Checking in with Ace Frehley

January 1, 2010

WHEN YOU TALK ABOUT GUITARISTS WHO have drawn people to pick up the instrument, you hear names like Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, and Van Halen. Another name that needs to be on that list is Ace Frehley. When Kiss hit in the ’70s, their combination of big riffs and huge showmanship set the world on fire, to quote their tune “Flaming Youth.” The makeup and superhero costumes made them the perfect middle ground for adolescents who were forsaking comic books for rock and roll. In the midst of the fire, the blood, and the spectacle was Space Ace, who played with such an otherworldly ferocity that kids the world over truly believed his licks could cause his guitar (a supremely bitchin’ three-pickup sunburst Les Paul) to burst into flames. Frehley inspired legions of kids to start playing, form bands, and kick ass—among them a young Tom Morello and Dimebag Darrell. (Dime went so far as tattooing the Spaceman’s likeness on his chest.)

Something this cool couldn’t last, however, and artistic differences and substance abuse led to Frehley leaving Kiss. A host of guitarists filled his boots, including Vinnie Vincent, Mark St. John, Bruce Kulick, and Ace impersonator Tommy Thayer. All good players, to be sure, but Kiss without Ace was kind of like Guns without Slash to the veterans of the Kiss Army, which is why the eventual reunion was greeted with so much excitement and enthusiasm. Sadly, Frehley once again drank himself out of a gig (and out of his spacesuit, to which Gene and Paul own the rights), and he spent several years getting his personal act together.

That brings us to the present day, which finds Frehley clean, sober, and rocking with his first solo record in 20 years, Anomaly [Essential Music]. The album is full of Les- Paul-into-Marshall tones, pentatonic blazing, and signature Ace moves. Frehley spoke to GP from his L.A. hotel.

Was it tough for you to get this record finished?

Oh yeah. Everybody knows I’ve been working on this record forever. This was the record I was supposed to put out before I did the Kiss reunion. Sometimes things just need to go their own course, but I’m very, very happy with the end result. I wrote the majority of the songs in the last few years. The most recent one I wrote was “A Little Below the Angels.” I forget the chronological order because dates screw me up. The oldest song on the CD is probably “Sister.” That was something I wrote in the ’80s, and I’ve performed it live. It’s a real heavy, kickass track, and everybody I played it for thought it should be on the CD.     

What was your philosophy regarding guitar layers on this record?

I doubled just about everything—actually, more than doubled. On “Genghis Khan,” I must have done 12 guitar tracks. Same with “Change the World”—there are at least 12 rhythm tracks. I tried different blends of guitars, and I ended up throwing away a lot of them after picking the right blend. There were at least half a dozen acoustic tracks, as well as a Les Paul, a Strat, and a Telecaster.

Your tone on your cover of “Fox on the Run” sounds different than the other tunes.

“Fox on the Run” actually has the least amount of guitar tracks than any song on the record. That song was a last minute addition to the CD. Marty Frederickson and I threw that together in his studio. I just did all the guitar work and vocals. We recorded that directly into Pro Tools, and it probably sounds a little bit different because I used some amp-simulator plug-ins.

What about a song like “Pain in the Neck”?

That had about ten rhythm tracks, and probably six made it into the final mix. I’ll do a track with a Marshall with a couple of different mics on it, and then I’ll double that. Then, I usually like doubling the rhythm track with a Fender because a Fender has a different harmonic range. So if you double a track with a Les Paul and then you do it with a Fender through the same amp, you’re going to get a much wider harmonic spectrum. That’s a trick I’ve been using for years. On my first solo album, I was using all Telecasters and Les Pauls.

The harmonics in the beginning of “Pain in the Neck” have vibrato on them. Are you getting that effect by bending the neck?

Yeah, I’m bending the neck. I didn’t use any whammy bars on the record.

How far can you bend it without damaging the neck for an effect like that?

I don’t know. I’ve never broken one yet [laughs].

Did you use Marshall amps exclusively for this record?

It was mostly Marshalls. Sometimes, I used a Marshall bottom with a 5150.

used a Marshall bottom with a 5150. Do you use new or old Marshalls?

I use both. If a Marshall is biased right,the new ones sound just as good as the old ones to me. I also use a lot of old Fender amps, such as a Harvard and a Princeton. Sometimes, I might use a little boost with them. I have an old Electro-Harmonix LPB- 1 booster from the Kiss days, and that still does the trick. I think on my first solo album, I used an LPB-1 through a Fender Harvard— one 10" speaker with an old Les Paul. That’s how I did a lot of the solos.

So, your Kiss rig was a Les Paul with a DiMarzio Super Distortion pickup into an LPB-1 and a Marshall?

Yeah. I also used one of those little MXR graphic equalizers—a 10-band or 12-band. My roadie would push all the mids up, but only for parts where I was trying to get feedback. I actually used to have a 2x12 cabinet that was built into the center of the stage, and it was connected to one of my Marshall heads. If I stood near it and my roadie cranked that EQ, I could get notes to hang whenever I wanted.

Your classic toggle-switch trick shows up a couple of times on this record. Where did you get that?

I got that from Pete Townshend. He did that on a couple of tracks. I was a big Who fan when I was a teenager. I used to study Pete.

Tom Morello is the leading exponent of that technique these days, and he says he got it from watching you.

That’s great. When people copy me, it’s one of the highest forms of flattery. And it’s just passing it along from generation to generation. I got it from Pete. Pete might have gotten it from someone else. Who knows? That’s kind of the way rock and roll works.

Another signature technique of yours was your two-hand tapping, which you were doing long before the first Van Halen record came out. How did you come up with that?

I don’t even remember. I’m trying to think of who was doing that back then.

Steve Hackett, Billy Gibbons, and Brian May had all experimented with tapping. Van Halen was doing it, but he hadn’t put it on a record yet. Did you see someone do it?

No. I was kind of in my own world back then. I don’t recall why I started playing that way. I do remember playing Madison Square Garden and Eddie Van Halen was down in the pit watching me do it. That was 1970- something.

He has never copped to it, but some people think Van Halen might have gotten his tapping technique from you. What did you think when the first Van Halen record came out, and that technique was all over it?

I don’t know. I’ve never discussed it with Eddie. He may have seen somebody else do it. I was doing it with a pick. He does it with his fingers. But I think Eddie’s brilliant. I don’t get into comparing who does what, or who got what from who. I think it’s more important that everybody just makes good music. I never really thought about where I stole things from. I’ll take something from Hendrix, Clapton, Townshend, Keith Richards, and Jimmy Page, and put it all in one solo. I think that’s what everybody should do. Don’t study one guy and make him your god and put him on a pedestal. Check out what everybody is doing, put it all together, and you’ll have kind of your own style.

Is there anything you want GP readers to know about your leaving Kiss?

Not really. I think everybody knows what went down. I think the fans aren’t really happy that Paul and Gene dressed up Tommy Thayer in my makeup. All you’ve got to do is go on YouTube and read the comments under the videos. I’m not happy about it, but it is what it is. Everybody makes their bed, and they’ve got to lay in it, you know?

Do you see a day, say, five years from now, where you get back onstage with those guys.

It’s not something I dream about or wish for [laughs]. I’m just real happy that I’m still able to play and play well. For a while, I was out of it. I’m thrilled that I have a new record out. I think it has some of the best songs I’ve ever written, and some of my best playing. It’s nice to just be me, and to be healthy. Everything else is gravy. g

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