Interview:Astrosurfin! Rick Rossano and the Dillengers

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by Adam St. James

Astrosurfin! Rick Rossano and the Dillengers



At, we're especially proud of the story behind phenomenal Florida-based guitarist - and newest member of the Steve Vai/Favored Nations family - Rick Rossano. Rick and his band the Dillengers were happily playing their collective butts off in a breezy, open-air club in sunny Delray Beach, Florida, when I happened upon them a few short years ago. I was immediately struck by the incredible tone and accuracy of Rossano's playing. He was simply a master of a whole range of classic guitar styles, including blues, surf, rockabilly fingerpicking, country honky-tonk, slide guitar, and more. And when I say he was a master, I don't mean he was really good. I mean he was an f'in genius!


Quickly, I turned on the editors of Guitar One magazine to Rick's playing and they wrote him up as one of the Top 10 Unknown Guitarists in America. Then, during a video shoot I did with Steve Vai for our now defunct site,, I handed a copy of the Dillenger's CD Live at Elwood's to Mr. Vai. A couple months later my friend Rick excitedly let me know Vai had contacted him and was very interested. In the meantime I had Rick write some great roots rock lesson columns for


Now, a couple of years after I first turned Vai on to Rick Rossano, Rick and the Dillenger's first release on Vai's Favored Nations label is finally here. Yeah, I'm biased - 'cause I just really dig this guy's playing - but you've just got to get a copy of Instro-Mania. It's full of great chops and totally bitchin' reworkings of classic surf and "espionage" themes (as Rick calls them), such as "Goldfinger," "The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly," and the theme from "The Magnificent 7."


So now, without further ado, we proudly present the interview with Rick Rossano, the newest Favored Nations recording artist:


Rick Rossano: What's goin' on. Hey Rick, I was just lookin' at the Favored Nations site and at your album graphics. They're really cool.


Rossano: Yeah, it's not bad. That youngster did a good job. He's exceptional. Who did this artwork on your CD?


Rossano: A kid up in Seattle by the name of Patrick O. Is that somebody Favored Nations set you up with?


Rossano: No, they said, 'Here, look at these two people. These are guys that we use a lot.' And I went and looked at them and one of 'em looked like Windham Hill ****, and the other one looked like Iron Maiden, you know, with like skeletons vomiting up internal organs and stuff. And I went, 'No, you don't get it. It's like Hot Rod music.' So I asked, 'Can I go fishin' for another artist?' And they said, 'Sure.' So I went on the Internet and found some people. There's this guy named Coop. He does like the fat devil girls with the big asses. You ever seen those? Yep.


Rossano: Well he's great, but he wants like $20,000 for a project and can't do it for three years. Anyway I found this kid's art, called him up, and he said, 'Well, if you make sure they put my name on there, I can do it for like $150.' And I said, 'Sonny, I think we can hook you up with a little bit more than $150!' So he's done our shirts and everything. He's tops. He's like 20 and he digs all that ****. And you sent him the CD, and he's into it?


Rossano: Yeah, he loves us. I just typed in "hot rod art" or something like that in a search engine and I found him.

"When you put some fairly dangerous guitar playing together with a goofy sense of humor - I think we have something that's sort of unique." So let's talk about you: Let's pretend that I don't really know much about you, and talk about you as a guitar player. How long have you been playing, and how did you get started?


Rossano: The household I grew up in was real musical. My mom and pop were always listening to all kinds of stuff, from Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald to show tunes and movie soundtracks and everything. It was always goin' on. I've got a sister 10 years older than me, so she was really big into Elvis and early rock 'n' roll stuff. And probably ground zero for me was watchin' the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and jumping up and down on the bed, playin' a broom. That's ironic that we'd be talkin' about that tonight, since this week was the 40th anniversary of that appearance.


Rossano: Yeah. I can't believe 40 years man. That's just wrong. But anyway, it was always around me. And my pop played piano and stuff. I've been playin' since I was... I think I got my first garage band together when I was like 12. It was standard issue stuff. Beatles songs were too hard to play when you're young and can't play. So we would play easy stuff like the Stones, and Creedence and stuff like that. I always had a garage band goin' since then. I don't think I've stopped playing since I was 12. And the early influences were the '60s rock 'n' roll stuff?


