Alice Cooper's touring guitarist reflects on her first solo tour and the rise of women in rock.
When Nita Strauss was 15, it was awkward for her to go to a guitar store to get strings. Employees wanted to know whom she was buying them for -- her dad, brother, boyfriend -- and what kind of guitar they played.
When she was rising up the ranks, she would show up to a gig with her guitar, only to later be told by a security guard that the girls needed to leave so the band could have its space. A venue employee ignorant of Strauss’s musician status even asked her to leave her own dressing room.
Seventeen years later, the rock landscape certainly has changed.
“It’s not weird to go into Guitar Center to ask for strings anymore,” Strauss tells Billboard while at a New Jersey tour stop. “I’ve had a front-row seat to watch this change happen. Now it’s totally normal to have girls in a band or have an all-female band. And there’s a guitar hero that looks like everybody. There are Asian guitar heroes and black guitar heroes and female guitar heroes and gay and lesbian guitar heroes. Any little kid that wants to have someone to look up to that looks like them has that hero. I think that’s amazing.”
Strauss is in the midst of her first solo headlining tour with a five-piece band -- rhythm guitarist Johnny Young, bassist Christopher Dean, keyboardist Katt Scarlett and drummer Josh Villalta -- in support of her first solo album, Controlled Chaos, which reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Heatseekers Albums chart and No. 6 on the Hard Rock Albums chart. Her live show is mostly instrumental in nature, combining originals with covers.
“It’s 2019. People aren’t going to shows to watch a band play the song exactly like the record,” declares Strauss. “They’re there to be entertained, and I’ve got a great band on tour with me. Everybody onstage is giving 110% the whole show. It’s really, really fun.”
Strauss’s electric energy and distinct personality have landed her gigs as eclectic as playing a Donkey Kong promotional concert, recording on an album of video game theme covers, playing live at WWE events and touring with Jermaine Jackson in 2010. But people mostly hire her to be Nita, which works just fine for her.
“I’m not in the habit of turning down work,” she remarks. “The only time that I would turn down anything would be if I felt like it was inappropriate. Like, I would have to dress a certain way or dress provocatively, and that’s not what I’m about. I love playing guitar. I love touring. I love making music. So if it’s an opportunity for me to do that, it’s a great thing.”
Her main gig for the last five years has been playing with Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Alice Cooper on tour. It has given her the chance to learn from a legendary figure, and not just about music.
“I think the main thing that I’ve learned from Alice just as a person is putting the fans first,” says Strauss. “He is always so appreciative -- whether he’s walking around the mall or eating dinner -- of all the fans that come to see him. Not that all artists aren’t appreciative, but it’s really inspiring to see how much effort he puts into making sure each and every person that comes to the concert has a good time. That’s what I try to do with my shows as well.”
The 32-year-old guitarist likes to interface with her fans in person. This is her first tour doing pre-show VIP meet-and-greets by herself, and she doesn’t simply shake hands and take photos. There is an hourlong sit-down and Q&A where fans can ask Strauss questions. Some are musicians who bring guitars and request technique tips. Others ask about playing with Cooper or her recent fitness challenge launched through social media (and connected to her forthcoming e-book, Body Shred: Your Guide to Feeling and Looking Like a Rock Star).
“We just hang, and it’s a great way for me to take a page out of Alice’s book and get to know who is out there coming to see me,” says Strauss. “Honestly, it’s my favorite part of the day, because it’s this great one-on-one time that I get to spend with people.” Her fans range from 4 years old to those in their 60s or older, and they want to learn about her playing. She feels flattered that she has “made something that can appeal to this many people.”
Controlled Chaos balances guitar shred and double bass drum assaults with more overtly melodic and even contemplative compositions. Some of its high-speed riffs and majestic guitar harmonies contain a distinct power metal vibe. Ultimately, Strauss wanted to make an album that encompassed her personality. Aggression wasn’t the only aspect of her playing that she brought to the table, although the hard-rock and metal influences are certainly there. “I’m pretty easy-going and pretty happy most of the time,” she says. “I had to put some fun songs on there that reflected the happier times in my life and the more peaceful and more hopeful times. And the things that I hope for and aspire to in my life.”
Strauss is part of a legion of younger female shredders who are upholding the tradition of real rock guitar playing, and she praises and admires her peers. “I had the great pleasure to play with Courtney Cox from The Iron Maidens for the years when I was in that band,” says Strauss. “She’s definitely one of the most exciting and technical female guitar players coming up now. Of course, Nili Brosh -- her solo albums are legendary. Gretchen Menn, Irene Ketikidi, Sarah Longfield, Annie Grunwald. Jen Majura playing with Evanescence -- there are so many out there now totally killing it.”
The acknowledged six-stringer who paved the way for these axe slingers is Jennifer Batten, whom Strauss first heard and saw play when she was around 15. “I saw Jennifer Batten do a cool guitar solo before I ever saw any other girl do a cool guitar solo,” recalls Strauss. “I saw a video from the Super Bowl where Jennifer was playing with Michael Jackson. That was the first time that I had seen a girl doing what I wanted to do. I was already playing, but I had never sought out female heroes. Now there are so many incredible female guitar players.”
One of those musicians is Strauss’ good friend Orianthi, who played in Cooper’s band prior to her arrival. A collaboration between the two -- Strauss with her metal style, Orianthi with her pop and blues side -- would make for an exciting duet. “We’ve definitely talked about doing stuff together,” says Strauss. “It would just be so interesting, because on the grand scheme of guitar players, we might look similar, but there are no two guitar players more different… I love her technique, and her voice is amazing.” The pairing would come down to time and scheduling. “We live 15 minutes from each other in L.A., and I think we’ve seen each twice in five years,” admits Strauss. “I tour 10 or 11 months out of the year, and she’s always busy recording and touring.”
Work is something that Strauss has plenty of these days. “I feel really, really lucky every single day that I get to wake up and do this,” she declares. “I’ve worked my entire life to be this busy. I’ve worked my entire career to have this many things to do and this many emails to answer. Even when it’s overwhelming, it’s still a blessing.”