Robin Beacham, guitarist extraordinaire, has seen a lot of ups and downs over her musical career.
The lowest came when, after several years of struggle with bands that almost - but not quite - reached the goals of a major record label deal and national touring - she actually put the instrument down.
Then, through happenstance, she became acquainted with Cheap Chick, and her desire to play was rekindled. She had rediscovered playing music for the fun of it, and her passion for the instrument and music was reenergized.
The Texas native (her aunt, she says, was a classmate of Janis Joplin) began playing at age 12, after years of begging her parents for a guitar. After struggling with lessons on a bad, cheap acoustic, she worked odd jobs ("even mowing lawns like my brothers did," she said) and, with matching funds from her father, bought a Fender Telecaster.
Within a few years, she was working with several bands around the Houston area, including XOX and Velvet Hammer, the former of which was managed by Lone Wolf Productions, whose other clients included ZZ Top.
She made the move out west and spent a decade working with various bands, but success eluded her. Frustrated, she gave up music for almost two years.
Then, in 2003, she joined Cheap Chick, and, as "Chick Nielsen," has spent the last three years touring across the country (and even overseas) with that band.
Robin was one of three finalists chosen to appear in a 2004 episode of Vh-1's You Rock With ..., featuring Matchbox 20. Before a packed house at a St. Louis concert, Robin was chosen to join the band for a song as guest guitarist.
In 2006, while continuing to work with Cheap Chick, she formed Ladysmith, an all-female Aerosmith tribute band. Ladysmith began performing in earnest in late summer, 2006, and is being profiled for two documentary projects (one each in England and Canada).
More recently, Robin became involved with Girls Rock Guitar Picks, and her image now appears in some of the packaging and print ads for that product.
This interview with Robin was conducted in July, 2006 and updated in February of 2007.
You're going to tell me about the (2007) NAMM show, right? (NOTE: NAMM is a national organization of music product manufacturers whose twice-annual conventions/trade shows are held in Los Angeles. - T.W.)
Yeah! NAMM was fun. Jennifer (Paro, Ladysmith guitarist) got to work in the Audix Microphone booth. They invited her to come down and help out with their booth, and they needed someone to help out on their two heaviest days, so they brought me in for that. So we got to see what it was like from the manufacturer's side. All the years I'd gone I had actually been an attendee, but never had a booth set up. So this was different. It was a lot of standing (laughs), and that gave me an appreciation for these poor people who have to do this for four days.
I can imagine.
But, we got to meet the drummer for REO Speedwagon, who came by and chatted with us, and the guys in Blue Oyster Cult came by a few times. And being on the end of the manufacturers, people seemed to be more approachable, people were more willing, I think, to talk. Instead of "Ah, I don't know if they want to talk to me or not," you know what I mean?
And Tommy Tutone came by. And one of the guys at Audix, the artist relations guy, brought him over to meet Jennifer, and he said, "Hey, Tommy, this is Jenny." (Laughs) So he was, "Yeah, yeah, okay. I get the joke."
And I met Jim Marshall, and that was a real thrill. I've played through his amps for years and years, and I finally got to meet the man, and get a picture with him.
One of the really great things about the NAMM show is that you get to see all the new products, even before they're out on the market, and there are people there to demonstrate them for you, which is really cool.Like, for example, I went to see the Taylor guitar display, and they had every single Taylor guitar they make. You know, you go into a guitar store and they might have five models, or six, but here they had them all you could just pick up every single guitar until you found the one you like, and you know what you want. And then you also meet the people who actually make the guitars, too. For example, there at the Taylor booth, I told the guy, "I'm an electric guitarist, I'm not an acoustic guitarist by trade. Is there a guitar that has that feel, that kind of neck, where I feel like I'm playing an electric guitar?" And he pulled out three different guitars for me to try and said, "I think these are the ones you're looking for," and he really knew his stuff. That's one of the coolest things about the NAMM show.
Tell me about Girls Rock Guitar Picks.
