"You're making people happy and it's right in front of your face," the guitarist says of performing for a stadium of fans, "but I love being a dad more than anything else"

By Charlotte Triggs
December 23, 2020 11:05 AM

Richie Sambora loves to perform. But the former Bon Jovi guitarist says life on the road can take a serious toll.

"On stage, that was the good part of the day when you're on the road," Sambora says in the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Wednesday.

"You're making people happy and it's right in front of your face: 78,000 people are just losing their minds with happiness," he says. "I love the work. I still do. But what you're getting paid to do is to be away from your family."

Sambora, 61, who is dad to daughter Ava, 23, with his ex, legendary TV actress Heather Locklear, 59, says he eventually realized there was no price he could put on time at home.

"I love being a dad more than anything else," he says. "And I'm lucky enough to have an amazing relationship with my daughter."

Richie and Ava Sambora
| Credit: Shayan Asgharnia

Growing up in New Jersey, Sambora says he inherited his late father's work ethic.

"I taught myself how to play by making believe I was The Beatles, the Rolling Stones or somebody else like that in the mirror," he says.

After a brief stint teaching kids guitar lessons ("I was the hot teacher," he jokes), he began playing local venues.

"I worked six nights a week full time. Even on a Monday or a Tuesday when clubs couldn't pay for a band, but they can certainly pay for a guy on acoustic guitar, I would go and work for like $100 and free drinks," he recalls. "And I was able to take an acoustic guitar and be able to move an audience. It was basically exercise."

As a founding member of Bon Jovi, and one of its key songwriters (he authored "You Give Love a Bad Name" and "Livin' on a Prayer"), things suddenly kicked up a notch.

"Being in a large organization, a large band like Bon Jovi, it's really all-encompassing," he says. "I toured so much, God Almighty. It's a testimony of my being busy. My lord, when I look back and you start to list the things and the tours. It was 18 and a half months of being on the road, 52 countries.  And we did that 14 times over a 31 year period. It's like, wow. It was really time for a break."

Bon Jovi in 1984
| Credit: Paul Natkin/Getty

Once he became a father to Ava, Sambora says he pulled out all the stops to be there for his daughter, while maintaining the aggressive touring schedule. The family would carve out twice-yearly vacations to bond, and Sambora would frequently hire private jets to fly him home.

"Luckily I was making enough money to be able to have a private plane, get my ass home and see my kid even if it was only for one day," he says. "If it was Halloween it was boom, home. If she was having a daddy-daughter dance, boom, I was home. It didn't matter. I had three days off in Australia one time and I came home."

For a long time, Sambora says, he went to extraordinary lengths to keep up with the rock and roll lifestyle. During a break from touring in 2006, he slipped in his home and broke his shoulder.

"It was a horrible break. I could not move my arm at all," he says. "But two and a half weeks later I had 28 stadiums to do and $145 million on the table."

Sambora consulted multiple sports doctors and ultimately relied on pain meds to get him through the tour "or I wouldn't have ever gotten through it, without a doubt," he says.

Soon thereafter, he became addicted to pain meds, going for treatment for pills and an over-reliance on alcohol in 2007, and again in 2011.

By 2013, Sambora says, he was spent, and mid-tour, he made the controversial decision to leave the band, a decision he says leaves him with "no regrets."

"Ava needed me to be around at that point in time," he says. "Family had to come first, and that's what happened."

Richie Sambora
| Credit: Shayan Asgharnia

These days, Sambora says he's celebrating the fact that everyone in his family is healthy, happy and thriving — including himself.

"I practice the guitar more now than I did since I was a kid, I'm playing piano better than I've ever played and I'm writing like crazy," he says of finding new fulfillment through music while stuck inside during quarantine. "I've just taken the time to try to get better at everything."

After going through her own tough times, Locklear—who marked one year of sobriety in April—is now happily engaged to her former high school sweetheart, Chris Heisser.

"She is doing really, really well," says Sambora.

And now 23 years old, Ava is “doing phenomenally” and making preparations to continue her psychology studies in graduate school.

"I'm very, very proud of her and the way she turned out," says Sambora. "She's an amazing young woman with a bright future. She's just dedicated to being a good person. And she is."

For more from Richie and Ava Sambora, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now.