Rossano: Yeah, sure, stuff that was goin' on. Like I said my sister always had Elvis records goin' on. And the ''60s were... I feel bad for young'uns now - I don't know if you wanna find another way to phrase that so I don't sound like a crabby old geezer - but I mean you gotta consider all the **** that was happening on the radio back then, with Brian Wilson, and the Beatles, and all the great British Invasion bands, and Motown, and Burt Bacharach, and all the great things that were going on at once. Honestly, I don't really see any people (today) that are innovative, but that's besides the point. Back then there was so much innovation going on, it was easy to get excited about stuff. And keep your interest up. What kind of guitars did you play in the beginning?


Rossano: You know. C'mon: Teisco del Reys. (laughs) Yeah, I had a Teisco del Rey that you could yell into the pickup and it would come out of your amplifier. We had like three guitars and a bass - and a microphone - in one Sears amp. Just a high-quality setup. And you grew up where? Oklahoma?


Rossano: Yep. Tulsa. And you moved to South Florida when you were a teenager?


Rossano: Yeah. I think I was like 16 when moved here. I moved to a place called Belle Glade, which is out in the middle of nowhere... The Everglades...


Rossano: Not exactly the Everglades, but it's the 'Glades,' they call it. I've been to Belle Glade.


Rossano: Yeah, it's a nice place to be from. AwayI from. No, it was nice. It's so quiet. West Palm Beach is like the biggest nearby town, and it's like an hour away. So I hooked up with a couple of pals, a buddy of mine that played guitar and bass. We would kind of switch back and forth. And he had a friend who was a drummer. And that was all there was to do. That and shoot pool.


We played incessantly, just every night, all the time. It wasn't a band that played out, but that was the "lab." Then later on in high school I was the token honky in like a 10-piece soul band, which really helped my rhythms and stuff. That probably sounds pretty racist and stuff, but I don't mean it that way. Those guys were really an inspiration to play with. We did lots of Kool & the Gang, and James Brown, and Al Green - stuff like that. Whatever was on R&B radio in the '70s, which was amazing. There was so much good stuff on then, Aretha Franklin and all that.


I moved to Belle Glade in '70, and within a couple years clocked in some time with that R&B band. I was the blue-eyed soul brother. I was in the band for a couple years. And it was probably around this time that you met Scott Henderson, right? I know you're buddies with him.


Rossano: Yeah. I actually met Charlie, my bass player. He's one of the first guys I met when I moved over to West Palm Beach from Belle Glade. I've known him for 30 years. And within those first few years of moving to West Palm, I guess that was in '75 or '76, Scott was one of the guys that was around playing. We actually never worked in a band together, but we were in the bar band circuit together. And you also spent some time playing bass, right?


Astrosurfin! Rick Rossano and the Dillengers Rossano: Yeah. In fact, one of my buds that I was always jamming with in Belle Glade, he moved over to West Palm before I did. And he actually told me while I was still in Belle Glade, 'Hey, I'm in a working band, and we need a bass player.' He knew that I fooled around with it, from me and Tony switchin' back and forth in Belle Glade. So I went and bought a bass rig and got in a Top 40 disco band, playing bass, which is like the best way - you know, the repetitiveness of disco bass lines - that's perfect for practicing. All you're doing is building hand strength and playing repetitive bass lines over and over again. So I got my bass chops together that way.


At that time - or maybe even today - there's so many guitar players, if you can play bass, or sing, or can do something a little bit different, you'll get work. If you line up a hundred guitar players, and one of 'em can sing or has a P.A., he'll get the job over everybody else. So how long have the Dillengers been together?


Rossano: This is funny. The label misunderstood me, and put together some bio that said we were together since '98. But we've been together for like 11 years or so. I'm proud of the fact that our band has been together longer than the Beatles were. And what is your bassist Charlie's last name?


Rossano: Gonzalez. And your drummer is:


Rossano: George Anderson. You play primarily in South Florida. Have you made any journeys out of there yet?


Rossano: We have played in the Andros Islands. Where is that?


Rossano: That's down in the Bahamas. We played at a Naval base down there, and it was cool. After we finished it was great: We got a jeep and went out into the jungle and went to this reggae bar. But we played down there. We've been to New York City and done recording, some demos that didn't really pan out. But primarily we just play in South Florida. You play a range of material, but overall, I guess you'd call it roots.


