You have to give Alice Cooper credit: he has always had the best bands around him. From the original five guys who were a band first and foremost to the musicians who make up his entourage in 2015, each one knows how to bring the rock to such classic songs as “School’s Out,” “Under My Wheels” and “Ballad Of Dwight Fry.” Guitar players have especially flourished under the Alice Cooper banner. From Glen Buxton and Michael Bruce, to Davey Johnstone, Steve Hunter, Damon Johnson, Orianthi, Ryan Roxie and Tommy Henriksen, to name a few, Cooper has had gold in his kettle. But the three-guitar onslaught was left with a hole when Orianthi departed in 2014.
Enter Nita Strauss, the Los Angeles musician who tore up the guitar in the Iron Maidens, a popular Iron Maiden cover band, her role being the feminine equivalent of Dave Murray. Coming into the Alice Cooper family last year, her bonding with the other guys was, as Strauss told me during our recent interview, “instantaneous.” With her killer shredding alongside Roxie, Henriksen and bass player Chuck Garric, it adds a new rawness to the band, kicking it up another notch into the realms of rocking harder than they may have before.
A few weeks after a New Orleans concert earlier this month when Alice Cooper was opening for Motley Crue, Glide had the opportunity to talk with Strauss about her roots in music, her guitar playing and how Alice once pranked her on the tour bus.
You are actually at home for once.
I am home, yes. I just got back from a guitar clinic with Ibanez Guitars in South America.
What do you do at a guitar clinic exactly?
A guitar clinic is basically like a Master Class. There’s anywhere between 300-400 people there and there is a lot of demonstrating, a lot of talking about guitars and techniques, Question & Answers and jamming and it’s a great time.
You’ve been with Alice Cooper for over a year now. How long did it take for you to acclimate to his stage show and working with everyone in the band?
It was actually pretty much instantaneous. The band had a great chemistry from the very beginning. Working with Alice was very, very easy and it felt great from the first show. There really wasn’t any adjustment period.
Who was the first one you buddied up with, who acted like a big brother and showed you the ropes?
Honestly, it was everybody. Glen Sobel, the drummer, was the only one in LA where I live and as soon as I got on the email with everybody, Glen sent me an email and we went out to lunch and talked about the gig and stuff. Then when I met everybody, we all just hit it off. It was great.
Did you have a period where you all sat down and figured out your guitar parts?
No, not at all, actually. It was already really built in. I really just came in and learned the parts that the guitar player before me played. It was very seamless.
There is a moment during the show where the four of you [Strauss, Roxie, Henriksen and Garric] are up front and it’s this onslaught of guitars. How does it feel to be a part of that moment?
I think it’s a great way to just present something to the crowd. Like, here we are, here’s the band, and a great picture to take with your camera phone (laughs). This is us, you know, and I think that everybody that comes to the show takes that picture.
Do you have a lot of freedom during the show, what with all the props and the cues?
Oh very much so, yeah. It’s a very organic show. It’s not super choreographed or anything. There are certain parts like that where we all go to the center but it’s very much a rock show. It’s not like, make sure you go here, stand here, look like this, frown, then smile, then laugh (laughs). It’s really loose. It’s just a great organic rock show.
Is there a particular Alice Cooper song that you haven’t played yet that you would love to do live?
I would love for them to put “Halo Of Flies” back in the set, personally, because I love that song. It’s a great heavy song. But I like everything, all the songs we do, so I’ll be happy with any changes they make.
What was more nerve-wracking: the audition or the first live show?
The audition, definitely. No question about it.
Well, you know, playing with a band is easy. Playing with a band in front of an audience is what we all live for. Auditioning is terrifying. It’s nerve-wracking. You’re there by yourself, every note counts, everything is important, everything could be make or break. The first show, nobody expects you to be any good anyway (laughs).
When you were with the Iron Maidens, did you have a favorite moment during that show?
Playing with the Iron Maidens was a totally different experience. It’s much more loose, much more, and I wouldn’t say more fun but it’s just a looser show. It’s a club band so we go and drink beer onstage and we all have fun. There really wasn’t a lot of pressure playing with the Iron Maidens. It was more about having a great time and putting on a great show. So every moment onstage with that band was a great moment.
Since you had to get into the bare bones of Dave Murray’s playing, what do you think was his shining moment in Iron Maiden?
