Swedish born Nikki O’Neill is a professional guitarist, instructor and author who recently released her book Women’s Road to Rock Guitar. Guitar Girl Magazine was able to catch up with the ever-spinning jet set rocker to get to know more about just who she is.
GGM: You’re a rocker, a band leader, a teacher and, with the release of your book Women’s Road to Rock Guitar, a writer so what do you tell people you do?
Nikki: I sing, write, and I play lead and rhythm guitar in a band. I also really enjoy turning people onto playing guitar. It doesn’t matter if they’re total beginners, already in bands, or if they’re singers who want to learn guitar so that they can write songs and communicate clearer with other musicians.
GGM: What inspired you to write Women’s Road to Rock Guitar?
Nikki: I’d love to see more female guitarists in rock and pop. I also seem to have a talent for breaking down information. And I get really happy when I see my students get more confident on the guitar … to see them soloing, writing, figuring out songs by ear, creating rhythm guitar parts, understanding how the fretboard works, and all the gear like pickups, amps and pedals. So I wanted to use my teaching ability to write a book about that stuff and breed more female rock guitarists!
I really enjoy turning people on to playing guitar!
GGM: What are some of your favorite things about Women’s Road to Rock Guitar?
Nikki: The inspirational tips shared by world class players like Jennifer Batten, Kat Dyson, Sue Foley, Lita Ford, Kaki King, Ann Klein, Bibi McGill, Orianthi, Vicki Peterson, Ana Popovic, and Nancy Wilson … I interviewed all of them for the book.
You get to play classic and contemporary stuff. It covers both indie rock, classic rock, hard rock and blues-rock, because the aesthetics are different for each style.
A lot of people love the riff chapter. I had a blast writing it. You get to play riffs in so many rock styles, from Black Sabbath to PJ Harvey, Jimi Hendrix, Sleater-Kinney, Muse, The Donnas, Funkadelic, Joan Jett, Iron Maiden, Kings of Leon and much more.
I spent a lot of work on the lead guitar chapter. I don’t think there is a clearer guide out there for getting you into soloing. I’ve learned from bad teachers and great ones. I’ve sifted through a ton of guitar books and video lessons out there. I also spent many hours wood shedding: figuring stuff out from records, jamming in bands, tracking solos in the studio, and learning my way around the fretboard.
The book has an accompanying CD that lets you hear all the exercises and play along with jam tracks in different rock styles. This way, you can practice your new lead and rhythm guitar chops with bass and drums.
It shows you common song structures in rock and how to write a song chart … I don’t think I’ve seen this in other guitar instruction books.
It explains pickups and amps, and you get to hear what different effects pedals do and what they sound like.
It caters to players of different levels. Even though it isn’t for total beginners, I made sure not to alienate anybody.
GGM: You’re also an instructor at the Swedish all-female rock college ELLA. How did you get involved with them?
Nikki: The ELLA rock program is a two year full-time music education for women, mostly between ages 18-25.
I learned about it through a drummer friend of mine in Sweden, who I was visiting for dinner. Now they’ve flown me out there as a guest instructor three times.
ELLA’s students come from all over Sweden, but since the school opened up to international students, they’ve actually had two students from Texas attend. Their goal is to provide a broad musical education but with a gender perspective, so the program includes instrument instruction (main instrument and other common rock band instruments), ensemble playing, song writing, music theory, audio engineering, music production, music business, and gender studies.
When they flew me out in May to teach four days of clinics, the students were just about to embark on a nationwide tour that they had planned and budgeted. It was their final project. I sat in on rehearsals, taught workshops on song arranging, influential guitarists, and how bands in the US try to build audiences. I taught an impromptu class on the fretboard, and I’ve never witnessed such a hunger for knowledge … even the singers who don’t have guitar as their main instrument were really into it.
I lived at the dorm, so we watched music documentaries like “It Might Get Loud” after the school day was over. On the last night, I drank tea with all the students in one of the dorm rooms, and we talked about how we all got into music. Some of the students were going to miss leaving the school, because they experienced such a great community being around other women who also were dedicated rock musicians. As one student said, in her hometown, not too many women seemed to pursue other interests in life other than going to the gym after work.
It was such a cool experience being there, and I’m so glad I got to be a part of it.
GGM: Tell me about the workshops and clinics you’re doing.
Nikki: I visited the ladies rock camp in Los Angeles, and the vibe and sense of creative community was incredibly inspiring.
So I’ve been in contact with a lot of the other ladies/girls rock camps around the US, and also in Sweden, Finland, France, Brazil and Japan. It’s still at the planning stage, but I hope to be visiting many of these camps in 2015 to do workshops and participate as a volunteer.
I have experience teaching a lot of different things in the music area – from guitar-related topics like rhythm guitar, soloing and demonstrations of gear to songwriting/arranging, the history of women in rock, and some business-related topics. Depending on what interest each camp has and the age and experience level of the students, I could be teaching all of the above topics. I think it’ll be great to visit them and see the fantastic work that the campers and staff do. These camps are often run on a volunteer basis with a limited budget. It’s a labor of love.