Rossano: Yeah. I don't know. We did a public TV show in Miami yesterday and the lady was going, 'Here's a band that plays sounds from the '60s but in a new and interesting way.' And I thought about it and went, 'That's kinda boring, isn't it?' I was trying to tell her that, even though what's on this CD, Instro-Mania is primarily '60s influenced, we've got a lot of different things going on. There's also like country.... Roots covers it pretty good, but there's also like punk angle to it. When we play live it tends to blow up. It gets noisy and stuff. And I wouldn't want it to be any other way. It would be pretty pointless to just do nice, spot-on covers of '60s stuff. There has to be a point to it. We wear our influences on our sleeves, but they include the Sex Pistols and the Ramones and stuff. It just kinda happens to be that ('60s) material that's dominant.


"It would be pointless to just do nice, spot-on covers of '60s stuff. We wear our influences on our sleeves, but they include the Sex Pistols and the Ramones." The Instro-Mania disk is all instrumental. You handle everything from Western movie themes to surf medleys to Link Wray and Duane Eddy, and all kinds of crunchy, twangy guitar stuff. Where is that coming from? Why do you play that kind of music?


Rossano: Well, it's just stuff that's really... those guys are just so important in the scope of music. Henry Mancini is just as important as Link Wray, who's just as important as Lennon and McCartney. It was sort of like we said before: If you consider what was going on in popular music at that time, man it was just like a hurricane of all kinds of different stuff. And I really mean it when I tell you that I dig Burt Bacharach as much as I dig the Rolling Stones. There's two kinds of music: good and bad. That's all. So with what you play, why do you think Steve Vai was interested in your material? He usually opts for shredders on his label.


Rossano: Well there's a couple of reasons. He had you peckin' on the side of his head. And we also have a friend - Charlie has a side band - and he's got a buddy, Don Gottlieb. You were mentioning us to Steve, and Don went to high school with Steve. And at some point he called Steve up and said, 'Man I got these buddies in a band and man you should hear them.' So he had a bug in his ear from a couple of different sources. Plus I think Steve might have dug some of the sense of humor and screwy, left-of-center thing that's goin' on... Which there's plenty of...


Rossano: Right. And I think that... I mean, I can hit a few rock God type guitar licks but, face it: Everybody on that label can bury me with that ****. Eric Johnson, Steve, Satch. Adrian Legg. All of 'em. There's so many monsters on there. I'm not in their league when it comes to that. I can do a little bit of it. But what I can do that they don't - I'm not gonna say that they can't do - but what they don't apparently do, is be funny! So when you put some fairly dangerous guitar playing together with a goofy sense of humor - I think we have something that's sort of unique. That may be what got Steve's attention. Now you've had plenty of dealings with him in the three years since I first gave him your disc. Does Steve Vai have a pretty good sense of humor?


Rossano: Oh yeah. He's a great guy, a totally normal guy. Good sense of humor. He likes cool, normal stuff. He's one of us; he's not one of them. Did he have comments about the tracks as you were sending in tracks, or however that went?


Rossano: No, he was just real supportive. Initially I sent him something that I think was a mix of a lot of things that we had done, like those New York tracks. I've got a bunch of original material and - this wouldn't come as any shock - it's real '60s influenced. It's got shiny guitars and three-part harmonies and all that... You're talking about songs like "What in the World"? [Editors note: A pop rock track with vocals from an earlier Dillengers/Rick Rossano demo I've heard.]


Rossano: Yeah. With choruses and hooks and stuff. Those demos were fantastic too. I'm sure you have a future as a songwriter with those types of tracks too.


Rossano: Well thank you. But that material wasn't right for Vai and Favored Nations, was it?


Rossano: That was in the stuff that we sent him, and he was like, 'This is all great, but do you guys have something that's a little more focused, conceptually.' Actually, you might have told me that too. But Vai had a problem with it, so it might have been one of those things like, 'I really like this instrumental stuff. Do you guys have more?' And I couldn't swear to it, but it might have been one of those things where I was like, 'Uh... ..yeah! Let me get back to you.' So now that the disc is out, are you going to be able to get around the country a little bit more and perform now?


