50 years ago, four New York City punks set the music world on fire with their swaggering brand of rock and roll and ghoulish costumes. It was a minor victory, seeing as the greater number of music listeners were simply shaking their heads in wonder at this band of cartoonish costumed wags. It took time, but within a few years, the tide began to turn — first in cities like Detroit, where teen fans made “Rock and Roll All Nite” a party anthem, and then in towns and metropolises throughout the country and, eventually, the world.
Before then, Kiss had simply been a quartet: guitarist Paul Stanley, lead guitarist Ace Frehley, bassist Gene Simmons and drummer Peter Criss. Afterward, they were an institution, cutting 20 studio albums and seven live discs, and revolutionizing the industry with their elaborate stage sets and endlessly inventive merchandising.
But don’t let the size of the Kiss juggernaut obscure the fact that they were one of the most influential groups to emerge from that great decade. Don’t believe it? Just ask countless guitarists who grew up on the band in their greatest era, the 1970s.
And now it’s rolling to a close. On December 2, Kiss brought down the curtain on their 50-year reign as rock and roll’s biggest live act. Their next step is immortality, with a digital version of the band set to tour indefinitely. To mark the occasion, we reconnected with Paul, Gene, Ace and Peter, and conferred with former Kiss guitarist Bruce Kulick, current guitarist Tommy Thayer and a host of the group’s friends (Joe Perry, Rick Nielson, Tom Morello, Phil Collen, Bob Ezrin) for insights into Kiss’s influence on guitar rock — and more significantly, Paul’s enduring influence as a guitarist on some of rock’s most inspiring players.
Paul Stanley’s partner and musical foil since they teamed up in the pre-Kiss group Wicked Lester in 1971, bassist Gene Simmons knows better than anyone what Stanley brings to Kiss’s music.
"When we first started the band in 1972, there was this sense that Paul and Ace would complement each other and try not to play in the same chord range. The result would be this big guitar sound with different voicings of the same chord. But clearly, a lot of that came from Paul, who is not given the respect and recognition he deserves.
"Paul has never just been a rhythm player. He has also been mighty handy on lead guitar. That’s Paul doing lead guitar duties on “A World Without Heroes.” That’s Paul playing the harmony on the “Detroit Rock City” solo. That’s Paul at the beginning of “C’mon & Love Me,” and it was Paul who came up with the chordal intro on my song “Deuce.” Without those chords opening the song, it simply wouldn’t have the same impact. “Deuce” without Paul’s opening chords is more one-dimensional.
"Paul’s musical background stretches from ’60s and ’70s English bands, especially Zeppelin, to the Byrds. But clearly, his lead guitar playing owes a lot to Jimmy Page and Page’s approach to the construction of a solo. Paul’s vibrato, when he bends a note, is overlooked for some reason. But any good guitar player will tell you his vibrato is as sweet as honey."
Kiss’s founding drummer, Peter Criss was part of the trio, with Stanley and Simmons, that made up the first Kiss lineup. The original Catman was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Kiss in 2014.
"The music speaks for itself. Paul has always strived to be creative. He’s accomplished that. His guitar playing is part of our creation of Kiss, which has inspired many. That in itself is a great honor for him as a musician. In my opinion, anyone who’s inspired somebody musically should be proud that they’ve touched people’s lives in that way. That’s how I feel about Paul’s guitar playing. He’s touched people’s lives musically, in a good way."
During Kiss’s “unmasked” period, from 1984 to 1996, Bruce Kulick served as the group’s lead guitarist, appearing on Asylum, Crazy Nights, Hot in the Shade, Revenge and Carnival of Souls: The Final Sessions, as well as Alive III and MTV Unplugged.
"Working with Paul Stanley for 12 years gave me a keen insight to his guitar playing and musical talents. In the studio, he’s a solid rhythm player. He has a large vocabulary of power chords in all positions, even complex inversions, as well as learning a few tricks from another hero of his, Keith Richards. He adopted the five-string tuning Stones sound from Richards for Kiss hits like “Heaven’s on Fire” and others. Paul was brilliant with lead guitar suggestions.
