A Love Letter to Ace Frehley: Artists Share the Blazing KISS Solos That Inspired Them
Members of Pearl Jam, Immortal, Melvins, Tribulation, Twisted Sister, and more pay tribute to the KISS shredder's hot licks and singalong solos.
More than four decades after the original members got together to rehearse in that loft on 10 East 23rd Street, KISS is still looked at by many as a joke. Silly clowns. No-talent hacks. The simple fact is if you still hold that view, it's best to turn in your rock'n'roll card immediately.
There's the famous quote from Brian Eno that suggests the Velvet Underground's importance wasn't gauged in album sales, but by the number of bands that formed as a result of hearing those records. A certain parallel can be drawn with KISS: The band's lack of critical appeal, or musical cred doesn't correlate to the number of kids inspired to pick up guitars after hearing records like Alive! and Love Gun.
You don't have to like KISS. You don't even have to get them. But there's a good chance you're listening to something today that was influenced by the band. Red House Painters covered "Shock Me." The Melvins released solo records in the spirit of KISS. The Replacements covered "Black Diamond," as did the late Bathory vocalist Quorthon. Hell, Joey and Tommy Ramone got their faces blown off at an early KISS performance at Coventry in Queens.
"At the time I think they were the loudest band I ever heard," said Joey Ramone in Ken Sharp's oral history of KISS, Nothin' To Lose: The Making of KISS 1972-1975. "I liked a lot of their stuff. They were fun, and had great songs."
Loud? Fun? Great songs? Yeah, why would anyone in his or her right mind like KISS?
Then there's Ace Frehley, lead guitar (pronounced, "lead gee-TAWWW!"). The wild rock'n'roller. The space cadet from Jendel. He's the guy that even non-KISS fans can agree is pretty fucking cool (just watch KISS's infamous 1979 interview with Tom Snyder on The Tomorrow Show for proof). And no one sounds like Ace. His leads are their own language—raw, loose, strings bending to the breaking point—he plays guitar like he truly is from another planet.
The solos for "Shock Me" (one of the greatest—ever) and "Strange Ways"—a couple of Ace's best among many—are songs within the songs, made more amazing by the fact he hardly ever worked on them before blasting it out in the studio.
"When I first started out I used to sit at home and try to figure out guitar solos," recalled Frehley, leaning on the arm of the sofa in his hotel suite high above Midtown. "And it really didn't work out, because nine times out of 10 I ended up coming up with something different in the studio. I finally realized it's better to go in there, empty my head out, and just play without thinking. That's when I do my best work."
Case in point, that guitar solo for "Strange Ways" off of 1974's Hotter Than Hell album.
"I had a Marshall stack on 10, and I had a lot of trouble controlling the feedback because I was so close to the amp. I had headphones on, but it was so goddamn loud I almost couldn't hear the track. So I just kinda went crazy with the solo, and that's what I ended up with."
That's the sort of dissonant beauty that produced some of Frehley's biggest champions: Dimebag Darrell, Pearl Jam's Mike McCready and Slash, to name just a few. Of course, you'll rarely hear about Ace Frehley unless it's from a KISS fan turning blue in the face sticking up for their guitar hero. And you won't see his name on any of those big, bloated "Greatest Guitarists of All-Time" lists, even though he's absolutely one of them.
What Ace did was move pimply-faced teenagers to start their own bands, just as Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton moved a 15-year-old Paul Daniel Frehley to cut school to see Cream and The Who's American debuts at the RKO Proctor's 58th Street Theatre in 1967.
"Pete Townshend taught me how to play rhythm guitar," said Frehley. Townshend can play the same chord in 20 different places on the neck. It really advanced my style and my chord work, and it helped me as a songwriter."
Frehley, now 14 years removed from his second tenure in KISS, just released Origins, Vol. 1, which pays tribute to some of the artists—including the Kinks, Zeppelin and the Stones—that led him to a storied life of rock 'n' roll. The record also features noted Ace disciples McCready and Slash (as well as a guest vocal from his former KISS bandmate Paul Stanley on Free's "Fire and Water").
Noisey caught up with some of the musicians that the Space Ace has influenced. Artists from all over the rock spectrum—crossing generations, genres and gender—who've been moved by one of those classic Ace guitar solos, or that larger-than-life persona. Sit back, and enjoy the rocket ride.