Yeah, this is a new line that Hot Picks has started. And they actually saw me play last year at NAMM, and they asked me to be one of their endorsers, and they only asked five. Nancy Wilson (Heart) is one of them, and they're so cool and so proactive about promoting these artists, even if you're not signed to a major deal, they're going to promote you. So this means I'm going to get as much promotion as Nancy Wilson or the other three, which is really cool. I'm just so impressed with what they're doing, that they want to promote me as an artist. And they make a really good product and I've been telling everyone about them.
And I can say, "I knew her when ..."
(Laughs)Well, it's just really nice to see something like this. So much of the promotion of musical gear is for men, it's aimed at men. So it's nice to see something like this that is really geared toward women. It's radically different. The only other company I can think of offhand that is marketing something directly to girls is Daisy Rock (guitars).
So this is a new concept they're going for. And they're good picks, I wouldn't promote their product if I didn't like it, and they're really good picks.
Okay, let's back up a bit. We talk about Texas music being, sort of, in the water or whatever it is. Did you soak up any of that?
I could tell there was a lot of music going on, especially in Austin. I saw the music scene happening, and all these great musicians and stuff. I didn't really get to go to clubs until I was "legal" (laughs) I knew friends of mine and their parents actually took them to see bands, but I didn't have that luxury, but I knew about the artists that were out there.
Who was the first one that you saw or heard that really "bit" you?
Well, I'd say listening to my aunt and uncle's records, the Beatles. I really wanted to write music when I heard that. That's the earliest thing that I can think of being impressed with was the songs of the Beatles. And I luckily had aunts and uncles that were into music and had a lot of records, and I would play their records.
My dad was primarily into country and my mother didn't really buy records, she was more into ... more offbeat, real mellow stuff, so the first real rock and roll that I heard was the Beatles. And I thought, "that sounds great, I want to write songs like that."
So, the Texas music - from Bob Wills western swing to blues to west Texas rockabilly, the Buddy Holly-type stuff, did any of that influence you at all?
That was more my dad; I wasn't really into it that much. I was more into straight-ahead rock and roll and pop music. I mean, I heard it, I had an appreciation for it, but that was more what my dad was into, all the rockabilly stuff. He had Jerry Lee Lewis, I think some Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, that kind of stuff, but I was more into the more regular 4/4 beat, you know, the shuffle beat kind of music. And I wasn't really that big into the blues. The only guitar players that I was really into that had a blues influence were Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page.
And you were how old when you got the Telecaster?
Twelve. I think, or maybe just barely 13. But I finally had a guitar that I could play, and I started teaching myself. And I shocked my parents; they were like, "Woah! She was serious! (laughs)
Well, you know, as someone said, if you went into the Army to play guitar, they'd issue you a Telecaster. It has everything you need and nothing you don't.
(Laughs)Yeah. I actually wound up selling that guitar and I regret it now, because it would be a vintage, collector's item. I think, when I got it, it was like a '68 or '69, and I sold it to get a Strat. Because I saw Eddie Van Halen play, and when I saw that I thought, "I want to play lead guitar like that; that's what I want to play." So I went out and got a Strat, and proceded to get the router out and tear it up (laughs), and put a humbucker in it. This was before they sold Stratocasters with humbuckers - they call it a Fat Strat - but they didn't have that back then. And I got something like a Floyd Rose put in it. But I had to sell the Telecaster to be able to afford to get the Strat (laughs).
And this was when?
I was 15, 15 or 16. What's funny is he's still like a guitar god to young people. I was at a Van Halen concert about a year ago, and I can't tell you how many - well, mostly guys, it's a shame that there's not more girls that are into lead guitar - but I just saw all these young kids up in the front, watching him. And that was cool to see, because he's just so amazing. And he's an innovator, too, he innovated the way guitars are even built, you know? So, yeah, he's probably my number one influence as a lead player.
When was the first band?
High school. I wanted to form a band before that but I just didn't know anyone who played an instrument. I just lived in a very small town and didn't know other kids that played. And so, we moved to Houston when I was 15, and my world just opened huge. I went from a real tiny junior high to a huge high school, huge, with thousands of kids in this high school. And I was hangin' out with a lot of the older kids and just learned a lot about lead guitar by watching other kids who were better than me play ... And again, all guys, not one of them a girl. And I luckily met some guys who were really cool with me and thought it was really cool that I played.
