YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU GOT ’TIL IT’S GONE. Tom Keifer, the singer/guitarist/songwriter for melodic
metal ’80s hitmakers Cinderella, wrote those words that
became the title to his band’s 1988 hit. Unfortunately he
also lived those words when he was diagnosed with a partial
paralysis of one of his vocal cords—kind of a big deal
for a lead singer. Keifer had to learn how to sing again, and
managed to once again tour with Cinderella. He also managed
to finally complete his debut solo album, The Way Life
Goes [Merovee Records/ADA], although it wasn’t easy. The
record was nearly a decade in the making, and it was never
a done deal that it would see the light of day. “Obviously
you can get full of self-doubt when working on something
that long,” says Keifer, “so I’m really glad that people are
responding to it so positively.”
The response probably comes from the fact that the record
features such vital, vibrant guitar tones and parts that are
immediate and honest. They also have that cool, interlocking,
layered quality that made so many classic rock albums
so, well, classic. Keifer flat-out knows how to play vibey
guitar parts with ungodly tone, and fans of the Stones, Zeppelin,
Steve Marriott, and early Aerosmith should definitely
take notice. And, although you wouldn’t wish hemorrhaging
vocal cords on anyone, this guy is singing better than
ever to complement his great 6-string parts. Keifer talked
tons of guitar-y stuff from his home in Nashville.
What’s your philosophy on arranging guitar parts?
Guitar layering, with different colors and the interaction
of counterpoint guitars, is a product of the era that I
grew up in—the ’70s. I was really inspired by Jimmy Page,
Keith Richards, Ron Wood, and Mick Taylor. You listen to
their records and you feel the presence of two different players
left and right who are playing things that complement
each other, instead of just a wall of barre chords, which I
think is a little more one-dimensional. It certainly has its place—I’m not dissing that. I mean, there are
times when I do that too. But I like that kind
of back and forth between guitars. I grew
up on bands like Skynyrd and the Eagles
and Zeppelin. That kind of guitar playing
is what I’ve always loved and it’s a natural
thing for me.
The opener, “Solid Ground,” has the cool choppy
part on the right side, then the chords that answer
it on the left, then there’s a slide part, and more.
Talk me through all that.
The song is in dropped-D tuning, and I
believe I used my 1950 Nocaster through a
’72 Marshall Super Lead on the right side,
which is that chicken-pickin’ sound. I ran it
into a really old Marshall cabinet with the
brown grill cloth—it almost looks like burlap—
with 20-watt Celestions. The left guitar was
my sunburst ’59 Les Paul through the Super
Lead, just straight in. The slide part was also
my Les Paul, more than likely through the
Super Lead too.
That’s not a lot of gear for such varied tones.
I generally use the Super Lead or this
blackface Fender Bassman—it’s a ’65 or
something. I’ll switch between those two
heads into that Marshall cab. The different
tones are usually created by all the pickup
positions you’ve got with a Les Paul and
a Tele, the volume knob, and how hard it
hits the front of the amp. I’ve got a lot of
other oddball amps like a Gibson tweed
tremolo and a ’59 Fender Twin for more
specific tones that will contrast with the
“In a Different Light” has some very interesting
transitions, going into the chorus and also from
the chorus chords back into the verse. Plenty of
songwriting “rules” would say that you probably
can’t bring chords like those together and yet, it
works really well in that tune. What’s the trick to
making changes like that work?
I know exactly the parts you’re talking
about. My wife’s also a songwriter and she
co-wrote a lot of these songs with me. “A
Different Light” wasn’t one of those songs
that came together in ten minutes. It was
written over a period of time and during
that time we went to a club here in Nashville
to celebrate my 40th birthday. It was
a club that played a bunch of cool old ’80s
music, like Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded
Me with Science,” which is a brilliant track
with amazing production. We noticed that a
lot of those ’80s songs had really hard, cold
key changes—no setup, no pivot chords, no
nothing. That’s the thing that we left that
club talking about, how that really contributed
to the creativity of some of that pop
stuff in the ’80s. “Different Light” was in a
state where it seemed very linear and boring
because it was all in one key. When we left
there we said, “Let’s just try a crazy key
change.” The verse changes are just E, A,
and B, but then the chorus is in Bb. Going
into the chorus is a little bit smoother
because there’s the kind of David Bowie
“Space Odyssey” guitar that provides some
transition. But coming back down into the verse is just cold. When we initially tried
that we said, “Can we really do that?” But
then we thought, “Yeah, it sounds cool—
why not?” We tried a couple different keys.
I remember experimenting going from D to
C for the chorus and E to A for the chorus.
We thought that Bb was the most powerful
one. It’s dissonant but certainly a unique key
change, especially coming back down into
the verse. But I like when key changes are
abrupt, because I think they’re more powerful,
or they can be. Sometimes you can set
up the perfect pivot chord or two—and you
know it’s coming because you set it up—and
that’s effective too, but there’s just nothing
like a smack in the face. That’s how that
one came about. It was very much on purpose.
Honestly, it kind of saved or at least
fixed a song that we were just sitting on.
How did you do that David Bowie-style guitar
transition going into the chorus?
That was done with a Transperformance
automatic tuning system. I’ve got one of
the prototypes—like one of the first four—
and I have it built into a black ’69 Les Paul
Custom. I wanted the guitar part to ramp up
and take the song to a whole different key. So
I set a tremolo pedal with a very sharp edge
so it was “bam-bam-bam-bam.” And then I
had to hit the chord, hit the button on the
Transperformance that changed the tuning
on the guitar in real time, and get the tremolo
perfectly in time and overdub that part
in there. It took a few tries to get the perfect
take that filled that hole in.
Are you going to try to pull that off live?
No! There are probably a couple different
ways I can do it. Lately I’ve been thinking
about using a slide for the ramp up and
the toggle switch on the Les Paul to get that
Do you have a favorite guitar solo on this record?
I don’t know that I would call it a solo
because there are several guitars layered in
there, but I like the weird, trippy middle-eight
part in “Fool’s Paradise.” There are
Ebow parts that sound like cellos and slide
guitar and other stuff. It’s like the solo of
the song, but it’s more of a guitar orchestration.
All the parts culminate in this end
crescendo. I like that section a lot. “Welcome
to My Mind” has a solo that’s straight-up
blazing. We used an octaver on it and
it’s a unique sound. For a balls-out guitar
solo, that’s probably my favorite on the
The guitars on this album are classic sounding
without being too retro or throwback. How can
you display those classic rock influences but still
sound current and vibrant?
It wasn’t easy. I didn’t want it too effected,
because if you chase current processing or
trends, it really timestamps the music to that
era. I had a certain sound in mind, which
was just raw and in your face. Hopefully we
achieved it. It took so long to mix, sometimes
I don’t know what it sounds like anymore.
I went through about 17 engineers,
and remixed it a dozen times. The bottom
line is I think you always have to be true to
your influences and to who you are, which
I really tried to do on this record.
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