Mike McCready – Pearl Jam
Favorite Ace solo: "Black Diamond"
I feel it. I guess that's mostly it—I feel Ace's playing. And that's the most important part to me. I felt it as a young boy, and now as a man I can still feel it. You know when he goes into the "Strutter" lead, or the "Black Diamond" lead—those early solos that he did are so raw and visceral; and not tons of notes, but well-placed. And when I played on this record—which I was very humbled to be part of—I was trying to emulate him a bit. You know, "You mean a lot to me, Ace, so I want to show you that I use your licks."
Jay Jay French – Twisted Sister
Favorite Ace solo: None
Ace came out of the same school of players that I did—the Mick Taylors, the Peter Greens, the Eric Claptons…you know, Jimmy Page. I can tell in two seconds where his style came from. When he joined KISS, it was obvious why he joined that band. When I auditioned for them I wasn't ready—I didn't have my guitar tone down. And when I went to their loft in September, when they asked me to come down and listen to the band—I believe I watched their very first performance—I heard Ace play his Les Paul through the Marshall stack, and I was like, "Oh yeah, he gets it—100 percent."
Allison Robertson - The Donnas
Favorite Ace solo: "100,000 Years"
Originally when we started I liked surf, and a lot of Riot Grrrl bands were big influences. I wasn't really looking to play solos. We were really messy, and we wanted to sound even more sloppy. I was watching a VHS of my sister's and saw one of Ace's guitar solos—with the flaming pickups, and then the guitar goes flying—and I was like, "Holy shit—this is out of this world." I'd never really watched him move, or listened to him play. And there was something about the lankiness of his body that really worked. He seems otherworldly, even when he doesn't have the makeup on. Once I saw that I became really, really obsessed. Ace Frehley was the reason I sold all my crappy guitars and put all the money toward a Les Paul Studio. The second I had that thing I felt like I was Ace Frehley.
Adam Zaars – Tribulation
Favorite Ace solo: "Calling Dr. Love"
I'm pretty sure he's the main reason I started playing guitar; and he's why I still play a Les Paul. It's one of those things that changed my life—because here we are. To me there are two kinds of guitarists: The Ace Frehley kind, and the people inspired by Yngwie Malmsteen—not him, but the people inspired by him. Ace is very rock 'n' roll. His solos are something that adds to the song—sometimes it's the best part of the song.
Jon Wurster – Superchunk, Mountain Goats
Favorite Ace solo: "Got To Choose"
I've never been drawn to the frontpeople in bands, with a few exceptions. Ace wasn't in the background, but he wasn't a focal point. He had a kind of mystery to him; you didn't know a ton about him. He seemed like…he was from another planet, like he likes to admit. As a guitar player there really isn't anyone that sounds like him. He has this perfect sloppiness—he's not that sloppy, but he's probably unschooled enough that it came out in this completely unique way. And he was the funniest guy in the band! Their appearance on The Tom Snyder Show is a landmark in television interviews.
Andrea Vidal – Holy Grove
Favorite Ace solo: "Deuce"
Ace has so much attack and style—he's playing exactly what he's feeling. He knew how good his tone was, and he knew how good he sounded, and he didn't try to do anything that took away from that. There's a lot going on onstage when you're in KISS, and he was really complementary to everything that was happening. Dude, he played a Les Paul just plugged through a Marshall stack. I'm sure he was thrown every pedal in his lifetime. Ace understands the power of not having a whole lot between you and the guitar and the amp—he was the master of that.
Buzz Osborne – Melvins
Favorite Ace solo: "Calling Dr. Love"
We did fake KISS solo records, but we left Ace out—we did Gene, Paul and Peter—because we always really liked Ace [laughs]. It was like, we want Ace to join our band [laughs]. No, we really love the Ace record a lot. He has a weird way of playing that's not tremendously fast, but it's really, really cool. We think he's ultimately cool.
Dale Crover – Melvins
Favorite Ace solo: "She"
Oh yeah, Ace is the cool one. I like all of KISS, but his is the best solo record. We covered "Rip It Out" at one time, too—it's one of my favorites because the drum fills are so dang cool.
Steve McDonald – Redd Kross, Melvins, Off!
