Subscribe to our newsletter

(Credit: Wikimedia)

Music

How to play guitar like Ace Frehley

@TylerGolsen

At their very core, Kiss were a no-frills rock and roll band. Despite the theatrics, explosions, and eye-catching histrionics that became synonymous with them, the music that Kiss made was always purposefully simple and straightforward. Favouring riffs, solos, and twin lead guitar lines, Kiss was the bridge any hapless teenager needed to go from plunking out ‘Smoke on the Water’ to levelling entire city blocks with monster power chords. That was all thanks to Ace Frehley, the underrated six-string master who could conjure up pure rock music seemingly out of thin air.

Frehley came out of the first generation of rock and roll: Beatles, Stones, garage rock, and even folk. His older brother had an acoustic guitar, but Frehley used it to learn a few chords before going for a bigger sound. “A friend of mine had gotten an electric guitar and one of those little amps with a six-inch speaker,” Frehley recalled to Matt Sweeney on the Noisey series Guitar Moves. “I plugged it in, turned the volume up to ten, hit an E chord, and I was in love.”

While the philosophy was always “bigger is better” in Kiss, Frehley’s guitar playing didn’t always have to be a monolith of sound. Especially in their early years, Kiss used low-powered amps in the studio, making Frehley’s guitar lines thinner and more rooted in technique than distortion or gain. Because of this, Frehley would often overdub multiple guitar parts, something that made his Les Paul lines sound like an entire orchestra of guitars.

If you want to hear everything that makes Frehley great in one song, all you have to do is listen to ‘Shock Me’. Ace does everything, including singing and songwriting while playing guitar and bass. But ‘Shock Me’ is perfect because it includes all the eccentricities that make the Space Ace singular: whether you call them “dinosaur bends” or “weedle-ahs” or anything in between, Ace is laying it down with aplomb on ‘Shock Me’.

The main riff incorporates low string bends that Frehley often used to give his guitar lines more movement while staying rooted in the basic chords of A and D. When it comes to the solo, Frehley starts off with what has become his signature move: a rising figure based around the pentatonic scale that can also be heard in ‘Rock and Roll All Nite’, ‘2000 Man’, and pretty much any Kiss song with an Ace solo.

The pentatonic scale is an invaluable resource when trying to imitate Frehley. Kiss songs often play fast and loose with major scales, incorporating bluesy chromatics and lowered sevenths to give their riff-heavy songs a little more edge. Frehley himself isn’t afraid to use dissonance and chromatics to his advantage, as can be heard in the opening runs to songs like ‘Deuce’ and ‘Parasite’.

Once the bluesy hard rock foundation is set, now it’s time for the explosive fretboard fireworks. Live versions of ‘Cold Gin’ and ‘Firehouse’ saw Frehley turning off one of his pickups completely to make a kill switch, something that future guitar shredders like Eddie Van Halen and John 5 likely picked up from him. Frehley’s hand placement also frequently produces harmonics and overtones which, when combined with the high volume and distortion of Kiss’ live shows, allowed Frehley to squeal and scream with his guitar as he did rapid pull-offs and hammer-ons.

Frehley was also an early adopter of effects pedals, specifically phaser, delay, and chorus which allowed his solos to key into his signature spacey sound. But that was often in the live setting, and usually only when Frehley was standing by himself on stage. In the studio, all Frehley needed was some distortion to make his solos sing.

There remains some debate as to what specific guitars Frehley used to create some of Kiss’ most iconic riffs. While almost exclusively associated with the Gibson Les Paul, Frehley told Ultimate Guitar in 2018, “I have to be honest with you—on all the Kiss records, they’re Fender guitars. One of the tricks I used was I’ll record a rhythm track with a Les Paul and I’ll double it with a Strat or a Telly. I’ll tuck it down. You have to realize a Strat has a different harmonic range than the Les Paul but when you blend the two together, you get a thicker sound. I’ve been doing that forever.”

Even though his technique is criminally underrated, Frehley has no pretension about his style of playing. “No one ever taught me how to play,” Frehley told Sweeney. “So I really don’t know what I’m doing. To this day, I’m still just winging it.” Oftentimes when Ace is shredding lightning-fast lead lines, he simply rears back and throws his entire body into it, sacrificing precision for attitude and enthusiasm.

This kind of approach has occasionally led to accusations that Frehley is a sloppy guitar player, but that ramshackle lead style is the result of years of work, even before Frehley joined Kiss. “Practice, practice, and practice. I used to sit at home just for hours, playing the same thing over and over again. If I couldn’t play a part because it was too complicated, I would slow it down and play it slow, and once I got it mastered at a slower speed, I’d slowly speed up the rhythm until I could play it the way it was supposed to be played.”

For all the wild bends, jaw-dropping shredding, effects-heavy solos, and visual flair, Frehley remains a one-of-one guitar player. As someone who didn’t have a teacher or even very many influences who could teach him how to play how he wanted to play, Frehley had to invent his own style through determination and patience. The results are some of the most unfiltered and immersive lead guitar parts in rock and roll history, courtesy of the Space Ace himself.