Tom Keifer by Thomas Petillo

Hard rockers Cinderella ruled the ‘80s, churning out catchy, hair metal nuggets such as “Nobody’s Fool,” “Don’t Know What You’ve Got (Till It’s Gone)” and “Gypsy Road.” While the group’s popularity waned with the grunge explosion in the ‘90s, Cinderella were one of the few hair metal bands able to consistently churn out new music and maintain their fan base.

Much of that loyalty, no doubt, is owed to founding member and singer, songwriter and guitarist Tom Keifer, whose music has always stood out, thanks to his appreciation for American roots music, blues and gospel. Now, Keifer is ready to unleash his debut solo album, The Way Life Goes, out this spring, and hit the road on a solo tour.

Gibson.com caught up with Keifer to chat about his solo album, using the guitar as a songwriting tool and his love for his ‘59 Sunburst. For more on Keifer and to check out 2013 tour dates, head to his official website.

What made you gravitate towards the guitar?

Well, I remembered when I was a kid, probably my first rock experience was seeing the Beatles on TV, and I liked the sound of the guitar. I started taking guitar lessons when I was 8 years old. That was the first thing that really got me into it: the Beatles. Around the same time, there was that show The Monkees on TV that I was real into, as well. I would say The Beatles and then The Monkees got me wanting sing too.

How do you use the guitar as a songwriting tool?

I would say it’s my main songwriting tool. I don’t usually write on an instrument first. I get a lyrical idea and melody in my head first, and that can happen anywhere. It happens at the most unexpected times, and then I find myself racing to find a guitar and figure out what it was I was hearing in my head. I use the guitar to put the lyrics to the melody that I hear in my head.

Your new album, The Way Life Goes, is out this spring. You have a 14-date tour planned in support of the album, routing through small, intimate spaces. I saw you perform with Cinderella last summer at a large pavilion. What’s it like to go between playing small spaces to big venues?

It’s all cool. I like all kinds of venues. There are pluses to the big places and pluses to the smaller places, too. I like that really-up-close-and-personal thing you get in the smaller rooms, and I thought it would be appropriate getting started with a solo record. This is a preview of the songs off the record, before it’s happening before the release, and I’m going to do some Cinderella stuff, too. It felt like a good place to start and get close to the fans.

There was a time you thought you would never sing again. Take us through that period.

It’s an ongoing process. It’s a battle I fight each day. The underlying cause of it is something that’s not curable. I have a left vocal cord that’s partially paralyzed. I first noticed it in 1991. In the beginning, nobody knew what it was. That freaked me out. When my voice freaked out, I thought it was just nodes or something that could be fixed surgically. First doctors said nothing, physical, was wrong on my cords. It was scary. Eventually, after going to a million doctors, I had a neurological test, and they discovered partial paralysis on the left side. When I was given that diagnosis, I was told this was a pretty serious condition. They said that usually people who are professional singers don’t sing again. I struggled with it for years and worked with speech pathologist and vocal coaches for years. The more I learn and the more I work with coaches, the stronger it’s getting, but it’s definitely not a picnic if you’re a professional singer! [Laughs] I do an hour and a half to two hours of therapy each day. I do it because singing is what I love to do, and I don’t want to give up on that.

Let’s switch gear to guitar talk. What are your go-to Gibson guitars?

The main one would be my ’59 Sunburst. I’ve had it for years, and I’ve used in the studio and on the road for years. They’ve gone up so much in value, it’s hard to justify taking them on the road anymore, because I sweat a lot during shows and I’ve been worried about that getting into the electronics. So, I eventually retired that one and use it in the studio, and it’s all over this new record.

Live, I have an early reissue of the ’59 Sunburst, the same color as mine, and it’s a great guitar and workhorse. I have a ‘50s Southern Jumbo that has an amazing sound on acoustic, and I use it all the time in the studio. That’s my main one for the studio. I have a really cool Gibson Lap Steel from the ‘20s that I always use on tour and on my records. And I still play my first guitar! I still use a ‘78 Custom Les Paul my mom gave me back in the day. But my Sunburst is my favorite.

What makes Gibsons special?

They have a unique quality about them. The Sunburst and Les Paul are such unique guitars. I don’t think there are any guitars like them. I remember when Cinderella first came out in the ‘80s, we had tons of guitar companies approaching us, and their line was always, “We can build you whatever you want.” I remember one time being in a dressing room and getting a hard sell, and I finally turned to him and said, “Can you make me a Les Paul?” That sums up my feeling about Gibsons and Les Pauls! I’ve always played them. My first video, I was playing a Les Paul, back in ’86. I love Gibsons and Les Pauls. I don’t think you can go wrong with them, because they’re classics.

What tips do you have for getting good guitar tone?

You start with the right guitar, which is a Les Paul! [Laughs] I think from there, tone comes from your fingers. You have to be playing the right guitar and know how to approach the strings to get a good tone… To me, pedals are more about enhancing the sound. If you want something special or different, I like to always get a good, basic sound from the guitar and the amp first.

Photo credit: Thomas Petillo