Guitarist Jim Peterik’s newly published memoir, Through the Eye of the Tiger, chronicles a half-century in music, including richly detailed anecdotes about sharing bills with the likes of Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers Band and Boston. Peterik also happens to be an avid guitar collector, having amassed nearly 200 instruments, the bulk of which are Gibsons. “I have a video series on my Facebook page called ‘Guitars That Followed Me Home,’” he says, with a laugh. “That’s what I tell my wife. There’s always another guitar I’m chasing.”

Recently, Peterik spoke with us about guitar playing, songwriting and some of his favorite Gibsons. You can keep apprised of his schedule of book signings—which includes Q&A segments and “unplugged” performances—by visiting his official website.

What made now a good time to publish a memoir?

I felt I had reached a point where I could have some perspective. I couldn’t have written the book 20 years ago and seen things as clearly as I do now, at 64. At first I felt there wasn’t enough drama in my life to sustain interest for a book-length autobiography. There are no nightmare stories of any rise and fall, nor any stories about groupies, that sort of thing. But as I was writing I discovered there was more drama there than I originally thought, and a lot more struggle.

Reading the book, you get the sense that the ‘60s and ‘70s era was a particularly special time for rock and roll.

Yes. I always say that if I was going to have a Number One record, 1970 was the perfect time. Nothing against new music, or the ‘80s and ‘90s, but that was a special period. In the ‘60s we got to tour with artists like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers and Led Zeppelin—all when I was a teenager. And then the early ‘70s were huge as well.

What about later, with Survivor?

Well, with The Ides of March, it was like being in a family, with everyone supporting one another. In Survivor it was very different. It was more of a business, and it required an adjustment, to say the least. But we made really good records. That’s why I toughed it out. Even though it wasn’t the design I wanted, it worked. It was a case of the ends justifying the means.

Let’s talk guitars. You were already an excellent guitarist by the time you formed the first incarnation of The Ides of March. How did you learn to play?

I started with a ukulele, when I was four years old. My sisters taught me. And then I saw Elvis Presley. I noticed the instrument he was playing had six strings, so I begged my parents to buy me a guitar, which they did. It had a contraption on the neck that formed chords by pressing certain buttons down. I ripped the thing off the neck and started learning guitar properly.

Did you spend lots of time playing along to records?

Oh, yes. Once I finally mastered the bridge on “Oh, Pretty Woman”—nailed down those minor chords--I knew I was on my way. None of the local bands could do that bridge.

How old were you when you wrote “Vehicle”?

I was 18. By the time it came out, in the spring of 1970, I was 19.

Did you know right away that it was something special?

Not at all. In The Ides of March we demarcated things between “live numbers” and songs we felt should be recorded, and we felt “Vehicle” fell into the “live” category. Whenever we played the song at dances, we noticed the floor would fill up. But then we went into Columbia Studios here in Chicago and somehow managed to record the song. We put it in the fourth slot on the demo tape we sent to Warner Brothers. We considered it a throwaway.

And you recorded it with your Les Paul Goldtop ?

Yes, it was the Les Paul Goldtop Standard that I got from Guitar Gallery in Chicago. There was a sort of “rebel” guy who worked there named Paul Staples. He said, “Jim, I see you’re looking at that Goldtop with the P-90s. You know what? Wait a couple of weeks. I’m getting a special custom order that includes two Goldtops with humbuckers.” So, two weeks later in came my guitar—black surrounds around the humbuckers, black pick guard, the coolest guitar I had ever seen. I think I paid $425, including the case. That became my “Vehicle” guitar and my touring guitar—my main instrument. I still have it today.

I’m guessing you don’t take it on the road?

That’s right, but I play it in the studio all the time. My son is a studio engineer. He’s always asking, “Dad, can I borrow the ’68?” I’m like, “Sure, go ahead.”

You came up with the solo for “Vehicle” on the spot, in the studio. What was that like?

