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Tommy Thayer - The Roar of the Grease Paint

Issue #33

Simply put, he could do the business for the band, and for the Kiss brand. So, while the original hiring might have partly been a business decision, Thayer is a lot more than just a hired gun,.
William Black

Love 'em or hate 'em, Kiss is one of the biggest grossing, most popular Rock bands of all time. If success is pleasing your audience, Kiss scores every time. GI's Stuart Bull meets the band's lead guitarist, Tommy Thayer, while Kiss fan William Black, fills in the background story.

“I always tell people that want to make it in music be prepared to work hard for a long time to make things happen. There are no short-cuts. There's no rules. Effort = Success. Good luck!”

Stirring words indeed, from one of the nicest – and most hardworking – men in Rock music. And no, we don’t mean Dave Grohl, even though the effervescent Foo's frontman would be most people’s No. 1 candidate to have spouted such stimulating wisdom.

No, this mantra for musical success comes straight from the mouth - or at least the keyboard keys - of Tommy Thayer, long-time lead guitarist in hard Rock behemoth Kiss.

Thayer speaks from personal experience. His biography reads almost like a perfect Hollywood script: young man from Oregon gets into music in a big way, forms a band, moves to California, works his ass off, gets a support slot with one of the biggest bands in the world, makes friends with them, starts working with them behind the scenes, and ends up as their lead guitarist, idolised by millions worldwide.

The success, the glamour, the fans and the general Rock god status almost certainly wouldn’t have happened without the decades of hard work that Thayer has put in. The one blemish - that second act confrontation of Thayer’s Hollywood character arc, if you will - is present in a small but vocal group of so-called Kiss fans who regard him as an imposter, a copycat poseur cashing in on the success of Ace Frehley, the group’s original lead guitarist.

It’s a pure mix of nonsense and jealousy, of course. Yes, Thayer wears the same iconic Spaceman makeup as Frehley (and as created by Frehley), and yes, he plays the songs and solos Frehley wrote too. But how could you join a multi-million selling band and not play the hits? And, frankly, who cares about the makeup?

Well, it seems that Frehley himself is not best pleased. He has referred to Thayer as “just a guy up there copying me”, among other less than positive rumblings. Unsurprisingly, this has not helped in placating the Ace fan club.

Is any of this Thayer’s fault? Absolutely not. He was chosen to join Kiss full-time in the early 2000s because of his skills - both on the fretboard and otherwise –- and his hardworking spirit, and presumably his being a top guy didn’t hinder his chances either. Another thing many Ace fans seem to gloss over is the fact that, back in his behind the scenes days with Kiss, Thayer even re-taught an ailing Frehley some of his own guitar solos and parts.

Simply put, he could do the business for the band, and for the Kiss brand. So, while the original hiring might have partly been a business decision, Thayer is a lot more than just a hired gun, and his importance for the band has also grown significantly over time - he had a hand in writing the vast majority of the tracks on 2012’s Monster album, for example, and sang the lead vocal on Outta This World, which he also wrote.

This would have come as no surprise to the legions of genuine fans, of course: there aren't  many bands who can claim to have a fan base as knowledgeable, or dedicated, as the Kiss Army. They know all about Thayer’s history with the band, right from his 1985 support stint as a member of glam rockers Black ‘n Blue, onwards. They will point to the fact that Thayer started writing music with bassist/vocalist Gene Simmons not long afterwards, demonstrating his immediate impact on the Kiss world and the fact that Simmons knew he was the real deal from early days.

For those less up to speed, the first fruits of Simmons and Thayer’s labour were the songs Betrayed and The Street Giveth, The Street Taketh Away, which were co-written by the pair and ended up on 1989’s Hot In The Shade album. Thayer even played session guitar on the demo recordings.

Through the '90s, Thayer began working more and more with Kiss, taking care of day-to-day business. His responsibilities extended to managing tours and producing the band’s film and video productions, and as the decade grew to a close, he found himself playing guitar and contributing musically at rehearsals, sound checks and in the recording studio. When Ace Frehley’s position in the band became increasingly uncertain in 2002, Thayer stepped in to help out. By the end of the year, he was the lead guitarist in Kiss.

The decade and a bit since has seen Thayer and the band experiencing something of a revival, with two favourably received albums - Sonic Boom, which was released in 2009 and was the band’s first studio effort since 1998, and 2012’s Monster - not to mention a string of mammoth world-encompassing tours enticing another new generation of Kiss Army recruits.

Thayer, for his part, is still approachable and down to earth. He always has time for the fans (he recently surprised a pair of Kiss fans by showing up unannounced at their wedding at the Kiss Chapel in Las Vegas), and will stand chatting, signing stuff and posing for selfies with seemingly unending reserves of genuine patience and cordiality.

Onstage, he shifts quickly into guitar hero mode. As a player, Thayer’s a monster, as you would expect: not overly flashy (especially considering the monstrous platform boots and the material he’s playing) but fluid, smooth and deadly accurate. He’s a Les Paul guy through and through, and though he plays a number of Gibsons onstage and in the studio. He also has, as of 2015, two Epiphone signature models to his name: 2013’s Spaceman (the release of which prompted Ace Frehley to publically wonder: “how big are the balls on this guy?”), and 2015’s White Lightning model.

Both are kitted out to achieve Kiss’s massive Rock sound, with the Spaceman featuring Gibson humbuckers and the White Lightning a pair of Seymour Duncan JBs. They also come with a custom case and a bunch of Thayer-related and signed goodies, making them the ideal way to nail those Kiss looks and sounds without having to shell out too much cash for the privilege. Oh, and Thayer has no qualms about rocking them on the biggest stages in the world either, so they’re definitely good enough for us mortals.

When it comes to amps, Thayer has gone down a different road to Frehley, who defined Kiss’s earlier guitar sounds with an envy-inducing, bone-shaking Marshall rig. Thayer’s less of a traditionalist in that way, having been in a monogamous relationship with German amp brand Hughes & Kettner for years now. The pair’s first collaboration, a Tommy Thayer signature Duotone, has become Thayer’s go-to amp for every and any situation, although, as our accompanying video interview reveals, H&K recently shipped a prototype of its new flagship, the TriAmp Mark 3, to Thayer for some recent gigs. Apparently, Thayer tried it and loved it, so watch this space (it's on our 'to review' list as soon as it's available - Ed).

It’s not hard to see why some folks are jealous of Tommy Thayer. He is doing what so many guitarists would love to do, after all, and to rub it in, there's the accusation that he’s reaping someone else’s rewards. But that's a cross anyone who joins a successful band later in their career has to bear and it's almost always complete nonsense. Either a guitarist can cut it and justify his place, or he can't. And Tommy Thayer can certainly cut it. So Kiss will go on, no matter who’s behind the makeup. When Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley decide to call it a day - and they will, at some point, not be able to do it any more - there may be others who don the face paint and belt out the hits to stadiums full of fans who are loving it. Then, of course, it’ll be Thayer who will be the long-term guy, the one who shared the stage with the ‘originals’.

Is there anything wrong with that? Absolutely not. So relax, get your makeup on, take a leaf out of Thayer’s book, and just enjoy what the band's fans insist is still the greatest rock and roll show on earth.


Issue #75

Peter Green / Ivar Bjørnson

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