INTERVIEW: Ace Frehley
It’s the Les Paul that launched a million guitarists: the 1974 Cherry Sunburst three-pickup Gibson Les Paul used by Ace Frehley during KISS’s breakthrough era. The guitar, known as the Budokan Les Paul in honour of the historic Japanese venue where it was given one of its best-known public showings, left Ace’s stewardship a few years ago, and it was long since retired from the road. But now it’s back, in spirit at least, in the form of Gibson Custom’s new Ace Frehley “Budokan” Les Paul Custom. This limited edition instrument will be available in four versions: fifty signed guitars aged by Tom Murphy in the Gibson Custom Shop; one hundred aged (but not signed) pieces; a further 150 finished with Gibson’s VOS (Vintage Original Spec) process; and 1000 pieces of an Epiphone version which retains most of the design features of its Gibson big brother. Ace took some time to talk with I Heart Guitar about the new guitar, the 30+ year old classic it’s based on, and his future plans.
“It was my favourite guitar that I used pretty much exclusively through the 70s and 80s, I guess,” Frehley says of the original instrument. “I continued to use it even with Frehley’s Comet. I don’t even remember when I got it! It was some time around 1975, 76. I had three or four backups, but the particular one that they just released, which is called the Budokan guitar, it was always my favourite guitar, my number one. It just felt the best and played the best.”
So what exactly was so special about the guitar? How do you know when you’ve found ‘it’? “I forget who I was talking to, but I was talking to some other famous guitar player and he was telling me that every time he buys a new guitar it’s good for at least one new song,” Frehley says. “And I really understood what he was talking about. I like picking up guitars in pawn shops. And it’s not like it used to be, because pretty much pawn shops these days are aware of the vintage guitar market. But y’know, in the seventies I got a lot of great guitars from pawn shops, and every time I picked up a new guitar it would usually spark an idea for a new song.”
Eventually the Budokan Les Paul stopped being Ace’s favourite guitar, that title instead going to the Gibson AFS model released around the time of the KISS reunion tour in the late 90s. In 2009 Ace gave the original Budokan guitar to KISS collector and superfan Matt Swanson. “I gave it to Matt and he’s loving it,” Frehley says.” But don’t worry: “I still have a wall of Les Pauls! But he wanted it really bad.”
Frehley is about to add yet more Les Pauls to his collection: “They’re shipping me a bunch of aged ones in the next couple of weeks, because that was part of the contract.” Ace laughs. “It’s pretty weird, Peter, because when I was at the Gibson Custom Shop and I signed 50 of them, they pretty much all felt the same! It was kinda scary how they did it! I was completely amazed when I played them and I couldn’t tell the difference between one from the other. And the quality control is amazing.” In fact, the new guitar was built according to ultra-precise laser scans of the original, to ensure that even the neck wear was replicated exactly. “Technology has affected every facet of every industry you can think of, from musical instruments to medicine, to you name it, and in most instances it’s for a positive reason,” Frehley says.
Ace has always been known for his three-pickup electronic outline. Ace himself actually carved out the hole for the middle pickup in the original Budokan guitar. It might surprise some fans to hear that on the Gibson versions of the Budokan guitar, the middle and neck pickups are actually not even connected – although the pickups remain connected in the Epiphone version. “To be totally honest with you, live I only use the treble pickup, the bridge pickup,” Frehley says. “And for simplicity I always disconnected my other pickups. Because if I ever tried to do the toggle switch effect, which I do from time to time, if the volume isn’t off on the other pickups, it will negate that effect. So I never switched to the other pickups live anyway. I would always disconnect my pickups to make life easier. And three pickups look great!” Those three pickups are a trio of DiMarzios, Frehley being one of their earliest big-name users. The Budokan guitar features a Super Distortion in the bridge position along with PAFs in the middle and neck. “One of my first shows with KISS, I remember meeting Larry DiMarzio. I’d given him a couple of pickups to rewind for me, and at that point in time Larry was rewinding them in his bedroom by hand! And I’ve been using his pickups on and off for years. Pretty much if you throw a DiMarzio Super Distortion into a Les Paul, plug it into a Marshall and turn it on ten, it’s a no-brainer!”
The toggle switch stutter effect achieved via the disconnected pickup is a classic rock sound, but Frehley was way ahead of the curve with his use of tapping on 1977’s “Shock Me,” a year before Eddie Van Halen popularised the effect on “Eruption.” A few other players had messed with the technique a little – Steve Hackett from Genesis, Harvey Mandel from Canned Heat, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, Frank Zappa – but Ace was probably the most high-profile player to use the technique. So where did it come from? “I don’t know! I don’t remember! All I know is I picked it up. I know I got the toggle switch effect pretty much from Pete Townshend. I just took it a step further. But I don’t remember exactly where I got the tapping from.” So one of those things where you look down and realise you need that fret but you’re way over here and you need to figure out a way to get to it somehow? Ace laughs. “It was a long time ago, Peter!” I tell Ace about a Stevie Ray Vaughan interview where he joked about holding a fret down with a thumb tack so he could play a particularly out-of-reach chord. “I was just telling somebody that I guess you could say I’m the biggest innovator when it comes to special effects guitars – the smoking guitar, the light guitar, the rocket guitar, and more recently my pinwheel guitar effect. I’ve pretty much pushed the envelope on that.” Yet when it comes down to it Ace has achieved a lot with just his bare fingers on the guitar strings as well. “Yeah, well I still have some tricks up my sleeve that are yet to have been developed,” he laughs.
“I’ve started working on a new album, I’m writing a new book… there are a lot of good things on the horizon. At this point I think it’s just going to be an extension of No Regrets. There’s so much I left out because of the deadline, but after talking with so many different people I’ve got so many stories that have eluded me over the years. And there just wasn’t enough room to put them into No Regrets, and I was past the deadline as it was. But I think I’m going to come out with something in the effect of like a No Regrets II. But I also have the idea to put out a guitar book with all my guitar effects, tricks, recording techniques… I’ve learned a lot of tricks from working with a lot of great producers over the years, and I think I should write a book about it!”
Our time up, I selfishly conclude our interview by asking if there’s any chance of a return here to Australia any time soon. “Yeah! It’s something we’ve been talking about. There are some festivals I think I’m going to be doing this summer in Europe, so maybe we can work in Australia towards the end of this year or early next year. I don’t know particularly how it would work. We still haven’t been to Japan with this current line-up that I have now, so usually Japan and Australia go hand in hand.”