Ace Frehley, original member of KISS and badass guitarist, is still very much a part of our musical fabric. Those of a certain age can’t look at a triple-stacked Les Paul Custom and not think of Ace. The man will always be associated with that particular guitar, though he’s collected and played many different axes over the years. In fact, as a testament to his influence and relevance, Gibson and Epiphone have issued three different Ace Frehley signature models since the late 1990s.
I interviewed Ace in October 2009, as he was celebrating the recent release of his outstanding solo album Anomaly and getting ready to go on tour, his first in many years. At the time, he was still using the first signature issue (Gibson AFS) that became his calling card when the original KISS lineup reunited and had embarked on their “farewell” tour.
“I‘ve got a bunch of the cherry sunburst ones that came out in 1997 or 1998 and some modified Les Pauls too,” Ace said. “There’s a new signature model supposed to be out by the end of the year. It’s a blueburst and I have a couple of those with me too. We’re fine tuning the details on the new signature guitar – it should be available as both a Gibson and an Epiphone.”
Not one to leave his guitars stock, Ace has always experimented. In fact it was Ace himself who carved out the cavity for the middle humbucker on his first Les Paul. The secret has been out for a few years now but it’s worth sharing again that the middle and neck pickups on Ace’s guitars were not connected. “I only use the treble pickup … you know, the bridge pickup,” Ace laughed. His signature models are shipped as such and include his choice of Dimarzios instead of the stock Gibson pickups.
More recently, Gibson and Epiphone have issued the Ace Frehley Budokan Les Paul Custom; an exact replica of the 1974 cherry sunburst custom that Ace played during KISS’ breakthrough era. In February 2012, Ace told Peter Hodgson of iheartguitarblog.com, “It was my favorite guitar that I used pretty much exclusively through the 70s and 80s, I guess. I continued to use it even with Frehley’s Comet. I don’t even remember when I got it! It was sometime around 1975, 76. I had three or four backups, but the particular one was always my favorite guitar, my number one. It just felt the best and played the best.”
Ace gave his original away in 2009. He received several of the Budokan Customs as part of the arrangement with Gibson and discussed the quality of the new instruments with Hodgson.
“It’s pretty weird,” Ace said. “When I was at the Gibson Custom Shop and I signed 50 of them, they pretty much all felt the same! It was kinda scary how they did it! I was completely amazed when I played them and I couldn’t tell the difference between one from the other.”
Then there are the specialty guitars. Ace pioneered the smoking guitar and other six-string effects that have dropped jaws for nearly 40 years. Never one to rest on his past achievements, Ace continues to revisit and refine the tools of his trade.
“I just got a new smoking guitar that’s kind of hip,” Ace told me in 2009. “I’ve struggled with fire marshals over the years … you know, shooting off fireworks in clubs. The new smoker has miniature fog machines built into it … there aren’t any restrictions on that.”
A guitar collector since the royalties started rolling in, at one point Ace was considered a foremost practitioner of the acquisition arts. There’s a famous story of Ace, on a whim, pawning a 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard, AKA the holy grail, to finance a gambling trip to Atlantic City. When asked about the situation, Ace owned up to it.
“It’s true,” Ace said almost sheepishly. “I miss that ’59 … it’s probably the one that I miss the most. It was the guitar that I tracked most of my parts on my first solo album (1978). I still buy guitars all the time. Old guitars sound great, but Gibson is making some guitars now that, by my ears, sound just as good as the vintage ones.”