Les Paul Standard and my favourite green Jackson, the new one I used on the last Maiden tour... And that’s it! I didn’t have any effects so I ended up going through whatever Richie had. He ended up using more and I kept it pretty straight.

”I did use a bit of wah on Taking My Chances and chorus on Scars, where I was trying to get that eerie Soundgarden-y effect. I didn’t have a lot to choose from, but in some ways keeping it simple is good. After all, it should mainly come from the fingers!”

So your prized ’72 Goldtop didn’t make the record? 

Adrian: ”No, sadly that one was also over in England. I just didn’t have access to it, but it’s still one of the best guitars I’ve owned. I bought it as a teenager and when I first got home with it I was frustrated because I didn’t immediately sound like Gary Moore [laughs]. 

”I was only 19, I quickly realised there’s a lot more work in between getting a Les Paul and making it sound good. But that guitar has aged really well. I think when guitars are new, it takes a while for the wood to settle down. 

”You get intonation and tuning problems, which I’ve had with the Goldtop, but now it just never goes out of tune. The wood is seasoned! I had the same problem with a new Les Paul Custom, the intonation and tuning was terrible but 10 years on that guitar plays like a dream.

Richie, you’ve used Leslie sounds in the past – but it sounds like you kicked in the rotary mode on your Tech 21 Fly Rig quite a bit more this time round... 

Richie: ”Yeah, I guess I went a little berserk with it [laughs]. And you nailed it, the Fly Rig is what you’re hearing. In the old days, I would have had the Leslie mic’d up and I also had this Mesa/Boogie rotating speaker cabinet. But on this album, I actually used the pedal. Maybe subconsciously, I may have wanted to mix the tones. 

The Telecaster can be a very versatile guitar, especially my signature – you can really do a lot of damage with that thing because of the bridge pickup

Richie Kotzen

”I tend to go back and forth between the Tele and the Strat, this one was pretty down the middle. The Telecaster can be a very versatile guitar, especially my signature – you can really do a lot of damage with that thing because of the bridge pickup.

”The Strat is expressive in a different way, because there’s the option of the tremolo. And interestingly, towards the end my brain was moving faster than my body so rather than setting up my own guitar, I ended up grabbing Adrian’s Jackson!

”He already had a tone dialled in so I did a couple of leads using that. Listening back to those leads, I felt like I was hearing the 18 year-old Shrapnel-era Richie Kotzen because I got a little crazy with the tremolo arm. You can do things on that which you can’t with a traditional Strat. I was digging the way it played, it’s badass!

Adrian: ”It was quite something watching him do that close up [laughs]. I think because of that whammy bar, he really got into using my guitar...”

Adrian, there’s a really powerful rhythmic delay at the beginning of the Running solo – which nods back to some of your late-80s tones... 

Adrian: ”We had the chord sequence for that breakdown and I just thought of this guitarist called Pat Thrall who used to play with Pat Travers. He used to do a lot of things with delay – this was back in the day before U2 – with all these repeating lead lines. It’s great on record but it can be very hit or miss live. 

”I did it on a Maiden track called Moonchild many years ago and to recreate it live you have to play at exactly the same tempo... which, as any player can imagine, can be very difficult – especially when you’re in a band and everyone’s getting carried away. 

”When we recorded that track with Maiden, the way I had my rig set up at the time was one cab dry and one wet. Of course, they didn’t mic the wet one, so for my solo, there was no delay on it. I guess it was a bit like that Bill Bailey sketch, where he plays The Edge without effects! [Laughs] It can be a bit like that when you’re not careful. But when it works, it’s a great little trick.”

Smith/Kotzen

(Image credit: John McMurtie)

Taking My Chances features some great cues, like the opening tapping riff and the unison line before the solo section... 

Adrian: ”The intro I play is actually a pretty simple part. We already had the riff but put that intro on afterwards, thinking it would set it all up nicely. Especially as it was the first track on the album, we almost wanted a bit more of an overture.” 

Richie: ”The line before the solo is a bit left-field! We wanted to do something a bit crazy to open the solo. I got into that stuff back in the day when I was listening to David Lee Roth’s first record [Eat ‘Em And Smile] with Steve Vai and Billy Sheehan doing all these amazing unison licks. 

”That specific line is quite interesting, because if you were to write it out, it would be quarter-note triplets. But because of how it’s phrased, we’re really pulling it back. It became this really feel-oriented thing, in order to create this musical tension.”

Adrian, this is quite possibly the bluesiest album you’ve put your name to. Which players left the biggest mark on you? 

Adrian: ”When I was a kid, it wasn’t so much the original ones, but more the people who were influenced by them. Players like Gary Moore, Pat Travers, Johnny Winter, Brian Robertson, Scott Gorham. They were sort of second-generation, influenced by the old blues guys but passing it on. That’s just the way it goes. But I went back and listened to the originals and was blown away.

”BB King was amazing, lovely playing just because of the phrasing of the notes. Eric Clapton, too – if you think about him versus Eddie Van Halen, you’ll probably think Van Halen was a far superior guitarist, but Clapton’s phrasing is perfect. He puts every note in exactly the right place, which is really difficult to do. I’ve been trying for years, aspiring to that idea of clean phrasing and maximum effect.”

I’ve almost gone back more to playing pentatonics these days. I have tried to get into jazz, but to me it’s like mathematics!

Adrian Smith

But as for the busier lines, what’s the secret to getting so much mileage out of the humble blues scale?

Adrian: ”It’s interesting, I think it’s a scale that hit you in the gut and will always be the simple go-to. But it depends how you play it, one person might play a lick and it will sound okay, someone else might play it and it might sound fantastic. It comes down to feel and where you place the notes, what you’re playing over and so many other things. 

”I feel like I’ve almost gone back more to playing pentatonics these days. I do like to use other scales and mix it up, but that’s always the main attack. You just know, that’s the blues scale, that’s the one that hits you in the chest. I have tried to get into jazz, but to me it’s like mathematics!”

  • Adrian Smith and Richie Kotzen's Smith/Kotzen is out now via BMG.