You know, Dave and Adrian Smith just compliment each other’s playing so well. Adrian’s got this really smooth, fluid legato style and Dave is much more gritty rock. So I think that band needs both those styles; Adrian’s more smoother style and Dave’s more classic rock blues style to compliment each other. They play off each other so well and it was great to get to study that a little bit and get into the nitty gritty of that.
Is it easier with two guitar players than three?
I’m a guitar player’s guitar player and I think as many guitar players as you can fit on a stage, let them all come – three, four, five, six – I’d be happy (laughs)
I understand that you were a gymnast growing up. How serious were you into that?
I was very serious. I grew up in a ballet and gymnastics household. When I quit, I think I was ranked number eleven in the nation.
Is that something you thought you could do long term?
I think, even at that time, I realized that there had to be something more out there because the career of a gymnast is very finite. You can’t do much after age sixteen or seventeen. Your career is basically over and then all you can do is coach because you’ve dropped out of school. Nobody knows what happens to these incredibly talented teenagers after the Olympic lights go down.
Was music a part of your life growing up?
My mom was a professional dancer and my dad was a professional musician so around the age of twelve or thirteen, that was when I got into playing music.
Was there anybody in particular that made you want to pick up a guitar?
My dad, definitely. He is a great musician and bass player and he plays guitar and drums too. He was definitely my inspiration to pick up the guitar in the first place.
Did he teach you?
He taught me my first chords, yeah. He was very patient. I was very impatient so it was a good mix (laughs). But I started out just sort of bashing away at the guitar and then I saw a movie called Crossroads, which has a great scene in it with my favorite guitar player, Steve Vai, who was my biggest influence then and is still today. As soon as I saw that scene in that movie I just wanted to get into the fast stuff, the shred stuff. So I was just a little speed machine from the beginning.
What is it that really appeals to you about Steve Vai?
What can I say – Steve Vai is just so cool. In that movie Crossroads and all his playing and stage presence, there is no one cooler than Steve Vai. I aspire, like most guitar players I think, every day to try and be as cool as Steve Vai was in Crossroads (laughs). I don’t know if it’s possible or attainable but that’s what we do.
When you were first learning guitar, what was the most frustrating or difficult part to get the hang of?
The whole thing was difficult. It’s hard to make your two hands work together like that. It’s hard to make one hand work on one thing while your other hand is doing other things. But once you get used to it and get the muscle memory down it becomes second nature.
Did you start learning on acoustic or electric?
Electric. You know, it’s funny, to this day I still don’t own an acoustic guitar. Never had one. It was never something that was so important to me that I felt like I had to have one. But if I had one I would enjoy it.
When did you start writing songs?
Right away. I started writing as soon as I knew how to make chords and make notes.
When do you think we are going to see some music from you?
2016. I have a solo album in the works. I’ve spent the last few years playing other people’s material, in the Iron Maidens and Alice Cooper, and I’m just excited to get my own material back out there. It’s great to be creative again and come up with ideas. So I’m looking forward to getting that going.
Are you singing?
Oh no (laughs). We want people to like it so I’m not going to sing on it.
Is it mostly instrumental or are you bringing in people to sing on it?
I’m not sure so I guess we’ll see. It’s still sort of in the baby stages of development, this whole thing. Maybe I’ll bring singers in to sing on it, maybe I’ll do half instrumental, half vocals. I haven’t quite sorted it all out yet.
When was your first time playing guitar onstage?
I played my first show, I think, within a few weeks of picking up the guitar. Right away. I started playing at thirteen and did my first show then and I did my first national tour at fifteen. We’d tour in the summer and on winter break and then I dropped out Junior year of high school to play music.
You were determined
I just wanted to do it (laughs)
Tell us about the guitar that you play now and what makes it so special to you?
My main guitar that I use now onstage is an Ibanez S-series. Ibanez has been really supportive throughout the last several years of my career, doing the guitar clinics and really giving me a lot of support on the road. All my guitars are customized to my specifications so they make sure that the neck is the way I like it, the feel of it, the bridge, the pickups, everything. So it’s definitely a Nita guitar that is really made for my hands.
Who was the first real rock star you ever met?
I’m drawing a blank (laughs). I didn’t really meet a lot of people for a long time. When I met Vai, it was just in passing. My best friend Courtney was interviewing him and I was so excited. He told her she smelled like cupcakes and we both laughed like little kids (laughs).
What is the craziest thing you have ever done onstage?
