Southern California is in the grip of a hellish drought that has gone on for over four years now.
The City of Angels is burning. Wildfires rage uncontrollably as once-verdant lawns transform into Martian-like landscapes.
But all of this changes on a Saturday afternoon the moment Ace Frehley steps out of his car and heads toward the entrance of the West Hollywood photography studio for a Guitar World cover shoot.
By the time he maneuvers his 64-year-old frame onto the sidewalk, a gathering gloom overhead turns the sky dark. An ominous clap-and-rumble in the distance like a brutal double bassdrum fill sucks the air from your lungs.
Ace is five steps from the doorway when the first, fat raindrops begin to fall. His handler follows several steps behind him and scurries to reach cover so that the guitar case he is carrying—and what else could be in there but one of his signature Les Paul Customs?—doesn’t get wet.
This is an auspicious start to the day and though the Bronx street kid-turned-Kiss-icon is an hour late, he has brought heavy metal thunder with him and all is forgiven. In fact, nobody is too surprised that the Spaceman is running behind schedule at all. Origins Vol. 1 (eOne Music), Frehley’s seventh solo album, a covers record celebrating the rock legends and songs that changed his life—including Jimi Hendrix’s “Spanish Castle Magic,” Led Zeppelin’s “Bring It on Home,” Cream’s “White Room” and others—was three weeks behind schedule.
Space Invader, his 2014 solo record, was three months tardy—so it could be said that his time management is improving. Still, Ace has been trashing—or completely ignoring—the rules for a long time. Ever since he first lit the fuse on the debut Kiss record, released more than 42 years ago, this Gibson devotee has been bringing his own sense of rebellious unorthodoxy to not only the electric guitar but just about everything else he does.
Dressed all in black, Ace enters Studio 1444 [formerly TTG Studios, an historic recording facility that once counted Jimi Hendrix amongst its clientele], and sees Slash is already in the house. They embrace warmly, exuding the kind of comfortable familiarity engendered whenever the alpha species gather together. In this case, it is the meeting of two larger-than-life, balls-to-the-wall guitar giants.
Rockin’ his trademark top hat, tennis shoes and tattoos, Slash is here today because he is one of the guest stars on Ace’s Origins Vol. 1—specifically, some nifty guitar work on Thin Lizzy’s “Emerald.” “I love that song and I’ve been threatening to play on an Ace record for the past two albums,” Slash says.
Did you play any of these songs from the Origins album way back in the day before you were in Kiss? Did you ever jam on “White Room” when you were still playing in garage bands?
ACE FREHLEY Absolutely. Cream was one of my first concerts. I saw them opening up for Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels at a Murray the K show [concerts in the late Sixties hosted by the famed DJ]. The Who were on that show too.
Cream was a big influence on you?
FREHLEY Yeah, Cream and Eric Clapton; Led Zeppelin obviously and Jimmy Page. Jeff Beck. Pete Townshend and the Who.
SLASH Definitely early Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. Early Aerosmith and Angus Young pretty much all through the AC/DC stuff. The list could go on and on. The reason they’re guitar heroes is because they have an individual identity and you really hear the personality in their playing. Each one of these guys I would consider to be really memorable rock and roll guitar players, all have a defined personality in their style and as individuals and that’s what we attach ourselves to. That’s gone by the wayside over the years but it’s something I’ve always related to. Jimi Hendrix—that was a big one.
FREHLEY The Hendrix song was one of the biggest surprises of the record. John 5 came over and we did “Parasite” first and that came out great. Then John goes to me, “What about ‘Spanish Castle Magic’?” I didn’t know how to play the song yet. He played a great guitar part and did some solos and I did some solos.
You brought in Slash to play on “Emerald” by Thin Lizzy. Were you a Thin Lizzy fan?
FREHLEY I loved Thin Lizzy. “Emerald” was always a song I thought was really challenging with the heavy riffing and the breakdown with the dual leads and stuff. The first person I thought of was Slash.
SLASH I said, “Why don’t we do it live and play back and forth right here in the moment?” The old-school way is the way I always try to do it. Sometimes with modern recording you have to do it more piecemeal but whenever I can do things in a more spontaneous and live setting, I do. Ace is old-school so it was no problem.”
Do you think your guitar tone has improved over the years?
FREHLEY I don’t think my guitar tone has changed very much. It’s pretty much a Les Paul through a Marshall. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? I can’t sit there with 10 pedals like a lot of other guys do. It’s just too much fuckin’ processing.
You have both always been identified with the Les Paul. Did you first pick one up because your guitar heroes were playing them?
FREHLEY When I first joined Kiss, I was using a reverse Firebird with a single pickup and a 50-watt Marshall. The same exact reverse Firebird, single pickup, mini-humbucker Eric Clapton used on the Farewell Cream tour.
SLASH I remember “Whole Lotta Love” being the biggest sonic influence on me way before I ever thought about picking up a guitar. I remember Zeppelin songs had a certain sound and I never thought about it at the time. When I picked up a guitar, I gravitated toward what Jimmy Page was doing as far as guitar sounds and style. I found out later that a lot of the stuff I liked was all humbuckers and Les Pauls.
Did you play that Firebird on the Kiss album?
FREHLEY No, I bought a Les Paul and a 100-watt Marshall once we got our advance money from Casablanca. I could never afford one and when Kiss got their first record deal, we all bought brand new equipment.
SLASH The Les Paul is something that I gravitated toward from day one. It wasn’t even a real Les Paul [laughs]; it was a Les Paul knockoff. I liked that shape and the look of that guitar which I attributed to some of my favorite guitar players at that time who used Les Pauls. I remember recognizing Mike Bloomfield, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards and Mick Taylor. Joe Perry and Brad Whitford both had one. I was recognizing it on guitar players that I liked and I liked their sound because I didn’t know jack about guitars obviously.
Ace, when you were recording the Kiss album, did you have any idea about the profound influence you would have on the generation of guitar players to come?
FREHLEY Not really and I still don’t. I find I do my best work when I don’t think. I do my best solos that way. I don’t try to think about what I’m gonna play. I don’t say, “Well, I’m gonna put this riff in on the fourth bar.” I just gotta let it go and that’s how I do my best work and it’s always been like that. If I don’t get a song in three or four takes I take a break because it loses all its spontaneity.
Slash, what about when you recorded Appetite for Destruction?
SLASH I really don’t have a perspective on it either. It was not a preconceived thing and especially at that age where you’re just flying by the seat of your pants and not thinking about any of those things. All these years later, the one thing I do see is when I go out and sign autographs after gigs and you get the ultimate compliment, which is when somebody says, “You were a major influence on my playing.” It’s really hard to grasp it and I can only go off of having thought the same way about Joe Perry or Jimmy Page.