Morrinsville' />

New Zealand music has lost one of its great "wild men" with the death of country and rock legend Ritchie Pickett on Sunday, aged 56.

Morrinsville-born Pickett began his career in the 1970s playing in bands including Graffiti and Think, and eventually became a giant of country rock.

In an interview, Pickett said he was drawn to the truth of country music: "You can bare yourself to a certain extent. The essence of a good country song is the honesty of it."

In the 1980s he was Tauranga's best-known performer after featuring frequently on the TV show That's Country and releasing an LP with his band Ritchie Pickett & the Inlaws.

"He was a master songwriter. One of the great songwriters in our land," said friend Tom Sharplin, who used to perform with Pickett and has known him since 1973.

Pickett was a real character who had a wit, "sharp as you could get, cutting to the bone", he said.

"He was a great performer, and he had a wicked sense of humour. His nickname was Wicked Pickett. He had an essential energy about him that we all envy."

Another friend, drummer Maurice Greer, said Pickett was a lovely guy who loved a party.

"He wanted to be full on and not miss out on nothing, Ritchie. He was full on, he's a full-on fella.

"Everybody just liked Ritchie. He t had that thing, where he'd lure you in. And once you liked him, you had a friend for life."

Pickett, who once said the only thing he would do differently in life would be to "take more photos", lost one-third of his liver to cancer in the 1980s.

In 2007 he was rushed to intensive care after collapsing over his piano mid-show.

Friends raised more than $7000 through a benefit concert, and Pickett recovered to produce some of his most acclaimed music as part of the Waikato band The Rattler.

But Sharplin said the ill-health eventually claimed his great friend, who had a daughter and was recently remarried.

Pickett's sister Penny said her brother would be buried in a white coffin decorated with black musical notes: "He'd just love that."