I don’t know if it’s crazy but I’ve always had this sort of chip on my shoulder being a girl onstage and always tried to do crazier stuff and play louder and go faster and perform harder than anybody else. So I was always, especially as a teenager, I was always like jumping off things, jumping off the stage, jumping off of amps and all that kind of stuff. I fell down more often than not but at least I did it.
Have you attempted to play golf with Alice yet?
I have not. It’s so funny, when I first joined the band, my dad said to me, “You better learn how to play golf.” And I said, “Maybe I better learn the songs first.” (laughs). You know, Alice is such an accomplished golfer, I think I would probably just sort of like waste his time trying to golf with him. He’s been kind enough to invite me a few times but I’m like, “You guys go ahead.”
Who is the practical joker in the band?
What’s the best prank he’s pulled on you?
You know what, this is not a Chuck prank but this was all Alice. One time they put a skeleton, like a big life-size poseable skeleton in my bunk reaching out for me so that when I opened the curtain of the bunk, there was a skeleton in there and they put someone’s phone under the covers playing scary music. And then Alice said, “Nita, the guy you brought home last night didn’t make it!” (laughs)
Did you get a chance to talk with Mick Mars since you’ve been touring with Motley Crue?
I have spoken to him a few times, yeah. I admire him so much for what he is doing, because he is pushing through extreme pain to play every night and his love for his instrument really shows through every single show. So it’s really amazing to get to watch that every night.
What was the biggest lesson you learned on your own when you became a professional musician?
That’s a great question. I guess the biggest lesson is that you can never be prepared enough for what this industry is going to throw at you. There will always be something that you wish you had learned or you wish you had known or wish that you had asked somebody about. So the most important thing is just be a sponge, soak up information and never be afraid to ask questions. My band when I was growing up opened up for bigger bands at the Whisky or the House Of Blues and I would always go knock on other bands’ dressing room doors and say, “Hi, I’m Nita, I’m from this band or that band. You’re the guitar player, right? Can you show me how you do this?” And maybe because I was a girl or maybe because I was young, they’d go, “Yeah, sit down, I’ll show you how to do that.” “Can you show me how you did this on this album?” And they were all cool enough to do it. So not to just have any pride and not to have any ego about going up and just asking questions and learning.
What would be the worst advice someone gave you?
Somebody once advised me to not have a Plan B and just go for it, go for what I want, focus all my energy on making a career in the music business and not looking back. And I took that advice and it paid off really well for me (laughs). But I can see how others would think that wasn’t the best advice. I sort of thought it was fantastic advice to have no Plan B and just go for it, take no prisoners. But my mom didn’t think it was very good advice, I’ll tell you that (laughs). But the harder you work the luckier you get.
Are you noticing that the label “female rocker” is diminishing any in the music business – where women are just guitar players or just singers instead of female guitar players and female singers?
Absolutely, it’s completely diminishing. Guitar players like Lita Ford and Joan Jett and the girls from Heart and Michelle Meldrum, these were the ones that it was hard for. And not just guitar players but Pat Benatar, other great singers, they were the ones that had to really deal with the stigma of being a female musician. Now, it’s so awesome to sort of be on the forefront of this wave. The waves aren’t crashing down on us anymore. They’re coming in at a nice steady pace and great guitar players like Courtney Cox, Irene Ketikidi and Gretchen Menn, there are so many phenomenal guitar players out there. So it’s not really that weird to be a girl in the music industry anymore.
Would you prefer being called just a guitar player and not a female guitar player?
You know, every once in a while people ask me if I get offended by being on lists like Top 10 Female Guitar Players, Hottest Chicks In Rock or whatever, and I really don’t get offended by it because it is what I am. I AM a female guitar player and if somebody wants to put me on a list of female guitar players, I’m very happy to be there. But just the same, I am also extremely happy and honored to be on any list of great guitar players in general. I think it’s important not to take it too seriously one way or the other. So many female musicians get so caught up in saying, “I’m not a female musician, I’m just a musician.” I’m like, no, you still use the bathroom with the little dress on it (laughs). Just be who you are.
What are your plans for the rest of the year?
We’re going to finish out the year with Motley Crue. I’ve got some guitar clinics interspersed in there, which you can always find out about on my website, www.nitastrauss.com. It has all the information about when and where I’m going to be, what clinics I’m doing, and all that stuff. And then just focusing on writing the album.
Live photographs by Leslie Michele Derrough, Amy Harris and Jennifer Devereaux