"Uh, well, I don't work with him in the real world, I work with him in our world!" ~ Richard Fortus on working with Axl Rose for the last ten years.Richard Fortus' world is that of the guitar for hire - whether it's his long standing position in Guns N' Roses, his stints with Thin Lizzy or The Psychedelic Furs, as session star, or in his new gig as lead player/songwriter for The Dead Daisies, you can be certain that it's never long between calls to duty.
I first came across Richard in 2011 when he was touring with Thin Lizzy as Scott Gorham's co-guitarist. At the time I wrote:
"I was completely unprepared and shocked when I heard him with the band at this summer's Hellfest in France. Actually that performance may have ruined me for any version of the band in which Fortus does not play. His is simply the most recognizable guitar voice to hit the band since Gary Moore. This isn't a knock on Sykes, either - John is a magnificent player, but I always felt him a bit too metal for Thin Lizzy, and better utilized in Whitesnake, Blue Murder, and his solo career. However, Richard Fortus sounded incredible and very in-context with the Lizzies. His playing was exuberant, filled with passion, mad chops, and his tone....well, his tone may actually be as good as any hard rock tone I've ever heard."
He's currently enmeshed with The Dead Daisies, an up and coming band from Australia - formed by ex-INXS frontman Jon Stevens, the group toured through the summer in their homeland with Aerosmith and ZZ Top, and more recently across America as part of the Rockstar Energy Uproar Festival. Fortus is emerging as lead guitarist/co-writer for the band for their second album, and with the rhythm section of Charlie Drayton and Darryl Jones coming on board, this will be one to watch.
I recently caught up with Richard at the Shoreline Amphitheater outside of San Francisco, and I started there, asking about the festival appearances:
Richard Fortus: "It's been going really well - it's being received very well, which is great!
"We're getting a great response, we're selling a lot of CDs and merchandise. Unfortunately, I didn't have a chance to have anything to do with the first record, but we've been writing and recording, and that's been going great!"
The Dead Daisies debut album is chock full of great tunes, written by singer Jon Stevens and guitarist David Lowy, and the promise of some superior instrumental assistance should make this band a can't miss - I asked Richard how he came to join the band:
Richard Fortus: "Actually, it was through drummer Charlie Drayton - Charlie had been working with Jon and David, they're the ones that did the first record together. Charlie got involved, and he called me.
"The new stuff is super great - we did three songs on our days off that we recorded in New York, and we'll be finishing those up next week. It's a total band situation - these three songs are songs I wrote with Jon. He's a fantastic singer and writer. Charlie Drayton is coming back to the band for this next run in November and December, so he'll be back and also, Darryl Jones (Rolling Stones) will be playing bass."
I had seen Jones working with Richard before in an awesome performance with Martha Reeves and The Crystal Method on the Jimmy Kimmel show - I had to ask how that gig came about:
Richard Fortus: "The Crystal Method guys - I've done some records with them before, and they had called and asked if I could help them put a band together to do that show, so I put that whole thing together. I called Brain (Brian Mantia - Guns N' Roses drummer) and Darryl, and The Tower of Power Horns. It came out really cool."
Fortus' day job for the last twelve years has been as a guitarist with the notorious Guns N' Roses. I inquired as to how he got that prestigious position:
Richard Fortus: "Well, I had originally gotten a call back in about 2000, asking me if I would be interested in auditioning for G N' R.
"I was living in New York City at that time, but I was coming out to Los Angeles to do a record in two weeks after they called, so I said, 'Yeah, I'm going to be out there, and we could do it at that time.
"I spoke with them a few more times, but I didn't hear anything back and didn't know what was going on - it just wasn't happening. So I got out to LA to do the record, and there was Tommy Stinson and Josh Freese - I said that I found it ironic that you guys would be doing this, because I had received a call for an audition with G N' R just last week. They said, 'Oh yeah, you're the guy! Axl found this guy Buckethead, and we cancelled the auditions. So, that was the first time I got the call.
"Then, Tommy and I became really good friends, and the next time they needed somebody, which was like a year later, they called me - and that was to fill the Izzy slot."
Of course, you can't speak with anyone from the Guns N' Roses camp and not ask about what it is like to work with Axl Rose in the real world:
Richard Fortus: "Um....well, I don't work with him in the real world, I work with him in our world! (much laughter)
"He's great to work with - I've never had any issues. You read all this stuff, but it's really not what I see. The tyrannical monster is not what I deal with - my experience has been nothing but positive. He's a great musician."
Whether it's Steve Lukather, Steve Hunter, Doug Aldrich, or any other super guitar sessioneer I interview, I always ask how it is that they get A-list calls:
Richard Fortus: "You know, that's a really good question!
"I think a lot of it has to do with besides being the player you are - it has to do with who you are as a person, and how people relate to you as a musician.