Rossano: Yeah. The concept is, the label assigned a PR firm to us. We've got a booking agent and a manager and an attorney. We're going through the steps. The first thing that's gonna happen is we're gonna do regional stuff. We're booked into Key West, we're looking at Daytona during Bike Week. We're going to try to focus on surf events and biker things and hot rod shows, and things that the music would be conducive with. And we're looking at Atlanta.


For the time being, yeah, regional stuff, sure. I get a three-day weekend every week. Stick a sick day or a vacation day on there, we could drive to - we could probably figure out how to get up to New York and play, and come back in time for punchin' the clock Monday. Well I'm glad you've got people working on getting you out beyond South Florida, 'cause people need to see you play. Is there any talk of Steve hooking you up with any other Favored Nations artists on shows or tours?


Rossano: We talked about that a lot of times. By the time I hear about something - all that's set up months ahead of time. But yeah, actually I was asking them, somebody at the label, I told them I'd give an internal organ to do some shows with the Yardbirds the next time they come down here. They said they would present that concept to the Yardbirds' management. It's not like the label sets up that stuff. They can suggest it. I don't really know how the inner workings exactly... I don't know who bribes who to get slots like that. I know there is pay involved sometimes. A lot of times the opening acts end up paying the "tour support" for the major act.


Rossano: Oh sure. I bet. So what kind of guitars are you playing these days?


Rossano: Well, I've been a Fender guy from the beginning when I could afford a real guitar, after a couple of Teisco del Reys and Epiphones and stuff. Strats or Teles?


Rossano: Stratocasters. If it was good enough for Buddy Holly, and good enough for Jimi Hendrix, that'll do for me. And I've picked up a couple Teles and a Jazzmaster. They actually pitched Fender for an endorsement at NAMM, but the only guys Fender is interested in typically are Blink 182 or bands that are moving 10 million units. But to left to my own devices, I am a Fender person, tried and true. Amps, for the most part, and guitars. I'm actually using a pair of Classic 30s right now though, that are hot-rodded. And they're probably the best little amps I've ever played through. Peavey Classic 30s?


Rossano: Yeah. I gutted 'em, and put in Weber speakers and did a bunch of mods to 'em. Re-tubed 'em. Put lacquer jobs on 'em. They look kind of like old suitcases now. Were these new or used?


Rossano: I bought 'em used off eBay, and gave 'em a lot of love. What kind of effects are you using these days?


Rossano: Everything. Nobody makes everything good. My pedal board looks like a thrift shop. But every company has one pedal that's just like head and shoulders above somebody else's, so I try to find stuff that nails that retro vibe the best. What are some of your favorites these days?

Astrosurfin! Rick Rossano and the Dillengers


Rossano: I really love the Dano tremolo, that cheapo, $20 tremolo that they make. It sounds as good as any Fender tremolo. I've got a Digitech Digiverb that nails a spring reverb. It has four or five reverbs on it, and they're OK: gated and hall and plate and all that. But the spring setting sounds like a Fender tank. So I've got that and I use a Marshall Vibra-Trem that has a great vibrato in it. And a Barber Tone-Press, compressor that's real nice. It doesn't rob the low-end like some of 'em do. And a noise gate, 'cause all those things crank up a bunch of hiss and garbage. Aren't you always buying and selling stuff? Every time you call or email you're always telling me you got some new piece of gear. What have you been playing with the past couple years?


Rossano: I've settled down with the stuff that I've got now. I went through a Fender Reissue Reverb tank that was really great, but I couldn't figure out how to run it through both my amps in stereo. So that went back on the auction block. I sold that. I picked up a Gretsch guitar, that's nice. You've got a bunch of guitars, don't you?


Rossano: Yeah, I've got a pile of 'em. I've got a Dano baritone I used on a couple tracks on the record that's just un-Godly. Those things are great. I love the sound of that thing, it's just maximum twang. I use a Les Paul to play slide on, on occasion. When you're playing live, the typical gigs, they're all-night affairs, right? These aren't one set and we're outta here? And you play more than just the music people can hear on Instro-Mania. This CD is pretty focused on a certain element of your playing, but there's not much of the blues or country twang that you do so well.


Rossano: Not too much, no. And I really love finger-style rockabilly stuff and there isn't any of that on there. But we do a ton of it when we play live. You're pretty adept at that stuff aren't you?