Favorite Ace solo: "Parasite"
I've always loved Ace and…you know, his spaced-out swagger. I remember I was with a group of friends; we were camping in a trailer park, and we took a bunch of acid and we listened to the Ace Frehley solo album. It was the first time I'd ever heard that record. And we had this, like, psychedelic revelatory experience. And we wrote, as a group—like six of us, punk rockers with crazy colored hair in 1982—we all wrote Ace Frehley a fan letter while listening to his solo record. On acid. His vibe kind of transcended the cartoonish attraction that I had as a kid.
Naoko Yamano – Shonen Knife
Favorite Ace solo: "Shout It Out Loud"
The first time I went to a KISS show was in 1977 when I was a high school student. They were very popular to Japanese rock kids. My friend and I had to stand in a queue all through the night to get advance tickets. I was surprised at their performance, especially Ace Frehley's posture, wearing his platform shoes and bending his knees. It was wonderful. Ace's guitar playing is very rock 'n' roll, and his distorted sound is very comfortable for my ears. His vocal is cool, too.
Ty Tabor – King's X
Favorite Ace solo: "Shock Me"
Ace could play one note, and you knew it was Ace, in the same way that Allan Holdsworth could play one note and you know it's him. I remember I was on vacation and I was hanging out with one of my best friends named Marty Warren, and we both were huge Ace fans; we both tried to shake the strings like him, and tried to learn the solos. We were sitting at a table and someone came on the radio saying, "A brand-new KISS album is about to come out—here's a new song off of it, and Ace sings it." And they played "Shock Me." And when it got to the solo we both were high-fiving and going, "That is the ultimate!" I mean that is the pinnacle of perfection, Ace Frehley sing-along solo. Still to this day it's one of the greatest rock guitar solos I've ever heard.
Scott Ian - Anthrax
Favorite Ace solo: "100,000 Years"
I've been listening to KISS since 1975, and I can sing Ace's leads note for note as easily as I can sing the choruses of their songs. To be able to do that on so many songs is quite a feat. I feel like he's a very overlooked and underrated guitar player. So many other guitar players from the '70s get credit as guitar heroes, but unless you're talking to KISS fans, you never really hear Ace's name mentioned in the same breath as Ted Nugent or Eddie Van Halen or Ritchie Blackmore or Joe Perry…go on down the list. His solos are as memorable as anything Jimmy Page has ever done—for real.
Jennifer Paro, "Lace Frehley" – PRISS
Favorite Ace solo: "Shock Me"
The most important thing for me when I do Ace is to make sure I'm as musically accurate as I can be with his guitar playing. "Shock Me" and also "100,000 Years" were the most difficult to learn—there's a weird picking pattern on that one. And I try to do it with the movements. I love when he's doing the hammer-ons and starts pointing at the guitar. I try to emulate that. I'm actually in the process right now of getting a smoking guitar. We'll see how that goes!
Tom Morello – Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave
Favorite Ace solo: "Detroit Rock City"
Rock 'n' roll can excel in a number of different ways: There's technical ability, there's songwriting ability, and then there's Magic Awesome Rock Power. And Ace Frehley has that in spades. He connected the comic, fantasy superhero world with the bombast of Marshall stack heavy metal power. The pomp and pageantry that's accompanied KISS is no different from any that accompanied Elvis Presley or Little Richard, or other icons of the genre who receive nothing but total respect. Ace Frehley receives my total respect, and I'm proud to have had him as my first guitar hero.
Maggie Vail – Bangs, Hurry Up
Favorite Ace solo: "Shock Me"
Nirvana got big, and my sister [Tobi Vail] started this incredible band Bikini Kill, and I got sucked into the punk scene. But everybody I knew in Olympia was obsessed with KISS, and so I just got into it. We all listened to a lot of KISS. People covered a lot of KISS songs. I'm all about the original lineup—I mean, that was the magic. And Ace Frehley is incredible.
Abbath Doom Occulta – Abbath, Immortal
Favorite Ace solo(s): "Strange Ways," "Almost Human"
I love Ace. I mean, fucking hell—you're not a KISS fan if you don't like Ace [laughs]. His singing…he's just cruising with it, you know? And his way of playing is totally unique; you don't hear anyone play like he does. It's just so rock 'n' roll and so over the top, which is what KISS was all about. KISS is the reason I got into this in the first place. I mean, I love my father to death, but I also love these guys—they gave me a good childhood; they made my life not boring.
Mark Lore loves KISS very, very much, and is on Twitter.
Ace Frehley will appear at the Rock Carnival in Lakewood, NJ at FirstEnergy Park on October 1.