Hard to believe four decades have passed since Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons first joined up with Peter Criss and Ace Frehley to form KISS. Through the years, with rare exceptions, the band has held firm to its explosive mix of riff-driven rock, arena ready anthems and the occasional soaring ballad. Along the way, several lead guitarists have stepped in to put their distinctive stamps on the KISS sound. Below, we offer profiles of each of those gifted players, and trace their tenures with the band.
For many fans, Ace Frehley will always be the definitive KISS guitarist. Starting with the group’s 1974 self-titled album debut and stretching to his initial departure, in 1982, Frehley inspired countless aspiring players to pick up the instrument. Moreover, his impact on his six-string peers during that decade was incalculable, as his thrilling riffs and incendiary solos – delivered on an ever-present Les Paul Custom – dovetailed perfectly with KISS’s pioneering theatrics. Fourteen years after leaving the band, Frehley, along with drummer Peter Criss, rejoined the group as part of a reunion of the original members. Their appearance at the 1996 Grammy Awards ceremony elicited a standing ovation. Two years later, the original KISS lineup released Psycho Circus, and Frehley remained a touring member for the next three and a half years. His last performance with KISS took place on February 24, 2002, during the closing ceremonies of that year’s Winter Olympics.
Vinnie Vincent’s apprenticeship, as a player, was far and away the most unusual of any KISS guitarist. Specifically, at the turn of the ‘80s, he served as a staff songwriter for the TV shows “Happy Days” and “Joanie Loves Chachi,” often writing tunes for both series on his acoustic guitar at the “Cunningham’s” kitchen table on the studio set. Joining KISS as the replacement for Frehley, in 1982, Vincent was integral to the success of that year’s Creatures of the Night album, and to 1983’s Lick It Up. Both albums marked a return to the hard rock sound that had fueled KISS’s best work in the ‘70s. Vincent’s tenure with KISS ended in March of 1984. Some say his departure was due to conflicts arising over his habit of overextending his solos during KISS’s live shows, but in a 1996 interview with Norway’s KISS Army Magazine, Vincent painted a positive picture of his time with the band. “We grew up with the same kind of bands, and we had the same influences,” he said. “So even though I was technical and Paul [Stanley] wasn’t, it wasn’t really about guitar playing. It was about the songs that we grew up with and that we all loved. And it was about sharing the same musical style. You know, we all loved The Beatles and Led Zeppelin. So the chemistry was there. I think we had respect for each other and I think we were really good friends.”
Mark St. John
Mark St. John’s tenure with KISS was the shortest of any of the band’s guitarists. Still, his contributions to 1984’s Animalize, one of the best albums from KISS’s “unmasked” period, were dazzling. Formerly a respected guitar instructor based in Southern California, St. John brought a flashy style to KISS – replete with whammy bar pyrotechnics and tapping – that reflected the Van Halen-led battalion of wizard-like six-stringers emerging at that time. During the sessions for Animalize, St. John developed a rare form of arthritis that interfered with his ability to play effectively, both in the studio and on-stage. During the Animalize tour, after performing just two full shows and one partial show, the illness forced him to bow out, and Bruce Kulick stepped in to take over lead guitar duties in December 1984. St. John eventually recovered from the arthritic condition, and went on to do non-KISS related music projects. Tragically, on April 5, 2007, he died after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage.
Bruce Kulick’s lengthy tenure with KISS extended from late 1984 through August 1996, and covered the making of five studio albums plus the live releases Alive III and Kiss Unplugged. He has the distinction of never having worn KISS face-paint on-stage. Praising Kulick’s style, Ted Nugent once told Guitar World, “He plays a great guitar; he's fast, controlled and real expressive.” As recently as 2010, Kulick was asked – by Guitar International – if there was a chance he might perform with KISS again. “The only way that could really happen, and it’s not something I would expect to happen, is if they decided to take the make-up off and do a Revenge style tour,” he said. “If they did that I would be flattered to be a part of it, but I think they do pretty well in the make-up, and as much as I miss being in the band because of the chemistry that I have with those guys, having me put on Ace’s make-up just wouldn’t work out. I’m really proud of the time I spent with the band and if I ever play with them again it’ll be fun, as it always was, but if it doesn’t happen I’m cool with that too. Whatever happens, happens.”
Tommy Thayer’s involvement with KISS dates back to 1985, when his band, Black ‘n’ Blue, toured for two month’s as KISS’s opening act. In 1989, Thayer co-wrote songs with Gene Simmons and played session guitar on song demos for KISS’s Hot in the Shade album. Thayer joined the KISS organization, officially, during the Criss and Frehley reunion years, performing such functions as organizing conventions and tours, and editing DVDs and the like. When the reunion lineup fell apart, in 2002, Thayer was the perfect choice to step in as Frehley’s replacement. His role in the making of KISS’s acclaimed 2009 comeback album, Sonic Boom, was monumental, as was his playing and writing on 2012’s Monster. In a recent interview with Gibson.com, he talked about how it felt to be a part of the band. “Being in KISS is the ultimate in rock and roll performance and theatrics,” he said. “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.”
More KISS-related articles:
KISS’s Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley on “Monster”
KISS’s Tommy Thayer Talks Guitars, Influences and the Making of Monster
The Gibson Interview: Former Kiss Guitarist Bruce Kulick