“Women are putting out some badass guitars”: Nita Strauss talks signatures, solo albums and career-shaking shifts
Virtuoso guitarist Nita Strauss on leaving Alice Cooper for Demi Lovato, her signature Ibanez and her new solo album.
Image: Sasha Shemirani
Nita couldn’t believe the weather in Louisiana. It was mid-summer and the guitarist was spending time in her boyfriend’s home state. The days were punishingly hot and the air heavy – the kind of weather that leads to biblical downpours and earth-shaking thunder. The storms, in her mind, felt like armageddon. They also gave her an idea: why not translate one of nature’s wildest and scariest marvels into music?
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Beginning with pattering rain and the first crackles of thunder, it’s easy to see how Nita Strauss’s instrumental single Summer Storm echoes both the sounds of the weather – with chugs representing thunder and shredding standing in for lightning – as well as its trajectory, the ebbs and flows as a storm seems to pacify itself before roaring back into life.
“I really wanted to sort of convey that feeling of chaos and craziness at a time that you would never expect it,” says Strauss. But what does it take to replicate a sound or a feeling with a singular instrument? “It’s all in your note choices and your emotion as you’re playing and recording. With instrumental guitar music, obviously you can’t tell the listener what the song is about. You just need the right notes to send the listener on the path you want them to go on.”
Taken by storm
While the title of Summer Storm lays out its inspiration and subject, this isn’t always the case with Nita’s instrumental guitar music. But therein lies its beauty. “Instrumental music is so subjective,” she says. “I like that instrumental songs can take on different meanings for different people depending on what that person needs at that time. No-one is saying it has to mean one thing or another; it can mean what you want.”
Strauss recalls asking her social media followers what they thought Pandemonium, a track from her 2018 debut solo album Controlled Chaos, was about. She loved the interpretations. One suggested it was about a general who led his troops to war and only after the smoke cleared realised that victory was his. Another suggested it was about a ship being tossed about by the sea until the clouds cleared and the sailors could see home in the distance.
Pandemonium is about none of those things. But what matters is that it gets imaginations firing and that listeners take what they can from its emotional trajectory. “I wrote it about a very tumultuous time in my own life that did end up turning out okay,” says Nita, “so I feel like no matter what the subject matter is, the emotion of the song came through.That’s what I try and do with instrumental songs.”
Instrumental music isn’t the only string to Strauss’s bow (or should that be guitar?). Late last year, she released Dead Inside, the lead single from her forthcoming second album and her first track under her own name featuring a guest vocalist, Disturbed’s David Draiman. “David was awesome to work with,” she says. “He was just a consummate professional. He wrote all the lyrics and the melody – I didn’t write a single [bit] of his part. It was a beautiful collaboration; it went as easily and as smoothly as you could ever want.”
The song was a resounding success, even topping the US Mainstream Rock Chart.
While Controlled Chaos was fully instrumental, its follow-up will feature a mix of instrumentals and tracks featuring guest vocalists. Does Nita’s creative process differ when she’s writing for herself as opposed to writing with a vocalist in mind?
“Instrumental music is a very self-serving art at times – at least the way I do it is,” she says. “I get out there and I throw a bit of a temper tantrum with my guitar! No-one is around to tell me how to play or not play. When I go out and play my own music, it’s just like stretching [my wings], not thinking about any other musicians, whereas with a guest vocalist you’re taking [into account] the range of their voice, how fast they have to sing the lyrics, what key the song can be in, what words rhyme with what other words… There’s a whole other set of rules to follow to make it the best experience for that guest musician as well.”
As liberating as it can be to write and play the way she wants, Nita admits that “it’s a lot to be the centre of attention all the time,” when she’s striking out on her own. Fortunately, she’s able to get the best of both worlds as both a leader and follower.
For the best part of the past two decades, she’s travelled the world as a touring guitarist, most notably spending the past eight years playing alongside Alice Cooper and his band. “No-one has a bad Alice Cooper story,” says Nita. “Everyone that’s ever met him says he’s the nicest person in the world. You’re never going to see Alice Cooper throwing a temper tantrum or being rude or making anyone feel unappreciated. I hope I can take that and bring that with me everywhere I go.”
Recently, however, a new challenge beckoned. Strauss was offered a spot in Demi Lovato’s new touring band, an opportunity that proved too enticing to pass up. In the decade or so since metamorphosing from a Disney Channel alumna to global pop sensation, Lovato has cultivated quite the platform, even becoming the 22nd most followed account on Twitter.
Earlier this year, however, she made the switch she’d always wanted to make, pivoting from generic pop princess to no-fucks-given punk. Her first rock album, Holy Fvck, arrived in August. For Nita, seeing someone of that magnitude throw her weight behind rock was not just significant but incredibly exciting.
She’s been welcomed with open arms. “Demi’s fans are absolutely crazy and I mean that in the most amazing sense of the word,” she says. “They’re so enthusiastic, so loving, so supportive. It’s incredible to play to this new group of people, not being sure how they’re going to react, but to get this outpouring of love and support has just been wonderful.”
Perhaps more significant is that on Demi’s tour, Nita is part of an all-female band. Even when she’s not on stage, she’s surrounded by women, whether they’re in the crew or part of operations. It’s radically different to how things were when she first set out on the road as a teenager and was hustled out of dressing rooms, assumed to be a girlfriend of one of the guys in the band, and had to hold up her tour pass to prove that, actually, she was in the band too. These days that’s a much rarer occurrence. “It’s really cool being a part of such a big machine with so many strong women working in it,” says Strauss. “And how cool is it to have the chance to inspire a whole new generation of female musicians?”
Nita has blazed her own trail too. In 2018, after 10 years on the Ibanez roster, she became the brand’s first female artist to release a signature guitar. “It was very surreal. I’ve been an Ibanez girl for a long time – all my heroes were Ibanez players.” After starting out playing the bulkier RG Series guitars, she switched to the S series in 2014 before eventually settling on the Jiva.
“What I love most about the Jiva guitars is the versatility – they can play anything. I’ve seen people play blues and jazz [on it], and of course rock and metal. Live, you don’t have to switch guitars if you need to get a cleaner or rounder sound. I designed the DiMarzio Pandemonium pickups as well, so you can get any tone you want live. They stay in tune like nobody’s business. I abuse the hell out of those guitars on stage and the fact I don’t throw them out of tune every two songs is a milestone in itself. It’s a true testament to how well they’re built.”
The advancements towards gender equality in the guitar sphere are clear from the popularity of signature guitars like Nita’s, which have been designed by the best women shredders around. “I’m hearing that women’s signature guitars are among the highest-selling now,” says Nita. “That’s not necessarily because more women are playing, I think women are just putting out some badass guitars. I read an article saying that female signature guitars were the most in-demand on Reverb. It was mine, Lzzy Hale’s and St Vincent’s.”
Progress, at last? “I think things are going in a good direction. [We just need to] keep going the way we’re going.”
Head over to nitastrauss.com to find out more.