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Having been one of the engineers who helped capture his new sound on Anomaly, I was able to get to know a different guy than the stage persona known to most of the world. Ace, who also produced the album, is celebrating his third year of sobriety, and you can tell: a deep passion for all things guitar shines through on this record. Forever experimenting and always open to new sonic ideas, he carved out a hard-hitting record that reminds many of his 1978 eponymous solo debut.
I caught up with Ace between tours to reflect on the making of Anomaly, his influences, and what lies ahead for him.
When you were getting ready to record parts for Anomaly, you often walked around the studio playing the guitars unplugged. What were you listening for?
That’s what I do when I first buy any electric guitar. I always try to hear what the instrument will sound and feel like without any amplification. I discovered that when you’re shopping for a Les Paul, Strat or Tele, nine times out of ten, whichever one is louder and feels like the whole body is resonating, that one usually sounds better through an amp. Also, when you’re not sure how old the strings are, it’s real apparent that they’re not bright if you play without an amp.
Sometimes we used big heads with a cabinet, and sometimes we used small amps. From a playing and recording point of view, what does each give you?
I’ve always fooled around with little amps, even as early as the first Kiss records. I’d use them in combination with a 4x12 or a Marshall stack. It works well when you blend those sounds together. As much as everyone tries to recapture or fabricate a Marshall stack with a plug-in or whatever, there is nothing like the real thing. So when you combine big and small amps, you simply get a variety of tones. Small amps bring different textures that can’t be replicated, either.
Ace performing in Detroit, Oct. 31, 1987. Photo by Ken Settle.
Yes. I guess I’m pretty much a purist. I really want what’s coming out of the amp to go into the computer or whatever we’re recording on. Once it’s in there and it’s right, you can always tweak it with plug-ins or by pumping it out again and re-recording. But when you get a really good amp sound direct, it can help you give a really good performance. The most important thing is capturing that performance, and if we need to change the tone a little bit, we can effect it down the road.
How did you decide on using the blend of Les Pauls, Strats and Teles?
I’ve been doing that since my first solo record. I had a couple of old Teles and Strats lying around, and I discovered it just created a great blend. Since they all have completely different harmonic ranges, they can create a much fuller sound when mixed in with each other. You can also get a lot of different sounds, depending on how you split them in the mix. I also discovered that I’ll play something slightly different on a Strat or Tele than I would on my Les Paul, simply because of the difference in the body and fingerboards. If you double something on each of those guitars, it’s slightly different in the way you finger it. When you put them together, that little difference makes it that much better. I remember recording Destroyer with Bob Ezrin, and he told me to knock my guitar a little out of tune before I did a double because the frequencies would make a rub with each other. And it really worked!
Let’s talk about that unusual, resonating doubleneck sound you got on your new version of “Fractured Quantum.”
I discovered that with Eddie Kramer when I was doing the original “Fractured Mirror” on my ’78 solo album. We had a room filled with amps and the control room was outside the Colgate Estate in a Fedco truck mobile unit, so we could use all the amps without worrying about feedback—because the control room was so remote. I remember turning everything up to 10 on a lot of different amps. One day, I happened to be playing the doubleneck and I didn’t have the other neck’s pickup off—I forgot which neck I was playing. It was all coming out of the amp through the other pickup, too, even though I wasn’t playing that neck. It had this really cool bell sound. And if you remember, we kept making notes while we were recording “Fractured Quantum” this time so I would remember to use that effect again. It was just something I stumbled upon by accident— the way most inventions happen.
We also used a 7-string, a guitar in Nashville tuning and several 6- and 12- string acoustics.
I got that idea of layering acoustic guitars from Pete Townshend. If you listen to early Who records, even the electric songs sometimes have acoustics tucked underneath. That’s why I started experimenting, not only with Teles and Strats along with my Les Paul, but also with acoustics. Sometimes you can put one in a rock song and not have it loud, just underneath. It adds a fullness that you don’t really hear until you take it away. When you listen to the song, you think it’s all electrics. Songs like “Genghis Khan” and some of the others have that sound layered in there.
“Genghis Kahn” also has an alternate tuning, doesn’t it?
Yeah, the rhythm-track tuning is just something I came up with one day. I raised the high E up to F#. It makes a very cool chord sound, especially in the G position. For the intro, I just downtuned a bunch of strings and recorded the intro separately, I don’t even remember what I did! Maybe Alex wrote it down when we did it. Will Pang also helped me do another track on that song one night. There are so many tracks!
On “It’s a Great Life,” you went in a new direction with the solo.
I usually come up with solos that lend themselves to the type of song they’re in. This one went off in left field because I’ve never written anything quite like that song. The first thing that came to mind was playing around with an octave run, kind of like a jazz player. We also used a small, old Fender amp with a Jensen speaker, and that made it that much cooler sounding.