"On “Tears Are Falling,” one of the best representations of my contributions to Kiss solos, Paul guided me with the melodic start of that solo. We dressed it up with a sweet harmony line, and then he handed the tricky work over to me, with my choice of Steve Howe–like flashy riffs, and then a fast flourish to end the solo. That collaboration would continue throughout my years with Kiss."
Since 2003, Tommy Thayer has served as Kiss’s lead guitarist, as well as co-writer for many of the group’s songs. Even before then, he helped Frehley and Criss re-learn their parts when the original group reunited in 1996. He is, as he told Guitar World in 2020, “the glue that kept the band together for a long period of time.”
"The thing that always impressed me about Paul were his voicings and the alternate rhythm guitar parts he would add to complement what the other guitar player was doing. For instance, on “Cold Gin,” the main riff is what I do, or what Ace did, and then Paul’s doing this suspended A chord thing that just kind of stays in one spot, but it’s really cool and interesting.
"In “100,000 Years” he hits these kind of augmented E suspended parts — I’m not even sure what it is — but he plays all these really interesting chords that complement the two-guitar approach.
"Last year, when we were in Australia, we decided to do “Shandi” [a Stanley-composed hit from the group’s 1980 album, Unmasked] as one of the encores, because that was a big song over there at one point.
"We were rehearsing “Shandi” before we left, and I had always assumed it was played using big open chords. But Paul said, “Oh no,” and started showing me these different positions on the neck. I had no idea that this stuff was in that song. I grew up loving two-guitar bands and I thought Kiss was one of the bands that did that better than anybody.
"But part of what makes the sound of Kiss is Paul’s approach. It’s very rhythmic and very soulful, with a lot of feeling. But his style is not a super-clean style; it’s kind of rough and loose and not a precise kind of approach. It’s a “feel” thing, so it creates a certain kind of a sound when you put all the guitars together.
"When it comes to lead, he knows what he wants to hear, and that’s almost more of a pure approach, because he’s going to figure out what he hears in his head that actually can be more of a signature and more memorable. The solos he plays are very cool and you never forget them."
Kiss’s drummer since 1991 — barring several years during the original group’s late-1990s reunion — Eric Singer has appeared on the studio albums Sonic Boom and Monster. He is the band’s longest-serving non-original member.
"I always use the Rolling Stones analogy — Paul being like Keith Richards. Some people play really tight and on the money, and others play with a looser, scrappier approach. And that scrappiness, that rawness, is what helps create a person’s style and feel. I’ve noticed when somebody else plays a Kiss riff, they play it differently.
"With Paul, since he wrote a lot of those riffs and those parts, it always sounds right. It’s his idea and his feel and interpretation of it, which makes it him.
"Here’s the best example I can give: We were recording a new song we had cut with Tommy, Gene and myself. I said, “Paul, it needs your guitar. That’s what’s going to glue it together, and your guitar playing will give it that Kiss sound.” And as soon as Paul put the guitar on, it was like, Okay, now it sounds like Kiss."
As co-captains of Kiss’s six-string guitar army, both on record and in concert, Paul Stanley and Ace Frehley created a towering body of powerful anthemic music that rocketed them to superstardom and decades later earned them entry into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
"In the early days, Paul and Gene were writing a lot of the songs. Paul was doing the chord work, and he laid down the heavy rhythm parts. Paul’s a really good rhythm player, Gene’s an underrated bass player, and I was the icing on the cake.
Paul and I had a strong chemistry together, which really worked well. The way we’d divvy up guitar parts was pretty natural. There wasn’t much discussion. I knew what Paul was going to do. He played me the song before, and then I’d try to figure out a rhythm part that would complement what he was doing.
A lot of times, Paul would come up with a rhythm part and I’d do an octave part above it. That would make the song sound thicker.
