Asking the question “What type of guitar player is Richard Fortus?” is potentially dangerous, because trying to answer it just might cause one’s word processor to run out of hyphens. Fortus is currently playing the dream gig of standing onstage next to Axl and Slash in Guns N’ Roses, whom he joined in 2001. He has recorded, toured, or done both with marquee artists across literally every style of modern music, including Rihanna, Enrique Iglesias, Thin Lizzy, Fiona Apple, BT, and Crystal Method. He’s been a full-on band member of The Psychedelic Furs and more recently supergroup The Dead Daisies. His film score contributions include Monster and The Fast and the Furious franchise. Luckily for us, he’s as affable and up for a conversation about music as he is impossible to pigeonhole, and Celestion guitar speakers have been by his side during his entire journey.
Your bio says you were classically trained as a child?
Yeah, I started on the Suzuki Method on violin when I was about four. A bit later I played drums to satisfy my rock ’n’ roll itch but continued playing violin throughout school.
Was your family musical?
My mother sang and played piano. My father was not musical at all. He was an accountant. But he was a partner in a company called St. Louis Music. They made Alvarez and Electra guitars and Crate amps. So, I grew up in that world and was exposed to a lot of music and musicians as a kid.
What was your favorite music growing up?
When I was little, like eight, like every other kid at that time I was into KISS. Then there was Aerosmith, Queen … those were the biggest bands in the world at that time. As I got a little older, 11 or 12, I started listening to a lot of the more art-rock stuff like early Genesis. I was really into Yes, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, bands like that. Of course, David Bowie. Later still, I got more into the jazz-fusion stuff that started going on. Jeff Beck’s “Wired” and “Blow by Blow” period was huge. That led me to things like Mahavishnu Orchestra, Chick Corea with Return To Forever, and the Dregs. So that’s where I was when I started playing guitar — obsessed with players like Robert Fripp, Jeff Beck, Steve Howe, early Santana, and Peter Frampton.
Did you aim at those styles of music in your first teenage band?
That band was The Eyes and I think we got it together around 1982. When we first started, the bass player and drummer and I would play our childlike versions of all the fusion stuff I was just talking about. Then, as I turned 14 or 15, I heard The Clash and everything changed after that. It all became less “muso” and more about songwriting and energy. We started playing with a singer and writing songs. Our covers included The Police, U2, Psychedelic Furs, The Damned ….
That must have been a good omen, as you wound up in the actual Psychedelic Furs later on!
That’s an interesting story. My first band [Pale Divine] got signed to Atlantic Records. We ended up touring with the Furs, which is something I worked hard to orchestrate. I wrote letters to [guitar player] John Ashton, telling them about how we just got signed, how much of a Furs fan I was. We signed with their same agency and wound up getting the opening spot on the World Outside tour in North America.
Eventually I would go onstage with them to play violin and guitar. After the tour ended, [Furs lead singer] Richard Butler asked me if I would come up to New York to help him write a solo album. I would go there during the week and write with Richard, then come back to St. Louis to do shows with Pale Divine on weekends, as our bread-and-butter fanbase was in the Midwest.
Eventually I moved to New York full time. Richard Butler’s album became the band Love Spit Love. He felt it was so much of a collaboration that it was unfair to call it a solo album.
Being in New York City must have also provided some opportunities for session work.
Oh, yeah. Being in the Furs it gave me entrée to artists and producers. I was fortunate to get consistent studio work almost immediately.
If we wanted to name three artists who have completely different needs from a guitar player, we couldn’t do better than the Furs, Guns N’ Roses, and the electronic composer BT, with whom you’ve also worked.
And Rihanna! [Laughs.] I’ve done country sessions, blues and funk albums, and I’ve played on a ton of hip-hop albums. All the Puff Daddy stuff? Anything guitar was usually me.
In an industry that likes to pigeonhole people, how do you shift musical gears so easily and avoid getting typecast as this or that genre of a guitarist?
When I would get called to do sessions, the producer who hired me would usually say, “I just want you to do your thing!” So, I’d have to think about where that producer got my name and what they think “my thing” is, then try to deliver it. But really, it’s simply that I just love all types of music. I think I don’t get typecast because I pull from such a broad palette and genuinely love it all. I feel very fortunate in that regard.
How did you get the gig with Guns N’ Roses?
I got called to audition. I was scheduled to be in L.A. anyway working on an album. So that lined up, they sent me some music, we went back and forth, but then as I was departing for L.A., I couldn’t reach them. I get to the album session, and Tommy Stinson and Josh Freese, who were in Guns N’ Roses at the time, were on it, too! They said, “Oh, you’re the guy from New York!”
