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Ryan Peake: Nickelback's Guitar Quarterback
Interview by Scott Kahn with forward by Joey Hayek
Photo by Rob Dipple




Ryan Peake

If you’ve tuned into rock radio anytime within the past 15 years, there’s no doubt that you’ve been exposed to one or more of Nickelback’s mega-hits. Selling over 50 million albums worldwide to date, Nickelback is clearly one of the most successful rock bands in the world. Their sound and writing style are unmistakable to anyone even vaguely aware of their existence.

Nickelback’s music has always catered to a broader audience than most hard rock and metal bands. To many rock “purists,” this approach has been enough to discredit their contribution to modern rock, but their professionalism, proficiency in their craft, and their influence on modern music are undeniable. The influence of heavier bands on them is immediately apparent in many of their songs, and they have always served as an excellent midpoint between popular music and hard rock and metal.

Band co-founder and rhythm guitarist Ryan Peake has been instrumental in Nickelback’s widespread success over the years. With humble roots playing small Canadian bars as a cover band guitarist, Peake has certainly seen the full extent of the music industry. One of the band’s more experimental albums to date (and one of our favorites in their catalog), 2015’s No Fixed Address has been met with positive reviews, debuting at number 4 on the Billboard Top 200 chart, and it sold more than 80,000 copies in its first week

We recently sat down with Ryan to chat about the band’s new album, his love of not-so-pretty guitars, gear, and more.

“I’ve got guitars I’ve burned with blowtorches.”

MPc: I’ve been looking at your Gibson guitar collection and your treatment of them. [laughs] So, you really like to make them your own. [laughs]

RP:  As much as I don’t consider myself a gear head—when it comes to effects and having tons of different strange amps and what not for playing on tour, I do like vintage guitars quite a bit. That being said, I’ve got a really great one: an old ’57 Telecaster I keep at home, kind of a family heirloom thing. And I feel like if I take it on the road it’s going to get banged up. 

So, I’ve been collecting some newer Gibson guitars. And I usually—they gave me a few to use initially. When we started those were like, oh—blonde 135 probably, late ‘90s one. And then I would get other guitars. I said, can you send me some blanks? And I called them blanks, I guess, but literally just the body and the neck. And I’ll deal with the rest.  So, I started thinking I would love to take some vintage guitars on the road, but then I’d get a little concerned if they get banged up and what not.  I know they’re supposed to be played, but touring can be very tough on your instruments: temperature changes, roadies, all that shit. And I play sometimes pretty aggressively on stage. 

So, I got these blanks, and I would take them, and then I would make them my own and just do various different things. The first few I would just literally beat the shit out of them with anything I could find to make them very rustic looking and stain them and cover them and put my own machine heads on it and bridge and pickups. So, most of my guitars have TonePros bridges and EMGs, various—EMG-80s and 60s and some new single-coil EMGs I’ve got as well. (But for most of my Gibsons are the humbuckers.) Yeah, I just essentially try to make them my own. 

I think if I’m going to be out there playing, that’s another extension of me. I like to do woodworking at home when I’m off the road. I’m just doing [small things], and not stuff that literally holds the house up.  I’m not a carpenter, so to speak.  I wouldn’t hire me anytime for that kind of stuff. [laughs] But, yeah, I like to make them my own. I’ve got beat up guitars. I’ve got guitars I’ve burned with blowtorches to give a real sunburst look. I’ve completely fried one that looks like this black dinosaur skin. It’s really interesting. 

And the last one I did—actually it was fun. I had them send me a V blank body, and I drew these pieces of it like the two parts have been blown off, the two ends of the Vs. And so I drew it on the body, and I cut it up with a jigsaw—oh, pardon me. Before I cut them. See, this is how this works, too, as well as you’re just experimenting with these things.  You try to work through it in your head, and then you have to work backwards. 

Okay, I can’t cut them off first before I drill the holes.  I drilled these two holes in each end of the V, and I put stainless steel pipe in them.  And it was interesting. I had to do some sweet math and trigonometry I hadn’t used in a long time. And then I cut the arms off and pulled out pieces of it, so when you slot them back in it looks like pieces of the guitar have actually been just knocked right out of the guitar.  And they’re not very uniform. They’re just blown out. And it looks like a stainless steel skeleton in the guitar.

MPc:  That’s awesome.

