During his tenure in KISS, Paul Stanley has played more guitars than any of us can imagine, and gleaned from each what makes an instrument truly exceptional. Combine that with his keen sense of visual design and you get the Paul Stanley Signature Series from Washburn. We sat down with this knight in Santa’s service to discuss these stellar instruments, and how gear has evolved over 40 years of being in the hottest band in the world.
Photo credit: Neil Zlozower
Interview: Paul Stanley
Musician’s Friend: Tell us about your longstanding relationship with Washburn, and how the line of Paul Stanley Signature guitars came to be.
Paul Stanley: The idea of being able to create my own guitar has always been a dream. I think it’s everybody’s dream, especially when you’re growing up and you draw the ultimate guitar. Unfortunately, when you’re a kid and you draw a guitar, it looks like a ray gun. Given the opportunity to really design something, I found myself leaning on the past. The past is what got us here. Tradition is at the core of everything I try to design. I went through a couple of different companies, but ultimately I found my way to Washburn. The thing I love there is that they’re really great craftsmen, but you don’t have the red tape of a company where someone has to call someone else who has to clear what you did, and five months later you get a prototype that’s completely wrong. I went through that. When I started working with Washburn, I sketched something out and within six weeks I had a finished guitar to look at. We’ve had a great relationship.
I’m really proud of the guitars we do because they hearken back to the golden age. There’s a reason why people have always wanted vintage guitars. They were well crafted, the combination of woods and pickups was right, and that’s at the core of what I try to do. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel, just put my own spin on it.
MF: You’re a visual artist as well as a musician. How does your sense of visual style find its way into your guitar designs?
|Washburn PS12 Paul Stanley Starfire Electric Guitar|
PS: The idea with this guitar was to create something classic, something that echoes things that were here before, but improves on them. Whatever guitars this may remind you of, quite honestly, this kills ‘em. It’s better balanced, the tone is tremendous, the neck, the radius, the action, the playability, everything about it. It’s great because you can have it around your neck and let go, and it stays horizontal, whereas other guitars, because of heavy tuning pegs and other things, just dip and hit the ground. The abalone and mother-of-pearl inlays are something that I’ve done over the years. Classic big frets. This is the guitar I always wanted, that never was.
MF: Some of the models in the series are equipped with mini humbuckers. What is it about the tone of the minis that earned them a spot on these guitars?
PS: Mini humbuckers are something tried-and-true, and I try to keep that in the equation when I’m designing a guitar. Something that’s been around for a while has been around because it works. The great thing about my relationship with Washburn is that they pretty much give me the freedom to run amok, and I hold their hand to the fire to make sure that we stay true to tradition. I’m a big believer that the greatest guitars were made already, and all we can do now is emulate them. There’s no secret to making a great guitar; anyone can do it. All you need is great components and great woods, and the rest is just about craftsmanship.
MF: Does that philosophy also extend to other pieces of gear, like amps and effects?
PS: When we were recording Sonic Boom and when we did Monster, our last album, the idea was to remain true to the roots of all the stuff we loved most. A lot of times in the studio, you can go for perfection, but what you give up is passion. You can get something perfect, but what you get is sterile. All the music that we grew up loving, whether it was Motown or James Brown or Zeppelin or the Beatles or Elvis Presley, was made by live people and there were all kinds of imperfections. That’s part of what gave it that excitement, that feeling that every once in a while it’s going to go off the rails. Listen to that first Zeppelin album—what made it so great was that these guys were careening together. The beauty of a great band is that it moves and breathes as one beast. So we recorded analog, because all the greatest albums were recorded on tape. You can’t change something that works that well and expect the same results. So it was recorded on tape and we used a lot of vintage gear: Fender Bassman amps, Marshall Plexis… anything we could get our hands on.
MF: What advancements in music gear technology have enhanced KISS performances most over the years?
PS: One of the strangest things to happen to us was that we were the first band to go wireless. When we first started using them, they were tremendous for us because we no longer had to dance around each other to untangle wires. But the other side of it was that people thought we weren’t really playing. But that was a great step forward, to go wireless. PA systems obviously get better and better, which is a great thing. But in terms of gear, in all my years, I took a good guitar and plugged it into a great Marshall or some other kind of tube amp. Maybe there was some compression, or a power boost, but outside of that, it didn’t take a pedalboard on the floor that looks like it makes cappuccino. I don’t understand that kind of stuff because my heroes didn’t use that kind of stuff. Most times, that stuff sounds pretty fake. What they’re trying to emulate can be had just by plugging your guitar into a good amp and figuring out the settings. If technology becomes a barrier between the guitar and the amplifier, then what’s the point?
