All-American Guitar Player
By Paul Hanson
Navigating through the history of rock, Rick Derringer has played on, sang, produced, and/or written some of the biggest guitar hits of a generation. Classic songs he’s been involved with include “Hang On Sloopy” with the ’60s band The McCoys, “Frankenstein” with The Edgar Winter Group, “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo” as a solo artist, and many others.
I caught up with Rick by phone as he was traveling to the 2011 Dallas International Guitar Festival, and we discussed his long and fascinating career for a recent BOSS Tone Radio podcast. To listen to the complete conversation and clips of his music, visit www.BossUS.com/Podcasts.
The following is an excerpt from our talk.
Are you en route to the Dallas guitar show as we speak?
We are headed to the Dallas International Guitar Show, which we’ve done so many times it feels like the Rick Derringer International Guitar Show. [Laughs.]
When you’re at a show like that with all those vintage guitars, do you ever walk by a guitar and think, “I remember having a guitar like that,” and then buy it?
No. [Laughs.] I walk by the guitars and say, “I remember having a guitar like that, but you know what? Now it’s just an old guitar.” I like a lot of the new ones. I feel like people are recreating what was good about the old ones and taking them a step further.
Do you still have the Les Paul that you played in Johnny Winter’s band?
No. I have an old Strat that I played in the band called Derringer. We used that on the Derringer Live album. I have one that’s very similar to the Les Pauls I used to have in those days, and I have [a guitar] that’s very close to the ES-355 Gibson, the red one that I played in those days.
That’s the guitar you played in the ’60s with The McCoys, right?
Did Chuck Berry influence you when you were growing up?
Chuck was certainly one of them, James Burton…but, you know, I liked Les Paul, Chet Atkins, Wes Montgomery, and Merle Travis—all those kind of guys, too.
You were in The McCoys as a teenager in the ’60s. You’re having fun, and all of a sudden you have the number one record in the country with “Hang On Sloopy.” What was that like?
Well, my parents were very pragmatic. They told me that I’d never be able to make a living as a guitarist, so plan for something else, plan for another job. I was enrolled in the Dayton Institute, a five-year art school. I had just graduated [from high school] and I was supposed to start school in September.
But of all things, in August, we met these producers that asked me and the rest of the band to come to New York and record “Hang On Sloopy.” It was well on its way to becoming number one in plenty of time for me to go, “You know what? It looks like I’m not going to be able to go to that five-year art school.” [Laughs.]
You toured with Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band last summer along with your old band mate Edgar Winter. Was that fun?
Oh yeah, it was great. Edgar and I play on the same concert [bill] all of the time, my band and his band. But we very seldom get to play together in one band. And with Edgar’s band, he goes way over the top. He stretches “Frankenstein” so it’s 20 minutes long at least, “Tobacco Road” longer. Ringo likes [the songs] to be pretty much the length of the records, so it’s great—people get to hear the song the way it was recorded, with the people who recorded it. It was a really fun gig.
Do you guys have a tour bus, or do you fly in a jet to the shows?
We all fly together. Ringo plans the concerts very well, so there’ll be one central location for five or six days. We’ll fly in and out of that location for the shows during that period, and then we go on to another location. It’s very well planned, and you get to feel what it was like to be a Beatle.
Let’s go back to the ’70s. You’re in The McCoys, and somehow you met Johnny Winter and joined his band. How did that all come about?
It was around 1969; The McCoys were looking to gain credibility, and Johnny Winter was looking to branch into a little more rock. We met up and decided that it was a good match and we started playing together about ’69, and it was really good. We played together until [Johnny] checked himself into rehab, at which time I had already been working with Edgar Winter producing some of his records. So I called Edgar up and said, “Well, it looks like I’m free.” I became the guitarist in Edgar Winter’s White Trash at that time.
Would you and Johnny ever hang out in the hotel room and trade licks or just jam?