And then I met another girl (Leslie Carol) who played bass, and we put this high school thing together, and we found out really quick she was a singer and not a bass player (laughs). And she and I went on to be in a lot of bands together, on and off, over the years. And eventually I moved out here, and a few years later she moved out here, and she's now the lead singer in Ladysmith. So, I've known her since high school.
And there were several other bands before you left Houston, correct?
Oh, yeah. I did a couple of, like, cover bands that also played original music. I did a band called Hey Boy, and I met a guy who owned a recording studio and was actually a pretty big name in town. And he heard some of my original stuff, and heard her singing, and he thought, "you guys could really do something." So she and I put this band Hey Boy together. And we actually won a contest with a radio station and got on a compilation album and that's how things really started to take off.
"Groom" you? In what way?
I mean, we did everything. We were taking dancing lessons - not so much dancing but choreography - and went to makeup artists to learn how to put our makeup on, 'cause it was two men and two women in that band. And we had wardrobe consultants, and it was a pretty bigtime thing.
How much did the guys have to learn about putting makeup on?
(Laughs) Well, just for the photo shoots. It was mostly for the singer and I. So they kept shopping our tape, and we were thinking, "ZZ Top's management is shopping this; someone's gonna sign us, or at least they're going to listen."
But did they?
Well, I think they did, they just didn't like what they heard. I think part of it is the mentality of, "Well, we already have a band like Heart ..."
Frankly, Tom, we sounded nothing like Heart. We had two women in the band. Big deal! There's a lot of bands with all men - do they say, "Oh, we have an all-boy band; we don't need another one." I never heard that remark made. I think they just didn't get it. Or there may have been some that just didn't like the music. I can't imagine if a label liked the songs and thought they could do something with it but it had two women in it - I don't follow that.
Well, you would think that if a label found another Heart or another Fleetwood Mac or another whatever they'd jump all over it.
Or just see beyond that and see, "Okay, this is a band with great songs." I don't care if there's Martians in the band (laughs). But, that's what we kept hearing. I even had a couple of management companies approach me personally and want to make me the next Lita Ford. And I was just like, "No, I don't think so" (laughs). I'm not knocking Lita Ford, I just didn't want to be a singing guitar player; I didn't want to be the singer/lead guitarist. That's not my thing. I want to play guitar and write.
And it was the first all-female band I'd ever been in. And they had pretty big management, too. And they had also just landed a major publishing deal with Polygram. So I said, "Hell, yeah! I'll join!" (laughs) And they had incredible harmonies and everybody wrote, and great singers in the band. And I was in that band for about a year, and it just stalled out. It wasn't really going any further than what it was doing.
So I just decided to move to L.A. I had been wanting to move there for years, and I felt like I had done all I could do in Houston. I was in two incredibly good bands, and I wanted to make a living as a musician and tour and do all the cool things that you do, and you need a record deal to do it, so I just thought, "L.A. is the next step."
And when was this?
I moved to L.A. in 1991, so I've been here about 15 years.
So, what happened when you landed?
(Laughs)I realized very quickly that I went from being a big fish in a medium-sized pond to a little fish in a huge pond. And I didn't know anybody, I didn't even know where to start. The drummer from Velvet Hammer left and came out here with me. Together we thought, as a duo, maybe we could do something. And she's an amazing drummer, I mean ... she's up there with John Bonham, people like that. She's not a great female drummer, she's just an excellent drummer, period, that just happens to be a woman.
And the drummer, her name is Katrina, decided to go back to Houston. She had enough of L.A. after about a year. And it's so hard to make it out here because there are so many musicians, and so many good ones. And because there's such a glut of clubs, if you play original music the clubs won't pay you. Not unless you're consistently drawing huge crowds. And I found that really shocking, because with XOX and with Velvet Hammer, we got paid. So I had to get day jobs just to survive out here.
And you were basically just a weekend warrior for the next few years.