RP:  Exactly. Somebody actually said you should put some red lights and it’ll look like the Terminator. I’m like, I never thought of the Terminator, but that’s interesting. They call it the War Machine because I played it for “This Means War.” And I had to actually—we had to drill new holes for the bridge and move it back because we tuned it down to A. And so it’s kind of custom made in that sense. But I had all this glue lined up to glue these pieces in, and then just by nature of doing it we stuck these pipes in. 

And when you stick them on two separate angles through a triangle, you can’t pull them apart, if you think about it. And that’s what I actually learned.  I’m like, wait, I don’t need any glue. They’re just—the tension will hold.  They’re not going to—once I put these pipes in, they’re not going to come out anyway. So, there’s no glue holding this thing together at all. And it’s got these crazy pipes, and I have a guy in Vancouver that helped me—well, we’ll put a volume pot here and we’ll put the electronics down one of the pipes, and then we’ll put a battery cartridge for the EMGs I’ve got in there on the bottom edge of the V. 

And it was a very interesting procedure of where we’re going to put the input jack and all these kind of things. And that’s what I find fun about this. I like playing music on stage.  I enjoy what I’m doing in that sense, but I also like—like I said—taking some of these and just making them your own. That makes me feel a little more comfortable on stage, I guess.   

MPc: For years you’ve been associated with Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifiers. Is that still the case?   

RP:  Yes. Oh, yeah. We still play Mesas. I still like—I like the Rectifier sound for the stuff that we do.  I mean, for the Nickelback stuff.  That’s what we play all the time on stage. We also actually have some rack-mounted units that they took: Fender Twin. And we had them put in a rack unit, so we can fit it all in one as a head. I always loved the Fender Twin amps.  Those sound just—it’s tough to find a better clean.  For a clean sound, that’s what I like to use. I really enjoy that. 

But then at home, I mean, I’ve got an old Ampeg Jet from the ‘50s that my uncle let me use every once in a while, which I really love—the old reverb and tremolo, the simplicity of those amps and the old [speaker] cones.  There’s just something about it when you overdrive those things, they just sound very gritty and raw. I’ve got an old Vox.  It’s a late-’60s Vox, Super—I can’t even think of the name.  Super Twin or Super Berkeley Twin Reverb or something like that. It’s got the one where the cabinet is actually suspended off the ground, and a wire—in a metal cage.   

You could tilt the amp up to any degree you want, and it’s got a small head that sits on top. But it’s the tremolo—I love the tremolo in that amp.  It just sounds fantastic when you’re just sitting in a room by yourself and playing. I don’t know. I like doing the big-stage stuff, and then the big noise, but I also like—personally, I like the intimacy of the small room, sitting down with a Les Paul or a—I’ve got an old Telecaster, those old amps, and get back to the reason you started this thing.   

“I’m kind of glad my mother forced me to take certain lessons.”

MPc:  Listening to your new record, No Fixed Address, I have to say, I’ve listened to it a lot lately, and I’m hearing a band that is trying to figure out its identity.  There’s an innovative modern metal band.  There’s a classic Nickelback band. And, there’s a pop band.  And they’re all on this new record.  So, tell me about your thoughts and your feelings that went into making this album and having it be this way.   

RP:  I actually appreciate the observation in that sense. I don’t know what point in your career you start to—you always want to outdo the last project you did. And you feel a certain way at certain points in your career.  And I think the albums have been kind of indicative of that in the past. This one, we—it was a bit of a different recording process, different recording location.  I don’t know if that necessarily was bleeding into the material. But, I don’t know. We were pretty unguarded about what felt right instead of going, well, we should be doing this, or they expect us to do this. 

And that’s personally the way I like to approach the writing, in some sense, is where it’s like sometimes you get to a point in your career where you’re like, I think they expect this from us, or your fans expect certain things. And if that goes too far, I think you lose the reason why you’re there.  When you’re supposed to be going, here’s what we like, let me show you what we like. Now, are we going to piss some people off and loose some fans in that sense?  Well, that may happen because not everybody wants to come along for the same ride in a way.  But I was very open to that.

The lead up track, it was a heavy rift track, “Million Miles an Hour,” was great.  In that sense, I really enjoyed doing that one—just back to rift rock.  But “The Hammer’s Coming Down” was very cinematic, and I really enjoyed working around with that one with the Taiko drums in the chorus and just doing the… it sounds very cinematic. Does it have a place on that album? I thought it was a nice addition to it.  But it’s not quite in the similar vein as what we normally do on stage as just meat-and-potatoes rock band.