"“Strutter” is a good example of that. Paul would be playing parts that were lower, and I’d be playing it in a high register. I learned that if two guys play chords in the same exact position, it can sound muddier. I was always trying to do inversions of what Paul was playing to make it sound thicker. It’s the same idea I use in the studio. I’ll put down a rhythm track with a Les Paul and then double it with a Fender, which has a completely different harmonic range.
"I thought all the lead work Paul did over the years was good because it was simple, straight to the point and melodic. His riff that kicks off “Deuce” is really cool. Paul and I co-wrote “Rock Bottom.” I wrote the picking part in the front of the song, and he came up with something that complemented what I was playing.
"Bob Ezrin was a big help in getting me and Paul to play together. For instance, the guitar solo on “Detroit Rock City” — that harmony Paul and I did together — always stands out in my mind as a dual lead that we played together. When I look back on our history, I wish we would have done more of that."
In the ’70s, Kiss and Aerosmith were hard rock’s reigning champions. Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry wasn’t just a fan — he also appeared on Gene Simmons’ 1978 solo album and in 2003 would be the first musician to ever jam with Kiss onstage at two shows on the Kiss/Aerosmith co-headlining tour.
“I remember hearing their album for the first time at [Boston DJ] Maxanne Sartori’s apartment — her boyfriend at the time was Billy Squier. I really liked it. ‘Strutter’ just struck me as a really cool song, and almost any kid can pick up a guitar and learn that pretty quick, which to me is a sign of a really good rock and roll song.
“I look at Paul as a frontman who plays great guitar and great riffs. He plays exactly what needs to be played. Paul has a swagger, and the guitar is just part of his body. I can relate to that, because I feel the same way. It becomes an extension of your body and you move with the music. And he’s got a fucking lot of moves. He plays it over his head, between his legs, swinging it around. And he makes it all work.
“We were out on the road with Kiss in 2003 and they asked me to come up and play with them, and I was like, ‘Hell yeah!’ I got to jam with them on ‘Strutter’ at two shows [Oklahoma City and Los Angeles]. I said the only way I was gonna do it was if I could wear the platform boots. Paul loaned me a pair of his. They’ve been wearing those boots for years and years, but man, it’s a bitch. [laughs]”
As producer of three Kiss albums — Destroyer, (Music From) The Elder and Revenge — Bob Ezrin has also served as arranger, songwriter and band coach, spurring the band to their creative apex.
“Paul’s superpower as a guitar player is his melodic sense. He has a unique understanding of the power of melody and rhythm, and he combines the two in his rhythm playing in particular, but also in his lead playing. There’s always a memorable, hummable component to Paul Stanley’s lead guitar.
“To me, there’s a melodic structure to his rhythm, the positions of the chords that he plays. And when you add them all up, they actually create a melody. And I think he’s very sensitive to that as he’s putting his parts together, as opposed to many guitar players who will play the chord for that specific moment without regard to the next one that’s coming or the one that came before.
“What Paul creates is a melodic structure to his rhythm parts. So the voicings that he selects from one chord to the next are the ones that feature the leading note.
“When he and Ace would play together, you could hear each part individually, but they sound together as one. If Paul was in first position, Ace would move up, and vice versa, so they were not treading on each other’s toes. They were trying to be a bit of an orchestra between the two of them, and I think they did a great job.
“I’ve heard from people from all genres — Garth Brooks to start with — who have said to me that Kiss was a huge inspiration and influence on them. I don’t think people looked at the individual membership of the band as being responsible for this note or that note. I think they just took the overall of the band and said, ‘Oh God, I want to be able to do that. I can do that.’”
Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons were such big fans of Cheap Trick that they brought them out as openers on their Can-Am Tour ’77. In the Cheap Trick anthem “Surrender,” Nielsen famously name-checked the band in the lyrics, “got my Kiss records out.” Like Joe Perry, Nielsen guested on Gene’s 1978 solo album and decades later jammed with the band at a 2016 gig in Cheap Trick’s hometown of Rockford, Illinois.
