KISS’s Tommy Thayer Talks Guitars, Influences and the Making of Monster
Following a full decade without a studio album, KISS made a spectacular return to form three years ago with Sonic Boom, a no-frills album that recalled the band’s mid to late ‘70s glory years. Incredibly, the group’s forthcoming new album, Monster, is an even greater triumph. Packed with explosive energy and the sort of guitar riffs other bands dream about, Monster seems destined for a prime spot among other KISS classics.
Even more so than on Sonic Boom, guitarist Tommy Thayer played an integral role on Monster, writing or co-writing ten songs and, alongside Paul Stanley, delivering half the band’s two-guitar punch. Clearly, he’s established himself as an indispensable cog in the current KISS lineup of Stanley, Gene Simmons, Eric Singer and himself. In the following interview, Thayer talks about the new album, his main guitar influences and why Gibsons are his choice guitars both on-stage and in the studio.
How did the band approach making the new album?
Generally, it was the same approach as Sonic Boom. We didn’t have an agenda. We just wanted to write great rock and roll songs and make a cohesive album. With Sonic Boom, it was more like testing the waters, seeing how things would go with this lineup and with the band as it is today. We came up with a great record, obviously, and we found that we could be effective and lethal in the studio. Monster takes those things to a new level, and ups the ante in terms of the songs and the production. It was similar, but it was new and improved as well.
Why was the band reluctant to make an album for all those years prior to Sonic Boom?
That’s probably more a question for Paul or Gene. It was before I was on-board. But my impression is that they didn’t feel comfortable trying to record a studio album because of the state of the band at that time. They didn’t feel it was healthy -- or that the band could produce, write and record a great rock and roll record. That said, the band has fused incredibly well in the last eight or ten years. There’s such great spirit and chemistry now, it suddenly became obvious – prior to making Sonic Boom -- that this band should make a studio album.
What guitars did you use on Monster?
Primarily I used a Gibson SG – a 1961 reissue that belongs to Paul. It’s the same guitar I used on a lot of Sonic Boom. Normally I play a Les Paul, but for recording work I’ve found that the SG has a little more punch, and isn’t quite as full-bodied. Sonically, the SG fit well into the tracks. I did use the Les Paul on a few things as well. It was pretty much straight head: plug the SG into a couple of good amps, and keep it raw and ballsy.
What Les Paul models do you play?
They’re Custom Shop reissues of the ’58, ’59 and 1960 Les Paul Standards. I use those guitars on-stage as well. I also have one that’s customized – the Rocket Guitar, which has a rocket launcher mounted on the back of the headstock. I also have a couple of Explorers I take on the road. They have a silver-sparkle finish, the same finish that my new Epiphone Tommy Thayer Signature Les Paul will have. The signature model is similar to the Les Paul I often use on solos, which is a Les Paul Standard with a silver sparkle top. Epiphone will be releasing officially announcing that guitar in the next couple of months and it should be available in stores in early 2013."
Who are your main guitar influences?
My favorite bands when I was learning to play were Foghat, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, KISS, Aerosmith, Montrose – those types of bands. Probably my favorite guitar players were Ronnie Montrose and Jimmy Page and Peter Frampton. I’m still a big fan of Frampton. I also loved Pat Travers, Robin Trower … second generation mid ‘70s players. Mainly I learned by mimicking records, putting albums on the turntable and trying to figure out the chords and riffs. I probably didn’t learn them quite right, in the beginning. When you’re a kid, you’re kind of at a loss for how some of these things are done. Eventually I started learning some solos – again, by listening and studying what was on those albums.
Which era was the greatest for guitar riffs?
The early to mid ‘70s was a great time for guitar riffs. But at the same time, when you’re 13 or 14 years old, that’s a magical period in your life, when you’re first getting into playing guitar and first going to concerts and so forth. The riffs you’re listening to at that age tend to stay with you. A great rock album that still holds up today is the first Montrose album. “Rock Candy,” “Rock the Nation,” “Bad Motor Scooter,” “Space Station #5” … those are great rock and roll songs with incredible riffs. A great guitar riff is worth its weight in gold. Being able to come up with great riffs – and write that kind of stuff – isn’t as easy as people think.
What makes Gibsons so right for what you do?
A lot of it has to do with the guitarists I grew up loving. Most of them played Les Pauls or other Gibsons. The guys in Aerosmith, Ronnie Montrose, Peter Frampton and the guys in KISS all played Les Pauls. When you’re growing up, and you’re first excited about rock and roll and guitar players, you want to mimic that as soon as you can. Those players weren’t using those guitars by chance. When it’s combined with the right amp, you just can’t beat the sound and the beefiness of a Gibson.
(Check out Tommy’s impressive Gibson arsenal here)
Is being a guitarist in KISS different from being a guitarist in other rock bands?
It’s a whole other world. I could never imagine being in a regular band again. That would be a huge step backwards. Being in KISS is the ultimate in rock and roll performance and theatrics. I was thinking about that the other night. We were on-stage doing “Rock and Roll All Nite” toward the end of our set. Gene and I were going up on lifts – about 30 feet into the air – and confetti was flying and bombs were going off. All of a sudden a big smile came over my face. I was thinking, “How lucky can I be, being in this band, on-stage right now, experiencing this?” It doesn’t get any better.
Read more about KISS here.