Nic Rush is a guitar player’s guitarist. You do not become a brand ambassador (and endorsee) for Line 6, Yamaha Guitars, Marshall Amps and D’Addario strings if you do not have the chops, boast a mediocre public profile or play gigs infrequently. No, Nic has serious chops and is one of the busiest live performers and session players in the country.
Being the lead guitarist for Watershed raised his public profile, something he has maintained since then with hard work in an industry that can be very unforgiving. After more than 22 years in the music business, he is still having a ball. We discussed Nic’s gear choices, life with Watershed, the challenges of being a musical director and the values and disciplines you need to cultivate to be a successful musician in South Africa.
Watershed has been a highlight in your past. What is the big thing that you took from your experience in Watershed?
Nic Rush: Well obviously it was a very big band. There was a point in time between 2005 and 2008 when we were the biggest band in the country. Just Jinger was overseas and Prime Circle and The Parlotones were just, and I mean like just, under us. Obviously, those guys have taken it to another level now. What Watershed did for me was to provide a platform to create a profile, which I did. The funny thing now is that I got more endorsement deals from being out of that band than I ever got when I was in the band. I had a reputation as a guitarist before I joined Watershed. There were a lot of people for whom it didn’t make sense as I was a rocker and I joined a more pop band. What it taught me was the art of performance on big stages.
We did a few international festivals and the size venues that we were touring in Germany when I first joined the band were 1000 seaters minimum. I had a handle on the smaller club thing cause I was gigging pro from the age of 16. I joined Watershed at the age of 23. I had done 7 years of hardcore pub and club gigging prior to Watershed so I knew how to rock a small stage in a packed room. But the stages got big with Watershed and I took to it like a duck to water. The bigger the stage the better it got for me actually.
What makes the bigger stages different? What is the thing that you had to adapt to?
Nic Rush: People are a lot closer to you in a small venue. The bigger the stage, the bigger the event which means you are talking major festivals or venues. There are numerous health and safety things that have to be taken into account by the organisers. So you are talking about maybe a 2-meter gap between the front of the stage, which is probably two or three meters high, and the barricades keeping the people away from you. You really have to learn how to project your vibe. You’ve got to play to the person at the back of the room. At a big festival that can be 20 000 people away.
Are you still with the Barnyard?
Nic Rush: I am not with the Barnyard and haven’t been for the last 19 months.
So you are not in your role as musical director there anymore?
Nic Rush: No, but I have been back to the Barnyard Theater venues with my own shows – Six String Stories and The Dark Side of the Wall: A Tribute To Pink Floyd and The Doors. I was there as musical director from 2013 till May last year and it has been great. They treated me well and there is a lot to be said for taking what the Barnyard Theater has got to offer with regards to the things you need to learn to do as a performer.
I still learned lessons on that stage because it is not just the rock show type of thing. There are things that need to happen in a certain order on every single night and it’s the same show every single night. It taught me a lot about mentally prepping myself to be able to do the same thing every single night. It is a different mental discipline. I always kept myself busy outside of the Barnyard Theater even when I was in it. So it wasn’t a massive adjustment to leave the Barnyard because I kind of had both feet in the world.
In your role as a musical director, you were obviously in charge of the product and what the other muzo’s brought to the table.
Nic Rush: I was not the type of musical director who charted everything for everybody. I kind of left everybody to learn the stuff like they were meant to. Some of the shows that existed before my time in the Barnyard were simply resurrected. So it was more team leader and quality controller than director a lot of the time. But obviously, you’ve got to keep tabs on what everybody is doing musically every single night.
Being in a leadership position like that, for me, is not about telling people exactly what you want to be done all the time. It’s about taking a step back and not letting your ego take over and go, “Bassist and drummer, that groove that you guys tried in that song tonight in that section in the 1st set was amazing. Keep doing that. And maybe the thing you did in that other song in the 2nd set kind of fell flat. I’d prefer if you did this or that.” I’ve seen many people fall flat in that position and they go on power trips. Good leadership is also about letting people find their own vibe and find themselves within the parameters of what you are doing.
