Ace Frehley: I’ve Been Holding a Guitar Pick Wrong My Whole Career
KISS legend Ace Frehley was the latest guest on Full Metal Jackie's weekend radio program. He discussed his latest solo album, Spaceman, and how he finds the inspiration to keep making new music. He looks back on the arduous process of splicing tape in the studio in the old days compared to the ease of home recordings today. He also explains that a college education may be obsolete and if you want to learn to play like him, you're likely going to have to change the most basic thing you know about guitar playing. Check out the chat below.
The new album, Spaceman, is your eighth album. Lately, you've been releasing a lot of new music. What invigorates you to have the urge to make a new album?
If you look at the timeline, I got sober in 2006, and the last five years or six years, my creativity has just gone through the roof. I mean, it doesn't hurt to have a record company writing checks to you, as well. [laughs] Yeah, I mean, I signed a record deal with eOne, and the first release was Spaceman. Then I did Origins Vol. 1. I'm sorry. The first release was Space Invader. We're getting closer here, now. Then I did Origins Vol. 1. Now we have Spaceman, and I'm also contracted to do Origins Vol. 2. That also helped push me. I usually need deadlines, to get things finished, because I'll spend weeks on one song.
Between your own albums and KISS, you've got a lifetime of recording experiences. Making this new album, what exhilarated you about being in the studio?
I work in my home studio, and I work at my own pace. I don't have anybody looking over my shoulder. Pretty much, for the last three or four records I've done, I've produced myself. I work with an engineer. A lot of times, we record the songs with the click track and then add drums, later. It's a really simple process, and I work at my own pace. I take a break when I want. I'll run out in the backyard and cook some burgers on the grill, come back and do a guitar solo. When you work in a recording studio, you're paying by the hour.
At your own leisure then.
On the same token, if I wake up at 3AM and I have this brilliant idea for a song, I can just go in and record. It's wonderful, working that way.
And you've been recording albums for such a long time — the way of recording records is so different now. How do you feel looking back to when you did your first record to now, how do you feel about the technology that exists to allow you to record the way you can?
Well, I mean, the technology has made it so much easier, working with Pro Tools, which is the standard in the recording business, pretty much. I remember working with Eddie Kramer on my first solo album in 1978. We were editing a guitar solo on two-inch tape. We're trying to get the edit right, and we're slicing the tape with razor blades. We're putting little pieces here and another little piece there. Then we have to tape it back together, run it, listen to it and go, "That's a little long." Then I start cutting quarter-inch pieces of tape, to get the end of the note right. I mean, that took forever. Today, I'll do three or four takes of a solo and then, usually, piece it together with Pro Tools, but it's done with the click of a mouse.
It's pretty amazing. Looking back you have to laugh at how you had to used to do it.
There's something about an analog tape that does sound a little warmer. You know what? They've really improved the technology [with] Pro Tools. You can buy plug-ins that really emulate the sound of tape. They even have a picture of a tape recorder running, so you can get in that mindset.
What I try to do is, even though I'm recording digitally, I use old amplifiers, old microphones, old preamps, racks of different, old preamps, which give you that warm sound. They have tubes in them. I try to use amps with tubes, old Marshall, old Fender, reverbs and the old tweed amps with the Jensen speakers that break up just the way you want it. That's how I achieve more of a vintage sound on my records.
You're one of those musicians whose style is instantly recognizable. What aspect of the way you play do you think - are singularly unique to you?
It's interesting you said that. I was with a guitar player, the other day. He was in my hotel room. I was doing an interview with Guitar World. He had a guitar, and he said, "Let's play something." He was asking me how I did that solo in "Firehouse," off the first KISS album. (mimics guitar solo) He goes, "How did you do that chicken plucking?" I go, "It's all in the technique." It's hitting the string with the pick and your finger, at the same time, and getting a harmonic.
It's funny. I was talking to John 5 and he said, when he brought Gene to see me play at the Saban Theatre, a couple of years ago or, I don't know, 18 months, whatever it was, Gene would be going, to John 5, "You see the way Ace holds the pick? Nobody holds the pick like that. That's how he gets his technique. That's why nobody can copy him exactly."
The reason why I hold the pick that way is that I never took a guitar lesson. I ended up coming up with an original style and playing differently than most guitar players do because no one taught me the right way to do it. Sometimes, the wrong way sounds better than the right way because you know, in rock 'n' roll, anything goes. Right?
Growing up you paid lots of attention to guitarists like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. Now which guitar players catch your attention and why?