MF: KISS has thrived for the past 40 years by rolling with radical shifts in the musical landscape. Do you have a favorite era of the band in particular?
PS: There is no denying that when you’re first starting out, you have this incredible passion and hunger. You’re aspiring to be recognized. Whether you know it or not, you’re aspiring to make some money, whether it’s just to pay the rent or buy a Rolls Royce—it’s all the same thing. You want recognition and validation. So those days were very special for four guys who were told that something wasn’t possible, and went against the grain and said, if you stand in front of us, we’ll walk all over you. So those early years were magical. But I sure wouldn’t want to go back there! It’s like a picture of an old girlfriend you look at. If you were to get back with her for one day, you’d remember why you broke up in the first place.
MF: What are the fundamentals you’ve adhered to in order to succeed and have such a long career?
PS: The basic tenet for longevity is passion. You have to love what you’re doing. If you’re doing it for any other reason, you’ll ultimately fail. You do something not because you want to, you do something because you have to, because there’s an obsession within you. If someone comes to me and says, “I’m thinking about staying in music or…” I say, “Stop. Do the other thing.” If you have to ask yourself if you should be doing this, the answer is no. You have to find something you totally believe in. That’s what will get you through the tough times. Passion will not only help you succeed, it will get you through the failures.
Interview: Paul Stanley's guitar tech, Fran Steuber
We were lucky to have Paul Stanley’s guitar tech, Francis “Fran” Steuber, graciously agree to talk to us about the gear Paul uses both on the road and in the studio. Check out this in-depth look at Paul’s gear requirements from the man who’s been keeping him in tune since 2002.
Musician’s Friend: Tell us how your relationship with Paul started.
Fran Steuber: My first time meeting him was at rehearsal at SIR Studios here in Hollywood. I said, “Do you want to show me what you want to hear? Dial in your sound?” He went over, tweaked the knobs a bit and said, “That’s what I want to hear.” And that was probably the last thing he ever said to me about his sound.
FS: Yeah. He kind of left it up to me to make sure it sounds great. I was a KISS fan growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, so I had a good idea of what his guitar sound should be for classic KISS. Whatever amp we were using at the time I always worked to get that sound. Something that I thought he would want to hear. He hasn’t really mentioned much of it since.
MF: What elements have changed over the years?
FS: We’ve used all different kinds of amps over the years, but the last amps we’re using are ENGL heads. I met the rep from ENGL and he asked if Paul would ever be interested in using them. He brought a couple down to my storage locker where I keep some gear. I said to him, “These are great heads, but they’re really aggressive. More for metal bands. KISS is a classic rock band, and we need more of a vintage tone.” Personally, I loved the way they sounded, but for the application of KISS, they were too aggressive. He said he had a Ritchie Blackmore signature head that was kind of based off a Marshall. He brought it down, and I said this was more like it. He had another head, a prototype, based off that one, with EL34s in it, a few other differences. I played through that, and that was really good. So we tried it out. The first day of KISS rehearsals, we used the head we had been using. The second day, I put the ENGL up there, and two songs in, [bassist] Gene [Simmons] looks over at Paul and asks, “What are you playing through?” Paul looks at me and says, “I don’t know. What am I playing through?” I told him I was checking out this ENGL head to see if it might be something he’d be interested in. And everyone in the band started commenting on its great vintage tone. We’ve been using them ever since. We haven’t had any problems with them. I’ve never had one go down, and they sound great.
MF: Is it still that same prototype model?
FS: Yes. The head we use was a prototype signature head based on the Ritchie Blackmore signature head, for an artist they were working with at the time. But it never went into production. They made us a couple that we could use on tour.
MF: How about effects? Does Paul use very many?
FS: No effects in Paul’s chain at all. It’s pretty straightforward. What you hear coming out of the amps is what’s coming out of his hands. He’s always been really straightforward.
MF: Paul talked about how important going wireless was back in the day. What wireless units does the band use these days?
FS: We use Shure. Since I’ve been here we’ve always used Shure. They’re really consistent. That’s a big deal for us, because if you’ve seen the live show, Paul flies out to the front of the house, so signal loss is a big deal for us, you know? We’ve always had good luck with Shure so we stick with them.
MF: In the live setting, do you mic Paul’s cabinets? Run direct?
FS: We’ve always miked the cabinets, but on this latest run we are running one live cabinet onstage, and we have an iso box for another 4x12 so we don’t have any variations in sound. Sometimes you get into different venues and artists are hearing different things between their ears, the room, the PA and the way things are reflecting off of each other. So an iso cabinet is just a way to keep things consistent. We have the live cabinet for those different sounds, good or bad, and we can blend the iso cab for a more consistent sound. The other thing I run is a rackmount SansAmp. It’s a fail-safe in case amps go down. We can still pass signal to Paul’s ears and to the front of the house. Worst-case scenario, if both heads go down, we can still finish the show. The other thing it’s good for is when he flies to front of house and does a song out there by the console, there’s a big time delay. If you’re listening to the amps through there, you could get confused. So we pump the direct signal from the SansAmp through the wedges and a little more to his ears. When he’s playing, he doesn’t hear that distance.