What had happened was, Axl Rose had found the guitarist Buckethead and called off all auditions. Nonetheless, Tommy and I became very good friends. Cut to a couple of years later. I was on tour in Europe with Enrique Iglesias. Tommy called me and said, “Would you audition for Guns? We need somebody.” I had a break of two days in my schedule. After three shows at Royal Albert Hall, I flew straight to L.A., auditioned, listened to new material with Axl in his car all night, flew back to Ireland, and finished the Enrique tour. Right after, I started rehearsals with Guns.
As a guitarist, what is it like working with Slash?
Slash and Duff and I all come from similar musical backgrounds and have a lot of the same influences. We get along very well, and the funny thing is, I wasn’t that into Guns N’ Roses as a kid because I lumped them in with all the other ’80s hair metal. I supposed I realized they were more legit than bands like Poison, but they weren’t on my radar then. Once I got into the band, I realized how much we have in common.
How did Celestion speakers first come into your world?
Inside a Marshall cabinet, of course! I was a Marshall fanatic as a kid. I have since grown to love Celestion for other reasons. Some of my favorite speakers they make now are the Alnico Creambacks. In my live rig with Guns, I have a Magnatone Twilighter, which is a combo amp with a single 12-inch driver. I swapped out its stock speaker for a Creamback. Then there’s a 100-watt Voodoo amp. The cabinet I use with it has four Celestion speakers: two G12H on one diagonal and two Gold on the other.
How do these models differ in terms of your applications or what you like about them?
The G12H gives me more of the tight low end I want to hear. The Gold provides more of the shimmer on top. That’s why I have both in one cabinet. Then in the little Magnatone, the Alnico Cream just has the most magical midrange right out of the box. You don’t have to break those speakers in. The front-of-house engineer blends those two amps.
I also have a low-powered Fender Tweed Twin. I put a pair of Alnico Creams in that amp temporarily while I had its stock speakers re-coned. I never put the stock ones back in. Those Creams turned a good amp into a great amp. That got me on this whole kick of trying Celestions in vintage Fender amps. I wish Celestion would make a 10-inch version of the Cream!
Is that because a smaller driver responds more quickly?
Partly, yeah. But I have a 1962 Fender Vibroverb that uses two 10-inch speakers. That amp through Creambacks would be incredible. So, I wrote you guys a letter. Please make it! Ten-inchers are a different world in terms of sound and feel. In combination with 12s, you get the best of both worlds. I have a vintage Marshall 8×10 cab that I use together with a 4×12, and it just sounds spectacular.
What else is in your studio?
I have a ridiculous amp collection. I just recently rewired my studio so that I can patch any of 16 amp heads in the control room to any two cabinets at once in the live room, using a custom switching system. I have three different vintage 4×12 cabs. I have an Orange 4×12, a couple of Marshall basket-weave cabs, a checkerboard, that 8×10 Marshall I told you about. I have a 2×12 with Alnico Blues installed. I have a Mesa-Boogie cab that can be closed- or open-back. They’re all permanently miked up. I also use a Universal Audio OX, which is a load box that can run impulse responses for cabinet simulations. I’ll use it in conjunction with an actual miked cabinet.
What are your go-to microphones for guitar cabinets?
I really like the Royer 122V tube ribbon mic. I love the old RCA BK5, which was originally developed for miking gunshots in movies. So, it handles high SPL and transients, which makes it exceptional for capturing tone you can only get by cranking a guitar amp really high. Have you heard of Stager mics out of Nashville? They’re outstanding. I have four different ones.
What advice would you give to a kid who wants to have a career like yours? Let’s suppose they have the talent.
Don’t go into the music business at all! [Laughs.] I was lucky enough to catch the tail end of session work when there were actual recording budgets. During most of my early career, most of the revenue came from record sales and touring was done to support the record. Now, it’s flipped. If you manage to make any money at all it’s going to be from live shows and merchandise, and your record is one more piece of promo to support that. So, if anything I’d say gravitate towards touring work.
I have two daughters and my 15-year-old is in a band. They write songs, record, and do gigs. My wife and I stress to her all the time that music is an amazing creative outlet whether you make money at it or not. But I also recognize that some people don’t do this as a choice. They do it because have no other choice. It’s who they are. It’s certainly who I was, staying up half the night as a teenager, listening, analyzing, transcribing, and copping riffs. If you’re in that boat, learn software like Pro Tools. Be a recording engineer on top of playing an instrument or singing. Put out as much music as you can.
Last but not least, how would you describe your relationship with Celestion as a provider of your equipment and musical partner?
I feel like Celestion is part of my voice. I have a real affinity for British amps, so much that I had 240-volt power installed in my studio so I can run them as they were meant to be run. Beyond the tubes and transformers, the biggest part of that sound is Celestion.