Richard Fortus is at his home in St Louis, Missouri. He’s recently returned from a spate of club gigs with electronic rock experimentalists Headtronics, and is currently in the midst of producing the new album for The Psychedelic Furs, before heading back out on the road again later this year for an arena tour around the United States and Mexico with Guns N’ Roses, with whom he’s been playing since 2002.
While being immersed in such a broad variety of gigs over the years, Richard has constantly strived to refine his tone and find inspiration with new sounds - often in the form of new guitars. After all, “We’re pushed and inspired by our own tone,” he reminds us. We swung by for a rare insight into some of his favourite instruments and was treated to a jaw‐dropping collection that could rival the inventory of many a vintage guitar shop...
How did you amass such a great collection of guitars and amps?
“It just seemed to have happened. I guess I have a problem! But I figure it’s better to put your money into what you know, investment wise. I follow Joe Bonamassa’s posts on Instagram and I’m just amazed at his collection. It’s staggering. How one person can amass that kind of collection is mind‐boggling. I don’t have the resources to go for the big‐ticket items; I try to turn Axl and Slash on to the stuff that I can’t afford.”
It’s fair to say Slash has a fondness for ’Bursts...
“He’s got a few, including the first ’Burst ever made [serial number 8 3096 shipped on 28 May 1958]. There were two made on that day, but there’s no documentation as to which one came first. Gibson did a replica of it [Custom Shop Slash 1958 Les Paul ‘First Standard’ #8 3096]. It’s funny, I went to soundcheck one day and heard him playing, and was like, ‘Wow! What is going on with his rig?’ It sounded noticeably different.
“I was like, ‘Dude, you brought that out?!’, thinking it was the original. He said, ‘Oh! This is a replica Gibson just made. They just sent me one.’ I asked him, ‘How accurate is it?’ because it sounds so different from his normal guitars - probably because it doesn’t have Seymour Duncans in it - and he said, ‘It’s really, really close. I can tell, but if it was handed to me on a dark stage, I don’t think I’d be able to tell the difference.’
“I really wanted to buy one, so I was like, ‘Can you get me one?’ and while we were standing on the stage, he called up the Gibson rep on the phone and asked him to hold one for me.”
Do you play any other Gibson Custom Shop guitars?
“I really like the look of the ’68 Custom reissues they were doing years ago with the nickel hardware [Gibson now offers the 1968 Les Paul Custom Reissue with gold‐plated hardware], but I had to go through quite a few to find one I liked. They were so inconsistent. Gibson sent them to me and I didn’t like them, so I sent them back. But I didn’t give up on it; I ended up going to Nashville and found two that I love.
“I also have two original one‐piece‐ body ’68 [Les Paul] Customs. I know they’re very valuable because it was the first year and they have the longer neck tenon. But, honestly, I prefer the sound of the reissues. [The originals] have those thin necks from ’68 and I don’t get along well with those; it just doesn’t sound right on a Custom. To my ears, a bigger neck makes for a bigger tone. Having said that, I don’t hate it on an Epiphone. I love Casinos - I have a ’64 that has a thin neck, but it sounds fantastic.”
Do you like the sound of P-90s?
“I’m a big P‐90 fan. I love [ES‐]330s and Casinos, but, sadly, it doesn’t really work for me with the GN’R setting because it seems to fight for sonic territory too much with Slash’s tone. [P‐90s] can be quite throaty, they have that throaty sort of vocal quality to them, and that’s where Slash’s tone really sits. I tried a few different things out and it seems lower‐output humbuckers and lower‐gain amps work well, so that’s what I use.
“Filter’Tron Gretsches work great because they keep out of [Slash’s] sonic territory and seem to blend well with his tone. Teles work well, too, but I’ve mostly been using the Leo Scala guitars and Gretsches. The Scalas all have lower‐output pickups and, fortunately, I have the ability to try stuff out with Leo. We’ll go through five or six different pickups per guitar until we find the right one. It’s been a labour of love to meticulously keep going back and forth. It’s fun to work with someone who is as equally driven to find the perfect match.”
What pickups do you tend to use in the Scalas and Gretsches?
