Pete Comita

Cheap trick’s Interim 12-string bassist

After Tom Petersson left Cheap Trick in 1980 he was replaced on 12-string bass by Pete Comita. Comita toured with Cheap Trick for just over a year. We tracked Pete down and had a chance to chat with him. Thanks Pete!

Who is Pete Comita? If you had to describe yourself in a single paragraph, what would you say?

Pete playing the black Hamer Quad 12-String Bass. Published in 16 magazine, late 1980 or early 1981.

I'm a pretty easy going guy who's not real crazy about confrontations. I guess being as pretty easy going as I am can be a detriment but I am who I am and I've finally come to accept that. I believe in giving everyone a chance until they prove me wrong, then they're gone in my book. Sometimes it is hard for me to accept the ways of the world because at times they are are cruel and unforgiving but I try to see the glass half full these days. Life is what it is and I'm stuck with it for the duration. I've been blessed most my life because I've always been able to do just what I love, music. I've never had a straight job, always been my own boss, and freedom is what I love the most. Music has given that to me, so I've been a pretty lucky guy.

When did you first become involved with music and the guitar?

When I was about 14 I was watching the Ed Sullivan Show and on came The Beatles. I already heard their songs on the radio and loved them. But when I saw that only four guys were making all that music and my two sisters were screaming and girls fainting on TV, I knew that was what I wanted to do. It was my birthday and my dad gave me a choice: He would either buy me a dog or a bass guitar. I chose the bass. In those days no one played rock music so I learned the bass line to "Mr. Tambourine Man" by The Byrds. I immediately got a gig with this band whose singer's brother-in-law owned the biggest club in Chicago, "This Cellar". The band was called ‘U.S. Male’. At 14 I was playing in front of 1,500 people every weekend. So I played bass for the next three years. The second I heard Jimmy Hendrix I said goodbye to the bass and started playing guitar.

Tell us about when you were playing in d’Thumbs with Jon Brant.

I was in a band called Beowolf and John was a bass player working at a clothing shop. He wasn't very good but we took him anyway. We played clubs around Chicago in various other bands together for years. Then I got an offer to start this new band with the singer of the biggest band in town, Pez Band. His name was Cliff Johnson of Off-Broadway fame. So I dragged John along with me. The Thumbs became the biggest band in town until Cheap Trick came along. Then they were our biggest competition, and also my favorite band.

Pete Comita on guitar with Jon Brant playing in the band d’Thumbs.

How did you become involved with CT? It must have been a huge thrill to be playing with a major rock band having graduated from high school only a few years earlier!

I'll try to keep this as short as I can. Cheap Trick's manager called me in L.A. and asked me if I knew how to play slide guitar. I had only played slide on one song in my life, "Dancing Days" by Led Zeppelin. I lied and said I was great at it. So he said I would have a ticket to New York the next morning to audition for Foghat. I borrowed all the Foghat cassettes I could find and stayed up all night learning their songs. To my amazement I got the gig. While on the road with them their manager came to my room and suddenly fired me. I was devastated. I went home to Chicago to my dad's house and a week later Cheap Trick's manager asked me if I could play bass the next day at the Maple Leaf Gardens with Cheap Trick. No rehearsal, just sound check. They told me Tom was sick and could I handle it. I told them to send me a ticket. I never even held a 12-string bass before.

The next day the reviews in the papers said, "Tom was his normal shining self". Then I finished off three more shows in Canada. Cheap Trick was my favorite all-time band. It all happened so fast I thought it was a dream. But two weeks later they asked me if I could go to Japan. Now I knew something was up because you can't be sick in this business for over two weeks. We played four shows in Japan and on the plane on the way home Rick asked me to join the band. He told me Tom had been fired. I thought I had died and went to heaven. And for the next year that's what it was. The whole Foghat thing was just a ploy to see if I could handle playing concerts. Pretty conniving, huh? As far as the age difference, I think I'll pass on that one, I lie anyway.

You wrote on your blog that Robin Zander stole the song, “I Can’t Take It” that was included on Cheap Trick's "Next Position Please" album. Are there any other songs on which you were not properly credited?

Pete with Rick Nielsen’s white Hamer B12S 12-string bass. Photo from the View-Master reels.

"I Can't Take It" was a combination of two songs I had written before I joined Cheap Trick. One day, in the limo, I played a cassette for Robin of those songs. One was called "I Can't Take It", the other, "Move'n On". Robin said he liked those songs and wanted to work on them with me. So one day I went to his house in Rockford and arranged both songs to make one. I already had the melody and music to those songs, and the title "I Can't Take It". Robin helped me arrange that song, but arranging isn't writing. I quit the band during the recording of the album "One On One". Most of the bass playing on that record is me, although I didn't get credit. The lick in the intro of "If You Want My Love" I came up with and played it on the bass. Rick decided to use it and played it on guitar on the record. Those are the only things I wasn't credited for.

To clarify, you state that most of the bass work on the "One On One" album is yours although you were uncredited. That's bound to be a controversial claim given that Jon Brant and Rick Nielsen are widely regarded as the bassists on that album. Did you record the demos for those songs or is it your playing on the actual released recordings? Did you use a 12-string bass on any of those songs?