None of them. [laughs]
There aren't any up and coming bands or new music that you ever heard that you're like —
Nothing's grabbing me. It's probably my own fault because don't take offense, I don't listen to the radio, anymore. I don't even watch TV, anymore. Between Netflix and Amazon, that's it. I just moved into a new mansion, and the guy wanted to hook up cable. I go, "No. All I want is the Internet and a telephone line."
So you have Internet but you still have a landline?
I have a landline and, of course, three or four cell phones. I just moved. In my last home, I was paying for cable that we never watched.
Can we get back to the four or five cell phones? Why do you have so many cell phones?
I don't know.
Do you get mad and throw one out the window and have one as a backup?
I mean, I have a bunch of cell phones. I think there are eight cell phones on my contract. One is my daughter's. I think Rachel has two. I have two. I pay for her dad's cell phone.
So you have a lot of phones on your plan.
It's a lot of phones hanging around. I have a couple of phones that aren't activated but are still workable.
It's good to have backup phones because the phones crap out.
Believe it or not, I still have a BlackBerry that works.
Hey - I got a blackberry and everyone makes fun of me.
I love buttons.
I hate the touch screens. Actually, one of my spare phones which still works is a BlackBerry, and I got back into the buttons, The screen is smaller, but I like the feel of the buttons. I mean, you can feel them. On my new iPhone, I'm doing something, and just by accident, I touch a corner of the screen. I lose it, yeah. It's so frustrating. I happen to know one of the heads of Apple, who is one of the designers of the iPhone.
Maybe you can put in a good word.
I can give him a call and tell him. I think there's a way to make the screen less sensitive, but I'm too lazy to go into preferences.
Tell them to make an iPhone with a keypad.
Okay. Tell them Jackie said.
Jackie wants a keypad on an iPhone. They would sell!
You think so?
They can make an attachment that you plug in and Velcro on, hook it up. I don’t know
I was reading a magazine when I was flying over to Australia with Gene. In the flight magazine, it said if you're going to college today and start working on a degree, by the time you graduate, everything you learn is obsolete.
It's pretty scary, so why go to college?
You were talking about Gene Simmons, and you guys have been together quite a bit lately. Writing, recording and performing together. Musically and personally, what makes working together so comfortable?
Well I've known Gene for 45 years plus. In the early days before we were famous -- everybody thinks KISS made it so quickly. Before Alive! we had three albums and they did okay. We were still staying in Holiday Inn's and riding around in station wagons. Once in a while we'd get a limo in a major market but -- it didn't happen overnight. Everybody thinks KISS happened overnight. No way.
Me and Gene used to room together. Gene has a soft spot in his heart for me. He kind of takes me under his wing. He's very protective of me and I think he got very upset when I lost it with drugs and alcohol earlier on in my career. And thank God in 2006 [I got sober] and September 15 [of 2018] I celebrated 12 years [sober].
I'm gonna knock on wood because every day above ground is a good day.
Agreed 100 percent. KISS made you, Gene, Peter and Paul larger than life. More so than nearly any other band. Throughout your career, what is something you've always done to keep yourself grounded?
I get home, obviously without the makeup, put on jeans and a t-shirt and go fishing or get together with friends who I knew before I was in KISS. Then I knew they were real friends. I didn't like the hangers-on that only met me after I had joined KISS and had become famous. So, I tended to hang out with people who knew me before KISS, go out with the boys, have a few beers, go trout fishing, go out on the lake, what did I do? Ride motorcycles. Anything you can think of, I did -- played pool, ping pong, crashed a few cars [laughs].
It's got to feel amazing, though, when still to this day people come up to you and talk about what a big fan they are of you and everything that you've done. I've seen it even - a buddy of mine - you had been introduced to at the Revolver Golden Gods awards, he had a huge picture of you tattooed on his leg. That stuff happens! How cool is it for you still to this day?
It's very flattering. I don't want to say it's getting a little old, because it's insulting to the fans but it happens constantly. What I also get constantly is guitar players coming up to me and saying, "if it wasn't for you I would have never picked up a guitar. The Alive! album is like my rock 'n' roll bible." But I feel a little guilty because I never took a guitar lesson. [laughs] and here are all these thousands of guitar players who copied me and I'm kind of their rock God. I'm not playing things correctly necessarily [laughs].
But it's working.
You know if it sounds good, go with it. That's all I can tell you.
Thanks to Ace Frehley for the interview. Grab your copy of 'Spaceman' at iTunes and Amazon and follow Ace on Facebook to stay up to date with everything he's doing. Find out where you can hear Full Metal Jackie’s weekend show here.
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