“I’m really into a pickup that Rob Timmons at Arcane developed using an Alnico 8 magnet. It’s a very strong magnet, but the pickup has very few windings, so the output is lower. It has a very open, broad sound to it. It’s not too compressed or midrange‐y sounding, and I love the way it complements Slash’s tone. Arcane is the best. They pretty much make every pickup I use now. They have all the sonic elements I love about the Filter’Tron but they’ve been brought up to around 7.5 to 8kohms [original vintage Filter’Trons typically measure around 4kohms DCR].”
Desert island picking
Are you a fan of vintage Gretsches?
“I have friends who are Gretsch aficionados and it seems that ’58 is the year to have. It was the first year of the Filter’Tron and apparently those ones are the shit. I have three ’58s, all in the Chet line: a 6120 [Chet Atkins Hollowbody], a 6119 [Chet Atkins Tennessean] and a 6122 [Chet Atkins Country Gentleman]. When I had the 6122 appraised, they were like, ‘Hey, that serial number is six guitars away from Chet’s!’ I don’t have the 6121 [Chet Atkins Solid Body]. Yet. I have to find that and my ’58 Chet collection will be complete.”
If you had to keep just one guitar from your collection, what would it be?
“The ’73 Gibson Les Paul Signature that I bought when I was 20 years old. That is my desert island pick. In my opinion, the Les Paul Signature is the most underrated Gibson ever. If I’m walking into a session blind, that’s the guitar I’ll bring because it covers so much territory with the low‐/high‐impedance outputs, the phase switch and the mid‐sweep. They sound amazing through a cranked Marshall or direct [line]. My wife asked me, ‘Why is it that the Les Paul Signature is so undervalued?’ and I said, ‘Unless somebody uses it on an iconic album, they don’t have the same appeal.’ People are always chasing a guitar they’re familiar with, or a sound that somebody else got playing it, you know?”
Do you have any other lesser-known models on your favourites list?
“I have a Silvertone  Chris Isaak model and that sounds fantastic. Mini‐humbuckers are such a weird thing to me. They’re all over the map - some of them are just phenomenal sounding and other times they just don’t work. It’s the same thing with Firebird pickups. I’ve got a ’63 Firebird V that I love, but I’ve always wanted a Firebird I; I think they’re the coolest Firebirds.
“I love single‐pickup guitars. I’ve got seven Juniors from the 50s - single‐cuts and double‐cuts - but you know how inconsistent P‐90s are: you can have a bunch of Juniors and they’re all gonna sound completely different. I’ve got two ’59 TV double‐cuts and I’ve got a ’55 TV single‐cut that I played when I was with Thin Lizzy. I love that guitar. That’s my favourite‐sounding [Junior].”
You can get a lot of different sounds from Juniors just by using the volume control...
“Using the guitar volume control seems to be a dying art, but for Slash and me, it’s imperative. We play a lot with our fingers - going back and forth between fingers and pick - and we’re always riding the volume. We’re constantly on our volumes. Constantly. You know, finding different sweet spots for that particular moment. Tonally, there’s so much available just on your guitar volume, so I need an amp that’s gonna really help that.”
What amps are you currently using?
“The Supro Black Magick and my Supro signature head. I’m just using a single channel with my pedals and riding the volume control. The Supro signature amp is 100 watts and is based on my ’73 Jose [Arredondo]‐modded Marshall Super Lead that I bought from Mick Mars. I played through about six different Jose‐ modded amps at his house, all of them old Marshalls, and that one was just incredible. I played one chord and I was like, ‘Holy shit!’ The clouds parted, the angels sang, and the light shone down...
“But eventually I decided I didn’t want to tour with that version any more, so I was trying to find somebody that could clone it. Trace [Davis] at Voodoo did a fantastic job. We tweaked it and tweaked it over the years, and then I did the same thing with Supro. I sent them the original Mick Mars/Jose amp and they cloned it, and that’s what I’m touring with now. That’s what’s going to be the new Supro signature amp.”
It’s all about refining your own sound...
“We’re pushed and inspired by our own tone. It’s a private thing. It’s a communication and a conversation between myself and whoever I’m playing with. We’re gonna be playing better because we’re hearing what we want to hear and feeling what we want to feel. That’s why we keep searching for that extra one per cent, right? Playing different guitars with different amps makes you play differently - which is how I think we justify buying so many [laughs]! I want it to sound the way I want it to sound. And I want to be inspired by that sound.”