Kansas Guitarist Explains Why He Never Got Into Fender Strat, Recalls Band Telling Him to Stop Playing Gibson ES-335

In a recent interview with Guitar World, guitarist Rich Williams of progressive rock legends Kansas discussed some of his gear preferences over the years. One of the guitars that often found a place in the band’s music was the somewhat rare Gibson L6-S which was based on L5 and Les Paul. Asked about this instrument and how it was his main weapon of choice back in the mid-1970s, he replied:

“The guitar was straight out the box, too. I did do a little work to it eventually where I moved the input jack to the bottom instead of the front, sort of vice-versa. I still had the six-way switch on it, and I think I might have added a tone control, too, where there was a switch. It’s been that way for so long, and I still have it.”

“Those guitars have such small necks. I had another one, too, but I didn’t like it. Kerry [Livgren, Kansas’s former singer/guitarist] tried one and he didn’t like it either. The one I have has very large inlays – big square ones, the same as the size of the Les Pauls inlays. Instead of the round shape, the ones on mine are square though. I’ve never seen another like it, so it might have been a prototype.”

Guitar of the Day: 1978 Gibson L6-S Deluxe | Norman's Rare Guitars

Asked whether he prefers 5-way pickup switches on guitars, he responded:

“Yes, I do, though I do have a PRS McCarty that has a three-way switch on it – I’m more comfortable with a five-way on PRS guitars. I really like [five-way switches] because it’s like going back to using the L6-S, but with the sound choices that are more like the Les Paul. Having said that, sometimes I do like the Les Paul better because of the ease of the switch.”

But despite his admiration of a 5-way switch on electric guitars, Williams never really got into Fender Stratocasters. Asked whether he ever considered switching to one, he said:

“After the Gibson, I did buy a Strat, but I’ve never been a Strat guy. They’re such a mystery to me. I’d watch guys like Eric Johnson play a Strat and it’s got such a beautiful sound, yet when I pick it up, it just sounds horrible! It truly was not designed for me, but I did use it on a few things.

“The Les Paul-style setup – from a PRS to a Les Paul to my Dean guitars, all of those, that’s where I feel more at home.” 

Recalling his time playing Dean guitars, he also remembered his Gibson ES-335. However, his bandmates wouldn’t have any of it and were against him using the legendary semi-hollow-body model. Williams explained:

“After the L6-S, I started using Dean guitars. Prior to the L6-S, I was using an ES-335 but the band thought it was a cowboy guitar. And because we were not a cowboy band, they made me trade it for that L6-S. The L6-S was probably worth $500, while the ES-335 was probably worth $25,000! [laughs]”

Richard Williams of KANSAS - Concert Video

Of course, these days, Rich prefers his PRS guitars. And this preference goes all the way back to the company’s early days. Asked about what made him decide to go with PRS in the first place, he replied:

“When Paul Reed Smith was first getting started, I convinced him to put his pickups into my original series Dean Cadillac. So, I used that for a while. I had another red Dean which I had as a spare, yet never used it. Finally, one day Paul said, ‘Why don’t you just get one of my guitars?’, and so I did.” 

“I have the first year Dragon model, No. 36. My PRS is my go-to guitar. I also have two 2012 Les Pauls, the Lee Roy Parnell models with the classic pickups in them. I love those guitars.”

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Reminded of his preference back in the day to use a guitar directly into an amplifier, he said:

“Yes, that’s correct. My guitar went into my 100-watt Marshall, which I still have today. I did incorporate a volume pedal at one point too because there were so many quick changes, I needed a quick volume change, too. I also had a Mu-Tron Phasor at one point, but apart from that, there were never any effects used in the early days at all – my guitar never went into any distortion boxes of any kind.

“Eventually, I started going into a Furman PL Plus Power Conditioner and slamming the front end of the Marshall, but it was so noisy. I could use it in the studio, but I couldn’t use it in a live performance.

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Despite belonging to the older generation of rock musicians, Rich Williams is one of the most famous users of Fractal Audio’s Axe-FX III. He continued:

“For the past 10 years, I’ve been playing with a Fractal Axe-Fx III – it was only [after I bought it] that I started getting into using more effects.”

Elsewhere in the interview, Rich was also reminded of Kansas’ revolutionary approach to rock music back in the day, combining conventional elements with violin and synths. Asked how he and the band approached such an arrangement, he said:

“With the violin, we didn’t want it to be fiddle. We wanted it to be part of the sound. Robby [Steinhardt] would be playing a violin part and I’d be playing a harmony with him and maybe a synthesizer would be playing the third part of the harmony, too.

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“So, we’d be creating like a string section of sorts – as if we were writing it for an orchestra – but we were still bashing the crap out of it. So, it was that approach to orchestrating with a violin. 

“Had we not had [just] one, we might not have done it that way and we would have sounded different. Jethro Tull was a good example of showing you that you could add a delicate instrument to a really cool band and make it work.” 

Asked whether it was a natural part of his musical evolution or whether the band purposefully set out to do this, he responded:

“Prior to Kansas, Dave Hope [bass], and I had played together previously in a band. And we were playing the rock hits of the days and because none of us were trained, we didn’t understand a delicate approach to anything. Phil [Ehart] would beat the crap out of the drums, while Dave was an aggressive bass player and for me it was crank it up and play it aggressively! That was our approach to it.”

Richard Brings the Riff!

“We had grown up with Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels and bands like that, American blue eyed soul rock and roll. So those were our roots. But the progressive movement coming out of Europe and England was very eye-opening to us. And what we learned from that was to think outside of the box.”

Photo: Gage Skidmore (Rich Williams (36113095311))


  • David Slavkovic

    David always planned for music to be nothing more than a hobby. However, after a short career as an agricultural engineer he ended up news editor at KillerGuitarRigs, senior editor at, as well as a freelance contributor to online magazines such as GuitaristNextdoor.