As a founding member of KISS, guitarist Ace Frehley holds a big place in the hearts of many rock fans. Beyond his music with that famous quartet, the six-string slinger and singer has built up a respectable body of solo work over the last 42 years. On his second covers album, Origins, Vol. 2, he leads us back to the artists and songs who greatly influenced him like Humble Pie, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, and the Animals.
Just as his predecessors did for him, the axeman first known as the Spaceman has certainly left his mark on rock. Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick expresses admiration for Frehley’s playing which, like most of us, he first discovered when he played with KISS throughout the ’70s.
“The [KISS] songs were enhanced by the solos, and it just seemed like they were purely there to build upon the songs,” notes Skolnick. “You could take those solos out of the songs, but you couldn’t cut and paste them into other songs because they were so intertwined with the [original] songs. I always dug how Ace really gave each song that personality.”
Skolnick adds that Frehley’s use of vibrato is incredibly unique and hard to do. “No matter how sophisticated the music is that one might be experienced in playing, to go back and really attempt to sound Ace is not easy,” he explains. “You can play the notes. They’re not as fast solos as some of the more technical players, but it’s really not easy to get his feel.”
“I feel like he’s been unfairly painted as a cartoonish caricature over the years, if you only look at his awkward interview segments or well-published substance battles,” says Icarus Witch bassist Jason Myers. “But if someone set a pair of headphones on you and pressed play on the guitar solo section of a deep cut that your mind didn’t automatically churn out preconceived notions of, you’d probably hear some fresh, soulful nuances. His style often hints more at Gilmour, Allman, Lee, and Walsh, whereas most of us young heshers at the time were distracted by the classically-influenced guitar duos or, worse, the speed-happy Shrapnel shred gang.”
Bassist Anthony Esposito played with Frehley on the 2007-2008 “Rocket Ride” tour and recorded on and toured for the subsequent Anomaly album cycle. He thinks that besides being an influential guitar icon who is a part of American culture, Frehley is the “the guy that you could sit next to at a bar and have a beer with,” says Esposito. “He was normal. When I played with him, we used to ride Harleys and go to Yankee games. All his friends were cops and EMTs and firemen and truck drivers. He was a working man’s guitar player that was just in a phenomenally huge band, and everybody loves him because he was like the American Keith Richards.”
Discogs asked five prominent Ace fans to weigh in on their favorite solo Frehley tracks: Skolnick, Myers, Esposito, Anthrax drummer Charlie Benante, and SiriusXM DJ and TV host Eddie Trunk, who, during his A&R days, signed Ace to his first post-KISS solo deal at Megaforce Records in the late 1980s.
“New York Groove” from Ace Frehley (1978)
This soul-inflected tune from Ace’s solo debut is the one solo KISS member song from 1978 to become a hit (No. 13 on the Hot 100 singles chart). It was penned by Russ Ballard who wrote hits recorded by the likes of Rainbow, Frida, and KISS. This song had previously been a hit for Hello in 1975.
“The reason I love this song isn’t because of a flashy guitar solo – there isn’t one – or because of its heaviness,” says Myers. “Truth be told, it could have been a Bay City Rollers song. I don’t love it because of any slick auto-tuned vocal prowess, as Ace’s voice is pitchy and wild. What makes this catchy cut his all-time classic is that it is completely synonymous and inseparable from America’s biggest, loudest, craziest city and exemplifies the era when that town was at its dingiest, most artistic peak. Because this version of the song isn’t polished, because it sounds a bit dangerous and hints at smoky nights of neon sleaze. It’s perfect for Ace, it’s perfect for that era in rock and Americana, and it immediately starts playing in my head every single time I approach the city. That’s the magic of music.”
“Rip It Out” from Ace Frehley (1978)
This is the high-energy anthem that kicks off Ace’s solo debut, which was released in 1978 simultaneously with the solo projects from his other KISS bandmates Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, and Peter Criss. “What an opener! Pow!” declares Benante. “I always said Ace had the best solo album besides Paul, but Ace is more consistent with his. I love the playing on this song. [Drummer] Anton Fig really shines on it as does Ace.”
“I’m In Need Of Love” from Ace Frehley (1978)
“That’s got a great guitar solo break in it, and it’s got a really cool effect on the guitar even in the verses,” says Trunk. “The ’78 album top to bottom is pretty much flawless, and that’s one of the deeper tracks that I always thought was incredibly cool. That particular song is kind of dark at times, and it’s got a really cool riff. The lead break just goes in a completely different direction and rips, then it comes back into the groove. I’ve always loved that.”
“Snow Blind” from Ace Frehley (1978)
Although it might seem oblique to some, “Snow Blind” was a song about a personal struggle, and one can imagine which drug it is referencing.
“I used to love playing ‘Snow Blind’ [on tour],” recalls Esposito. “It’s such a great lick to play live. The groove is sleazy and dirty and slinky. It’s just got a great groove to play, and the chorus is great. I love that song.”
“Into the Night” from Frehley’s Comet (1987)
This was the lead single from the first album to feature Space Ace unmasked and returning to the fold after leaving KISS in 1981. While some people though “Rock Soldiers” should have been the album’s lead single (Trunk says that Gene Simmons was among them), it was an interesting choice to reignite Ace’s career.
“I love the sparse, tasteful AOR riffing in this one,” says Myers. “Unlike the six-string calisthenics that most guitar heroes were going for in the late ’80s, Ace was the king of serving the song. So by the time the solo kicks in almost three minutes into the track enough suspense has built and your ears aren’t fatigued from showy noodling. The lead then provides an emotional release to that tension. And his playing is deceptively mature.”
“I thought the subject matter was really interesting and different for him,” says Skolnick. “It was about homelessness. It was a very serious song. His persona was just so much about the Spaceman and rock and roll, so I thought that was interesting for him to do a song with such social commentary.”