MPc: “She Keeps Me Up”—that’s definitely on my hit list as one of the coolest songs you guys have ever done.   

RP:  Thank you!   

MPc:  No one really talks about your keyboard playing.  And, obviously, here it’s awesome.  So, tell me about that, because you did quite a bit of it on this record between “She Keep Me Up” and also on “Satellite.”  That was an interesting one because it opens with modern synth tones.  Then you go into this orchestral sounding stuff. Then with “She Keeps Me Up” you’ve got the vintage keys things going.  Clearly, keyboards mean something to you.   

RP: I have to say, we all are on the same page where we think that it’s tough for a rock band to—I mean, we’ve always been considered a rock band—let these things [keyboards] completely bleed into it, but it’s something that we never used initially very much in the career.  But I’m kind of glad my mother forced me to take certain lessons in that sense. I’ve never going to be accused of being a great keyboard player.  But in a sense, I like the fact that we are all open to using them. 

And I have to also give a ton of credit to Chris Baseford, our producer, as well for the arrangements and how we put them together. It was great to have somebody that had the sensibility to know how it’s supposed to feel when it’s like… in “She Keeps Me Up” or on “Satellite” or… we’re trying this thing live where it’s just Chad and I with piano and singing on stage to do a song called “Lullaby.” That was the first time, I think, I came out there and I was actually playing proper piano.   

MPc:  Was that scary compared to being out there with your guitar?   

Nickelback No Fixed AddressRP:  Yes. Yes, I’m not going to lie.  I mean, it’s something… Chad can play a little bit as well for sure, but it’s funny.  It was one of my first instruments, but it’s not my first instrument.  I don’t consider it that.  I’m more comfortable playing around with the guitar.  But doing that on stage when, yeah, it’s not what you feel is your principle instrument and you’re like, “Oh my God. Please don’t screw this up,” especially when it’s out front so much.  It’s like they’re going to know.  They’re going to hear that you haven’t practiced in so long.  But I just like that it’s able to bleed into the music. 

And, again, that being said with “She Keeps Me Up” talking about it stylistic wise, I was happy that people were okay in the band with listening to this song going this doesn’t really sound like a typical Nickelback song.  We’re probably going to get crucified for it to a degree. But it was also something I didn’t want to overthink.  It just feels good.  It just feels right.  And I took it home and I played it for my wife, and she’s like… by the end of the song she’s dancing around the room. I’m like, I think he’s on to something here.  Chad came to the table with that tune, and we added our flavors, but, man, I really enjoyed that that’s on the album.   

MPc: I will definitely be singing the praises of that one, as opposed to crucifying you for it.   

RP:  Thank you.  I appreciate it. [laughs]

MPc:  Honestly, I like the whole album, but the songs that are your more “classic” Nickelback tunes are the ones that definitely leave me feeling like, okay, I’ve heard this.  You guys have been doing this for 20 years.  But the other half of this album is just like you guys took a lot of chances on this record.  And I think it’s some of the most inspired stuff I’ve heard from the band since you guys broke through in the first place.   

RP:  Thank you. I appreciate that because I actually feel very similar. I think this is a little more outgoing album from most of the ones we’ve done.   

MPc:  So why do you think Nickelback is such a polarizing band in conversations? What do you think it is that makes people feel so strongly one way or the other about you guys?   

RP:  That’s something that can be debated and people can come up with various reasons, I think, that they can not like—to find a better phrase for it, not enjoy what we do, whether it’s our personalities how we come across in press.  Maybe that’s part of it.  Maybe it’s we’ve always thought—we’ve got our versions of songs for sure, but, obviously, there’s a Nickelback sound. And that could be shown as it’s like the AC/DC way of doing things where you are what you are and some people say, oh, you put on the same—it feels like the same stuff over and over again.  And that ultimately becomes the style, whether you get applauded for it or whether you get beat up for it.  Sometimes that’s the role of the dice.

One thing I do know is that it’s funny.  It’s very easy these days, especially with the Internet, whether it’s comments on blogs or whether it’s Twitter or anything, it’s very easy to fire out criticism of anything.  I don’t think we’re alone in it.  I think we get singled out quite a bit in the music industry for it.  And that is what it is, and you have to grow thick skin.  It is what it is.  But entertainers in all arenas get it, whether you’re in the movies or on TV or radio personality.  Everybody has their own—they get their own brand of dislike or vitriol that gets spooled out on the Internet. 

