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.
What’s your favorite song to play live and why?

You know, I’m capable of almost anything, but I am not capable of identifying my favorite song to play because that’s like saying “What’s my favorite gun?” or “Who’s my favorite kid?,” for God sake, or “What’s my favorite dog?” I mean, they’re all my favorite. There’s only one “Stranglehold”. There’s only one “Wang Dang Sweet Poontang”. There’s only one “Wango Tango”. I have a song called “Crave” on the “Craveman” album that is just a sonic boner to play every night just because of the licks. It’s all the best of the Muddy Waters and Bo and Chuck and Lonnie and Duane and Eric and Yardbirds and Cream all rolled into one. Then I have a song called “Fred Bear” that is about a great hero of mine by that name and it came out of me unstoppable upon his death in 1988. That song to this day has been the #1 requested song in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania for the last 25 years. Then there are outrageous departures like “Little Miss Dangerous.” They’re all phenomenally gratifying and satisfying and stimulating and mesmerizing. Tommy Clufetos (currently on tour with Black Sabbath) is one of the greatest drummers that ever walked the earth, who I baptized into the industry back in ’93 and has gone on to become one of the most respected drummers anywhere ever, he said to me once “Every song of yours is the greatest opening song or the greatest encore.” I think he had a point there.

Ted Nugent is known as one of the few hard rockers whose preferred guitar is a Gibson Byrdland model.

What’s one guitar or piece of equipment that you wish you owned that you don’t?

We’re about to swan dive into the arena of heartbreak. My very first Byrdland I bought in 1965 from Lyle Gillman at the Roselle School of Music, whom I continue to keep in touch with to this day. It was a $1,000 when I didn’t have a pot to piss in. We didn’t make any money playing and I only got $5 to cut the damn lawn. But he let me take it with the down payment of my Epiphone Casino and $100 and pay it off somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 a month for the next few years. So we were at the Detroit Rock Festival at the Detroit State Fair Grounds with Bob Seger and Grand Funk Railroad and Johnny and Edgar Winter and The MC5 and The Rationals and The Scott Richards Case and Iggy and the James Gang, all the best bands that ever lived. I used to wear these long-fringe suits with The Amboy Dukes with these wild-ass headdresses and polar bear hats — those big, white, furry hats—and I would find myself at these multiple crescendos every night, especially toward the last song where I’d whip my guitar and I’d bow to my guitar and I’d fling my guitar and I’d catch my guitar and I’d hump my guitar and I’d eat my guitar. And the Gibson Byrdland made these howling, tortured guitar, animal dying sounds, and I’d lean it against the wall of six Fender Twins and six Dual Showmans and the noises that came out of it were just beautiful. I could hardly stand myself. And of course it just shocked and stunned and amazed all the people in the audience. And I was an athletic son of a bitch back then, and I would literally charge my amps and do a high jump over them, head first. Well, the fringe got caught and curtailed my jumping abilities at that moment and I crashed into the amps and they all came tumbling down and destroyed my original Byrdland. I took it to (famed guitar repairman) Danny Erlewine and I brought it to him in a box because it was just crushed. And of course it was a tender guitar anyhow with a hand-carved arch and spruce top—it’s not very formidable. And I was shattered. I mean, it was in pieces. And he said, “I don’t think so.” And I go, “Well, do what you can.” And then I went out and got another Byrdland, thank God, from Joe Massimino from Massimino Music—a sunburst, a beautiful guitar. The reason this is the answer to your question is because that original Byrdland, like a complete, deranged, brain-dead fool, I gave it to the Hard Rock Café because it didn’t play anymore and I wasn’t into nostalgia. I am a pragmatic, utilitarian guy. And if I got a gun and it doesn’t work, why should I keep it? What an idiotic mistake that was.