Well, unless John played note for note everything I played on the masters, it's me. I have all the out takes and demos of that album. I never listened to the finished album so John may have played on a few tracks. I'm pretty sure the record was finished by the time I split. I used an Alembic 8-string on two tracks but no 12-string. My experience has been that producers aren't real crazy about 12-strings in the studio. Roy Thomas Baker produced that album and he didn't even want to hear the 12-string. My favorite bass sound I ever recorded was with Jack Douglas on a song called "Born to Raise Hell". It was an Alembic 8-string and Jack let me crank the amp as loud as I wanted. Jack Douglas was by far the best producer I ever worked with. His attitude - No stress, no worries, just rock.

How active were you in the CT songwriting process?

I was never involved in any songwriting with the band but we recorded "Reach Out" written by Bob James (Montrose) and myself for the movie soundtrack "Heavy Metal". One day I saw Robin and he told me he wanted to record "I Can't Take It" for their next album, "Next Position Please", but he couldn't tell the band I had anything to do with it or they wouldn't put it on the record because they were pissed that I quit. He said after it was recorded he would tell them my involvement and we would settle up on the details. After the record was released I saw him once again at a club. I went up to him and asked him if he had told the band the truth about the song. He looked directly into my eyes and said, "What are you talking about, Pete?" I was in complete disbelief. I'll give credit where credited is due: Robin wrote the rest of the lyrics, but that's it. More than anything it hurt my feelings because I thought we were friends. I'm not worried about any backlash that may result in this disclosure for reasons I choose not to reveal at this time. If Robin ever develops a conscience maybe he'll do the right thing, but I won't hold my breath.

You started out playing Rick’s white Hamer B12S 12-string bass. Did you like it?

No, the action was too high and it didn't sustain enough.

Was it tough making the transition from guitar to 12-string bass?

At first it was very difficult because my hands weren't strong enough yet. The first time I played it I was in love because it sounded, to me, like a giant grand piano.

You then got the tiger-striped standard 12-string bass.

I considered it more zebra-striped. I went to Hamer and asked Jol Dantzig to make me a 12 with an Explorer body, but smaller. I told him to surprise me with the rest of the details and boy, did he ever. The look, sound and all the rest was Jol's creation. The only thing I asked for was a scaled-down Explorer body and a little growl and he came up with it. I really like Jol.

What rig were you using on stage with CT? Did it give you the sound you wanted?

I was using three SVT's and one Marshall guitar amp stack. That zebra-striped 12 was rigged so the low bass strings went to the SVT's and the high guitar strings went to the Marshall. Eventually I asked him to wire all the strings together so they would all come out of one amp. I loved the clean sound but it never got enough distortion when I wanted it.

Did the zebra 12 originally have two output jacks then? Or was it wired with an on-board crossover to allow the highs to be split from the lows?

The Zebra 12-string bass originally came with three outputs - each string could have gone to a different amp. Jol really went high-tech on that bass. He had LED's running all the way up the neck and my name mysteriously hidden in the paint job. I asked Jol to wire all the inputs together because it was less brain damage, faster to switch basses and no one would have ever noticed the difference live anyway.

In the live Cheap Trick concert video of Chicagofest ’81 it looked as though there was some tension between you and the other band members. Is this correct?

Very observant! I had already quit by then and that was the source of the tension. Rick was too great of a showman to be concerned about anything I was doing on stage. Bunny was always irritated anyway and Robin was his normal self, I thought. They were mad because they were too lazy to look for a new bass player so I literally put Jon Brant in that band.

Why did you leave Cheap Trick?

I wanted to go back to the guitar.

In addition to playing bass with Cheap Trick you have also played guitar with Foghat, Enuff Z’Nuff and Black Oak Arkansas. (Black Oak Arkansas is one of my favorites, btw.) What are your favorite memories about those bands?

Foghat! What a mixture of of diverse personalities. What stands out the most is the singer, Dave. I never heard him say a word unless he was on stage. I mean never! Enuff Z’Nuff was just pure fun. I couldn't take anything really serious with them because they were such goofs. But they had great songs. Black Oak Arkansas was fun too. But you had to be careful of Jim Dandy swinging that sword on stage. It came a little too close for comfort a few times.

What have you been doing lately? Any new albums or projects in the works?

Presently I'm writing and recording my latest work. I'm pretty satisfied with what I've been coming up with lately. The only thing it's lacking, to be honest, is Robin's voice. I plan on forming a cool band whose members think like I do in regards to music. Or at least look good.  

Do you still have or play any 12-string basses?

Unfortunately, I sold my Zebra-striped bass a few years ago because it was just gathering dust under my bed for years. I wanted it to be put to better use because that bass was screaming to be played. I wish I still had it.

When you’re not playing music, how do you spend your time?
Somewhere along the way I figured out I feel the best while not thinking of myself but actually doing something unselfish or unrewarding for someone else. I read a lot hoping to change my perspective of this crazy world - or at least accept it.

One final thing I’ve always wanted to know about Cheap Trick: When you’re on the road, how do you get your laundry done? Do you send it out or find a Laundromat and do it yourself?

Okay, what's the joke?! If you're serious, when I was on the road Cheap Trick was in a different position they are in now. Room service did the laundry.

Editor’s note: This interview was originally published on September 1, 2008.