Yeah, just playing out whenever I could. Actually, I just changed jobs and now I have time for more than one band. But I had gotten totally burned out on the original stuff, but I did try one original thing with the lead singer, Leslie. I was out here almost three years and then she moved out here.
Just burned out completely.
I barely even picked up a guitar at all. I was just so burned out with all of it, the music business, everything.
Which is sad, because that probably happens to a lot of people, including some - like you - who really have the talent.
I don't think my story is any special (thing) - like, unique, I think a lot of people have gone through what I went through, at different stages. Some go through it younger and some go through it older. Some people just quit altogether and just sell all their instruments, like my friend Katrina, who had moved out here. When she told me, my heart just sank, because she was so amazing. But, after she went back to Texas for a couple of years she got back with Velvet Hammer and played out and all that, she got burned out, too.
But, she sold everything! I just couldn't believe it. That, I couldn't bring myself to do. I tried, but I just couldn't bring myself to sell all my stuff. She sold it all and gave up music completely for, God, four years. And just now, in the past year she's gotten back into it and started playing drums and percussion again. But I had just thought, "God, what a waste of talent."
What was it about Cheap Chick that appealed to you?
By that time I had made friends with some people in the business. Particularly this one guy (Tom Farrell) who was a journalist, he's been an editor for several magazines. I got to know him through Majenta Jets, and he really liked our music and wrote some really cool articles about us and stuff. He just kept telling me, "I can't believe this, it's such a waste."
And this was ...
Well, actually, the first tribute band I had ever seen was Wild Child, which was a tribute to the Doors. And the lead singer sounds and looks like Jim Morrison to the point that it's scary. And that really impressed me.
Fear can be impressive sometimes, I suppose.
(Laughs) And then, I guess about four years ago, I was at a club and it was just original bands playing. I was getting ready to leave, and this band was setting up, and I asked somebody, "Is this an all-female band?" I mean, even in L.A., that's rare to see. So I thought, "I'm gonna stick around and see this." And I asked someone, "Who are these people?" And they said, "They called themselves 'Rosies' or 'Whole Lotta Rosies.'" And I thought, "That's an old AC/DC song"
And they came out and played all these old AC/DC songs, and they were all good players, too. And I thought, "Wow! Where did all of these women come from? (laughs) This looks like a lot of fun, and they're really good players!" I had never heard of any of these women, and they're just jammin' out to AC/DC. I thought I'd stick around afterwards and talk to them, and, I tell you what, Tom, there were so many people in that club - it was so packed - that when they finished they were just inundated by men (laughs).
Somehow, I'm not surprised.
But, I walked away thinking, "You know, that's something I'd like to do. That looks like a lot of fun." And it's not a cover band in the sense of playing all this Top 40, they're playing the music of a band they love, and, you know, like all Van Halen or all Beatles - how cool is that?
And what was the next step?
I think it was ... my friend, the editor. I think he sent this person to me, she called me up, and they were looking for a guitarist. It was a tribute to Black Sabbath. And I told her, "You know, it's not really the vein of music I want to do." I can't see myself playing all Black Sabbath. And she mentioned that she was doing original stuff, and she said, "I'm playing a show this coming Saturday, and there's a lot of bands, including this band called Cheap Chick." And I said, "Is Cheap Chick a tribute to Cheap Trick?" And she said, "Yeah," and I thought, "Oh, my God! That is the band, that is the kind of music I wanna do. You know, hard, heavy guitars, wall of guitars but pop music. And it's really catchy music." And she goes, "Oh, really?" And she told me when it was and I thought, "Damn!" I had to work that day or something. And I told her, "Oh, I hate it that I can't come, I'd like to see you guys, and I'd really like to meet Cheap Chick!" (laughs)
And then ...
Two days later, Pam, from Cheap Chick, called me. And she said, "I was talking to so-and-so ..." - I honestly can't remember that girl's name, I feel bad now - but Pam said, "she told me about you, and we're actually looking for a guitarist right now." And I almost fell on the floor, I couldn't believe it. And I said, "Yeah! When do I audition?" And she was telling me how much money I would make, and I didn't even care. I just wanted to do this because it seemed like so much fun.