That Metal Gear: Ted Nugent Talks About His First Guitars + Guitar Heroes!

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This season on That Metal Show we’re talking to some of the greatest guitarists and bassists in hard rock and heavy metal and finding out how they got started on their instruments and what gear they use to get their outrageous sounds. Few guitarists out there are more outrageous than the Motor City Madman, Ted Motherf’ing Nugent. The Nuge was kind enough to talk to us about his first guitars and guitar heroes and how he strangles those “howling, tortured guitar, animal dying sounds” out of his trademark Gibson Byrdlands on some of the most enduring hard rock classics of all time. This is an epic interview and the longest installment of That Metal Gear we’ve run so far, but Ted deserves it. He’s got a lot to say and all of it is worth hearing. We promise you will not be bored when he starts talking.

VH1: What was your first guitar?

Ted Nugent: There I was, born in 1948, just a few years after the Les Paul creation. One of the great mysteries that has not been delved into or celebrated or saluted anywhere near adequately enough is how did Dick Dale and The Ventures and Duane Eddy and Lonnie Mack and certainly Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry figure it out so quickly? How did they get those tones within the first few moments of electrifying the guitar? How did they so powerfully and emotionally and authoritatively discover those electric guitar tones with the first prototypes of amplification and speakers and guitars and pickups that to this day in 2014 everyone is trying to duplicate? Everyone just about turned summersaults inside out trying to get those vintage tones on the first “Wham” and “Suzie Q” and what Chuck did on that first Byrdland. My point being, I was just born at the right time. I missed The Alamo & Iwo Jima and Normandy Beach but I’m making up for it today. It was uncharted territory. We often hear about the road less traveled. We’re talking about no roads untraveled. We’re talking about the Louis & Clark of guitar adventure and exploration.

Now this is the long winded, Nugent-style answer. My Aunt Nancy, my Mom’s sister, at a young age, probably just out of teenage years, was a stewardess on domestic and commercial airlines on which someone left a beat-up old, absolute classic piece-of-crap, as cheap as cheap can get, acoustic guitar. This was around 1953. I was five going on six and was already getting wind of the sonic stimuli of these new electric guitar hits. So I took this piece of crap acoustic guitar, which was a a gift from God,  and I naturally started emulating these sounds and gestures and just beat on the guitar for a couple years and then expressed to my parents that I wanted to play guitar. And that’s when I started taking lessons at the age about seven or eight.

That first guitar just didn’t play right, so my Dad, God bless him, because he was extremely frugal, bought for about $20, a beautiful blonde Epiphone hollow body not unlike what The Everly Brothers used, though they used mostly Gibsons. It was blonde and had that spruce top which already gave me tones I couldn’t identify but somehow appreciated. But the action was terrible. It was not a cut away. So it was kind of a bittersweet experience. I wanted a Fender. I wanted what The Ventures had. I wanted the electric. But, again I was just a kid. I went from a worthless acoustic 5 1/2 stringer to a really pretty but very difficult to play giant Epiphone hollow body and that took me into the time I was probably 10 or 11.

What was the first good guitar you got?

A Fender Duo Sonic. Praise the lord. This was around ‘59 or ‘60. I had two paper routes, I delivered The Detroit News and The Shopping News. I had over a 100 customers per paper. Plus I sold nightcrawlers, washed cars, mowed and raked lawns, shoveled snow, did any possible chore I could to get a nickel or dime here and there for. My Dad taught me the glory of earning your American dream. You need to earn happiness. And by earning it, it’s the only way you will safeguard it, genuinely put your heart and soul into pursuing it and deserve it. Boy, what an important statement to say in 2014. So I helped pay off that guitar. We got it from Joe Podorsek at the Capitol School of Music on Grand River Avenue in Detroit and at least it looked like a Ventures model and I was picking up on Dick Dale, not just the sound, I could see pictures of them and what they were playing. So I had that guitar and played it through an old cream-colored Fender Bassman. Talk about a magical gear moment. I played that when I won The Battle Of The Bands with my band the Lourds in 1962. The prize was we opened up for The Beau Brummels and The Supremes at the then-brand new Cobo Hall in Detroit. We got to play three songs which was a medly of “High Heel Sneakers,” “Walking The Dog” and “Shake Your Tail Feather.” That guitar served me well until I realized I didn’t want to go The Ventures route. Now I wanted what The Beatles which so I traded my Duo Sonic in for a brief stint with an Epiphone Casino and then I went for the Holy Grail, the Gibson Byrdland, because of the inspiration from Jimmy McCarty, who was the guitar god for The Rivieras who turned into the Detroit Wheels and then became a member of Cactus with Carmine Appice, Tim Bogart and Rusty Day later on.

The Gibson Byrdland was Ted Nugent’s main guitar on his career making albums from the 1970s.

What was the first song you mastered on guitar?

Chuck Berry was the driving force in my first combo that only lasted a year or so in Detroit. I was so enamored and possessed and driven by his stuff because of his upbeat positive energy. I was overwhelmed with the “Maybellene” licks and the “School Days” and certainly “Johnny B. Goode.” Especially once it was catapulted into an even more important dynamic by the fact that The Beatles covered those songs. And The Stones. I wasn’t real good. I fumbled a lot but because of that I Nugent-ized them. To this day I don’t know if I play “Johnny B. Goode” right but I really play it cool. I would say I mastered them in my own way. The closest I got to mastering those originators was my solo on The Rolling Stones version of “Carol.” By ‘63-’64 that was one of our standout songs with both the Lourds and with the Amboy Dukes. To this day I still perform that song.

What guitars are you playing these days when out go out on the road?

I’ve still got my arsenal of Gibson Byrdlands. I think I have 22 or 23 of them. They are all phenomenal. They’re all uniquely inspiring and fascinating, and challenging because they have such a low threshold for feedback. They can eat your face if you don’t know what you’re doing. But I also have an arsenal of Les Pauls. A whole bunch of reissues and an original ‘58 and a ‘59. And I’ve got a whole arsenal of Paul Reed Smiths that are just world-class, right up there with any guitar ever made anywhere. I really got some cool Taylor electrics that I have a lot of fun with. I play them all but mostly it’s the Byrdland, especially on those classics that demand that tone. You really can’t play some of those songs properly with anything else.

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