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Have guitar, will travel: Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen on his 500 guitars and the one that got away

Cheap Trick is (from l to r) Tom Petersson, Rick Nielsen, Robin Zander and Daxx Nielsen. Photo by David McLister / Special to The Forum1 / 2
Cheap Trick is (from l to r) Rick Nielsen, Robin Zander, Tom Petersson and Daxx Nielsen. Photo by David McLister / Special to The Forum2 / 2

MOORHEAD — Everything you need to know about Rick Nielsen can be learned by watching him for a few minutes.

The Cheap Trick songwriter is as much a guitarist as he is a showman. He swaps out a series of colorful and multi-necked guitars on stage almost as frequently as he flips picks into the crowd.

At 69, he still wears the ballcap he's been sporting for as long as the group has been around, 44 years. And he's as funny as his cartoonish appearance would lead you to believe.

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He called in from a recent tour stop in Dallas to talk guitars and Cheap Trick.

What's the closest guitar to you right now?

I've got two of them in my room, an Epiphone Coronet 1962 and a Dwight Coronet 1962.

How many guitars do you own, or have you quit counting?

No. Why would you quit counting? Somewhere around 500.

How often do you buy a guitar?

What month is it? I bought two in August and three last month

Has anyone ever accused you of hoarding?

Besides my wife? I get stuff that's cool that I like. Rather than investing in other things, it's what I do. I trade stuff. Actually, I don't trade too many things. Most of the stuff I get are vintage pieces. I have two Epiphone Dwights. They're from 1962 and they only made 70 or so in 1962, so they're hard to find anyhow. I just got both in the last five months.

How many guitars do you take with you on the road?

We have a set of A gear and B gear... There are 30 in each of those.

You're recognized as a guitar god, but do you ever feel overlooked as a fashion icon?

No. (Laughs.) I think of myself as a really good guitar player that writes songs. I play a bit of lead. You see these guys like Joe Bonamassa, all these guitar wizzes. I was never a guitar wiz. I'm more like Cheez Whiz.

What guitarist do you look up to?

There are so many good ones. The guys from Def Leppard and Journey. Joe Bonamassa. Of course my favorite guitarist is Jeff Beck. I just got an email from him yesterday.

What does Jeff Beck email you about?

About a guitar I sold him in 1968, if you can imagine that. The second Les Paul he ever owned he got from me. ... He was playing in Chicago and his guitar tech picked a guitar up by the body and dropped it, broke the head off... went backstage and said, 'You don't know me, Jeff Beck doesn't know me, but I collect guitars... If you need something, give me a call.' About a week or two weeks later I got a phone call... A friend of mine and myself grabbed six guitars and flew to Philadelphia. I brought the guitars into the Electric Factory and it was Jeff Beck, Ten Years After and Vanilla Fudge. I showed him my guitars and he liked the one. ... We sat up and played guitar and he liked the one and he bought it. $350. It's worth about $400,000 today. That was the deal."

Were you surprised by how big you were in Japan when you recorded "Cheap Trick at Budokan?"

Back in 1978, going to Japan was like landing on the moon. We never heard that much about it. The Beatles played Budokan. Deep Purple played Budokan. Bob Dylan played it. The Budokan made us famous, but we made the Budokan famous.

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