INTERVIEW: Tommy Thayer of KISS

IK Multimedia's MODO BASS


KISS are about to hit Australia on their 40th anniversary tour, and if there’s one thing you can rely on in music, it’s that KISS are going to put on a big, big show. But this time they’re bringing their biggest: their ‘Spider’ lighting rig is coming with them to tower over the band and be even more menacing than Gene Simmons’ famous blood-spewing bass solo. And on stage left you’ll find Tommy Thayer inhabiting the role of the Spaceman as he has done since 2002. In the 13 years since Tommy started donning the iconic makeup and costume he’s gradually added hints of his own character to the icon. You can hear it in a certain confidence to his own solos, and see it in his choice of guitars, which diverge from the three-pickup Les Pauls Ace Frehley used when he was the Spaceman.

So KISS is returning to Australia. Now, the show with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra was one of your first KISS gigs, right? 

It really was! It was my first official gig, in February 2003. I had done a couple of other gigs with the band prior to that but they were more really fill-in shows. It wasn’t quite defined who was playing guitar or not. (Laughs) So that was a transition period and we didn’t do too many appearances. So February 2003 I was officially in the band as the new KISS lead guitar player. It was a big gig, at the Telstra Dome in Melbourne, and it was a big deal because it was being filmed for a DVD and live album. There was a lot going on and it was a little stressful but I took it all in and made it happen, and it turned out great.


Tell me about your latest Epiphone signature guitar

It’s a striking guitar and everyone who sees it reacts the same way. It looks really flashy and it really pops. I’m really happy with it. I was thinking about a new Les Paul to play on the road with KISS last year and our drummer Eric Singer is a really big guitar collector so he suggested a white guitar. We came to the conclusion that a metallic white guitar would be great, a real Alpine White with a metallic flake in it. He also suggested chrome hardware. Originally the idea was to do a chrome binding as well but they had a hard time figuring out how to do a chrome binding. So we went back and forth and in the end I ended up doing a three-ply binding, the kind they mostly put on Customs. And I’m really happy with the way that looked.

It’s cool that even more you’re establishing yourself as ‘you’ within the identify of the Spaceman.

Yeah! This is the first one I’ve felt that way too. This is really more of a true signature guitar for me because before I was playing the Sunburst and also the first signature silver sparkle Spaceman signature guitar. That’s part of the progression and development of what I’m doing in the band. It feels like a natural progression to do that.


How do you and Paul Stanley work together as a guitar team?

Well, very well! I believe going back to the 70s with KISS the idea with these guys was always about guitar parts that really compliment each other with different voicings in different ranges that you can play together to really broaden the sound. Often Paul would play root chords down low and what Ace did and what I do is to play a higher voicing, and that’s a big part of the KISS sound. And Paul will play more of the Stones-y suspended chords in a song like “Rock And Roll All Nite” or “Strutter,” so there’s always that dynamic of playing not the same chord voicing but relative voicings, often an octave apart. And Paul plays a lot of very different, interesting chords. If you really analyse a song like “Cold Gin” and what Paul’s playing, the main riff is in that kind of Free, “All Right Now” kind of voicing but Paul’s playing these interesting chords down in the A position that you wouldn’t normally think of. Or even in “Black Diamond” he plays these minor chords you wouldn’t normally think he’d be doing. He’s very innovative and creative, and he does a lot of things that are outside of the norm. And he’s got his own rhythm style too which is not as exacting but it really works.

It’s not an exact science. It’s about a feel and a vibe, and it doesn’t have to be perfect. That’s not an excuse to play sloppy at all but it is more of a vibe and a style and a feel. And Paul’s really good at that.

Well I interviewed Butch Vig once and he told me about when he recorded the Foo Fighters album on tape, and what he realised was that when you’re not looking at a screen and making sure it all matches up to the grid, each guy is going to come down on the downbeat at a different microsecond, and therefore that downbeat becomes bigger and more spread-out. 

Yeah! It makes it really broad and that’s so true. He’s absolutely right about that. If you listen back to all our favourite records going back to the 60s and 70s, they’re not so precise and they’re not always in tune all the time. You listen to the old Beatles records or Paul McCartney and Wings, the bass is not in tune a lot of the time but it feels great. He’s playing really expressive stuff that just feels right. Listen to Led Zeppelin and it’s the same thing: it’s ragged but it has the charm.

Yeah! Or like “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” where you can hear Plant’s voice bleeding through the drum mics from a scratch track. 

Yeah! That’s the problem: I listen to a lot of newer stuff these days and it’s all too exact. There’s something missing about that. It’s hard because with technology now, with different recording techniques you can make something perfect but it’s all just diminishing returns. Especially for rock and roll bands.

So let’s talk amplifiers!

I’m using the Hughes & Kettner Tommy Thayer Signature Duo-Tone. I’ve tried the new Tri-Amps and I like those too but I keep going back to the Duo-Tone. I have them on the road with me and I play through two and then I have two as backups. The only thing I’ve been messing with this past year is some Variac voltage regulators that let you adjust how much voltage is going into the amp. And if you lower the voltage you tend to get a little bit of a sweeter tone.

Do you collect much gear outside of what you would use onstage in KISS?

A little bit. I’m not over the top in collecting gear. I like a simple approach, generally. I don’t get too much into collecting guitars or pedals or amps. To me it’s, you need the basic stuff and then it’s about how you play. But I have a couple of old Marshall amps. I bought a 50 watt Marshall amp back in the 80s that I used to play in Black N’ Blue. And I have a JCM900 that I bought in the late 80s which was a cool amp too but I haven’t used it in a while. I have a couple of HiWatt 50 watt amps that have been modified with what’s called a ‘Canadian Mod,’ which I got off Bob Rock back in the 80s, and they have a cool sound too. I’ve got a Peavey combo amp that I bought about 20 years ago that I use occasionally. Hughes & Kettner has given me a few combo amps too. There’s one called the Statesman that I use for a few gigs. They also have a great amp called the TubeMeister, which is a combo I have with a 10-inch speaker and it’s incredible in the studio just mic’d up with a Les Paul or Telecaster. So there are a few little bits and pieces but for the most part I’m not a huge collector. I’m not always trying to keep up with technology all the time.

Tickets from Ticketek

Saturday October 3     PERTH Arena

Tuesday October 6     ADELAIDE Entertainment Centre

Thursday October 8    MELBOURNE Rod Laver Arena

Friday October 9         MELBOURNE Rod Laver Arena

Saturday October 10  SYDNEY AllPhones Arena

Monday October 12   NEWCASTLE Entertainment Centre

Tuesday October 13   BRISBANE Entertainment Centre