Rich Williams of Kansas: The Interview

Rich Williams Feature Photo by Jamie Geysbeek Photography

Since its beginning, guitarist Rich Williams has been a mainstay within Kansas. He was there for the early ’70s when the band’s record company nearly sunk them. He was there for the mid to late ’70s when songs like “Dust in the Wind” and “Carry on Wayward Son” turned Kansas into rock ‘n’ roll radio mainstays. And, of course, he was there in the ’80s, when Kansas lost their way (but still made decent records), and the ’90s, when grunge ruled the day. But these days, though the cast of characters around him has changed, along with drummer Phil Ehart, Williams is the last man standing.

And that’s just fine with him, as Kansas’s resurgence has seen them selling out halls and areas to fans who are there to feast on whatever they’ve got to offer. “Here we are all these years later, and we’re working as much as we ever have,” Williams tells “Maybe we’re flying under the radar, but every rock band is flying under the radar these days.”

“We’re not all that relevant to what is “popular,” but that’s okay,” he says. “I don’t really like much of what is “popular” anyway; it doesn’t speak to me. We have nothing in common with that world whatsoever. So, we don’t even concern ourselves with it.”

As for his outlook as Kansas lurches ahead, Williams says. “It doesn’t matter what we do on our next album; the radio is not going to play it. So Fine. We have an extremely large and loyal fan base that wants to hear whatever we offer. We’re having the best career of our lives right now. Our fan base knows, and they’re coming out.”

The response to Kansas’s 50th anniversary has been incredible. That must be gratifying.

Oh, it’s been fantastic. We’re going to end it this year; the last day is going to be in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is where the first date was last year. And then we’re going to put up his ad, but a lot of holes in the schedule are starting to fill in, and there’s stuff that you haven’t seen yet that we’d like to make sure that they’re absolute before we put it on the website.

I assume past issues are driving that.

We’ve had issues before where people would be taking their summer vacation from Germany, and they want to come see us in Colorado Springs or something. They’d book their hotels and their flights and all that, and then, yeah, we can’t work out the deal with the promoter, or something happens, and somebody else has taken the building. And meanwhile, the people who made their plans get mad and can’t blame them. So, we learned a long time ago until it’s chiseled in stone, we don’t announce it.

50 years is a long time. What does it mean to you, considering you’ve been there since the start?

There’s a lot of gratitude for me because I have avoided real life for my entire life; I feel like I’ve never had a job [laughs]. Not that this is easy, but if you love what you do, it’s not really work. Sometimes travel is a bitch, but what’s more fun than getting together with your buddies and making music? It’s been a great life.

Going back, what was the first guitar that you fell in love with?

The one I loved was a Danelectro, the one with the lipstick pickups. I still have one; it’s hanging on the wall behind me. They’ve got fantastic necks and are so easy to play. Those old lipstick pickups are really mellow with age; it’s a very clear, pure sound.

Where did you go from there?

From that, I went to a Fender Jaguar, which I played for quite a while, but I haven’t touched one since I traded it. And I really don’t even recall what all the switches do [laughs]. There are so many switching options on it. From there, I went to a Telecaster with a Bigsby, but I didn’t have that for long; I traded it for a [Gibson] ES-335, and I wish I still had that guitar.

What made that one special?

That was my first favorite guitar. I’m not sure what year it was, but it was used when I got it. Then I got another one, so I had the reddish one, and the first one was a brown one. Or vice versa; I can’t remember which way, but I love those guitars, and now they’re priced out of sight.

The building is burning down. You can only grab one guitar. Which one are you taking with you?

Oh, boy. Probably my PRS Dragon because of its value. I played it for a lot of years, but my sight isn’t as good as it once was, and it’s really disturbing to look at the neck and not see fret markers and just see two hundred odd pieces forming this Dragon.

I got used to it, and I knew where I was on the neck, but for just picking it up and starting to play, it’s easy to get lost on it because there’s not much of a roadmap. But it’s a beautiful guitar.

Beyond that, I would probably say my Martin, definitely. It’s the one that I recorded Dust in the Wind with, but that’s with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, so if there’s a fire there, I hope they get it out!

But let’s see… if I look behind me, I’ve got a ’66 Strat that I just had rebuilt. I bought it back in the ’70s, and the guy had it striped to natural. I wanted to put it back to Candy Apple Red, so I did that. It’s a really good paint job, but I’m not a Strat guy, so I’d probably let that burn in the fire.

I assume you’d save that ES-335 if you still had it.

Oh, yeah, I would. After the first album Kansas done, and we’d gotten a record deal, everybody in the band said, “You’ve got to get rid of that guitar. That’s a cowboy guitar and for Western music.” So, I traded it for another Gibson, but I would gladly trade it back for that ES-335; it was such a cool guitar. It was a one-of-a-kid and made when they had just started making them. I’ve never picked one up that’s as good since.

