Todd Rundgren: hall of famer, singer, producer, songwriter … and guitar hero?
If Todd Rundgren isn’t at the top of the guitar hero pantheon, then he has nothing to blame but himself. The 72-year-old wears too many hats and too well. This is the legendary producer who worked on Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell and the New York Dolls’ scuzzy-arsed debut.
He is the successful golden-touch creator who broke big with his 1972 album Something anything?, and the visionary who turned left into nature in 1973 A wizard, a real star.
As a guitarist, however, Rundgren is a part-time timekeeper. That said all, during his recent Clearly Human virtual tour, he “only plays guitar on about four songs”, while this year Space force the album sees him lighten his load with cameos from Steve Vai, Rick Nielsen and more.
Rundgren’s refusenik tendencies are a curious thing, because when he plugs in he’s untouchable, from the mathematically complex play of his’ 70s avant-garde outfit Utopia, to his glorious solo on the title song Bat (described by Meat Loaf as “one of the most breathtaking moments of my life to watch”).
Rundgren simply shrugs his shoulders: “I never wanted to be a guitar hero.”
How did you fall in love with the guitar?
I was just a born musician. Music was my thing, as soon as my hands got big enough to play. I was a little interested in the guitar with Duane Eddy and Lonnie Mack. But then [in 1960] The Ventures dated Walk, don’t run and I was seduced, I had to play the guitar.
I got my parents to buy me an acoustic for twenty-five dollars. He came with three months of lessons at the local music store, which I hated. I counted the days until the end of class. I could pick a song in ten minutes, but I hated reading sheet music.
When I got serious I was very heavily influenced by Eric Clapton, and in trying to play like him I developed half a dozen vibrato techniques, which I still use. I once stuck with John Mayall on a blues cruise, playing All your love classic Bluesbreakers album . Then he said to me: “You played like Eric”. Well of course I did!
You were a big fan of Who. Did it matter that Townshend wasn’t a virtuoso?
No, it was not. Pete Townshend redefined the guitar. Most people consider the guitar to be their passion. For him, it was the object of his anger.
There is a theory that because you are such an esteemed producer, singer and songwriter, your guitar skills are often overlooked..
Well, that’s probably correct. There was a time when the guitar was my main instrument. That was all that interested me. For a little window there, between Woody’s Truck Stop and the start of The Nazz, I was a local guitar hero, considered the best player in downtown Philadelphia.
By the time we got to Nazz’s second album, my mind was already wandering musically, and I was just as influenced by Laura Nyro. I started to notice that the guitar was becoming secondary, because it was not such a flexible instrument to compose on. Over time, my instrument is actually the studio, and the guitar will be part of it.
Your playing on Bat Out Of Hell is amazing, however. What do you remember?
I had worked on a few melodies, but most of the guitar parts were improvised and most of the solos were played live. On this album, I was playing a Fender Mustang, which has a slightly reduced scale, so the strings are really loose. If you lower the tailpiece, they actually sag, and if you pull it down, you just enter the stratosphere.
So I was getting all kinds of weird noises, and I was getting more noise oriented than note. That’s how this whole “motorcycle” guitar solo thing was born. [Bat Out Of Hell writer] Jim Steinman wanted to get a pre-recorded motorcycle sound effect. But I said, “Let me try. It only took two takes to convince him.
Most guitarists say they play better straight. How has LSD affected your gambling?
Taking psychedelics gave me a generally more adventurous attitude about music, and I started to think of the guitar as not just something that plays notes, but sounds and textures. I started using guitar synths to change the sound to something more electronic, or like strangled birds.
It’s funny, five years ago I worked with two Swedish electro artists called Hans Peter Lindstrom and Emil Nikolaisen. When I got to the studio, they had the same EMS guitar synth that I had used, and they said, “Can you make some of those weird choke chicken noises?” So I just did a lot of howling.
Which underrated players do you rate?
I have worked with so many amazing players. I’m sure most of them have been noted. One of the first players I worked with that knocked my socks off was Amos Garrett. He was basically a country player, and I hated country music, but the things he could do with the guitar were so amazing. Like bending two ropes in opposite directions. I did an Australian band called Dragon [Editor’s note: Dragon are originally from New Zealand] and they brought Tommy Emmanuel. I was totally amazed. He works everywhere – he’s a real workaholic – and if people don’t know who Tommy Emmanuel is, they should.
On the other hand, haven’t you rated the New York Dolls as guitarists?
Well, there was a certain philosophy in the New York Dolls, and the punk music that they presumably inspired, and it was: if you learned to play your instrument too well you were a poseur. It was not about your skills as an instrumentalist, but rather your limitations. In that sense, if Johnny Thunders aspired to be anything, it was Keith Richards. And we all know Keith Richards doesn’t really play a lot, you know? Half of what he does is open chords, and he does an occasional solo, and they all sound the same.
So there was never any aspiration to become a great guitarist, either in the New York Dolls or in any of the bands that imitated them. One of the reasons music critics were so drawn to the Dolls was that it was ultimately kind of music they could imagine playing themselves.
When did you play the best guitar game of your career?
My technique was probably at its best during the heyday of Utopia, the large group of six musicians. I realized that I went to great lengths to learn to play the guitar, but now I didn’t play it anymore. We were imitating artists like the Mahavishnu orchestra, and I also had a lot of keyboard virtuosos in the band, and they challenged me a bit.
It is easy to play very fast on a keyboard. It’s a bit harder for the guitar, because you have to synchronize both hands. So that pushed me to improve my technique. Since then, the biggest commitment I have made to recovering my playing technique has been that of Todd Rundgren. Johnson , an album full of Robert Johnson covers from the sixties.
You have completed a virtual tour. How does that affect your playing when there is no physical audience?
It took a little while for me to get used to playing again. The hardest part is not having played for over a year and a half, generally slowing down and softening your fingers. But once I agree, it doesn’t make much of a difference to me that there is an audience there.
Often I close my eyes and leave. I watch to see where I’m going so I don’t fall off the stage, but otherwise I tend not to focus too much on the audience. I’m just trying to remember what to play [laughs].
Todd Rundgren to be inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year.