For a time, in the early ’70s, no band in America was bigger than Alice Cooper. And make no mistake, in those days Alice Cooper was a true band – a rock ensemble whose chemistry has rarely been matched. Comprised of Neal Smith (drums), Dennis Dunaway (bass), Michael Bruce (rhythm guitar), Glen Buxton (lead guitar) and, of course, Alice on vocals, the group crafted some of the finest riff-rock that’s ever been committed to tape. “I’m Eighteen,” “Be My Lover,” “Elected” and “School’s Out” merely skim the surface of the great songs the group recorded during their heyday, between 1971 and 1974.
“We always tried to make the guitar parts as meaningful to the tunes as we could,” Dunaway told Gibson.com in 2007. “Michael had a clean, cutting sound, and distinct notes, whereas Glen was more about feel, and was more edgy and loose. Glen’s playing was like an angry hornet. He would bend notes, and play notes where he didn’t pick every note. And he used a spoon for a slide. He did lots of things that were unconventional.”
As prominently shown on the back cover of Love it to Death, Alice Cooper’s 1971 breakthrough album, both Bruce and Buxton used Gibson SGs to compose and play the band’s dual-guitar rockers. Guitar forums are rife with speculation about the gear each used, but in recent years Smith and Bruce have offered clarification.
“Glen’s main guitar was a white SG [Custom] with three humbuckers and a Bigsby B-5 tremolo,” said Smith, in 2010. “Michael played an SG – a burgundy one – as well. They each had a really different sound, especially on-stage. Michael had a big, meaty, solid sound, whereas Glen liked to use the tremolo bar a lot. There was lot more jazz in Glen’s playing.” (Note: Buxton also played an early ’60s SG Custom fitted with a maestro tailpiece.)
Last year, Bruce spoke to Gibson.com about why the SG was, for him, the perfect guitar. “My fingers aren’t very long, and other guitars just didn’t feel right,” he said. “I play really hard, and press down hard on the frets. It’s not exactly the feathery touch that someone like, say, Eric Clapton has. The SG allows me to play that way. I remember my first SG, which had a single-coil black pickup. Later, I got an SG Special, with two [P-90] humbuckers, and put my original single-coil pickups in that guitar. That gave it a really nice fat sound. Glen and I liked to do these long, droning things, and the SGs were perfect for that.”
The band’s first two albums, Pretties for You and Easy Action, planted the seeds for the group’s dual-guitar approach. Neither disc met with commercial success, but with the Bob Ezrin-produced Love it to Death, the group hit their stride. By that point, Bruce had developed into a superb songwriter, equally adept at riff-driven, melodic pop-rock and muscular flights into music that was more experimental. Scattered among propulsive hits such as “No More Mr. Nice Guy” and “Elected” were adventurous left turns into such fare as the swirling, epic “Halo of Flies.”
“I love [riffs and melodies],” said Bruce, “but I also love playing something like ‘Muscle of Love,’ which is very physical, and very in-your-face. Those riffs – ‘Be My Lover,’ ‘I’m Eighteen,’ ‘Under My Wheels,’ ‘Elected’ – usually came from just sitting around and tinkering on the guitar. ‘Halo of Flies,’ from Killer, was comprised of parts left over from other songs. I used to play those parts, in order, as a warm-up exercise, and we took them and created a song from them. I know my limitations. I’m not a great soloist. I can write simple leads, but what I really like to do is go for interesting chord structures.”
There’s one thing all the surviving members of the original Alice Cooper agree upon; namely, that Glen Buxton’s role in their success was crucial. Not only did Buxton embody the group’s rebellious image more genuinely than the others – “He made Keith Richards look like a Boy Scout,” says Smith – it was he who, in Smith’s words, “taught the band how to play.” Buxton, who died in 1997 at age 49, also came up with one of rock’s most famous riffs, in the form of “School’s Out.” At their best, he and Bruce locked together musically in ways that resulted in pure magic.
“Michael would often play in the open-chord position, and Glen would play the same chord further up the neck,” Dunaway told Gibson. “The intro to ‘Long Way to Go’ is a good example. It sounds like one rhythm guitar, but it’s actually two guitars, doubled. But the real dynamic, in the case of Glen and Michael, is that they had totally different styles and sounds, and yet they complemented one another without creating distraction or conflict. They were masters of that.”
Smith concurs: “Michael and Glen orchestrated their guitar parts. On some songs they played the same line, but one might be an octave different from the other. And sometimes, instead of two guitars playing harmony, Glen would play in a way that would reinforce the bass guitar. That was something he did that was really different.”
Regrettably, Buxton’s death occurred years before the band received their long-overdue induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. Still, according to Cooper, much of the band’s original chemistry is ignited whenever the surviving members play together. Smith, Bruce and Dunaway all contributed to Cooper’s most recent album, Welcome 2 My Nightmare, and Cooper promises they’ll reconvene for more projects in the future.
“When we played together at the Hall of Fame ceremony, it was like we had never missed a day,” Cooper said, in September of 2011. “I know exactly how Neal plays, and the same is true of Mike and Dennis. They each have their own touch when it comes to our music. It’s in their DNA, and it’s built into the way they play.”