At first I thought it was junk. I couldn’t hear myself. We were recording live, and I just let my fingers go. And then, on playback, the producer had it so low in the mix I figured, “Ah, it must really suck—he doesn’t want me to hear it.” So I said, “Don’t worry, I’m going to work up another solo.” In the next couple of days I got a fuzz tone—a Maestro—and I worked out a meticulous solo. I went back into the studio and played it, and the producer says, “Umm, that’s okay, but let’s pull up the fader on the other one.” I listened, and afterwards I said, “Who played that?” It was as if someone else was moving my fingers. I actually had to relearn it, to figure out what I had done. It was a magic moment.

Jeff Beck later said he was a huge fan of that solo.

That’s the coolest thing. He told Rolling Stone—or maybe it was Creem—that it was his favorite solo. Recently I got to speak with him when he shared a bill with Brian Wilson. We talked a bit about that.

You also played Gibson acoustics during those years.

That’s right, either a J-50 or a J-200 or an SJ-200. My favorite stage acoustic is a Bozeman J-200. I sent it off to a friend on the West Coast who does amazing finishes, and he finished the top off in a tiger-stripe sparkle. I did the same thing with a Les Paul Standard. They’re stunning guitars.

Later, for “Eye of the Tiger,” you and [co-guitarist] Frankie Sullivan both played Les Pauls?

Yes. Mine was a ’79 with a transparent blond finish, a wonderful guitar that got stolen in ’83, from the studio. I had a Hi-A pickup in the neck and probably a split-coil humbucker in the bridge. I dialed in a very transparent setting, ran it though an Electric Mistress into a 4 x 10 bass [cabinet], and that became the 16th note, “digga digga digga” figure, which I doubled meticulously. Frankie played a guitar we dubbed “Firewood,” because it weighed about 12 pounds. It was ’78 Les Paul Standard tobacco burst that he had refitted with DiMarzios—a great guitar.

You were around some of rock’s greatest guitarists during those early years with The Ides of March. Which of them blew you away most, on the basis of pure talent?

That would have to be Jeff Beck. As recently as four months ago, I saw him with Brian Wilson at the House of Blues. I was standing four feet from him as he played, and my jaw just dropped. Everything he plays is exactly right. He doesn’t even have to know the song—he just bends the notes to make everything fit. Jimi Hendrix was one of my heroes as well. I played with him at The Spectrum in Philadelphia. He was on the decline by then, but still he blew me away. And Jimmy Page, of course. Page never had a bad night. Even on that night when we played with them, when Led Zeppelin wasn’t particularly good, Page was great.

What’s the biggest difference in the music industry today, as compared to the ‘70s and ‘80s?

I would say it’s the way musicians make money. You used to think, “I’ll have a band, I’ll get signed and I’ll get rich.” That doesn’t exist anymore, for the most part. Of course there will always be “stars,” but it’s much more difficult to make money in the age of digital downloads. It all comes back to touring, to getting out there and establishing a fan base through live shows and through the Internet. It’s almost like a return to the ‘50s, when things were based more around touring, and around singles, or ‘45s. Even with The Ides of March, we had seven singles before we ever had an album.

What’s next?

Actually today The Ides of March are celebrating 50 years together as a band, dating from the first gig we played in October of 1964. We’re getting together for a big celebration. In February, we’re putting out a 3-disc set called 50 Years of The Ides of March: Last Band Standing. We licensed the masters we wanted to use from the Warner Brothers days, and from the RCA days, along with all the independent stuff we’ve put together since reforming in 1990, plus three brand new tracks. It’s going to be two discs of music and a live DVD featuring a “House of Blues” show we did back in July.

Are you happy with how your career has played out?

I have no regrets. One reason I wrote the book was to connect the dots—from “Eye of the Tiger” to the .38 Special stuff and the Sammy Hagar stuff and “Vehicle.” I’ll never be a household name, but I did want people to know what I’ve done. I’m making up for lost time. It feels really good.

Photo: Lynne Peters