And it’s very easy to do that at a distance. I’ve never had anybody come up to me and say I hate your band. I think your music is shit.  Because that’s not as easy to do. I think it’s really easy to sit behind a keyboard and say mean things, whether it’s in an interview or whether it’s just in a one-off tweet.  It’s very easy because you’re at a distance from it.  And it’s easy to be mean.  Now, if people are being mean, that’s not cool. That’s not nice. If you’re being fair and you want to make a judgment because you don’t like the music for A, B and C, I never have an issue with that. I never do because I don’t expect that people like us. 

I don’t expect everybody to like us at all. That’s not an expectation of mine. And if you’re fair, that’s fine.  But if you’re out there just to be mean or to put out an article because you want to show everybody that you’ve got great taste in music or better taste than our fans or whatever they would like to say to put themselves above that, or to just try to be hilarious and become the next comedian out there by using us as a punching bag. That’s lame. It’s kind of been done, too. If you’re doing it now, you’re definitely late to dinner. 

But I just think—I’m totally cool with fairness. If somebody’s fair and they have a dislike for us for whatever reasons, that’s totally fine.  But when you’re out there just to be plain mean, I mean, I wouldn’t do that.

MPc:  Well put. So, you’re one of the last big rock bands that came out of the era of big-label deals. Meanwhile today, everyone in rock is coming up the Indie path.   

RP:  Yes.   

MPc:  How has the big-label ride been for you as an artist, and what are your thoughts on moving forward for younger bands that don’t have that kind of big-label support, but are trying to be rock bands?   

RP:  Well, I would be lying if I said I was completely confident that it’s easy to make it in the business these days. I’m a little leery about how you could make it these days in the sense.  There’s so many different ways to approach it. And there’s so many bands out there that are now fighting for attention.  I kind of feel like it’s a tough slug out to get attention for a band these days; rock band or any kind of band. There’s so much stuff out there, and there’s so many ways to access music. It’s hard to disseminate what you would enjoy. 

Now, on the other hand, there’s a lot of music out there and you could find some great stuff. And whether it’s in the definition of successful or not depends whether it’s well known or whether you just really enjoy it and they can make a living on it and still make more music for you. I mean, I hope that’s the case in the future here. I don’t know how I’d approach it. 

And to the other point of your question on being a band on the big-label band, this might be strange for people to understand, but we were an Indie band. We were an Indie band for a while. The definition has changed as to a style of music, not necessarily what we were. And there was a point where we were the underdog Indie band that people were rooting for because we were trying to do it on our own, and we did it on our own. And we got signed, funny enough, on—we had our own kind of—essentially our own imprint to an Indie label called Roadrunner Records.   

MPc:  Right.   

RP:  Biggest Indie label in the States.     

MPc:  Yes.  Long before they got acquired by the big guy (Warner Music Group).

RP:  Before they got acquired.  But when they got acquired, I mean, it slowly got—they got usurped by the big machine of the other labels. But during that rise, when we started we were like, why did they sign us? They have all these metal bands, and we’re rock, but we’re not metal. I mean, they had Type O Negative and I think they had just got Slipknot on there and Machine Head and all these other hard-core bands. We were like, what the hell do they want with us? 

But I don’t know if they saw something in us, and I loved the fact that the label was—they were fans of music.  Everybody at that small little label—and it was a small label—were huge fans of music. And that’s what drew us to that label. We had met with RCA the same afternoon we had met with Roadrunner, and it was literally polar opposites.  It was a very low-key office in  one floor of a small building in Manhattan, and the other one was a giant, steel monolith in the middle of town in the RCA building. The building that Elvis built. 

And we just felt that these [Roadrunner] guys were music lovers, and they connected with us. And they are as responsible, I think, for helping us get to where we are and the work that we did. So, I really enjoyed being on that label. Things happen when the owner sells out to a major, it changes to a degree. So, it became something of a kind of a major at that point, but I had always felt that we were slugging it out with them in the trenches—in the indie trenches because the first album did not sell gangbusters for them. And they jumped with both feet again for the next album. Our second album with them was Silver Side Up, and the rest is history.   

MPc:  History indeed.


Image: Michael Muller


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