Richie Sambora on songwriting, soloing and Bon Jovi's success

Richie Sambora talks at length about what it takes to be a worldwide smash
Richie Sambora talks at length about what it takes to be a worldwide smash (Image credit: Eckstein/Retna Ltd./Corbis)

A couple of weeks ago, Bon Jovi's Richie Sambora sat down with MusicRadar to answer questions submitted by our readers.

The affable guitarist, singer and songwriter was fresh from a sound check at the Mohegan Sun Resort and Casino in Connecticut where Bon Jovi were going to rock an intimate crowd (for them) of 5000 screaming, crazed fans.

We're now pleased to present part 2 of our interview with Richie Sambora, during which the uber-successful musician - at last count, Bon Jovi have sold over 120 million albums worldwide - discusses his approach to songwriting, guitar solos, instrument design and the band's latest album, The Circle.

Oh, yes, Richie also weighs in on that most important question of all: The Beatles or The Stones?

Listen to the podcast below and read on for text of the interview.

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You and Jon were inducted recently into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame. Some pretty heavy are in there.

"It was a real honor, because it's basically voted on by your peers. The first time I went was five years ago - I went as a guest of my publisher. So I go to the dinner, and the next thing I knew I was on stage with Paul McCartney, James Brown when he was still alive, Billy Joel, James Taylor, Carole King, Brian Wilson, Neil Diamond…and myself!"

Now you're name-dropping.

"It's true. Man, I standing there and I'm going, 'Wow, this is incredible!' They all got inducted that year, so it was pretty heavy. So I'm up there and I'm gonna jam, right? And Paul goes, 'Kansas City - you start it!' I was like, 'Me?!' I'm like junior. But it was cool, so I started it and we had a great time. And then I became friends with those people.

"Since then, I've inducted Les Paul into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame. And then we got inducted. It was a real honor. I loved it."

Let's talk about songwriting. If you can put it into words, what have you learned over the years? Can you learn something over time?

"Absolutely. Sure. You just gotta keep at it. Songwriting is something that's very daunting until you have your first successful song, I think. And you can measure success by a couple of different things: Finishing a song first lyrically and looking at it yourself and saying, 'OK, now I have some cohesive lyrics.'

"And then the other part of success is obviously making a record and having it be accepted by people, having it touch people and actually mean something to people. Livin' On A Prayer, Wanted Dead Or Alive, It's My Life - I'm lucky to have written a bunch of those."

How has your approach to songwriting with Jon changed over the years? Or has it?

"It has not. It's very, very simplistic. We sit down with a couple of acoustics or at a piano, and we believe that you can't polish bullshit. Basically, I can sing you - I don't even need an instrument…if I sang Livin' On A Prayer or Wanted or I'll Be There For You or Bad Medicine with nothing, a cappella, you would say, 'Hey, that's a good song.' And that's basically what it comes down to.

"You can take a song into a studio with a producer and you can put all the bells and whistles all over it, but if you don't have the basic architecture of the song and the foundation of the song properly written…I mean, Jon and I don't walk into the studio with the band without 10 songs that are kind of written."

"We used to do it on cassette decks, and now we've been backing it up on our iPhones. Big technology guys, me and Jon" Richie Sambora on how he and Jon Bon Jovi demo songs

We've talked about this before: You guys are pretty lo-tech when you write; you don't make elaborate demos.

"No, no, no, no. I swear to God, we still do it the same way: we used to do it on cassette decks, and now we've been backing it up on our iPhones. Big technology guys, me and Jon."

So it's just you and a guitar…strum…

"That's it. Then we bring it into the studio. Jon and I have co-produced the records since 1995, so obviously we have an idea how it's going to come out, where the drums need to be and all that kind of stuff. But we bring it to the guys, and once we get into the studio it becomes a band and it changes."

What happens when you and Jon disagree on a song? Let's say you have a song that you originated, and it's one that you love and he's like, "I don't hear it"? Or vice-versa?

