I was five when KISS toured Australia in 1980 and I loved them before I even knew what a band was. The first cassette I ever owned was KISS ‘Double Platinum’. The song God Of Thunder used to legitimately scare me. When I was presented with the opportunity to spend 15 minutes on the phone with Ace Frehley, I was both excited and incredibly nervous. What do you even ask The Spaceman?? As it turns out, chatting to Ace in his studio in Southern California was a total pleasure. Ace was a warm, charming and funny guy, especially for somebody who had been doing phone interviews all day. Crank “Shock Me” and read on.

Are your favourite guitar players today the same as when you were a kid? Are there any new players that have inspired you?
I’m still the guitar player that was influenced by Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Pete Townsend and those are still the top guys. And those are the guys that influenced me and taught me how to play guitar. I’ve not heard any new music in recent times that has been any better than that. Led Zeppelin was probably the perfect rock n roll band (laughs).

Well they still are a major source of inspiration to a great number of young guitar players.
I’ve become a bit of a major influence on a lot of guitar players myself.

No question about it.
Probably because my style is a combination of some of the top rock guitarists in the world. Oh wait and don’t forget the Beatles and the Stones…Keith Richards and George Harrison you know, all those guys…I learned how to play their guitar solos and then I combined my style around Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton. And, you know, I was a big fan of Cream, a big fan of The Who, a big fan of Led Zeppelin and that’s how I derived my style its just kind of a conglomeration of all those guy’s styles.

Ok so given that you are seen as a guitar hero, and you have a signature Les Paul and your face is tattooed on people all over the world and there are mountains of toys and merchandise with your face on it, and so on - does that feel weird?
I’ve gotten used to it. Years ago I wasn’t as comfortable with who I am as I am today. I guess I kind of take it for granted now, like when I bump into a guitar player 9 times out of 10 they are going you say to me “you are one of my major influences” or “you are the reason I picked up the electric guitar”…it’s happened more than 1000 times…

Is that still cool to hear?
I mean, yeah its cool. I guess the only difference now is that I expect it (laughs). It’s really not a surprise but I get really flattered still to this day when guitar players tell me that.

Thinking back to when you were a young guitarist, could you explain the process of what lead up to you discovering your now signature tone?
I grew up in a musical family. I was the youngest of three children and everybody in my family - my mother, father, brother and sister - all played the piano. As folk music started becoming popular, my brother picked up the acoustic guitar. I remember one of the first albums we got was Peter, Paul and Mary and then we got The Byrds album “Turn! Turn! Turn!” And then when it came to my turn to take piano lessons I didn’t want any part of it cause I’d started fooling around with my brothers acoustic guitar and then I’d asked my father if I could have an electric guitar for Xmas and the rest just kind just kind of took care of itself you know. I’m known in the business for never taking guitar lessons - I’m self-taught. And now I’m citied by guitar players as being a major influence on their lives (laughs). It was just kind of destiny I think.

So what was your approach to tone? Did you have an initial period of experimenting with amps and pedals or did you just end up plugging in and fluking it?
The first time I played an electric guitar was a friend of mine’s Japanese guitar through a small amp. I turned the volume up, I hit an E chord and it was love. I was completely in love with electric guitars. I didn’t even want to play an acoustic guitar again. As I got older the amps got bigger and the guitars got better in quality. Eventually I ended up with a Les Paul and a Marshall.

So when you did eventually discover a Les Paul, was that you set for life?
Les Paul guitars, as far as I’m concerned, are the best electric guitars on the planet. What makes the Les Paul different and special from any other electric guitar is the fact that the neck is angled at a special degree from the body and that creates a tension between the neck and the body. That’s why a Les Paul has such great sustain. Gibson released a copy of my original Les Paul that I used on my ’78 solo record and pretty much what they did is they photographed it in high resolution, took maybe 50 photographs and they reproduced it. Right now my favorite guitar that I play is the #3 from the Gibson Custom Shop. It’s aged and the pickups sound just like old Gibson pickups. That’s my favorite guitar right now. It plays just like a ’59. It’s a new one that’s just like an old one. I can’t tell the difference.