“Gene and Paul saw Cheap Trick play in New York City at Max’s Kansas City. There was hardly anybody there, but they were clapping and really enjoyed the band. I jumped up on the table where Paul and Gene were, and there was a bill there, and I picked it up and I put it in my mouth and ate it. I think Gene told the story that it was a $100 bill, but I think I shit out a $20. [laughs]
“We did three months opening for Kiss in June, July and August of 1977, which went across the whole United States and Canada. The Japanese press was there to see Kiss, because they were huge in Japan. They liked our band so much that we started getting a lot of press in Japan, and that’s what really boosted our career, which made us do that record at Budokan [1978’s Cheap Trick at Budokan].
“Back in the ’70s, I was at Paul’s New York apartment and he had a lot of guitars on the wall. He knew I was a guitar collector too. A few years ago he introduced me to a guy named Gordon Miller, and he’s built me some guitars and cases because of Paul. “My favorite Kiss songs are all the ones they played on the tour we did with them. But if I had to pick one it’s ‘Love Gun.’ Why? Because it reminds me of the Sex Pistols. Same word connotations. Love Guns. Sex Pistols. There you go.”
The Kiss Army owes a deep debt of gratitude to Tom Morello. He single-handedly duked it out with the snooty Rock and Roll Hall of Fame brass over the merits of Kiss’s long-overdue induction. Victorious in his zealous mission, he’s responsible for getting Kiss on the ballot and paving the way for their ultimate induction into the hallowed institution.
“What makes Kiss great is the chemistry of the members, especially the classic Kiss lineup, and Paul Stanley’s guitar playing is a huge part of that. ‘Strutter,’ ‘C’mon and Love Me,’ ‘God of Thunder,’ ‘Creatures of the Night’ through ‘Psycho Circus’ — he’s writing and playing those riffs, and those songs are some of the most rocking and important tunes in the history of rock and roll.
“So, he’s not Yngwie Malmsteen or Nuno Bettencourt. But thank goodness, because he’s writing these jams that make up one of the greatest bands of all time.
“Listen, rock and roll is not just about moving your fingers around fast on the frets. One of the most iconic and identifiable guitar players in the history of rock music is Paul Stanley, and his guitar playing is directly connected to his seven-inch heels and his hair.
“His guitar playing is directly connected to his makeup and the tone of voice he uses when addressing the crowd, and the way that he’s swinging on guitars and swinging around the arena and pointing to the back row. His guitar playing is a part of all of that. It’s a crucial reason why Kiss is great, and it’s a crucial reason why he’s a very important guitar player.”
Along with Joe Perry and Rick Nielsen, Def Leppard’s Phil Collen is in elite company as one of only a few axe slingers who have shared the stage jamming with Kiss.
“Ace would play the solos, but the meat and potatoes of it was all the Paul Stanley rhythm stuff. It’s really substantial, and he gets the song over with singing and playing. Kiss created this kind of Marvel superhero thing and they put it to music.
“What surprised me most about Kiss is that it’s all about the show. But they also had the concert anthems to back it up. When they asked me to come up and play with them, I was honored. I’ve known them for years and they’re great. I like their approach and their whole vibe to it; they take it very seriously.
“The hardest part was trying to walk around in those boots! [laughs]. I had to walk around all day in them to get used to them. I wound up wearing a set of Paul’s boots, which had seven-inch heels. You had to be really careful, because you could easily bust your ankle. I had to have some supports around the ankles, like a skier.
“As I was walking onstage, the production manager said, ‘Oh, by the way, don’t go past that line.’ I said, ‘Why?’ and he said, ‘Because the flames will get you.’ I was like, Oh my God! So I’m trying to stay balanced wearing these seven-inch boots playing ‘Deuce,’ and you could feel all this fire coming up from behind you. But that was such fun. It was such a thrill to play with Kiss. I was honored.”
Kiss’ latest album: Kiss off the Soundboard: Live in Poughkeepsie is available to buy and stream now
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