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Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen, A Star and His 2,000 Guitars

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Rock star and Rockford resident Rick Nielsen actually started out playing drums. Once his love affair with the guitar began, he never looked back, and each part of his unique collection has a story to tell.

Cheap Trick star Rick Nielsen, with a few of his unique guitars. (Mike Graham photo)

It’s 10 a.m. on a brisk December Monday morning, as a sleepy Rick Nielsen opens the front door of his Rockford home. He wears a black baseball cap, a black shirt bearing a Beatles logo, baggy slacks and checkerboard Vans sneakers. Not exactly the outfit you’d expect a 62-year-old to wear, unless he happens to be the colorful frontman of Cheap Trick, one of the most celebrated rock groups of all time.

Nielsen and his bandmates have just returned from playing a couple of gigs on a weekend trip through Texas and Louisiana. He guides his guest on a quick but thorough tour of the home he has shared with Karen, his wife of 40 years; the couple has raised four children here. The upstairs is off limits due to renovations, but most of the action is in the lower level, anyway.

In the basement, there’s is a sizeable oak bar, made from a fallen tree that once lived on Nielsen’s property. There’s a state-of-the-art home theater with room for 12. The walls are covered with photos of celebrities Nielsen has encountered during his musical journey, including Elvis Costello, Charlie Daniels, Sting, Faith Hill, KISS and Jay Leno. His first royalty check, in the amount of 66 cents, is hung in a frame that Nielsen jokes cost $10. Gold records hang on a wall; a few more are stacked on the floor. There’s a reason they haven’t been hung. “I didn’t want my house to look like a tribute to me,” he says.

Nielsen snakes his way to the back of the room, to his pride and joy: his extensive guitar collection. It’s not just any collection. About 2,000 different guitars have been part of it at one time or another. Most are stored in warehouses, in undisclosed locations. A few, however, are tucked away here. Nielsen sounds like a proud papa talking about his children, as he rattles off the brands: Here’s a Les Paul, a Fender, Hamer, an 1854 Martin; there’s one that Elvis Presley used. “I appreciate guitars for what they are,” Nielsen says. “They’re works of art.”

And he has a story for just about every one of his prized possessions.

“Give me a guitar and I’ll play; give me a stage and I’ll perform; give me an auditorium and I’ll fill it.” — Eric Clapton

Surprisingly, Nielsen wasn’t always a guitar player. He started out playing drums, but changed his mind along the way. For one thing, he says, toting a big drum set from gig to gig is not his idea of fun. And he wasn’t interested in counting beats, either. Besides, he had an ear for music.

Rick’s popular Uncle Dick guitar. (Mike Graham photo)

“I could always tell a good note compared to a bad note,” he says. “When I was three or four, I would go see my dad play piano and I’d tell him he was playing the wrong note. He wanted to kill me.”

Over time, Nielsen taught himself to play guitar, which suits his frenetic personality.

“I’m nervous. I’m always up and down,” he says. “I couldn’t sit behind a piano or drums. The guitar is the perfect instrument for me.”
Nielsen uses as many as 25 guitars during any given concert. “I started taking extra guitars onstage because I always hated it that, whenever a musician was playing, and he broke a string, they would stop. I hit the guitar really hard, so I wanted extra guitars on hand to be ready. I’m not the best guitar player, but I’m not the worst. I’m a journeyman guitar player. I can play the lead, I can play the rhythm, and I can write a song.”

It’s a formula that has worked for Nielsen and Cheap Trick for all these years. With Nielsen on guitar, Robin Zander on vocals, Tom Petersson on bass, and Bun E. Carlos on drums, Cheap Trick is a multi-platinum band. It has sold more than 20 million albums, cranking out one catchy hit after another, including “Surrender,” “I Want You to Want Me” and “Dream Police.” Cheap Trick has performed for throngs of fans across the world.

These days, the band still tours and finds other creative ways to stay relevant. It kicked off 2011 with a 12-show production at Potawatomi Bingo Casino’s Northern Lights Theater near Milwaukee, that celebrated the 30th anniversary of the “Dream Police” album. The band performed hits with the Rhythmic Noise Philharmonic Orchestra & Mind Choir.

“Here they are, 40 years later, and they’re still going strong,” says George Gruhn, a world-renowned vintage guitar dealer. “How many bands last that long?”

Gruhn met Nielsen in 1970, when the rock star walked through the front door of his newly-opened guitar center in Nashville, where the shop remains opens for business, 41 years later. Over the years, Gruhn’s customers read like a list of Who’s Who of the music industry –Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Johnny Cash, Lyle Lovett, Vince Gill, George Harrison, Paul McCartney and, of course, Nielsen.

Gruhn says guitars are the ultimate collectible. “They are beautiful pieces of art that can be appreciated on so many levels,” he says. “There is a greater depth of appreciation with musical instruments than with almost any other collectible, maybe more than paintings or sculptures. With a painting you don’t touch it, you don’t hear it. With a guitar, you can look, touch and hear it.”

“My guitar is a not a thing. It is an extension of myself. It is who I am.” — Joan Jett

Nielsen’s passion for collectibles didn’t start with guitars. As a young boy, he gathered coins, stamps and baseball cards. Willie Mays, Dell Crandall, Ernie Banks – he had them all. Eventually, he parted ways with his cards, but has hung onto his other collections all these years. “Stamps and coins are easy,” he says, “but guitars are like having a car collection. You have to have all these garages and stuff.”