“Rock Soldiers” from Frehley’s Comet (1987)
“I liked ‘Rock Soldiers’ and thought it was very confessional,” says Skolnick of the fist-pumping tune that referenced Ace’s comeback in the wake of addiction. “The video was really cool for that.” The Testament guitarist admits that hearing Ace in a new band took some getting used to. “He was such a good fit for KISS, and you got used to those sounds together. It’s a little bit like David Lee Roth and Van Halen. David Lee Roth got great musicians for his solo stuff, but it wasn’t the same. You were just so used to hearing him with Van Halen. Even though it still sounded like Ace, it just took some getting used to.”
“Shot Full of Rock” from Trouble Walkin’ (1989)
Trouble Walkin’ was the fourth album from Frehley and the first since his debut to bear only his name. The previous two releases were under the Frehley’s Comet moniker, but because Second Sighting did not feature Ace handling all the vocals and lead guitar work, many fans balked at it. So Ace returned under his own name and took charge again. Guitarist Richie Scarlet also returned to the band after having left before the recording of their debut.
“This is the opening track, and it’s really killer,” says Trunk. “It’s got a really cool Deep Purple guitar trade-off between Ace and Richie Scarlet and kind of a ‘Highway Star’ vibe to it. I really like that one.”
“Remember Me” from Trouble Walkin’ (1989)
“This is a deep track on the record,” remarks Trunk. “It’s a blues jam that sounds like it’s live because they pumped in fake applause to give it a vibe. There’s a really great Ace guitar solo that’s kind of a different tempo for him. It’s a little different than the stuff he’s normally done, and it’s a great showcase for his playing.”
“Hide Your Heart” from Trouble Walkin’ (1989)
Originally co-written by Paul Stanley, Desmond Child, and Holly Knight for (and unused on) KISS’s Crazy Nights album, the catchy, mid-tempo “Hide Your Heart” was first recorded by Bonnie Tyler in 1988. The year after, Molly Hatchet, Frehley, Robin Beck, and then KISS released their own versions.
“What makes Ace’s version stand out above the others is, for lack of a better term, muscle,” says Myers. “KISS session drummer Anton Fig lays down a mean groove, and Ace’s tasty loud Les Paul riffs elevate this from pop-rock to metal might. By the time those ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’ gang vocals hit in the chorus – with former bandmate Peter Criss shouting along – you’re already convinced this was meant to be a Frehley jam all along. His no-nonsense rhythmic solo break proves this man has nothing left to prove. Ace has always had a shuffle in his jive, and that boogie shines through.”
“Outer Space” from Anomaly (2009)
Anomaly was Frehley’s first album in a decade. To be fair, he did record and tour with a reunited KISS between 1996 and 2001. This snarling, mid-tempo anthem was co-written with Jesse Mendez and David Askew.
“This should have been a really big song for Ace,” believes Trunk. “I love when Ace does songs that fit his character and his persona, and even hearken back to his connection to KISS being the Spaceman at all. I thought that ‘Outer Space’ is really clever and the chorus going, ‘It’s like I told you, I came from outer space.’ I think that’s a sleeper classic Ace solo song.”
“Pain in the Neck” and “Hard For Me” from Anomaly (2009)
“I loved from the first time I heard them,” says Esposito, who played on both songs. “The solo in ‘Hard For Me’ is killer. Those solos are great. They were Ace guitar licks that as soon as he played them I was like, ‘Yes, that’s it!’ Those two songs really stood out to me. ‘Hard For Me’ got renamed as ‘Foxy & Free’. That [latter] lick is the Ace that I want to hear. I want to hear this ’70s guitar hero icon that I associate with Ace’s playing.”
“Starship” from Space Invader (2014)
This six and a half-minute instrumental closes out Frehley’s 2014 solo album, and after opening with an atmospheric prelude launches into an upbeat track. “Ace has done a lot of instrumentals and did three versions of ‘Fractured Mirror’ [from his debut] on various records, and ‘Starship’ has some elements of that,” says Trunk. “Again, there’s that connection to the space theme and his character. I think ‘Starship’ is a really interesting instrumental.” (By the way, “Did anyone see George Jetson?”)
“Fire and Water” from Origins, Vol. 1 (2016)
Trunk feels that this rendition of the now-50-year-old Free song from Ace’s first covers album is a standout track, notably as KISS’ frontman sings on it. “I think that it’s Paul Stanley’s best vocal in 20 years, and the guitar solo in it is fantastic,” says Trunk. “It’s a great showcase for Paul, who turned in a great vocal, and it’s really cool signature guitar stuff from Ace that goes for a pretty long time. It’s a showcase for both of them.”
Bonus tracks: Best Ace Frehley solos for KISS
OK, we’ll toss in a couple of KISS tunes because our interviewees are passionate about their classic era with Ace.
“Black Diamond” (live) from Alive! (1975)
“If I have to pick soloing as far as a KISS song, [it would be] ‘Black Diamond,’ especially the live version,” says Skolnick. “That’s just my favorite soloing of his. It’s just so deep. The finale is so intense, this awesome breakdown. It combines the psychedelia of the ’60s with hard rock at that time. Maybe it wasn’t as technical as Blackmore, and Van Halen was still a few years away, but the emotion was so strong that it didn’t matter that it wasn’t the most technical solo.”
“Rocket Ride” (bonus studio track) from Alive II (1977)
“This tune stands out from the other songs on Alive II,” asserts Benante. “I think Ace was coming up with some great music at this point and this song really shows what was about to come a year later on his solo album. With ‘Rocket Ride,’ I think he put all his best guitar licks in this one song. He really knocks it out of space.”
Published in partnership with Entertainment One.