Twenty-three years ago, a feature article in Guitar World began with these words: “On a humid New Jersey night in early July, Bon Jovi’s Richie Sambora sat on an empty dock on the Manasquan River chatting with guitar legend Les Paul. It was well after midnight, and while a party was in full swing just a hundred yards away, Sambora and Paul were left to themselves as they talked about music, the industry and guitars.”
That night marked the beginning of an extraordinary friendship, a near father-son relationship between Paul and Sambora that continued to deepen right up until Paul’s death in 2009. In the following interview, the Bon Jovi guitarist talks about what he learned from Paul, and how much the legendary innovator meant to him. The chat concludes with a question about Sambora’s remarkable new album, Aftermath of the Lowdown, and the latest news about Bon Jovi.
Was Les Paul the same in private as he was in public?
To me he seemed the same, yes. I happened to have an extremely close relationship with Les. We talked all the time, from the time I met him in 1988. A dear friend of mine brought Les over to my house, as a surprise, for a birthday party I was having. Les brought this beautiful white Les Paul guitar for me as a gift, that evening. We became fast friends that day, and that friendship never stopped.
Did you play together often, privately and in public?
I jammed with him everywhere from Fat Tuesday’s to The Iridium, in New York, many times. And of course I spent lots of time at his house. Russ, his son, said Les looked at me more as a family member than as a peer. Oftentimes, whenever we spoke on the phone, the last thing we would talk about was music. We would talk for hours. It was an amazing relationship. He asked me to induct him into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and we played together that night. We remained very close right up to his death.
What sort of advice did he give you, about music or other matters?
His life was a model. It was almost a fatherly role. We did talk a lot about business. A lot of the advice he gave me was business advice, and a lot was about staying young, staying creative. That was the essence of his life. He stressed the importance of always keeping busy, of having things to do, and keeping your mind flexible and nimble. Of course he also stressed the importance of continuing to play. The guy played those Monday night shows until he was 93.
Have you recorded often with the guitar he gave you?
Many times. And I still play it today. It’s in my office, on a stand, right now. It’s one of those guitars I keep handy. I keep guitars all over the house, almost in every room, like pieces of furniture.
Do you have a funny story involving Les?
When he gave me that guitar, the first time we met, Bon Jovi was attempting to make a double album. For a guy who’s one of the principle songwriters, and the rhythm and lead guitar player, when you’re talking about 20 or more songs, that’s a lot of work. I was buckling a little bit, and I had come home, to take a rest. I was overworked, and I couldn’t create fast enough to supply the record. My friend brought Les over, and Les gave me that guitar, and when he gave it to me he said, “Son, here’s the sword. Go cut the [expletive].”(laughs) I’ll never forget that. And that’s what I did. I took that guitar and used it to finish the record, even though it didn’t turn out to be a double album. That was New Jersey.
Just a couple of non-Les related questions: Your new album, Aftermath of the Lowdown, addresses some troubles you’ve experienced in recent years, things that have been in the tabloids. Were you trying to set the record straight?
I may have done that, but it was by accident, after the fact. I do think I was digging inside myself, and excavating feelings about some things I’ve gone through. But those are universal things. Everyone goes through these ups and downs. A lot of what I talk about on this record has to do with coming out on the other side – the triumph of making it through, or weathering the storm, as one of the songs says. It’s also about the freedom you find when you come out on the other side of adversity.
Bon Jovi also has a new album ready. Can you offer a hint of what fans should expect?
Nope. (laughs) It’s not completely done yet. Musically, it’s finished, but the mixing and few other things aren’t complete. Things can change drastically when it comes to mixing, these days. We don’t have a title yet, either. And quite frankly, I’m focusing right now on this solo album. This album means to the world to me. Obviously, it’s the best solo record I’ve done so far. I’m very proud of it.