MF: Is there a speaker preference for the 4x12 cabinets Paul uses?
FS: [Celestion] Vintage 30s. We’ve always used them. They’re pretty consistent and everyone seems to be happy with those. It’s a popular speaker. If something works, there’s no reason to start swapping stuff out. We’ve tried a couple different cabinets with different speaker configurations. In the studio, we used some old Marshall cabinets with 25-watt [Celestion] Greenbacks. [Guitarist] Tommy [Thayer] really liked those, and we used some of those for Paul too. In the studio we use different configurations, but Vintage 30s are what we use live and a majority of the time in the studio.
MF: What are some of the challenges for you of a show on the scale of a KISS show?
FS: The good thing for us is all the fail-safes that we have. Because it’s such a big show and a big production, it can’t stop. We can’t say “Hang on while we fix this.” So we have backups for our backups. That’s every department, whether it be backline, lighting, pyro...everybody has a plan. We have big production meetings before we start a tour. Usually a couple days before we start, we set up and run through the show. We talk about worst-case scenarios. We keep it pretty tight so that there are no catastrophes. Everybody in every department on the tour has their job to get through the show no matter what happens.
MF: Even with all those protocols in place, can things still go wrong?
FS: Things happen. They just do, even though you have backups. We’ve had set pieces catch on fire because pyro keeps burning too long or sets something else on fire. They’ve actually stopped playing, and we had to lower the truss and put the fire out on the truss. We’ve been at venues where the power went out. Not our power but the venue’s power. There’s no backup for that; it has to be reset. But for the most part, we’re pretty well prepared for what’s gonna happen.
MF: How many guitar changes does Paul typically have during a show?
FS: I generally carry six guitars with me, and use four a night. Provided there’s no need to change, I generally change out every fourth to fifth song depending on if it’s convenient or makes sense to do. That’s really just to maintain consistency, because he’s moving around so much, and swinging the guitar around so much. He sticks the guitar between his legs and sometimes he’ll pull it out and hit his boot, or bump into another guy onstage and knock it out of tune. That’s a big concern for me, the tuning, because he does move around so much.
MF: How do you keep tabs on his tuning while he’s onstage?
FS: We all wear in-ear monitors, and we all have our own mix. Each band member has their own mix, but I also have my own mix, which is basically just Paul’s guitar and his vocal, a little bit of drums so I can hear that he’s playing along in time with everybody. Very little bit of Tommy in there so I can hear where the solos are. I used to listen to Paul’s mix, but he likes to hear a lot of drums. He doesn’t like to hear a lot of his own guitar. He wants to hear drums so he knows he’s in time, or Tommy’s guitar. For me it was getting distracting, so I had my own mix created so I could focus on him. Each band member has their own tech, so my only job during the show is to make sure everything works for him. Me hearing his guitar is a big part of allowing me to focus on him.
MF: What about maintenance on his guitars? Do you have to set up each guitar every day?
FS: Every day everything is restrung. Even if he only plays a guitar for one or two songs, because a lot of times the strings get sweat on them, and when we put them away that night they’ll rust or they’ll feel funky. We’re usually in there pretty early anyway, and there’s not a lot to do, so I go through all the guitars every day. They’re restrung, frets are polished, everything’s cleaned up. I make sure the pots are working and that nothing’s moved like bridges and pickups. It’s basic maintenance every day.
MF: Is there a particular brand of strings Paul likes to use?
FS: When I first started with these guys, I think he was using D’Addario. But I had always used Ernie Ball with all the other artists I worked with and even for myself. I really liked the consistency of them and they’re great sounding strings. When I first started with Paul, I asked if he’d mind using Ernie Ball strings. They didn’t have an endorsement or anything at the time. He said, “You use whatever you think is best. This is your job.” He really gave me full reign. Even when we’re working with Washburn having guitars made, in terms of colors. He’d want a black one, and I’d have something else made. A white one, or the silver sparkle on the Starfire. And he loved ‘em.
After we used Ernie Ball for a bit, they wanted to work with us and do an endorsement. We used .10s for a long time, but I think when we were doing Sonic Boom, we switched to .11s. They’re a little stiffer, and because he’s more of a rhythm player, it’s better. It’s a good combination.
MF: Sounds like you’ve got a pretty cool gig Fran. Thanks for talking to us today!