I’m also planning to coordinate the 2015 camp workshops with my own shows.
Everybody’s path in the arts is unique.
GGM: What’s going on with your band?
Nikki: The band is reforming and starting fresh. The drummer (Rich Lackowski) and I have continued writing, and we’ve got a new guitarist, who shares the lead and rhythm guitar duties with me. I’ve been working on expanding my abilities as a singer, and we’ve just got a Hammond organ, so both Rich and I are learning to play it so that we can use it for songwriting and on stage. Our music still has soul, funk and R&B influences … that’s just ingrained in my DNA.
GGM: And you have music on iTunes?
Nikki: Yes, we’ve got a six-song EP on iTunes. It features the earlier lineup, and includes a song we co-wrote with Sly & Robbie called “Higher Levels.” It starts as a reggae tune and rocks out more until it ends with an epic gospel choir … it’s very cool!
I endorse Seymour Duncan pickups and Daisy Rock guitars
GGM: What about your endorsements?
Nikki: I endorse Seymour Duncan pickups and Daisy Rock Guitars. I’ve taught two guitar workshops for teen girls at the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad, CA, which Daisy Rock sponsored. I also used to demo their guitars at the NAMM show.
GGM: Who are your favorite artists you’ve worked with?
Nikki: Sly & Robbie, keyboardist Ed Lyon, guitarist Paul Kezmarsky, and my drummer and forever partner in music and life Rich Lackowski.
GGM: What have been some of your magical musical moments?
Nikki: Recording our EP at the same studio in LA where Pink Floyd recorded much of “The Wall.” That place had an amazing drum sound.
There have been mojo moments in home studios, too, for instance when we tracked the gospel choir section on “Higher Levels” and some guitar solos I was really happy with, like on “The Problem Ain’t the Man.”
A gig we did at an outdoor festival in Chicago with The Verve and The Gin Blossoms where the audience was so responsive … I love playing outdoors.
One time in New York when I got to compose instrumental music for a modern dance company and perform it with the dancers at the Soho Joyce Theatre.
Some shows in the most unexpected venues where you experience being in “the zone.” Your mind is dead quiet and totally calm, and you’re deeply engaged in listening to the other musicians, just watching your fingers move around the guitar, and you’re playing better than ever. It’s true confidence. It’s happened to me a couple of times, and it’s amazing … I imagine Zen must be like that.
I had wanted to become a vegan.
GGM: How would you say your friends describe you?
Nikki: Here’s what one of them said, “A heart of gold set in a nature and animal loving creative soul!”
GGM: What made you decide to become a vegan?
Nikki: It’s for both health, ethical and environmental reasons. My body is really sensitive, so I get skin rashes, heartburn and acid reflux from meat and dairy, and I was fed up with the discomfort – including how it affected my voice. A physician warned me after seeing the acid’s wear on my larynx and vocal cords.
I’m also greatly opposed to the cruel treatment of meat and dairy farm animals. When food is produced at such a large industrial scale, all compassion and common sense about treating living beings has gone out the window. So I don’t want to support that with my wallet.
I’ve been against animal-tested cosmetics ever since I was in high-school, but becoming vegan was a slow process. I was a vegetarian and a pescetarian (fish eater) off and on for ten years, and then I saw the documentary “Veducated.” I had wanted to become a vegan earlier, and I had seen many similar documentaries, but I guess that the timing and the amount of willpower was right … I’ve been a vegan for over two years now.
GGM: You’ve lived in different countries and big cities so what brought you to Los Angeles?
Nikki: My husband. We met at the NAMM music trade show. For those who’ve been there, it’s not the most romantic setting! But he’s a musician too, so I guess it was perfect for us!
I love taking road trips
GGM: What do find yourself doing when you’re not playing guitar?
Nikki: I write songs, and I’m currently teaching myself to play the drums and Hammond organ, plus a little harmonica. I love taking road trips with my husband and I’m always about exploring, even if it’s just locally … I get bored otherwise. Other than that I like cooking, going to farmers markets, photography, checking out art exhibits and vintage clothes shops. I either ride my bike, swim or do yoga or mat Pilates to exercise. I also volunteer at an animal hospital, taking rescue dogs out for walks.
GGM: What’s in store for the road ahead?
Nikki: Writing music with the band, finalizing the workshops for 2015, and some national and international touring. I’ve started teaching rock guitar fanatics around the world via Skype. I’m doing the English translation of a really good Swedish ebook series on songwriting called “Songwriting – Get Your Black Belt in Music & Lyrics.” It’s for dedicated songwriters and it has an artistic perspective. It’ll be sold on iBooks soon. It’s extremely informative yet fun, with lots of interactive video and audio, plus interviews with world-famous songwriters as well as not-so-famous songwriters, but artistically great. I’m also in discussions with my publisher (Alfred Music) about doing video lessons in connection to “Women’s Road to Rock Guitar.”
I never saw all these opportunities coming
I never saw all these opportunities coming, so I’m very happy that I was able to recognize them and seize them. You should never compare yourself to others, you know. Everybody’s path in the arts is unique. And that makes it all so much cooler.