"It doesn't matter. The songs that fall by the wayside - and there's a lot of them; I mean, Jon and I have probably written over 400 songs together in our career…You just follow every idea to its end. And a lot of times, whether or not they're satisfactory to me or him…Honestly, he's the mouthpiece of this band, so he's gotta be comfortable singing whatever lyric and whatever story we're actually telling in whatever song. So, if he doesn't like that, and I like it, I'll keep it for a either a solo record or…You know, we're not little girls about things like that; we never were.

"I always realized, hey, look, he's the lead singer of this band. I was the lead singer in a lot of the bands I was in. You have to be comfortable. You gotta get up there and sell the song. You have to get up there and sell the lyric. You gotta be able to feel it. So, if you do not, people are gonna point at you and go, 'Bullshit! That's bullshit!' And I think that's one of the reasons we're still around - because we never pretended to be anybody but who we are."

The new album, The Circle, is a grittier record than you've made of late. Conscious decision?

"You know what? You play to the song. The songs we wrote were responding to a lot of discord in the world. But also, flowers grow in cowshit, so that's the best way I can put it. Out of that discord, when the world was at its low, Obama became the president and there was a lot of hope. We were reacting to how people were feeling, how they were reacting to the economic downturn, how they were reacting to losing their jobs…they needed some hope. So those songs have a lyrical reality that was based on that particular thing, and as a guitar player, it allowed me to add more grit.

"As a musician and a guitar player, I can noodle as well as anybody. But from my background as a session musician, I always try to play what is called for by the lyric and listening to the song. As a writer, that's what I do too."

Let's talk about your soloing, which, to me, seems to exist on its own planet. With most players, you can spot the influences - the Freddie King lick, the little bit from Carlos Santana, here's a nod to Eric Clapton - but your playing has a unique sound and feel. I don't spot the references.

"They're definitely there. But you know, even when I was in club bands or cover bands, when I would play solos, I would purposely never play them like they were on the record. I might pick a lick off of one so people would listen to it, but I'd try to create my own thing.

"I taught myself how to play the guitar, so I basically learned by a system of making mistakes. When I run into a roadblock, I go, 'That's not the right way to go.' I think that had a lot to do with coming up with my own sound and style. I have my noodling moments, but I don't put them on records too much."

"I can noodle as well as anybody. But from my background as a session musician, I always try to play what is called for."

On the new song We Weren't Born To Follow, you actually changed the solo because of the fans. Originally, the track had more of a melodic solo, but it went online and there was fan outcry.

"They wanted a little more shred, sure."

Which you then went in and cut. But was part of you like, 'Hey man, we did the song we wanted. Accept it the way it is'?

"Nope. No. I kind of enjoyed it. Hey, look… the fact that they were paying attention to the guitar solo was cool for me. I thought it was a great conversation with the fans.

"Honestly, I could've went either way with it. Since it was going to be the first single, I kind of went with something that was like…basically, it's the line that is the intro lick and the outro lick, so we just figured, 'Why not make that a big, big hook and just put it in the middle too?' But the fans wanted to hear a shredder, and I was happy to oblige."

Let's talk about your ESP signature series guitar. What went into its design? It has a very unique look.

"It's awesome. It's almost like a cross between an old solidbody [Gibson] L5 and a Les Paul, in a way. Actually, I came up with these new pickups that I'm designing with my luthier, Christopher Hofschneider, who also helped me design the guitar - and he did a great job. The idea, for me…I've been with Kramer for a long time. Obviously, I've been affiliated with Gibson, I've been affiliated with Fender…and you know, after you've been with somebody for 10 or 12 years, it's not that you wear our your welcome, but they're not excited about you anymore.

"I don't really need to have an endorsement from anyone. I wanted to make a guitar that worked, stayed in tune and was about 500 bucks, so that a parent could buy it for their kid, and it was a good, professional instrument.

"That's what went down with the design, and obviously my neck, finish and fret specifications - all the stuff I really use. They came out great, man. They look and they sound great."