Yeah. I had already been playing the slide guitar in standard guitar tuning, and Johnny showed me a couple different tunings: the G tuning and the E chord tuning. It really helped me a lot with my slide guitar playing. Beyond that, I tried to steal every lick I could. [Laughs.]
In addition to being a great guitar player, you’re also a producer. One incredible album you produced was They Only Come Out at Night by The Edgar Winter Group.
Well, when I joined Johnny Winter’s band I started producing at that time for him. I produced the Johnny Winter And record and Live Johnny Winter And, and three other albums for Johnny. I had already produced Edgar Winter’s White Trash and the White Trash Roadwork album, which was the live record. I’d already produced everything that Edgar and Johnny had done by that time that was gold or platinum. So, it was obvious when he started the band that would do “Frankenstein” and “Free Ride” and those things that I would be the producer.
I heard you guys weren’t even planning on putting “Frankenstein” on the record. As it was happening, did you think it was going to be a hit?
You never have an idea about that, frankly. But Bill Szymczyk (producer of the Eagles, B.B. King, and others), who was my engineer on that project, and I, we liked the whole album. It was really good, but we really looked forward to doing that big instrumental, “Frankenstein,” which is what it ended up being called.
Somewhere in the middle of the project, the record company came in, and they’re always looking after what they think is the right thing to do. They advised us that they didn’t think that song should be on the record; they said it really doesn’t fit with the rest of the album. And Bill and I both looked at each other and said, “You’ve got to be kidding.” [Laughs.]
So we ended up telling them, “We’re going to put it on the record, we think it’ll work. Don’t worry, guys.” And certainly it did work—it became a platinum single, and it was nominated for the GRAMMY® for Instrumental of the Year.
I remember hearing that for the first time. It was so intense, and the riffs were so cool. And the synth—I had never heard synthesizers do that before.
Well, it hadn’t. Edgar was one of the first guys that said, “We can take this instrument and do a little more with it.” He took it to a whole new level.
I bought your All American Boy album in 1973. At that point, it was your band. Did you like having your own band and not being a side artist?
Well, yeah. Certainly, I did. But Edgar and I had done so much work together at that point, we decided that rather than me have my own band [on tour], we’d just go out and join forces. It was actually billed as The Edgar Winter Group featuring Rick Derringer at that time. But yeah, it’s always good to be your own boss.
I remember that red Strat on the cover. I don’t think it had the Fender name on it, so I was always wondering if that was a Fender.
Yeah, it was a Fender, but somebody had done quite a bit of work on it. They’d put a pretty funky bridge on it. It wasn’t the best guitar ever, but it really looked good in a photo. [Laughs.] That guitar ended up being owned by a guitar store in Chicago, and I know several years ago they had it on the auction block for $80,000. I don’t know if they got that or if it went for more.
Have you used BOSS pedals over the years?
Do you have any favorites?
Well, all the BOSS pedals. BOSS does a really good job. They’ve been there doing that for about as long as anybody, and they do it really well. But I’ve got to tell you that we always go back to that BOSS [TU-3] tuner. There are lots of tuners out there and BOSS makes a really good one. It’s accurate and it’s easy to use. It takes a lot of rough handling and it still keeps ticking and we keep going back to that BOSS tuner. Even now, I’m getting a brand new one any minute. [Ed. Note: Rick was getting a TU-1000.]
The chorus pedal is another one that is very usable. [Ed. Note: Current BOSS chorus pedals are the CE-5 and CH-1.] Chorus pedals can be very finicky things. Some of them sound good and some of them really don’t. BOSS makes a really usable one that works in a lot of different ways. It always sounds very musical.
Do you ever use it on solos?
I’ve used it over the years. You know, I use them more on rhythm parts and background parts than solos.
Do you have any advice for guitar players?
Here’s what I always tell guitar players that ask for advice—the best thing, the first thing you should learn is: don’t leave your wallet in the dressing room! [Laughs.] And don’t leave your favorite guitar in the car when you park it. Either of those are big no-nos.
That’s really good advice, Rick. Thanks for talking with me.
Thank you so much.