And I’m not done yet. I designed a Byrdland for Gibson in Kalamazoo in ’72 or ’73 and they built me a white Byrdland with 3 pick-ups and a varia-tone. And because of their abandonment of quality control, it played like dog sh**. Just sounded terrible. The pick-ups sucked. The neck was bad. The paint job was like Earl Scheib. I was like, “What is this? Why won’t it make the sounds? Why would it do this?” But that thing is worth a half a million dollars today and I gave it to a German radio station for a giveaway contest.

And then, I’m not done yet—I had Gibson Kalamazoo make me another one in a walnut finish with my name in pearl on the neck. And then because it didn’t play for shit, I traded it in for a machine gun. Now some would say that’s not that dumb of an idea. But not for that guitar. There’s no machine gun in the world worth that guitar. So there’s 3 Byrdlands that I don’t have anymore.

And I ain’t f**king done yet. My Byrdland that I played on so many of my masterpieces—a dear friend’s wife wanted to give it to him. He’s a huge music fan, a guitar playing maniac—his dream was to get a Ted Nugent Byrdland.  And because the pickups were corroded and I was now getting into the Les Pauls PRSs more, and I had all the Byrdlands I wanted and I was not aware of the value of some of these vintage instruments, much less Ted Nugent’s vintage instruments with the wood-burning name on the back and the number, I sold it to him for $2,500. Are you kidding me? Luckily I know this young man and we revitalized it and I had it on tour with me the last couple of years. He needed some money and I gave him a loan, and talk about a man of honesty, I actually gave it back to him when he gave me back the loan. I should have just kept the little f**ker. And he’s got it and he loves it. So there’s four Byrdlands and the fact that I don’t have them is an indictment that in this otherwise brilliant, smart, street-savvy American, is an idiot.

In recent years Ted has added an array of Gibson Custom Shop Les Pauls to his quiver of guitars.

Who’s the last guitar player that blew you away?

God, there’s so many. You know I got to jam with the best. Chris Duarte and Joe Bonamassa and and right up there with those guys is (Ted Nugent band member) Derek St. Holmes. He is just such an underrated guitar player. He is a monster soulful player. Monster lead player, monster creativity player, monster jazz fusion and blues. So they all have a wonderful unique vision, touch, and musical statement. They’re all virtuosos. It’s always stimulating. I played with Bugs Henderson many, many times before he passed away. And I did a jam session one time in somebody’s booth one time with John Entwistle. It was off the charts. I played with Eddie Van Halen and Johnny Winter and Rick Derringer and Brian May and Billy Gibbons. I’ve played with the best of the best. Ronnie Montrose. I’ve been to the mountain top. I actually played bass guitar for Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry one year. So I’ve been to the mountain top, man. But recently? I was with Gary Hoey on That Metal Show and he still fire-breathes. There’s so many. They’re all so unique. And if you have an open mind and an appreciation of individual musical statements, which I am always mesmerized by, you can appreciate all of them.

What was it like playing bass with Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley? I have to ask.

Out of body on two levels. Number one, because if you’re going to play with a rock and roll god, they’re the two. I suppose if I played with Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis or Elvis it would have been as good. But they’re two of the gods. On one level it was so exciting. Unfortunately, I think you’ll get this if you talk to any of the musicians who have been honored to be sidemen for these great legends, I knew their songs better than they did. They were tired at the time and I mean no disrespect, but they seemed tired and somewhat bored with those songs because they had played them so many times and didn’t have enough of an escape departure like my hunting or my farming and ranching which my outdoor lifestyle provides to me. If you don’t cleanse yourself of the musical outrage, which all of this wonderful music is outrageous, if you don’t get the f**k away from it, that garage band hunger goes away I think. That’s what I’ve witnessed with so many of my peers and my heroes out there. But because I escape the music totally and thoroughly with my primal scream hunting with the bow and arrow and wild-life management, training hunting dogs, running trap lines, and planting trees and crops and working on trucks and tractors. When I draw my bow back, there’s no such thing as a guitar. I’m going back to the cave and the twang of the bow string is the first guitar note again.