What do you expect from musicians in general when you are in that team leader role?
Nic Rush: Learn your stuff before you get to a rehearsal. Arrive on time with a good attitude and a smile on your face. And be prepared to work very, very hard. Everyone will then be happy. That applies to every single thing that I have ever done. These things are key. Being able to play well nowadays is a requirement. Nobody gets any badges for being able to play the instrument as well as they possibly can. Because that is standard, it is the accepted level. What is going to keep you getting booked repeatedly is how well you can hang with people and how much people enjoy being around you. It’s about the jokes in your repertoire and the gags that you’ve got and your contribution to everybody’s vibe. That’s what will get you booked.
This message has been a recurring theme from all the successful musicians that I have spoken to over the past year, especially those that are still doing very well in an industry that is supposedly on the decline from an income stream perspective.
Nic Rush: Well, there are so few people that have actually got a handle on that and we all end up working together all the time. When the majority of the industry does not get that and it is very difficult for them to get work because they do not have a handle on these things, then it is going to seem that the music industry is on a decline. I mean, some of us are living our best lives playing music.
The gear Nic Rush relies on
Let’s talk gear. You are endorsed by Yamaha Guitars. Which models are currently your go-to?
Nic Rush: I originally joined Yamaha in 2011 and I got an SG 2000. It is a fantastic guitar but has been discontinued. It is very valuable and I already dropped it twice and snapped the neck twice. It has been repaired and it’s better off than it’s ever been, but I keep that one at home now. It does not gig. In 2012 I went off the radar a little bit and when I resigned with Yamaha in 2014-ish I was using the Yamaha Pacifica 611’s for a while. It had a humbucker in the back and P90 in the front. I still use those.
The Yamaha Revstar 502 model is my thing. When that model came out I found my guitar. I have the RS502 with P90’s and one RS620 which comes with humbuckers. For me, the best bang for the buck in the whole range is the RS502 if you like P90’s. I’ve actually gone off humbuckers completely so I’ve put humbucker sized P90’s into my RS620.
I wanted to ask you about that because you mentioned on Gregory’s Garage a while ago that the older you get the more you like single coils and the less you play humbuckers.
Nic Rush: Yes, totally. For a lot of the Afro popish type of corporate gigs that I do I use a cheap Yamaha Pacifica that’s like a R5000 guitar. I just put some aftermarket pickups in it and Planet Waves locking tuners. The rest is stock. I set the trem to float and it stays in tune like a bomb. I just got a new Pacifica 612 which is the highest-end one with an HSS pickup configuration that has Seymour Duncan’s in them. My RS620 has Bare Knuckle pickups. They are my favourite aftermarket pups. The 612 comes standard with Seymour Duncan’s in it.
Why did you go with Yamaha?
Nic Rush: Because I don’t ever want to be the guy that does what everyone else is doing just because everyone else is doing it. And they are simply the most underrated guitar company in the world. Their quality control is second to none. The quality of instruments and the bang for the buck that you get out of Yamaha is great.
I’m very blessed to have an endorsement deal with them. I can tell you that in the price range of my cheap Pacifica there’s not a Fender or Jackson or whatever that can touch it. I gig big gigs with that cheapie all the time and it is a tone machine. My identity as a guitarist and a lot of other guitar players will tell you, is that I definitely sound like myself when I play the Yamaha’s. I’m more into having an identity as a guitarist than a session player jack of all trades type, which I do anyway.
The Yamaha guitars are literally a part of my DNA as a musician, especially the Revstar. When you are talking about me as an artist the Revstars are definitely me. The things that I do, that are my stuff, is all about the Revstars. But when you are doing other people’s things and you need a little more versatility I’ll take a Revstar and a Pacifica with me.