“The best guitar solo is a song within a song. I’ve been doing that my whole career”: Ace Frehley on the mystery of his guitar style, influences, and how his genius IQ works best when he's half-awake

Ace Frehley
(Image credit: Gary Miller/Getty Images)

As the lead guitarist in the original line-up of Kiss, Ace Frehley is a hugely influential figure in American rock ’n’ roll – an inspiration to countless guitar players that emerged in the ’80s and ’90s, including Dimebag Darrell, Tom Morello, Kim Thayil of Soundgarden, and Stone Gossard and Mike McCready of Pearl Jam.

Frehley’s guitar wizardry is most powerfully illustrated in the songs he wrote and recorded with Kiss in the ’70s – Cold Gin, Shock Me, and Rocket Ride among them. In 1978, when solo albums from the four members of Kiss were released on the same day, it was Ace’s record that rocked the hardest – and sold the most. 

And, between his two tenures with Kiss – the first from 1973 to 1982, the second from 1996 to 2002 – Frehley’s made some fine albums with his band Frehley’s Comet, and recently as a solo artist.

His new album, 10,000 Volts, treads no new ground. But then again, an album by Ace Frehley – a dyed-in-the-wool ’70s rocker – isn’t meant for anyone expecting anything beyond his brand of guitar authenticity. The music on 10,000 Volts is raucous; a throwback to his glory days with Kiss, when his pyrotechnic on-stage solo showcase featured a rocket-firing guitar.

“Everyone who’s heard the whole album seems to love it,” Frehley tells TG. “It’s good to hear that people like what I’m doing. I’m getting positive feedback from almost everybody, so we’ll see what happens.”

As a player, his tone is unique, his technique unorthodox. As he says with a laugh: “I could never teach someone to play like me!” But there is still much we can learn from the man who has influenced so many famous players…

There’s a great energy to this new album – you’ve still got it, Ace!

“Well, thank you. I can’t believe it; 10,000 Volts was only out for two days, and it had 250,000 views on YouTube. I’m thrilled.”

Your fans online are raving about Back Into My Arms Again, a song that dates to the ’80s.

“I was surprised because I didn’t think anyone would remember it, but they did! I wrote that back in ’84 or somewhere close to that. I always thought it was a good song, but for some reason I never decided to put it on any of my records. I might have used it for Kiss back in the ’90s if they had let me, but that’s another story. It was just the right time… 40 years later!”

Your songwriting process, like your guitar playing, seems off-the-cuff and in the moment.

“You know, it’s funny because I have an IQ of 163, which is genius-level. But there’s a part of my day when I first wake up, and I’m still half asleep but also half awake, and that’s when my most creative ideas pop up. It’s like when I’m lucid, I get these ideas. When that happens, I need to pounce on them. But my process has always been to write things that are memorable.”

Your tone is unmistakable. Where does that come from?

“It’s been the same since I was a teenager. I listened to all my favorite guitar players, who tended to be British Invasion guys like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck… the list goes on. But as far as my tone, and the way I write my solos, I don’t fucking know! People tell me I’m so unique, but it’s just a matter of me clearing my fucking head and letting it rip!”

I could never teach someone to play like me. I don’t think I’d want to! I’m a blues-based guitarist, like Jimmy Page, and that’s how I look at my solos

So, there’s no tried-and-true method to your madness?

“If there was, I don’t think I’d remember it! When you hear my solos, you know it’s me, and you’ll hear little bits and pieces of those guys I mentioned, but I could never teach someone to play like me. I don’t think I’d want to! I’m a blues-based guitarist, like Jimmy Page, and that’s how I look at my solos. 

“I want them to be memorable. So, that was the approach – if there was one – on 10,000 Volts. I want you to be able to sing along and have them get stuck in your head! The best guitar solo is a song within a song. I’ve been doing that my whole career. I couldn’t stop or change even if I wanted to.”

And with that, there is an element of devil-may-care sloppiness. That’s not for everyone, but it works for you. 

“I’m a sloppy fucking guitar player! I’ll be the first to admit that. I make mistakes, and shit happens – especially live. I play the songs how they’re meant to be played. I deliver the classic Kiss songs and my solo songs how you remember them.”

How do you feel about Tommy Thayer, the guitarist who replaced you in Kiss?

“A guy like Tommy Thayer – who I like and is a great player – will play perfectly with no mistakes. But is that what you want? Tommy will never be me, and no one can play like me. I take pride in that. That’s rock ’n’ roll.”

My sound is simple: a Gibson Les Paul dimed to ten, plugged into a vintage Marshall tube amp, also cranked to fucking ten

Is your prescription for that sort of rock ’n’ roll still a heaping dose of Gibson Les Pauls paired with Marshall amps?

“My sound is as simple as that. I’ve got a ton of guitars, like Stratocasters, Telecasters, and all sorts of weird shit. I’ve got some great acoustic ones, too. I used a Strat on the new record for rhythm tracks and layering, but when it comes down to it, I’m most comfortable with a Les Paul. My sound is simple: a Gibson Les Paul dimed to ten, plugged into a vintage Marshall tube amp, also cranked to fucking ten. But even if you do that, don’t expect to sound like me!”

What does it mean to make a record of this caliber at this stage in your career?

“It’s funny – if you play one of my songs to a random stranger who isn’t a Kiss fan and ask them, ‘What do you think?’, I bet you they’ll say, ‘Who is that guy? That’s some cool shit!’ But look, I’m 72 years old and still sound like I did in the ’70s. I get a kick out of the fact that I can do this like I did then. 

“Some will say the fact that my playing hasn’t evolved is a problem, but I’d say that’s bullshit. Ace Frehley fans seem to get it. I can go out there without bombs, makeup and costumes. I’m in jeans and a t-shirt, playing like I did when I was 25. What do you think would happen if Kiss tried that? They’d get booed off the stage!”

I can’t believe how many players I’ve influenced. People come up to me saying, ‘If it wasn’t for you…’ That makes me feel great

So many great guitarists have cited you as an influence – Tom Morello, Dimebag, and pretty much everyone from the grunge era. What does this mean to you?

“I can’t believe how many players I’ve influenced. People come up to me saying, ‘If it wasn’t for you…’ That makes me feel great.”

And is there one lesson you could pass on to TG readers?

“In retrospect, I should have practiced more. There are times I don’t know what the fuck I’m playing, but it just comes out alright anyway! I do my best work when I’m not thinking, when I just empty my head. I’ll be fine if I know the key and have a few takes. What can I say? I know how to make a good song. There’s no explaining it beyond that.”

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Andrew Daly

Andrew Daly is an iced-coffee-addicted, oddball Telecaster-playing, alfredo pasta-loving journalist from Long Island, NY, who, in addition to being a contributing writer for Guitar World, scribes for Rock Candy, Bass Player, Total Guitar, and Classic Rock History. Andrew has interviewed favorites like Ace Frehley, Johnny Marr, Vito Bratta, Bruce Kulick, Joe Perry, Brad Whitford, Rich Robinson, and Paul Stanley, while his all-time favorite (rhythm player), Keith Richards, continues to elude him.