I HEART GUITAR INTERVIEW WITH TOMMY THAYER
KISS are about to hit Australia on their 40th anniversary tour, and if thereís one thing you can rely on in music, itís that KISS are going to put on a big, big show. But this time theyíre bringing their biggest: their ĎSpiderí lighting rig is coming with them to tower over the band and be even more menacing than Gene Simmonsí famous blood-spewing bass solo. And on stage left youíll find Tommy Thayer inhabiting the role of the Spaceman as he has done since 2002. In the 13 years since Tommy started donning the iconic makeup and costume heís gradually added hints of his own character to the icon. You can hear it in a certain confidence to his own solos, and see it in his choice of guitars, which diverge from the three-pickup Les Pauls Ace Frehley used when he was the Spaceman.
So KISS is returning to Australia. Now, the show with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra was one of your first KISS gigs, right?
It really was! It was my first official gig, in February 2003. I had done a couple of other gigs with the band prior to that but they were more really fill-in shows. It wasnít quite defined who was playing guitar or not. (Laughs) So that was a transition period and we didnít do too many appearances. So February 2003 I was officially in the band as the new KISS lead guitar player. It was a big gig, at the Telstra Dome in Melbourne, and it was a big deal because it was being filmed for a DVD and live album. There was a lot going on and it was a little stressful but I took it all in and made it happen, and it turned out great.
Tell me about your latest Epiphone signature guitar.
Itís a striking guitar and everyone who sees it reacts the same way. It looks really flashy and it really pops. Iím really happy with it. I was thinking about a new Les Paul to play on the road with KISS last year and our drummer Eric Singer is a really big guitar collector so he suggested a white guitar. We came to the conclusion that a metallic white guitar would be great, a real Alpine White with a metallic flake in it. He also suggested chrome hardware. Originally the idea was to do a chrome binding as well but they had a hard time figuring out how to do a chrome binding. So we went back and forth and in the end I ended up doing a three-ply binding, the kind they mostly put on Customs. And Iím really happy with the way that looked.
Itís cool that even more youíre establishing yourself as Ďyouí within the identify of the Spaceman.
Yeah! This is the first one Iíve felt that way too. This is really more of a true signature guitar for me because before I was playing the Sunburst and also the first signature silver sparkle Spaceman signature guitar. Thatís part of the progression and development of what Iím doing in the band. It feels like a natural progression to do that.
How do you and Paul Stanley work together as a guitar team?
Well, very well! I believe going back to the 70s with KISS the idea with these guys was always about guitar parts that really compliment each other with different voicings in different ranges that you can play together to really broaden the sound. Often Paul would play root chords down low and what Ace did and what I do is to play a higher voicing, and thatís a big part of the KISS sound. And Paul will play more of the Stones-y suspended chords in a song like ďRock And Roll All NiteĒ or ďStrutter,Ē so thereís always that dynamic of playing not the same chord voicing but relative voicings, often an octave apart. And Paul plays a lot of very different, interesting chords. If you really analyse a song like ďCold GinĒ and what Paulís playing, the main riff is in that kind of Free, ďAll Right NowĒ kind of voicing but Paulís playing these interesting chords down in the A position that you wouldnít normally think of. Or even in ďBlack DiamondĒ he plays these minor chords you wouldnít normally think heíd be doing. Heís very innovative and creative, and he does a lot of things that are outside of the norm. And heís got his own rhythm style too which is not as exacting but it really works.
Itís not an exact science. Itís about a feel and a vibe, and it doesnít have to be perfect. Thatís not an excuse to play sloppy at all but it is more of a vibe and a style and a feel. And Paulís really good at that.
Well I interviewed Butch Vig once and he told me about when he recorded the Foo Fighters album on tape, and what he realised was that when youíre not looking at a screen and making sure it all matches up to the grid, each guy is going to come down on the downbeat at a different microsecond, and therefore that downbeat becomes bigger and more spread-out.
Yeah! It makes it really broad and thatís so true. Heís absolutely right about that. If you listen back to all our favourite records going back to the 60s and 70s, theyíre not so precise and theyíre not always in tune all the time. You listen to the old Beatles records or Paul McCartney and Wings, the bass is not in tune a lot of the time but it feels great. Heís playing really expressive stuff that just feels right. Listen to Led Zeppelin and itís the same thing: itís ragged but it has the charm.
Yeah! Or like ďBabe, Iím Gonna Leave YouĒ where you can hear Plantís voice bleeding through the drum mics from a scratch track.
Yeah! Thatís the problem: I listen to a lot of newer stuff these days and itís all too exact. Thereís something missing about that. Itís hard because with technology now, with different recording techniques you can make something perfect but itís all just diminishing returns. Especially for rock and roll bands.
So letís talk amplifiers!
Iím using the Hughes & Kettner Tommy Thayer Signature Duo-Tone. Iíve tried the new Tri-Amps and I like those too but I keep going back to the Duo-Tone. I have them on the road with me and I play through two and then I have two as backups. The only thing Iíve been messing with this past year is some Variac voltage regulators that let you adjust how much voltage is going into the amp. And if you lower the voltage you tend to get a little bit of a sweeter tone.
Do you collect much gear outside of what you would use onstage in KISS?
A little bit. Iím not over the top in collecting gear. I like a simple approach, generally. I donít get too much into collecting guitars or pedals or amps. To me itís, you need the basic stuff and then itís about how you play. But I have a couple of old Marshall amps. I bought a 50 watt Marshall amp back in the 80s that I used to play in Black Ní Blue. And I have a JCM900 that I bought in the late 80s which was a cool amp too but I havenít used it in a while. I have a couple of HiWatt 50 watt amps that have been modified with whatís called a ĎCanadian Mod,í which I got off Bob Rock back in the 80s, and they have a cool sound too. Iíve got a Peavey combo amp that I bought about 20 years ago that I use occasionally. Hughes & Kettner has given me a few combo amps too. Thereís one called the Statesman that I use for a few gigs. They also have a great amp called the TubeMeister, which is a combo I have with a 10-inch speaker and itís incredible in the studio just micíd up with a Les Paul or Telecaster. So there are a few little bits and pieces but for the most part Iím not a huge collector. Iím not always trying to keep up with technology all the time.
KISS AUSTRALIAN TOUR DATES
Tickets from Ticketek
Saturday October 3 PERTH Arena
Tuesday October 6 ADELAIDE Entertainment Centre
Thursday October 8 MELBOURNE Rod Laver Arena
Friday October 9 MELBOURNE Rod Laver Arena
Saturday October 10 SYDNEY AllPhones Arena
Monday October 12 NEWCASTLE Entertainment Centre
Tuesday October 13 BRISBANE Entertainment Centre