Rossano: I'm not gonna honk my own horn. I like doin' it. Then I'll honk it: You're pretty adept at that stuff. And then there's the Danny Gatton influence too. You touch on that live and on Instro-Mania with "Harlem Nocturne" and stuff like that.


Rossano: Yeah, well, he's one of those guys where you listen to his playing and everythings in there but the kitchen sink. He's influenced by everything too. And you also sing.


Rossano: I try. Dillengers bassist Charlie Gonzalez sings too. You split it about half and half, don't you?


Rossano: Yeah. I definitely consider him the better singer in the band. It's a question of style. I just really dig his baritone. It's a great, crusty kind of sound. What kind of tunes do you sing live?


Rossano: I do more tenor things. A bunch of Elvis - Sun Records Elvis stuff. And some Roy Orbison, and Conway Twitty, and Beatles tunes. So it's more of a question of register - who's got the chops to hit the notes. And you do play slide when you're playing live. What kind of stuff do you play slide on?


Rossano: Muddy. Muddy Waters, Hound Dog Taylor - off the top of my head that's the only couple I can think of. But the Chicago kinda stuff. More of a Chicago blues thing than the Texas thing?


Rossano: Yeah, Chicago. And some Delta stuff. When you play live, and somebody comes to see you, they're gonna see all these styles - all the surfy, spy-theme, espionage, Spaghetti Western stuff from Instro-Mania - plus the blues, the rockabilly, the country honky-tonk, the Beatles and Elvis and Buddy Holly roots rock music...


Rossano: Absolutely. They're gonna get everything from George Jones to the Ramones. You get bored otherwise. I think people get bored too. I know I might be living in a dream world 'cause look at all these cardboard cutout - I don't even know what you call it - nu metal, or whatever the hell you're gonna call it. I'm sure there's millions of kids who that's all they listen to. But the people that I know typically aren't gonna sit around and only listen to one type of music all the time. I don't think most people do. Maybe I'm wrong. Well I'm actually pretty surprised when I talk to people a lot younger than you and me, that more of them seem to be multi-faceted in their listening choices than they would at first appear to be. And that's pretty refreshing.


Rossano: At one of our shows you get geezers. You get surfers. You get college kids. That's what really thrills me, to see young kids come up with their jaw hanging down. 'Cause they figure... it's pigeonholed as "oldies," or whatever, but to me that's just a fraction of the formula. Well, you tear it up on those oldie things, and that's a cool thing.


Rossano: Yeah, I love it. When you're playing live, I've seen guitar players come up and talk to you and ask for lessons - obviously I'm one of 'em. Do you get a lot of that?


Rossano: Sure. What do they ask you about most?


Rossano: Well they're usually really complimentary. A handful of 'em will ask me about lessons. A small fraction of those will actually follow through and I'll give some guys a handful just to get 'em going in the right direction. I've got a couple that have stuck with me for a few years. You know, mostly just gear-head talk: 'Hey man, what kind of amps are those? Those Fender amps sure sound good.' 'No Brother, these are Peavey's.' 'Peaveys? No Way.' Stuff like that. Or what kind of strings do you use. And I use telephone cables on my guitars. I use 15 to 52. Wow. I didn't know that. Fifteen?


Rossano: Yeah. C'mon. Man up. Put some heavy strings on there. Well I use 11 to 52.


Rossano: Do you tune to pitch or down? To pitch.


Rossano: Well there you go. We're down a half-step. But I can't... I can play 'em in pitch - I play in another band, an oldies band that makes a ****-pile of money. And I play 'em in pitch with them. I just tune my guitars up. But they're louder. It's debatable whether they have a better tone, but they are louder so your amp responds in a different and thrilling way. My number one is they stay in tune better and you can't break 'em. You can't break 'em. You're gonna chop a finger off before you break a .015. What brand?


Rossano: Actually I order them bulk from Musician's Friend cause that's the cheapest way to get 'em and because I have nine guitars. I think the lable on it says Rogue, but as I understand it, there's only really two or three guitar string manufacturers in the country, so I don't know what they really are. That's true. The folks at D'Addario make strings for all kinds of other manufacturers, who then just slap their packaging on it. I've seen Fender make strings too.