What sorts of amps catch your ear these days? Have you gotten into modeling, or are you still primarily using tube amps?

Oh, that’s a long discussion. I started playing with a Kemper, and I really like it. But with the whole modeling thing, I struggle with the feeling of listening back. Every time we play a show, some people end up putting it on YouTube, and I’ll listen to them, though, and people say it sounds really good. But they don’t know what it’s like to hold the guitar and play through it.

The feel is different, yeah?

Feel is an important aspect of it. Your mind, body, and hands are trying to translate through the guitar and into the sample, and you’re fighting it. But this is only your problem; the listeners aren’t hearing the struggle you’re having with it.

I’ve been in the digital world for quite a while now, but every time I go back into a tube, it’s like, “Oh yeah, now I remember why I like this so much.” It’s a never-ending search for unity between mind, body, guitar, and amp. Or you’re not fighting anymore; it’s just doing what you put into it. You get to concentrate on just playing rather than fighting the feel of it.

Are there any techniques or aspects of guitar playing that you aspire to improve or that have always been tricky for you?

I’ve never been a speed king. It’s just always eluded me. Some say you can never get fast enough and that faster is always better. It’s like lead singers—higher is always better. I have to remind myself of the philosophy that sometimes the best note is the one you don’t play.

When you play with more expression instead of just showing off some amazing dexterity, sometimes you get back to being more melodic. So, what’s the sense of trying to keep up with all of that? I see 12-year-old girls from Japan play at blinding speeds on YouTube; I could practice 15 hours a day for the rest of my life and never achieve that.

Some people have that technique; I don’t. Tapping is not something I’ve ever done because I have one eye and no depth perception. With tapping, you need pretty exact precision, and a certain visual approach; I don’t have that. So, I’ve never really wasted any time on it. Well, I have wasted a lot of time, which is why I know I can’t do it well [laughs].

What are a few pieces of advice you’d give to your younger self if you had the chance?

My younger self… well, let’s say my younger self, who was on the road, I’d tell them to save their money and don’t spend it all down at the bar after the show. I got sober 15 years ago, and I would have got sober 50 years ago. It’s a waste of time, it’s a waste of money, and it’s not good for your health.

I can’t tell you the countless times I got up for some reason at five o’clock in the morning, dragging my suitcase down yet another hotel hallway on three hours of sleep and still half-drunk with a hangover, thinking, “Why did I stay up so late?” So, I don’t have that anymore. Now, when I have to get up early with little sleep, I’m very grateful that when I wake up, I can have fun and enjoy this.

Looking back on your career, what’s your proudest musical achievement?

At this point, I’d say 50 years of Kansas. When we started our first band together in high school, it was for the purest of reasons: to get together with your friends and make joyous noise. It was fun making music with your friends. And the essence of what we do today is the same thing. But it turned from a hobby into a career to last an entire lifetime. So, I’m very proud of our achievements and 50 years.

Does Kansas get the level of recognition it deserves?

Well, I will never be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with many people who should be, and that’s okay. I’m very aware of what the band Kansas has brought to the table in our 50 years. And we manage ourselves, we call all the shots, we record when and if we want, we pick the shows, and we want to do if we want to.

If we don’t want to go to Europe, we don’t want to go to Europe. Whatever it is, it is all under our control. And so, it’s good we’ve got a bunch of dedicated guys that want to do this. This is not a bunch of whining and complaining and bitching about whatever. It’s a bunch of dedicated guys, and we have fun doing it.

Anybody that’s been in the band knows what it’s like to be around the other five or six guys and just shoot the shit and crack jokes and tell funny stories. It’s fun; I recommend it to anybody, especially if you have a desire to see more of the world in your backyard.

Which Kansas album would you say is the band’s definitive statement?

I’m usually prejudiced to the last one. We really recaptured the essence of what Kansas is. We nailed it on the head with these last few albums, and we proved to ourselves that the glory days with Kerry Livgren and Steve Walsh writing most of it—even though Phill Ehart was a big part of it—wasn’t where it ends.

Phil and I know Kansas is and what it could be, and we disassemble it and put it back together. So, the last couple of albums are my favorites. But in the scheme of things, as far as the catalog goes, I’d say that, realistically, probably Leftoverture because that was the album that we found ourselves. We’d gotten close before but didn’t hit the bullseye.

So, as we were finishing it up in the studio and hearing it all assembled in order, we knew we had a really good record. We were sure “Carry on Wayward Son” would be a smash hit, and sure enough, it was a game-changer for us.

Rich Williams Of Kansas Interview

Rich Williams photo courtesy of Chipser PR.

Rich Williams of Kansas: The Interview article published on Classic© 2024 Protection Status


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