After 15 months on the road as Bruce Springsteen's guitarist, Nils Lofgren has just come off the mountain. It means getting back to his own songs.

"Yeah, it feels good," Lofgren says, taking a break from rehearsing his band for a tour that kicks off at the Warner Theatre tonight and ends in Europe at Christmas.

In this band, Lofgren is The Boss.

"It's just a different challenge to be a band leader," he points out, without any hint of regret at the long Springsteen run that took him around the world and showcased him in front of 5 million fans.

"One hundred percent, from A to Z, it couldn't have been more positive," says Lofgren. "It was such a relief to have all that responsibility taken by someone who does it as well as Bruce, to be involved with it and have it turn into such a great, positive tour. It just grew and grew, and accomplished things that Bruce should be real proud of. We all are.

"It was an amazing experience," he says. "I'm sorry, really, that it had to end. There's always time. Bruce knows I'm in the band, and he knows when he needs me, I'll be there. When he's not working, there's no reason not to work solo . I enjoy doing my own stuff. Always have, always will."

Lofgren has been doing his own stuff ever since he caught Jimi Hendrix here at the long-demolished Ambassador Theatre in 1968. "He was my only real musical hero. I heard him play a week before my senior year at Bethesda's Walter Johnson High School . I was playing guitar as a hobby, but it made me realize I wanted to do it professionally."

In 1970, Lofgren got his break via Neil Young, performing on Young's "After the Gold Rush" album. Soon after, Lofgren cut the first of four albums with his seminal Washington band, Grin, and established a reputation as a top-notch songwriter and high-energy guitarist. Unfortunately, Grin's albums never sold particularly well, and the band ended up bottom-billed on too many tours. By 1975, Grin had disbanded, though Lofgren himself had enough of a reputation to continue in a solo career.

One contact from the old Grin days came around recently, as Lofgren spent his first eight days of post-Springsteen vacation in a Los Angeles studio recording with Rod Stewart.

"I met Rod when he came here in 1969 with the Jeff Beck 'Truth' album and got to know him and Woody guitarist Ron Wood, now a Rolling Stone pretty well. They were polite enough to let me hang out backstage with my guitar, listening to their stories. Eventually, Grin started backing them up, at the Wheaton Youth Center, the D.C. Armory."

Lofgren's relationship with Springsteen dates back almost as far, to an early '70s audition night at the old Fillmore East. "Ever since then we've run into each other from time to time," developing a friendship that allowed Lofgren to tell Springsteen that "if he ever needed a guitar player, to keep me in mind. When I heard he might be looking, I asked for an audition. I was very surprised when he called me to come up and jam, but I definitely wanted the job. I wouldn't have asked Bruce for an audition if I didn't know I could give him 100 percent."

What Lofgren gave, he feels he got back from the staggering dynamics of the tour. When it started, Springsteen was just a heroic figure; 15 months later, he was virtually deified.

What didn't change, Lofgren says, was Springsteen. "When you're around Bruce, it's obvious he's a star. You can sense an aura of an emotionally powerful musician, man, person. But he's very comfortable to be around, and most of the people that know him well say the same thing. Some of the fans are so in awe of him that they can't handle being around him, but he's a real easy guy to be around and to work for.

"I'm the guitar player in the band and we both know that and I'm happy with that. I'll just work my thing around whenever he needs me."

That's what Lofgren did on his most recent album, "Flip," writing all the songs before the tour and recording them during a six-week midtour break. After the tour, he began pulling his band together with 10-hour-a-day rehearsals; the group includes brother Tom on guitar, bassist Wornell Jones (a sidekick since 1975), drummer Johnny "Bee" (from Mitch Ryder's Detroit Wheels) and multi-instrumentalist Steuart Smith, who beat Lofgren out in the recent Wammies for best all-around musician. "The band's real good. It would just be nice to have another week to organize it," he sighs.

It is ironic that Lofgren is seen in extremes: either as the senior rock cult figure in Washington music or as another rat sinking a deserted ship because he spends most of his working time elsewhere. The dichotomy exasperates him.

"It seems like ever since Grin struck out trying to get something happening, a lot of people don't really consider me from Washington," he says. "I am from here, but I've had to travel to go where work is. I tried hard to do it here, but it couldn't be done. Sure, I've been around, I'm a musician that's survived the Washington scene. I'm 34, and along with that age comes experience that you can't get without going through it."

Years ago, Lofgren wrote a song, "Go Long," as a tribute to Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen ("he's one of my heroes and I didn't like the way they treated him here"), and one senses some subtle parallels.

"When it was time for me to start making records, there wasn't a facility or a management firm here that could help me, so I had to leave. It wasn't my idea. My idea was to make music, not to leave Washington. It's still my home. My family's here and that's real important to me.

"I loved Grin, it was a sin that we had to break up. That wasn't my idea, either. The company said, hey, you made four albums and they didn't sell enough. We couldn't go back and learn Top 40; we went through all this to be able to do our own stuff. To play little clubs in Baltimore and D.C. for the rest of our lives wasn't what we wanted. We had great aspirations and unfortunately it involved breaking up."

Lofgren's solo career has been erratic and none of his solo albums has sold particularly well, either, even though he has been regarded as a cult figure, particularly in Europe.

"I always try to write songs and music that will touch people. If I don't like it, I can't expect anybody else to like it," he says. "I never sit down and say, 'I'm going to write a hit song.' At the same time, I never sit down and say 'Oh, I'm a cult artist, I'm afraid to be in the Top 10.' I'm always trying to get on the radio, that's what I make albums for."

Lofgren says that when he gets back from Europe after Christmas, he'll set up a studio in the basement of his suburban home, "with synthesizers and a drum machine, guitars. I'll start writing and thinking about what I want to do with my next album because I want it to be different, something special. It'll be me, but I want to get on the radio. As much as I like my records, they're not on the radio enough to reach the people, and that's what I make them for. It's up to me to figure out what's missing."

If radio's a hard nut to crack, television has been giving Lofgren plenty of exposure. Perhaps fortunately, few people realize it's Lofgren who wrote, played all the instruments and sang the karate school commercials that boast "nobody bothers me."

"I did that seven years ago," Lofgren admits. "I went to karate school up in Kensington for exercise -- I don't know how to fight -- and worked out with Jeff Smith, the light heavyweight champion of the world at the time."

In appreciation, the owner gave him a lifetime pass to a black-belt course, he says.

" "I haven't used it but I can always go there and work out."