"Before I was touring a lot, when I first joined Psychedelic Furs, I had moved to New York and started doing sessions. Hundreds of sessions, that was mostly what I was doing. I couldn't really afford to go on the road because I was making more money just being in New York and doing sessions.
"Whether it be TV commercials, movie scores, or playing on people's records. Writing TV themes, things like that.
"I think the reason I got so many calls from so many producers to play on records was just because they could relate to me in terms of using references, and things like that. They could say, 'I'm looking for an Echo and The Bunnymen type thing, a Paul Kossoff type tone on this, and I would know not only who they were talking about, but also how to get that tone - what kind of amp, guitar, and pedal combinations.
"It's knowing these things, and knowing the references - the type of playing required. That really got me a lot of work. That's what really got me connected, and that's the way you relate to artists."
Switching gears, I mention that Richard's playing first got my attention via Trace Davis of Voodoo Amplification - again, it was Fortus' work with Thin Lizzy that enthralled me. I asked him about his working relationship with his amp guru:
Richard Fortus: "Well, Trace has done so many things for me - he's modded Marshalls for me, modded Kelley Amps for me, Kelley amps, the designer from Selmer left the company and started his own shop. I'm a big fan of their amps, and Trace has done a couple of those for me, he's done Park amps, Vox - he's done a bunch of stuff for me.
"I love his attention to detail. He was the guy that successfully cloned my main Marshall, which is a '73 100 watt Jose modded amp that I bought from Mick Mars.
"Motley Crue wasn't doing anything at that point, and Mick was getting rid of a bunch of gear. I was invited over to his house, and I played through a dozen or so amps, all Jose modded Marshalls.
"I plugged into this one and just hit one chord, and it blew my head off. That was his #1 amp, his recording amp. It then became my main Marshall.
"I had been trying to have it cloned for a long time, and finally I came to Trace, and he cloned it - a fantastic job, and after that he became my 'go to' guy for amps.
"We've designed an amp - we're going to release it as a signature model amp. Basically, the clean channel is based on my favorite Plexi which is a '68 PA, a 50 watt p.a. head, and it has a boost to it, as well. The other channel is based on that '73 Jose mod, and it also has a foot switchable boost for leads.
"It's almost like a four channel amp, but it's really just two channels. I am really excited about that amp!
"It's what I've been using live, and it's like having my four favorite Marshalls in one box, which is amazing. I've been using it with Guns N' Roses for the last year, and we've been tweaking and refining it. Lately, I've been using it with a Strat, plugging straight into it on The Dead Daisies stuff, and it's just been amazing."
I had seen clips from the Daisies tour, and I asked if it was a Trussart he has been playing:
Richard Fortus: "Yeah, his guitars are just incredible! I've been on a big Tommy Bolin kick lately, so I've really been loving my Strats again, after a long time away from them. The pickups are based on a '60s slab board that I own. Arcane Pickups copied them, and they did a great job, they sound phenomenal."
I then asked about his stint in the legendary Thin Lizzy:
Richard Fortus: "Oh, man - I grew up listening to Lizzy, so for me, it was sort of a dream come true to be able to play harmonies with Scott Gorham.
"It was an amazing experience. When I got that call, I couldn't believe it, I was so excited to do it. Sort of living out a rock 'n' roll fantasy. Realizing, and I told Scott this, as I was learning the songs, and I realized how much of an influence their Live and Dangerous album had on my ideal of what the perfect guitar sound was, what the rock guitar tone was.
"And he was like, 'Really?'
"Yeah, man, the Les Pauls and the Marshalls - he said, 'Well, Richard, I hate to burst your bubble, but that was all we had! We had old amps, a couple of years old, and that's all we could afford! I had my phaser, a script logo Phase 90, and Brian had his booster, a '70s JMP, and an 808 (Ibanez TS-808 Tube Screamer).'
"The Lizzy gig was definitely a highlight of my career."
Speaking of the Lizzy gig, I asked Richard about playing alongside 'the world's bassist,' Marco Mendoza, who also spent the summer touring with Fortus in The Dead Daisies:
Richard Fortus: "He is one of the most phenomenal bass players I've ever worked with - he totally 'gets' the bass.
"He's capable of playing anything, but it's what he chooses to play that is so awesome. I didn't realize what a monster he was until the first few weeks I was on tour with him.
"He plays his parts absolutely machine-like - very, very solid, but I didn't realize he was the chops guy that he is until like three weeks into the tour - we were backstage jamming, and he took a solo, and I was like, ' Oh my God! Where did you come from?' He's phenomenal, and the way he sings - he's got an incredible voice!"
And, so it goes - I find more and more, that when I have the pleasure of speaking with someone who is a master of not just his instrument, but of the art form, the best players are all about sharing the glory, getting along with band mates, and checking their egos at the door. Richard Fortus gets the A-list calls because he's an A-list individual and musician, it's as simple as that.