You play them a lot during the show.

"I have four of them that I'm playing, and I'm waiting on another one. I just designed one with a very Zematis-y kind of a metal pickguard, you know, with the engravings and stuff like that, and that's the next one that's coming through. But like I said, I've got four of them out with me and I use them all. They're great - a lot of dexterity."

Shifting gears radically, let me ask you…How does a bunch of guys from New Jersey get so big worldwide? You've sold out, what, 10 nights at London's O2 Arena?

"Good songs, man. I think it's about the songwriting, I really do - that's a big end of it."

"I think we're at 12 now. We're going to go to 15. It's awesome. Actually, I think we're bigger outside this country than in the country."

Why do you feel the music translates to so many people in so many countries?

"Good songs, man. I think it's about the songwriting, I really do - that's a big end of it. There's a couple of things though: When we were a young band, before even Slippery came out, we looked at each other and we said, 'We are going to tour every place we can.'

"We didn't have any place to go. [laughs] Nobody had any houses, we were broke and we just toured everywhere. Basically, what we did was, we prepared the garden for the flowers to grow. We didn't have any hits till Slippery, and then when Slippery came out, it was huge everywhere.

Yeah, but you had a few hits. You had Runaway, I'll Be There For You -

"Minor, minor, minor. That's bullshit. When that record hit and we went everywhere...It's a very simple metaphor: If you have a dog and you don't pet it, it's not going to like you. So, if you have a country where you just had a No. 1 hit and you don't go see them, and you don't take your music to the people, then you're not going to create a touring industry in that particular country.

"We created - I mean, it's wild - 42 markets for Bon Jovi. We were selling records in 42 countries and we toured 42 countries in 1995. That was the largest tour. Not 42 cities, not 42 states, but 42 countries. I think you'd be hard pressed to get someone to even fucking name 42 countries!"

I couldn't. I'd have to Wikipedia them or something. OK…Living On A Prayer. Famous for the talk box.


Does it ever become a drag, like, "Oh my God, I've gotta play the talk box again! I'm gonna be playing the talk box till I'm 65"?

"No, no, no. It doesn't matter to me. People get excited about it, man. If you ask me, 'Am I gonna be sitting in my room and playing Livin' On A Prayer for the fucking 25th thousandth time?' Of course not.

"But listen, rock 'n' roll is a contact sport. The rush is to take it in front of 70,000 people and have that happen. That's what makes it great. It's like having sex with your clothes on, man - it's the best thing you can possibly do.

"I never mind playing those songs for the people. That's the fun of it. It's the actual adjoining of the band and the audience that makes it still really good. And you know what? They're really good songs. Both Jon and I are pretty proud of them. We've discussed it, and we say, 'Hey, people wanna hear those fucking songs? We're gonna give it to 'em. That's it."

Last question. It's our MusicRadar extra-credit question.


The Beatles or The Stones…and why?

"That's tough. I guess, for me…The Beatles, only because they came first. I discovered them first. I mean, I remember one of my earliest memories in life was when I was five years old in 1964 and I watched them on the Ed Sullivan program. I knew then that this was something I wanted to do. I didn't know if it was going to happen, but I sure as hell did everything I could to do it. And lo and behold, I'm in a band with a couple of other guys that write and we sing and make great records and we really concentrate on songwriting.

"It was really that heritage, but I love The Stones too, man. Talk about great songwriters. They're also great songwriters, and you know, almost just as important, I would imagine. And they're still around, which is a big inspiration.

"That's a tough question. Like I said, for that reason alone, The Beatles came first in my life, personally -"

So they'll always have special place.

"Yeah. I probably had 10 years of listening to The Beatles till I got to The Stones. I was listening to The Beatles from the time I was six and till I was 15 or something, and then I found The Stones in that era when Get Yer Ya-Ya's came out, and I got ahold of them then, and I went backwards."

Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar WorldGuitar PlayerMusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.