He estimates that his guitar collecting started around 1964, after he and his family moved to Rockford from Chicago. His late father, Ralph, an opera and religious singer, owned a music shop on Seventh Street, where Nielsen hung out after school, hoping to unearth a rare find. But it never happened. “My dad didn’t have Fender, didn’t have Gibson, didn’t have the brands that I liked,” he says. “And I didn’t care about the shiny ones.” So he hunted around in other stores. Nielsen remembers his first purchase like it was yesterday: a Les Paul he bought for $65 at a downtown bookstore.

Nostalgia aside, Nielsen says his Explorer guitar might be his favorite. In 1958, Gibson made only 19 of them, and Nielsen believes he’s the only person to own two of them. They’re so rare that he refuses to take them on the road. “The shape fits me,” he says. “It wasn’t a Les Paul. It wasn’t what Slash played or Jimmy Page played. But it was odd enough. That’s me.”

Nielsen bought the cleaner of the two Explorers from Gruhn in the late 1970s, for $4,000. More than 10 years later, he was offered $75,000 for it, on the spot, at a show in Dallas. He declined. Nielsen bought his other Explorer in 1981 from Larry Briggs, a vintage guitar dealer from Tulsa, Okla. Briggs was asking for $7,000, even though the guitar had plenty of wear and tear. Instead, Nielsen traded him a couple of Fender Stratocasters and two Gibson Firebirds and paid him $650.

Nielsen with a few of his 2,000 guitars. (Mike Graham photo)

One of the most talked-about guitars Nielsen has owned is a left-handed Les Paul, which he sold to Paul McCartney. It was widely reported that Nielsen was unhappy with the former Beatle for not thanking him. When asked, Nielsen downplays the story. “Nah, that was just me, complaining.”

Without question, the most difficult addition to his collection was a 1963 Guild Merle Travis, a guitar Nielsen first eyed in a magazine. “I thought it was so cool,” he says. “There were only three made, each with a price tag of $2,000, which was a lot of money at the time.” And it was Gruhn who had it. There was only one problem: Someone had smashed it to bits.

It had been thrown into a fireplace and the headstock and neck were broken off. It was in 25 pieces. Gruhn emailed pictures to Nielsen, who fell in love despite its disrepair. He bought it for cash and spent another $5,000 to have it restored. “It’s the ultimate guitar,” says Nielsen, who’s since turned down as much as $1 million for it. Why? “Because it took me 30 years to find it.”

Nielsen estimates there are 100 or so custom-made Rick Nielsen guitars in his collection, including the most recognizable ax – the five-neck guitar. “Originally, I wanted a guitar that had six necks on it,” he says. “I wanted it to spin like a roulette wheel. But around that time, Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top came out with a guitar that spun, so I decided to come out with something more conservative, a five-neck.”

On occasion, Nielsen has displayed various parts of his collection in museums across the country. About 50 of his guitars were exhibited in an art show at Rockford College, as well as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., has displayed 18 of his guitars on two separate occasions.

Nielsen had planned on displaying his collection in the proposed $25 million Rick’s Place that he and friend Brent Johnson, CEO of Ringland Johnson Construction Co., announced they were building on the southwest corner of Interstate 90 and Riverside Boulevard. Rick’s Place was to include a restaurant, hotel and conference center, along with a music education center, entertainment venue and guitar museum. Four years later, however, the project remains on indefinite hold.

“Rick Nielsen is one of the most creative and talented men in the world,” says Johnson. “In spite of the band’s current success, retail real estate development and financing are not in favor still. Border’s just announced it’s filing for bankruptcy protection. This, along with the [state of] retail markets in general, makes investors and the lenders skittish towards new projects. There has been talk of featuring Rick’s Place as part of a possible new casino, if that occurs here.”

“When words fail, the guitar speaks.” — George Szell

From time to time, musicians who perform in Rockford, such as Hall & Oates and members of Mötley Crüe, stop by Nielsen’s home to reminisce, and to inspect his guitars. Nielsen cherishes any opportunity to talk shop with fellow musicians and proudly shows off his collection.

Over the years, Nielsen has been featured in dozens of books and publications that profile his guitar prowess and his expansive collection. Currently, he’s a contributing columnist for Guitar Aficionado magazine, which gives him space to wax poetic about his love for guitars.

“There’s so much to talk about,” he says, with one of his trademark chuckles. For Nielsen, guitars are more than musical devices; they are instruments that can bring people together. “Musicians want to be movie stars, and movie stars want to be guitar players,” he says. “Music is an icebreaker when you walk into a room. It’s neat.”

Nielsen likes to tell a story about the time he met a guitar collector who also runs a major storage business. The two became fast friends. “We talk about guitars. We don’t talk about shelving,” he says. “He can’t do what I do, and I can’t do what he does, but we became friends all because of a guitar. How cool is that?”

Pretty cool indeed. ❚

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One response to “Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen, A Star and His 2,000 Guitars”

  1. Lisa Maese says:

    Well I want my house to look like a tribute of Rick Nielson and Robin Zander Bun E Carlos and Tom Petersson … Rick Nielson, you my dear are a work of art…Cheap Trick I LOVE YOU!!!