Rossano: There are only a few companies that actually manufacture 'em and lots of other companies who buy 'em and stick their name on the package. That's a good tip for you: If you've got two or three guitars, for around $40 you can get twelve sets of strings. [Editor's note: And remember, Rick's using .015 to .052. Lighter gauges would be much cheaper.] They come out to something stupid like $2.90 per set. And it's not like they go bad or anything. I'm a cheapskate. So looking into the future: I know you've got other material in the can. Is Favored Nations going to go with that?


Rossano: I'm not sure. I don't know how much vocal stuff they release. We've got probably two-thirds of the next record mapped out, some of it already recorded. Instrumental stuff?


Rossano: Yeah. And if they're interested in the vocal stuff - and to me it's not that far out because it's got a 60s vibe, I think there's a thread running through all of it... I know Steve is also interested in soundtracks and publishing in general. Is there any chance or thought given so far to putting your music toward any movie soundtracks or anything like that.


Rossano: Well, yeah. We're talking to a guy about a surf video. And obviously I want to use my material. It just yields more money. But something I was pretty surprised about: If someone wants to license your cover of a song, of course the composer gets paid, but you get paid as well - which is very good news. I didn't know that.


Rossano: Me either. So that's one of the first things I pitched to 'em, 'cause, you know, who wants to live in a bus at my age? But there's lots of ways to make money. And one thing I'm very well aware of, is licensing of music. Those were the first words out of my mouth after I started talking to Brett at Favored Nations: ' "Astrosurfin'" needs to be in a Sunkist commercial in a bad way.' And there's like, Kleenex commercials, that are produced in Latvia that need background music. I've got no problem with licensing this music. I want to make money. I need to buy new toys! You've actually written a bunch of instructional stuff for over the years, which we're going to link through to this article - as well as some brand new stuff we haven't posted yet - there's surf stuff in there, there's rockabilly stuff in there, there's blues stuff in there. But you actually have some instructional materials out in stores too, don't you?


Rossano: Through Mel Bay. They picked up my rhythm tracks CDs. It's called Roots Style Rhythm Tracks. It's 15 tracks of different grooves: blues shuffles, and straight-8 rockabilly, and rockabilly shuffles, and surf tracks. They're all I-IV-V changes in different keys and different tempos. I sent this stuff out unsolicited. I sent it to Alfred, I sent it to Wolf, what's his name? Wolf Marshall. And nobody even called back to say, 'Thanks, but no thanks.' Unsolicited stuff goes in a garbage bin.


And just out of sheer luck, I got a call back from Bill Bay. Mel is gone, but Bill runs that company. And he said, 'Hey, this is great. We're doing a series of play-along things. Do you have a book that goes along with this?' And I said, 'Uh... sure! Sure I have a book that goes along with it!' And so I made gallons of coffee and stayed up all night for a couple of nights and hammered out a little 15-page booklet. The booklet is more entertaining than it is instructional, but there is a lot of information in it that goes beyond 'Here's a scale.' It talks about the application of stuff, and addressing things like dynamics, and common sense, and influences, and different things. I don't see anybody else talking about this stuff. And people can pick this up in stores, and off the Internet?


Rossano: It's on You can get it anywhere. Where should people go to find info on you and the Dillengers?


Rossano: And Favored Nations has the spiffy little micro-site that they built for us too. [Editor's note: Click here then click "Artists." When the window opens, click on the Dillengers album cover graphic. This will open the Dillengers/Favored Nations micro-site.] All right Ricky, this is cool. It's been a long time coming and I'm pretty excited to finally see the actual album out on the streets.


Rossano: Well, you know perfectly well it wouldn't have been out here without your help, primarily. Well, it's the only time I've ever pitched an artist to a label, and to have succeeded and see you get signed is just thrilling for me. I tell everyone about you guys. I'm pretty proud that Steve Vai confirmed my talent judging abilities.


Rossano: Well, thank you again man. It wouldn't have happened without you! Thanks Rick.


About the Author
Adam St. James joined shortly after the website launched in the summer of 1999 and has been the site's Editor for several years. Adam is the author of several guitar instructional books, including "101 Guitar Tips: Stuff All the Pros Know and Use" (published by Hal Leonard). He fronts blues and rock bands in the Chicago area. See for info on all Adam's books, bands, and barstool banter.