So would you say that by the time KISS happened, you were 100% on a Les Paul into a Marshall and that stayed your approach to everything from then on? Even through the 1980s when a whole bunch of new digital technology and MIDI was coming out?
Yeah my first Marshall was a 50 Watt and with eight 10” speakers. That was just in one cabinet. Then I graduated to the 100 Watt, double cab with four 12” speakers. Everybody is familiar with that in music today – it’s standard. I never had to rely on a lot of special effects and I still don’t today. The only special effect I use today in concert is a digital delay. With KISS it wasn’t a digital delay it was an Echoplex, which was a tape echo. The digital delays are a lot less noisy so now I use a digital delay.

So you were never interested in experimenting with these new technologies as they were coming out?
In the recording studio I’d try every gadget under the sun. I just can’t have any pedals on the stage because I trip over them. My roadie controls my digital delay and any boosts I have to use. And that’s it.

So do you know what boost pedals you use? In 2018, what does your rig look like on tour?
Its pretty standard. Just Marshall amps, digital delay and, actually, I don’t even think I’m using a boost these days… I think what my guitar roadie does is he just boost the volume on the amp when I do guitar solos. Just like the mixer would do. I mean, a Les Paul into a Marshall… when you put it on 10 you can’t go wrong. The sound is there. I’m probably on like 8 while I’m performing and when the solos come up, he probably nails it up to 10.

Has your ‘volume boost’ roadie been with you a long time?
He has been with me since about 2007, so that’s like 11 years. He is actually coming with me to Australia. He takes care of my special effects guitars as well - the smoking guitar and the lights guitar that I use in New York Groove. Which was my biggest hit to date. He is great at tuning guitars, every time he hands me a replacement guitar it’s always perfectly in tune…

That’s why you pay him the big bucks Ace.
I never have to worry about being in tune because I have a fantastic roadie. His name is Rocco Monterosso.

We should all thank Rocco. So would you consider yourself a gear collector?
Yes! I have so much stuff (laughs).

What are some of your favorite pieces?
Oh I don’t know, you know, you name it and I have it. I have 6 lockers full of equipment. Some are in New York, some are in Southern California, some are in Manhattan. But, you know, like I said most of the time when I record I just go straight into a Marshall amp and use different mic-ing techniques to achieve my sound. I don’t really rely on anything anymore. I have a varied collection though, maybe 15 acoustics, probably over 15 Fender guitars. One thing I like to do in the studio that I don’t do live is that a lot of times when I’m recording I’ll track with a Les Paul then I’ll double it with a Fender. I use either a Strat or a Tele. You know as well as I do that a Fender guitar has a different tone than a Les Paul but when you blend them together on a record when you are mixing you get a much fatter sound. That technique I’ve been using for over 40 years in the studio. I used that on my ’78 solo album and I still used that today on my new upcoming album called ‘Spaceman’. When you discover a winning formula you pretty much stick with it.

So given that you have been using basically the same guitar/amp setup and recording techniques for over 40 years and that things were much simpler when you were younger, would you have any advice for younger players on how to navigate their way to a unique sound or artistic voice given that these days they have so many options of gear to try?
It’s always good to just start with the basics and then just add on. Just find a good guitar and a good amplifier. You know what my preferences are (laughs). And then maybe start fooling around with some special effects if you like but always start with the basics. Practice, practice and then more practice.

Do you still find yourself playing for pleasure, like around the house or whatever, or is it a job now?
It’s not really a job. I enjoy recording now more than I ever enjoyed it because I understand it more. I’ve mastered Pro Tools. I can do my own engineering and, in fact if you listen to my last album “Origins Vol 1”, the song “Fire and Water” that Paul Stanley sang on, I engineered that guitar solo myself without an engineer in the room.

Do you find learning about the engineering/recording side of things fun?
Yeah it’s just something that happens over the years. If you work with different engineers long enough you pick up exactly what they are doing. I’ve always been technically inclined, my father was an electrical engineer and a concert pianist so, you know, the talent and “know how” was already inside my brain, it was just a matter of memorizing it. A lot of times I’ll ask my engineer “How did you do that trick?” or “How did you do that edit, what buttons did you press?” or “How do you set up a send going to a special effect?” If I had to I think now I could pretty much record a whole album by myself but it’s a lot easier working with an engineer because then you don’t have to worry about what’s happening on the screen you can just focus on your guitar playing.

Gene Simmons / Ace Frehley
Tour Dates

 

Tuesday August 28th - Entertainment Centre Theatre, Adelaide
Thursday August 30th - Margaret Court Arena, Melbourne
Friday August 31st - Enmore Theatre, Sydney
Saturday September 1st - Tivoli Centre, Brisbane

Tix: teglive.com.au